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The Great Race (1965)

This blog’s got a few years in it yet, but it’s not going to go on forever. Somebody asked me if I had a conclusion planned. I do, and there will be a couple of clues to readers that we’re almost there. First, we’ll catch up with Doctor Who. Although, if they insist on committing unforced errors like taking an entire year off right when the show becomes a mainstream popular hit again, that might be later than sooner. Another is that we’ll watch one of the last films on the agenda: 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Two years after that classic was released, Blake Edwards directed a mammoth, 160-minute comedy that clearly has a lot of Mad World in its DNA, along with at least two actors. I saw it, or most of it, a million years ago on TV and forgot almost the entire thing, but remembered a few of the great gags. I think it’ll stick with our son a little better. He says it’s the funniest movie he’s ever watched.

The center of The Great Race is the rivalry between the nefarious, black-clad Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemmon and the practically perfect gentleman good guy The Great Leslie, played by Tony Curtis. They are daredevils, escape artists, and showmen, only the Great Leslie is incredibly competent and barely acknowledges Fate. You may know Fate from his later career in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He’s the inspiration for Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races and later shows, with Peter Falk as the proto-Muttley. Things get off to a clear start in the opening scene, where the Great Leslie puts together a big stunt involving a hot air balloon, and Professor Fate intercedes by wheeling in a massive crossbow with an enormous red bolt. It’s so thunderously cartoonish that it tells the audience that some pretty epic slapstick is on its way.

Professor Fate enters into the greatest automobile race ever conceived, from New York west to Paris via Siberia, in another attempt to steal Leslie’s thunder. Also in the race, suffragette Maggie DuBois, played by Natalie Wood. After browbeating the editor of The New York Sentinel into giving her a job, she has to arrange to report on the race from every step of the way, and be in Paris when the winner crosses the finish line. Along with a cast of great character actors like Marvin Kaplan, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, and with music and a couple of songs by Henry Mancini, there are some ridiculous hijinx between the two cities.

And yes, it’s very, very funny. There’s a scene set in Professor Fate’s castle home which Maggie invades for an interview. It started with a few chuckles over Fate playing an organ with broken thumbs and escalated into pausing the film because we were laughing so hard. Fate’s home would demand pausing your DVD player even if the scene wasn’t a triumph, because it’s one of the most amazing sets ever. Imagine building a set as intricate and detailed as, say, the living room of the Addams Family for all of two minutes of screen time. Later, Larry Storch plays a gunslinger with three compadres, and their entrance into an old west saloon also had me in stitches. Storch and Curtis trade fisticuffs here. Six years later, Storch would play the only American guest star in Curtis and Roger Moore’s wonderful show The Persuaders!.

The Great Race starts to run out of steam in its final third, when the racers get to some Nosuchlandia in southeastern Europe and they get involved in a Prisoner of Zenda situation masterminded by Ross Martin as an evil baron. The only real flaw up to that point was abandoning all the other racers incredibly early on, but the Zenda subplot is long enough to feel like an entirely different film, and while Lemmon is amazingly funny as Fate, he’s far less so as the drunk heir to the throne.

On the other hand, Curtis and Martin enjoy one of the cinema’s all-time great swordfights. The minutes they spend with these two, starting with foils before moving to sabers, are completely amazing. Regular readers have probably caught that I love a great swordfight. This is one of the best. And on the other extreme, the Zenda sequence ends with a food fight involving hundreds of pies that is so over-the-top and so intricately choreographed that it took four days to film and had every member of the cast ready to shove the director in an oven and bake him in a pie.

So The Great Race is like a lot of Blake Edwards’ work: it’s flawed, but very, very funny. I read that in the mid-seventies, Edwards wanted to make one of those later, far-from-funny Pink Panther films into a three-hour calamity like this. I think that could possibly have been much better than the mess that he finished with (The Pink Panther Strikes Again), but then again, The Great Race could have been pruned by twenty minutes and I bet our kid would still say it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen.

Today’s feature was a gift from Matt Ceccato and his wife, writer Nan Monroe, and I invite you all to check out her webpage and buy some of her novels and collections of short stories! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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The Ghost Busters 1.15 – The Abominable Snowman

The main guest star in the last Ghost Busters episode was a guy named Ronnie Graham, and what an interesting career he had. He was an occasional actor, probably best known as Rev. Bemis on Chico and the Man, but was also a writer, with credits as far afield as M*A*S*H on one extreme and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour on the other. Here, he plays the Ghost Busters’ final nemesis, Dr. Centigrade, who wants to implant a warm heart into the abominable snowman’s body.

Well, I’m kind of sad that we finished up the show, on the one hand because Daniel really, really enjoyed it, but also because the special features on the DVD reminded me that this was arguably the only truly fun live-action Saturday morning show that Filmation produced. They did several other live-action programs in the 1970s, several of which we intend to look at down the line, and one of the features on the disk is a “coming attractions” of all the other shows that BCI / Entertainment Rights / Ink & Paint released from the Filmation library. The cartoons were all awful, and the dramas were dour and earnest. But The Ghost Busters, despite its zero budget and forced repetition of gags around the same three sets and one location, was charming, silly, ridiculous, and often unpredictable. It was a fun show, and I’m glad that they made it.

One last note about Filmation, a gag this time involves Tracy’s clock radio being set to play “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. Since Filmation had made the Archie TV cartoon, I figure that they were cut a deal on the licensing!

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The Ghost Busters 1.14 – Merlin, the Magician

There’s an incredibly odd little casting choice here. Huntz Hall reprises his role as Gronk from episode eight, but neither he nor the Ghost Busters acknowledge that they’ve met before. You’d think that would be worth a mention, “you again?” or something. I suppose that the director and the stars enjoyed working with him, and since they needed a similar “low intelligence sidekick” for Merlin, they asked him back without altering this episode’s script beyond noting the character’s name.

Daniel giggled all through the opening scene, in which Spencer informs Tracy that the prize of the gorilla’s rock collection is actually a dinosaur egg. They decide it needs to be kept somewhere very, very safe, and if you don’t predict that Kong will end up sitting on the egg, then you must be my son’s age.

Guest stars this week are Carl Ballantine, who had played Lester on McHale’s Navy for several years, as Merlin, and Ina Balin, who had dozens and dozens of one-off roles (including five different ones on Quincy, M.E.) but never a starring part, as Morgan Le Fay. Ballantine plays Merlin as Sid Caesar doing a frustrated stage magician, and Balin is note-perfect as the icy and humorless villain. In a complete reversal of the usual formula, Merlin and Gronk want to be dematerialized and sent back to “the beyond,” but the incompetent Merlin zaps the ghost dematerializer into Morgan’s hands.

The climax is also really funny. Morgan casts a spell that makes any man who makes eye contact with her freeze, not realizing that Tracy is a gorilla. He keeps a whipped cream pie in his magic bag, saving the day. Earlier, we saw that Tracy had bagpipes, tartans, and a tam o’shanter in his bag, so the pie comes as no surprise.

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The Ghost Busters 1.13 – The Vikings Have Landed

I found myself liking the show trope of the ghosts talking before they actually materialize and show themselves with this episode, because Erik the Red is played by the unmistakable Jim Backus, who was Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island and the immortal voice of Mister Magoo. So when he started yelling, I said “I know who thaaaat is…” Backus did quite a lot of kid-friendly work in the 1970s in addition to prime-time roles. His time on Gilligan made him high-demand from just about every producer in town. You never asked “What’s Jim Backus doing in a cheap show like this,” because he was in every show, regardless of budget or audience.

Daniel adored this episode, which has series-best hallway gags (all five principals end up colliding in the middle) and filing cabinet gags. The trick to the filing cabinet this time is that it has to be shoved from behind to open, and it’s bolted to an exterior wall. Fortunately, Tracy’s grandfather was known for climbing the Empire State Building. This leads to a completely unexpected gag when Tracy makes a second trip outside the building to walk around. I wondered what he was up to, and had a very good laugh when the gag pays off.

Joining Backus in this trip back from the afterlife is an actress named Lisa Todd as Brunhilda. Of course that’s her name; there aren’t any other Viking names for women on television. She doesn’t seem to have had a very long career, but she was a “Hee Haw Honey” for most of four seasons in the seventies.

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The Ghost Busters 1.11 – Jekyll & Hyde – Together, for the First Time!

Daniel got the biggest laugh in weeks when Dr. Jekyll, invisible, steals Spencer’s hat. The crew were barely trying. The string is visible from space, in every shot. It didn’t matter. If you’re four, the sight of that hat dancing around the set is a work of pure comedy genius.

If you’re older than four, the main draw of Ghost Busters, of course, is the chemistry between Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who are just so incredibly entertaining and silly together. But the secondary draw must be the guest stars, and the incredibly clever and unexpected casting choices. Joe E. Ross, who plays Hyde as a caveman, is a fairly inspired choice, since he had actually played a caveman in Sherwood Schwartz’s poorly-regarded sitcom flop It’s About Time eight years previously… although it’s not all that likely that any of The Ghost Busters‘ young audience would be expected to know that. I wondered how many times in the episode Ross would make his “Oooh! Oooh!” noise. Three.

But the really stunning surprise is Severn Darden playing Dr. Jekyll. He really did have an incredibly varied and full career, with all sorts of roles in comedies and dramas, but he is probably best remembered as one of the original Second City players; in fact he appears to have been only one of three to bridge the gap between the mid-1950s Compass Players, which featured Stiller and Meara, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and the first Second City group in 1959. He and Ross seem to have a lot of fun clashing their personalities – Jekyll erudite and snobby, Hyde thoughtless and stupid – and while the material is certainly no challenge to either actor, it looks as though they had fun.

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The Ghost Busters 1.10 – The Vampire’s Apprentice

Daniel just loved this episode. Tie a rubber bat to a string and dance it around a graveyard and you’ve instantly won the hearts and minds of little boys. All the usual gags – the self-destructing tape, the file cabinet – had him giggling and rolling around on the sofa. The Ghost Busters may do the same thing every episode, but four year-olds have no complaint with it.

A vampire episode was perhaps inevitable, but they had a lot of fun with it. Count and Countess Dracula are henpecked and grouchy, long out of love with each other. Dracula is feeble and completely pathetic, needing “lighty-light” stories; his wife wonders whether any of her old boyfriends from the old country might still be available.

Dena Dietrich is best remembered for spending the 1970s playing Mother Nature in a long series of commercials for Chiffon margarine (here’s one), but Billy Holms only had about a dozen very small credits to his name. They’re really amusing together. It’s a shame that the Draculas didn’t make a comeback in a later episode!

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The Ghost Busters 1.7 – A Worthless Gauze

So a reader asked which Ghost Buster is Daniel’s favorite, and the answer, of course, is Tracy. This time, Tracy is practicing to be a stage magician, which is awfully convenient, in that kids’ TV way, because the ghost of the Egyptian Queen Faroh is looking for an immortal magician called Simious, who looks like an ape. He’s supposed to have the secret of immortality.

I’ve described some of Tracy’s oddball stunts, which Spencer and Kong see with their own eyes but never seem to acknowledge, as “magic.” This gets paid off this time, as Tracy is practicing the “cut a rope in two and pull it back out as one” trick. He drops the two halves in his hat, and then levitates out a trumpet, to which several colored handkerchiefs are tied, and finally the two halves, tied together. Kong sneers that he can’t do magic despite what he’s just witnessed, because the halves are tied.

Even though he laughed through the entire episode, Daniel insisted that the best part of the episode by far was the final gag, in which Tracy’s stage magic goes awry and he makes himself and Spencer disappear completely, somewhat ruining their intended surprise entrance to Kong’s birthday party. For whatever reason, the sight of the office door opening and closing by itself was his favorite among more than a dozen gags, although the message from Zero self, and the subsequent self-destruction, got a mention as well. He loves it “when Tracy makes an explosion!”

Faroh is played by Barbara Rhoades, who spent decades doing dozens of these taped-in-a-day roles, appearing in very small parts in pretty much everything, including four separate characters in four separate episodes of McMillan and Wife. She seems to have retired after a run of twenty episodes of the soap opera One Life to Live in 2011.

Queen Faroh’s mummy – she has to have a mummy – has the most peculiar superpower. Apparently, anybody he touches turns into a mummy as well. I scratched my head, trying to remember whether I’d ever heard of such a thing in fiction, until Tracy hands the mummy a flower and it instantly dies. Kong calls that – that! – mummification. I think “turns into a mummy” was an awkward compromise offered when CBS’s Broadcast Standard department told them they couldn’t use words like “kills.”

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The Ghost Busters 1.6 – The Dummy’s Revenge

I really enjoy watching Daniel watch this show. It’s practically the same thing every week (or, well, about every 4-5 days as we watch) but the oddball humor delights him even in repetition. They’ve only got about 22 minutes to spend each time, and they use about two of them for the filing cabinet gag and he chuckles and laughs all the way through it every time.

For me, the completely unexpected surreal gags trump the familiar one. This time, we see that they have a painting in their office that doubles as a record player, and there’s this completely hilarious throwaway bit where Ali Baba shows up, silently, to punctuate a punch line and exit, stage right. That’s brilliant, and it’s so stupid.

The guest star this week is a guy named Tim Herbert, who we previously overlooked in episodes 11 and 12 of Batman, where he played one of the Riddler’s gang. Born in 1914, Herbert was a second-generation Vaudevillian, and started working in small Hollywood roles in 1958. So it was a bit of cute casting to bring him in as “The Phantom of Vaudeville.” On the other hand, the Phantom is a ventriloquist, and voice-throwing is emphatically not among Herbert’s talents.

In this show’s universe, “phantoms” are not the same as “ghosts,” and so this fellow is immune to the Ghost Dematerializer. He has to actually be unmasked, leading our heroes to put on an old-fashioned soft-shoe to convince the Phantom that they’re actually an old act called Slapsy, Maxey, and Nijinsky. The hats and canes are, of course, from Tracy’s magic bag. Daniel got a few chuckles, and we told him this sort of music was quite popular ninety years ago. I’m not sure that he can conceptualize something as big as ninety years yet.

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