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.)
"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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