The Great Race
Warner Archives // Unrated // $21.99 // September 9, 2014
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 25, 2014
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Blake Edwards' The Great Race (so billed, 1965) was made on the heels of another big-scale comedy, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), an enormous roadshow hit, and it even features three actors from that film: Peter Falk, Dorothy Provine, and Marvin Kaplan. In fact, The Great Race much more closely, uncannily at times, resembles the British-made Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes, which was released one month prior to Edwards's film. The Great Race also borrows certain elements from Around the World in 80 Days (1956), as well as Warner Bros. cartoons.

I don't begrudge those who adore The Great Race. The movie is sincerely made and tries hard (too hard) and some of its components, particularly Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's lovely song "The Sweetheart Tree," the movie's main musical motif, are memorable. But it's inferior to all of those other movies. Where Mad Mad World, despite criticism from some, is exquisitely structured and carefully paced, the pacing and structure of The Great Race are a disaster. There are many coincidental similarities with Magnificent Men, all of which are clever and drolly executed in that delightful film, and the humor is often done with great subtlety. Edwards's approach to these same elements in The Great Race seems to be bigger and broader = funny, but the picture completely lacks finesse. Magnificent Men also better captures the historical setting, the 1910s, both more accurately and humorously than Edwards does.

The Great Race is dedicated to "Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy" (Stan Laurel died earlier in 1965, eight years after Oliver Hardy), but the movie is done in an entirely different style, something which Edwards never seemed to grasp. It's nothing like the comedies Laurel & Hardy or anyone else made during the silent or early-talkie period. The movie seems to think itself a kind of tribute to such films, but precious little even remotely emulates that brand of slapstick, at least not recognizably. Both supporters and critics of The Great Race point to its epic pie fight near the end as an example. It's certainly the most colorful pie fight ever done (whoever made the pies deserved some kind of award), but the sequence comes out of nowhere, is largely unmotivated, and rushes to epicness with no build-up at all. In execution, it's almost the antithesis of Laurel & Hardy's methodical tit-for-tat style of humor, including the epic pie fight in their short The Battle of the Century.

Warner Archive's Blu-ray of The Great Race will please fans, however. The image is sharp, and the disc restores the film's roadshow presentation, complete with Overture, Intermission card, Entr'acte, and Exit Music.

The strange, disjointed structure of The Great Race begins with a protracted series of comic vignettes pitting competing daredevils The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), always dressed in white, and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), the Snidely Whiplash-like villain, always in black. A series of gags play out as Fate unsuccessfully tries to top Leslie's achievements on land, water, and in the air, and Fate's efforts to sabotage Leslie's crowd-pleasing stunts. This long sequence very much resembles a Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Even some of the sound effects are lifted from those Chuck Jones shorts, and Professor Fate's colorful contraptions all but have "Acme Corp." stamped on them.

Leslie eventually proposes a New York-to-Paris race to promote America's automobile superiority. (Curtis, strangely, pronounces the word, "Au-to-mo-bi-le," pausing between syllables.) Naturally, Professor Fate signs up as Leslie's chief rival, building a "Hannibal Twin-8," cobbled together from other cars. Suffragette Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood) badgers newspaper owner Henry Goodbody (Arthur O'Connell) into letting her cover the race in her own car.

In another example of the film's awkward scripting, the three other, never-named competitors are out of the running only moments after the race has begun, their vehicles sabotaged by Professor Fate's dim-witted (some of the time; this is also inconsistent) sidekick, Max Meen (Peter Falk). Maggie's car also quits early on, effectively making it a two-man race almost from the get-go.

Virtually all of Act One was shot on Warner Bros.'s backlot streets (enhanced by matte paintings), on soundstage sets, or on location in the high desert north of Hollywood. Contrastingly, most of Act Two was shot on location in Austria and, at the end, Paris. The Second Act material has the travelogue quality and easily-sidetracked pacing of Around the World of 80 Days, looking quite unlike the "movie-real" Hollywood-made look of the First Act backlot material.

Adding to the strangeness, virtually the entire Second Act isn't about the race at all. Rather, the story stops dead in its tracks as The Great Race becomes a tiring spoof of The Prisoner of Zenda. For this nearly hour-long sequence, would-be usurpers Baron Rolfe von Stuppe (Ross Martin) and General Kuhster (George Macready) plot to replace Prince Friedrich Hapnick on the eve of his coronation with lookalike Professor Fate.

Jack Lemmon plays both parts, neither very well. Lemmon, of course, excelled at playing realistically flawed, recognizably human characters. The Great Race afforded him the opportunity to play something entirely different (and Lemmon himself was a huge Laurel & Hardy fan), but he's wasted essentially playing a cartoon character. He virtually screams his way through the film as Professor Fate. A running gag has Max continually getting Fate into some sort of trouble (often by pressing the wrong button on their Hannibal Twin-8) with the exasperated Fate screaming "MAX!" at the top of his lungs in exasperation. He does this about 172 times too often. Lemmon's Prince Hapnick is a curious creation, something like a combination of Joe E. Brown, Arthur Housman (a comic drunk specialist), and Edward Everett Horton.

The Great Race and Magnificent Men share innumerable plot points. The heroine in both is a proto-feminist trying to break free from her male-dominated world. The mustached villain has a continuously bullied but unshakably loyal servant who sabotages other vehicles in the race. Both races are co-sponsored by a newspaper magnate symbolizing an older worldview. But Magnificent Men does all of this better. Professor Fate's counterpart in Magnificent Men is played by Terry-Thomas, British cinema's ultimate cad. As hard as Lemmon tries, TT is far funnier and more expressive with a subtle roll of his eyes or sinister gap-toothed smile. His comic villainy seems effortless while Lemmon looks like he's working himself into a seizure.

In Magnificent Men, Robert Morley plays the newspaper tycoon, that character's humor stemming from a blithe obliviousness to the changing world, a general stuffiness, and his bemused attitude toward the racers from other countries. (Magnificent Men mostly pokes gentle fun at national stereotypes.) In The Great Race, scenes revolving around Arthur O'Connell's newspaperman, his suffragette wife (Vivian Vance, in a rare movie role), and hapless assistant Frisbee (Marvin Kaplan), merely add unfunny running time in an entirely extraneous subplot leading nowhere.

Unexpectedly, the film's best performance by far is Natalie Wood's. She alone among the cast captures the spirit of silent comedy with her character, gesturing throughout like a Mabel Normand or Colleen Moore. She's both funny and sexy at once, attributes she rarely exhibited in her other movies, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. She even speaks Russian in one scene, though not enough to show off her fluency in that language. (Her Russian was put to better use in the otherwise bad Meteor, also newly out on Blu-ray.)

And for all the accolades heaped on "Moon River" (from Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's, also with music by Mancini), the song "The Sweetheart Tree" is a more beautiful song, and maybe the single best thing about The Great Race. Viewers will be humming it for days after.

And, for all its faults, The Great Race is, undeniably, an impressively lavish production whose value in this department shines in high-def. Though visually competing with one another, the epically-decorated Warner backlot streets are impressively utilized, while the Second Act scenes in Paris especially, cleverly populated wide boulevards with costumed extras and period vehicles, capture the look of that time. Beyond the large-scale pie fight, there's an impressive if superfluous swordplay duel between Curtis's and Martin's characters. The actors are rarely doubled, and the choreography of this sequence is unusually good. Finally, an ingenious forced-perspective miniature of Professor Fate's Munsters-like mansion was built on a soundstage, designed so that actors could appear with it in the background for some shots, while miniature explosions used to blow parts of it up at other times.

Video & Audio

Unlike most big-scale 60s roadshows, typically shot in 65mm, The Great Race was made in ordinary 35mm Panavision, though blown-up to 70mm for some engagements. The image lacks the razor sharpness of large format film, but still impresses, and the color is good. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio sometimes mixes material to the surrounds that would seem to belong someplace else, and I found myself lowering the volume on the surround speakers while upping the front ones, but the score definitely benefits, as do some of the sound effects. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extra Features

Supplements include a high-def trailer (featuring scenes from other movies featuring its starring cast) and a behind-the-scenes featurette from the period, sourced from standard-def.

Parting Thoughts

If you love The Great Race, more power to you, I say. I didn't laugh once, though it's certainly an interesting film to see for its cast, the weight of its production, and as a study on just how misguided and clueless Hollywood was (and probably still is) in the art of silent comedy-style slapstick. But overall this is a handsome disc worth seeing and - Who knows? - you might love it yourself. Recommended.






Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.



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