Reliving the madness

Times Staff Writer

It was meant to be the movie comedy to end all movie comedies. And clocking in at four hours (plus an intermission) when it opened the Cinerama Dome in 1963, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" certainly was the longest comedy ever made.

Produced and directed by the late Stanley Kramer, best known for such socially conscious dramas as "The Defiant Ones," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," the frenetic comedy starred Spencer Tracy along with some of the greatest comic actors of the time, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Terry-Thomas, Mickey Rooney, Stan Freberg, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny and Buster Keaton. Filled with slapstick stunts, spectacular car chases and crashes, the comedy revolved around a group of average, upstanding Americans who turn into a greedy horde after they are given the key to locating $350,000 in stolen bank loot from a dying mobster (Jimmy Durante).

On Wednesday, the American Cinematheque is presenting a new 35-millimeter print of a two-hour, 41-minute version of the film and a cast and crew reunion hosted by Karen Sharpe Kramer, the widow of the director. Among those scheduled to appear are Winters, Caesar, Rooney, Adams, Peter Falk, Don Knotts, Madlyn Rhue, editor Robert Jones, stuntman Loren Janes and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. The cast and crew also will give a posthumous award to Stanley Kramer for making the movie. MGM/UA and Turner Classic Movies are sponsoring the event.

Kramer, Stalmaster, Adams and Winters recently reminisced about the making of the film and its enduring appeal.

The Beginnings

Karen Sharpe Kramer: Some critic wrote about Stanley that he was probably the greatest serious filmmaker of the 20th century and the conscience of Hollywood, but he felt Stanley Kramer could never, never make a comedy. That is all you had to say to Stanley. He loved a challenge of proving you wrong, and he loved the element of surprise, so he set out to make the comedy of all comedies. It was the precursor to many other films -- "The Great Race," "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" and "Bullitt."

The Credits

Kramer: Saul Bass did the cartoons, and it was the first time the credits had been in cartoon form. The picture was five hours originally and then cut down to almost four hours with an intermission. During the intermission -- this is the first time this was ever done -- he had an interactive intermission. The police calls were over the loudspeakers to keep the continuity of the story line. The calls were in the bathrooms talking about the characters, outside the theater and in the lobby. The stunts had never been done before either. "Bullitt" copied the car chases, and who can forget the airplane flying through the roadside. That had never been done before either.

Casting

Lynn Stalmaster: It was obviously a very complex picture to cast, and Stanley had a lot of people in mind that he wanted as the script was being written. The biggest task in this was orchestrating of schedules. Can you imagine? You couldn't just say, "Come and do a couple of days." Most of my efforts were, as always, before the film started. But then my office and I continually had to be checking schedule changes and weather because there was so much exterior [filming]. It was a continual process to keep track of where this enormous ensemble was and what they were doing. It was really a one-of-a-kind experience for me.

Jonathan Winters: I hadn't done any pictures before. Stanley called and said, "This is Stanley Kramer and I am calling from Hollywood and I would like to talk to you about appearing in 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.' " Spencer Tracy is in it; Dick Shawn, and he went on and on. I said, "Oh, my God." He said you would have one of the leads and you'd be on it for six months. You can talk to your agent to see if you'd like to do it. I said, "Think I would like to do it? I already have my bathrobe off and I am ready to come tomorrow." I turned to my wife and said this is going to be the biggest break of my career.

I look back over 50 years, and there is no doubt in my mind of all the things I have done, "Mad World" got more response than anything else. The great thing about it was not only was the picture a classic comedy, but I really got to know and become a dear friend of Stanley's.

Edie Adams: I adore comics. I think they are the salt of the earth. Everybody had to be in this picture. Jack Benny said, "I'll do anything." So did Jerry Lewis. Every day we would look in the paper to see who would be in it. The first job that I had [after the death of her husband, Ernie Kovacs] was with every comic in the history of the world that I had ever dreamed about or had known.

The Experience

Kramer: He [Stanley Kramer] had probably the best time he has ever had on any of his films. I know this was a real challenge. People thought he could never make a comedy, but if you look at any of Stanley's films there is humor in all of them anyway. He had that ability to write comedy, and he had his dear friend Spencer Tracy with him.

Winters: Sid Caesar became such a good friend. I think we were in awe of each other. Each guy was a giant without getting in each other's way. We were just a bunch of giants thrown together, and it was one of the few times I couldn't wait to get to work because we had so many laughs off camera. But there was very little ad-libbing. Stanley was very tough about the script, and I think only one time I ad-libbed. Dick Shawn and I are in the pit trying to get the treasure out and he kept calling me "baby" and I turned to him for some reason and I said, "Stop calling me baby."

It was a difficult shoot. It was 125 degrees with the Klieg lights and the sun. They used Palm Springs [as the main location] because in the summertime nobody was there to speak of, so we shot all over that area and Santa Monica and Twentynine Palms. I was in pretty good shape but I must have lost 25 pounds with the heat

Adams: Everybody was so congenial. Everyone knew what they were doing, and that's why it worked. Spencer Tracy was such a good friend. Katharine Hepburn used to come with this beautiful basket of lunch and spread this lovely tablecloth and sit on the grass. I thought, look how lovely they are.

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'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' cast and crew reunion

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Price: General admission, $20; students and seniors with ID, $18; Cinematheque members, $15

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or www.egyptiantheatre.com.

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