THE DVD SHELF: Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Jules Dassin's "Rififi"

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26 Jan 2014

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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."

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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.



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