Soon after hearing about Jonathan Winters’ death two days ago, I had the realization that we’re running out of truly great NATURAL comedians that made us laugh without resorting to juggling expletives or putting themselves in the public eye constantly in an ego-feeding frenzy. Granted, trying to get today’s short attention spanners out there to sit down and watch Winters’ best work is going to be a hard sell, but I think Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy classic kills a few birds with one stone.
Yes, the movie is too long by today’s standards (hell, it was too long for 1963 standards), but it’s packed to the gills with comedians and comediennes from a huge enough slice of history that you could see the careers of some beginning and ending with this one zany epic. The story of a bunch of wildly assorted strangers chasing down a dead robbery suspect’s stolen loot is still required viewing for anyone who considers him or herself a fan of comedy and the film works so well because no one gets away without taking a few lumps or a pratfall or three…
For all the big name talent of the era chewing up the scenery with vigor, what makes the film work so well is no one gets to be the “star” here. Granted, there’s a great back story surrounding the old police Captain (Spencer Tracy) and his connection to the case, but I’ll not spoil a thing here. Kramer’s breakneck pacing in the chase and action scenes splits into separate segments that focus on the different groups or individual strangers as they try and make their way to that hiding spot in once piece.
It’s basically a road film gone hysterically wrong and you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of who’s where and what the heck they’re mixed up in. Winter’s Lenny Pike is a furniture truck driver who’s among the first at the scene of that fatal wreck where the driver very vaguely spills the beans about where he’s hidden $350,000 before literally kicking the bucket. As the cast goes through their paces, it’s all about timing and crazy stunt work and rapid-fire dialog to the point that, provided you’re in the right mood, you’ll find yourself laughing almost non-stop.
Winters gets to destroy a gas station mostly with his bare hands in one of the funniest scenes in the film (above), but again, his part was small and you’ll definitely need to see the entire film for this to make more sense. Then again, if you don’t like physical comedy or bad puns and old comic geniuses mixing it up with younger ones in a big-budget blowout, you need a comedy enema or something. This film counts as one – as it goes in through the eyeballs, up into the brain and travels out the mouth in the form of laughter. OK, you may laugh so much until you fart, but don’t tell me about it. And go sit on the other end of the couch while you’re at it.
By the wild, stunt-packed finale, you’ll have lost count of all the cameos (that scorecard will have no room remaining), but you’ll probably end up watching this more than once as you introduce it to the kids or friends who haven’t seen it yet. There have been a few attempts at “updating” this, but I won’t mention any titles here (they weren’t good attempts at all and I prefer you not waste time watching stuff that will have you throwing tomatoes at your TV).
That and I’m keeping this post short (well, short for me) because I want you to check this classic out as soon as possible if you’ve never had the opportunity to do so. Additionally, while finding this should be pretty easy, be aware that the film is currently being restored so it can get a newer home video release at some point. The studio cut down Kramer’s original 210 minute film into 161 and 154 minute cuts, but over time, some footage had been found and the current longest print available is 159 minutes. In other words, don’t hit eBay or Amazon just yet to buy this one if you’re a collector. There’s probably going to be a better and final cut of this that packs in as much surviving footage as can be located. I’m all for more laughs and not less these days, that’s for sure…