The Criterion Collection team announces new titles once a month, and last year they hinted that they’d be doing a fresh treatment on the 1963 epic Stanley Kramer comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and now, several months later, it’s finally here, and for fans of the film it truly is a dream come true.
This new five disc box set has to be the ultimate edition. As far as movie buffs go, exploring the discs is like discovering lost treasures; the riches are priceless. What you have is not only a razor sharp, Blu-Ray edition of the general release 163-minute version – that in itself is a worthy edition to any collection – but also a newly restored digital transfer of a 197-minute extended version that incorporates all kind of scenes previously thought lost.
If you were a collector of Laser Discs, you may remember a box set of the film released twenty years ago that added lost scenes found in rusty cans buried in a California warehouse set for demolition. Those lost reels of film were cleaned, spruced up, and integrated back into the film. With this new DVD release, those same missing scenes are cleaned further and restored, but the Criterion gang has included even more lost material. When you see the words Ultimate Edition on the box, this one’s not kidding.
When writers William and Tania Rose first proposed the idea, they described the theme of the film as Greed on Wheels and proposed that the film should be called So Many Thieves. The American born writers had previously worked on small, British comedies and they had their new work take place all in one long, frenetic day in Scotland, but later changed the location to California. At the time, director Stanley Kramer was best known for serious projects, so when a New York film critic passed a comment that while Kramer might be good at handling dramas with issues, he would most likely be less successful handling comedies, Kramer took it as a challenge and set out to make the comedy of all comedies.
The original film that opened on the huge Cinerama screen in Los Angeles ran well past the three hour mark, but when it went out on general release throughout the country, it was cut down to size. Most of those cuts, approved by Kramer, admittedly made the film sharper and gave it a snappy edge, but fans of the film have always wanted to see what was missing, myself included, and now, for the most part, they can. For example, during its original Cinerama run, the film didn’t stop at the intermission. When movie-goers took a break and went into the lobby or even the rest-rooms, the soundtrack to the film continued and was piped in through speakers. What you heard were police reports announcing what all the characters in the film were currently doing under surveillance, so when the second half began, you knew exactly where every character was.
When you acquire the box set, and you should, go straight to the audio commentary with the three film historians responsible for the transfer on the 197-minute version. There is so much information crammed into the commentary, anything you had ever wanted to know about Mad World is there. Everyone in the film was cast to type, so as soon as you saw any of the famous comedians make their appearance, you immediately knew exactly what you needed to know about the character, no exposition required.
Dick Shawn incorporated his live act into his character of Sylvester Marcus. Phil Silvers plays his role of Otto Meyer as Bilko’s evil twin brother, and it was Buster Keaton who was initially supposed to play the Smiler Grogan role but it eventually went to Jimmy Durante. That’s why Keaton’s character, seen only in a brief moment in the second half, is called Jimmy; they swapped roles. Peter Sellers was to star in the role of the British character Algernon Hawthorne but wanted too much money, so the role was given to Terry-Thomas, and it made him an international star.
There are also documentaries, press interviews, a Q&A session with some of the remaining living actors, hosted by Billy Crystal. Even the little pull-out booklet with new drawings from cartoonist Jack Davis contains a good read. Plus, the box cover uses the original poster from the film, something I’ve always felt all DVD covers should do.
The box set is difficult to find. Local stores didn’t have it listed on their inventory. The best way is to order it is on-line, it might be the only way you’ll find it.
Final word. On the audio commentary, when talking about the huge Cinerama films of the early sixties, the historians on the commentary make the point that out of this huge cast, only one performer appeared in another Cinerama epic of the day, and that was Andy Devine in How The West Was Won. Admittedly, the sprawling western epic used the voice of Spencer Tracy, but you never saw him. It’s an interesting fact, but incomplete. I have to wonder if anyone has told the guys that there was also another huge Cinerama epic out at the same time as How The West Was Won, and that was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and that film had appearances from Jim Backus, Arnold Stang, Terry Thomas and Buddy Hackett, all alumni from Mad World, no Andy Devine in sight. I’m sure someone will tell them about it soon.
To order a copy of The Criterion Collection edition of the film, click on the poster below: