It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Stanley Kramer followed his Oscar-winning Judgment at Nuremberg with this sobering investigation of American greed. Ah, who are we kidding? It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, about a group of strangers fighting tooth and nail over buried treasure, is the most grandly harebrained movie ever made, a pileup of slapstick and borscht-belt-y one-liners performed by a nonpareil cast, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, and a boatload of other playing-to-the-rafters comedy legends. For sheer scale of silliness, Kramer’s wildly uncharacteristic film is unlike any other, an exhilarating epic of tomfoolery.
The general release version of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World receives an impressive Blu-ray from Criterion in a new deluxe dual-format edition (five discs in total.) The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1 on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer, and on a dual-layer DVD with a standard-definition transfer enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Using the same restored 4k transfer that was also the basis for the previous Fox/MGM Blu-ray, Criterion delivers a gorgeous filmic presentation that’s nearly flawless. I was especially thrilled with the opening shots (after almost 7-minutes worth of opening credits) of a car speeding down a desert highway. It’s a long shot in the ultra-wide frame and despite being so distant from the action the level of detail in the frame still manages to be astonishing, and the sense of depth is superb. You can just about make out every rock and weed that litters the landscape. And from that opening the image retains this incredible level of detail throughout, in every long shot and close-up. The image is crisp without any offensive digital artifacts, other than some very minor pixilation that pops up in a few places, and the fine film grain that’s present looks clean and natural.
Colours are saturated perfectly and retain their Technicolor look, and blacks are fairly rich and inky, but never crush out details. There was some mild pulsating early on but other than a few minor blemishes elsewhere, a bit of grit here and there, I don’t recall any substantial damage, the restoration work looking to have been especially thorough.
The DVD’s standard-definition presentation is also impressive, but clearly nowhere near the quality of the Blu-ray’s. The opening sequence doesn’t deliver anywhere near the same level of detail in the landscape, and depth is sorely lacking. Colours look nice, and the image is as clean as can be, but the image looks fuzzier in comparison. For DVD it’s fine, but the Blu-ray’s transfer offers the far better image.
I was initially surprised to hear that Criterion would be just reusing the transfer from the previous Blu-ray (which I admittedly haven’t seen) but after viewing it here it’s certainly hard to imagine it looking much better.
Criterion delivers the original 5.1 surround track in Dolby Digital on the DVD and DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray. It’s a loud movie, very over the top, and the surround track certainly captures that. Dialogue remains primarily in the front center speaker while music seems to be divvied up between the speakers, and both are delivered clearly with superb range and fidelity, the music reaching some impressive highs without any distortion.
Effects are loud and constant, from cars racing down the road, to electrocutions, to gas stations being torn apart, to plenty of screaming, and I was surprised that there was some clever directing of the sound effects through the speakers. There are times where it sounds like cars are racing past you, or something is falling or even exploding around you. It’s an early surround track, but it’s still mixed in a fairly impressive manner, and the audio quality is excellent, without any noticeable damage or edginess.
It sounds as though the Fox/MGM Blu-ray shares the same audio and video transfer as this edition, so for many that might be good enough. I haven’t seen that edition, but I think it’s safe to say that the Criterion edition has it beat in one area, and it’s the area most fans of the film will be thrilled with: the supplements!
Criterion loads the supplements across three dual-layer DVDs or two-dual-layer Blu-rays. I’ll go through each supplement as they’re listed through the Blu-rays.
The first Blu-ray starts with a vast number of promotional material, starting with material for the 1963 release. This section begins with a 4-minute introduction by the film’s marketing director, Stan Freberg. Here he quickly talks about how he got into marketing and promotion and how he came to do the promotions for Mad World, the only film he ever worked on (he even got to be in it when another actor didn’t show up!)
We then get a large sampling of the promotional material from 1963, starting with 6 radio ads, of which there are three different themes presented, with a short and long version for each. These total less than 5-minutes and are cool bit of nostalgia. These are then followed by 4 television ads, starting with a longer 60-second one with some of the key comics in the film arguing about who gets to contribute to saying the title, followed by three 20-second spots featuring a couple of comics. We then get two theatrical trailers, a teaser for the Roadshow release, promoting the Cinerama presentation, and then a longer general release trailer, far more generic and gives away the film.
We then get a small sampling material for the 1970 rerelease, including 3 radio ads and a theatrical trailer, all of which lacked some of the creativity of Freberg’s stuff.
We then get into the meat of the supplements. Criterion includes two episodes from the Canadian CBC program Telescope, which together focus on the press junket for the film. In the typically dry manner of Canadian news programs it covers the events of the junket with a sort of detached, fly-on-the-wall style.
The first episode, called “A Winter’s Tale”, runs 25-minutes. The opening features Winters in the cockpit of a plane, talking to the passengers over the loud speaker, explaining to them the flight departure has been delayed for a few hours but he’s going to attempt to take off using a nearby highway. Amusingly no one in the passenger area seems too concerned. After this the rest of the episodepossibly the least interesting aspect of the feature, though it has a couple of laughs. It simply follows members of the cast and crew around at a party and then a sit down.
The second part, called “Junket into Mad, Mad, Mad, Madness” runs longer at 35-minutes, and is the more interesting portion as it concentrates on the actual premiere and the Red Carpet. The anchor then talks about the critical reception of the film, which overall wasn’t very good. As a whole the segment is dry but I still rather enjoyed it, and found it actually somewhat fascinating following around members of the cast and crew as they schmooze. Winters also provides some decent chuckles throughout.
The next feature is a 1963 promotional press interview. This piece features Kramer, Berle, Rooney, Terry-Thomas, and Winters, answering a number of off-screen questions. It’s a promotional piece and it would have been sent out to television stations who would then have their own on-air personalities dub in the pre-written questions to give the illusion they were actually performing the interviews. Criterion has one of their own employees (or maybe an intern?) dub in the questions. The questions are pretty rudimentary, ranging from what the cast members would consider the funniest moment or thoughts on their performances (one question even asks Terry-Thomas what he thinks of the “chicks in the play,” and it was nice to see him give it a questionable look.) Though it was a PR piece done only for promotion there is actually some great information in it. They do talk about the billing of the film’s stars and talk a little about the Cinerama angle and how this film will lack the seam common to Cinerama releases at the time. It’s also rather amusing and entertaining. It runs 35-minutes.
From 1974 is Stanley Kramer’s Reunion with the Great Comedy Artists of Our Time, a 37-minute excerpt from a television program reuniting Kramer with a few of the cast members of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, including Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters. It’s just the four reminiscing on making the film but is surprisingly rather funny, with some amusing anecdotes, including Hackett giving Peter Falk a hard time for his “actor’s studio” prep work, or an issue a sound man had with crickets that led to a series of events, some extreme, that would have actually probably made an excellent premise for a comic short about the attempts to get rid of the crickets. They also talk about the film’s effects and recall having to go through the process to create the masks that were to be used by the stunt crew. There are a few clips thrown in (with a comment from Kramer about how difficult it was for him to get clips for his film to show on television) that could have probably been cut out, though it’s interesting to see just how awful the film looks in pan-and-scan. This was actually surprisingly enjoyable.
Moving on to the second Blu-ray we get to what is probably the whole reason for this edition existing: the extended reconstruction of the film, running about 197-minutes. As most fans of the film know it was originally released in a Roadshow edition running over 200-minutes, but was then cut down to less than 160-minutes for a general release. The extended version is lost, with only the remnants of some scenes remaining in one form or another. For their laserdisc edition, MGM constructed an extended version that ran about 180-minutes, using material that had been discovered through the years. I don’t believe that version has been carried over to any other release of the film.
This reconstruction is an entirely new undertaking, overseen by Robert A. Harris, with the goal of presenting the most complete version of the film that is possible, as it would have appeared during its initial run. For anyone hoping for a complete, seamless presentation, they will be disappointed as some of the materials are so badly deteriorated or only exist as audio that some unorthodox measures had to be taken to construct this version.
The basis is of course the new restoration for the general release of the film, which is what is presented for the main feature on the first disc. This of course looks fine. The material that would have been used for the Laserdisc’s extended version was rescanned since the Laserdisc’s version was assembled in standard-definition. Unfortunately the elements had deteriorated even further over the years, and all that remains is the magenta colouring on the film. What they did was map the colours from the Laserdisc version over to the new scan, filling in most of the colours in the process. Unfortunately the Laserdisc actually further cropped the film (I suspect to 2.35:1 or close to it) so the colours are only mapped to that portion of the frame; all of these scenes have a black and white border around them.
New material not found on the Laserdisc edit has also been included but it has mostly suffered the same fate as the other elements. Colours have badly waned and faded and I can only guess are beyond repair. Surprisingly these moments still manage to look very clear with decent definition, but when you go into and out of these extended moments, the sudden change in colours are noticeable.
In some cases only audio exists and during these moments stills are used to fill in the visuals. Sometimes these don’t entirely work as they have to use production stills or stills that are obviously from other sequences, but there are odd moments where they are effective, like a moment Dick Shawn’s Sylvester runs to his car. Luckily someone at least took a number of photos of the sequence so these are pretty much animated over the audio of the scene. There are also cases where audio will suddenly drop out because it’s missing, and this usually occurs during transitions from added material to general release material. When this happens subtitles are put in place if there is spoken dialogue missing.
Is it a success? I find this version far too long but I think it succeeds since its purpose to give an idea as to how the Roadshow version played out and I think it accomplishes that. The editing job is actually quite good and the film flows as well as one can expect with the limitations. Some of the material is a bit redundant (which is mentioned in the included commentary) and there are some sequences which spoil things later in the film (a previously deleted scene between Buster Keaton and Spencer Tracy, which unfortunately exists only audio so stills fill out the visuals, gives away a key moment later on that’s only slightly hinted at in the general release version) but it gives a great idea to how the original version played. Surprisingly a lot of the added material is actually stuff that was trimmed from the beginning and end of sequences and in a few cases this actually helped some scenes flow a little better, particularly in some of Tracy’s sequences.
(As a note, this edit is supposed to represent the Roadshow version, so any material discovered or in the previous Laserdisc edit that wasn’t in the original Roadshow version has been excluded here.)
The extended edit also comes with an audio commentary featuring aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. Admittedly the term “aficionados” didn’t hold much promise with me and I was dreading having to throw it on. But much to my surprise it’s actually an entertaining and fascinating track. It is specific to the extended edit and they do talk quite a bit about it and the added bits and bits still missing, while also covering the previous effort to create an extended edit for the Laserdisc edition. But they also talk about the production, the many original casting choices (I was especially intrigued by the fact Peter Sellers was originally considered for the Terry-Thomas role) why certain comics, like Bob Hope, are missing, talk about the film’s editing and length, the effects and so on. They also cover the Roadshow experience, Cinerama, and the technical achievements of the film. I was really expecting fan gushing but interestingly they address the film’s numerous flaws, though in an endearing manner. Most impressive is they manage to keep the track entertaining and refreshing through its 197-minute runtime. Quite good and possibly the biggest surprise for me.
Criterion next includes excerpts from the program AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs, focusing primarily on segments it devoted to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Featuring interviews with Carl Reiner, Milton Berle, Whoopi Goldberg, Mickey Rooney, Janeane Garofolo, David Alan Grier, Charles Grodin, and others, they talk about the appeal of the film, the things that shocked them, and how it would be impossible to make the film today. Probably the weakest feature to be found in the set but it has a somewhat infectious charm to it.
The Last 70mm Film Festival is an odd beast and almost a bit of a train wreck. The footage here comes from a screening of the film in 2012. It begins with Randy Haberkamp talking about the film’s original release on Cinerama screens, its aspect ratio, and other technical goodies. Billy Crystal then comes on stage and almost immediately starts busting Haberkamp’s balls about the geek-speak before moving on to introducing surviving members of the cast and crew for the film including (but not limited to) Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, and Jonathan Winters. Once everyone is on stage is where it gets a little painful. Crystal starts asking questions about the production and it doesn’t always go smoothly. Winters, of course, likes to interrupt here and there, though at least he has some funny comments. It almost seems as though Rooney thinks he’s somewhere else by first going off on a tangent about being married multiple times (when Crystal is asking others about the script) and then demanding a well-meaning, yet completely awkward and out-of-left-field, moment of silence for Ernest Borgnine, who passed away that week. Crystal does try to save these awkward moments, though isn’t entirely successful. Again it’s an odd bit of video. It has some great insights and information on the production, but it’s filled with its fair share of cringe-inducing moments.
Sound and Vision is a 36-minute feature about the film’s sound and visual effects. Sound designer Ben Burtt talks about the film’s sound design and its exaggerations, while also giving a brief history on sound effects since the dawn of the sound era. Visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (apparently Criterion’s go-to-guy for effects work since he has appeared on a number of their releases) talks about the films heavy use of visual effects. He gives visual breakdowns for a number of sequences, paying a particularly heavy amount of attention to the film’s finale and I was shocked at the number of layers that went into these shots. There’s some behind-the-scenes footage covering the use of models, and he even talks about scenes where I never even realized effects were in place. Some of them are rather seamless. Another strong feature in the set.
Criterion then includes a short 5-minute restoration demonstration which goes over how the extended version was constructed, which proves to be another fascinating technical element. Unfortunately I felt it was too short, not really getting into where all this discovered material had come from, or how decisions were made throughout the process. A booklet, featuring an essay by Lou Lumenick covering the film’s production and release, closes off the set.
Unfortunately I was disappointed by the lack of other material. The reconstruction, for me, is actually a rather fascinating achievement and it’s actually sad there isn’t more on it. Also, this release seems like a great opportunity for Criterion to maybe look at the Cinerama or Roadshow experience, and the lack of more deleted footage (which it sounds like there was more of) seems to be a bit of big exclusion. The commentary does go into detail about these things but more extensive material would have been welcome.
Despite all of this, Criterion’s edition is still wholly remarkable, with the reconstruction being the stand out. Though I know there could have been more I think fans will be thrilled with everything Criterion has included here.
Despite one’s feelings on the film it’s hard to deny that Criterion has done an incredible job on this edition. With such a sharp audio and video transfer, and a wealth of supplements, including a reconstruction of the film’s longer version, this comes with a high recommendation.