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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Great Race

The Great Race is one of those films I've seen many times, though never in a theater, and each time I see it I like it less. When I was a kid the pratfalls amused me, but now I see that though the film is dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy," is nothing like a Laurel and Hardy movie, lacking any subtlety.

Surely this must have been a labor of love for the director, Blake Edwards. The credit sequences make it seem like an old silent movie (a card reads, "Ladies please remove your hats") and the characters, two rival daredevils during the first decade of the twentieth century, are simplistic in their values. Tony Curtis is The Great Leslie, who always wears white, never gets dirty, and is accomplished at all things. Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) dresses in black and tries to win by cheating.

Curtis proposes a road race from New York to Paris. If this seems far-fetched to consider, given the state of cars and roads in those days, it was based on a real race, although in that one the cars traveled part of the way by ship. Lemmon and his henchman (Peter Falk) knock out all the cars but Curtis' and that of Natalie Wood, who plays a suffragette and reporter.

And so it goes. Most of the race consists of three set pieces--a stop in a Western town, with an epic barroom brawl; a scene in Alaska when the racers must huddle up to stay warm, and a very long act in a fictional country where Lemmon's look-alike is the heir to the throne, and in a Prisoner of Zenda-like plot, is swapped for him. This scene ends with a huge pie fight, clearly a nod to the silent film comedians, but not very funny.

Much of the film feels derivative--Lemmon's Professor Fate is very much like Wile Coyote (and he would inspire the cartoon character Dick Dastardly). The film is pushed too much at us, as if Edwards were looking over his shoulder at us, saying "Isn't this funny?" I wonder if he felt scooped that Stanley Kramer had made the definitive epic comedy two years earlier with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is far funnier.

There are a couple of laughs that I remember when I was a kid. One involves the evil Baron, Ross Martin, who flees a sword fight with Curtis by jumping into a boat, but he's so high up that he crashes right through it. But mostly the film has tired old gags. It also has something I've always been annoyed by--characters punching someone and knocking them out instantly.

The Great Race was nominated for five Oscars, and won for Best Sound Effects Editing.

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