The comedy of destruction

Are cars rolling down hills funny?  Are airplanes crashing into buildings funny?  If so, why?  I ask these questions not to sound snobbish, but because I wonder whether there is something instinctively funny about these kinds of destruction, and if so why this humor is lost on me.  Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) is basically a three-hour long car- and airplane-chase peppered with various car crashes, plane crashes, traffic accidents, flat tires, dynamite explosions, blows about the head, and, finally, the piece de resistance, Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel.  I found it to be a spectacularly unfunny film—which is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, because it is so clearly trying to be the funniest film ever made in Hollywood.  It’s so proud of its all-star cast of comedians (Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Spencer Tracy, et al., right down to cameos by The Three Stooges and old-school staples of the screwball films like Edward Everett Horton) that it almost screams: “this movie is funny, see!?  And you’re gonna laughor else!!!”  It strikes a feverish pitch about twenty minutes in and somehow stays there for the next two and a half hours, as cars roll down hills and airplanes crash into buildings and Ethel Merman slips on a banana peel.  The slipping on the banana peel is so knowingly lame, yet somehow so perfect in its attempt to reach back to the earliest and cheapest of vaudeville-era gags, that it becomes sublime.  But there are a lot of very un-sublime cars rolling down hills in the hours before we get to that moment. 

Briefly put,
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World tries too hard to be funny.  It ends up being ridiculous, but in none of the ways that it intends.  The next year would bring us Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and we’ve already had Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), both of which introduced black comedy into the mainstream.  Cars rolling down hills and women falling into dumpsters and kicking their legs into the air just wouldn’t cut it anymore.  Is this film perhaps one of the best examples of old Hollywood’s dying gasp?  There’s something sad and desperate about the attempt here to cram so many stars into one film—to grasp feebly at old favorites like Edward Everett Horton and William Demarest, from the days when classical Hollywood had reached a state of perfection.  The whip-smart, beautiful comedies that Horton and Demarest made in the 1930s and ’40s—films directed by Lubitsch and Sturges—have perhaps never been matched since.  They were like gossamer.  Here instead we have the notion of the comedy-as-extravaganza, a comedy for the 1960s, shot in “Ultra Panavision,” that’s as long as a biblical epic and sports almost as many cast members.  (It even comes with an intermission.)  Needless to say: when you put that much pressure on something as delicate and elusive as comedy, it deflates.

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