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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Blu-ray Review)

17 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$49.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Stars  Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas, Edie Adams, Dick Shawn, Jim Backus, Peter Falk, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton.

Though they were titans on TV who, in fact, pretty well launched the format’s Golden Age, neither Milton Berle nor Sid Caesar had movie careers of any note before and after Stanley Kramer’s still beloved (and derided by noodges everywhere) opus of greed. Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers and Ethel Merman did a sliver better but not by much, though it’s possible for fans to argue the point (e.g. Shawn for his small gem in The Producers and Merman’s belting of standards in her two Irving Berlin musicals of the ’50s). What I don’t think is debatable is that all of them — and by an almost laughably monster margin — had their greatest big-screen showcases here, which is a huge reason that the people who love the film love it so much.

I am one of them, and — like any kid or adolescent whose bulb wasn’t dim and was lucky enough to be living in a large enough city — was downtown in a blistering second and in my Cinerama seat to see the roadshow version when it opened. In New York and Los Angeles, the picture opened two weeks before JFK’s assassination, and it became the right picture at the right time when its broader opening coincided with a period of grief. If it had done nothing more than give us Jonathan Winters doing one of his prized rustics — the kind who says “tar” for “tire” — in Ultra Panavision 70, that alone might have been enough.

To go along with its A-team cast, Criterion has assembled a gang of bonus-section backgrounder personnel who will someday deserve to have “they knew the material” engraved on their headstones — plus Michael Schlesinger, Mark Evanier and Paul Scrabo for a never-flagging 197-minute commentary that answers questions I wouldn’t have had the imagination or MW savvy even to pose. In his building-block essay, New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick — whose regular online postings constitute my most essential home entertainment readings — nails it when he says that “part of the genius” of the movie “is that while each of the main stars is given plenty of room to do his or her own thing, they also come together brilliantly as a team.” And before we’re even settled in our seats, the commentary convinces us that for all the drubs he took from critics as a wannabe visualist, Kramer’s blocking of the very first scene (Jimmy Durante’s auto mishap and fallout) is brilliant, with actor Norman Fell (as a cop) managing to turn in various directions while spouting dialogue without obscuring a boatload of co-stars who are standing uncomfortably on a deep rocky slope.

Having outlasted its critics what with the regular showings and website tributes it now enjoys, even casual moviegoers must know that the William and Tania Rose screenplay deals with five car/truckloads of auto-wreck witnesses on a rabid chase all over Southern California for $350,000 in buried 1963 currency — characters all distinctively delineated (and matter of fact, their cars are, too). I’ve always been amazed at how genuinely good acquired-taste Berle is in his part as a milquetoast, and Caesar’s mugging expressions are as funny as they were in his TV days. But for me, the biggest laughs have always been from Winters’ trucker; his instant nemesis Silvers; Merman’s ability to make every character in the movie hate her — and, of course, the sheer idea that it is Spencer Tracy (in his penultimate role) who’s chasing these jesters and is finally done in by them. This is one of the ultimate stuntman (also stunt driver) pictures of all time, and it is reassuring in Tracy’s case that, like the other actors, he was doubled by pros wearing expensive facial masks made from molds. The idea of Tracy running around when he was in such bad real-life health at the time had hitherto always made me wince — though every time I see MW, I’m always surprised how much vigor his performance exudes. It is said that he had a ball making the movie and would come onto the set on days when he wasn’t working to watch his comical colleagues cut loose.

It’s almost tempting to say that MW has had as many running times as cast members, and Criterion’s release (supervised by Robert Harris, who knows about these things) is the second attempt to piece together what remains of scrapped footage into something resembling the original cut, following a more complete laserdisc in the early ’90s. A lot of the initial trimming wasn’t as considerable as it sounds because some of the excised footage was overture and intermission music plus “police calls” (some restored here) that played when roadshow audiences were out in the lobby buying their overpriced orange drinks at the midway point. In fact, one of the takeaways here is how good the short general-release version that Kramer worked on himself (the one that MGM-UA brought out on Blu-ray a couple years ago) really is. Overall, I prefer the short version, but it’s still a treat to see what was cut. I’m pretty sure that in the less redundant shorter cut, we’re not told that the rigid “Twist” that Shawn and Barrie Chase perform together is an adulterous one: turns out Chase’s character is married. And thanks to the commentary, I have noted for the first time that when we’re in the Shawn hipster pad where the Twisting takes place, a Lawrence Welk LP (I think Larry turned out about one a week in those days) is in camera range.

Criterion has gone all out with this one: three standard DVDs for both versions of the film and copious extras plus two Blu-rays that replicate the same material. How does Criterion find this stuff? We get two rather snotty Canadian Broadcasting Company news feature shows (Telescope) that cover the L.A. premiere — heavy on Winters and with some nice verite moments, as when featured player Mickey Rooney spots William Demarest in back of him. We get a press conference with a few principals from the same time — I believe this is the section where Winters talks about his conversations with Martians — and a 1974 Kramer-hosted talk show with Caesar, Winters and Hackett where everyone looks in remarkably good health. This is not so true in reunion footage hosted by trooper Billy Crystal in which many of the relatively few surviving cast members are pushed out in wheelchairs and Marvin Kaplan proves to be the most cogent.

The most impressive of the extras is something I didn’t expect: a newly filmed featurette (about 45 minutes) in which visual effects specialist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt discuss why the movie was such a pioneer in their respective fields. Production-wise, everyone who worked behind the scenes was top-of-the-line for the day — including even the legendary special effects maestro Linwood Dunn, who could claim both King Kong and Citizen Kane on a resumé that just kept swelling with household names. The featurette material on the matte work and use of puppets for the climactic fire escape scenes left my mouth open. It is common nowadays to see this kind of behind-the-scenes material in DVD bonus sections for contemporary movies, but almost no one was shooting and preserving footage of craft-folk labors at the time. Just astonishing.

The short version here is taken from the same master as the release a couple years ago, and it is super-pristine, befitting the Big Movie it serves. Yet, so many of my favorite moments here are small bits and throwaways: Silvers beckoning to the heavens with an incredulous “Why?” when his car is about to sink into a creek; the look on Winters’ face when he senses that the hated Silvers he’s been pursuing is somewhere in his presence; Nick Stewart’s body language steering a runaway truck that is scattering all his possessions on a hillside; Buster Keaton’s body language in his all-too-brief appearance; Caesar’s grimaces when he’s in physical pain (we’re told that he really did the scene in the department store basement in which he is electrocuted. MW is one of the supreme gifts that keeps on giving to have come out of the 1960s, possibly even second to Richard Nixon, though it’s not a fair comparison because the latter was prolific in other decades as well. And by the way, the climactic chase includes a quick shot of Nixon for Governor headquarters, which had an expiration date of 1962 when he movie was shot.

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