It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

How do you prep a kid in the modern age for this film? One of the radical differences in the way we consume entertainment today than how we did from the sixties through the eighties is that it’s perfectly understandable that a kid could reach the age of ten without knowing who anybody in this silly and hilarious epic is. I think I must have been about twelve when I first saw It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on HBO around 1983. My dad saw it in the monthly program book and cancelled all potential plans; we were watching that movie. And then, I remember being amazed because I knew who so many of the actors were. Him! Her and him! That guy! Milton Berle! The millionaire from Gilligan’s Island! Mearth from Mork & Mindy! The mechanic from The Love Bug!

Today? The only reason any kid would know any of these jokers is if their parents are showing them entertainment from the past. Choices were so limited then that when we wanted to watch TV, we often settled. We were often pleasantly surprised and amused, but kids today get to watch whatever they want whenever they want – which is how it should be – while we grew up watching whatever we thought was the best of the eight or nine options available. So occasionally we’d run into Jerry Lewis or Mickey Rooney or Peter Falk or Sid Caesar or Edie Adams or Ethel Merman or Terry-Thomas or Jonathan Winters or Phil Silver and be happily entertained, but what we really wanted was for somebody to make TV shows where Spider-Man and the Hulk fought actual supervillains and had them on demand to watch whenever we wanted. Kids today have that. The comic heroes of the past will be lost to time. Nothing lasts forever.

(A question went around on Twitter yesterday, one with which we were sometimes confronted: The Andy Griffith Show or The Beverly Hillbillies? The answer, of course, is “the sweet, merciful embrace of death.”)

So what prep work was there for our son? Well, I told him that he saw Terry-Thomas as Cousin Archie in a Persuaders! we saw recently, and he was sure to remember Milton Berle being heckled offstage by Statler and Waldorf in one of the finest moments in all of The Muppet Show, and…

…and he’d just have to trust me, because one of the most amazing things about Mad World is just about every speaking part in the movie is played by somebody that audiences in 1963, 1973, 1983, probably 1993 knew. In 1983, my dad had forgotten that the two service station attendants who briefly bedevil Jonathan Winters were actors even he knew. I remember him saying “That’s Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan!”

The other bit of prep work that I could do was remind him of the Three Stooges. You never know how this kid’s memory works. I picked up the complete DVD set some time back, but we’ve only seen a few, and it’s been a while, so we sat down to “Three Little Beers,” the one with the press, press, pull gag, yesterday afternoon. He about lost his mind, and I reminded him that there is absolutely no situation that the Stooges cannot make far, far worse. Had to make sure to set up their brief appearance here.

I’m confident anybody reading this is familiar with the movie, though it’s possible you may not be aware of how much antipathy there is in the movie snob world about it. A few months ago, when I got interested in the Criterion Collection again, I read the World thread at their forum and was surprised to see it get so much hate. I think it’s absolute slapstick joy myself, and the kid, dying of laughter, completely agreed, but you see Dorothy Provine in the center of the top picture, finding this whole thing unamusing if not disgusting and ready to call the police to round up these greedy jackasses? That’s my wife, that is. She didn’t come back from the intermission.

Never mind the haters. Watch this movie with a kid. Prep them as best you can beforehand so they’ll know what pay phones are, and let it rip. They’ll probably miss a few of the gags, like Spencer Tracy making his decisions, or Berle’s face when Merman asks where she should stick a cactus, but Silvers’ car and Winters at the garage will have them howling. It’s a little dated, and I suppose it will one day be forgotten, but until then, it’s sure to make me laugh so hard that my left eye will still be hurting an hour later. You probably don’t need the five-disc version, but as Mark Evanier, one of the contributors to the commentary track, will tell you, the two Blu-ray Criterion will do you just fine. See you at the Big W.

Alakazam the Great (1960)

For this morning’s movie, we enjoyed a Toei film directed by Taiji Yabushita. It was called Journey to the West when it was first released in Japan in 1960, one of several dozen adaptations of the old folk tale about the monkey king and his companions. In the US, a quite heavily rescripted adaptation was released by B-movie distributors American International Pictures, and featured voiceovers by Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and fandom legend Peter Fernandez, along with five new songs sung by Frankie Avalon.

Alakazam the Great did the rounds of second features and dollar kiddie film matinees in the 1960s before finding its way to every UHF station that didn’t have a lot of money for movies, and most every kid who saw it found it completely charming, funny, and full of action. But it largely vanished from circulation in the 1980s. There was a VHS release through Orion, but the only way to legally see the movie in North America these days is to stream it through Amazon Prime or possibly Netflix or wait for an old, beat up print to make its way to a revival house.

Our son just had a ball with it. Alakazam starts the movie as a coward who gets scared by crickets and spiders, which makes him endearing to a female monkey who really does put up with a lot of crap from him after that. It’s predicted that he will become king of all the animals, so he summons up the courage for the initiation test, and quickly becomes an insufferable, power-mad creep who needs to be taken down many pegs and learn the values of humility, mercy, and wisdom.

So he gets put in his place by a very powerful magic-using king of a higher realm, and sent on a quest with that realm’s prince. Along the way, they have a pair of squabbles with some unpleasant villains, but rather than killing them, Alakazam shows mercy and asks them to join the quest. There’s slapstick comedy, lots and lots of fighting, weird magic, and erupting volcanoes. It’s pretty much everything an eight year-old kid would want from a movie, except possibly swapping out one of the lame Frankie Avalon songs for another fight scene.

Taiji Yabushita directed several animated films for Toei, including 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent amd 1967’s hallucinogenic Jack and the Witch, which I’d like to show our kid sometime, so somebody put that out on Blu-ray, please! I really enjoyed this movie’s visual language and attractive artwork, though I’ll blame a bad night’s sleep for contributing to me nodding off a couple of times this morning. Maybe someday, somebody will give this film a nice restoration and a more accurate script and I’ll give it another try without my eyelids getting heavy. In the meantime, our kid liked it enough for both of us.

Batman 3.22 – The Great Train Robbery

Daniel pretended to sour on this episode despite hooting and laughing all the way through the two fight scenes, both of which are pretty awesome. Interestingly, the second one, deliberately echoing such one-on-one showdowns as High Noon, is just a two-hander, with Adam West and Cliff Robertson, and their stuntmen, going at each other in a deserted street. But the earlier one is the usual big mob of people, and it includes a great big urn that Barry Dennen gets dunked in, which was probably the funniest thing my son’s seen in days.

Shame’s egomania and rank stupidity make him one of the show’s most entertaining villains, but you can see why they never used him, or anybody like him, in the comics, despite the rights issues. The comic book Batman is far too competent and intelligent to face any kind of challenge from this guy, which makes all the build-up about what an unbelievably dangerous arch-foe he is even more hilarious. And Robertson is so incredibly funny, with his double-takes, slow burns, and body language. I don’t think that he had very many comedic roles in his long career, but he certainly should have.

That said, Adam West gets the brilliant payoff line with one gag. Shame’s gang is waiting to open fire on Batman when they get within twenty feet of each other, but Batgirl and Robin spoil that plan behind Shame’s back. When Shame realizes they’ve crossed that twenty feet frontier, he starts twitching and looking over his shoulder, just brilliant physical comedy, because somebody needs to start shooting before Batman beats him senseless. He almost sheepishly asks Batman, “Say, uhhhh, about how far apart are we?”

“Eighteen feet and six inches,” Batman deadpans. Daniel didn’t quite get the joke, but his parents roared with laughter.

Also this week, Arnold Stang gets a small role. Hooray for Arnold Stang! He wasn’t actually in everything in the sixties, but he certainly should have been.