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Thursday, February 20, 2014

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Restoration

SIXTY YEARS LATER, the sought-after amount seems even more pitifully tiny, but the pursuit of that stash of cash has lost none of its plausibility. These people want that money and are prepared to do whatever it takes to be first to find it.

Drawing by Jack Davis
“It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” premiered in 1963 as producer-director Stanley Kramer’s attempt to impose the widescreen, blockbuster model on a comedy that William Rose (“The Ladykillers”) wrote to take place across Scotland. Kramer, upon receiving the script, had other ideas.

What probably was intended as a small Alec Guinness feature swelled into something that required two scripts for the actors, one of them for stunt effects alone. This was one of the first films to make extensive use of car chases and crashes, and it was filmed in Ultra Panavision, a Cinerama replacement that didn’t require three cameras (and projectors) to achieve its widescreen effect.

It had a preview time of three and a half hours, cut by Kramer to 192 minutes for its premiere. But “Mad World” subsequently fell quick victim to the releasing company’s scissors – a shorter version allowed more showings, and it was attracting a lot of audience. By the time it hit my hometown theater, where I saw it in 1964, it was 154 minutes long. While not quite the tragedy of “Greed” or “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the missing “Mad World” footage has long been the holy grail of a legion of fans, who now may delight in a restored 197-minute version lovingly crafted by Robert A. Harris, who is a dab hand at this sort of thing, and released by the Criterion Collection (despite the squawks of the snobs who think that company should confine itself to a higher intellectual plane).

“Mad World” has had earlier restorations, including laserdisc and VHS, but DVD offers a higher-enough quality to show up the flaws in the recovered material – and there are plenty of flaws. Compared to the present general-release version, the added bits show signs of deterioration, and some moments are preserved only in an audio track, with a documentary-style set of stills as visual accompaniment.

But – and I’m speaking to you, “Mad World” fanatic – you’ll at least get to hear the dialogue between Buster Keaton and Spencer Tracy, the rarest of the long-lost scenes, the restoration of which proves how expendable it really was.

This release puts the movie in its proper 2.75:1 aspect ratio, with excellent color balance that’s especially notable in the opening animated credits (remarkable and at that time unprecedented work by Saul Bass), but a joy throughout what with all the California desert scenery making up the locations.

The long, long, long, long version features a commentary track by Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo, each of whom has a long association with the movie, and is one of the most delightful and informative of such tracks, loaded with anecdote and information even if some moments betray a scripted origin.

But I enjoyed hearing, for example, the very plausible theory that Stan Laurel was originally asked to make the cameo in which Jack Benny appeared, because Benny is in a bowler hat to match the character in a long shot that was made before casting was complete.

Plenty of extra features are offered, including a two-part CBC piece about the movie’s press junket, an interview segment from 1963 and an interview program Kramer hosted a decade later, which is the most interesting of them all. Subsequent specials only seem to emphasize how much any surviving actors had aged.

An hour-long “Mad World” tribute titled “Something a Little Less Serious” wasn’t included. You can find it on YouTube. I’m not even going to begin to list the rest of the cast. You know it. Or you can find it on IMDB.

There’s a four-minute video interview with Stan Freberg, who created the movie’s original TV and radio commercials (and it’s always good to hear from Freberg), and a 36-minute documentary about the sound and special effects, a talking-heads documentary that verges on the deadly boring until two-thirds of the way through, when home movies shot by photographic effects director Linwood Dunn reveal the matte work and puppetry effects required to pull of the movie’s lavish finish.

The Criterion release offers identical features in side-by-side Blu-Ray and regular DVD discs, priced the same as you’d pay for one or the other. Until the whole damn movie shows up in pristine condition, it’s probably the final video statement on this epic for now. And I have to agree with the afficionados: if you haven’t seen the movie before, start with the shorter version. It’s the best way into this “World.”

Metroland Magazine, 20 February 2014

Buy it on Amazon: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray/DVD)

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