It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and a few more movies

#188  [archive]

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Some people swear that this is the funniest movie ever made. It was my dad's favorite comedy, and the whole family gathered 'round the telly whenever it was on, so I've seen it several times. Must've been half snipped away to squeeze into a TV set, though — it's in widescreen CinemaScope, and three and a half hours long. That's longer than Lawrence of Arabia, and more than an hour longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, a moviemaker known for 'big message' movies like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and On the Beach. Comedy was not known to be Kramer's genius.

Spencer Tracy stars, as a decrepit detective chasing Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, and Jonathan Winters. They're all on a mad treasure hunt, looking for a dead bad guy's buried loot — $350,000!

Half the Hollywood phone book shows up for at least a moment. Among the many, many cameos, my favorites (in order of funniness) are Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges — and the Stooges don't even do anything; they're simply a sight gag. The saddest cameo is Buster Keaton, who's given nothing to do except be there.

This is comedy from a different era, so it's sexist, of course. Men leering at a woman's backside — ha ha! Ethel Merman is the only woman in the cast allowed any presence, and all she's given to do is yell.

It's racist too, but only in the sense that nobody black was invited except Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, who gets to sit in Abe Lincoln's lap for a laugh.

Everything about IAMMMMW is loud, never subtle, often silly, and it never slows down. And yet really, nothing much happens. Sid and Mrs Caesar spend an hour stuck in the basement of a hardware store. You could run out for pizza, and Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett would still be flying a plane they don't know how to fly. Dick Shawn spends half the movie hysterically running stop signs in his forever-rush to rescue his momma.

And is any of this funny? Yeah, it is. This is not the funniest movie ever made, or even the funniest film of 1963, not while The Pink Panther and Son of Flubber still exist. But I heard myself laughing, and more often I was smiling. It's a long, long, long, long afternoon wearing a slight grin.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Cell 2455: Death Row (1955) 

Generations later, most Americans — even those of us who aren't true crime fans — still know the name Caryl Chessman. He was a famously despicable kidnapper, serial rapist, and all-around bad guy of the 1940s.

This is his life story, based on his autobiography, and narrated by the actor playing him.

Unsurprisingly, the film of Chessman's life goes easy on Chessman. He had it rough as a kid, you know, and never liked authority, so that's why he started stealing cars and doing stickups and using awful language like "Dirty rotten copper." He got famous for interrupting teenage make-out sessions in parked cars, to kidnap and rape the girls, but remember, he had it rough as a kid.

Despite an introduction explaining (whitewashing) who Chessman was, even showing us a copy of his book, in the movie he goes by the made-up name "Whit Whittier." 

He's played by William Campbell, which is the reason Cell 2455 landed on my watchlist. A decade after this, Campbell played Trelane, "The Squire of Gothos," on a memorable episode of the original Star Trek.

He was great there, as an obnoxious boy-god (and clearly the inspiration for The Next Generation's tedious "Q"). Here, though, Campbell is comically bad, overplaying every emotion and every line the script hands him.

So far as we know, Chessman never killed anyone, but his rape spree got him the death penalty. He wrote his book on death row, hoping to gain sympathy and end the "Lindbergh Law," which made kidnapping a capital offense. This movie serves the same purpose as the book, to argue against the death penalty. 

And that's stupid. Chessman was a wretched, malevolent man, and this biopic about him is thoroughly unpleasant — it's not going to win any arguments against execution.

Your humble film critic is opposed to the death penalty in all cases, even for someone like Chessman. I am also, however, opposed to bad movies.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dead Space (1991)

This is a cheap rip-off of Alien and Carpenter's The Thing, with poor 1980s effects work and almost no energy.

It stars Marc Singer, already well on his way to being washed-up, and he seems disinterested, considering that he's stuck at a space station in the midst of an epidemic.

In the background are two women who mostly aren't depicted as bimbos, which is appreciated. There's also pre-fame Bryan Cranston as a sciency guy, and some kid who looks and very much acts like a high schooler, but people treat him as if he's a grownup so I guess he's a grownup. 

The movie is from Roger Corman, but it's not one of his good ones. It feels like something made for TV, but there's brief (too brief) nudity, so I guess some poor fools wasted money to watch this.

Not me. I pirated it.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

• Coming attractions •

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) 

The Cook (1918)

Doctor Who (second season, 2006)

Good Night, Nurse (1918)

The Scarecrow (1920)

Scarecrow (1973) 

Stalker (1979) 

Street Trash (1987) 

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) 

The YouTube Effect (2022) 

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • And then •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Atomic Cafe (1982) 

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004) 

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)

Downsizing (2017) 

The Exterminating Angel (1964)

Fog Over Frisco (1934) 

The General (1926)

God Bless America (2011)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hobo (1992) 

Invader (1991) 

Jesus of Montreal (1989)

John Wick (2014)

The Killing of America (1981) 

Lady in the Van (2015)

The Last Case of August T Harrison (2015) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) 

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1940)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

Motel (1989)

The Naked City (1948)

The Night Strangler (1973) 

Nightmare Alley (1947)

9 to 5 (1980) 

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002) 

Poison (1990) 

Popeye (1980) 

Reflections of Evil (2002) 

Risky Business (1983) 

The Rockford Files (debut episode; 1974)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004) 

The Scarecrow (1920) 

Scarecrow (1973)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

Smothered (2002)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Special Bulletin (1983) 

Squirm (1976) 

Stephen Fry in America (2008) 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) 

The Man Who Thought Life (1969) 

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974) 

The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time (1981)

Tank Girl (1995)

Taoism Drunkard (1981) 

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006) 

You Can't Take It With You (1938)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. I was contemporaneous with IAMMMMW (I saw it in a theater when I was 13) and I walked away thinking it was not too long and pretty funny. I watched it on TV in my 20s w/weed, and lots of commercials (the only way to watch it on TV in my 20s) and it seemed a little unfunny and a little uncomfortable (except for 90 seconds with Jonathan Winters). I didn't know why until I read your review. You got it right. The sexism and racism stand in sharp relief against what we should have learned in the 60s. And a director who disrespects Eddie Anderson and the Three Stooges should be shot or kicked in the ass. And what the hell was Spencer Tracy doing in this film? Was he broke? Thanks for takin the time to watch this movie and review it as it should be reviewed: It managed to capture most of the things wrong with America in 1963. As a comedy, it was sort of a tragedy.


    1. Was or were it a specific 90 seconds with Jonathan Winters? He's usually so frantic in going for a laugh, in this he was my favorite character — just a downhome nice guy truck driver, until you get him mad.

      I assume Mr Tracy was well-paid. They sure had a budget. He was the movie's serious grounding, a necessary element, and he was the guy my dad identified with. During the commercials Dad talked about Tracy's character, and Dad didn't talk much.
      Definitely enjoyed the movie. It's a big hunk of effort, often funny, never boring, and So Dang Big. Was there ever a comedy so huge?

    2. The scene where he leveled the gas station.


    3. I should have taken the case of the mood disorder offline. I was talking to a professional writer who or whom is quite capable of writing a coherent paragraph in any mood. Now I'm starting to get the moody blues.


    4. Jonathan Winters sneezing or scratching his balls for 90 seconds would be hilarious.

  2. I enjoy it when you start speaking Trekkie, even against a background of Caryl Chessman. It's like Morticia Adams speaking French. It sorta makes you come extra alive.


    1. I can feel your hot smooches working their way up my arm!

    2. I'm stopping at the shoulder unless you're concealing a folded up twenty dollar bill.


    3. Nothing's concealed. It's right out in the open.

  3. Which reminds me. I don't recall your reviewing a Ritz Brothers film. Fox screwed them over badly, but I think they managed to make a couple of watchable movies anyway (Darryl Zanuck should go F. himself). Maybe if their name hadn't reminded people of the Marxes they would have made 20 movies instead of three or four. They were very different than the Marxes and still got compared. Tough break, but I'd like to hear someday what you thought of one of their films.


    1. Coming up blank. Did *you* like them? What's your favorite and I'll check it out...

    2. My Mom and Dad liked them OK. Try The Three Musketeers (1939) or The Gorilla (1939) or Argentine Nights (1940).It's not not notch cinema, but it has its charms and the brothers can dance.


    3. I've chosen one Ritz Brother film from your list, and shall report back. :)


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