Posted December 9, 2010 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD has never been a favorite with film critics and scholars they tend to see the 1963 film’s overkill slapstick and extravagant comic violence as too much of a bad thing. Indeed, the film exists as a deranged live action cartoon: people run through walls, crash airplanes, drive into ditches and valleys, get sprayed with fire extinguishers, and fall down staircases without genuine consequences. And you know that you’re in a roughhouse environment when the most sedate people on screen are the Three Stooges!

But in many ways, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD is one of the most representative films of American society. Its underlying message on the perils of get-rich-quick irresponsibility provides a funny/nasty commentary on the post-World War II society, where prosperity came too fast and too soon and, still, it wasn’t enough for most people, as witnessed by the film’s line-up of seemingly comfortable middle class Americans that haphazardly throw caution away when they are abruptly offered the chance to gain instant riches by securing a buried treasure in a distant park. The film’s characters offer astonishing displays of feral ingenuity at achieving their greedy goal, and the fact that nearly everyone gets pummeled along the way is irrelevant no one in the film takes a moment to pause for introspective reconsideration on the lunatic nature of their actions.

If anything, the near-death obstacles presented in the film only further inflame the characters’ desire to push harder and faster in reckless pursuit of these ill-gotten gains, without any concern to their own safety or the well being of others. Simultaneously, the characters’ actions are fully monitored in this case, by an inept police force but no one steps in to stop the chaos while the destruction gets out of control. It is funny in a slapstick movie, but numb-headed brute force and the lack of outside protest and intervention to irresponsible behavior continues to permeate American society, with decidedly unfunny results (can you say Iraq or Afghanistan).

On a more upbeat note, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD is the rare comedy film where everyone is given something funny to do. Most comedy films tend to segregate their heavy laughs to a select minority of performers, but this all-star extravaganza ensures that everyone on screen contributes to the laughs. But what’s even more unusual is that most of the all-star cast had no track record in movies and never truly found their niche in this medium. Only Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Terry-Thomas and Peter Falk were bonafide movie stars before this production was created. The bulk of the film’s core cast came out of television and theater, and none of them were able to establish themselves as movie icons after this film was released.

There have been some attempts over the years to duplicate IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD in terms of scope, star power and comic fury. None of these films ever come close, simply because the Kramer got there first and set a frenetic standard that is nearly impossible to duplicate. Likewise, vague talk of remakes or sequels also went nowhere. That’s just as well, because there’s no point in duplicating a wonderfully warped original.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.