Mad Mad World

Billing it as “The Last 70MM Film Festival”, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences unveiled its latest summer screening series with a pristine and stunning 70MM print of Stanley Kramer’s 1963 classic comedy, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. By brazenly putting the focus on film for this six-week Monday night series the Academy isn’t exactly snubbing its nose at the digital revolution that has virtually killed film but it is definitely making a subtle statement that newer projection and filming techniques aren’t necessarily better. In a bow to digital it should be noted the Academy, as part of its summer-long widescreen salute, will be presenting the U.S. premiere of the 4K digital restoration of Lawrence Of Arabia July 19 in honor of its 50th anniversary. The Academy maintains support for digital but obviously it couldn’t help getting a little nostalgic for the art & science of film in all its widescreen glory, hence the idea was hatched for this tribute. Academy officials tell me they will not turn their back completely on film even as the industry makes plans for its funeral.

Looking at the picture and sound quality of what was on screen last night, not only in the main feature but also in the short, The Miracle of Todd A-O (1956) that preceded it, it would be hard for me to say any digital presentation I have seen to date can top it. And the series’ producer, Randy Haberkamp went out of his way to recreate what it must have been like at the original premiere of the movie (which was shown in its full width and ultra Panavision ratio – widest of the 70MM formats) even to the point of playing police calls during intermission just as they did at L.A.’s Cinerama Dome when the film became the first attraction ever to play that theatre on November 7, 1963. Kramer’s widow Karen who was instrumental in putting together the evening for the Academy told me those police calls were also played in the lobby and even the restrooms at the Dome until some woman complained there “was a man in the women’s bathroom” and the director deep-sixed the idea for the rest of the run. She had them restored for the film’s 40th anniversary ten years ago.

Haberkamp also had the Academy produce slick, expensive programs which open up into a wide screen photo of a key scene. They will do this for all the films in the series including Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), Grand Prix (1966), The Sound Of Music (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Spartacus (1960) which will feature an in-person appearance of its star and producer Kirk Douglas to wrap it all up on August 13. The whole series is completely sold out (there will be stand-by lines each week) which led Haberkamp to comment during his introduction in front of the packed house , “I know you may be saying ‘is this the last of film?’ but not by the looks of tonight”. In fact as one audience member took his seat in front of me I overheard him tell his friend, “You gotta love this movie. It never gets old.”

The movie may not get old but certainly its celebrated still-living cast members (there were 110 speaking parts, nearly every famous comedian working then) have clearly aged in the 50 years since it was shot in the summer of ’62 , but it didn’t matter because their minds and memories were sharper than ever in the pre-screening Q&A session moderated by Billy Crystal whose participation had been kept as a surprise.

Crystal , an unabashed Mad World fan told a story of when he saw the film in New York with his friend Joel Robbins who flew in just for the occasion of seeing it again with Billy at the Academy. Billy even introduced his pal to the crowd. The pair were so taken with the movie that they managed to sell 150 tickets to the Junior class at Long Beach High School in 1963 and got the day off to go to New York City to see it.

On the panel was the Script Supervisor Marshall Schlom, casting director Lynn Stalmaster (what a job he had!), Karen Kramer and surviving actors including Barrie Chase, Carl Reiner, Marvin Kaplan, Jonathan Winters, Stan Freberg and Mickey Rooney. Sid Caesar was originally listed as a participant but didn’t make it. Kramer said the film was originally five hours in the first cut. After its initial roadshow runs at 192 minutes it was cut by half an hour. The 70MM print the Academy showed was 3 hours. Kramer said sadly they don’t expect to ever find those missing 12 minutes 1963 audiences saw including a bit with Buster Keaton.

Winters said it was his first movie and “almost my last”. He sprained his back doing one of the stunts where he tears up a gas station and had to use a stunt double after that much to the relief of Kaplan who played one of the physically abused attendants. “I almost got killed just reading the script”, the actor said. Reiner, playing an air traffic controller said indeed the airplane stunts were so real and so perilously close to him, “my biggest memory of it was fear”. Rooney used his time to lead the crowd in 15 seconds of silence for Ernest Borgnine who died Sunday. Actually Borgnine seems like he was one of the few actors working then who wasn’t in the film. According to the program the only comic star who wasn’t approached was Charlie Chaplin, then living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland.

Stanley Kramer was known mostly for heavy dramas with a strong social message. His widow says he did Mad World on a dare after a conversation with New York Times critic Bosley Crowther who suggested Kramer would not be capable of making a comedy. He did of course, but it also had a strong message that still resonates today according to Kaplan. “It’s about greed and now greed is a national pastime.”