Monday, March 24, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Two Kinds of Mad

Improving technology in the 1950s and early 1960s allowed moviemakers to film big! movies, epics that matched outsized storylines with sweeping camera vistas and town-sized casts. The Ten Commandments bowed in 1956, Cleopatra in 1953, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and so on. But it wasn't until the early 1960s that the idea of an epic comedy took hold, when director Stanley Kramer brought It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to the screen with a top-level comedic cast and a roll of extras and cameos that might as well have said. "Everybody Else." 

World grabbed vaudeville, silent-film, radio, early sketch-TV and stand-up comedians for its sprawling looney-bin ride with five groups of people who happen to overhear dying mobster Smiler Grogan's (Jimmy Durante) directions to the loot from a long-ago job. After an unsuccessful attempt to fairly divide the money, each group decides poverty can take the hindmost and they all race to the site, a park in a coastside California town some 200 miles away. Naturally, their attempts to gain the lead and sabotage each other go laughably wrong while police keep discreet surveillance and report their progress to police Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy). Culpeper arrested Grogan for the robbery of a tuna factory but could never find the loot, and Grogan never squealed.

As their prize gets closer and their efforts get more and more frenzied, the different searchers lose more and more of their composure and reserve. Sid Caesar's Melville Crump shows this most clearly, as the calm and rational dentist becomes a disheveled, paint-spattered dynamite-happy version of Captain Ahab over the course of the movie.

Kramer premiered a three-hour version of the movie and the studio trimmed an hour for general release. Most copies seen today have most of Kramer's premiere version with some missing bits. His original cut was supposed to have been something like five hours long, which would have been unendurable. As it is, World could use a significant trim; the Spencer Tracy storyline has way too much detail and ten minutes of Buddy Hackett screaming is about forty minutes too much. It's also unreasonable to believe that many pickaxes could be around Ethel Merman's supremely obnoxious Mrs. Marcus character and not a one of them winds up buried in her skull. 

A lot of the fun in World is playing spot the cameo (my favorite is the Three Stooges as firemen at the Rancho Conejo airport, and Jack Benny has the best use of a signature line). It's unlikely a movie like it could get made today; comedy has divvied itself up into too many specialties to be able to bring together a cast of this kind of breadth and recognition. Give Dane Cook a cameo where he "su-fi's" one of the money-chasers? Have Larry the Cable Guy growl "Git'r'done!" while piloting a plane? Who outside their fanbases would recognize those moves or catchphrases? And who would care? The different Muppet movies probably come closest, and they've mostly been made by people smart enough to keep them under 100 minutes long (the two recent Disney studio Muppet movies, capitalizing on Millennial nostalgia as much as their own comedy, bloat closer and closer to the two-hour mark). Although as much an artifact as good movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is plenty of fun that's enhanced by judicious use of the fast-forward button.
During the filming of 1980's Tom Horn, Steve McQueen noticed a difficulty breathing. He would subsequently be diagnosed with cancer, making the biographical tale of a 19th-century Western wanderer lost as his world changed the legendary tough-guy actor's next-to-last movie.

Horn was based on Horn's own autobiography, written and told to a Wyoming cattleman friend, and is a recognizable version of supposedly historical events.

Horn drifts through the Wyoming wilderness after stints as a scout and interpreter for the U.S. military in the Southwest, as well as a deputy and Pinkerton agency operative. In 1901 he takes on a role for a local cattlemen's association to stop rustlers, with the approval of the local U.S. Marshall. But the association, aware of the changing world of the new 20th century, is less and less comfortable with the violent tactics Horn perfected in the 19th. They resolve to take care of the problem he represents by fair means or foul, and since they prefer to be behind the scenes and not in front of Horn's deadly skill with a rifle, the scales tip towards foul. Their change of heart and personal matters leave Horn angry, but whether or not that's angry enough to cross the line of the law remains to be seen.

McQueen was a top actor as well as an action hero, and he brings Horn to the screen as a scruffy product of the plains mostly confused by the way the world around him has changed from what he knew. Most of the rest of the cast just react to him, some adequately and others less so, offering confirmation of the change and commentary on what they think of Horn himself by way of those reactions.

But Horn the movie is seriously unfocused and unclear on what it wants to say about the transition. Is the change from the wide-open West of Horn's youth to the more civilized surroundings of that day a gain? A loss? A mixture? Something else? The multiple director changes and eventual helming by rookie William Wiard leave the movie unable to make up its mind about that question and strand McQueen's work in the middle of performances from competent but uninspired co-stars and the muddle of a story that doesn't know where it wants to wind up so it just ends.

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