Posted by KC on Sep 22, 2014
To get in the proper mood for The Great Race, you need only read the title card at the beginning of the film that respectfully announces, "for MR. LAUREL and MR. HARDY." While the classic comedy duo never attempted a 160 minute comic epic in brilliant color, if they had, it might have turned out a bit like Blake Edward's madcap tribute. While no film could completely recapture the particular brilliance of the silent age and its remarkable stars, this comedy gets a bit of its flavor. Now the film can be enjoyed in a sparkling clear Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Edward's story of competing daredevils on a worldwide race from New York to Paris goes for laughs with complete disdain for subtlety. Despite its poor initial critical and box office reception, this is an entertaining and joyfully silly comedy. Stars Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood attack their roles with madcap gusto. With the exception of Wood, who is game, but never entirely at home in the mayhem, the cast seems to relish the opportunity to play characters who are so over-the-top.
I went into The Great Race wary of the 160 minute length. Comic momentum is tricky and not generally compatible with a long running time. While the film did drag in spots, and after watching I still felt that it was unnecessarily long, it kept that momentum well enough that it never fizzled out. In fact, I laughed out loud many times. The gags thunder along at such a relentless pace that sometimes the giggles came out of surprise.
Of course, there's a lot more to good comedy than clever gags, they've got to be well executed. The timing is often fantastic in this movie, drawing laughs out of moments that wouldn't read funny on paper. In an early scene, Wood asks Curtis for something cold to drink and he pauses, frozen in a courtly pose while he briefly considers her motives. It's one of the many ways the smallest moments add to the overall spirit of comic anarchy.
While Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis don't have as many opportunities to play off of each other in Race, they capture the same great, goofy rhythm they did in the Billy Wilder classic Some Like it Hot (1959)--a feeling that's simultaneously loose and precise. Peter Falk is the perfect partner to Lemmon, letting him chew up scenery while he draws plenty of his own attention by never playing exactly straight. Though she is slightly miscast, mostly because she can never let loose quite as thoroughly as her co-stars, Natalie Wood is nevertheless charming, funny and manages to hold her own.
I've never been a big fan of movie pie fights, with the exception of Laurel and Hardy's Battle of the Century (1927), which may be impossible to top, but Edwards stages one so epic that it's impossible not to be impressed. It took five days, and 4,000 pies, to film this famous scene. Quite an undertaking, but ultimately funny because Tony Curtis wanders freely among the flying desserts without getting a single smudge on his white costume. All those pies for one joke. The silent movie comedians would approve.
Special features include a trailer and a brief behind-the-scenes documentary that includes an interesting glimpse of Natalie Wood's life as a movie star.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.