“Push the Button, Max”
In this column, I’ve written about nearly every genre of film, from the spooky to the dramatic to the comic to the romantic but have never really explored the epic.
You know the type: The film with such a long, important story to tell it requires an intermission. These range from great historical sagas like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia to more personal, but no less sweeping epics like Gone With The Wind. They can take us to far off places as did 2001: A Space Odyssey or more down to earth fantasies as Peter Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. Epics can deal with life stories such as Reds, Barry Lyndon and the musicals Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof. The one genre not given as much relevance is the epic comedy. Since we’re living in challenging times when laughter can be more important than ever, I’ll shine a spotlight on this little-known cinematic subset.
In order to do this, we will have to go all the way back to 1963. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World came out of nowhere and hit the silver screen with a bang. Starring some of the bigger names at the time (Spencer Tracey, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar and that biggest of all big names Ethel Merman) it told the story of a cross-country chase to find a buried fortune.
Along the way much comic hi-jinx ensues, with cameo appearances ranging from Jack Benny to the Three Stooges, adding to the fun. Suffice to say, the movie ends in a wild climax, involving a fire engine ladder and people flying off in every direction. It’s also obvious with that much talent, this film almost has to be long – although even that varies. There’s a 154-minute version, one lasting 174 minutes and a longer one runing 186 minutes.
The 1963 film lays the groundwork for future films. Flash forward to 1965, when a brash young director took full advantage of cinema’s experimental stage and wrote and directed a full-on epic farce called The Great Race. This film has it all, starting with the talented Blake Edwards.
Edwards, known primarily for his Pink Panther films, was no stranger to comedy. He had a hand in directing some of cinema’s greatest comedic actors, namely Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and most notably, his wife Julie Andrews, in Victor/Victoria and S.O.B.
In The Great Race he has Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood, who are clearly having the time of their lives. Telling the story of an automobile race from New York to Paris, this film recalls an old-style of film making, but in color. The characterizations are purposefully cardboard in that the hero is always dressed in white, while the villain’s wardrobe is predictably black, and everyone plays it broad. There’s spectacle and a rivalry between the two main characters which is cartoonish in its invention and hilarity. Race also features danger, palace intrigue and the largest and longest pie fight in cinematic history. There’s even opportunity for a sing-along. Oh, and it clocks in at about 160 minutes for anyone who’s counting.
Moreover, just as Mad World might have paved the way for Race, this film inspired two more lengthy comedies, which, though nowhere near as amusing, are worth checking out: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, also released in 1965, and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, released in 1969. Sadly, neither film reaches the mad cap heights of The Great Race, which may be the reason why there weren’t a lot of epic comedies which followed, but at least these are still out there and well worth seeing.
On the local front, I would be remiss not to mention the International Film Showcase is continuing its virtual cinema program. Check the schedule at InternationalShowcase.org.
Also, the Orinda Theatre should always be foremost in your mind. Thanks to all of you, the people who run the theatre are doing well, even going so far as opening on a limited basis. Recalling movie going as it used to be ages ago, they offer private screenings (Feel like a movie producer!) for parties of 25. They continue to have the Friday popcorn, wine and candy deal, virtual cinema and custom-made masks for sale. Go to Facebook.com/orindatheatre and their continuous GoFundMe efforts at https://www.gofundme.com/f/orinda-theatre-needs-your-help for more information.
So, until next month, I encourage everyone to keep watching those wonderful, flickering light-filled images, for that is where the reel magic lies.