Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Obsession

An early scene in the movie featuring most of the major cast members
This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of my favorite movies – It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It had its world premiere on November 7, 1963.

Part of the animated title sequence
I'm a big fan of the movie and never get tired of seeing it again and again. Why? Because it's just plain funny, and features many of my favorite actors and comedians in their prime, such as Peter Falk, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett and Sid Caesar. It's full of great cameos too, including the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and even Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys.

The movie soundtrack by Ernest Gold is memorable, and adds immensely to my enjoyment of the film. It's my all-time favorite film score.

My affection for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World can be traced to the fact that my parents took my siblings and me to see it in Cleveland when it first came out – which was a big deal for us.

Cover of the souvenir program
(Dan Brady collection)
Back then, if a movie was a really big production, the theater sold souvenir programs. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was indeed a big movie with a star-studded cast and in Cinerama to boot, so a souvenir book was issued. My parents bought one, and we had it for years as a memento of the occasion.

In all honesty, I can't say for sure that I remember seeing it in the theater. I seem to recall feeling bad that Jimmy Durante's character died, and being surprised to see the Three Stooges in their cameo appearance, but I'm just not sure anymore. (After all, it was 50 years ago!)

Nevertheless, seeing It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World when it first came out became a sort of milestone in the Brady family.

I didn't see the movie again until it was shown on TV on New Year's Eve around 1976. I even tape recorded parts of the movie because I enjoyed the music so much. Then, I discovered that the soundtrack record was available at Clarkins, so I bought a copy and played it to death during my senior year of high school.

My copy of the soundtrack record,
which I purchased at Clarkins on Rt. 58
When cassette tapes became popular, I bought a copy of the soundtrack to play in my car. Later, when CDs came out, one of the first ones I bought was – what else? – It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Since that first CD, there have been additional versions released, one with movie dialogue clips and one with the actual background music extracted from the movie soundtrack. Of course, I have all of them – and play them at work to my co-worker's bewilderment.

I have the movie on video cassette as well as DVD. I don't have a Blu-ray player yet, but when I do, you know what the first Blu-ray disc I purchase will be.

I own some memorabilia from the movie, including a few movie stills. Over the years, I've also managed to get autographs from some of the stars of the movie. I started with Buddy Hackett, and then followed up with Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams and Peter Falk. (Sadly, all of them except for Sid Caesar are now deceased.)

I have the autographs of four of the six actors
in this scene from late in the movie
Finally, my obsession with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World came full circle a couple of years ago. I saw it on the big screen at the Palace Theater in Cleveland, when the movie was included as part of the "Cinema at the Square" film series. When the great animated opening sequence began to unfold on the huge Palace screen, I got choked up – thinking of that Brady family outing decades earlier.

Needless to say, I had a great time seeing it in a theater again, and hearing the laughter of the other theatergoers as they anticipated each pratfall and joke.

I'm not the only one with a mad obsession with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

In fact there are numerous websites devoted to the movie, especially the locations where the movie was filmed. If you like 'then and nows' as much as me, be sure to visit this website.

One of my favorite blogs is that of Mark Evanier, who has enjoyed a fine career writing for television, animated cartoons and comic books. He has devoted many posts to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, since he is a huge fan also.

And James Rolfe has created a very entertaining documentary in which he makes a pilgrimage to many of the movie's locations.

Lastly, I have a kindred spirit at work who shares my enthusiasm for the movie. My colleague Brian Dreger (who is also an author and filmmaker) has huge chunks of the movie dialogue committed to memory (just like me), and is more than happy to recite some of it – when I least expect it and in the most absurd situation – much to my amusement.

The scene in which the other characters confront Jonathan Winters 
Recently, as I arrived late for work one morning, Brian ambushed me and treated me to a hilariously impromptu recreation of a scene from the movie.

"What happened to you?" asked Brian. "Having trouble with your engine? Run out of gas? What, you bend your tailpipe?"

Of course, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World fans recognize Brian's comments as the questions that Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett collectively posed to Jonathan Winters after he had slowed his truck down in an attempt to evade them on the highway.

Without skipping a beat, I replied in my best Jonathan Winters impersonation. "No, it was just one of my tires. I thought... Shucks! Okay, so I was trying to..."

Yup, great minds – and obsessed Mad, Mad World fans – think alike.



My autographed photo of Jonathan Winters
It was sad to see that Jonathan Winters passed away a few days ago.

As I've written here before, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of my favorite movies (seeing it in Cleveland when it first came out in 1963 was a big event for my family) and much of my enjoyment of it comes from the performance of Jonathan Winters.

His character, the peanut-brained furniture mover named Lennie Pike, probably elicits more laughs than any of the other principals in the movie, which is no small achievement since his co-stars included Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle and Phil Silvers. Winters' character not only stars in one of the movie's most memorable and hilarious comic sequences (the destruction of the gas station in the desert) but he also discovers the Big W that everyone is looking for.

Winters also makes his character one of the most sympathetic in the movie, as his motive to find the money is not based on greed. One of the things Pike wants to do with the money is to buy a wheelchair and some fresh flowers for the nice old lady that runs the boarding house where he lives. He's one of the more honest characters in the movie, since he's legitimately upset when he realizes that the others have no intention of paying taxes on their share of the money when they find it. As Pike puts it, "Everybody has to pay taxes. Even businessmen that rob and steal and cheat from people every day – even they have to pay taxes!"

I still feel really bad for Pike when he tries to flag down the car driven by Terry-Thomas and, at Ethel Merman's urging, they ignore his plea for help and speed right by him, leaving him alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere. The sad look on his face is heart-rending.

Then I felt bad for Pike shortly thereafter, when Phil Silvers also double-crosses Pike and leaves him stranded on the highway again with only a battered little girl's bike for transportation. That's why it's so satisfying seeing him chase Phil Silvers around with a pick later in the movie.

Every kid in the 1960s and 70s loved Jonathan Winters. When you saw him in a movie or on a TV show, you knew you were in for some great laughs. I remember watching his early 1970s syndicated TV show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (click here to hear the theme) and enjoying the cartoon sequence that ran during the credits. It featured a caricature of Winters marching down the street with a bunch of items, such as a clock, that had sprouted legs.

He was also terrific in The Twilight Zone episode ("A Game of Pool") where he played the pool shark who came back from the afterlife to compete against the Jack Klugman character. Winters' character eventually loses, but he has the last laugh.

Anyway, I was disappointed to see little coverage of Winters' death in the paper or on TV. That's what happens to many celebrities when they pass away decades after their heyday.

At least Jonathan Winters will live forever in the hearts and minds of his devoted fans, every time they watch It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

In fact, I think it's about time I watched it again – for probably the 100th time.


Anonymous said...

Marvelous article, Daniel! Just marvelous! This moving picture is also a favorite of mine! Saw it as a lad with Mummy and "Uncle" Randy (father was deceased by this time, shot down during The Siege of Tobruk, don't you know?) at the Alladin Theatre in Kennelworth. We had a marvelous day!

I supposed my facination with this bit of cinema is due to the way that all of the main characters retain their dignity despite all of those God-awful grievous misfortunes! Aeroplane crashes, exploding paint cans, automobile accidents...and yet they all STILL press on with all possible dispatch! Delightful...and so reminicent of the American spirit in those early days of the 1960s. I am afraid that today, in our modern times, men die like flies from coronary thrombosis while their women sit under hairdryers eating chocolates and chatting about Kim Kardashian and her strumpet of a mother! It's so wonderful to know that Hollywood has a cinematic record of those more dashing times!


--Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne, Ret.

-Alan D Hopewell said...

My favorite part is Johnathan Winters demolishing the gas station with his bare hands....classic!