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It’s still a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: why the cult film endures 50 years later

If comedy is truly the art of timing, then the passing this week of Sid Caesar at 91 qualifies as something of a punchline, especially given the recent Blu-Ray/DVD release by Criterion of the 1963 comedy spectacular It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Caesar was only one among many comedians who gathered for this slapstick movie by Stanley Kramer, released just days before U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But in a three-hour-plus movie bookended by appearances of such old-school clowns as Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton, Caesar, along with co-star Milton Berle, represented the insurgent and vital role TV had played in the perpetuation of American funnymen. Caesar served as an antic reminder that laughter had become more common on television than in the movies.

That cultural shift might have been one of Kramer's motivations in making the film: to take comedy back to the theatres. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, on TV, Mad World became something of a boomer cult flick. On regular broadcasting rotation within a decade of its theatrical release, Kramer's star-studded car-chase movie – in which a group of mendacious motorists (Caesar, Berle, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams and Buddy Hackett) race to a finish line where $350,000 is buried under, per Durante, "a big dubya" – proved to be an enduring TV ritual despite its scale and duration.

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But, as the lavishly reconstituted Criterion version proves, Mad World in its original form is a thing to behold, at once a product of postwar Hollywood's spectacle-crazy, big-is-better response to the threat of TV, an ensemble star cast of the Around the World in 80 Days variety, and, on Kramer's part, a hare-brained act of movie-making hubris.

As an origin myth, the instigating circumstances of Mad World are as good as any. Over lunch one day, Kramer, both renowned and Oscar-certified as a director of such message-larded movies as The Defiant Ones, On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg, was told by New York Times senior critic Bosley Crowther that critics doubted that the filmmaker would ever be able to make a comedy. Kramer, in customarily unimpressed fashion, vowed to show them all with "the comedy to end all comedies." The not-notoriously-funny Kramer took it as a declaration of war, and he called in the troops.

Taking a script by William and Tania Rose that was originally written for Britain's Ealing studio and set in Scotland, Kramer set about assembling a production that would eventually consume six months of shooting time, a few hundred speaking parts, countless miles of then-undeveloped California highway, a biplane, a collapsible gas station (to be demolished by a hilarious Winters) and more vehicles than the combined two-reel archive of Mack Sennett. Moreover, it would almost consume its ailing star, Spencer Tracy, who was so frail at the time of shooting that he required stunt doubles for just about any act but walking. By the time it was done, Mad World had also eaten up $9-million, then one of the largest budgets in Hollywood history, and was awaited by critics with pens poised like clenched fists.

And they swung. Almost universally panned by all the major American outlets of its day, Kramer's vehicular pile-up was dismissed as overlong, overstated, underwhelming and – worst of all – unfunny. It didn't help that Kramer went about telling everyone who'd listen just what "serious business" comedy was, and how he made his cast "suffer" in order that we in the matinée seats might laugh. But it probably did help that in the post-Kennedy assassination gloom, Mad World suddenly acquired the potency of a prescribed tonic. If you needed a laugh, you were guaranteed to find one somewhere in this three-hour cartoon.

Ultimately, none of the criticism mattered anyway. Within a couple of years of its initial release, Mad World had recouped its losses in multiple rereleases and began to develop a following that would grow more ardent when the movie finally made its final march into the heart of the enemy camp: TV. On the small screen, it nestled nicely into the overall stream of cartoons, sitcoms, variety shows and old movie reruns, and its cast of TV comedy stars felt like family.

I don't remember the first time I saw it, but I'm certain it was in a movie theatre on a screen as big as Stanley Kramer's ego. By then, it had been presold to me by my beloved Mad magazine, in the form of a paperback anthology called (of course) It's a World, World, World, World MAD.

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