UNITED STATES—This extravaganza from MGM-United Artists was going to keep us kids, respectively eight and six years old, up way late past the edge of midnight. Back then the limit was eight p.m. on a school night when my sister and I could be tucked away in our beds.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took us to arid Southern California—presenting a sharp contrast with our own boringly mild Mediterranean Central Coast. On-location filming was sweltering. Action is immediate after the cartoon title sequence, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) is racing like maniac around a curve in an inhospitable mountain high desert road, driving like a madman, passing cars and trucks, horns blare and then, as Russell Finch (Milton Berle’s character describes), he “just sailed out there,” and crashes on the rocks below. Who can imagine anything but the old man splat all over the rocks—and these sundry motorists stop to check up on the old man (Durante). They catch up just in time for his dying words, “The treasure is buried under the Big W” in Santa Rosita State Park.
The witnesses were Sid Cesar, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters—a dentist, a couple of hep cats on their way to Vegas, Berle failed businessman with PTSD (as Ethel Merman’s son-in law), and a truckdriver.
They trudge uphill and convey to their families what they heard about the loot under the Big W. The story starts its viral journey, and you get to see pure cinema—each car becomes a stage—and you see the “gold fever” take hold and sneakiness creeps in. The dissembling, trying to drive real slow, or inconspicuously gun it. Already, you get to see Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman) boss and intimidate.
It leads to a big pit stop for this group of strangers now hopelessly bound together in a quest for the loot by the money magnet. This pow wow, a feeble attempt to “be reasonable” is none other that rationality’s last stand.
Hackett: Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man, including the old bag, for himself!
Rooney: So good luck, and may the best man win!
Hackett : [to Mrs. Marcus, Merman’s über mother-in-law] Right! Except you, lady. May you just drop dead!
Off the pack of lead loonies go with the knowledge of the buried loot and its race. And of course, Buddy Hackett final nod to Ethel Merman (the Mother-in-law from hell).
Screenwriting couple, William and Tania Rose delivered two telephone-book-sized scripts to producer and director Stanley Kramer: once was for the dialog and the second, a detailed description of intricate slapstick sequences involving planes, tow trucks, cars, deep water, fireworks and great heights. Ex-con Smiler Grogan, barely paroled and now gasping his last after driving off the road, tells the small group assembled down the rocky slope ignites a race to find the mysterious Big W that marks the spot for the $350,000 (1963 money).
Durante (unbloodied but quite convincing as a man broken up inside after the crash) then does the kneejerk “kick the bucket” and sets a rusty old bucket clattering down the rocky slope, and the men folk of the travelers share the horror and also dissemble that they can’t wait to start the race for the pot of money under the Big W.
Mayhem ensues. So much is already at work here; the tragic dark bloody automotive skein underlying our sunny California Dream make Mad World a dramatic comedy to the core. Also, it pretty much created a new genre, epic comedy (also, it shares the pack in all the stars you can shake a galaxy at á la Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (another widescreen Cinerama format project). There are quite a few casting coincidences—Joe E.
Brown, Buster Keaton, and Mike Mazurki—as Mad World strove incorporate most the known comic talent around in 1963. (Groucho Marx was invited to do a cameo, but never filmed; he quipped “I was going to be Mrs. Merman.”)
To be continued…