By Craig Leask
What started as an ego driven concept to market a camera system, developed into a very successful series of star laden road films, all of which are over the top travel films loaded with scenery, locations, and movie stars.
What makes these films so entertaining is not necessarily the plot, but rather the unexpected pleasure derived from the numerous and unexpected cameos. Take for instance Around The World in 80 Days. In one several minute scene in an a Barbary Coast Saloon, Marlene Dietrich appears as the saloon owner, George Raft as her bouncer, Red Skelton as the local drunk and Frank Sinatra, with no lines of dialogue, in the corner playing the piano. None of these characters, nor even the stop in the Saloon has anything to do with explaining or advancing the plot, the character development nor providing any context to the overall story – they are solely there for the fun of it.
In the mid 1950’s, Michael Todd, a Broadway showman who had never before produced a film, had however developed a revolutionary new camera system called Todd-AO (American Optical). After a successful tryout with the filming of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1955), Todd was actively searching for a project with which to show off Todd-AO to its full capacity. He found his project in the 1872 Jules Verne novel, Around The Word in Eighty Days. This project, Todd decided, would be the ultimate star laden extravaganza, shot in 13 countries and costing a then unheard of $6 million. One of the most recognized sequences in the film (and the image used in most of the marketing material) is the balloon flight early in the film. Although the scene was not part of the original Jules Verne book, the scene was developed solely as a vehicle to show off Todd AO capabilities at their best, presenting glorious aerial location images on giant curved theatre screens used in the process. Little did Todd know at the time that he was setting the stage for many similar star heavy, location based road movies to follow.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Set in 1872, Around the World in 80 Days tells the story of Victorian Englishman Phileas Fogg (David Niven), who wagers his fortune with fellow members of London’s Reform Club that he could circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. Losing the bet would ruin him financially, so he needs to depend heavily on his regimented organizational prowess, and a heavy reliance on the precise alignment of exacting train, sailing and coach schedules to win the wager. Accompanied by his newly acquired French valet, Passepartout (Latin America’s Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes who worked under the stage name, Cantinflas), and the Princess Aouda, weakly played by a very miscast Shirley MacLaine.
Beautifully shot in 112 different locations around the world, and in 140 sets in studios in Hollywood, England, Hong Kong and Japan, Around The World in 80 Days is one of the few novels which actually benefitted from a big screen treatment at the time. No longer did audiences of the 1950’s have to imagine these exotic locations and countries. Instead they are presented in full cinematic and Technicolor brilliance through the new widescreen Todd-AO filming process. The main redeeming quality to what is basically a fun and interestingly presented travelogue, is that no matter what corner of the globe our intrepid heroes appear, they are helped, delayed, or briefly acquaint themselves with cameos of more than 40 world famous movie stars. Other than the stars mentioned above, other notable “extras” making appearances in the film are John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Glynis Johns, John Carradine, and Buster Keaton as the conductor on an American train.
With the large and impressive list of notable extras, the only way to properly provide them with credit in the film was through the addition of a 6-minute animated “summation” of the films plot. Starting with the words “WHO WAS SEEN IN WHAT SCENE … AND WHO DID WHAT” the plot is then recapped through cartoon images, allowing the names of each of the cast members to be shown in relation to their scene, accompanied by an animated image of their character.
In addition to the lead stars and the notable ones mentioned, the shoot required 68,894 extras, 7,959 animals and a wardrobe of 74,685 costumes (costing $410,000). This was reportedly the most costumes ever required for a Hollywood production (according to Time magazine’s original review of the film).
As Around the World in 80 Days was made long before the age of CGI, Todd’s over the top special effects, helped to win him five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a 1963 comedy based on a story by Tania Rose, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. With a dream all-star cast of leads and supporting actors comprising some of the best television and movie comedians of 1963, the film follows the chaotic pursuit of $350,000 in stolen cash by a diverse collection of eccentric strangers.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a classic simply due to two basic premises: the brilliantly conceived script, designed to beautifully showcase the unique talents of each comedian’s distinctive schtick and timing; and the cast which, in my opinion, is the sole reason to watch the film. Without this cast, the film could quite easily have been an unmemorable failure, which over time faded into obscurity. The story is actually quite ridiculous if you dissect it, but the brilliance is in the fact that the film knows it and, doesn’t take itself at all seriously. It’s nothing more than a mindless and entertaining joy ride, but a fun one at that.
The story opens with an aerial shot of a sedan careening through a twisting mountain highway in central California. Losing control, the car lurches off a sharp curve and crashes down a steep precipice. Five good Samaritans immediately stop to aid the unfortunate motorist: honeymooners Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); Vegas bound friends Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and seaweed business owner J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud, obnoxious mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman, who brilliantly steals every scene she is in). The group of strangers work their way down into the steep valley where they discover the dying driver, a recently released convict “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), who had been fleeing police surveillance at the time of the accident. Just before passing (literally kicking the bucket), Grogan reveals the location of a $350,000 stash of stolen money buried in the Santa Rosita State Park under “a big W.” Unable to reach agreement on an equitable method to divide the money, the race is on in an “every man for himself” chase across the state to reach the park. Following their every move is Spencer Tracy as T. G. Culpepper, Captain of the Santa Rosita Police Force.
Like Around The World in 80 Days, the value in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is its cast, a virtual who’s who in the comedy world. Not just those listed above, but nearly every big name in comedy of the 1950s and 1960s was featured in the film, some simply in walk in, non-speaking roles. Assembling and casting the biggest names in comedy in a single film is not what makes “Mad World” remarkable. It is Stanley Kramer’s talented directing that enables a simple walk in shot to add to the overall film. In an opening scene, Jerry Lewis with his trademark idiotically happy look, driving over Tracy’s hat early in the film; in a crowd scene the camera pans past The Three Stooges dressed as firemen; Jack Benny, simply shown behind the wheel in a car driving through the desert; Peter Falk as an easily irritated cab driver; Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jesse White, Buster Keaton, Paul Ford – each actor is shown in a situation which expertly shows off their peculiar style of comedy. These are scenes that become funny simply because of the actor who is in it. More importantly, the cast apparently had a blast making the film and it shows. Each actor was seemingly given the latitude to work their strengths – bring their expertise to show off their talents. Regrettably, the impact of these roles has lost its effect and comedic impact today as few people remember who most of these performers were.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World became a critical and commercial success, nominated for six Academy Awards including Cinematography, Editing and Score, winning for Best Sound Editing, as well as earning two Golden Globe Award nominations including Best Motion Picture (Music or Comedy) and Best Actor for Johathan Winters.
Leave it to Hollywood however to take a good thing and beat it to death. Recognizing the colossal amount of money and accolades generated by these two all-star road romps, many, many copycats soon followed including:
- The Great Race (1965)
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965)
- Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969)
The frequency and volume of similar films became too much and they lost their appeal. This however has never stopped Hollywood who, every few years, retest the waters with new attempts to profit from the formula …
- Scavenger Hunt (1979)
- Million Dollar Mystery (1987)
- Rat Race (2001)
… not to mention the 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days with Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan in the featured roles, and Arnold Schwarzenegger who won the Razzie award for worst supporting actor.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.