Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Great Race is one of the last of the big overblown comedy roadshow attractions, a
broad, spoofy farce that, if it isn't exactly witty or sophisticated, is at least more consistently
entertaining than its immediate predecessor, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Tony Curtis
and Jack Lemmon are reteamed from Some Like it Hot, this time playing roles stylized to conform to
antiquated penny-dreadful ideas of heroism and villainy. Natalie Wood has the most fun, as a suffragette -
turned adventuress, hitchiking her way into a whirlwind race across 3 continents.
The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) proposes a New York-to-Paris road race to promote the new century's
wonderful invention of the automobie, while avoiding attempts by the nefarious Professor Fate (Jack
Lemmon) to assassinate him - or at least upstage him in his various stunts of derring-do. Fate
sabotages several of the cars, burns up Leslie's gasoline supply in the Wild West town of Borracho,
and tries to get Leslie killed at every turn, with the help of his henchman Max Meen (Peter Falk).
Leslie is watched over by his faithful retainer Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn), but falls prey time and
again to the schemes of Maggie DuBois, newspaper reporter and emancipated woman (Natalie Wood). She's determined
to stay in the race, even though her car konks out early on.
It's a really big production with confidence to burn, the kind of epic-scaled nonsense that pleases
by virtue of its sheer grandiosity. Edwards doesn't mind delaying the plot for 40 minutes of blackout sketches devoted
to goofy rockets, submarines, airplanes and balloons. The race stops for a gigantic Western saloon
brawl that's actually funny, and comes complete with a punchy musical number from Dorothy Provine
("Welcome to Borracho, Honey!"). And The Great Race spends an even bigger chunk o'time to stage a fully fleshed-out
rerun of The Prisoner of Zenda. As the Great Leslie, Tony Curtis races, fights, and woos
Natalie Wood without ever breaking a sweat or losing his composure - and he almost escapes
being hit in a (naturally) gigantic pie fight. When the script calls for thousands of peasants to
greet the racers at a beautiful castle, we see thousand of real extras, and a real castle. This picture
must have cost a bundle - on its Paris scenes alone.
The script allows the stars to literally shine in their roles, what with Leslie's teeth glinting when
he smiles, and Miss DuBois having a new color-coordinated outfit for every scene. Tony Curtis is
able to coast on his considerable charm, and Ms. Wood has a potentially frustrating
character, a suffrage firebrand who really wants a man to carry her off to the Casbah. But she plays
the cigar-smoking reporter with such spunk and zeal, we can't help but love her.
It's not their fault, but Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk are the weak link. The Great Race is
dedicated to Laurel & Hardy, and Lemmon and Falk are given too much physical comedy that apes Hal
Roach's famous duo. Their comedy situations develop in much the same way - slow burns are traded back and forth, and the
drawn-out literalism gets tedious fast. The key to Laurel and Hardy is that they're so reassuringly
consistent, we just adore them, no matter what stupid things they do. Not so for Fate and Max, who
are made to keep up their schtick long after it's run dry. There's altogether too much "Bwah hah hah"-ing
and shouting at Max while running in circles or tripping over one another.
Of course, this kind of humor may be just your thing. And there are many great bits, like the way Lemmon
says, "Tell me, Podner, who is this Texas Jack?", or Max assuring Leslie that the hostages in need of
rescue are indeed waiting across a midnight moat: "Dey're dare! Dey're dare!"
If the story doesn't totally fulfill, Blake Edwards' production does. The film has so many big-scale
ballroom dances, crowds at the finish line ... and some good special effects, that animate its cartoony
dirigible, Fate's James Bond - like killermobile, and a collapse of the Eiffel tower.
Arthur O'Connell, Marvin Kaplan, and Vivian Vance provide fun cutbacks to New York, while television
regulars Provine (The Roaring Twenties), Larry Storch (F-Troop) and Ross Martin
(Wild Wild West)
carry off major supporting roles. Old George Macready from Gilda is a perfidious prime
minister, and if you look quick you'll see Texas Ranger Frank Hamer from the next year's
Bonnie & Clyde, Denver Pyle, as the Sheriff of Borracho.
Warners' DVD of The Great Race indeed looks great, richly reproducing Henry Mancini's
appropriately retro music (along with someone dubbing Natalie for an okay ballad called "The
Sweetheart Tree"). For that roadshow feel, the show retains the overture, intermission and exit music.
As has been pointed out to me by Gary Teetzel and 'B', there's a rash of sound effects errors in the first reel.
Some camera flashes and backfires are way out of sync during the start of the race, and even worse, the
applause and boos over the main titles are out of alignment, so that Professor Fate's slide is accompanied by
cheers, Leslie's by boos, etc. Since it's the first joke out of the box, it's a rather depressing error.
The main extra is a lavish and long featurette from 1966, apparently finished in 35mm and Panavision
but pan'n scanned here. It's fluff, but it has an inordinately amount of interesting behind-the-scenes footage, with
staged shots of the stars on location, etc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Race rates:
Sound: Fair, due to sync errors
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: June 13, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson