A Tribute to Sid Caesar and a Look Back at IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD
Article by Sam Moffitt
It’s tough to say goodbye to Sid Caesar. I’ve been pondering what I can possibly say about a comedy legend who has been around as long as I can remember and contributed so much to comedy, mostly on television but also many times in motion pictures.
Firstly Sid Caesar was in on the ground floor of television, his earliest programs done live in 1949 before the video switch board had even been invented. In those earliest shows the director was on the stage telling the floor managers which cameras and mikes to hook or unhook to the coax and audio cables! Consider that just for a moment!
Caesar’s wonderful book Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, co written with Eddie Friedfeld tells all about Sid Caesar’s years in show business and the legendary live variety shows; Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. I highly recommend that book. I am not old enough to have seen these shows in their heyday but a good place to see them is a theatrical release called Ten From Your Show of Shows which is, as you would expect, ten skits from Caesar’s show featuring Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and Imogene Coca. I was lucky enough to see that at the Esquire Theater when it was on its first run. There is also a box set of material from Caesar’s variety shows and a terrific documentary called Caesar’s Writers. His writing staff included Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. As you would expect getting all these guys together for a panel discussion with the Writer’s Guild is an amazing thing. Woody Allen is not present but a dozen of these talents are, including Mel Brooks. Caesar’s writing staff is probably the greatest ever put together in the history of television.
Which brings me to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a monumental epic comedy, the only one of its kind that I am aware of. In the 50s and 60s epic film making became very popular. The motion picture business started giving the public what it couldn’t get on television, long stories with huge casts of star actors in exotic times and places reenacting history and filmed in a variety of wide screen formats.
Ben Hur, Spartacus, Fall of the Roman Empire, El Cid and The Vikings were just a few of these epics, usually exhibited in a road show format, reserved seats and high tickets prices in new Cinerama theaters or the old down town movie palaces before they would get second and third runs in neighborhood theaters and drive ins.
Mad World was a production of Stanley Kramer, famous for Hollywood Liberal message movies like Judgment at Nuremberg and The Defiant Ones. With Mad World Kramer went for straight up slap stick comedy, at a furious pace and a major attitude about human greed and stupidity. The set up is simple and has been ripped off several times, most recently and successfully by Rat Race.
Smiler Grogan, played by Jimmy Durante, just got out of prison, and while trying to get to where he hid $350,000 “under a big W!” runs his car off a cliff in the California high desert hills and “sailed right out there!”
Witnesses to this accident, who Smiler tells to go get the money and “fix yourselves up” include a sea weed distributor played by Milton Berle, his wife played by Dorothy Provine (looking like a porcelain doll!) and his nightmare of a Mother In Law played by Ethel Merman, a dentist played by Sid Caesar and his wife played by Edie Adams (who is there to stand in for her just recently deceased husband the legendary Ernie Kovacs), two Vegas comics played by Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett and best of all a delivery driver played by Jonathan Winters. In addition to this wonderful cast Mad World is loaded with other featured players including Spencer Tracey as Captain Culpepper with the fictional Santa Rosita police department, Phil Silvers who gets in on the mad dash for the money and Terry Thomas as an RAF officer who also gets suckered into running for the money and the incredible Dick Shawn as Ethel Merman’s son, Sylvester, who is really, truly in a world of his own and I have to mention William Demarest as Police Chief Aloysius who has a terrific phone conversation with the Mayor of Santa Rosita near the end of the movie.
And quite frankly there are too many other cameos and featured players to mention, this movie is fun on a number of levels one of which is playing spot the star. But Mad World is also one of the funniest movies ever made, with most of the major stars coming from television and some terrific stunt driving courtesy of the legendary Carey Loftin and his crew of stunt drivers.
I have seen Mad World so many times I practically know it by heart, the mad dash from the California desert to the “Big W” to dig up the cash is so energetic, so crazy you can’t help but admire the whole enterprise. I’ve always looked at Mad World as a sort of comedian’s “King of the Hill” game, in other words who gets to the top and plants the flag in the name of comedy?
My personal winner, Jonathan Winters, easily, the man is nuts in this film. With Dick Shawn and Phil Silvers right behind him. What Stanley Kramer and his crew did was unleash a madman in the high desert and film his mayhem and carnage in widescreen and Technicolor and stereo sound. In the movie’s highlight Winters destroys a service station run by Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang, that has just opened for business that day! The destruction is incredible. In fact Winters appears to be too far gone for the other players. Phil Silvers at one point looks off camera, breaks character and says “it’s too much!” Meaning Winters is really, truly beating the crap out of him! Also listen to the way Winters yells at Stang and Kaplan “Alright now you guys are getting way out of line, I’ve had about all I can take and I’m not kidding around!” The man is NOT acting! He’s also not acting when he tells Dick Shawn, near the end “Don’t call me baby!” Winters is actually kind of scary in Mad World, several times!
In fact Mad World has got to be one of the most irresponsible and subversive comedies ever made. The Santa Rosita police and the California Highway Patrol, under orders from Captain Culpepper, Spencer Tracy’s character ,( who put Smiler Grogan away and always knew he hid the cash somewhere nearby,) willfully allows the people running for the money to drive and behave as recklessly as they want, and endanger who knows how many innocent people, as long as somebody among them finds the money.
Stanley Kramer was known as a “Hollywood Liberal” as I said, his movies always had a topical message dealing with serious social issues. It’s interesting that his one flat out comedy basically says the hell with all that message crap! Let’s admit that people are mean, greedy, stupid, back stabbing two faced sons of bitches, IF there is money involved! Mad World is nothing less than an anarchist’s bible, steal a load of cash and then bury it before you get caught, dig it up later when you get out of prison and screw the system and to HELL with working for a living! Culpepper’s character especially feels screwed by the system, he’s been a good cop for years and will be pretty much broke at retirement, so, yes, he wants the money for himself! Listen to William Demarest as the Chief of Police, in his dress uniform no less, threaten the Mayor and the entire City Council with blackmail unless Culpepper’s pension is not doubled! Trebled! After the smoke and dust have cleared Terry Thomas, as only an English actor could, tells Spencer Tracy, “Your behavior was positively despicable, EVEN for a police man!” Wonderful!
There are actually two dvd releases of Mad World, a bare bones edition, and the less said about that the better. The deluxe dvd has several wonderful features starting with a terrific making of feature where a great many of the cast give their memories of working on the film. Jonathan Winters is proud of his participation and rightfully so. Marvin Kaplan tells us that he and Arnold Stang were appointed Winters “Keepers” that he would “go bananas in the heat” and needed to be kept in the air conditioning and humored when he would start talking all out of his head. We also hear from Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams and many more.
There are also deleted scenes which were added to the film for a VHS release a few years ago. We are told these scenes are not of the same quality as the main part of the movie and so were not added back for the dvd release. In fact we are told that the original Ultra Panavision Road Show version of Mad World technically doesn’t exist. United Artists (get this) burned every copy of the original film. Why? Who knows! We get no explanation and apparently we will never get to see the original complete version.
Just as a for instance, The Shirelles are listed in the credits but only appear on the soundtrack, a song that Dick Shawn and his girlfriend (played by Barrie Chase and doesn’t she look FINE in a bikini!) dance to while under the influence of something a bit stronger than a can of beer. In the original film the Shirelles supposedly put in an appearance, although I don’t where they would have been in the movie as it exists now. The intermission also had ongoing police reports on the progress of the characters in their mad dash to get to the money. There also seems to be other scenes missing that would have cleared up some of the motivations for other characters.
Just as a teaser there are some clips, with no sound, of what Ultra Panavision looked liked. This was a wide screen process put together to replace Cinerama (which used 3 cameras and 3 projectors), 70MM film that was also shot with a Panavision lens to make the image even wider, it was only used for a couple of films and then was replaced by Super Panavision used in films like 2001 A Space Odyssey and Grand Prix.
I got to see Mad World once in a theater and it certainly wasn’t even in standard Panavision. I would have loved to see this incredible film at the old Martin’s Cinerama on Lindell, back when Cinerama was the biggest widescreen process in use. Maybe a miracle will happen and a complete copy of Mad World will turn up to be restored and new prints struck for Imax showings, stranger things have happened.
So as a tribute to not only Sid Caesar but also Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle and Don Knotts and Phil Silvers and Dick Shawn and so many other talents who contributed to this classic film, you can’t do much better than a viewing of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!