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.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.11 – Horror in the Heights

And now back to December 1974. We rejoin Darren McGavin halfway through the only season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. “Horror in the Heights” was written by Jimmy Sangster, who, as I learned from a delightful little nostalgia book called The Best of Crime and Detective TV‘s chapter on Kolchak, had written several Hammer horror films. I picked up that book in 1987 or so, and that was probably the first fact I ever absorbed about Hammer’s movies, other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had been in many of them. It stuck with me to the point that whenever I, much, much later on, sat down to watch a Hammer, I’d always smile when I saw Sangster’s name in the credits, knowing I was in for a good one.

I’ve seen many writers, including the authors of that book, single out “Horror in the Heights” as the very best episode of the Kolchak series, second only to the original TV movie. I honestly enjoy a few other installments much more, especially the wittier ones, but “Heights” is nevertheless a darn fine hour with some shocking moments and a very rare and very underplayed one.

Prior to this episode, Carl Kolchak has always fought alone. Even when he does pick up allies, he has to convince them what’s happening. This is the first time that our hero gets to meet anybody who’s been doing this monster-killing business already. He meets a very old man who has been hunting rakshashas for sixty years. Rakshashas are beasts who use mind control to appear to their victims as somebody that they can trust, seducing them before eating all the flesh from their bones. This is actually telegraphed in a remarkably grisly visual that opens the story, with a character entering a filthy meat packing plant and finding hordes of rats nesting in the offal that’s just been left aside for later disposal.

There’s a pretty strong cast for this dark outing. Phil Silvers is top-billed among the guests, and it’s always nice to see him in a straight dramatic role. Murray Matheson gets a chance to clown around as an antiques dealer who thinks he’s funnier than he actually is. But the show is stolen by Ruth McDevitt’s recurring character of Miss Emily. We think that Carl is going to be safe from the rakshasha when he tells the monster-hunting Ali Lakshmi that he doesn’t trust anybody. And then Miss Emily proves him wrong.

Our son had been pretending to be scared and unnerved that we were returning Kolchak to the rotation, but he didn’t hide his face away or anything, and told us afterward that this episode wasn’t really scary. Then Marie pointed out that if a rakshasha were to come after him, it would probably disguise itself as one of us. That got a funny grimace.