Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Madness...Times Four

Today hasn't quite turned out like I had expected.  I had planned to use the laptop computers with my speech classes today and then have a nice, relaxing 6th and 8th periods while our guidance counselor went over the specifics of scheduling them for their junior year.  However, even the best laid plans can have hiccups.  First, the laptop cart was taken by the technology dept. and so I had to (in a matter or seconds) reschedule my speech class for the library computers...and then my 6th period was less than relaxing because the only way our sophomore guidance counselor could see all of the English classes was to combine my class (which is not exactly stellar) with another teacher's class (which is comprised of a surprising variety of hoodlums) and thus, it was interesting to say the least.  For the first hour it was fairly quiet and respectful, but I could sense the outbreak simmering below the surface.  Then when she passed out the class choice forms...it was like the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  Ok, maybe it wasn't that bad but it certainly was chaotic.  I'm hoping that 8th period, which is not combined with anyone's class, is nicer and more restrained.  I was put in the mindset of madness, though, and thinking about how quickly placidity becomes absolute bedlam under the right circumstances...and I was reminded of a film that is being released on Blu-ray today as one of MGM's latest catalogue releases.  It is an amazing sight...a screwball/chase comedy featuring some of that decade's biggest stars that can also be classified as an epic, seeing as it runs over two and a half hours.  You might think that a comic genre cannot sustain a film of such a massive length and would grow stale and boring...and that is where the film defies by being one of the most engaging and entertaining comedies of the 1960s.  So let's join in on the chase as we find out that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

A group of strangers all traveling the same stretch of road find themselves thrown into a crazy adventure when an out of control car nearly runs them off the road.  The driver of the car is "Smiler" Grogan, a suspect in a tuna factory robbery 15 years ago.  The strangers, Melville Crump, a dentist; Lennie Pike, a furniture mover; Dingy Bell and Benjy Benjamin, two friends on their way to Las Vegas; and J. Russell Finch, an entrepreneur, all bear witness to Smiler's dying words.  As he fades away, he reveals that he has hidden away his stolen fortune of $350,000 in Santa Rosa under "a big W".  The strangers all agree to ignore the information...at least for a hot minute.  Soon they are all convincing themselves to go after the cash (or in the case of Finch, convinced by an overbearing mother-in-law) and are dead set on arriving there first so they can profit and screw the others out of a cut.  The race to the finish becomes nasty, then violent, and then all-out insane as they ruin cars, boats, planes, and other assorted vehicles in their pursuit of financial gain.  Along the way, more and more bystanders who hear about the stolen money begin to join in on the hunt until it seems like the whole world is out to get the loot...along with a police detective who has been hunting Smiler and his loot for 15 years.  Who will succeed?

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the perfect kind of blockbuster.  It takes a very simple idea and then adds in hundreds of characters that will add to the drama of the simple idea and expand the run time to over 2 hours.  Then you cast the whole picture, even the cameo roles, with huge Hollywood stars. It then no longer feels like a simple idea...it feels like an event.  Irwin Allen would use this formula to good effect many times when he produced his disaster movies...but Mad is probably more effective than any of those, because it is a comedy.  No one dies (except for Jimmy Durante as Smiler) and all the violent situations end with some kind of punchline so the audience remains enthralled and in suspense without getting depressed.  It really shouldn't work and should play more like a gargantuan mistake, however thanks to the film's unabashed disdain for anything traditional and it's embracing of all that is insane and hilarious.  There are clear protagonists who have arcs...but they often change and aren't always who you think.  Also, its amazing which characters you will find memorable in the assortment.  Some latch onto Spencer Tracy's downtrodden police detective while others relate to the arc of Dorothy Provine who plays the seen and rarely heard (until the end) wife of Milton Berle's Finch.  Myself, I tend to follow Ethel Merman's Mrs. Marcus, the shrill and overbearing mother-in-law of Finch (because she is so beautifully insufferable).  There's something and someone for everyone in this film...as long as you can outlast the run time.  I think the only downside to Mad is it's extremely long run time, which seems excessive but ends up being necessary given the sizable load of characters in the piece.  However, should your butt fall asleep during the viewing...it doesn't hurt to hit the pause button at Intermission.  Rent it for a Friday or Saturday night when you don't have anything planned and laugh yourself silly.

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