In retrospect, it’s actually hard to believe William Rose’s concept of an epic homage to slapstick comedy managed to reach its end point, and become a three-hour Cinerama (er, Ultra Panavision 70) roadshow presentation – unheard of for a comedy at the time.
Rose, an American screenwriter who’d penned a string of classic British comedies (see end), had written two scripts for Mad – one with dialogue, the other with ‘bits of business’ for the actors – which made its way to producer / director Stanley Kramer, an independent filmmaker best known for Message Pictures: The Defiant Ones (racism is bad), On the Beach (nuclear war is bad), Inherit the Wind (Darwinism is real, not truthy), and Judgment at Nuremberg (Nazis and anti-Semitism is bad).
Kramer, one suspects, needed something fun to make at this stage in his career, either for himself, and / or to show peers he did indeed have a sense of humour in spite of the serious contemporary issues he otherwise tackled in his movies. The decision to go Cinerama (using the super-wide Ultra Panavision camera) was pretty daring, considering no one had made a comedy on such a massive production and logistical scale.
Rat Race (2001) and other ‘race for the money’ road movie variations owe a great deal to Kramer and Rose’s vision, because it laid out a clean and simple template where an event (in this case, a thief’s deadly car crash) brings together disparate travelers, after which they all go into a brutally competitive mode to reach a treasure (in this case, buried money from a heist). Once in a while there are allegiances, but they’re fleeting, because greed is simply the great flaw that runs throughout each competitor, and easily infects even good, people, which in Mad, is the chief detective (Spencer Tracy) assigned to wrangle everyone to jail, and retrieve the stolen money.
Mad’s story consists of multiple chase threads bonking into each other until a grand finale, followed by a closing gag that’s simple, inelegant, and apropos to the tone of people bashing, smacking, slapping, slipping, crashing, inflaming, and conking each other or into things made of solid matter (including bone).
According to the interviewed cast members in the doc in MGM’s 2001 DVD (itself ported over from the 1991 laserdisc release), once word got around of which popular comedians had signed on, others wanted in, either through envy, jealousy, or a sense this would be a unique opportunity that could create something great.
Boasting a massive cast (for main and cameo parts), Mad is exhausting, indulgent, and bloated in its scope, and should’ve been a mess, but Kramer revealed a surprising adeptness in coordinating every production element with military precision, and Rose’s dual scripts were filled with fine comedic nuances drawn from classic gags.
The production was also blessed with an amazing stunt crew who put on film some of the most startling one-shot stunts that today would’ve been rendered in CGI due to safety reasons, or producer laziness.
The high speed car chases are filled with near-misses,; a plane dodges a man dangling from a control tower, and later crashes through a populated set with moving rotors; and Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography exploits the full breadth of the 2.20:1 widescreen ratio with plenty of intricate movements. In theatres, there’s little doubt elaborate stunt and sight gags awed audiences.
Ardent fans love every frame of the film, whereas others may find even the standard theatrical edit of 163 mins. to be heavy-going, but there are scenes which are pure brilliance, and there’s that incredible cast of veteran comedians who shared a background in vaudeville and live television.
To watch them interact and steal scenes from each other is part of the fun, not to mention the cameos that pop up in major scenes. Perhaps the best example of scene-stealing is Dick Shawn (The Producers) and Barrie Chase, respectively playing a loud-mouth beatnik and stone-faced dancer. The brief dancing scene at their jazzy pad is the apex of absurdity: one character (Shawn) is physically loose and gregarious, and the other (Chase) jiggles and angles like a robot, as if trying to experience human emotions through physical mimicry.
The 1991 making-of doc was made at the time when many of the cast members were still alive, and they share wild stories of their eccentric personas, and the respect among each other, since they were all pretty much living legends at that time.
Interviewed are Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Norman Fell, Jerry Lewis, composer Ernest Gold, director Kramer, plus a stuntman who recounts the exciting time such a massive army were recruited for a film.
One reason Mad works is the carefully choreographed intro scenes: a spectacular car crash causes strangers to hurry down and hear the last cryptic words of a dying crook (Jimmy Durante, who literally ‘kicks the bucket’); and a lengthy introduction amongst the strangers quickly introduces each main character, and their relationships with annoying mother-in-laws, stupid brother-in-laws, and bickering best friends.
Milton Berle gives a lengthy, hysterical double-talk on share division based on a crazy point system, and Buddy Hacket repeatedly insults Ethel Merman, punctuating his hatred with a beautiful, harmonically descending ‘drop dead’ line that pretty much sets everyone running for their cars, and beginning their mad trek to the West Coast in search of ‘the big W’ under which the loot is buried.
Kramer lets the scene run its natural length in one shot, Rose’s argumentative prose just flows, and the long, widescreen take allows audiences to scan each character and read their confusion and annoyances as the issue of loot division becomes increasingly byzantine.
As a wide film format experience, it probably felt numb in a panned & scanned transfer for TV and early home video, but in its proper widescreen format on DVD and Blu-ray, at least some of the film’s impact is restored.
According to film historian Robert H. Harris, Mad’s premiere roadshow length was 195 mins., after which it was cut down to 154 mins. (often referred to as the general release version).
On DVD, the 163 mins. version is essentially boosted by the Intermission + Exit music, whereas the 1991 MGM/UA laserdisc & VHS releases contained the two roadshow music additions, plus an Overture, and the interpolation of deleted footage culled from then-newly discovered trims.
That effort to recreate the roadshow experience was rather misguided, because the footage was still unedited, and the final scene edit was a guesstimate of how it would’ve flowed had the extra scenes been incorporated into the film by Kramer. The laserdisc set also included a montage of scene trims which were slapped together in random order, but even from that mélange, it was easy to see why the incidental material was dropped.
When MGM released the film on DVD in 2001, it was the 163 mins. version with the aforementioned Intermission & Exit music, plus the 1991 documentary and the trim montage. The film was reissued again in 2003, minus the extras, because MGM figured they could cuts costs and cater a more budget-friendly DVD towards discount bin buyers in drug stores and Wal-Marts.
The 2011 Blu-ray features a new HD transfer of the 163 mins. version (again, missing the Overture music, which is frankly stupid), and reintegrates the documentary & trim montage from the prior releases. The BR debuted as another Wal-Mart exclusive, but it will eventually make its way towards the rest of humanity. The HD transfer is reportedly stunning, but even the first DVD edition looks very lovely, given the film was originally shot in 65mm, with gorgeous colours and deep focus.
In a 2002 interview, Harris discussed the prospects of restoring Mad as close as possible to its roadshow length. As of 2010, Harris commented in the Home Theater Forum that preservation had be completed on the 6-track audio for the general release version, but additional funds were still required to move further into picture restoration.
Given the film’s stature, fan base, and uniqueness in being the first single-lens / single-print Cinerama film, it deserves to be restored. More importantly, newly struck 70mm roadshow film prints (in straight and Cinerama versions) would further ensure the theatrical experience would endure for future generations in both 70mm and surviving Cinerama theatres.
Time and indifference, as Ron Epstein’s tribute page infers, is a terrible threat towards film history. Just scoot down to the page’s first third, and imagine America’s film heritage disintegrating like the photographed film reel.
Kramer and Rose would collaborate again in 1967 on the mixed marriage drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1969 on The Secret of Santa Vittoria, with Rose credited as co-writer. Vittoria would be Rose’s final script, after penning several classic British comedies, including Genevieve [M] (1953), The Maggie (1954), The Ladykillers (1955), and The Smallest Show On Earth(1957).
His American work includes The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966) and The Flim-Flam Man [M] (1967), and in 1960 he wrote the script for Michael Todd, Jr.’s 70mm Smell-O-Vision travelogue blunder Scent of Myster (1960), which at least must have given the writer a command of sketching comedic scenes for the broad 70mm canvas.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan