Ever since I first saw It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) as a kid decades ago, I fell in love with the movie. The fact that it was “before my time” didn’t matter. The movie was comedy gold for me, right up there with The Producers (1967) and Blazing Saddles (1974).
Keep in mind that I don’t think IAMMMMW is the best comedy of all time, not by a longshot. Plus, I’m fairly sure that it was a ripoff of the Lucy and Desi Hour episode, “Lucy Hunts Uranium“, which had the exact same premise (teams of people racing to beat each other for a supposed “jackpot” out in the middle of nowhere).
So, why do I love this movie in spite of its shortcomings? First of all, seeing so many legendary 1940s and 50s actors in living color and in a 1960s setting tickled me pink. Before It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I had always associated many of the comics and actors in the movie with hokey, dated black and white TV shows and movies from a past that was way before my time. There was something so cool about seeing all of them in full color at the height of the 1960s Jet Age looking and dressing “modern” (well, by 1960s standards, anyway).
On top of that, I’m definitely a sucker for the corny “all-star” gimmick that was all the rage in the 1960s and 70s, when part of the fun of watching the film was playing “spot the cameo”. In my case, I got two for the price of one. For 1960s audiences, it was about spotting current and older comics from the days of radio and silent movies; for me, it was trying to spot those TV stars of the 1970s and 80s who had yet to be famous, as in, “Oh, look! It’s Mr. Roper! Oh, look! That’s Henry from Alice! Oh, look–it’s Selma from Night Court! Oh, look–it’s Mr. Howell and Mr. Magoo! Oh, look–it’s Columbo!”
Given how lavish and star-studded it was, I always assumed that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a universally beloved comedy classic. It wasn’t until decades later when I learned much to my surprise that many people either don’t care for the movie or outright hate it.
Looking back, I can understand why. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World might have been the epitome of hip and jazzy for its time, but much of the comedy was based on hopelessly outdated tropes (the battle-axe mother-in-law, anyone?). Not only that, many of the stars in the film may have been legends in their time but have all but faded into obscurity. I know older readers don’t want to hear it, but let’s be brutally honest–unless we’re talking about diehard vintage movie and comedy fans, practically no one under the age of, say, maybe 40 knows or cares who Dick Shawn, Marvin Kaplan, Andy Devine, Arnold Stang or Terry-Thomas were. These faces are as likely to draw blank expressions on today’s viewers as Rudy Vallee and Sarah Bernhardt must have to kids of an earlier generation.
As valid as the film’s shortcomings, I think there’s another issue that goes a long way in explaining why this movie leaves people cold, one that is sad if not downright tragic. The clue is in one of the earliest scenes of the movie, when the motorists are trying to explain to trucker Lennie Pike (played by Jonathan Winters) why he’s getting a better cut than he thinks he is of the money. As Melville Crump puts it, while the other motorists have to split their share of the money amongst themselves as couples and partners, he gets to have his entire cut all by himself. Better yet, it would be tax free.
Instead of Lennie getting the memo, he is absolutely mortified at the implication–that he wouldn’t have to report his money to Uncle Sam. “Everybody has to pay taxes!” he fumes. “Even businessmen that rob and steal and cheat from people every day! Even they have to pay taxes!” Everyone suddenly throws up their hands and rolls their eyes in exasperation, like, “What is it with this guy?”
Now, there is one way to interpret Lennie’s reaction: “What a moron!” Why? Because reporting the money would’ve defeated the purpose of going after it in the first place. Again–why? Because the cash was stolen in a bank robbery for a criminal case that was still open. If he and the other motorists had reported the money to the IRS, the IRS would’ve notified law enforcement, which would’ve traced the money to the actual crime. The next thing the motorists knew, the money would’ve been confiscated as evidence.
Because of this thorny issue, we’re supposed to laugh at Lennie being so short-sighted when he reacts negatively to Melville Crump telling him that the money is “tax free.” However, there’s another and more important reason why Lennie makes a big stink about not paying taxes. It’s there to set up the premise–and underlying joke–of the entire movie.
What is the premise? The same one that made the Lucy Desi Hour episode, Lucy Hunts Uranium, so damned funny–money is the root of all evil. It’s so evil, in fact, that there’s something about it that corrupts people in the worst possible way.
Now, why is this supposed to be especially funny in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? Doesn’t it go without saying that money has a corrupting influence? Yes. But in the 1960s, it was only a certain “type” of person who supposedly would lose their minds over money–not the types we see in the movie. You see, the characters in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World were supposed to be the last people on earth to be corrupted, because they represented the best of both the working and the middle class, and therefore embodied the best of American values. They were, for one, law-abiding. They were self-respecting. They were civilized. They were clean-cut and very image conscious. They had a sense of fair play. But most importantly of all–like Lennie Pike–they had a strong sense of civic duty.
So, sure–maybe if It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had involved a bunch of lowlifes, the joke about people going crazy over money would’ve been funny. However, make the people going crazy the cream of the crop of American society, and it’s a whole different story. The premise becomes especially funny because by 1960s standards, the behavior that we see onscreen becomes absurdist and therefore what’s known as “comedy farce“. By comedy farce, this is meant by the humor stemming less from the characters in the movie doing funny stuff than seeing ordinarily self-respecting, dignified and law-abiding working and middle class Americans act in ways they never would in real life.
For example, take the scene where the Crumps (Edie Adams and Sid Caesar) wreak complete havoc inside of a hardware store. You would think that the ultimate punchline to this sequence is that they blow shit up (literally). But the joke is that this clean-cut, middle-class couple not only commit several felonies without a care in the world (breaking and entering, theft and vandalism), they casually walk out of the store looking like hoboes as if nothing had happened.
To younger viewers, it may not make sense why this lack of self-consciousness on the part of the Crumps would be funny. However, it makes sense if you’re familiar with how uptight and self-conscious middle-class Americans were at the time. In the early 1960s, everyone had to dress immaculately as soon as they left the house for any errand. Even if they were going grocery shopping, they had to go in what was called “your Sunday best”–hat, gloves, overcoat. If even so much as one hair was out of place, it was enough to induce anxiety attack, especially if they accidentally stumbled across someone that they knew, who they imagined running to all their friends and neighbors after their encounter gushing, “Gladys! Guess who I ran into the other day? Phyllis! And you’ll never guess what she looked like!”
A movie that plays this middle-class sensibility to the hilt is The Out of Towners. In one scene, the housewife (played by Sandy Dennis) covers her eye in embarrassment after she loses her eyelash in public. The reason is that being solidly middle class and hopelessly self-conscious, she is absolutely mortified that she only has one eyelash. In her mind, everyone is staring at her as if she were a circus freak.
Sandy Dennis and Jack Lemmon in The Out of Towners
On top of maintaining a meticulous experience at all times, here is another thing that was very distinctive about 1960s middle class sensibilities. Reputation was everything. You couldn’t suffer anything that might mark you as disreputable or tarnish your reputation as “pillar of the community.” Otherwise, it was a disaster of epic proportions. A TV show that played this scenario out for laughs repeatedly was Dennis the Menace. On the show, the child terror–Dennis Mitchell–would always get his next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson in certain situations where it looked like he was doing something illegal or disreputable. When he was accused by the local cop or neighbor of wrongdoing, he would sputter, “Why, this is an outrage! Me? Do that? Don’t you know who I am?” Afterwards, the rest of the episode would be spent on Mr. Wilson desperately trying to prove to everyone in the community that he wasn’t a crook, bum or degenerate.
This type of overly self-conscious middle-class sensibility is why in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World audiences were supposed to find it especially funny–and farcical–when the Crumps wreck a hardware store and leave it looking like Bowery bums. They were the very type of people who, in different circumstances, would’ve been absolutely mortified if they had been offered a citation for littering in public, or were caught with spinach in their teeth. Yet here they were, looking oh, so nonchalant as they left the store, because they were too money hungry to care at that point about the string of felonies they’d just committed or how they looked publicly. In their minds, they were this close to getting the buried money, so what did it matter?
Now, this explanation for why It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is supposed to be funny is all well and good. However, if you think about it, this joke–of respectable Americans losing their shit over money–could’ve easily been lost in translation. After all, how was the audience really supposed to know who and what the motorists were in terms of class? Maybe, in spite of dressing nicely and looking clean cut, they were lowlifes all along just passing for respectable. That is definitely true in the case of the hilarious Phil Silvers character, Otto. He looks more or less civilized, but he clearly is a scumbag who has spent his entire life scamming people. Hell, he might’ve scammed his nice suit and hat from an unsuspecting mark.
Going back to Lennie, this issue–of firmly establishing what class the motorists come from–is why there is that “everyone pays taxes” rant in the first act. It’s to make it perfectly clear to 1960s audiences that all of the people who are driven crazier by the hour by greed are morally upstanding Americans like him, who were so principled that they were willing to even risk losing their share of the loot if keeping any of it meant cheating the government out of taxes.
Not only did It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World have this scene with Lennie to make sure that the audience knew what type of people the motorists were, it created another character to help underscore the movie’s premise of “Respectable Americans Gone Wild”–Emeline, played by Dorothy Provine. As a kid watching the movie, I could never stand this character. She came across as a completely joyless stick in the mud who didn’t “get it,” a proto-Lisa Simpson. Later, as a young adult, I begrudgingly accepted her as the obligatory Voice of Reason as well as what’s known as “the straight man” in comedy, whose job is to be the super serious, humorless person for the goofy characters to bounce off against.
However, as a middle-ager looking back at the film and its 1960s sensibilities, it makes sense why Emeline is there throughout the movie constantly pouting in disgust or lecturing the other characters when they misbehave. After Lennie Pike’s “taxes” outburst, it was very easy–as the movie got crazier by the minute–for audiences to start losing sight of who and what the motorists were and why their behavior is so farcical. Emeline exists to continuously remind the audiences that no matter how insanely everyone else is behaving, they’re acting out of character as dignified, self-respecting Americans, since she and the motorists are one and the same.
Besides Lennie and Emeline, there is yet another character who served an important function of underscoring the farcical premise behind It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World— and to an even greater degree than both characters. Can you guess who?
That’s right–Captain Culpepper, played by Spencer Tracy.
As you know, Culpepper is the elderly police chief who in the first two-thirds of the movie is there to monitor what the motorists are up to, so he can have a carefully prepared list of all the violations they’ve committed. But then it turns out that he was only keeping tabs on everyone so he could steal the bank robbery money himself and retire to a far-flung location.
The moment Culpepper turns heel is of course meant to be a hilarious twist in a “person-you-least-suspect” kind of way. But when you come down to it, it’s the movie’s ultimate punchline to the joke about watching otherwise respectable Americans go crazy over money. In the 1960s, it didn’t get more self-respecting, dignified and law abiding than a high-ranking seasoned veteran of the police force or a senior citizen. So, if it was funny and absurdist to see respectable American citizens losing all sense of decorum and principle over money because of its corrupting influence, what could be funnier than a person of Culpepper’s age and status being the most corruptible person out of any of them?
That Culpepper was supposed to be the ultimate punchline to the movie’s joke of dignified Americans going crazy over money is borne out by who played him. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I first have to first explain who Tracy was. Spencer Tracy, whose career spanned decades, was one of the most revered actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Besides being an amazing actor with a commanding screen presence, Tracy was loved because he often played men of character and principle. As soon as he appeared onscreen, audiences knew that he was going to be the good guy standing up for what was right (Judgment at Nuremberg), or a noble person trying to steer a wayward person in the right direction (Boy’s Town).
Because Tracy had established himself as such a saint–and because he had reached an age that Americans associated with wisdom–the filmmakers realized they could use both traits to great comedic effect. After all, if it was funny enough as it is to see a reputable member of law enforcement screwing over everyone, it was all the more hilarious with Spencer Tracy playing that character, because of his age and onscreen image as all around standup guy. Spencer’s casting is also how, when Culpepper makes his dramatic turn, you really know it’s truly a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Only in an absurdist cinematic universe could one of the most respected, dignified actors of all time not only play the most money hungry character out of everyone but be the biggest scumbag in the entire movie.
I saw the film in the theater as a child. I have since seen it at least 10 times if not more. I have never grown tired of it. To me, it’s a masterpiece.