The Great Race

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THE GREAT RACE —–Push the button, Max.”  The boom of the Eisenhower Era and the vitality of Kennedy’s fresh New Frontier saw movies expand internationally, in technical prowess and by sheer size. Bible epics, adventures, westerns and war stories, then musicals went all out for a gob-smacking grandeur. Comedy’s turn arrived after the success of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and in 1965 three hefty entries competed for favor. The handsome but lumbering The Hallelujah Trail ran into a ditch. Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines made the most money and got the best reviews, but it feels more like a forced landing now. This contestant, a gargantuan valentine to silent-era slapstick, in the literal vehicle of an auto race, holds up better and has substantial sentimental pull for fans who caught it when it was new and they were young. Like the other two, and common to many of the days epics, it’s too long and overstays its welcome, but the charms make up for the flaws, and you’d have to be a real sourpuss not to get some smiles and laughs out of the cartoonish doings and to shrug off the production effort.

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1908. Stunt daredevils and avowed competitors ‘Professor Fate’ (Jack Lemmon) and ‘The Great Leslie’ (Tony Curtis) enter—with their respective designer automobiles, the “Hannibal Twin-8″ and ‘The Leslie Special” —a globe-spanning race from New York to Paris, across the continental U.S., over the Bering Sea to Russia and on to France. En route are stops in the wooly frontier hamlet of ‘Boracho’ (ersatz Spanish for “drunk”), on an iceberg with a polar bear, and through the mysterious ‘Kingdom of Carpania’, whose soused, foppish ‘Crown Prince Friedrich Hapnick’ (Lemmon) is a dead-ringer for the nefarious Fate.  Gamely tagging along in her Stanley Steamer to report the story and make points about Emancipation is adamant suffragette—and total dish—‘Maggie Dubois’ (Natalie Wood).

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Cherishing old-time slapstick, director Blake Edwards spun his spoof off a real event, and started working on the idea back in 1960, when he engaged Arthur A. Ross for a screenplay. With a good track record topped by back-to-back ’64 hits The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark, he schmoozed Jack L. Warner’s okay on a large budget, signed a trio of popular stars, had specially designed contraptions for them to drive, period duds galore and location filming in Salzburg, Paris, California, Oregon and Kentucky.  Some crowd scenes jostle with 1,000 extras. Extravagance led to excess and the budget blew up to $12,000,000, making it the costliest comedy ever made at that point, topping even the huge ‘Mad World‘ layout by a gulping 28%. A massive publicity blitz ensued. *

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The race may have been Great, but the movie gets in its own way to prevent it from the same claim. A couple of tasking flaws keep it simply Good, which is fair enough for a fun watch–or several.  To not lowball a high time, let’s start with finger-wagging and then proceed to some merry applause.

160 minutes. That’s a good while when everything clicks, but rather a rump roast when someone—or several people—are yelling at you. A frantic and forced subplot with Miss Dubois’ arguing associates back in New York—exasperated Arthur O’Connell, haranguing Vivian Vance and proto-schlub Marvin Kaplan—is flat to begin with and dead-weights every time they show up. Their quarreling must take up 20 minutes, and could/should have been excised.  Lemmon’s Fate is funny–until it stops being cute and becomes something to endure. Either Edwards insisted or Jack persisted, but, while half of the performance is clever and suitably absurd, it’s pretty near one-note—and a loud one. The bellowing business is just too overdone.

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Those bottom-besting, ear-testing carps noted, let’s give diligence its due. Curtis appears to be having a swell time, his eyes and smile literally glint with Leslie’s heroic goodness: it’s the best of the 13 comic roles he stuffed into the decade, and at 39 he looks fit when engaging in fisticuffs, fencing and, of course, flirting. Though she was personally miserable through the shoot (her private life a mess), 26-year-old Natalie Wood never looked better, and she gives Maggie the sort of gusto that would make Teddy Roosevelt proud she represented feminine-but-feisty American Womanhood on the race. A running gag are the 19 stylish wardrobe changes Edith Head designed for the heroine to make the best of every separate situation on the journey. Wood shows pep to spare, displays her spicy physical charms and looks pretty as can be.

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Back to Jack: his sillypants dipso Prince gets some chuckles. Lemmon tarnishes his dastardly Professor but not…uh, Fatally (ouch, clang, bonk), as there are a good number of bits he does with the black-garbed, snarl-mustached, Bach-playing villain that are quite funny. His car comes equipped with a hydraulic lift, smoke screen and a cannon, but these all depend on the skill of his moron helper,’Max’, the most entertaining character in the bunch, and the choicest performance, thanks to expert scene-stealer Peter Falk.

Edwards stages a slew of good sight gags and a couple wild donnybrooks. In Boracho, he pays homage to westerns like Dodge City by putting on a huge barroom brawl, instigated by ‘Texas Jack’, played to a tee by Larry Storch. Jack’s saucy, sexy girlfriend ‘Lili Olay’ is a treat as done by the vivacious Dorothy Provine, who gets to belt out a raucous number before the knuckles, bottles, chairs and staircases start flying. She’s a delight.

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The entire lengthy segment in Carpania is another Edward’s tribute, this time to The Prisoner Of Zenda. When palace intrigue reaches critical mass there’s nothing left to do but have a giant pie-fight. The 4-minute free-for-all is the biggest and longest ever staged, using 4,000 pies.

Adding flavor to the hi-jinks is another swell Henry Mancini score, which includes the wistful song “The Sweetheart Tree”, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

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Critics were glacial, but crowds flowed to make it the 5th most popular movie of the year. Grossing $30,800,000, it still ranked as a disappointment in view of all the outlay and hoopla. It copped an Oscar for Best Sound Effects and nominations for Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound and “The Sweetheart Tree”.

Keenan Wynn plays Curtis’ loyal assistant (more padding). Wynn was everywhere you looked back then; of his 280 credits between 1942 and 1986, a good 90 were crammed into the 60s. Others met along the zany way are Ross Martin (as ‘Baron Rolfe Von Stuppe’), George MacReady, Hal Smith and Denver Pyle. The DVD edition is shorn of 14 minutes. Edwards included a dedication to “Mr.Laurel and Mr.Hardy.”

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* Very loosely based on the real 1908 New York to Paris race, involving six cars from the United States, Germany, Italy and France. It lasted 169 days, many of which had the primitive vehicles mucking their way across the spring thaw in Siberia and Manchuria. The US team won, Germany having been penalized and Italy showing up third, two months later. None of the three French entries made it past Vladivostok, no doubt to the embarrassment of the prideful destination crowd.

In 1969 yet another large-budget car race pic came out; Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies (aka Monte Carlo Or Bust!). It also starred Curtis and featured the director and several of the actors from ‘Magnificent Men’. It has its moments, but did not fare well.

Oh, from 1908 to 1912 there was a post office located in Boracho, Texas, currently an unincorporated piece of Culberson County. So, if someday you’re driving from Van Horn (pop. 2,063) to Pine Springs (pop. 51) you might want to pull over in Boracho. Toast lovely Natasha, recall Leslie’s sparkle, contemplate Fate.

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