It says a lot about a movie when it can have as many problems as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World does and still be wildly entertaining. The characters are underdeveloped, the motivations are unclear and only kind of believable, but it’s downright hilarious. It is the superior predecessor to This is the End in terms of all-star cast and cameos. It is, however, a daunting 3 hours and 30 minutes, and hits a considerable second act lull. This would kill any average movie, but It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is not an average movie. Every scene pays off with a laugh, every interaction is memorable. An unexpected action comedy, it is beautifully shot, with equally hilarious and impressive stunts.
When a group of strangers witness a car wreck, they learn from the dying man of a treasure buried under a “W.” The next three hours follows the ensemble racing each other to reach the money first. So, here’s a map to help you follow the many storylines of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
“Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante)
It all begins with Smiler, a thief who crashes his car at the beginning of the movie. As he lies on the rocks, surrounded by the strangers who witnessed his wreck, he tells them of $350,000 buried beneath a “W” in Santa Rosita Park. Unknown to the witnesses, he’s wanted for a tuna factor robbery, and had been tailed by the police for years.
He literally kicks a bucket when he dies.
Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy)
At the end of his career, he’s leading the search for Smiler Grogan. While trying to keep tabs on the witnesses as they lead him to the buried treasure, he struggles with keeping the peace between his angry wife and daughter.
With an exasperated and exhausted look, he holds two phones up to each other. One line is his angry wife, the other is his crying daughter.
J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), Emmeline Marcus-Finch (Dorothy Provine), and Ms. Marcus (Ethel Merman)
As great as Milton Berle is as the timid, “bad driver,” Russell, Ethel Merman steals every scene as his loud-mouthed mother-in-law, Ms. Marcus. She can be summed up in a single Buddy Hackett line as Benjy, “May you just DROP DEAD!” Ms. Marcus is obnoxious, loud, forceful, and cutting. They hitch a ride with Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas) who’s studying desert fauna, and together, the four make up what is possibly the funniest pairing of the movie.
When Ms. Marcus and Emmeline leave the men to go off on their own, they enlist the help of Emmeline’s brother and Ms. Marcus’ son, the mama’s boy, speedo-sporting, Sylvester (Dick Shawn).
Sylvester, speeding down a hill, his car soaring, wiping away tears and crying, “I’m coming Mama!”
Russell and Lt. Col. Hawthorne’s fist fight. It’s not often that you see two people who have never been in a fight before fight each other. Here’s a sneak peek: Milton Berle accidentally kicks a rock instead of kicking Terry-Thomas.
Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and Monica Crump (Edie Adams)
On their second honeymoon, dentist Melville Crump and Monica Crump are the couple you would hate to meet on a cruise. Flaunting his dentist credentials, Melville Crump is always trying to be in charge. Whether it’s creating a convoluted system of splitting the money between the witnesses, or trying to break out of a basement, Melville Crump is never the hero he wants to be. At least he has a doting wife. I guess.
After paying a man to fly them to Santa Rosita in a rickety plane, Melville Crump nearly destroys the plane mid-flight while trying to kill a bug. It starts out funny, but when his feet fall through the floor, it’s hilarious.
Dingy (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy (Buddy Hackett)
A pairing for the ages, the two friends were on a trip to Vegas when they got side tracked. Their downfall? They decide to fly to Santa Rosita in a drunk millionaire’s plane. When they accidentally knock out the millionaire, it’s their job to keep the plane in flight. Both Rooney and Hackett are comedy geniuses as they try to land the plane for what feels like—and probably is—the majority movie.
Air Traffic Control struggling to explain how to land the plane. With the mic cable wrapped around him, the controller falls out of the tower, dangling by the cord, still trying to direct Dingy and Benjy to the runway.
Lennie Pike (Jonathon Winters)
The only witness working alone, he was driving a moving truck when the race began. With the greatest character arc of the movie, we watch him transform from a reserved driver looking for some cash into a raving lunatic. His first mistake was asking for the help of Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), who abandoned Lennie after he was told of the treasure. His second mistake was confronting Otto Meyer at the gas station.
What started as an attempt to beat up Otto Meyer, quickly turns into a maniacal tirade as Lennie Pike destroys an entire gas station while trying to catch up to the two geeky attendants. It’s entirely unmotivated with no context. It makes no sense. But oh God, it’s side-splitting funny. Just watch it, because you will never see a man lose it as badly as Lennie Pike.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a classic because it’s still, after all these years, it’s still a riot. The cameos might not hold the same thrill as they once did, but that doesn’t matter. (Although, The Three Stooges cameo still gets me.) It’s a farce, a comedic look at greed. Everyone’s insane, and everyone wants the money, but most importantly, there’s a little bit of all of us in the characters. It gives us a chance to laugh out ourselves, which is a good thing.