At first glance, it may seem a bit peculiar for The Criterion Collection to offer Stanley Kramer’s 1963 slapstick extravaganza – after all, this film has been a staple of the home entertainment channels for many years, on a variety of different formats. But for those who can never get enough of this epic comedy, this presentation is the definitive release at multiple levels.
For starters, this DVD/Blu-ray combo pack offers a pristine 4K digital restoration of the 163-minute general release version plus Robert A. Harris’ 197-minute reconstruction of the long-lost original road show version. This reconstruction requires a bit of patience at certain levels – some sequences are missing audio, while others (most notably a telephone exchange between Spencer Tracy and Buster Keaton) exist only in the audio format. Where film footage is missing, production stills (including a few featuring Kramer himself) are inserted into the gaps. These create minor hiccups, but no great damage is done.
This presentation also has one of the most joyously entertaining commentary tracks ever recorded, with a trio of film historians – Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger and Paul Scrabo – offering a surplus of facts and trivia on the creation of this classic. The commentary track answers many questions that have puzzled the film’s fans for decades – most notably, the inclusion of Cliff Norton in the opening credits despite his on-screen absence and the urban legends surrounding whether Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel and Ernie Kovacs were considered for the film. The commentary also offers some unexpected surprises, including the circumstances that kept Bob Hope and Red Skelton from joining the cast and the identity of the hilarious unidentified lady in the migrant truck scene (she was Jean Sewell).
Other bonus features include a 2012 reunion of surviving cast and crew members, a 1974 talk show appearance with Kramer and three of his stars – Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters – and a documentary on the special effects used in the film. Sadly, this presentation does not include the delightful 1991 documentary “Something a Little Less Serious,” which offers the most in-depth consideration of the film’s history.
In many ways, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” did more to change the direction of movie comedy than any other production. With its elaborate car chases and brilliantly cartoonish violence, not to mention its ability to harvest an all-star cast where everyone on screen has something funny to do, the film brought a sense of brash vulgarity and cheerful mayhem that remains fresh and funny in the half-century since its premiere.
And while the reconstructed road show version has a certain historic value for being closer to Kramer’s original vision, it also inadvertently confirms that slicing down the lengthy original was the right idea – the longer version occasionally gets tripped up with repetition and less-than-successful gags, whereas the shorter version is smoother and faster, with nary a second of wasted frames. This should offer an invaluable lesson to aspiring filmmakers: sometimes, a director’s cut should not be viewed as the best approach to filmmaking.