History, Legacy & Showmanship

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Retrospective

November 07, 2013 - 1:20 pm   |   By 

CELEBRATING “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD” ON ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY

The Digital Bits is pleased to present this retrospective article commemorating the golden anniversary of the original release of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and a new Blu-ray Disc from The Criterion Collection.

Featured in this tribute are a list of the epic comedy’s roadshow engagements and an interview segment with several people involved with the production of the Blu-ray Disc. [Read on here...]

 

PART 1: THE ORIGINAL ROADSHOW ENGAGEMENTS

What follows is a chronological list of the original North American roadshow engagements of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which provides a history of the film’s initial release and nostalgia for those who saw the film at one of the theaters cited. These exclusive, long-running, major-city engagements featured reserved seating at advanced prices and were presented “in Cinerama” (i.e. a rectified 70-millimeter print with six-track stereophonic sound projected onto a large, deeply curved screen).

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

  • 1963-11-07 … Los Angeles, CA – Cinerama Dome [66 weeks]
  • 1963-11-17 … New York, NY – Warner [52 weeks]
  • 1963-11-19 … Boston, MA – Boston [31 weeks]
  • 1963-11-19 … Chicago, IL – McVickers [33 weeks]
  • 1963-12-18 … Atlanta, GA – Martin Cinerama [23 weeks]
  • 1963-12-18 … Cleveland, OH – Palace [27 weeks]
  • 1963-12-18 … Montreal, QC – Imperial [58 weeks]
  • 1963-12-18 … Pittsburgh, PA – Warner [28 weeks]
  • 1963-12-18 … San Francisco, CA – Orpheum [52 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Cincinnati, OH – Capitol [28 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Houston, TX – Windsor [19 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Kansas City, MO – Empire [51 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Miami (Miami Beach), FL – Sheridan [23 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … New Orleans, LA – Cinerama [27 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Philadelphia, PA – Boyd [27 weeks]
  • 1963-12-19 … Portland, OR – Hollywood [44 weeks]
  • 1963-12-20 … Dallas, TX – Capri [23 weeks]
  • 1963-12-20 … Honolulu, HI – Cinerama [28 weeks]
  • 1963-12-20 … Louisville, KY – Rialto [26 weeks]
  • 1963-12-20 … Milwaukee, WI – Wisconsin 1 [32 weeks]
  • 1963-12-20 … Toronto, ON – Carlton [18 weeks]
  • 1964-02-11 … Detroit, MI – Music Hall [55 weeks]
  • 1964-02-18 … Columbus, OH – Grand [25 weeks]
  • 1964-02-19 … Salt Lake City, UT – Villa [36 weeks]
  • 1964-02-19 … Washington, DC – Uptown [36 weeks]
  • 1964-02-19 … Wichita, KS – Uptown [30 weeks]
  • 1964-02-20 … Baltimore, MD – Town [18 weeks]
  • 1964-02-20 … St. Louis, MO – Cinerama [37 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Akron (Cuyahoga Falls), OH – Falls [30 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Buffalo, NY – Teck [7 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Dayton, OH – Dabel [47 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Hartford, CT – Cinerama [31 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Omaha, NE – Indian Hills [37 weeks]
  • 1964-03-25 … Providence, RI – Cinerama [31 weeks]
  • 1964-04-21 … Newark (Montclair), NJ – Clairidge [34 weeks]
  • 1964-04-22 … San Diego, CA – Cinerama [50 weeks]
  • 1964-04-22 … Seattle, WA – Cinerama [48 weeks]
  • 1964-05-07 … Toledo, OH – Valentine [25 weeks]
  • 1964-05-15 … Phoenix (Scottsdale), AZ – Kachina [40 weeks]
  • 1964-05-27 … Fresno, CA – Warner [18 weeks]
  • 1964-05-27 … Oyster Bay (Syosset), NY – Syosset [30 weeks]
  • 1964-06-03 … Chattanooga, TN – Brainerd [13 weeks]
  • 1964-06-10 … Indianapolis, IN – Indiana [27 weeks]
  • 1964-06-23 … Sacramento, CA – Esquire [29 weeks]
  • 1964-06-24 … Albuquerque, NM – Fox Winrock [13 weeks]
  • 1964-10-29 … Denver, CO – Cooper [51 weeks]
  • 1964-11-19 … Minneapolis (St. Louis Park), MN – Cooper [47 weeks]
  • 1964-11-24 … San Jose, CA – Century 21 [19 weeks]

The first roadshow presentation of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World held outside North America was in London (at the Coliseum) and commenced December 2, 1963.  The first foreign-language roadshow presentation was in Berlin (at the Capitol) and commenced December 16, 1963.  The first of thousands of domestic general-release engagements were held during the summer of 1964.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

DVD vs BD image frame comparison

 

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

This portion of the article features an interview with Karen Stetler, the Criterion Blu-ray Disc producer; Robert A. Harris, the restoration/reconstruction producer; Karen Sharpe-Kramer, the widow of Mad World producer-director Stanley Kramer; and the team that recorded the audio commentary track: Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo.  The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” format.

Mark Evanier is a comic-book and television writer.  He currently is the writer-producer of The Garfield Show and one of the guys behind the popular comic book Groo the Wanderer.  He has written hundreds of hours of television, hundreds of comic books, and a number of books on comic-book history including Kirby: King of Comics.  He maintains a popular blog at wwwnewsfromme.com.

Robert A. Harris is a film preservationist and owner of The Film Preserve.  He has been involved with several acclaimed restoration and reconstruction projects, including NapoleonLawrence of ArabiaSpartacusMy Fair LadyVertigo, and Rear Window.  In addition to IAMMMMW, recent restoration, reconstruction and preservation projects have included The Godfather.

Karen Sharpe-Kramer was married to producer-director Stanley Kramer from 1966 until his death in 2001. She was an actress, appearing in numerous films and television programs between 1952 and 1966, and currently oversees the Kramer estate.

Michael Schlesinger is widely acknowledged as the dean of classic film distributors, having worked for more than twenty-five years at MGM, Paramount and Sony, keeping hundreds of vintage movies in theatrical (and more recently DVD) release, and instigating the restoration of many more, including the completion of Orson Welles’ 1942 documentary Its All True some fifty years later.  Behind the camera, he wrote and produced the American version of Godzilla 2000, produced such comedies as The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy Nightand recently made his writing/directing debut with It’s A Frame-Up!  He is a two-time Rondo Award winner, a trustee of the American Cinematheque, and has been a talking head in numerous documentaries.  He has never appeared on Law and Order.

Paul Scrabo is an Emmy-winning video technician for network television who finds his self-fulfillment working on independent media projects.  He was the researcher for the 1991 documentary, Something a Little Less Serious: A Tribute to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Karen Stetler is a Senior Producer with The Criterion Collection. In addition to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, her other recently-produced Blu-ray projects have included Rosemary’s Baby and the Harold Lloyd comedies Safety Last! and The Freshman.

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Criterion's Blu-ray releaseMichael Coate (The Digital Bits):  What did Criterion find appealing about It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World to want to release it on their label?

Karen Stetler:  It’s the biggest comedy ever made, a landmark film by a producer/director who contributed immensely to the film industry.  We have wanted to include the film in the Criterion Collection since the days of LaserDisc.  The opportunity to work together with Karen Kramer made the release possible.

Coate:  How is the new Criterion Blu-ray superior to or different from all previous home-video releases?

Robert A. Harris:  It contains as an extra, an almost complete version of the original roadshow cut of the film.

Stetler:  There is a host of special features – archival footage that has not been seen in decades and newly produced pieces that illuminate the making of the film, its special effects and its enduring popularity.

Coate:  Why present two versions of IAMMMMW on the new Blu-ray?

Stetler:  Fans of the film have always wanted to see as much of the roadshow version added back as possible so we thought it was important to give them the best quality “extended version” we could produce.  We’d got as close to the original roadshow version as is possible with the surviving elements.  That said, the general release version survives as the only official Stanley Kramer cut of the film and he was happy with this version.  It was important to preserve and present this release version.

Coate:  Why restore IAMMMMW?

 

Harris:  Because it’s a fun film, and a fan favorite.

 

Stetler:  We were not able to restore the film to its full roadshow version.  Some of the footage and audio are still missing.  We made a version that includes as much material as we could find.  The fans want to see the performances to the fullest possible extent and it is an interesting historical record.  

Coate:  Why was the film shortened during its initial release?

 

Harris: UA felt it was too long at closing in on three and a half hours.

 

Coate:  In what condition were the original image and audio elements?

Harris:  The short version, with the exception of dupes is virtually pristine, and has been well cared for by MGM.  The rest is basically trashed.  All extra footage is totally faded, shrunken and fully in the bloom of vinegar syndrome.

 

Stetler:  The picture elements are badly faded and many bits are severely warped.  The surviving roadshow audio that we had access to was in good condition.  

 

Coate:  Was anyone from the original cast or crew involved with the restoration?

 

Stetler:  We met and talked with many of the surviving people from the film and worked closely with Stanley Kramer’s widow, Karen Kramer.  We did not shoot new cast interviews as there were so many archival gems to present that included cast members, some who have since died.  The reunion event at the Academy (hosted by Billy Crystal) was so recent and so good that we felt it could not be topped – especially as we lost Jonathan Winters last year.  We felt the new features we produced (the commentary track and the sound and visual effects documentary) should provide information that could not necessarily be found in other programs.

 

Coate:  Can you describe the workflow for this restoration?

Harris:  Gather elements.  70mm picture came from a number of sources, early on via Joshua Berman, supplanted by additional contributions from a projectionist who had found some trims, more trims discovered by Michael Schlesinger, and more from a print that came over from Australia…. Audio came from some of the trims, and a few full reels courtesy of James Kroeper…. There is no surviving continuity.  Several years ago we created a skeleton reconstruction based upon cutting notes by an editor going from the long to the short version…. The changes were not merely lifts.  The entire film went through a re-editing process…. Scanning of select 70mm trims at HD resolution.  Since many were different trims than had been used for the LaserDisc, fitting color became a bit more problematic.  In addition, the de-rectification process had to be worked out, eventually using 3D warping technology….Harvesting audio from trims, some additional material at MGM (all courtesy of Scott Grossman) and then the process of blending audio within the short version…. Addition of stills, sub-titles, etc.

 

Coate:  How closely in terms of running time and content does this restoration match the original version of the film?

 

Harris:  Within a few minutes

 

Coate:  Was there any consideration for creating a “SmileBox” edition for the Blu-ray release so that there would be a version that approximates the initial “In Cinerama” roadshow presentations?

 

Harris:  Discussed, and decided against since Mad World was not a true Cinerama production.  SmileBox [used on the Blu-ray releases of How the West Was WonThis Is CineramaWindjammer, etc.] would have been given more consideration if Mad World had been shot in the original 3-panel Cinerama process since SmileBox would attempt to replicate the sight lines and extreme wide-angle optics of true Cinerama productions.

 

Coate:  What was the objective with the Blu-ray Disc’s audio commentary track?

Mark Evanier:  Since November of ‘63, I’ve been fascinated with this movie and have tried to meet (and, when possible, work with) as many cast members as possible and to learn whatever I could learn about it.  My co-commentators share similar passions and I think we all just wanted to share our knowledge of the film and our love of it to the kind of kindred soul who’d listen to our commentary track.

 

Michael Schlesinger:  To impart as much information as we could in the time allotted, especially when it came to clearing up rumors, identifying bit players and pointing out details, and to do so in a fun and entertaining manner.  Based on the early reviews, I believe we succeeded.

 

Paul Scrabo:  Three hours may seem like a generous amount of time to fill with commentary, but not with this film!  One could run out of time with cast and crew bios alone.  So we spent little time on information that an enthusiast could easily discover.  The commentary was an opportunity to present information that has never been available before. 

Stetler:  To provide viewers with background on the making of the film and the filmmakers in a fun and informative way.

Coate:  In what way is IAMMMMW worthy of celebration on its 50th anniversary?

Evanier:  When you celebrate IAMMMMW, you not only celebrate a great (to some of us) movie but you celebrate a generation or two of great comedians, most of them of a kind we don’t have anymore.  We celebrate Phil Silvers and Milton Berle and Jonathan Winters and Sid Caesar and so many more.  Some of them did great, important work that is no longer easily available...and Mad World gives us the chance to see them working at the top of their game, playing off one another.  It’s really the World Series of their craft and the only one of its kind.

Harris:  I don’t care about anniversaries.  I just save films.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad WorldKaren Sharpe-Kramer:  It has iconic appeal.  I’ve produced most all of the anniversary premieres with cast, crew and special guests. This film has never failed to attract major audiences.  It seems that IAMMMMW is just as much of a giant crowd pleaser today as it was fifty years ago.  It has developed an international fan base over the past couple decades and they are fervent admirers.

Schlesinger:  Well, for one, it’s a matchless piece of entertainment, especially compared to the morass of stupidity and excretory gags that passes for comedy today.  Moreover, those of us who grew up with the picture remember it as a momentous event, and our residual affection for the people in it reinforces this in a way that is likely lost on younger viewers who have no idea who those people are (especially as they pass away).  Plus it opened at an enormously tragic moment in our nation’s history, and it went a long way in easing our collective pain and making it possible to laugh again. (See Billy Crystal’s own story on one of the extras.)  The Beatles often get credit for lifting our national malaise, but no – Mad World got there first.

Scrabo:  It would have been so easy for Mad World to end up as a 60s curiosity; that dated comedy with tons of comics produced and directed by that message filmmaker Stanley Kramer.  Who would expect that mixture to work?  But Kramer and company gave us the unexpected – a family-friendly comedy epic that, in the words of screenwriter William Rose, was “designed to entertain two different audiences at once – ten-year-olds and intellectuals.”  And I feel the 50th Anniversary is a tribute, but not a remembrance.  Mad World never really left the lives of who it touched.

Coate:  How is IAMMMMW significant within the comedy genre?

Evanier:  Most of the comedians in it were previously dismissed as “TV people.”  Most had either never been in a movie before or hadn’t made one in quite some time.  This was a film that showed not only that these guys could act but that they could act in a movie starring Spencer Tracy, who was kind of the gold standard of screen acting.

Kramer:  There are so many “firsts” with Mad World.  It was the first time that animation was used in the opening credits sequence.  It has been copied time and time again in films such as the Pink Panther series and Ruthless People.  It was the first time that major comedy stars were used in almost every single role, even the small cameos.  One of the most important “stars” of the film was the magnificent Ernest Gold score.  It is considered a classic score by many.  And the stunts were all real for the most part, especially the car chases which have also been copied.

Schlesinger:  No other comedy assembled such an extraordinary amount of talent; it’s almost a history of humor in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century.  Plus, it’s a permanent record of many of these performers at their peak; apart from Tracy, Rooney, Falk, and maybe Terry-Thomas, none ever did better work in a feature film.

Scrabo:  I’ll just mention one aspect.  Stanley Kramer’s approach and direction.  There’s something hip about it even fifty years later.  Mad World does not contain any love scenes.  No one is asking for our sympathy, but somehow we care anyway.  Perhaps it’s the restraint in the film as much as any excess that makes the three-hour length acceptable.  Kramer lets a stunt be shown to its completion on screen in one single shot.  There are no cuts to try to make things funnier.  No wacky camera angles.  It’s almost as if Stanley Kramer didn’t directed Mad World – he was just there reporting what happened that day.

 

Coate:  Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw IAMMMMW?

Evanier:  Seeing this film was life-changing to me.  I saw it between the time Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy and Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.  The world was in despair and chaos that weekend and for a little over three hours, we got away from it all and spent time with these wonderful, funny people.

Harris:  Fright.  I was working at Warner Bros. in New York and being trained in various functions.  One summer I was in projection, and was sent over to the Warner Cinerama to learn 70mm projection. I ended up running a show.  Not fun.

Kramer:  I recall having seen the original roadshow version at the theater Stanley Kramer had built to open his comedy extravaganza – The Cinerama Dome.  A few days after the world premiere, I went to check it out.  The theater was packed and the audience loved it.  At that time it was almost four hours with intermission.  I had not officially met my husband-to-be Stanley Kramer yet.  That happened three years later.  But ironically enough, I had a small role in one of Stanley’s more obscure productions called The Sniper back in 1952.  It was the job that qualified me to join Screen Actors Guild.

Schlesinger:  It instantly became my all-time favorite film, and has remained so ever since.

Scrabo:  About a year into its general release, I saw the film with my father who laughed throughout its entirety.  Everyone was excited about seeing Jonathan Winters in a movie.  I expected a Mad Magazine-type thing for the kids in the audience.  As soon as the credits started, I was hooked.  The film was not about cameos, or old-fashioned comedy bits.  Mad World was something different.

Coate:  Which cut/version of IAMMMMW do you feel is the best?

Evanier:  I’m glad we have the new, extended version, but I tell people that if they show this movie to someone who hasn’t seen it before, show them the shorter, general release version.

Harris:  The short version plus about five minutes from the extended.

Schlesinger:  The roadshow is obviously the version Kramer wanted and the one I prefer, though I think the ideal version might be somewhere between the two.

Scrabo: The general release version has played since 1964 and the film’s positive reputation is based on that cut.  There are a handful of scenes in the extended version that I love and would like to see included in the shorter version.  I feel these two versions of Mad World are like family albums – one album, the one on your coffee table that you show to friends, contain only the best photos, without any duplicate shots and no explanation is needed for them. But you never throw out your extra photos.  It’s still your family, the ones you grew up with.  They go in a special album. 

 

Coate:  There were several epic comedy films made during the 1960s.  Where does IAMMMMW rank among that group?

Evanier:  IAMMMMW is first and foremost.  I think it’s in a class by itself.

Schlesinger:  At the top.  The others were very good indeed, but they lack that extra spark that makes IAMMMMW so remarkably special.

 

Scrabo:  For decades we’ve been subjected to a misnomer that’s in numerous articles and books: Mad World unleashed a series of bloated and unfunny epics.  I never thought that was true.  Certainly Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is a Todd-AO delight, with miracles in the air placed in a charming era.  The Great Race, which was actually conceived before Mad World, is a classy epic that let Blake Edwards do all the crazy things he always wanted to do.  Concerning a few films that came out in the late 60s like Casino Royale and Skidoo, they are so unlike Mad World as to have no relation.  Naturally I think Mad World is the best of the entire lot, but it’s so different from the others I don’t really think it is part of the lot!

 

Coate:  Where does IAMMMMW rank among director Stanley Kramer’s body of work?

Evanier:  IAMMMMW is an outlier in Kramer’s body of work.  I think you do both films a disservice if you try and weigh it against Inherit the Wind or hold it up against Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or any of the others.  I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a typical Stanley Kramer film but if there is, it isn’t IAMMMMW.  It’s the funniest movie he ever made and the only one with the Three Stooges in it...but that’s about the only comparison you can make.

Kramer:  Out of all thirty-five groundbreaking films made by Stanley Kramer, I believe IAMMMMW has the most substantial fan base around the world.  It is a timeless classic comedy with universal appeal and a gem all ages can appreciate.  So many people from all walks of life tell me it’s their “favorite film of all time.

Schlesinger:  It’s too different from the others to rank.  Mad World or Judgment at Nuremberg?  That’s not even apples and oranges; more like apples and hot dogs.

Scrabo:  Mad World arrived near the end of his marvelous output for United Artists, and I believe it confirmed his versatility as a director because you can’t really compare the film at all to Inherit the WindThe Defiant Ones, etc.  In those films Kramer succeeded with so many intimate moments and yet he appears just as confident presenting the huge canvas of Mad World.  Stanley Kramer made many great films.  I’m convinced Mad World is his best work. 

Coate:  What is the legacy of IAMMMMW?

Evanier:  The legacy of this film is that for the remainder of mankind, someone can show it to a younger person and say, “Hey, let me introduce you to some of the greatest comedians ever in show business...”

Harris:  A huge, and somewhat unruly, fan base.

Kramer:  Endurance and continues to have popularity among young people.  Since it is a clean comedy, families can enjoy it.  I can’t tell you how many kids are big fans.  They sold-out screenings all over the country with lots of kids in the audience.  It is a masterpiece and we all identify with the characters.  Sadly a tendency towards greed is human nature depending on the situation and I think we continue to see ourselves in them.

Schlesinger:  There was a moment when all the stars were in alignment and the Greatest. Comedy. Ever. was made.  That it inspires such passionate affection in its fans – or as I call them, “The Brotherhood of Mad” – is one indication of the unique hold it has on those who see it as a very special moment not just in movie history but as a landmark event of its time.  There aren’t too many movies one can watch over and over and over again with no diminution of joy.  Mad World is certainly one of them.

Scrabo:  Mad World provided a great service.  It gathered a handful of the biggest names in early television and preserved their talents in one film, in Ultra Panavision 70, no less!  And, as an added bonus, the result is some of the best work these talented performers ever did.  There is no “funniest comedy ever made.”  Can you compare Dr. Strangelove to A Night at the Opera?  For many, myself included, Mad World is their FAVORITE MOVIE, let alone favorite comedy!

Coate: If Stanley Kramer were still alive today, what would he think of the enduring appeal of IAMMMMW and the treatment Criterion has given to his film?

Kramer:  I believe Stanley would have been pleased and surprised that the film has lasted so long in popularity and it is a true testament to his filmmaking. His original dream of making “the Comedy to end all Comedies.”  Stanley was so associated and revered for making socially-conscious dramas.  In fact, he was known as the serious “Message Moviemaker.”  He wanted to prove the critics wrong by making It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  But staying true to his roots, the film still has a “message.”  It is about GREED.  And to quote Mad World cast member Marvin Kaplan, “Greed has become a national pastime.”  I defy anyone to have done as spectacular a job with it as Criterion.  Stanley would have deeply appreciated the detail and all of the educational elements.  Anyone aspiring to be a filmmaker or who wants to be involved in the entertainment industry should study the Special Features section alone. Stanley entrusted me to oversee his legacy and I am genuinely impressed with the work of Criterion on Mad World and producer Karen Stetler, and all those who made appearances and worked on this special project.  It is already a bona fide collector’s item among Mad World fans and film buffs.

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It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

 

SOURCES / REFERENCES:

The information contained in this article was principally referenced from regional newspaper promotion and various issues of Boxoffice and Variety.

 

SPECIAL THANKS:

Al Alvarez, Jim Barg, Brian Carmody, Nick DiMaggio, Mark Evanier, Robert A. Harris, Martin Hart, William Hooper, Bill Huelbig, Mark Huffstetler, Bill Kretzel, Karen Sharpe-Kramer, Mark Lensenmayer, Stan Malone, Gabriel Neeb, Jim Perry, Michael Schlesinger, Paul Scrabo, Karen Stetler, Robert Throop, Joel Weide, Vince Young, and to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.

- Michael Coate

 

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