Today marks the 50th anniversary of the initial release of one of my favorite movies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. As a child, it held many mysteries for me. First, that title, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was so long it seemed more like an advertising tagline than the movie title. If so, what was the title? Second, because the poster (which was also used for TV Guide listings back in the day) was drawn by Jack Davis, that fact, combined with the title, suggested a relationship with Mad Magazine (but it didn’t have one). And lastly, all of those names and cameos by comedians whom the older people seemed to know. Who WERE they? Who were they? Finding out who those people were (and people like them) brought me to where I am, to what I am doing at this very moment.
In fact, I’ve already profiled many of the people in the film: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Terry-Thomas, Dorothy Provine, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, William Demarest, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, Arnold Stang, the Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Minta Durfee, Jerry Lewis, Edie Adams, Selma Diamond, Leo Gorcey, Edward Everett Horton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Tom Kennedy, Paul Ford, Andy Devine, Terry-Thomas, Dick Shawn, Sterling Holloway, and Jim Backus.
Of the remaining stars, I will probably do something on Peter Falk, Stan Freberg, Norman Fell, and Marvin Kaplan. This leaves a few dozen names I simply don’t recognize, and Buddy Hackett, whom I simply don’t dig.
Despite its reputation, however, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World includes something quite less than “all the comedians”. In fact many or most of the most important ones are not in it, and many of the old silent alum who were still around are also absent, even as extras or walk-ons. People who were alive at the time but are not in the film include: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Hope and Crosby, Mae West, Stan Laurel, Groucho or Harpo Marx, Edgar Bergen, the surviving Ritz Brothers, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Bud Abbott, Bert Lahr, Lucille Ball, Imogene Coca, Martha Raye, Jackie Gleason, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Bert Wheeler. Steve Allen (big at the time) is not in it. A sad absence is that of Ernie Kovacs. He was intended to be in the cast but died in a car accident before shooting began. Don Rickles really wanted to be in it but they wouldn’t cast him (and he would have been far better and more appropriate than somebody like Mickey Rooney — ye gods).
The film, in the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, is probably the most artistically successful of the silent/ slapstick tribute films of the 1960s (much better, for example than Blake Edwards ‘ egregious The Great Race). Shown in its sprawling entirety (over three hours, I think) It’s a Mad…is a gasser.
Here’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, a scene of destruction reminiscent of the best of Laurel and Hardy, with just a soupcon of Warner Brothers cartoons:
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc