UNITED STATES—Airplanes have a starring role in some of the most breathtaking and hilarious scenes in “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
In this most competitive of comedies, Edie Adams and Sid Caesar follow the signs and arrive first to charter a private plane, beating out Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney in this round to expedite reaching the $350,000 buried under a Big W in Santa Rosita. Then the two buddies (Rooney and Hackett) hightail it to a posh country club in search of another plane to reach the loot buried a paroled thief told them about in his dying breath when this random group of people converged at an accident site.
Meanwhile, it’s apparent that Adams and Sid Caesar (as the Crumps on their second honeymoon) have been lured into Ma & Pa Joad’s airways, the fleet consisting of a single rickety 1917 biplane.
Edie Adams, the better half of the couple whose second honeymoon has been interrupted by this money chase, has misgivings about the canvas the flight worthiness of this dusty, canvas-winged craft. (video link: https://bit.ly/3gsdWjD).
In the scene for “Mad Mad World” it looks raggedy enough, almost held together by toothpicks, the effect heightened by the wobbling cables that join upper and lower wings.
Through the sequence Adams and Caesar look sufficiently pale and sick to their stomachs. To get ahead of the game, wife Adams gives in to her dentist husband Caesar as they charter the dilapidated plane. It’s a measure of irrationality that man and wife would rent this deathtrap—and yet it’s totally plausible.
“This thing is built,” Caesar sell it to Adams, “Nothing experimental about this plane.” He finally resorts to the It-will-be-fun argument. “Let’s live it up and have an adventure.”
To judge by Adam’s looks and body language—she goes along but never gives in. The resulting hair-raising sequence is one that demonstrates not only tremendous aerial visuals, but also the sound effects that garnered “Mad World” the 1963 Oscar for Best Sound Effects for sound editor, Walter Elliott. It’s fully compelling when Edie Adams tells Sid Caesar, “I can’t fly in this old…Listen to it! Just look at how it’s shuddering.” And then the crisp sound of her satin dress ripping as Caesar helps/pushes her into the open cockpit…The coughing and sputtering of the plane…just amazing.
The Standard J-1 airplane was dressed for the part. Purchased by a Tennessee aviation enthusiast as army surplus in 1920 by in Knoxville, TN and sold it in 1955 to veteran stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who brought it to Hollywood for use in movies, this is the resilient World War I plane that would appear in Robert Redford’s “The Great Waldo Pepper,” and repainted to be Charles Lindberg’s barnstormer in “The Spirit of St. Lewis.”
After being beaten out of of the flying antiquity by the Crumps, who prematurely crow victory, and go to posh country club to rent a plane from drunken millionaire (Jim Backus who reprised the mid-Atlantic accented, rich boy character, perfected in radio, and nailed for himself him the role of Thurston Howell III on ‘Gilligan’s Island’).
Incidentally, ubiquitous character actor Charles Lane plays an airport manager. Hackett points and says, “Hey, whose plane is that?” Hardly looking from his paperwork, the character actor dourly replies that the fine-looking twin-engine red-white-and-blue plane “belongs to Mr. Tyler Fitzgerald.”
Hackett and Rooney sneak in to find Tyler Fitzgerald (Jim Backus) dead drunk asleep in a white tux on the pool table from the night before. Rooney and Hackett do the impossible: they animate this comatose heap of besotted millionaire and get him through a shower, dressed in fresh clothes, and into the Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan. It’s equipped with a wet bar. Tyler Fitzgerald seemed pretty chipper as he gets behind the controls and then he asks for an “old fashioned,” which proves his undoing. (video link: https://bit.ly/3pNm0zH).
Dissatisfied with the old fashioneds prepared by Mickey Rooney. Backus goes himself goes back in to the bar to make himself a third Old Fashioned his way —very dry— declaring of Hackett: “That boy is a natural born flier!” Buddy Hackett, a perfect picture of that person left in charge of something way over his head (or perhaps under it, in the form of a whole lotta sky). The comic’s hands freeze to the control, beads of sweat pour down his face.
The plane quickly gets out of control, does twists and loops and corkscrews. The result of which, Mr. Tyler Fitzgerald (Backus) is knocked around and finally knocked out.
This highly realistic interior effects were achieved by cage, that could be turned in any direction, like a ball. The interior was outfitted to resemble that Beechcraft Kansan, outfitted with a wet bar. It was controlled hydraulically, according to Danny Lee special effects wizard on “Mad Mad World.”
The great influence of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World can be seen in that the Jim Backus/Tyler Fitzgerald scene inspired a cocktail that bears the name if the fictional millionaire, Tyler Fitzgerald who despises sweet old fashioneds: Ice, 2 oz Bourbon, and four dashes of bitters.
The inventor of this cocktail homage pronounces the airplane scene “the best cocktail scene in all cinema.”
Grady Miller, unlike Stanley Kramer, cut his chops in comedy. His first book was “Late Boomer,” a collection of the Miller’s humor and early Canyon News pieces. https://amzn.to/2Szgi8e .