CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
It’s been years since I saw Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” but I think about it from time to time. Just the other day I was thinking, the film opens with a recklessly speeding driver careening off of a California highway. The various drivers who the speeder blew past stop at the scene of the crash to see if they can help. They represent a cross-section of Kennedy-era Americans. There is a businessman–not quite as successful as he would have other believe, a dentist, a truck-driver and as outliers, a pair of comedy-writers–show-biz glamour amid the grit of everyday life. But all stop. All are willing to lend a hand. This initial burst of altruism will prove to be their undoing because the crash victim happens to be one “Smiler” Grogan, a career criminal just out of prison who was speeding to dig up his buried loot. Dying, he shares his secret with his would-be benefactors. By his reasoning, the stolen fortune is now theirs. He paid for it with his long incarceration, and now he is willing it to these five good Samaritans. After several failed attempts to divvy up the spoils–by number of Samaritans (5), by number of vehicles (4), by total number of persons involved (8)–they impulsively decide on a Winner Takes All strategy and the remainder of the film follows their increasing frantic efforts to be first on the scene.
Ironies abound. First, none of them recognize that jail time or not, the loot wasn’t Smiler’s to bequeath; second–perhaps more forgivable in those innocent times–they fail to realize that Smiler has been under police surveillance from the moment he left prison (although the audience is let in on this from the get-go); third, Smiler never told them exactly where the loot was, he only made cryptic allusions to it’s being buried in a park under “a big ‘W'”–a windmill? a water-tower?
As the frantic chase continues they will pick up other questers–a scheming salesman (ironically, the one person who probably wouldn’t have stopped to offer aid, but has made himself one of Smiler’s beneficiaries anyway), a vacationing British Army officer, a strong-but-stupid lifeguard, a pair of working-stiff taxi-drivers–and they will sustain massive losses to the possessions they started out with. All will lose their vehicles, and the dentist will lose the clothes on his back, or at least have them rendered useless by cascades of house paint. They will steal planes, wreck gas stations and hardware stores and cause general havoc to each other and to themselves. All will fittingly undergo “punishment” for their greed by being thrown, one-by-one from an out-of-control fire engine ladder.
And yet the core members of the group started with an impulse to do good, to render assistance. Even the veteran cop in charge of the operation to recover Smiler’s loot succumbs to greed and tries stealing it for himself. It would appear that Smiler’s blessing was actually a curse, leading only to broken bodies and destroyed lives–every one of these luckless clowns will face a variety of serious criminal charges. Careers are ended, and not just for the veteran cop.
I think that the one image from the film that sticks with me longest was a throw-away. Kramer wanted to cast as many famous comics as he could into his cautionary epic, and so Buster Keaton, genius of physical comedy and icon of Silent Comedy second only to Chaplin, turns up as “Jimmy the crook,” apparently in cahoots with the cop and perhaps an old crony of Smiler’s. His job is to help the cop ditch his official car and pick up a get-away vehicle, but in the ensuing chaos nothing goes as planned. Realizing that they have been duped, the questers, now crammed into two taxis take off in hot pursuit of the fleeing cop and there is no chance to make the switch. So poor Jimmy, totally befuddled, stands in the highway turning this way and that as the cars speed past him. It seems to me that Jimmy is a lot like a stand-in for the audience.