The notion of an epic comedy seems oxymoronic—comedies tend to be fleet and compact, opting to leave the viewer wanting more rather than risk overextending an initially hilarious concept until it loses its punch. (“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” —Alan Alda, Crimes And Misdemeanors.) It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, however, doesn’t know from restraint, starting with the repetition in its title. The original cut of the film reportedly clocked in at five hours, and even the final release version runs close to three; it boasts a dozen major characters split at one point across five separate plot strands, and features dozens of blink-and-miss-’em cameos, including such legends as Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and The Three Stooges. The result is as bloated and misshapen as it sounds, with a panoply of clashing comedic styles and as many dead spots as laughs. The sheer magnitude of the project lends it momentum, though, and there are enough giddy highs that it’s had a strong cult following ever since its release in 1963.
A crook named Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante, in cameo No. 1) starts the trouble by crashing his car somewhere along the California coast. Mortally wounded—it’s characteristic of the film’s sense of humor that he literally kicks a bucket when he expires—Smiler tells a group of motorists who stop to help him about $350,000 hidden in Santa Rosita State Park, several hours’ drive away. After a brief attempt to work together, the uniformly greedy “good Samaritans” decide that it’s every man for himself, racing off to grab the loot in their respective vehicles, all of which eventually get abandoned or destroyed as they charter small planes or commandeer other cars. Meanwhile, Santa Rosita police captain T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) monitors their every move, knowing that they collectively possess the information he needs to finally close a 15-year-old robbery case… information that might help with his pension in more ways than one.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, who’s best known for stolid dramas (On The Beach, Judgment At Nuremberg), Mad World doesn’t exactly have a nimble touch. In one subplot, Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife (Edie Adams) get trapped in the basement of a hardware store and try to dynamite their way out, setting off boxes of fireworks in the process—that’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell. Some performers (Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman) go much broader than others (Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney), while Jonathan Winters and Phil Silvers seem to be inventing their roles as they go along. And every so often, Kramer drops the live grenade that was Dick Shawn (The Producers), who’s first seen engaged in a fantastically ludicrous dance routine opposite a robotically hip-twisting Barrie Chase. How much of this works will largely depend on how much a viewer enjoys comedy that is sprawling and frenetic.
It also depends on which version of the movie is watched. Criterion’s beautifully packaged five-disc set (two Blu-rays, three DVDs) includes both the 163-minute theatrical cut and a reconstruction of the 197-minute road show edition, which includes several entire scenes that were trimmed by United Artists in order to squeeze in one additional showing per day. Since the shorter version is already arguably too much of a good thing, only diehards will likely want to investigate the additional half hour, which is of noticeably inferior visual quality. For ardent fans lamenting the loss of the full five hours, this set is a godsend, providing every frame of unmitigated wackiness that could be found and made watchable. The economics of modern-day Hollywood more or less ensure that a mammoth all-star comedy of this sort will never happen again (we’d get a “mad, mad world” at best), so such indulgences are forgivable.