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It Was a "Mad World" Last Night at the Motion Picture Academy!

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Mad world poster

Last evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences theater in Beverly Hills, a newly-restored print of Stanley Kramer's 1963 epic comic masterpiece, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, was screened for an wildly enthusiastic audience. Academy programmer Randy Haberkamp told me it was the first of their "Last 70 mm Film Festival" events this summer. "We wanted to celebrate the really terrific medium that 70 mm widescreen film is," he said. "In following weeks we will be screening Spartacus, Sleeping Beauty, Grand Prix, 2001 and The Sound of Music. Before last night's screening, there was a question-and-answer session on stage hosted by Billy Crystal, with some of the related participants... Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney, Stan Freberg, Marvin Kaplan, Barrie Chase, casting director Lynn Stalmaster and script supervisor Marshall Schlom, with Karen Sharp Kramer helping to organize it. And I was there, remembering all and smiling to myself at the full and until-now untold story behind the movie.

cast of "Mad World"

Cast of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

1963, and I had been public relations counsel for the wide-screen film company, Cinerama, for seven years. Hired by a brilliant, somewhat eccentric Greek financier, Nicolas Reisini, in 1956 to help publicize his new acquisition, Cinerama, at the Brussels World Fair, I had embarked on a mad, exciting, exhilarating and yes, often destructive adventure to conquer the cinema world with him. Nic's vision for an international widescreen film company involved in every area of production and distribution had taken us into an uneasy partnership with MGM to make our first fictional features, "How The West Was Won," and "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," scintillating, wonderful wide-screen feature films which had been critically successful but financially unproductive for our company. (You will recall that the original Cinerama pictures filmed scenes with three separate-but-connected cameras and then showed them with three electronically-synchronized projectors onto a huge curved 146 degree screen made up of hundreds of vertical sleeves. Pacific Theatres is planning a celebratory screening of the original three-screen How The West Was Won this September at a festival at the Cinerama Dome theater on Sunset Boulevard. Stay tuned here for more news of that.) In this Sunday's New York Times, an article about today's film sizes, says: "Cinerama was the high-water mark in sensory immersion, while today's smartphone screens are the low-water mark."

director Stanley Kramer of "Mad World"

Director Stanley Kramer on the set of Mad World. Photo courtesy of Academy

As I moved into production, the ambitious, large-than-life Nic Reisini became my worldly mentor for almost a decade... traveling with him to Cuba, Mexico, Paris, London, Budapest and Japan... (We produced a big Cinerama comedy adventure film in Hungary with Buddy Hackett and George Sanders called The Golden Crown -- very funny, but never released for political reasons.) Finally, an astute, pipe-smoking theatrical entrepreneur, Bill Forman, owner of the mighty Pacific Theaters chain, bought into the company and set his sights on straightening out the morass. One of Reisini's "schemes" had been to create a traveling "circus" of portable, inflatable Cinerama theaters based on a geodesic-dome design by Buckminster Fuller. The first such truck caravan was actually assembled in India, with a huge bubble theater to be inflated by a small generator and capable of seating several hundred viewers, then quickly disassembled and carried on trucks to the next city... and the next. First India, Africa, then Europe, North and South America... Reisini was going to bring the Cinerama adventures to the world-at-large. (Remember those fabulous travelogue films, the first one opening with the swooping roller coaster ride? Audiences fainted from the shock.)

For many reasons, financially and technical, the portable theater idea was impractical and died aborning. But the beautiful concrete Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard at Ivar, now part of Pacific's Arclight, was originally going to be one of those inflatable portable geodesic domes... and when it was proven impractical, Bill Forman wisely decreed we would build a huge concrete geodesic dome theater which, with its enormous curved wide-screen, would be one of the wonders of the world... And it was and still is. (It was to be the prototype of a chain of such Cinerama theaters around the country, but -- as its architect, Weldon Beckett, pointed out -- it was impractical to have a single-screen theater of such cost and intricacy.)

Spencer Tracy and Buster Keaton in "Mad World"

Spencer Tracy and Buster Keaton in Mad World

As for the first film to play in this unique Hollywood exhibition space, there was a unanimous decision. It would be the comic, epic film that producer/director Stanley Kramer was shooting in the newly-devised single-camera Cinerama wide-screen process. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the only movie which was audacious and impressive enough to fill such a theater with excited patrons. Was it ever!! To refresh your memory, in case you saw the film years ago, it details how a small-time crook (Jimmy Durante) abandons his heist suitcase of $350,00 under a tree in the remote Santa Rosita California park and -- just before he kicks the bucket in an accident in the Mojave Desert (and he literally kicks a bucket) -- whispers the location (under a big W) to a group of several strangers... all played by famous comics. They make a a mad dash to get the money, only to be temporarily thwarted by the local police chief, Spencer Tracy, who has his own designs on the treasure. Among the many comics are Sid Caesar (replacing the just-deceased Ernie Kobvaks), Jonathan Winters in his first film, Mickey Rooney. And Buddy Hackett with Milton Berle! With the help of great casting director Lynn Stalmaster, a raft of famous comic names join in the fun: think Peter Falk, Jim Backus, Carl Reiner, Edie Adams, Ethel Merman (in a role originally written for Groucho Marx), Terry Thomas, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Phil Silvers and Dick Shawn. Cameo appearances by such as Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, the voice of Selma Diamond, dancer Barrie Chase, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges add to the fun.

It was shot over seven-and-a-half months during the summer and fall of 1962 all over Palm Springs and the Southland, ending with 2,000 extras on the Universal back lot. Screenwriter William Rose had brought the original idea to Kramer as a 10-page outline for a giant comedy set in England. Kramer liked the idea but wanted to shoot in the Mojave Desert and California, to use an American crew. They polished the screenplay to 340 pages and Kramer said it was his intention to "Make the comedy to end all comedies." Originally called, It's a Mad World, they added several "Mads"... and Stanley always regretted not adding a fifth Mad to the title. (My Huffington readers may recall my writing recently about Kramer's "Judgement at Nuremberg" when it was screened at the Academy.)

jonathan winters

Jonathan Winters at last night's Academy screening.

The comic epic was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and was the first film to be presented in the new single-camera Cinerama projection process. Ernest Gold wrote the music and Mack David the lyrics, while Saul Bass did the amusing four-minute animated title sequence. This newly-restored print has some footage that was excised in the original (after it premiered at 192 minutes) to shorten the screening time to 162 minutes and add another showing. One memory I have of the shooting was the running crap game which Phil Silvers ran for several weeks. One day Jerry Lewis stopped by the set and left $500 poorer. (He earned the enmity of the crew by insisting he be allowed to drive his MG sports car onto the stage, to which Stanley reluctantly agreed.) Stanley's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, confirmed in the interview period that his original cut had been more than five hours! "He set out to make a comedy to end all comedies," she said. Boy, he sure succeeded! I recalled to my companion, script supervisor Marshall Schlom, the wondrous events of that opening night, November 7th, 1963, at the Cinerama Dome, when the critical and public response was ecstatic. (During the intermission, we had the police radio calls piped into the lobby and restrooms.)

I recall that Stanley was three weeks from ending the 166 day shoot when he ran out of money, since the original budget had been $6.5 million. United Artists refused to add more to the budget and I recall that Cinerama came up with another $2.5 million to finish the film. Another memory was the madcap advertising slogan which genius Stan Freberg devised for the campaign: "Funnier than Cleopatra." Of course, an inside joke about the disasterous Fox film; it was never used. Mad World became the highest-grossing American film of the year and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for best Best Sound Effects. I doubt if there will ever be another comedy epic of the scope of this wonderfully funny and madly ambitious work of art. At the time of his death in 2001, Stanley Kramer was planning a sequel, to be called The Sheiks of Araby. The opening sequence was the same comics, now wearing dark burnooses and driving black Rolls Royces, meeting in the desert. I'm sure it would have been hilarious.

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