Today at 5pm Eastern, Turner Classic Movies will be showing Blake Edwards’ epic-length time waster The Great Race (1965). This movie has always put a bee in my bonnet, largely due its reputation as a “comedy classic”, and the fact that so many people unreflectively sign off on that assessment.
The Great Race announces itself as the last word in slapstick comedy (look at the poster) and a shocking, downright depressing number of otherwise bright people apparently take it at its word despite the 160 minute running time, the molasses-like pace, the paucity of gags, the egregious miscasting, the major digression that doubles the length of the movie….shall I go on? Self importantly dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy“, the film is an unworthy tribute to put it mildly, reflecting nothing about Laurel’s or Hardy’s comic art that I can ascertain, neither the team’s adeptness at physical comedy, nor their clownish characterizations, nor their complex calculus of gags. If I would have to compare The Great Race to any silent era slapstick, I would choose the cruder, more cartoonish comedy of Mack Sennett or Larry Semon, and even those guys crammed ten times more gags into their twenty minutes than are contained in the whole of this two hour forty minute monstrosity. If it resembles anything at all, this movie looks like other bloated, tedious outings of the 50s and 60s. The most similar precedent in terms of execution being Around the World in 80 Days.
By the way, the even longer It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is not be mentioned in the same breath as The Great Race; the former film succeeds everywhere the latter one fails. (See my tribute to Mad World here). Mad World is cast with about 50 full bore comedians, not just actors, genuine comedians, all working at the top of their game, all with the same very strong motivation (greed), so they’re all playing very strong actions, leading to very broad, funny comedy. In the best Sennett tradition there is competition within an ensemble, and the gags fly fast and furious. Something funny is going on practically the entire time.
The stakes in The Great Race, on the other hand, are very low indeed: who will win the car race? Who cares? Not for a minute do I care who wins the race. And if I had to choose someone, I’d choose the top hatted villain, played by Jack Lemmon, because he’s the funniest in the bunch but that’s not saying much. Lemmon and the other three comic principals (Tony Curtis, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn) are all woefully miscast in what is supposed to be a slapstick comedy. I’ve seen all four of them be terribly funny in very different sorts of comedies, usually some variant on dialogue-based realism or screwball comedy. But these are not by inclination or training CLOWNS, guys who fall down stairs and into tar barrels and so forth. The fifth major character, played by Natalie Wood, has the virtue of being beautiful but she is only 10% as amusing or interesting as even the other four are. In smaller roles there are other character actors: Ross Martin, Larry Storch, Denver Pyle, Marvin Kaplan, etc. They all underplay their characters (even Lemmon, despite his outlandish costume) and they simply don’t bring any skills to the table. They don’t do anything. They say their lines. They exhibit no funny physical behavior, and they don’t have any witty lines to deliver. They drive around in antique cars and other unimaginative contraptions for TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES. It’s kind of like a Road Runner cartoon, but without the freedom of imagination allowed by animation, and with a fraction of the gags.
The pace is glacial. The distance one must cross between opening and closing credits is excruciating. Tt feels like crossing the Sahara on a lame camel. Each gag (every 500 miles or so) is as rare and welcome as an oasis. But the water is warm and brackish to the taste. One is only glad to get it because there is nothing else to drink available.
And that’s why, I fear, this movie has that undeserved reputation as a classic. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of competition in that era. The experts had died out, and that kind of comedy was unfashionable so young people weren’t replacing them. Blake Edwards picked up the mantle because scarcely anyone else was inclined to and walked away with an unearned reputation for genius. I dont claim that he never successfully filmed gags or that I have never laughed at portions of any of his movies (I’m pretty partial to elements of The Party, for example). But as a general rule, the gags come too few in his films to achieve any momentum, and there are no full flesh and blood characters to become enmeshed in the predicaments he puts them in.
It’s not that they are cartoonish. Often they are not cartoonish enough. It is more that they are desultory, fragmented, internally inconsistent, irritating, unlikable — shall I go on? Since he claims to like Stan Laurel so much: a Laurel gag sequence is built on constant variation and escalation, culminating with a topper and then a button or twist. Here’s one of their best, in Wrong Again). In a Blake Edwards movie, the character does one thing. It produces titters. And then the character continues to do the same thing for the next 75 minutes. By the time the routine is over, I’m already at the airport waiting for the plane that will take me to the farthest spot on the planet away from his movie. That’s where I’ll be today at 5pm.
For more on comedy film history see 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
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.