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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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