THE DVD SHELF: Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Jules Dassin's "Rififi"
By Steven Suskin
This week we watch Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," starring Spencer Tracy and dozens of top comedians (including Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Ethel Merman), and Jules Dassin's 1955 film noir classic "Rififi."
The success of Mike Todd's star-stocked 1956 film extravaganza "Around the World in 80 Days" led to a stream of oversized epics filled with more big-name stars than you can count on your fingers. One of the biggest and most successful was Stanley Kramer's 1963 "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" [Criterion], featuring just about every American comedian they could find — or, at least, who had the time and inclination and would work for the money.
If this scatterbrained comedy about a horde of characters racing to find a staggering fortune — $350,000!!!! — buried in a park in Southern California seems a little bit out of character for producer/director Kramer, that's because it is. Kramer's prior films had been the racially-controversial "Defiant Ones," with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped convicts shackled together; the nuclear annihilation piece "On the Beach," with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire trying to survive after World War III; the science vs. creationism battle of "Inherit the Wind," with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March dueling it out in court; and the examination of more recent, real-life evil in "Judgment at Nuremberg," with a cast of stars headed by that same Mr. Tracy.
For whatever reason, Kramer signed on to make this wacky chase movie and set out to fill it with top comedians — most of whom were highly popular but slightly past their peak. These included three kings of 1950s television: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, as well as earlier-era stars Jimmy Durante and Mickey Rooney. The top-tier group also included three younger comedians Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters and Dick Shawn. Plugged in with them was Ethel Merman as the unanimously hated mother-in-law from hell. Kramer clearly thinks it's funny to have Merman yelling at the top of her lungs, and to have her upended — with legs akimbo and underwear prominent — about six or seven times. (This was the Merman of Gypsy; filming started several months after she gave her final performance as Rose.)
The list of subsidiary comics goes on and on, including Jim Backus, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Paul Ford, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Arnold Stang, Terry-Thomas, Jesse White and the unbilled Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny. The female leads are played by Edie Adams and Dorothy Provine. Leading them all, though, is what seems to have been Kramer's favorite actor, the durable but not especially funny Tracy. The pair reconnected in 1967 once more, for what was to be the star's final film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," which was filmed in the Cinerama process, is wacky and scattered and full of laughs. It isn't all that funny, though; I didn't think so when I saw it as a child, and I don't think so now. It is, however, something to see. All these comedians of different styles keep you glued to the screen. You watch to see what happens next; and if what happens next isn't on target, there'll be something else coming along soon enough.
In a nod to the film's outsized influence and myriad fans, Criterion has given it the full five-star (or, more literally, 38-star) treatment. The new release includes not two or three but five discs in all, two Blu-rays and three DVDs. The lengthy film — 163 minutes worth — has been duly restored. Criterion has also enlisted film preservationist Robert A. Harris to reconstruct the original version used during the film's hard-ticket engagements; when the studio realized just how successful the film was likely to be, they trimmed off a full half-hour so that they could get an additional showing a day. Thus, along with the general release version we get the 197-minute original, which makes for even more interesting viewing. (There are a few sections for which the only surviving footage has Japanese subtitles and several missing patches where they substitute stills for the missing film.)
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" is not art, no; but it is nevertheless something to see, especially if you want to get a sense of small-town America — California, precisely — circa 1962, as well as a nifty animated title sequence by Saul Bass.
Connecticut native Jules Dassin started his career in New York's Yiddish Theatre in the 1930s, made his Broadway directing debut in 1940 and directed the first of eleven Hollywood features in 1942. These included the influential films noir "The Naked City" (1948) and "Night and the City" (1950), but Dassin fell victim to the blacklist and — unable to work — moved to France. His only major U.S. job during the blacklist was as director of Bette Davis's 1952 Broadway revue, Two's Company. This trouble-wracked opus opened six months before the show's choreographer, Jerome Robbins, named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Overall, Dassin directed three plays and three musicals on Broadway.
Dassin's troubles followed him abroad, where he remained unemployable until he was hired for a low-budget French film in 1955. "Rififi" [Criterion] became an instant film noir classic, setting the pattern for what was to become the jewel-heist genre. The movie, now restored by the Criterion Collection into a crisp black-and-white gem, is riveting; four mismatched small-time criminals join together to rob a Parisian jewelry store on the Rue de Rivoli. Their plan includes drilling through the ceiling, using an upturned umbrella to catch falling plaster and disabling the alarm system with foam from a fire extinguisher. The heist is meticulously planned out and executed in a stunning 30-minute section sans dialogue or music. "Rififi" was actually banned in some countries because authorities claimed it taught criminals how to better commit the crime. The methods, indeed, seem to have been used in burglaries following the film's widespread success.
All of this makes this an arresting film, if you'll pardon the expression. The bonus material includes a 2000 interview with Dassin, who died in 2008 at the age of 96. (He survived the blacklist by moving to Greece and making such international film hits as "Never on Sunday" and "Topkapi" — which was in some ways a big-budget, full-color variation of "Rififi.") Dassin brings up some surprising and enlightening points. His reaction — 50 years later, anyway — to people like Clifford Odets, who named names, was not anger but pity at how the committee crushed them and broke them down. This ties in, directly, to one of the final sections of the film. The star burglar discovers that one of his colleagues has ratted on the others. Tracking him down, he tells him that he always liked him but "you know the rules." The fellow admits that he knows the rules for stool pigeons, and seemingly accepts his punishment as the star burglar shoots him.
This, in 1955, very clearly reflected the blacklist and the tragic figures who "named names" of their comrades. What makes it even more startling is that the actor playing the stool pigeon — billed as Perlo Vita — is Dassin himself.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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