In the early 1960s, screenwriter William Rose, then living in the UK, conceived an idea for a comedy film about a classic chase through Scotland. He called his idea Something a Little Less Serious. He sent the outline to director Stanley Kramer.
The title was switched to Just One Damn Thing After Another and the chase idea was moved to America. Finally, a third title was settled on: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and movie comedy history was made. It was a crazy idea -let's put every possible comedian, comic, and funny person on screen together and let them all run around together and do slapstick gags and schtick and we'll have a big hit film.
The idea of "let's put a bunch of stars together and we'll have a hit" has been attempted on many occasions before and since and, as most of us movie fans well know, it generally does not work. But somehow, under the brilliant direction of Stanley Kramer, this crazy idea worked. And with possibly the most star-studded cast in the history of motion pictures, a true comedy classic was created.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a hilarious masterpiece of quick cuts, verbal gags, aver-the-top slapstick, gigantic special effects, and in the end, lessons on greed and avarice, and also an important message on the overall importance of laughter, no matter the situation.
The plot centers around the death of Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), who reveals that he has hidden $350,000 from a criminal job he'd committed 15 years previously. Grogan's car careens off a cliff in front of four cars, carrying various groups of oddballs and eccentrics, who find Grogan just before he dies. Grogan reveals his secret about the hidden loot to the 14 witnesses, who fail to agree on how to divvy up the cash and a crazy chase develops across the state in search of the dough.
The entire cast of the film is (literally) too vast to list, but the main cast members consisted of Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Edie Adams, Phil Silvers, Terry Thomas, Dorothy Provine, and Jonathan Winters (in his film debut). Add in Peter Falk (who ad-libbed much of his dialogue), Don Knotts, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Carl Reiner, Jim Backus, and Leo Gorcey (in his first film appearance since leaving the Bowery Boys in 1956).
As if this stellar cast wasn't enough to make any fan of comedy drool, throw in cameos by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges.
Although the film had the greatest comedy cast ever assembled, a few faces were missing from the mix. Don Rickles reportedly really wanted to be cast in the film, but was never asked. He was never to let Stanley Kramer forget this fact and always heckled the director about it from the stage every time Kramer came to see Rickles' show.
Bob Hope, George Burns, and Red Skelton were all offered roles, but turned them down for various reasons. Ethel Merman's loudmouthed mother-in-law role was originally written for a father-in-law, namely Groucho Marx, but Groucho gave it the thumbs down. Stan Laurel was asked to appear, but had made a firm pledge to do no more acting roles after the death of his comedy partner Oliver Hardy. Judy Holliday was in ill health and had to decline, and Jackie Mason had too many nightclub bookings to accept.
Sadly, Ernie Kovacs was scheduled to play Melville Krump, but died tragically a car accident shortly before principle production began, and the role was given to Sid Caesar. Kovacs' wife, Edie Adams, was understandably distraught, but was finally convinced to remain aboard as Monica, Melville's wife. The Melville and Monica roles were originally written for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Unfortunately, Judy was having production problems with her TV variety show and didn't have time to appear in the movie.
Each actor was given two scripts -one with the dialogue and one containing all the physical slapstick gags. Reportedly, when one of the actors was briefed on all the huge special effects and majestic slapstick, he asked, "Why do they need us?"
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was filmed in the summer of 1962, mainly because it was the summer hiatus for many of the stars and they were on vacation from their TV shows.
Spencer Tracy was extremely ill during the shoot with type II diabetes and emphysema, and only worked a total of nine days. Director Kramer only allowed him to work 3-4 hours a day and refused to let him do any filming in the arid desert. Because of Tracy's sickness, a stunt double was required of all of his action scenes. You may notice that during the final climactic scene where Tracy's character runs up the stairs with the briefcase of money, his face is always covered or otherwise not shown. This was because his stunt double did this exhausting scene.
Milton Berle claimed that when Ethel Merman hit him on the head with her purse in one scene, he was left with a bump on his noggin for six months.
In the famous gas station scene, Jonathan Winters is tied up by the two attendants (Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan) who think he is insane. After the cast and crew had broken for lunch that day, everyone forgot about poor Jonathan and he was left, bound to his chair with thick tape, for several hours while everyone else dined. Stang and Kaplan claimed that it was their job to "entertain" Winters, and kept him amused and occupied during their time on the shoot.
Phil Silvers had a regular crap game on the set every day.
Filmed on a budget of $9.4 million, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World originally clocked in at an astounding 210 minutes. Director Kramer shaved off almost 20 minutes from the first cut and the original release came in at a still-very-long 192 minutes. The edited for TV version was trimmed down to 154 minutes. A later video version was 174 minutes.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first film ever shown at Hollywood's famous Cinerama Dome on November 7, 1963.
On November 17, 1963, a much-publicized charity gala benefit premiere was held one day before the film's New York release, for the the Kennedy Child Study Center and the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Institute. Most of president John F. Kennedy's family attended this event, including Kennedy's brothers Bobby and Teddy. Sadly, the 35th president was assassinated just five days later.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World proved to be a smash, both financially and with the critics. Although released late in the year (the films' "official" release date was December 2), it was to be the highest-grossing film of 1963 at the U.S. box office. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was voted #40 on AFI's list of 100 Funniest Films of All-Time in 2000.
Like all true classics, the film holds up amazingly well, despite our ever-changing evolution as a race and as a planet. With an eclectic cast of scores of actors and actresses of every possible comedic stripe, each one manages to give a wonderful, vastly different performance. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is possibly the finest out-and-out slapstick comedy movie ever made, in a class with anything Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, or Jerry Lewis ever put together.
I saw the film myself on my first trip to New York in 1964 (when my family visited the New York World's Fair) and I was enthralled with laughter, the rich laughter of a delighted child. And though I have changed in so many ways personally since that first happy visit to the Big Apple, as I watch this brilliant film these many years later, my laughter remains unchanged.