Friday, October 5, 2012


The weird thing is, I'm usually a minimalist.

Seriously, my inclination in entertainment is to try to acheive as much as possible with the least amount of money. I'm a sucker for Roger Corman movies, and have always been very fond of a story he tells about the day he was shooting a Greek war epic. He had scheduled 100 extras in togas and only 20 showed up. Rather than try to round up more extras he added a line of dialogue about how one Greek has the fighting power of five men.

And this is why it's odd that I've always been such a fan of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the Stanley Kramer comedy epic. To me the words "epic" and "comedy" just do not belong together. Still, I grew up watching it on TV (okay, given the Ultra-Panavision aspect ratio of the movie, I watched the middle of it) and loved it.

If you're not familiar, M4W is a kind of caper film. 4 carloads of strangers witness a car crash on a desert road. The driver (Jimmy Durante) tells them of a hidden fortune buried in a park "under a big W" just before he dies. At first the assembled group determines to find the money and split it, but soon it becomes an every-man-for-himself race to get the cash first. The cast is a who's who of comic actors including Sid Ceaser, Milton Berle, Johnathan Winters, Terry Thomas, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman and Buddy Hackett. And honest, that's just scratching the surface.

About twenty years ago the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood promised a widescreen presentation of it and I excitedly bought my ticket for it, only to realize that they had failed to secure a widescreen print. In fact, it was a television print from a TV station down the street; not only were the sides cut off for TV, the top and bottom were cut off so it would fit on the theatre screen. I have resented this experience ever since, until Wednesday night.

Because it was then that the Dome finally made good on that promise and presented the film in its original format, 70mm, 7 track AND anamorphically stretched on a screen so curved that reality itself looked weird for a couple of hours afterward. And let me tell you, no matter how many times you've seen this movie on TV, it's an entirely different experience.

M4W is a movie where plans fail spectacularly. A flat tire doesn't just slow you down - it ends with an entire service station in ruins. Sid Ceaser and his wife get locked in a basement and ultimately the only way out is to use dynamite and escape through a Chinese Laundry. The gags all have BIG payoffs. And in most cases they're a little too big for that box in your living room. The very hugeness of Ultra Panavision is half the payoff for these jokes. It's funny when that gas station is dismantled; but it's HILARIOUS when you're sitting in a theatre and it's as big as an actual gas station.

Oddly, Berle and Ceasar are the comedy superstars who come off as almost straight-men in this movie. My theory is that they were sketch comics - they were at their best displaying their versatility in short bursts, and here they're sustaining a character for over 3 hours. They're really good at it too, but they don't shine like Phil Silvers (playing Bilko again, but in a suit) or Terry Thomas. These are guys who worked a single persona for years into a fine glossy gem.

It's probably the greatest acheivement imagineable when you can take something as delicate an fragile as comedy, throw an impossible amount of money at it, and still get laughs. Usually it doesn't work and you just wind up with an expensive question mark of an experience. Here, it's magical.

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