"An all-star cast" may be a throwaway marketing phrase, but given the test of time, it becomes a monument to a generation of film and performers. More than four decades after its debut, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is emblematic of a golden age of Hollywood that honors its modern-day audience by preserving the works of so many great actors.
Mad World's plot likely inspired more recent work such as The Amazing Race, Rat Race, or Cannonball Run: four groups become aware of a buried trove waiting to bestow fortune upon the first party to unearth it. What starts as a collaborative effort quickly disintergrates into backstabbing, wheeling-and-dealing, and planes, trains, and automobiles as more than a dozen individuals race to claim their prize.
Fortunately, viewers needn't wait for the climax to claim their prize, as they begin reaping the benefits as early as the opening credits. Director Stanley Kramer assembled the most famous and talented actors of 1963 to star in this vehicle, and to the audience's delight, they most certainly do him proud. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney's indefatigable zest and enthusiasm light up the screen, neatly balancing the more reserved approaches of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, who nonetheless find themselves in equally zany situations. Jonathan Winters may be unrecognizable to those familiar only with his older, larger form, but he fits the role of a nice-guy-with-a-short-fuse truck driver to a 'T'. Ethel Merman is deliciously shrill as a stereotypical mother-in-law, though the other two wives, played by Edie Adams and Dorothy Provine, are unfortunately sidelined by the larger personalities.
Cameos are as fun to pick out as they are disappointing in their brevity. Both Three's Company landlords, Norman Fell and Don Knotts, play their usual hard-nosed/excitable selves. Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell) similarly can be counted on to lend his trademark playboy snottiness to the show. Conversely, Peter Falk (Columbo) is barely recognizable as a cabbie, though nothing can disguise Rochester's voice in a matching role. Jimmy Durante plays a lively corpse, while the Three Stooges put in a statuesque appearance, not saying a word or moving a muscle.
One cameo took me a moment to recognize, as I'm more familiar with the actor's radio voice than with his television appearance. Once it clicked, I excitedly pointed at one of the funniest men of the 20th century and exclaimed, "That's Jack Benny!" The uninterested response of my fellow viewers, of the same age as me: "Who's Jack Benny?"
I could not have been more shocked had they slapped me. My jaw worked silently, unable to produce a satisfactory response, until I slumped back into my seat, dejected.
A similar faux generation gap was evident in another friend's reaction to the film. Unfamiliar with the celebrities of this era, she asked if that's what all their films were like. Though many of these actors made their fame on comedy, to group all their works into this one genre would be limiting not only of the actors and the films of the period, but of the effectiveness of their work on this movie. I used Judgment at Nuremberg (also starring Spencer Tracy) and Roger Moore in Cannonball Run as examples of the actors' legacies and how these comedies were all the funnier for exploiting and lampooning them.
At 161 minutes, the movie is long enough to employ the age-old device of an intermission. The only other film I've seen with such a break was Patton, and I took that opportunity to turn the movie off. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World more effectively retained its audience, giving them a breather before diving in for more madcap hysterics.