Something Funny Going On: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (United Artists 1963)

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If I was forced to make a list of Top Ten favorite movies, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD would definitely make the cut. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of comedy, this film (like The Dirty Dozen) has been often imitated, but never duplicated. TCM ran it in prime time last night, and after watching the horrors unfolding in Paris on the news channels, I figured I could use a good laugh. IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD never fails to disappoint in that department!

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The plot is simple: a car goes flying off the road and crashes. Four parties get out of their vehicles to inspect the scene. The dying driver, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells them about $350,000 in cash buried in Santa Rosita Park “under the Big W”, then kicks the bucket (literally). The four parties decide to find the dough and split it, but greed gets the best of them and the race is on! Unbeknownst to them all is they’re being watched by Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), who has reasons of his own to find the hidden loot. From there, we go to a series of comedic incidents as each seperate party gets caught in slapstick situations on their way to claim the money for themselves:

Title: IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Title: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Dentist Melville Crump and wife Monica (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams) take a harrowing ride on a dilapidated bi-plane to get ahead of the game. They get themselves locked in a hardware store basement while trying to get picks and shovels, and wind up having to blast their way out with “a little” dynamite.

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Buddies Benji and Dingy (Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney), having been beaten to the plane rental by the Crumps, make their way to an airport and rent a ride from a drunken millionaire (Jim Backus) who promptly passes out, causing the pair to learn to pilot the plane on the fly, with help from tower control veteran Colonel Wilberforce (Paul Ford).

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J. Russel Finch (Milton Berle), travelling with his wife Emmaline (Dorothy Provine) and shrewish mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), after their car is totalled by trucker Pike (Jonathan Winters), hook up with Englishman Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas). After the loudmouthed Mrs. Marcus is “assaulted” and stranded by Finch and Hawthorne, she calls in her son, dimwitted surfer and all around mama’s boy Sylvester (Dick Shawn).

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Pike is forced to ride down the highway on “a girl’s bike”, until he comes across Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers).  Meyer leaves the hulking Pike stranded after learning about the treasure, and when Pike catches up to him at a gas station, Meyer tells the attendants (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) Pike’s an escaped lunatic. The proprietors attempt to restrain Pike, who angrily demolishes their gas station!

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Meanwhile, Meyer gets stuck in a ravine after giving an Indian a lift. His car destroyed, he flags down a driver (Don Knotts) and tells the man he’s a spy on the run, stealing his car in the process.

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Everyone makes it to the park and search for the Big W, including a couple of cab drivers (Peter Falk, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson). Pike chases after the conniving Meyer, and spots the Big W (a cluster of four curved palm trees). The group digs, digs, digs, finally hitting upon Smiler’s stolen money. Culpepper shows up and tells the group he’s confiscating the cash, urging them all to turn themselves in. They agree, but when Culpepper takes a turn off the route to the police station, they realize he’s grabbing the ill-gotten gains for himself, and the chase is on again!

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Spencer Tracy mugs it up with the best of the comics as Culpepper. All of these seasoned pros are on their game, but for me Ethel Merman steals the show as the obnoxious Mrs. Marcus. Producer/Director Stanley Kramer pulled out all the stops for this zany epic, and hired the best of Hollywood’s funnymen in small roles and cameos. (I’ll list a few at the end of this post). IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD is just what the doctor ordered to take away a case of the blues, for three hours anyway. As for me, I’m off to a stage performance of DRACULA tonight, but will return tomorrow to look at a darker cinematic gem: 1947’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

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PARTIAL LIST OF COSTARS:

Hidden Gem: Natalie Wood in PENELOPE (MGM, 1966)

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When I first recorded PENELOPE, I thought it would end up in one of my “Cleaning Out The DVR” posts. But after watching this hidden gem, I’ve decided to give it a full review. PENELOPE not only gives Natalie Wood a chance to show off her comedic skills, it’s a perfect time capsule of mid-60s filmmaking. The movie bridges the gap between the old screwball comedies and the more modern attitudes to come. That’s not to say PENELOPE is a must-see classic, but it’s an underrated film that I recommend to anyone who likes comedy, 60s style.

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Penelope Elcott is a scatterbrained kleptomanic who, feeling her husband James (Ian Bannen) is neglecting her, robs his bank. She tells it to her shrink, Dr. Mannix (the always funny Dick Shawn), who doesn’t believe her until she shows him a wad of cash. Flashbacks (including one with Jonathan Winters) reveal Penelope’s criminal history. Penelope takes the yellow Givenchy dress she escaped in to a thrift store, where an unscrupulous couple (Lou Jacobi and Oscar winner Lila Kedrova) buys it for seven bucks. Police Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk, preparing for Lt. Columbo) is on the case, and has his suspicions about the banker’s wife.

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Dr. Mannix, who’s also in love with Penelope, persuades her to give him the cash so he can return it to the bank in their night deposit box. But when he tries to do the deed, a cop siren scares him off. The loot is picked up by a hooker named Honeysuckle Rose, who subsequently gets pinched for the robbery. Penny feels bad for her and tries to confess, but no one will believe her. The scheming couple from the thrift store find a magazine clipping of Penelope wearing the yellow outfit and try to blackmail her. But she’s more than happy to let them tell James and the cops, so they figure something’s fishy and destroy the evidence. Perplexed Penelope then asks James to throw a cocktail party, where she plans to return all the jewelry she’s stole over the years. None of the victims will take it back, and Penelope runs away, later figuring out a plan to make everyone believe she’s a thief in the films madcap conclusion.

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Critics of the day unfairly savaged PENELOPE, sinking it at the box office. It deserves another look for many reasons. The cast is hilarious, balancing amusing dialogue with slapstick humor. Besides those mentioned, standouts in small roles include Arthur Mallet, Carl Ballantine, and Arlene Golonka (as the hooker). Even veteran Fritz Feld shows up in one of the flashbacks to give us his patented “pop”. The witty screenplay is by George Wells, writer of several Red Skelton vehicles, and movies like TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME (1949), ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951), and his own Oscar winner, DESIGNING WOMEN (1957). Speaking of designing women, Edith Head deserves special mention for her work, making Natalie Wood more beautiful than ever (if that’s possible). Director Arthur Hiller has done more recognizable movies (THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, LOVE STORY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK), but PENELOPE shouldn’t be forgotten. Obviously I liked it, and I think you will, too. It’s a pleasant surprise for comedy buffs, fans of Natalie Wood, or even casual viewers. It can be purchased on Amazon, viewed online, or occasionally on TCM. Catch it when you can, you’ll thank me for it!