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Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 2

Out this morning (August 27, 2012) is Part Two of my four part series on Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s in Film International.

The scene above is from Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy of wretched excess, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, about which I have this to say: “Back in America, producer/director Stanley Kramer was readying a much more ambitious project, perhaps the most overwhelmingly brutal comedy ever made: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). With a cast featuring literally every living comedian in either a leading, cameo, or supporting role, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and everyone else in between, the film, budgeted at a then-colossal $9.4 million, was of such epic proportion that when released at 192 minutes (in two parts, with a 15 minute intermission), after preview screenings of 210 minutes, it was one of the most spectacular films of the year, regardless of genre.

But what is most striking about the film, in the end, is not its epic dimension or scope (the film was shot in ‘Ultra Panavision,’ then touted as the new seamless form of Cinerama, a popular 1950s three camera, three projector process that produced an illusion of depth), but rather the film’s view of life, which is acerbic in the extreme. The premise of the film is slim; an aging gangster, ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Durante), runs off the highway in his car, and with his dying words, tells a group of ‘good Samaritans’ who have stopped to help him that there is $350,000 in stolen loot stashed under a ‘big W’ in the fictional Santa Rosita State Park in California, and the money is theirs, if they can find it. With that, Grogan dies, literally ‘kicking a bucket’ down the culvert as he does so. Almost immediately, the passersby begin fighting amongst themselves for the money, and soon each one is trying to stop the others from leaving the park, and finding the $350,000. The film then becomes a literally mind-numbing orgy of violence and destruction, as gas stations, cars, planes, and anything else in sight is destroyed with ritualistic, almost sadistic fetishism.

The members of the group are shadowed in their quest by Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, in one of his last roles), the Chief of Detection of the Santa Rosita Police Department, but in the end, he, too, succumbs to the temptation of ‘Smiler’s’ loot, and tries to abscond with the entire fortune, tricking the others into thinking he will turn it in to his superiors at police headquarters. When the group discovers they’ve been tricked, they give chase, and in the end all wind up in the hospital as a result of injuries sustained in their pursuit, including Captain Culpepper. All their efforts have availed them nothing, and in the bargain, all face lengthy hospital stays while they recuperate. The film has developed a cult following other the years, and certainly, in terms of excess, violence, and spectacle, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of the most expensive and epic “dark” comedies ever produced.

Yet the majority of humor in the film derives from outright cruelty – Ethel Merman perpetually screaming at her on-screen husband, Milton Berle, or anyone else in her line of fire; Phil Silvers offering a lift to the stranded Jonathan Winters, who is puffing along in the desert on a child’s bicycle; when Winters throws the bike away, Silvers speeds off, leaving him in the dust; Sid Caesar and Edie Adams locked in a basement full of exploding fireworks – and as many critics remarked at the time, the sheer wastage of the film is appalling. All that motivates the film’s central characters is greed, anger, lust and avarice. As a compelling vision of the dark side of the American dream, the film certainly succeeds. But when viewing the film, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was conscious, and how much simply a byproduct of the movie’s brutal trajectory.

Lured on by the ‘promise’ of instant wealth, the protagonists of Kramer’s film are locked into a headlong race to their own destruction, and they lay waste to everything they touch in the process. The film remains controversial to this day for its sheer overkill; how many more car crashes can the mind absorb? How many more shouting matches? How much more destruction? There seems to be no answer forthcoming in the film, which ends with Ethel Merman’s character slipping on a banana peel in the hospital ward where all of her co-stars are convalescing. At this, everyone starts laughing hysterically. Humiliation, pain, violence, cruelty; is this really the stuff of comedy? Yet the colossal perversity of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains a monument to over indulgence; ‘give me more, more, more,’ the film seems to say – which is just what its protagonists want, as well.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him or his website,

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