Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World


★★★☆☆

A critical success on release, the enormous budget of Stanley Kramer’s 1963 epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meant that it only just scraped a profit. The premise: a group of strangers race across America to try to get to a rumoured buried treasure.

It’s worth noting that the extended version included on the Criterion release doesn’t fundamentally change the theatrical edition, but rather, just piles on more: more crashes, more pratfalls, and unfortunately, more runtime. At a newly-restored 197 minutes, it might better be titled, It’s a Long, Long, Long, Long Film. But though It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World struggles to justify its ludicrous length, there are just enough laughs, cameos and memorable set pieces to garner a recommendation. In the grand tradition of high-concept comedy, the premise is a gossamer-thin excuse for a series of increasingly ridiculous stunts, hi-jinks and gags.

Starring Hollywood luminaries such as Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman and Spencer Tracy – not to mention an endless assortment of cameos – part of the fun of the film is in revelling in who shows up next. The main attraction, however, are the elaborately-staged set pieces, unusual perhaps for 1963 but very much in the tradition of Buster Keaton’s silent pictures (also appearing in a cameo). The film’s two plane sequences are an object lesson in Mad World’s philosophy of ‘more’. The first is a hair-raising sequence in its own right, with Sid Caesar’s Melville and his long-suffering wife struggling not to fall through the rotten floor of a rickety old biplane.

“Like that?” the film seems to say, “well here’s some more!” with a later sequence that sees another plane crash into the control tower of an airport. And while each set piece is undeniably well staged and funny, their cumulative effect over three hours is too often one of fatigue, not humour. Sadly, fatigue is the emotion most commonly felt with the characters too, who feel plonked into predicaments at random, rather than situational comedy deriving from their individual foibles. As almost all the characters are essentially greedy and self-interested, it’s difficult to root for anyone, and the chaotic cross-cutting makes it impossible to determine who is at the front of the race.

One longs for a Wacky Races-style running commentary. Despite this, Mad World‘s final act wrangles back a sense of narrative structure. Switching its focus to Spencer Tracy’s police captain Culpepper, the film deploys a final twist that is both hilarious and unexpectedly poignant, underscoring the underlying themes of greed and desperation. And the final sequence – a raucous Tex Avery-style squabble atop a careening fire engine ladder – is finally everything Mad World wants to be, deranged, cartoonish and very, very funny.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell