UNITED STATES—Tania Rose (1924-2015) was co-screenwriter, creator of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” along with her husband William Rose (1918-1987), an American who stayed on in England after World War II service. Rose penned “The Ladykillers” in a stellar string of Ealing Studio Comedies. The one screenplay for which both husband and wife are credited is “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Born in Berlin to mixed Anglo-Germanic parentage, Tania Rose’s first language was German. Her father was a foreign correspondent for British newspapers and covered the Russian revolution. When the family, a prototype of globe-trotting, culture-shifting clan, returned to England, Tania had to brush up on her English.
It is a known fact that Germans appreciate the torrid heat and wide-open spaces of Death Valley—hold a special appeal to German tourists who flock perennially, and Germany is a popular destination for vintage oversize American cars, and this is pertinent to my reappraisal of Stanley Kramer’s epic symphony of slapstick.
The future screenwriter would later study history at Cambridge after an ill-timed 1938 trip to study music in Vienna (age 17), turning back to England after the Germans annexed Austria. Director Stanley Kramer was offered an eight-page treatment from William Rose, called “Something a Little Less Serious.”
“The funniest thing I had made up to that time, was ‘Judgement at Nuremberg,” Kramer remarked in 1974.
The director had forged his reputation with weighty movies about social themes and issues, like race relations (“The Defiant Ones”) and Nazi war crimes (Judgement at Nuremberg) one of the early working titles was “Where But America?” This points to a layer of outsider awareness that informs this comedy and separates it from the juvenile pigeonhole many have relegated it to.
J. Algernon Hawthorne: I must say, if I had the grievous misfortune to be a citizen of this benighted country, I should be the most hesitant at offering any criticism whatever of any other.
J. Russell Finch: Wait a minute, are you knocking this country? Are you saying something against America?
This exchange between Terry-Thomas’ British botanist colonel and Milton Berle’s henpecked entrepreneur introduces the following loopy speech:
J. Algernon Hawthorne: Against it? I should be positively astounded to hear of anything that could be said FOR it. Why, the whole bloody place is the most unspeakable matriarchy in the whole history of civilization! Look at yourself, and the way your wife and her strumpet of a mother push you through the hoop! As far as I can see, American men have been totally emasculated. They’re like slaves! They die like flies from coronary thrombosis, while their women sit under hairdryers, eating chocolates and arranging for every second Tuesday to be some sort of Mother’s Day!
And this positively infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all my time in this wretched, godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment and everything. I’ll wager you anything you like: if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.
Ultimately, the colonel (Terry-Thomas) and Berle, the Yank, dust each other off mano-a-mano in mid-desert eye-poking slap-fest, fueled by seething divisions between their respective countries. These two towering and feuding comic eminences are encased to the last follicle in the truth in their personal feud and national rivalry. The sequence is deadly true and, yes, one of the biggest laugh-getters of Mad, Mad World.
Berle: You want me to tell you something? As far as I’m concerned the whole British race is practically finished. If it hadn’t been for lend-lease. If we hadn’t have kept your whole country afloat by giving you billions that you never even said “Thank you” for, the whole phony outfit would be sunk right under the Atlantic years ago.
[The colonel’s Willy’s jeep screeches to a stop]
Berle: What are you stopping for?
Terry-Thomas: Get out of this machine.
Berle: Get out? You can’t…
Terry-Thomas: It’s my machine, I will do as I bloody well please. Out!
Berle: I’m awfully sorry. I’ve been very edgy today and if I said anything about England, I apologize.
Terry-Thomas: Glad to hear you say so.
The truce is short-lived. After Berle complains about Terry-Thomas’ driving, the jeep enters a tunnel. Then a single tire roles out of the tunnel in the opposite direction. To be followed by the jeep barreling out of the tunnel entrance, to roll completely over on the rocky skirt of the mountain. Our dust-choked actors exit vertically from the jeep on its side. This is sublime in timing and invisibly mind-bending. Then follows the hilarious fight between those from two “enemy” nations that have let bygones be bygones since the War of 1812. https://bit.ly/3wDwFiH (video link)
This dialog, coupled with the action, meticulously choreographed by William and Tania Rose, with its trans-Atlantic perspective serves to raise Stanley Kramer’s wildly ambitious to a hybrid, genuine slapstick talkie. And in color, no less. Add to that, the widescreen 70 mm “Ultra-Panavision,” meant to be projected on the curved screen of the newly built Cinerama geodesic dome, on Sunset Blvd. expressly for the debut of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
To be continued…
Grady Miller is publisher of Patricio X. Maya’s comic novel, “Reggaeton Cruise,” a hilarious, unnerving and endearing valentine to America. https://amzn.to/3wB9up4