BOOTLEG FILES 552: “Something a Little Less Serious” (1991 documentary on the making of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was released on VHS and LaserDisc in 1991 and DVD for a brief 2001 release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has been out of commercial circulation since its 2001 presentation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It seems unlikely that we will see this again on DVD.
When it comes to Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy epic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” there is no middle ground – either you think it is the most obnoxiously unfunny thing ever put on film or you believe it is one of the greatest movies of all time. I happen to fall into the latter category, and I am hardly alone. In the half-century since its release, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” has spawned an extraordinary cult following that involves websites, online forums, Facebook fan pages, and YouTube-based appreciation videos by the film’s devotees.
In 1991, a documentary on the creation of this film was commissioned to accompany the VHS and LaserDisc release of this production. The documentary’s title, “Something a Little Less Serious,” was originally considered for the title of the Kramer film, but it actually works better here because this documentary treats its subject in a good-natured jokey manner that is fairly unusual for nonfiction filmmaking.
“Something a Little Less Serious” gathers Kramer and many of the then-surviving main cast of the 1963 film, along with some of the prominent behind-the-scenes talent involved in the production. (The most significant no-shows for this film were Dorothy Provine, who had long since retired and was not giving interviews, as well as Peter Falk and Don Knotts, whose reasons for being absent are not clear.)
As the documentary opens, Kramer begins the “Mad World” odyssey by recalling the foundational work of William Rose, the Missouri-born/British-based screenwriter who first presented his idea for the film via a 10-page letter that outlined a complex plot involving multiple characters in a wild pursuit of a buried fortune in a distant location. The choice of Kramer as a director for such a story was something of a surprise, given that the filmmaker was celebrated for acutely serious “message” dramas such as “On the Beach” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Rose, collaborating with his wife Tania, eventually created a pair of ridiculously thick screenplays – one containing dialogue for the characters, the other outlining the unprecedented quantity of stunt-driven sequences required to propel the comedy sequences.
With a wide number of roles to fill, Kramer cast a wide net to bring in most of the major comedy stars of the era. The director acknowledged that there wasn’t room for everyone – and Don Rickles, who was one of the omitted, would comically hector the filmmaker about his failure to be cast. (According to Kramer, Rickles openly queried whether his not being selected had anything to do with being Jewish!) Sadly, the film does not go into detail on how the cast was selected for their particular roles – or, for that matter, why Kramer aimed at casting performers that were better known for television and nightclub work rather than movies.
One interesting aspect about “Something a Little Less Serious” is having the “Mad World” stars talk about their co-stars rather than themselves. Buddy Hackett has an amusing anecdote in which Eddie “Rochester” Anderson misunderstood Kramer’s direction about collaborating with Peter Falk in their roles as the taxi drivers – Anderson watched in amazement at Falk’s intensive Actors Studio-style rehearsal exercises and emulated him, with hilarious results. Sid Caesar acknowledges the emotional difficulty that Edie Adams endured in taking on the role following the death of her husband Ernie Kovacs in an automobile crash. Adams provides a wealth of recollections, most notably about Terry-Thomas’ outlandish arrival on location in Palm Springs – the British comedy star turned up wearing an oversized sombrero and walked fully dressed into a swimming pool. She also lovingly revealed the diva-worthy off-screen behavior and camera-hogging antics of Milton Berle. For his part, Berle admitted his trick in always being the last person to exit a scene, thus ensuring a few extra seconds of screen time and audience attention.
Two of the most beloved scenes in “Mad World” – the brawl that results in the destruction of the gas station and the out-of-control fire engine ladder – are detailed at great length. The three principals of the gas station scene – Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan – discuss the schematics of how this segment was created. Between Stang filming the sequence with a broken wrist to Winters’ eccentric behavior (Kaplan recalled having to keep Winters amused for long stretches via improvisational comedy games), the creation of the sequence was clearly both physically and emotionally exhausting. In comparison, the fire engine ladder segment was a triumph of 1960s’ special effects, with multiple matte shots used to create the location for this wild burst of violent slapstick.
While most of “Something a Little Less Serious” is a lovefest between Kramer and his stars, there are hints that nothing everything was copacetic on the set. Stunt director Carey Loftin speaks bluntly (though with roguish humor) about his clashes with Kramer on the coordination of several action scenes. Marvin Kaplan humorlessly recalls that Phil Silvers wasn’t the brashly amusing funnyman during his off-screen time. Milton Berle speaks about how Ethel Merman socked him with a purse full of junk jewelry that raised a painful bump on his head – and in later years, when she asked about his bump, he told her, “Go to hell!” Kramer stresses that contrary to the film’s marketing push, “Mad World” was not shot in Cinerama, the three-camera widescreen process. (It was promoted as being “single screen Cinerama,” but was actually filmed in Ultra-Panavision.) Mickey Rooney avoids any mention of his experiences on the film – in fact, he doesn’t turn up until the documentary’s final moments, offering a strange tribute to Kramer that sounds like an overt hint that he wants to be considered for a role if Kramer were to return to filmmaking.
Most curiously, “Something a Little Less Serious” avoids talking about the significant editing that whittled down the road show version of “Mad World” into the general release version. But the real joker in the deck (to borrow a line from “Mad World”) is Jerry Lewis. Filmed while wearing a purple jacket and sitting in the midst of a busy film set, Lewis spends an absurd amount of time talking about Kramer’s greatness as a filmmaker and the genius of his co-stars – which is hysterical, considering that his unbilled cameo in “Mad World” (as a lunatic motorist) consisted of a mere few seconds. Lewis also noted glumly that he insisted on being paid in cash by Kramer after his cameo was shot, but that he lost the money in a gambling set-up that Silvers ran on the “Mad World” set.
Despite its shortcomings, “Something a Little Less Serious” is a delightful treat for “Mad World,” albeit an often elusive one. After it first appeared in the 1991 VHS and LaserDisc versions of “Mad World,” it was dropped from the 1995 VHS reissue. The film was included in the 2001 DVD release of “Mad World,” but was dropped when the film was reissued on DVD in 2003. It was conspicuously absent among the special features on the recently issued “Mad World” DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack issued by The Criterion Collection. However, The Criterion Collection’s commentary track by charming and funny film scholars Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger and Paul Scrabo covers all of the information cited in “Something a Little Less Serious” plus oodles more insight, trivia and myth-busting related to the Kramer film, so perhaps the presence of “Something a Little Less Serious” would have been redundant. If The Criterion Collection release of “Mad World” is the be-all/end-all on this title, it is safe to assume that “Something a Little Less Serious” is not coming back on DVD again.
Still, for those that can’t get enough of “Mad World,” “Something a Little Less Serious” can be found in an unauthorized posting on YouTube. An earlier multiple-installment posting on YouTube was removed, but the documentary is back in a single full-length posting (albeit not listed under its proper title – it is not difficult to locate it.)
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!