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Thursday, July 14, 2016

THE GREAT RACE (1965)

One of those bigger-is-better slapstick comedies from the mid-‘60s, like IT’S A MAD. MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD/’63 or THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES/’65, only this one’s also funny. There’s just too much of it. After two Inspector Clouseau pics (PINK PANTHER/’63; SHOT IN THE DARK/’64), Blake Edwards no doubt seemed a safe choice for the bean-counters @ Warners until the budget ballooned from 3 to 12 mill! (Note the ‘desperation’ poster, designed to hide any period elements.)

At least you can see where the money went! A mammoth production and an unusually handsome/imaginative one, with fanciful sets, whimsical model work* & fun special effects to get us around the world via vintage automobiles heading west from New York to Paris. But 45 minutes of set-up before reaching the starting line? The obvious thing to cut is the half-hour Ruritanian PRISONER OF ZENDA travesty in the second half. (You know, the lookalike King & Commoner story.) Except, it’s the best, funniest, most disciplined episode in here. Exceptionally well directed & designed, even as a straight piece, with a smash sword fight, yet utterly hilarious. The leads play broadly, but get their laughs, though Natalie Wood (extra pretty here) doesn’t exactly have comedy technique to burn. (You long for Kay Kendall to redo her similar role from GENEVIEVE/’53, an earlier car race caper.) Ah well, sit back & enjoy the excess, along with a Blake Edwards tutorial on his ‘Noises Off’ comic method.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The rivalry between Tony Curtis’s good-guy hero & Jack Lemmon’s frustrated villain is like a live-action RoadRunner/Wile E. Coyote battle; while the film’s dedication to Laurel & Hardy plays out in the slow comic vibe between Lemmon’s Professor Fate and Peter Falk as his sorrowful accomplice. Plus, in the film’s biggest set piece, a pie fight to end all pie fights (leaving the set looking like a lost Jackson Pollack canvas), a nod toward THE BATTLE OF CENTURY/’27, a famous long-lost Laurel & Hardy short only recently found, restored and Re-premiering @ MoMA 7/15/16. (Sure to find its way into various video formats.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/SPOILERS: *The film’s final gag, which destroys a well known international monument, was largely accomplished by the dean of Hollywood effects & process work at the time, Linwood Dunn. But what’s on screen was merely a test model he ran up quickly to give Edwards an idea of what he could do. Turned out, the toy model effect was exactly what Edwards wanted. Too real and you kill the gag. Something to keep in mind when thinking about the difference between film technicians and film artists.

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