Neglected Films No.16: ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World’

Film

1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was not well received in England. It was just too…American for repressed UK critics who were okay with Elia Kazan movies but not Technicolor fare. Had they bothered to look beneath the surface they’d have found something a whole lot darker.

The film was unashamedly populist. It had sweeping blue skies, men in hats, primary-coloured boxy saloon cars, cleavages, shouting, slapstick and the kind of deafening wanton destruction that propelled me through a feverish adolescent crush on all things loud, bright, brash 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 collapsed. There was no CGI here, just stunts. I followed the film from one flea-pit to the next, watching it over and over, mesmerized. I hadn’t discovered Frank Tashlin’s movies – I’d been too young – so I didn’t realise that this kind of slapstick film could also be satire.

Years later, I found myself driving through California and accidentally ended up in Plaster City, the town from which a hysterical Mrs Marcus, played by Ethel Merman, calls her son, Sylvester. It was a special moment; you had to be there. I left the area trembling and strangely fulfilled.

Original Cinema Quad Poster

Even the Jack Davis poster was excessive. What I didn’t know was that this extremely shrill and rowdy 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 its screenings. Tania Rose, the film’s virtually unacknowledged co-author, put me in touch with a nice man who had dedicated his entire life to finding the missing pieces of the film. He was deranged, but in the same way as I had been – and one obsession validated the other.

Many years later, when the film’s missing plotlines were finally located and restored, a darker, more cynical film emerged – I was glad they had cut it, at least for the sake of my childhood sanity. Because it’s about a very specific kind of greed, the American dream kind that disastrously fantasises about $$$ in a way that few European films ever do. Instant wealth is pursued and naturally destroys all who touch it.

The film’s missing plotlines were finally located and restored, with the result that William and Tanya Rose’s more mean-spirited script emerged – I was glad they’d cut it, for the sake of my childhood sanity. (The completed film had a brief DVD release with the scenes placed within the correct chronological order, but was then shortened again.)

It’s the most American comedy ever made, being about hard cash, excess, success, failure (there’s a LOT about failure) and mother-fixation. The script is peppered with moments that back up these themes, from Ethel Merman’s excoriation of her son-in-law’s failed business career and subsequent nervous breakdown because he sank her money ‘into a company that makes seaweed for people to eat’, to Jonathan Winters explaining why lying cheating businessmen must pay taxes, to the (cut) sequence of cynical cops placing bets on the outcome, to Terry-Thomas’s angry analysis of America.

As time passes it becomes a museum piece about the last populist era of the American Dream – and that world now seems very desirable.

5 comments on “Neglected Films No.16: ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World’”

  1. Stephen Winer says:

    A few quick notes: the poster art is by Jack Davis and both versions are available on Criterion’s excellent blu-ray of the film. On the occasion of the release of this edition I wrote this article about my lifelong fascination with IAMMMMW for Criterion’s website which you might enjoy:
    https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3044-my-mad-mad-mad-mad-world

  2. Roger says:

    D.H. Lawrence summed up the film’s theme long before it was made: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
    The film doesn’t fall into sentimentality, the fault that damages so many American films.

  3. Theophylact says:

    Jack Davis, not Jack Kirby. Davis was one of the original artists for Mad Comics.

  4. admin says:

    I meant Davis, Davis!!!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Interesting that there was an earlier mention of this film in which the piece was roundly excoriated. I enjoy scenes from it, some more than others, but the fact that the whole thing is a mad dash for free riches is more than a bit distasteful to me. That’s why I liked the ending, I think.

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