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The Great Race is one of the last of the big overblown comedy Road Show attractions of the 1960s, a broad, spoofy epic that dared to take up the challenge of 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 a Fractured Flickers or Dudley Do-Right send-up of silent melodrama heroism and villainy. Director Blake Edwards was at the time considered the master of screen comedy, what with the phenomenal success of his Pink Panther movies. There are witty scenes to be found amid a mountain of raw slapstick, served up with a high production polish. Tony Curtis has a marvelous good time guying his image as a Brooklyn wiseacre, turned Hollywood smoothie. Jack Lemmon mugs shamelessly. Natalie Wood has the most fun as a suffragette / adventuress hitchhiking her way into a whirlwind race across three continents. There is not a single camera angle or facial expression in which Ms. Wood doesn't look gorgeous.
The story is 2.5 hours of sight gags, grandiose set pieces and three big stars seemingly having a great time. All-purpose hero "The Great Leslie" (Tony Curtis) proposes a New York-to-Paris road race to promote the new century's wonderful invention of the automobile. Our white knight is kept busy dodging assassination attempts by the nefarious "Professor Fate" (Jack Lemmon), but manages effortlessly to upstage the frustrated Fate in various contests of bravado and derring-do. When the race gets underway, Fate sabotages several of the cars. With the help of his sneaky henchman Max Meen (Peter Falk), Fate burns up Leslie's gasoline supply in the Wild West town of Borracho. Leslie is watched over by his faithful retainer Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn), but falls prey time and again to the schemes of newspaper reporter and emancipated woman Maggie DuBois, (Natalie Wood). She's determined to stay in the race, even though her steam-powered car konks out early on.
You can have your modern, spectacular CGI movies; it's safe to say that they don't make 'em like this any more. Edwards and company apparently spent half a year cavorting on enormous sets and
The Great Race is formatted in the two-part Road Show format, complete with intermission. A big chunk of the second half astounds us by restaging a comic rerun of the entire plot of the classic costume thriller The Prisoner of Zenda. The production values are easily three times that of either previous MGM version, with castles, huge crowds and a giant ballroom scene. 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. Warners must have spent a bundle, on the Paris scenes alone. As with other makers of grandiose comedies -- Mike Todd, Stanley Kramer, Steven Spielberg -- Edwards shoots for the biggest canvas he can imagine.
The script allows the stars to literally shine in their roles. Tony Curtis's teeth are given a cartoon GLINT when he smiles, to represent his true-blue irresistible charm. The Great Leslie races, fights, and woos Natalie Wood without ever breaking a sweat or losing his composure. In the film's gigantic pie fight, he almost makes it to the finish without being touched. A not-very imaginative extravagance, the pie fight was singled out to become a big color magazine layout for Life magazine.
Natalie Wood's Miss DuBois sports a new color-coordinated outfit in every scene; her costumes may have been the last hurrah for the big studios' prodigious glamour apparatus. Ms. Wood's previous comedy effort Sex and the Single Girl didn't do her or her co-star justice, and in this show we see her working overtime to give the show everything she's got. Maggie DuBois is a potentially frustrating character, a suffrage firebrand who also wants a man to carry her off to the Casbah. Wood plays the cigar-smoking reporter with such spunk and zeal, we can't help but be amused.
It's not their fault, but Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk are the film's weak link, at least on repeated viewings. 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 gags develop in much the same way - slow burns are traded back and forth, leading every time to humiliation or injury for the silly-ass, self-important Professor. It quickly becomes predictable and repetitive, even with the clever effects tricks and fanciful mechanical vehicles. Laurel and Hardy are so reassuringly consistent that we adore them no matter what stupid things they do. Here there's altogether too much "Bwah hah hah"-ing and shouting at Max while running in circles or tripping over one another. Occasionally Peter Falk's manic assurances hit just the right note: "Dey're dare! Dey're dare!"
Of course, this kind of humor may be just your thing. Jack Lemmon's performance as the silly Prince Hapnick (Professor Fate's look-alike) quickly gets tiresome. But Lemmon's faux-snarled dialogue line in Borracho is still my favorite performance moment in the picture: "Pardon me, Podner, who is this Texas Jack?"
Arthur O'Connell, Marvin Kaplan and Vivian Vance provide fun cutbacks to New York, where the newspaper office sponsoring the race is besieged by suffragettes. Television regulars Provine (The Roaring Twenties), Larry Storch (F-Troop) and Ross Martin (Wild Wild West) carry off major supporting roles. As the sneaky Baron von Stuppe, Martin has the best bit of spoofery in the Prisoner of Zenda episode, finishing an impressive swashbuckling scene with the immortal line, "I have a boat waiting below!" Dependable old George Macready from the noir dazzler Gilda is a perfidious prime minister. If one looks quickly one can spot Texas Ranger Frank Hamer from Bonnie & Clyde, Denver Pyle, as the Sheriff of Borracho.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Great Race is good news for the faithful fans of this big-deal production from the mid-sixties. I remember seeing it at least 3 times in the theaters. I bet that the managers wished they could have trimmed it by an hour... it was definitely a sore bottom matinee item.
The new transfer is gorgeous: razor-sharp, colorful and free of damage. I never saw a blown-up 70mm Road Show print but this Blu-ray replicates the look of 35mm Technicolor release prints, right down to the diamond-glint on Tony Curtis's tooth. Henry Mancini's appropriately retro music score includes "The Sweetheart Tree", a light tune that sounds like a reconfiguration of the same composer's "Dear Heart". Someone does an excellent job of dubbing Natalie. The presentation comes with the whole complement of Overture, En'tracte and Exit music cues. 2
A busy trailer is included; it introduces its cast with clips from Sex and the Single Girl and How to Murder Your Wife. The main extra is a lavish and long featurette from 1966, apparently finished in 35mm and Panavision but still pan-scanned here. It's fluff, yet can boast an inordinate amount of interesting behind-the-scenes footage and staged shots of the stars on location, etc.
Uh, and I don't always say this, but the WAC's retail price is very attractive. I'll be buying this one as a gift.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Race Blu-ray rates:
1. Um, let's think of more grandiose, epic-length comedies with all-star casts and prodigious production values: Around the World in 80 Days; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Great Race; Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming; 1941. I know I'm missing a few -- help me out.
2. For the record, the new Blu-ray corrects a number of goofs in the old 2002 DVD release. No longer will fans need to overlook a rash of synchronization errors throughout the picture. During the start of the race, some of the camera-flash and backfire sound effects were way out of sync. The 'applause' and 'boos' over the main titles were just enough out to align Professor Fate's introductory magic lantern slide with cheers, while Leslie's slide was met with boos, etc.
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T'was Ever Thus.