Scattershot, corny and lame: three words that will instantly come to mind as modern audiences try to last the distance of this rollicking, elongated road movie from 1963. Dubbed a ‘supercomedy’ at the time for its breadth of ambition, it combined the talents of virtually every imaginable comedic force at the disposal of director Stanley Kramer, previously known for his heavyweight dramatic landmarks Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and On the Beach (1959).
It all begins on a deserted mountain highway as an erratic driver, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) ploughs off the side of a cliff to certain doom; thrown clear of the wreck, he has just enough energy left to unburden his conscience of the location of a hidden stash of cash to the assembled passers-by who include Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), dim-witted buddies Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett), Lenny Pike (Jonathan Winters) as well as J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) and his vulgar, one-note mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman).
Determined the keep the sniffing hounds of the law, led by Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), in the dark, they head off to track down the money, buried under a ‘big W” (not a store thankfully). Along the way they predictably encounter various pitfalls, some becoming waylaid or side-tracked, others attracting the attention of outsiders keen for a piece of the pie, whilst others still are lost to the malicious scheming of external forces, mostly bad luck.
The action speeds along like an out of control freight train, Kramer juggling numerous strands with dexterity, but it’s the outdated writing of William and Tania Rose that throws a spanner in the works with an uneven screenplay that surrenders credibility to the notion of creating an “event” movie specific to its era whilst pandering to the masses.
Judging by the effusive, outlandish praised heaped upon it in the form of prominent quotations in the DVD trailer, the film must have been widely considered – with the straightest of faces – the largest-scale action romp of its time, but it’s virtues seem laughably modest and tame by our current standards.
It raises a chuckle here and there but there’s nothing revelatory, ground-breaking or daring in its aspirations, intent as it seemingly is on cramming in as many cameos and small-roles for notable comedic figures to ensure quantity will at least win out over quality should a reasonable proportion of the jokes fall flat. Which indeed they do, basically mirroring the kind of broad, slapstick humour popular at the time; a wordless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the Three Stooges only rams home it’s blunt, unsubtle point, proving to be pointless participation.
The film spirals towards such an absurdly over-the-top finale that you might almost be tempted to label it a highpoint – and, in place of a coda, if a good old banana-skin gag isn’t the height of comedic wit then I don’t know what is! – but the greatest attraction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World lies sadly entrenched in a bygone era and far beyond the understanding of 21st century mortals.
We may smile at the excesses of knocking over cardboard buildings, the obvious physical comedy, the impassioned over-acting (Mickey Rooney take a bow!), but at over 150 minutes, this remains a little too much of a not-very-good thing. It’s likeable on a superficial level in ten minute allotments – and features the added nostalgic bonus of a five minute intermission – but I don’t think I could sit through this lumbering, over-plumped mess again; drenched in bombast and colour – like Ernest Gold’s insanely extroverted score, which like a musical equivalent of fingernails dragged over a chalkboard at times, draws you closer to the edge of sanity – this is a true test of endurance for comedy fans of any era.