The other night I watched It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — Stanley Kramer’s almost three hour long, hundred star comedy. I saw it on television when I was very young. And I remembered it as being somewhat funny. But mostly, I didn’t remember much of it at all — just the scene where Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are locked in the hardware store, and the scene where Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Provine figure out what the “big W” is. Otherwise: not much. But it is a classic and I’m especially interested in how comedy ages.
Because the film is so long, it has an intermission after an hour and a half. And it is a good dividing line for the film. From my perspective, the first section is near perfect. The action and comedy all work. In fact, it looks easy. And this is with some actors who I really don’t like (Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney). But the second section goes to hell. Well, that isn’t exactly true. The first half hour of the second section is very good. But the last forty minutes of the film is a real slog.
About the only thing that I took away from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was that a third act should be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World breaks this rule of thumb in a big way. The ending goes on and on and on. It culminates in a ridiculous sequence when all the male leads are stranded on a very high fire engine ladder. It is excessive for no real purpose. And looking at it over fifty years later, the special effects are terrible. This is made even worse by the fact that other effects earlier in the film were rather well done.
On top of all this, the film has a very dark ending where every major character is in jail and all the men are also in traction. But it does go along with the overall — incredibly cynical — take on human nature. According the film, all people are greedy and selfish and, as a result, irrational. Still, if everyone is guilty and the only difference is that some of us encounter temptation, then how can any of us deserve to be punished — given that we would all do the same thing in those circumstances.
This is a thematic problem that I have with a lot of modern narrative art. I know that a lot of my friends think of me as something of a Pollyanna. But I think that people are a good deal more decent than we give them credit for. My friend Will likes to point out that most of the politicians that he hates — like Bush the Younger — would probably be great neighbors. I think he’s right. It’s generally external factors that set us against each other. In the film, it is just greed.
But there is more. The police are onto the group of treasure hunters from the very beginning. But it seems, through most of the film, that somehow everything will come together. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film is like watching the universe expand until it tears itself apart. There is no feeling of resolution. We just watch these people behave badly for hours and then get punished. It’s not so much bad as pointless. And it poisons the earlier parts of the film that were entertaining.
There are two exceptions from the rest: characters who weren’t just motivated by greed. First, Spencer Tracy as the police captain. He’s actually driven to his bad behavior by various forces in his life. It is hard to blame him. And then, as though the filmmakers just wanted to make it all the more painful, his major complaint is addressed, but he doesn’t learn of it in time. The second character is Dorothy Provine as Milton Berle’s wife. She’s the only one who learns anything — namely, that chasing after the money was a big mistake. She too has a pitiable life. But there is no redemption or escape for either character. In fact, things go the worst for Tracy — even though he is one of the least guilty.
It’s tempting to suggest people watched the first two-thirds of the film. But I don’t think that works. Ultimately, you want an ending and whether you put yourself through the final half hour of tedium or not, you only get a “stop.” But the film might be enjoyed just to watch for the roughly fifty cameos. Or if you really think all people are awful and they deserve to be punished, maybe you will love it. As for me, I feel like I did more than waste three hours. I feel like I got soiled.