Movie Review: 'Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'

Bob Mondello reviews the Blu-ray release of Stanley Kramer's three-hour-plus comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If the Olympics aren't your thing, and you're in the mood for a little road trip from the comfort of your couch, NPR's movie critic Bob Mondello has a suggestion. This week, he's looking at a 1963 comedy featuring 47 - count them - 47 comedians. No joke.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: They called it the biggest comedy ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

MONDELLO: Three hours, 22 minutes on a super wide Cinerama screen, starring Spencer Tracy of all people, plus Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, and kicked off by The Schnoz himself, Jimmy Durante, who survives a desert car crash just long enough to make sure that everyone knows exactly where to find a stolen 350 grand in a state park.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD")

JIMMY DURANTE: (As Smiler Grogan) Buried under this big W, you'll see it. You'll see it under this big W. You can't miss it. A big, a big W.

MONDELLO: For anyone still thinking subtlety might the order of the day, he then quite literally kicks the bucket. And the race for cash begins for carloads of comedians, joined by such bit players as Peter Falk, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, even Buster Keaton, on their way to a finale on a fire truck swinging hook and ladder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) We can't control it. There's too many men on it.

MONDELLO: Director Stanley Kramer, whose resume was not terribly comic after the Nazi war crime movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" and the nuclear holocaust saga "On the Beach," made the reserved-seats Cinerama version a long, long, long, long world at three hours and 22 minutes. But when the show hit the suburbs, the studio cut more than half an hour. That cut footage was largely lost, but this Criterion release has both the digitally spruced up short version plus a longer version that gets the running time close to the road show original by cobbling together missing sequences from prints with Japanese subtitles or even just a bit of soundtrack without pictures.

Because the cobbled together stuff hasn't been cleaned up digitally, you can see where the studio made the cuts, which is interesting, very few actual jokes disappeared. Also in this five-disc package are some Stan Freberg commercials that are easily as funny as anything in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was sick with laughing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You enjoyed the picture then?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For a while, I did. But then I began to really hurt from so much, you know, continual laughing.

MONDELLO: Modern audiences may not be sick with laughing. Comic rhythms have changed in the last half century. But if, like me, you sometimes yearn during "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" for the comparative subtlety of the three stooges, you're in luck. They're in it too. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) So be a happy fellow. Be a clown, boy, Punchinello.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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