By Bill Dudley

Has it really been 50 years since Stanley Kramer made one of film history’s greatest comedies? Indeed it has, and Kramer did it on a dare.

Stanley Kramer  produced “High Noon” and “The Caine Mutiny.” He directed “Inherit the Wind” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” These were all very serious and important message movies. One day on a dare from an unnamed Hollywood power broker, he was challenged to lighten up and do a mass appeal comedy.

Kramer pulled no punches, and hired all of Hollywood’s best known comedians to participate including: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers,Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas, the beautiful Edie Adams (at that time the Muriel Cigar Girl and late wife of Ernie Kovacs), crazy Dick Shawn and his first film role, the great Jonathan Winters.

Loads of comedy stars also did cameos including Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Nick Stewart, and Jimmy Durante. A very young Peter Falk joins Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as the cab drivers who get sucked into all the nonsense. Actors Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy were thrown in for authenticity, and they were funny too. “Mad Mad Mad Mad World” became Kramer’s biggest hit of all, so I’m guessing he won the dare.

Mrs. Kramer (Karen Sharpe) pictured above with her snazzy ‘Mad Mad World’ handbag, and daughter Kat Kramer, helped TCM Fest assemble surviving cast members Mickey Rooney, Barry (legs) Chase, Marvin Kaplan and even had Jonathan Winters scheduled who passed away shortly before the festival.

They kept an empty chair for Jonathan on the stage below the screen where it all began in late 1963 at Cineramadome. Karen said that the theater was actually built to exhibit Mad Mad World, which was originally a 5 hour film. Kramer snipped nearly 2 hours out. God knows what we missed, as this is still one the funniest films ever made. Many later comedy classics like 1980’s “Airplane” (also screened this year at TCM Fest) were obviously heavily influenced by ‘Mad Mad World.’

One of my favorite scenes was when Jimmy Durante wrecks his speeding car and literally “kicked the bucket,” which started the madcap antics at the beginning of the film. Broadway legend Ethel Merman is a centerpiece of comedy as Milton Berle’s loud and obnoxious mother-in-law. However, Winters stole the show as a crazy truck  driver known as ‘Pike,’ who competes with at least 14 other people to find some $350,000 in buried treasure. Winters completely destroys a brand new gas station owned by two nerds played perfectly by Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang. Kaplan said that after the station was destroyed, they found out they missed shooting a scene, so they had to rebuild it, and have Winters tear it down again.

To give you an idea of how big a deal this movie was, Karen Sharpe Kramer told us that President Kennedy was scheduled to attend the premier in late 1963 for the November opening. JFK was assassinated on November 22, but his brothers Attorney General Robert Kennedy and newly elected Senator Ted Kennedy came in his place.

More on the 4th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival:


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