BEHIND THE MAD-NESS - IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD
On the eve of its 40th anniversary Australian tour in a new and fabulously restored version, Patrick Conlan*, a mad fan of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, tracks the amazing history of one of the most celebrated comedies ever made, directed by the great Stanley Kramer who was best known for seriously dramatic films.
"If ever we needed a comedy, it's now!" "It's the biggest comedy ever to hit the screen!"
These are just a couple of the taglines used to promote It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on its release in the USA in November 1963 and in Australia in December 1964. (Ed: And you can say all that again.)
William Rose was an American screenwriter who lived for a time in Brighton, England (where he wrote the screenplays for Genevieve, The Lady Killers and The Smallest Show On Earth).
In the early 1960s, he began working on Something A Little Less Serious, a comedy chase that raced through Scotland. He sent a 10-page outline to producer/director Stanley Kramer in Hollywood. Kramer, up to that time renowned for his earthy social dramas, such as The Men, Death Of A Salesman, High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, The Wild One, On The Beach, Inherit The Wind and Judgement At Nuremberg, may seem a surprising choice. Kramer liked the idea.
A year later, with the collaboration of his wife Tania, Rose had a 375-page first draft and again met with Kramer. The final script was 340 pages and the title had changed to One Damn Thing After Another and then It's A Mad World. Kramer and Rose kept adding Mads and it got to four after a fifth was thought to be redundant.
"The cast were actually given two scripts"
By 1963, the locale had been moved to California, the chase had widened with characters tailor-made for a large cast of principal comedians and an even larger cast of cameo roles. The cast were actually given two scripts - a regular script of scenes and dialogue - and a second script of 'shtick' for each principal character.
Filming began six weeks before the principal cast assembled with stunt drivers performing some complex shots for the car chase that opens the film. The cast were shown a rough cut of this sequence before they stepped before the cameras. Buddy Hackett told Kramer that sequence was so 'beautiful', he didn't need actors to add dialogue to it.
Initially, the production began in Super Panavision but quickly changed to Ultra Panavision after Kramer was approached to have the film premiere as the first so-called single-lens Cinerama release.
As word got around Hollywood that a super-sized comedy was under way (it cost almost US$9 million to make, an astronomical sum in 1962), many comics wanted to play cameos. Thirty four stunt men in Hollywood also worked on the film (and on the big screen, it's rather fun to see in which shots the stuntmen are performing). While there's a lot of traditional 'blue-screen' special effects, most of the physical stunts are just that - physical stunts involving real actors or stuntmen - none of that digital CGI stuff we get these days. Most of the film was shot on location in California, with relatively few scenes on studio sets.
While many of the gags are pratfalls that owe much to the silent comedies of early Hollywood, the script has some wonderful dialogue that was written with the cast in mind. Star Spencer Tracey pretty well plays it straight as the cop in charge of the investigation but even he has some fun moments.
In Cinerama**, Mad World was restricted to reserved-seat engagements. Not only was it restricted to usually one cinema in each city, it could only be shown initially in Cinerama theatres - in Australia that meant Sydney's Plaza, soon followed by the Plaza in Melbourne and the Cinerama theatre in Adelaide. Eventually, years after its Cinerama premiere, it began wide
release in suburban theatres and became a regular revival movie until the prints began to fade.
There are few Cinerama theatres left in the world. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Cinerama Dome (which opened with the worldwide premiere of Mad World) was recently restored to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of This Is Cinerama, the first film in the original 3-strip process. Last November, it celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Mad World with a new 70mm print and it is that print that is being used for the 2004 Melbourne and Sydney seasons.
When it first opened, the film had a running time of 210 minutes including intermission, (192 minutes non-stop) but here in Australia, we saw a cut version at 154 minutes. In 1991, a laser disc release was a restored edition, with a running time back to 188 minutes.
Well-known film-restorer Robert A. Harris has been working on a major restoration and it's hoped that other missing footage can be found, that sound can be added to some image-only negatives and that image may be recreated for some sound-only tracks. The current DVD release in Australia is of the shortened theatrical version that we first saw in Australia without the full width of the image (and doesn't even include the Overture). The American DVD release is the same cut but most of the sequences restored to the older laser disc edition have been added as
'bonus material', as has the behind-the-scenes documentary that was featured on the laser disc.
Of more interest for these Melbourne and Sydney seasons, we are going to hear in Australia for the first time a special soundtrack that was played at Intermission, by which the plot 'continued' with some police broadcasts. Perhaps this 'sequence' could include voices produced by Stan Freeberg (a comic known for his sound comedy), who can be seen in the early sequences
of the film, sitting behind Andy Devine, but who never says a word. This aural intermission sequence was apparently dropped very early in the Hollywood premiere season when a woman was frightened by the unexpected voice while she was sitting on a theatre toilet, fell off and injured herself!
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR:
The car chases - these are real cars with real actors/stuntmen at the wheel and those near-misses and collisions are real.
There are several scenes involving planes - these are real planes, mostly flown by Paul Mantz, perhaps the best stunt-flyer of his day.
One of the most difficult dialogue scenes to shoot concerns a roadside argument over how the loot should be shared - all the main stars were involved and after a day's shooting, Kramer still didn't have a take. Many of the stars became nervous and were blaming themselves for not delivering. The next morning, they got the scene down in just two takes.
Watch out for Dick Shawn dancing with Barrie Chase - Shawn is wearing red shorts and on the big screen, you can see that he's not wearing underwear.
Towards the end of the first half, with Sid Caesar and Edie Adams stuck inside the basement of a store, it took 85 takes to get a blow torch to bounce around into a particular position after Sid Caesar brushes past it.
Listen to Ernest Gold's Oscar-nominated music score, from the infectious 'waltz' main theme and it's catchy title song, to dramatic underscoring for some sequences. The music heard on the film soundtrack, recorded in 6-track Cinerama stereo, is played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with 106 musicians (almost double the orchestra heard on the soundtrack recording that was released on LP and now on CD).
The Cinerama screens of Sydney and Melbourne have long gone - however, the next best thing for us nowadays is the big screens of the Hayden Orpheum in Sydney’s Cremorne and the St Kilda Astor in Melbourne. This is the only opportunity to see Mad World in a cinema again as immediately following these screenings in July 2004, the one-only print has to return to Hollywood.
This is a 'spherical' print, with heightened Ultra-Panavision squeeze, especially towards the sides, designed for a deeply curved Cinerama screen. It gives a unique perspective to this great comedy.
WHO MADE IT:
Starring Spencer Tracey. Co-starring in alphabetical order - Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy
Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters. Co-starring in alphabetical order - Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine.
Also starring in alphabetical order - Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Jim Backus, Ben Blue, Alan Carney, Barrie Chase, William Demarest, Peter Falk, Paul Ford, Leo Gorcey, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Joe De Rita), Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Sterling Holloway, Marvin Kaplan, Charles Lane,
Charles McGraw, Zazu Pitts, Madlyn Rhue, Arnold Stang, Jesse White.
And a few surprises including Lloyd Corrigan, Selma Diamond (voice only), Stan Freberg, Louise Glen (voice only), Ben Lessy, Bobo Lewis, Mike Mazurki, Nick Stewart, Sammee Tong, Norman Fell, Nicholas Georgiade . PLUS Jimmy Durante. Music by Ernest Gold, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Lyrics by Mack David.
Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo.
* (Cinerama is a 3-camera 3-projector spherical screen system - it premiered in New York in 1952 and reached Australia at Sydney's Plaza Theatre in 1958. The 3-film strip system (plus another strip for the 7-track stereo sound) was a cumbersome process in which to photograph and project and now a single-lens had been developed for projection. This lens system was not
satisfactory for photography so Ultra Panavision 70 (Super Panavision 70 with a slight anamorphic squeeze to the edge of either side of the image frame) was used to simulate a single-lens version of Cinerama. Stanley Kramer is on record complaining that the Ultra Panavision image didn't properly suit the Cinerama shape and that he had mixed success in trying to
fit the film into Cinerama theatres around the world).
** Patrick Conlan first saw It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at the Plaza Theatre in Sydney in Cinerama a week after it's premiere and saw it three times before it ended its run there. In the years following, he saw it in both 70mm and 35mm at various reissues, even loaning his soundtrack US pressing to a cinema so they could play the overture that was missing from a 35mm print. Beginning in 1988, with the 25th Anniversary of the film's Hollywood premiere, he has hosted a Mad World party for a select group of friends who are fans of the film every five years. Time may prevent him going to Melbourne but he plans to see every session of this reissue in Sydney. Patrick has contributed articles to Urban Cinefile on James Cameron's Titanic and a recent reissue of the restored edition of Lawrence Of Arabia.
Melbourne season: The Astor, July 4 - 17, 2004
Sydney season: Cremorne Orpheum, July 25 & 28, 2004
Published July 1, 2004
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