This was a film genre which flourished briefly during the 1960’s. Examples include the Great Race, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and It’s a mad,mad,mad,mad world. Features of the genre include a mix of comedy and adventure ,above-average length and excellent production values.
Clearly these films were part of Hollywood’s response to television in the 50’s and 60’s, drawing in audiences by producing lavish entertainments that couldn’t be matched by TV. I am curious about the history of the genre. Which was the first film? Was there a particular epic comedy which bombed and killed the genre? Any later attempts at revival? Would it be worth risking today?
Finally which is the best of the films? Of the three mentioned above, Those Magnificent Men is the one I would probably enjoy the most today.
Another notable feature was these films would have large all-star casts filled with comics and a lot of cameos.
As for the movie that killed or crippled the epic comedy, I don’t think there was one in particular. However, the 1967 version of **Casino Royale **did a lot of damage. Spielberg’s take on the epic comedy, 1941, is probably the genre’s best known flop. Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is a more recent disappointment.
I don’t think the genre is completely dead. Somebody occasionally comes along and tries to do a big comedy with a lot funny people and a huge budget. The problem is that these movies often don’t deliver a lot of bang for the buck. It seems like all the effort goes into rounding up a big all-star cast, spectacular sets, and special effects but they forget to have a funny script and a director who can do comedy. Also, excessive length can be especially deadly for a comedy. I think there’s a lot of truth in Mel Brooks’ comment that the ideal length for a comedy is 100 minutes because that’s when the audience runs out of Raisinettes.
1932’s If I Had a Million should count as an early incarnation, in that it has a diverse, A-list cast with multiple story threads. It’s not particularly epic in length, but it’s got a diversity of settings, tones, and comedic styles, and is great fun.
I never saw Rat Race but wasn’t that one heavily inspired by It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World? I seem to remember it did okay rather than brilliantly or dreadfully at the cinema a few years back.
Of the three films you mention, I have some affection for them all but The Great Race is easily my favourite. I just love Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in it so much. Plus, the dialogue has entered our family’s shared language in quotes like “…now if you’d won the* men’s *international fencing competition” “I never mix my pies!” etc etc. I do think the film takes a little while to get going and only really takes off once the race is underway - otherwise the fact that it isn’t universally hailed as a classic is beyond me. It even has some of Edith Head’s most lovely costumes, especially in the running gag of Natalie Wood’s tiny suitcase but somehow there’s room for a new stunning and thematically appropriate outfit for every occasion. Plus, it has one of my favourite scores by Henry Mancini as well as the best pie fight ever!
I don’t think A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or The Mouse that Roared exactly fit with the others. The former, although with lots of great comedic actors, was based on a successful Broadway show (from which they cut almost all the musical numbers) that was, in turn, based on the comedies of Plautus. The others you cite were original made-for-the-movie plots. Also, although we know a lot of the faces today, I don’t think you could call it “star studded”. Zero Mostel was familiar, and, of Course, Phul Silvers from TV. People would recognize Jack Gilford (although i bet most wouldn’t know his name), but Michael Crawford was a young unknown, with Phantom far in the future. I’ll bet you can’t name anyone else in the cast without looking them up – hardly “star-studded”.
The Mouse that Roared was based on Leonard Wibberly’s satirical book. It starred Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers, and nobody else I could name offhand. It wasn’t in the same big budget epoic scale as the others listed.
In other comedies, I think Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies was an attempt to capture some of the success of Those Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines.
Airplane! did the same thing with a lesser group of stars and a much lower budget. And I think the budgets may have killed the genre, for both the comedies and the dramas. Why blow your budget on A-list stars and exotic locations when you’ll get a bigger bang for you buck with rubber sharks and green screens?
I enjoyed Keenan Wynn and Peter Falk even more than Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in The Great Race
Mad, Mad World fan here. Although I loved The Great Race.
While I wouldn’t exactly call it epic, I do remember one movie with a long list of comic actors that I loved. It had Bob Denver, Milton Berle, Jamie Farr, Victor Buono, and others. It starred Jim Hutton.
No one remembers it today. It was called “Who’s Minding the Mint?” It was about a U.S. Treasury worker trying to replace some money he accidently shredded at his job.
I love that movie. It’s rarely on, and I’ve never seen it on DVD.
Would Around the World in 80 Days qualify? The Mike Todd film is a bigger cameo-fest than It’s a Mad, mad, mad, mad World, and is definitely a comedy and an epic. But it’s quite a bit earlier than the others, coming out in 1956.
How about because it’s about as funny as a heart attack? I can’t stand IaMMMMW either (except for the brilliant Ethel Merman & Dick Shawn), and both films come from the Louder=Funnier school of comedy ineptitude. So much great talent (Lee & Mifune!) is wasted, and Spielberg never saw something in that movie he didn’t want to shoot or blow up. Robert Stack emerges best out of the whole mess, but he also gives the most subtle performance, too.
I will give the film credit, though–the model & miniature effects work is truly phenomenal.