The story is simple: a dying man's words lead to a race for $350,000 in cash buried near California's Santa Rosita Beach. Five witnesses decide to split the cash upon arrival...but they can't agree on distribution, so it's every man for himself. Featuring a cast of over 100 comedians (including starring roles for Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Ethel Merman and newcomer Jonathan Winters, among others), Stanley Kramer's monumental It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) is a raucous, chaotic comedy that's maintained a rabid following over the past 50 years. Though Kramer is perhaps better known for two sobering dramas that bookend Mad World's release (1961's Judgment at Nuremberg and 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, as well as 1965's Ship of Fools, which all won multiple Academy Awards), this remains one of the most ambitious and unconventional films of its era.
Clocking in at a whopping 161 minutes---and even longer, depending which cut you're familiar with---the General Release Version was initially trimmed against the director's wishes for its nationwide release. A financial gamble in every sense of the word, Mad World nonetheless did huge business at the box office and earned a successful re-release in 1970. The film's formula of "throw everything at the wall to see what sticks" seemed to pay off...and whether it's a countless number of celebrity cameos (including but not limited to Jack Benny, Norman Fell, Stan Freberg, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, The Shirelles, Arnold Stang, Sammee Tong and The Three Stooges), varied locations or a continuous barrage of slapstick, the unpredictable and kinetic end result is truly something to behold.
Of course, not everything works. Those new to Mad World---or, at the very least, those who haven't seen it in many years---may struggle to connect the dots from start to finish, as the non-stop game of "spot the celebrity" can't help but overshadow the production itself. The pacing of this 161-minute "general release" version (which, incidentally, serves as the main feature on this Criterion release) is predictably hit-or-miss, but the film's infectious fun manages to dissolve most any conventional quibbles. Bottom line: if you don't chuckle when Stanley Grogan (Jimmy Durante) literally kicks the bucket, you're probably not the target audience for Mad World. If you don't crack a smile when Lennie Pike (Winters) destroys a gas station piece by piece, turn it off immediately. Mad World isn't even close to "serious" and it's not bulletproof from start to finish...but even if you don't laugh at everything, you're bound to laugh at something.
Though technically presented as a bonus feature, Criterion's package also includes a 192-minute Extended Cut on Disc 2. Call it "alternate", "reconstructed" or even "Roadshow", as it attempts to replicate the eponymous 210-minute version that was seen before the film was trimmed for its nationwide theatrical run. In years past, separate VHS and laserdisc releases have attempted---with the director's input, no less---to do the same, resulting in a 182-minute "Special Edition" that remains exclusive to those formats. This slightly longer version pulls together a number of previously lost scenes and snippets from around the globe, though many are incomplete or of lesser quality. Faded or incorrect colors, audio dropouts, forced subtitles, audio accompanied by still images, and other anomalies can be spotted during this 192-minute experience, but the trade-off for "new faces and places" will be more than worth it for die-hard disciples.
Those new to the film (or those who haven't seen it in a while) will want to start with the "general release" version on Disc 1, and then maybe even check out a new restoration demo produced by Criterion as a supplement for this release. Either way, you should try out the extended cut at least once to see if "too much of a good thing" applies in this case. The phrase certainly doesn't apply for Criterion's "Dual-Format" release, which serves up a top-quality A/V presentation and a host of new and vintage supplements available on Blu-ray and DVD in the same package. Like the film itself, this exhaustive release throws everything at the wall just to see what'll stick...and, as it turns out, most of it does.
Video & Audio Quality
Showcasing a recent 4K digital film transfer, the "general release" version of Mad World (on Disc 1) looks absolutely fantastic in high definition. Presented in 1080p, the Ultra Panavision 2.76:1 aspect ratio squeezes every inch of detail from numerous outdoor sequences, close-ups and crowded, chaotic compositions. Textures are strong, the vintage Technicolor palette is crisp and the film's light grain structure is also quite pleasing. Of course, the longer "reconstructed" version (on Disc 2) is a bit less consistent, though it's entirely due to the condition of the source material...and in any case, the majority of this 192-minute alternate presentation still originates from the 4K "general release" transfer. No flagrant digital imperfections were spotted from start to finish, rounding out the visual presentation(s) nicely. Overall, it's another top-tier effort from Criterion and a demo disc for classic film enthusiasts.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track (available on both Blu-ray discs) is a real winner. Ernest Gold's lively score occupies almost every channel at one time or another, the front-loaded dialogue is crisp and the film's slapstick-heavy action enjoys a fair amount of panning and channel separation. Like the feature itself, it's almost overwhelming at times but, for obvious reasons, die-hard fans will certainly enjoy themselves. The added "Roadshow" scenes don't always blend seamlessly from a quality standpoint, but there are no flagrant issues to report here that aren't related to the source material. Optional English subtitles have been included during the entire "general release" version on Disc 1, although Disc 2's "alternate" version limits the subtitles to notes and captions regarding the added scenes only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Presented in Criterion's typical style for both formats, the menus load quickly and are easy to navigate. The packaging, like the film itself, is unorthodox but memorable: all five discs sit in cardboard holders in a gatefold digipak. It's a sacrifice of durability for more shelf space, as the total package is roughly the same size as Criterion's three-disc Blu-ray releases. Also inside is a Booklet
featuring an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick and new illustrations by cartoonist Jack Davis, along with a Map
of the shooting locations by artist Dave Woodman. All five discs are Region A/1 locked.
Plenty here to dig through and all but one are available on both formats. Largely presented in chronological order, Disc 1 begins with a two-part Press Junket
originally broadcast in 1963 on the Canadian television program "Telescope" (50 minutes total). Co-star Jonathan winters gets a lot of face time, though a portion of this black-and-white material plays more like raw footage than your average TV coverage of this type. Loosely related is a 1963 Press Interview
featuring Stanley Kramer, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and Mickey Rooney as they continue the film's heavy promotion. Also here is a collection of Promotional Spots
for the film's 1963 original release and its 1970 re-release, which include radio, TV and trailer advertisements. Fast-forwarding a bit, we also get "Stanley Kramer's Reunion with the Great Comedy Artists"
(36 minutes), a roundtable 1974 production featuring the director along with Caesar, Winters and Buddy Hackett. More cordial than the other "specials", this retrospective piece is enjoyable from start to finish.
Several more modern supplements are included as well, including "AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs" (11 minutes), an excerpt from the 2000 special featuring Berle, Rooney, Carl Reiner and a gaggle of actors, directors and other celebrities that make up a small portion of the film's growing fan base. Next up is "The Last 70mm Festival" (28 minutes), a Q&A with several remaining members of the film's cast and crew including Winters, Rooney Reiner, Karen Kramer and Stan Freberg. Hosted by Billy Crystal, it's enjoyable enough but the introduction is almost longer than the actual panel discussion.
Three brand new supplements have been produced by Criterion for this release, leading off with a highly enjoyable "Sound and Vision" Documentary (36 minutes) featuring visual effects expert Craig Barron, sound effects expert Ben Burtt and a collection of rarely-seen behind-the-scenes photos and clips. Also here is a short Restoration Demo (5 minutes, exclusive to Blu-ray), including some notes about the newly-added footage and other snippets that couldn't be found. Last but not least is a feature-length Audio Commentary during the "Roadshow" version featuring Mad World aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger and Paul Scrabo. This loose and enjoyable track actually serves up quite a number of enjoyable stories, trivia bits and loads and context for those unfamiliar with all of the key players. More often than not, this track speeds along nicely...and that's saying something, considering it's well over three hours long.
As mentioned above, all of the listed bonus features (save for the restoration demo) are also available on the three DVDs, although they're presented in a slightly different order...but either way, fans will be digging for quite a while. Unfortunately, though, none of these supplements include optional English subtitles or Closed Captions of any kind.
Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World passed the half-century mark last year, but Criterion's fantastic five-disc "Dual-Format" edition feels anything but late to the party. The madcap main feature has held up quite nicely over the years...and though its target audience has dwindled a bit since then, it remains a popular favorite among those with a soft spot for chaotic, free-wheeling comedy. Serving up two different versions of Mad World and an entertaining, informative collection of bonus features, this definitive package will absolutely thrill fans of all ages. Without question, a truly unique release for a production that occupies its own little corner of film history. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.