Classic Cars on Film: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Still believe Cannonball Run set the tone for big-screen, star-studded car mayhem? Let 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World change your opinion...

If there’s one word that encapsulates almost all three hours and 17 minutes of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it’s ‘Chrysler’.

Of course, there are several other marques on screen – a 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner Convertible and a ’61 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe to cite but two examples – but the narrative is dominated by the 1963 model-year Mopar line-up. Such was the automotive giant’s involvement with the production, that Ethel Merman’s original line – ‘WE’RE the ones in the Cadillac and WE’RE running last?’ had to be changed to substitute the word ‘Imperial’.

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The film opens with a 1957 Ford Fairlane, piloted by former major criminal ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Jimmy Durante), speeding off a highway in California. Fifteen years earlier he buried $350,000 from a robbery in a Santa Rosita park – ‘under a big W’. It’s a deathbed information upon which the small group of motorists who stop to lend their assistance are quick to act.

Of the main protagonists, Sid Caesar (a substitute for Ernie Kovacs, who died shortly before filming commenced) and Edie Adams drive a Plymouth Fury station wagon. Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett favour a 1954 VW Beetle Convertible, while the aforementioned Imperial Crown convertible is driven by Milton Berle. Jonathan Winters – ‘in a democracy it don’t matter how stupid you are, you still get an equal share’ – uses a Ford C-600 wagon.

Before long, the race to Santa Rosita will be joined by a 1947 Ford Sport De Luxe convertible containing Otto Meyer – played by Phil Silvers as, to quote the great critic Roger Ebert, ‘a con man whose naked avarice would give Sgt Bilko himself pause’ – plus Terry-Thomas in a Jeep station wagon.

By the early 1960s, the specialist in bounders, cads and rotters was regularly working on both sides of the Atlantic, and IAMMMMW was the film that crystallised Terry-Thomas’ screen image for generations. And we should not forget Dick Shawn’s Sylvester, an ageing would-be beatnik who drives his red Dodge Dart 440 Convertible in a manner that was not recommended by the Highway Code.

The director Stanley Kramer vowed to create ‘the comedy to end all comedies’, and from a 2018 viewpoint, one of the major fascinations is the way the film captures the JFK-era States on celluloid. This was the last days of the tail fin, and a time when men wore snap-brimmed fedoras and shirts with button-down collars.

To a British audience sat in the 1/9d seats of the Southampton ABC in 1963, even vehicles that would have seemed mundane to US cinemagoers would have appeared almost impossibly exotic; for instance, the Buick Electra ambulances or the ’59 Plymouth Belvedere taxis – one of which was driven by a young Peter Falk.

The film is suffused with star cameos, and Jerry Lewis in a rather splendid Chrysler 300 H Convertible is one of several instantly recognisable faces. By the way, if the voices of the garage attendants encountered by an irate Mr W sound familiar to fans of Top Cat, it’s because they’re played by Arnold ‘TC’ Stang and Marvin ‘Choo Choo’ Kaplan.

IAMMMMW took seven months and the combined efforts of 34 members of The Stuntman’s Association of America to complete. In the words of Carey Loftin, who would famously coordinate the car-related sequences on Bullitt: ‘You name a stunt – we did it.’ The crash scene of the Fairlane was especially elaborate for the period, as the Ford was driven via automatic pilot.

The special-effects artist Danny Lee and his team had acquired equipment from aerospace plants and the California Institute of Technology, and the result was a car that departed the highway at 80mph via radio control.

The film could not be made today in the same form – just think of how so many characters in IAMMMMW are desperate to find a public telephone, for example – but the message remains valid after 55 years.

Beneath the stunning Panavision photography and guest appearances from the likes of The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton and Eddie Anderson (to name but a few) is a narrative concerned with the effects of greed. And as for the conclusion… in case any reader has not yet seen the film, all we can say is beware any disillusioned senior police official who drives a sober-looking base-specification black Dodge Dart…

Buy this movie!

Available on a range of formats, you can buy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World through Amazon.

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