If there is such a thing as an epic comedy, a sprawling lavish technocolor landscape of gargantuan humor, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World is it. It is truly an American comedy, a junket along the California coast replete with Vegas lounge bums, idle rich drunkards, an overworked and undermanned police department, midwestern goofs, cheesy salesmen and the ever-reliable mean mother-in-law, all swirling in an odd mix while achieving various pinnacles of greed.
It all starts when an escaped thief named Smiler Grogan leads the California police on a screechy chase along winding highways only to crash his car off an embankment. A handful of do-gooders go down into the canyon to try and save him, but it’s too late. His few last words are to reveal to the men a hidden stash of $350,000 buried under a ‘Big W’ in a park near the Mexican border. And the chase is on.
The principal funnymen (and woman) in the film, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and the vastly underrated Dick Shawn are all extremely good. But it’s maybe Jonathan Winters that steals the movie playing his trademark bumpkin driving a load of furniture to Yuma. His single-handed destruction of the Ray & Irwin garage is one of the true priceless bits in the film. But there are so many great scenes that could be singled out. Silvers hijacking Don Knotts’ car while posing as a federal agent, Spencer Tracy as the harried chief of police feuding with his wife and daughter on the phone. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney flying and landing Jim Backus’ private plane in a restaurant, to name a few. And the people who say that there is no good dialogue in the film are dead wrong. How about Berle’s nervous repetition of “the way he just went sailing out there”, Rooney’s “and every woman for himself”, Selma Diamond’s nasal “What the hell is the Smiler Grogan case?” or “when a girl is six-foot-ten, she’s bound to have special problems”, Shawn on the phone to his mother “I was… I was…uh…working.” or Silvers’ “Look me up, I’m in the book, Doctor Zillman!”
Admittedly, the movie is a bit too long and some things probably should have been cut (namely Silvers drowning in his car in the river and Sid Caesar blasting his way out of a locked-up hardware store), which leads to my only real complaint, which is the heavy-handedness of the slapstick. The final ten minutes of the movie, to me, anyway, is very uncomfortable to watch. I really hate this kind of violent slapstick, with people getting smashed through windows, arms and legs broken. I just don’t think it’s very funny. Also, I had a relative that died doing some roof work when he got too close to a power line and was killed from the resulting shock, so I can tell you for sure that if you were to fall squarely on a high-tension power line, you would certainly not be bouncing up and down like a trampoline, getting little hand-buzzer-type shocks and going “oo-oo-oo”. Just the same, I highly recommend this picture, for some great comedians and characterizations in the eternal American quest for loot. 3