It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

“There’s money in this for all of us. Right?”

As he lies dying from a car crash, an ex-con (Jimmy Durante) tells a motley group of witnesses — Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, and Ethel Merman — about a stash of money he has hidden under a “giant W”. Soon they are in a fierce competition — secretly overseen by a police detective (Spencer Tracy) — to be the first to find it.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Car Chase
  • Comedy
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Greed
  • Hidden Treasure
  • Mickey Rooney Films
  • Peter Falk Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Stanley Kramer Films
  • Zasu Pitts Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is mostly enthusiastic in his GFTFF review of this all-star cult comedy — produced and directed by Stanley Kramer as a “salute to slapstick” — which was one of just five feature films shot in a single-lens version of Cinerama. He argues that the “all star cast” — most of whom are “known for their verbal skills” — “prove equal to the task”; that “there are some spectacular stunts and some imaginative plot twists”; and that while the film may “be too long”, this nonetheless “allows all the stars ample time to be in the spotlight”. He notes that while “much humor… falls flat”, there is “also a great deal of hilarity in [the] film, both visual and verbal”, with Kramer effectively demonstrating “that old, familiar slapstick bits are still funny”. Finally, he argues that Kramer miraculously “manages to maintain a frantic pace throughout” the film’s lengthy (nearly three hours — and it was originally much longer!) running time.

In his later, more detailed analysis of the film written for Cult Movies 3, however, Peary is suddenly much more critical. He claims that … Mad World “makes a mockery of humanity” given that the individuals seeking the hidden money are either “stupid, loud, vulgar, mean, corrupt, shameless, and[/or] greedy”. He points out that we never really feel much “affection” for any of the characters — other than Spencer Tracy, for a little while:

— and that “we miss a sympathetic character to root for, someone who has a noble purpose for acquiring the money”. In this review, he argues that despite its purported aim to serve as an homage to silent slapstick films, the film is “filled with superfluous dialogue” used “to camouflage… uninspired sight gags”, which in turn lack “intricate pacing” or any “build to a big-laugh payoff”. He posits that “the wrong types of comedians were cast” (he’s especially disparaging of Rooney and Hackett, who he claims “should have been replaced by… two much zanier performers”), and, in sum, refers to … Mad World as a “disappointing, wrongly conceived film” — though one which is “by no means a total disaster”.

After reading both reviews – and scratching my head plenty over how one reviewer could offer such widely divergent takes on the same film — I found myself agreeing primarily with Peary’s Cult Movies 3 review. While I find the premise and plot twists remarkably clever — and enjoyed “watching for cameos from the likes of Jerry Lewis” and others — overall there’s little here to actively engage anyone but cult followers of the film. And while it’s true, as Peary notes, that the lengthy running time allows most of the stars ample time to shine, none of them are at their comedic best. Sid Caesar, just for instance — so brilliant in his sketch comedy series (see Ten From Your Show of Shows, 1973) — is merely serviceable here playing a married man trying to blast his way out of a locked hardware store; and despite Peary’s claims that Ethel Merman was a “good sport to play such a character”, her outrageously obnoxious mother-in-law is someone you desperately hope to see obliterated within a few moments of her arrival on-screen.

Meanwhile, all the stunts and sight gags go on for about three times as long as they need to — and I’ll agree with Peary that they’re mostly uninspired. The most amusing sequences — indeed, the only ones that had me giggling out loud — involve Dick Shawn as Merman’s grown son, who’s first seen dancing groovily with his robotic girlfriend (Barrie Chase), then sobbing protectively as he races to “rescue” his mother.

While I appreciate this film on multiple levels (including its historical value as a Cinerama production), it’s ultimately not one I’ll be returning to again any time soon. Click here for a fun set of comparative photos with actual locations of all major sequences revealed.

Note: Interestingly, Peary points out that this “was one of the first films since Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance to cut back and forth between several story lines”; it’s strange to think that so many years went by before this practice began to become as commonplace as it is today.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever premise
  • Fun cameos by a plethora of comedic greats
  • Fine location shooting throughout Southern California

Must See?
Yes, simply as a cult favorite with historical importance.


  • Cult Movie
  • Historically Relevant


2 thoughts on “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

  1. A once-must, at least, as a cult classic comedy.

    Before going further, I have to say I wholeheartedly disagree with Peary’s second, published take. To me, this is among the simplest of films, as it sets out to skewer collective greed. Yes, greedy people in a group *would* be “a mockery of humanity”, and that’s the intent…for comic effect. Why must there be someone to feel “affection” for? Why would we, here, need “a sympathetic character to root for”? (Although it can be easily argued that Provine could fill that slot, even though the film has no actual protagonist.) I basically disagree with him on several other stated ‘faults’ of the film. I think ‘IAMMMMW’ is actually rather perfectly realized and it accomplishes its goals.

    I’ve stated on a number of occasions that slapstick is not tops in my corner; it’s a comic style that, for the most part, simply shows its age when performed in a rudimentary manner. However, here…well, I don’t think this film is “an homage to silent slapstick films” at all. It’s farce – and builds accordingly. Whatever slapstick elements there are (i.e., complete destruction of one thing or another) are so OTT that they actually work, within the film’s context.

    In partnership with his wife Tania, William Rose (who wrote scripts for such memorable classics as ‘The Ladykillers’ and ‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming’) concocted an intricate showcase for a startling number of major comics working at the time (as well as a staggering number of cameos – listed at Wikipedia). That alone is reason to view it once. I think everyone involved comes off to full-throttle advantage. What’s most interesting perhaps is the fact that the various performers make up an intriguing collection of what they were famous for: some have a special knack for delivering dialogue (i.e., Berle, Winters, Phil Silvers – who got better with age -, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, William Demarest, Paul Ford, Peter Falk), some excelled at facial expression (Winters again, Shawn, Buddy Hackett, Jim Backus, Don Knotts – who makes the best use of his eyes with, “Look, I don’t think I want to get involved!”). And then there are those who simply have to open their mouths and emit bizarre voices (Merman, Andy Devine, Arnold Stang, and the unseen Selma Diamond: “Whatever else he is, he *is* your father!”)

    I’m leaving tons of people out, unintentionally. And, if I have to pick out a favorite performance, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Winters (who just cracks me up on sight here, since he’s constantly in the moment with frustration and dissatisfaction) and Terry-Thomas, with his very British take on the situation. I esp. love his speech in which he goes on about how awful America is, particularly with its “preoccupation with bosoms”. (As well, it’s nice to see Tracy returning to the comic timing that always served him well.)

    I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve revisited the film since I was at a drive-in at the age of 8. After reading the assessment, I was not that anxious to go back to it. (Besides, no matter how good a film may be, how much can an 8-year-old remember?) So I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself totally wrapped up in it. I can’t find anything in it, really, that “falls flat”. I suppose it’s possible that one might have to be in the right mood for something played at the level this film plays at for 2 3/4 hours. But I find it a delight from start to finish.

    Like Hitch with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, this was Kramer’s only outing with outright comedy. No doubt he needed it, coming off of ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’. He got the comedy bug out of his system, though, and went right back to the heavy stuff for ‘Ship of Fools’.

  2. ⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    A classic as the first of the bigger-is-better mega-comedies; a cinematic lineage that lasted the ’60s with a couple of late entries in 1941 (1979) and The Blues Brothers (1980). It’s a pace-less, out of control mess with no real wit here, but some funny sight gags.

    It’s utterly exhausting and if I never see another bit of film of Ethel Merman it will be too soon! I only have myself to blame as I chose to watch the 198 minute roadshow version (the standard release is a mere 163 minutes!). After this, 1941 seems subtle!

    A must for FFs although I’d recommend the shorter edit.

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