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Great Race, The (Blu-ray Review)

22 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk.

Whatever else you want to say about this onetime budget-buster about a farcical auto race back when cars were the new big thing, the Warner Archive folks have given it such royal Blu-ray treatment that Jack Warner’s money would probably still show on screen if you watched the movie on your wristwatch (something not otherwise recommended).

Of course, a lot has been said about The Great Race over the years, and most of it at the time was negative. To critics and even many audiences of the day, the picture’s strain to be funny showed no few stretch marks over the course of two hours and 40 minutes — in a way that it didn’t with (and I think time has really borne this out, despite its own plentiful naysayers), It’s Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, released two years earlier. And of its ilk, I’m not so certain, after having seen the Twilight Time edition fairly recently, that Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machine (released just two weeks before Race opened) isn’t the more harmonious view of the two — though it never rises to Race’s madcap audacity, given Blake Edwards’ lack of fear when it came to putting it on the slapstick line.

The best way to enjoy Race is to take an “it is what it is” approach and to remind oneself that its like will likely never come again unless mass taste in blockbuster subject matter gets upended and we develop a new list of 'A'-level stars who can take a pie in the kisser on screen the way that even Frank Sinatra leaped to do on TV with Soupy Sales (though I’ll bet Jennifer Lawrence would be happy to lead the way). There was some pretty major star power for the day here: Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon reunited six years post-Some Like It Hot as, respectively, the heroic Great Leslie and snarling nemesis Professor Fate (later in the picture, Lemmon has a second role when the script veers into Prisoner of Zenda territory). In a less heralded reunion, Curtis and Natalie Wood were back just a year after Sex and the Single Girl — with Wood showing little flair for slapstick, though one has to concede that she throws herself into the mayhem with full abandon almost as much as Lemmon does. Besides, her sometimes skimpy apparel here accentuates the Wood yowza factor; if there is a straight guy of my acquaintance and general age group who wasn’t hot for her, his name does not immediately come to mind. (Possibly some nerd in my junior shop class or something.)

Leslie is such a hero that in one of the film’s better gags even his teeth enamel put off a gleam. Lemmon’s dressed-in-black bad professor must have at least an M.A. in “Dastardly,” though for all of his prowess as a supervillain, he takes as many smashed-mouthed falls as Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. The two have challenged each other to a cross-continental race from New York to Paris by way of a circuitous route partly mandated by these 1908 autos’ lack of water wings. Promoting it is a New York newspaper whose editor Arthur O’Connell has a wife who is like Wood, a suffragette played by Vivian Vance (politically principled but also looking as of she’s happy to be spending sack-time with someone who’s not Fred Mertz). As Lemmon’s partner in futility, Peter Falk amasses a lot of screen time as one of the movie’s three Mad World alums; the others are Marvin Kaplan and Dorothy Provine, who gets one fairly memorable number in a Wild West town that becomes part of the travel itinerary.

Merely in terms of Edwards movies released around the same time, my own taste gravitates more toward A Shot in the Dark and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? — the first a knee-pounding masterpiece and the second a better comedy than its rather desperate title would suggest. In fact, there are a lot of times here when I long for the no-frills simplicity of Mister Cory, which was the first of several Curtis-Edwards teamings. But as a friend of mine noted many years ago, there are a lot of Edwards comedies that are less a case of monster guffaws than a running time spent with simply a large smile on one’s face. This is one of them, though to much less degree than 1970’s Darling Lili — a movie I really love, though (like Race) it emphasized the director’s propensity for going over budget for uncompensated financial returns that did no one any good.

Edwards regular Henry Mancini did the music, and the great Russell Harlan shot it — an indication that all the production talent here was top of the line. This would presumably include the caterers who helped set up what was billed as the biggest pie fight of all time, a boast I have no reason to dispute. Seeing Wood take custard to the kisser and all points south is a singular vision, though perhaps not as singular as George Macready enduring the same (maybe Glenn Ford should have popped him with one in Gilda). Like the rest, this really is a comic spectacle despite the labored spots, and Warner has gotten about as much visually out of the material at hand as a Blu-ray can be expected to do.

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