It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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The Wind of Change (1961)

The Wind of Change movie poster

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made an epoch-defining speech in South Africa’s Cape Town parliament in February 1960 which gives this film its title. He was referring to the decolonising process and this story looks at the impact of black immigration on white working class Britons in the wake of the Notting Hill race riots.  Johnny Briggs plays Frank, an unemployed Teddy boy who hangs out at coffee bars and despises the black men taking on the factory jobs and dating white girls. He lives at home, surviving on welfare benefits and handouts. His parents, Donald Pleasence and Hilda Fenemore, have diametrically opposed views of him – Dad thinks he’s feckless and racist, Mum thinks he needs  more understanding and a nice girlfriend. One night he and his mates attack black men in the park and his own sister Jose (Ann Lynn)  gets scarred and her parents discover she’s been going out with a black man. What happens to him proves a major fulcrum in all their relationships. It’s interesting to see the race problem being handled in this way, albeit the ‘action’ sequences are broken up with the kind of long dialogue exchanges more familiar from TV shows. Johnny Briggs’ performance is certainly of note for its febrile aspects and this can be grouped with the earlier Sapphire and Flame in the Streets as efforts to grapple with a social problem which has had massive ramifications.  It’s nice to see Ann Lynn, principally in the film’s last third. She also featured in Flame in the Streets and you might spot her in A Shot in the Dark and The System. She really made her name in TV in the Sixties and for showbiz info freaks, she was married to Anthony Newley when this was shot. Distributed by Bryanston, this was written by Alexander Dore and John McLaren and directed by Vernon Sewell.