Open on a car chase. Criminal out front. Cops behind. Criminal goes “sailing right out there” and literally kicks the bucket. Five guys hear the dying criminal’s last words—“there’s all this dough . . . buried under this big W.” One of these guys, Ding Bell, a producer type, loves the color red. He wears a red sweater and drives a red VW bug. He’s the only guy at the scene wearing sunglasses, and he’s on his way to Las Vegas with his pal, Benji. Or at least he was until he decided to join the race to the Big W.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) is a rambunctious comedy with wit, outlandish physical flops, and rampant destruction of property. Mickey Rooney plays hotshot Ding Bell. Along with Rooney, the film stars notable comedic actors Buddy Hackett (who plays Benji), Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters, even Jim Backus, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges make appearances. It is one of the best comedy casts ever assembled, and Rooney is an integral part of the ensemble.
For the most part, Rooney’s character is the straight man for Hackett’s dimwitted Benji, but both get a chance to goof around during their flight with a passed out Jim Backus. Rooney’s “keep calm” face is terrific. His response when he’s asked who’s at the controls when Benji’s hands are visibly on them is one of the best moments in the film—not necessarily because the line is that funny or unexpected, but because of Rooney’s delivery, the sound of his voice, which emits all of the emotions someone in his situation might have but at a raised level, such that it transcends tragedy and becomes comedy. Rooney is great at this in the movie. His eyes gleam with Bell’s greed at the prospect of getting the money.
To me, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD is a cartoonish film. Even the opening appreciates that. But I don’t think the cartoonish nature is a knock on the film, but rather a reason it deserves a closer critical look. It’s actually somewhat genre bending. Is it the only film like that? Probably not. But, I find it hard to imagine a more outlandish or literally colorful (thank you Ultra Panavision and Technicolor) film with larger than life characters in larger than life situations.
Although Rooney doesn’t play one of the more memorable characters (like Ethel Merman or Jonathan Winters, Rooney brings an air of play to this film. His movements are loud and fun. He’s constantly running and overextending when he comes to a stop, not unlike the way an animator might draw the Road Runner. Again, that’s not a knock. It’s awesome! Rooney’s portrayal of Bell captures the spirit of the film—the exaggerated, child-like quality of the aesthetic, which is a reflection of the characters who have reverted to something less than adult. The film has elements of satirical hyperbole—hello, Jonathan Swift! Would a bunch of people really go after a dead guy’s money, fighting each other and breaking the law along the way in order to get it? Yes. Just watch the news or read some court opinions. Do those situations involve stunts in airplanes and cars, fording rivers, a little girl’s bicycle, edible seaweed, crashing a fire truck ladder, or the complete and utter destruction of a garage and hardware store? No. Hyperbole. But, people are greedy. We should guard against being greedy. After all, we don’t want to behave like those petty characters on the screen.
Although, Rooney’s character isn’t as fleshed out as some of the others, his portrayal of Bell embraces the spirit of the satirical hyperbole, making him an integral part of the film and its underlying message. Oh, and he’s also hilarious in the film—did I mention the way he delivers that line regarding who’s flying the plane?
Special thanks to Aurora for hosting this post on her fabulous blog.
This post is part of The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries.