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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

What a night, what a night.  Last evening (12/4), around 600 fans of the movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World crammed into Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The occasion was a special 39th anniversary screening and panel discussion of one of the longest, richest comedies ever made.  And what fans they were of it, as expertly produced and directed by the late Stanley Kramer.

One of the interesting things about this movie is that a certain amount of its humor flows from having some knowledge of the actors involved.  For example, there's a scene where Phil Silvers — cast in his eternal role as an avaricious con-artist — is in desperate need of a ride somewhere, lest he lose out on his shot at the $350,000 everyone is chasing after.  (I'm assuming here you already know the plot.  If not, basically, it's that that amount of money is buried somewhere and one person after another gets caught up in mad pursuit of it.)

So Silvers flags down a car and as it pulls up, we see that its driver is Don Knotts.  Enormous laugh.  Even before anything is said or done to Mr. Knotts by Mr. Silvers, the audience is laughing…because they know that Phil Silvers is a predator and Don Knotts is prey, and the match-up just seems so perfect as to be funny.  It's like a joke where the set-up is so good, you're chuckling long before you get anywhere near the punch line.  Mad World is full of such moments in which the audience is one notch ahead of the film.

Tonight, some in the house knew the film so well, we were two notches ahead.  In the above scene, we were laughing before we even saw that the driver was Don Knotts.  We all knew it would be Don Knotts because we all knew the movie.  So we laughed before we saw Don and when we finally did, we applauded him.  Matter of fact, most of those present applauded the first on-screen appearance of each great comedian and character actor, which meant a lot of applause.

Some of it was for folks who were actually present.  Not all those who were announced showed…but Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and Peter Falk were there at the beginning, and Mickey Rooney, Marvin Kaplan, Stan Freberg and Edie Adams were there throughout.  The latter four participated in a panel discussion that followed the screening, where they were joined by casting director Lynn Stalmaster, editor Robert C. Jones, agent Marty Baum and one of the stuntmen.  (I am embarrassed that I missed the stuntman's name, especially since I enjoyed talking with him afterwards.  But he was the person who, though Caucasian, donned a rubber mask and doubled Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.)  [UPDATE, later: It was Loren Janes.]

Here are some general thoughts and revelations from the discussion…

Marvin Kaplan revealed that he replaced Jackie Mason (!) who was originally slated for his role as one of the gas station attendants.  I'd never heard that before.  I also didn't know that Arnold Stang's stunt double was Janos Prohaska, who later gained fame playing animals (like Andy Williams' bear) and creatures in science-fiction movies.  I worked with Janos many years ago and never heard him mention this.

Marty Baum, an agent who represented many of the stars of the film, told a very funny story about how Stanley Kramer wanted character actor Ed Brophy for a key role.  Baum didn't represent Brophy but, smelling a commission, fibbed that he did and almost made a deal, only to find out later than Brophy had passed away.  The punch-line to the anecdote was Kramer shouting, "You sold me a dead actor!"

Mickey Rooney said…well, I'm not sure just what Mickey Rooney said, except that he loved It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,which was a total departure from his past comments on the movie.  He also told us his life story and mentioned something about Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable being dead.  Basically, Mr. Rooney seemed to be doing the Dana Carvey impression of him, only not as well.

The stuntman whose name I have thoughtlessly forgotten [Loren Janes] said that the stunt crew — maybe the best ever assembled for a movie — loved working for Stanley Kramer.  At one point, a clip Kramer showed on a TV talk show was found to be a few seconds over the length that the Screen Actors Guild allows without additional fees to its members.  Kramer was ordered to make a substantial payment to all the stunt folks, all of whom tried to decline the extra bucks.  Kramer insisted…so when they received the checks, the stuntmen all endorsed them over to Mr. Kramer and sent them back.

Stan Freberg told the tale of trying to direct the commercials for the film — a difficult task, for it involved getting the actors to stick to his script.  At one point, watching Freberg floundering in the attempt, Kramer wandered over and told him, "Now you know what I go through."

And of course, there were other fine tales that were a part of the discussion.  Kramer's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, co-hosted and accepted an award on his behalf.  She spoke of how pleased her late husband — known primarily for dramatic films with a "message" — would have been proud that so many people turned out for his one grand attempt at comedy.

It really was a nice evening.  It had been too many years since I'd seen the film with a live audience and I enjoyed it far more than any home video viewing.  I had forgotten just how funny most of those people were in the thing.  You remember the stunts and the "big" gags and the special effects…but the most wonderful part of it all is watching great comic actors wringing every dram of humor out of their roles — the little "takes" by Milton Berle, the perfectly-timed facial tics of Sid Caesar, the voluminous smile of Phil Silvers, etc.  I know a similar kind of film (The Rat Race, which I didn't see) was recently attempted but I think it's futile.  There simply aren't the kind of great character thespians now that they had then.  Sad but true.