Driving Along

Sentimental Journey

April 26, 2021  


On The Great Race


he Great Race (1965) aspires after the slapstick comedies of the 1920s and '30s — explicitly confirmed by the dedication to Laurel and Hardy that

kicks off its opening credits. It also seeks to take after the scope of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, the expansively cast, then-two-year-old road comedy that ran nearly three hours and would endure as one of the decade’s most commercially successful comedies. (The Great Race is about two hours and 40 minutes long, complete with orchestral interludes.) We naturally don’t notice how disharmonious these two sensibilities — light-footed slapstick and hulking size — are until about an hour and a half into the movie. Before then, the film is a mostly inspired modern recapitulation of an old style. When slapstick was offered in its inaugural era, it was typically concise. Products could be ambitious without overdecorating a narrative idea or belaboring a joke. Their compactness was appealing. But

Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in 1965's "The Great Race."

Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in 1965's The Great Race.

The Great Race, past a certain point, introduces characteristics unwelcome in any genre but particularly comedy: fatigue; a lack of focus.


The Great Race is excessive for excess’ sake — a characteristic especially indicative of ample-budgeted '60s studio filmmaking à la The Music Man (1962), Cleopatra 

(1963), Sound of Music (1965), Funny Girl (1968), or Paint Your Wagon (1969). Those movies’ profusions, while sometimes impressive, tended to feel like the last vestiges of the Hollywood of yore trying desperately to prove what it could achieve scale-wise to forestall shifting cultural tastes. When a movie is as long as The Great Race, which was at the time the most expensive comedy ever made at $12 million, the tacit promise is that that length is required to see through what it’s bent on accomplishing. (Attention is put onto length, I think, once a movie moves north of around the two-hour, 20-minute mark.) But in The Great Race the effect, by the end, is that about an hour of the movie could have been cut out. No one wants to watch a comedy and spend that much time looking anywhere — and coming up with nothing — for a laugh.

The movie is set in 1908, and has its foundation in a rivalry. Its lead is Leslie “The Great Leslie” Gallant (Tony Curtis), a world-famous daredevil. He’s Houdini-adjacent. At the beginning of the movie, a crowd, an orchestra, and a full band (there must be drum rolls decorating the proceedings) gathers in an open field to watch his newest feat. He will be locked in a straitjacket and tied, by foot, to the bottom of a hot-air balloon, which will promptly lift off. He must get loose, then climb into the balloon’s undercarriage, so that he can grab the parachute sitting in it and leap out before he’s too high in the sky to keep breathing. Gallant has so far always succeeded at everything he's tried — the parachute stunt goes as planned, save for a tear in the balloon that makes it go down early — but is always threatened to be undercut by Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) and his assistant Max Meen (Peter Falk). These perennially envious competing stuntmen live together in a Scooby Doo-style scary mansion, and they spend less time planning their own stunts and more ways to sabotage Gallant’s latest gimmick. The balloon’s tearing during Gallant’s parachuting dare was their doing, for instance.


It rarely pans out for the duo. To literalize an idiom, it isn’t uncommon for the pair's latest weapon of Gallant destruction to blow up in their faces. The two crash into the same farmhouse twice after two failed foiling attempts in the movie. Fate and Meen are visual antitheses to the forever white-clad, clean, conventionally handsome Gallant. (These are only shallow signifiers of a heroic moral purity — it turns out he’s rather ideologically conservative, and is better at presenting an image of goodness than embodying it.) Meen and Fate are always in black — their capes have little divots at the bottom to suggest bats — and Fate’s eyebrows and mustache seem to be conspiring to manifest inner evil. He can light a match with his teeth; he has an oily mad cackle that punctuates most of his sentences. (Falk, who always speaks here in a constipated shout, is perfect as Fate's always-ready imp sidekick; Lemmon, the best thing about the movie, feels at home playing a showy bad guy.) 


No one takes them seriously. When Fate says at the start of one foray that he and Meen plan to cover a mile in 10 seconds, the crowd laughs. Fate and Meen want to salvage their own reputations not by refining their own approach but by wrecking Gallant’s. Their evil is classically banal — comically petty. The Great Race’s first few sequences, which compile the several times Meen and Fate have tried to ruin Gallant, ably balance action-movie busyness with inventive humor. They cleverly recall Laurel and Hardy comedies as much as they do Looney Tunes serials, where action leans barmy. The earlier portion of the movie is exactly the excellent slapstick homage it sought to be.


allant wants to try something new. Shortly into The Great Race he gathers Webber Motor Car Company representatives and asks them to build him a custom car. He wants to organize a massive, publicity-

attracting race — he’s aiming for New York City to Paris. Gallant thinks he can incentivize Webber to help him because he’s confident he’s going to win. What better way for a car company to advertise its product than have its product survive an international competition? (The tournament at the center of The Great Race really happened; the film’s loyalty to this true story more or less ends there.) Webber agrees. Of course, Fate and Meen also enlist in the match with their own car — the booby-trapped Hannibal Twin-8. It’s stamped, as is their trademark, in skulls and crossbones. Its built-in weapons, per their brand, are just as good at hurting competitors as themselves.


We don’t learn anything about the other contestants except one. She’s Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a prominent suffragette who becomes the movie’s fourth lead and the person the costume department loves most. (Her outfits, often topped off with a bouquet headdress, rotate with astonishing regularity; my favorite getup is the one worn during the climactic few miles through downtown Paris, when she’s an explosion of bubblegum pink.) Through force, DuBois lands a job as the New York Sentinel’s first women reporter and photographer — she handcuffs herself to the men’s restroom door handle. “I would dare anything for women’s rights!” she declares. Then, after making a case that there should be someone covering the competition from beginning to end, DuBois cajoles her new boss (Arthur O’Connell) into getting a Sentinel-owned car to compete in the race. She'll hop into it and document the tournament as she goes. 


Wood wasn’t that happy to be in the movie — she only did it to ensure she could star in the film of her dreams, Inside Daisy Clover, which promised meatiness and probable acclaim. In The Great Race Wood outwardly makes all the right moves, but her performance doesn’t have the slapstick-specific looseness of Lemmon’s and Falk’s work — she’s an actress for whom comedy doesn’t seem to come naturally, even though she is never necessarily leaden. (Curtis is OK as the movie’s straight man; other than his physical bravura, though, his performance tends to be papery.)


The Great Race soon transitions into a new routine. It will spend a few scenes on the road, then several more on a detour. That ratio eventually gets disproportionately favorable toward the latter. One side quest sees our main four milling about a frontier town, where chaos breaks out at a saloon. Another finds them trapped on a melting iceberg, praying it won’t betray them before they’re able to reach land. Once the movie shifts into this cycle of storytelling, it increasingly loses the quickness of its early scenes. Here commences the bloating process. Although the saloon bit is generally fun — it solidly satirizes Western tropes — the pit stop on the iceberg is majority-tedious. Sequences on the road become fewer and farther between. Surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of racing on the whole of the movie — there might be more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, which, while also technically about a race (a cohort of characters wanted to get to a stash of hidden treasure first), doesn’t have a title to live up to in the same way. 


The Great Race almost entirely falls apart during its last digression. The quartet enters the kingdom of Carpania, led, barely, by a man-child prince who looks just like Professor Fate. This prince is about as batty as his doppelgänger, but rather than channel all his energy into others’ ruin he puts it into bottles. (He even feeds his four pet pugs hard liquor in glass bowls.) One of Fate’s most distinctive features is his maniacal cackle. The prince too has an incessant, idiosyncratic laugh, but it isn’t a wicked one — it objectively belongs to a party animal who lives for fun. Lemmon is unreservedly great in The Great Race, and he brings something worthwhile to the Carpania narrative; Lemmon is a dedicated goof who doesn’t seem to have any limits to what he can do well. But other than his performance, this stretch of the movie is valueless to its sum. It’s bewildering that so much time and energy has been devoted to it. With its sword fights, political intrigue, and housing of the movie’s most famous gag (its inordinately expensive pie fight), it’s more a swashbuckler burlesque than an extension of the film's slapstick origins. It isn’t especially aiming for laughs.


We don’t really notice the “excess for excess’ sake” problem of big 1960s moviemaking until this expanse of The Great Race. Beforehand the obvious expensiveness had a welcome enhancing effect — it heightened to the comedy’s sense of unlimitedness. The Carpania part seems to be here only to help the movie get to an epic running time, and to show off where else the immaculate production design can go. (It’s a jamboree of castle decor and medievally styled regalia.) It doesn’t have a substantive purpose. It has an unfortunate dulling effect; we forget that before it we had been having a good time, and that Edwards’ aspirations were for the most part being achieved seamlessly. We didn’t doubt his instincts. If The Great Race’s narrative superfluities were taken out, Edwards’ hyperbolic declaration that he envisioned the film being “the funniest comedy ever” wouldn’t seem so misplaced. But what we have in this movie is a project where you can feel that striving for greatness. After a while you’re more aware of what Edwards is going for than you are laughing — a damning tradeoff in a periodically excellent movie. B