UNITED STATES—Now the very fate of the iconic Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. is in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Los Angeles assumes the worst and the nostalgia and hyperbole stem from a presumption that the Dome will be demolished, or chopped into pieces and reassembled at the soon-to-be-opened Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum on Wilshire Blvd.
Let me take advantage is this gloomy thought to hold forth about “Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” the comic gem whose premiere launched the Cinerama dome. When people ask, What’s your favorite movie of all time, my default answer is Stanley Kramer’s 1963 masterpiece. It springs effortlessly from my cerebellum, perhaps in deference to my seven-year-old self, and also, it is the provocateur in me: my enthusiasm for “Mad Mad World” has launched more than a few pseudo-intellectual defenses of a film often derided as infantile, cartoonish.
For started, MMMMW is not bereft of message, it conveys the granddaddy of American messages: people go crazy for money in the U.S. of A. Ordinary law-abiding folks turn into lunatics, foaming at the mouth, and clawing at each other, to get the loot buried under the Big W.
It is festooned with all the comic talents from Buster Keaton to Selma Diamond, Sid Cesar, Berle, Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas, Ethel Merman who’s the uber mother-in-law just like Ralf Fiennes was a “great” Nazi in “Schindler’s List.” Gosh, the amazing Dick Shawn as Sylvester, Merman’s son. It’s time-capsule of comedy, a series of slapstick episodes among the greatest the Dream Factory ever executed.
Jonathan Winters. This movie preserves the genius that was Jonathan Winters, not to mention his tour-de-force dual performance in “The Loved One.”
You cannot have this band of zanies function without Captain Culpepper, who is a Police Chief with his own agenda, heartbreaking, funny and real. Steady honest Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) embodies the authority who has the chance to tie up the case that’s he’s spent a lifetime wanting to solve: Smiler Grogan is going to lead him to the loot when he gets released from jail.
My esteem for this movie cannot be separated from the supreme movie-viewing experience from which my acquaintance with it emerged…About once a year my dad, sister and I would be exiled from our home when, almost overnight, it became clean, boxes of papers, clutter and debris would be spirited to the garage, and the furniture would smell of polish, the silverware gleamed and the rooms would fill with the seductive aroma of fresh-brewing coffee, and all the preparations would culminate in the pleasant ringing of a doorbell. It was out signal to scram, as the stage was set for the arrival of the club women.
That year, in about 1971, and Dad hauled us to the Aptos Twin to see a first-run movie—that was the draw—a James Garner movie “Support Your Local Gunfighter,” a comic western romp. That was the draw, alright. We were on the edge of calling it a night and going home, Dad was pretty pliant as usual. Then the titles started to project, heavily scratched, with a plethora of audio pops and hisses, from traveling around the movie circuit for the last eight-odd years.
It begins with Saul Bass’ animated title sequence in which the world-globe is various a toy top, at one point unfurled as cut-out dolls, at every turn it foils the poor shlub in a hat who wants to open this can, and out come a feverish, greedy, stampeding mob. All of the themes. greed, hysteria, panic, are evoked for this G-rated film, which has always struck me as anything but.
The poor cartoon man is trampled by the innumerable herd, and only some animated sparks swirling around his head give us reassurance that he has not been trampled to death.
And so begins the opus…
To be continued…