20 March 2001 | vox-sane
More than the sum of its parts
Often accused of being less than the sum of its parts, "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of the most precious gems in filmdom. True, it's far from being the funniest movie ever. Once, when Monty Python was putting a film together, they found that after fifty-odd minutes the audience stopped laughing. Thinking it was the material, they recut it so the latter material came out first. The audience still stopped laughing at fifty-odd minutes, even with what MP assumed the funnier materials backloaded. The fact is, people can only laugh so long.
Even armed with the information that an audience cannot sustain laughter for three hours, "Mad World" is not overwhelmingly funny. Though lots of dialogue is amusing and all the performances are outstanding, but the movie suffers from a common delusion of people outside comedy, as Stanley Kramer was, that the mere vision of cars crashing is somehow funny in itself. One is reminded of the spectacular sequence in "1941" when a ferris wheel breaks loose and rolls off a pier into the ocean. The sequence itself is jaw-dropping and extremely well-done, and not funny for a moment.
The value in "Mad World" is its cast. Most of the big names in comedy in the 1950s and 1960s made it into the cast (Ernie Kovaks, arguably the brightest of the lot, originally cast in the Sid Caesar role, unfortunately died not long before shooting started). The casting of name comics in tiny roles doesn't do them justice: Stan Freberg has nothing to do but watch Andy Devine talk on the telephone; Doodles Weaver is an uncredited "Man Outside Hardware Store"; the Three Stooges merely show up to be recognized; even Jack Benny, in a miniscule role funny merely because he's in it, doesn't have an impact today because too few people remember who he was. Again, some milk their small roles for what they are worth, giving the movie an undercurrent of true humor beyond the principals: Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jesse White, Paul Ford, Jim Backus.
"Mad World" is most valuable simply because it is a cross-section of comedy in its day. Although he was talented in many ways, anyone unfamiliar with Phil Silvers will see him in a performance that was the epitome of what he was famous for. Dick Shawn's manic wildness is captured forever in a way that is little seen in his few other films. Terry-Thomas, whose brilliance was too often relegated to obscure British films rarely seen anymore, is a joy to watch and his British tilt provides a variation from Americans who learned their craft in the Catskills and Vaudeville. Jonathan Winters, whom Robin Williams used as a prototype, was the most gifted ad-lib comic of his day and rarely showed up well when he was constrained by a script and a sustained character, but he brings off many of the best laughs in this film, and, with Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan the most memorable set piece in the movie. Milton Berle and Micky Rooney both bring lifetimes of stage and screen work to the project, and their input was invaluable.
All the principals (Berle, Caesar, Adams, Rooney, Hackett, Terry-Thomas, Shawn, Silvers, Winters, Anderson, Falk) are good. Even the ones who seem to have been shorted of funny lines, like Edie Adams, and Eddie Anderson, nevertheless come off well. Although they blend well together, there is a subtle fight between them for attention, to steal a scene with a facial expressions (watch Adams' face, for instance, when Caesar drags her away, in front of the "Big W", though you may have to put it on slow-motion) or a bit of business. You can see each of them thinking, at all times. Each gives an intelligent performance, having laboriously hammered out their timing and their business, and they're all thinking, with the clockwork brains the best comedians have. They may not all be funny every minute, but every moment they know what they're doing, crafting better performances than many Oscar-winning serious actors have ever turned in.
Though the movie might be too bloated for the promised three hours' hilarious ride, with too much dependence on, "Hey, there's Edward Everett Horton flicking a switch!" But anyone who loves comedy and its history needs -- deserves -- to see the best in the business of comedy in 1963 interacting with their schtick, especially if they don't mind sitting through -- occasionally mindless -- car chases and crashes.