And another good one goes…Peter Falk died at 83 yesterday. I never really watched Columbo, but I remember him in a million movies as a great character actor, and often as a support character in films like ‘The Great Race’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, a film about which I had a peculiar obsession.
‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ had sweeping cyanic skies, men in hats, primary-coloured boxy saloon cars, cleavages, shouting and the kind of deafening wanton destruction that propelled me through a feverish adolescent crush on all things loud, bright and American. I fell in love with its sheer bellowing energy. When a hungover Jim Backus reacted to bright sunlight by somersaulting over a billiard table, I also collapsed. I followed the film from one flea-pit to the next, watching it over and over, mesmerized, until I knew all the usherettes.
What I did not know then was that this extremely shrill, rowdy and fairly unfunny Cinerama ‘comedy-to-end-all-comedies’, where even Buster Keaton and Jack Benny were reduced to walk-on roles, had been heavily trimmed by director Stanley Kramer to increase the number of times it could be shown in a week. Much later, Tania Rose, the film’s co-author, put me in touch with a very nice man who had dedicated his entire life to finding the missing pieces of the film. He was deranged, of course, but in the same way as I had been – and one obsession validated the other; if more than one person was affected, it meant I wasn’t mad.
I watched it until every line repeated in my head milliseconds before arriving on-screen. The film became a series of set-pieces to be ticked off one by one. I wrote about it endlessly, and through this process, some input of my own began to emerge. Years after, I found myself driving through California, and accidentally ended up in Plaster City, the town from which a hysterical Ethel Merman calls her son Sylvester. It was a special moment; you had to be there. I left the area trembling and strangely fulfilled.
Later still, the film’s missing plotlines were finally located and restored, with the result that a darker, more cynical film emerged – I was glad they had cut it, at least for the sake of my childhood sanity.