Friday, March 20, 2009

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Script

Stories have circulated that Stanley Kramer's original cut of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World was more than five hours long. When I first heard this, I tried to imagined what other mishaps could have possibly befallen the bedraggled cast during the course of the missing footage. Eventually, my curiosity led me to obtain a copy of the film's shooting script. I have to report that the film is fairly faithful to the script. The order of the scenes are rearranged at times. Lines are altered here and there. But it is largely the same.

The story begins with bank robber "Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante) speeding down a winding desert highway and driving his car off a cliff. Drivers stop their cars to go to Grogan's aide. Grogan, with his last breath, tells the drivers he has buried a fortune in stolen cash under a "big W" in a state park in Santa Rosita. This launches the drivers on a mad chase to claim the loot.

The script offers definite insights into the making of this classic film.

Foremost, it should be expected that a cast of highly successful, highly competitive comedians will not always stay on the page. In the opening scene, the drivers discuss ways to split up the money should they find it. This leads into a discussion about taxes that does not appear in the script. It would be my guess that this dialogue was improvised on the set. Sid Caesar and Milton Berle are tenative in their part of the exchange but Jonathan Winters, the alltime master of improvisation, knows exactly how to keep this dialogue on track.

Caesar (to Winters): "And you, by yourself, you get $56,000. Alone. And that's tax-free money."

Winters: "Whadya mean, tax-free?"

Caesar: "Well, I mean, if we go down to this park and we uncover the money, and we. . . um. . . I'm sure he's not going to declare anything. I know, I know, he's not going to declare anything. And I'm, you know, not gonna declare anything. . ."

Winters: "What are you talking about 'declare' it?"

Caesar: "Well, I mean, it's like nontaxable income. It's like a gift."

Winters: "But sure, if we find the money, we still have to report the taxes. Otherwise, it's like stealing from the government."

Caesar (turning to Berle): "Oh, brother, could you explain it to him?"

Berle: "Who, me? Well, you see, if we find the money, there may not be any taxes on it. Because we did find the money. What he was trying to say is. . ."

Winters: "Listen, everybody has to pay taxes - even businessmen, that rob and cheat and steal from people every day, even they have to pay taxes."

Caesar: "I give up."

A police team, which had been following Grogan, suspects that Grogan told the drivers about the money. They decide that, if they keep the drivers under surveillance, they might lead them to the money. The script includes many scenes of police surveillance teams talking on their radios to report the whereabouts of our comedy ensemble to headquarters. The scriptwriters must have thought that these sideline broadcasts would add to the suspense of the story and would keep the audience from getting confused about what was going on. They were wrong. These scenes are repetitious, uninteresting and unnecessary. I haven't taken the time to compare these scenes shot-for-shot with what appears in the film, but I can tell you that a number of these scenes were left out. For example, the writers describe a patrol car being parked a couple of hundred yards away as Winters' character, Lennie Pike, goes on a rampage in a filling station. Two patrolmen inside the car make useless comments ("Did you see that?" and "Holy jumping!") while observing Pike demolish the garage. This dimwitted Greek chorus was, in the end, nothing more than an annoying distraction.

Some scenes with the Detective Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) didn't make it into the final film. This includes a scene where Culpepper talks on the phone with ex-con Jimmy (Buster Keaton). Further footage was trimmed from scenes featuring Culpepper on the phone with his wife Ginger and daughter Billie Sue. The point of these scenes was to show that Culpepper is having family problems and he is being nagged to death by his wife and daughter. This motivates him to eventually steal the money for himself. But it didn't take much time to make this point. Selma Diamond, who provided the voice of Ginger, made sure to make the voice as annoying as possible. In the film, a little of this voice goes a long way and hearing any more of it would have really been too much for viewers to bear.

Sid Caesar appears in the film as dentist Melville Crump. It was Mickey Rooney who was originally cast in this role, but it was later decided that Rooney should play opposite Buddy Hackett as Crump rival Ding Bell. The Crump role was then assigned to Ernie Kovacs, who was killed in a car crash before shooting began. Caesar had a few opportunties to put his personal stamp on the role. At a small, dusty airfield, Rooney and Hackett get upset that Caesar was able to charter a plane before them. They start taunting Caesar, telling him how they hate dentists. Rooney tells him, "I hate you so much that I’m not able to tell you how much I hate you in front of your wife." In the script, Rooney and Hackett's characters rush back to their car to get back on the road and find another way to get to Santa Rosita. In the film, Caesar becomes so enraged by the insults that he pulls off his coat and charges like a bull after the duo, who race to their car to get away from him. "Why you. . .," shouts Caesar. " Come on over here! Come on over here!" Caesar was a big, broad-shouldered comedian who could be extremely funny getting angry and throwing his weight around. This is one moment in the film that shows Caesar at his most natural.

The cameo appearances of Jack Benny and the Three Stooges were added during production, but surprisingly Jerry Lewis' cameo role is outlined in the script. Shots 57, 58 and 59 describe Detective Culpepper accidentally knocking his hat out of a window and the hat falling into the middle of the street. A driver, identified in the script as "Mean Man," swerves his car out of his lane to run over the hat. The script reads, "The man. . . is straining forward, giggling excitedly, looking back in his rear-view mirror." The scene would not mean much if not for the surprise of seeing Lewis as the driver. It's hard to imagine why the writers bothered putting this scene in the script unless they expected Kramer to cast a major comedian in the role.

Rooney and Hackett meet Tyler Fizgerald (Jim Backus), a rich man who owns a private plane, and convince him to take them to Santa Rosita. Fitzgerald takes a break in the middle of the flight to mix himself a drink. He has Hackett hold onto the controls of the plane but the plane hits turbulence and Fitzerald bangs his head and is knocked unconscious. A scene that was shot but later lost features Rooney trying to wake up Fitzerald. At one point, he grabs a pitcher of water, thinking it will wake Fitzgerald to have water thrown in his face, but he misses Fitzgerald and the water douses Hackett instead.

When botanist Terry-Thomas offers to give a ride to Berle, Ethel Merman and Dorothy Provine, Merman has trouble squeezing into the backseat, which is loaded with plants. In the script, Merman's character sits on a catcus and screams. In the film, Merman holds up a catcus and asks, "Where should I stick this?" Berle rolls his eyes and remarks, "Oh, boy!"

In Shot 182, Winters is riding with Provine in a tow truck. He tells her that he only wanted the money so that he could buy a wheelchair for this nice old lady named Mrs. Harris. This shot was removed before the film reached the theatres but it was restored in 1991 when MGM/UA prepared a "special edition" version for VHS and laserdisc.

No actor is identified in the script except for Mike Mazurki, who the scriptwriters recommend for the role of the miner who flags down Phil Silvers' car. It doesn't seem that the other roles are tailored for the actors who would eventually play them, although Silvers' character is described by Winters' character as a "baldheaded guy with a sneery expression." That does sound like Silvers, except that Silvers brought a lot more to the film than a bald head and a sneery expression and he greatly expanded on what the writers put on paper.

Silvers gets a flat tire and has to stop at a filling station to have it repaired. In the script, Silvers' character is never described pulling into the gas station. He gets the flat in Shot 148. In Shot 156, he has already gotten the tire repaired and he is paying the attendants. In the film, Silvers is shown pulling into the gas station. He keeps honking his horn until the owners of the garage, Ray and Irwin, come out to greet him. Silvers, in typical fashion, delivers his lines in rapid-fire and repeatedly claps his hands to hurry the garage owners along. "Fellas," he says, "I’m glad you’re here. Look, I need your help. Here’s what happened. I had this blowout. I think there’s a spare in the back. It may be a little flat. Take a look at it will you kid? Is there an airport anyplace around here? Look, if the spare is flat don’t bother fixing it. Gimme a new tire, alright? You ain’t got a new tire? Then you’ll have to fix the spare. But don’t look at me. Move it, will you kid? You, you could be gassing up while he’s working. What is it a staring contest? Come on! Move! Move, will you kid? Come on!" It's a lot of dialogue, but Silvers rattles off these lines in under twenty seconds.

Another trim from the filling station scene featured Arnold Stang, as Ray, climbing into rafters of the garage to get away from Winters, who has arrived at the filling station and gone berserk seeing his hated, backstabbing rival Silvers.

Later, Silvers offers a little boy one dollar to show him a shortcut to the main road. The boy demands three dollars. In the script, Silvers' character replies, "All right, three dollars! But come on, I'm in a hurry. Come on, jump in the car!" Silvers makes this exchange funnier on screen. "Three dollars?!" says Silvers, appalled. "Why you. . . [suddently smiling] yeah, alright, three dollars." Silvers had started to get angry but then he realized that he had better be nice if he wanted to get out of here. He makes a smooth transition from angry to smarmy as only Silvers could. Then, he smacks his hands together. "But don't stand there - hurry, kid, I got to get out of here!"

The little boy first leads the comedian down a steep hill and then to the edge of a running stream. In the script, Silvers pleads, "Do we have to cross that? Do we?" In the film, Silvers is sarcastic and threatening. He says, "I can’t cross here. You said the main road. This is Niagra Falls. Alright, you’re a little boy. You wanna be a big boy? Which way to the main road?" Silvers has often been compared to another testy comic con artist, W. C. Fields. I could easily see Fields in this role becoming increasingly frustrated with the little boy.

Silvers later convinces Don Knotts that he is an American spy so that he can get Knotts to drive him to Santa Rosita. In the script, Silvers says that he is agent M-27. In the film, the dialogue is pretty much the same except that Silvers says that he is Agent X-27. In Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, old vaudeville comedian Willy Clark explains, "Words with a 'k' in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. L's are not funny. M's are not funny." I assume that it was because old vaudeville comedian Silvers was aware that the letter "M" was not funny that he decided to call himself Agent X-27.

Silvers' character is aggressive in the script but Silvers makes him even more aggressive on screen. Silvers is running his spiel so furiously that he doesn't give Knotts a chance to speak. Knotts no sooner gets out a word then Silver shouts, "Will you shut up!"

Silvers convinces Knotts to go into a cafe to make an emergency phone call to the CIA. As soon as Knotts walks away, Silvers slides into the drivers' seat and takes off in the car. The scene ends at this point in the film. But, according to the script, Knotts' character was supposed to be observed through the plate glass window of the cafe interupting a large woman on a pay phone. The woman won't let him use the phone and he tries to grab it away from her. The woman reacts by attacking Knotts' character. It is conceivable that this scene was shot and included in Kramer's rough assembly but never made it into the theatrical print.

One of the most striking changes in the film has to do with Dick Shawn's character, Sylvestor Marcus. In the script, Merman's character calls her beach-bum son Sylvestor on the phone to get his help. She wants to get him to drive to Santa Rosita, which is near his home, and dig up the money before anyone else has a chance to get there. Sylvestor is described climbing out of bed and slipping on a Hawaiian shirt before he takes the call. He's a fairly normal character. But Shawn plays this character as a manic, bare-chested bohemian. When the phone rings, he and girlfriend Barrie Chase are doing some deranged twist as the Shirelles' "31 Flavors" is blasting from the stereo. Chase is in a furry black bikini and has this strangely blank expression on her face. Have drugs put her in a stupor? Is the Shirelles' singing so powerful that it has had a hypnotic effect? Shawn, who is getting excited by her gyrations, is howling at her and jumping up and down.

The Sylvestor character has been transferred to the screen with an Oedipal complex. He panics when his mother tells him that she had a fight with son-in-law Berle. "He assaulted me if you want to know," says Merman. "He grabbed me right beside the road - he and this Englishman I don't even know." Sylvestor cannot listen to another word. "Your baby’s coming to get you. I’m coming to get you, Mom." He hangs up. In the script, Merman's character says, "He wouldn't let me speak, the big idiot! How could he be so stupid?" In the film, Merman is stunned when Shawn hangs up the phone. She stares off into space. "So he’s coming here," she mumbles to herself. "And I’m not to worry about a thing, because everything is going to be alright." Then, she turns to her daughter, Emmeline. "Exactly like your father - a big, stupid, muscle-headed moron!"

Only the audio portion remains for Shot 249, which features Shawn stealing his girlfriend's Dodge convertible to drive after his mother. Chase shouts, "No! You can't take my car! My husband - what do you think my husband is going to say?" This scene reveals that Shawn is in fact howling over a married woman, which makes this beach bum a real bum. The scene also reveals that Chase, who has heretofore been mute and stone-faced, can actually talk and express emotion. That actually ruins her character for me. Chase is much more funny and surreal without dialogue or emotion.

Later, Shawn is speeding down the highway and sobbing uncontrollably. "I’m coming," he says, "That’s what I’m here for. That’s why you had me, Mama, to save you." These lines, my favorite in the entire film, do not appear anywhere in the script.

The money-hunters converge at the park in Santa Rosita. Shawn is working with Winters to dig up the money. At this point, Shawn and Winters have a funny exchange that is not part of the script. Shawn becomes frustrated because he feels that Winters is getting in his way. When he tells Winters to climb out of the hole and let him dig on his own, he uses slang that Winters doesn't understand. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," he says to Winters. "There’s not enough room, man, you’re bugging me. You’re bugging me." Winters is puzzled. "What are you talking about ‘bugging’?" he asks. Shawn says, "Cut out, cut out." Winters is more puzzled than he was before. "What’s this ‘cut out’ talk?" he asks. "Out, baby," answers Shawn. "Out, baby. Out!" "Don’t call me a baby!" says Winters.

It has been reported that a dance sequence featuring the Shirelles was filmed but never used. I cannot imagine where this scene would have fit into the film.

Most of the main characters end up breaking bones in a wildly extravagant climax. The final scene features these characters in traction in a large hospital room. Little dialogue was scripted for this scene. Culpepper, who has both arms in a sling, chuckles. Otto Meyer, the character played by Silvers, asks him what's so funny. Culpepper says, "I was just remembering - when all the reports on you ten were coming in - I kept saying to myself, they must be idiots. Idiots. And here I am. . ." Lennie Pike, Winters' character, finishes a banana and tosses the peel at his tray. The peel misses the tray and ends up on the floor. Pike says, "It'll take a lot more than that to get a laugh out of me. . ." Merman's character strides into room in a tirade. "Now see here, you idiots," she shouts, "it's all your fault!" She slips on banana peel and falls on the floor. This breaks the tension. Everyone laughs. The film ends. The dialogue in this scene was considerably expanded during production to build up the dramatic tension before Merman's pratfall. The business with the banana peel was inexplicably transferred to Hackett.

The script certainly does not have enough material for a five-hour film. The only way that Kramer could have turned out a version that long would be if he had stretched out the scenes with two hours of adlibs. I do not see that as being likely. Meanwhile, I suspect that those missing scenes that were filmed mostly deserved to end up on the cutting room floor.

4 comments:

  1. I saw the missing scenes in the first month of showings at the Cinerama theater. It ran 2:45, I think. Then was cut down by the next time I saw it at the same theater by 25 minutes. I hadn't realized it until I walked out of the theater. These cuts were put back in on one of the special VHS videos. The consisted mostly of extended scenes. Dick Shaw jumping in his car at his beach house, Phil Silvers trying to get up the mountain three times instead of once. The movie plays much better without them. I love this movie.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is my favorite comedy of all time. I wish they would just put it all together in one big boxed set. I'd sit through 10 hours of footage just to see EVERYTHING involved with this movie!

    ReplyDelete
  3. My 8 year old son broke his leg and was in traction for 6 weeks. We watched this movie over and over. We'd seen it many times before but the scene where all the characters are in the hospital at the end had particular relevance. In our house we refer to the set pieces as funny garage and funny ladder. And we love all the catchphrases; what could happen to an old fashioned? You'll see... My arm, my arm, he broke my arm... These things happen, that's because the world is full of people who when things happen say these things happen and that's why they happen! My son does an alarmingly good impression of Ethel Merman....

    ReplyDelete
  4. How did you get hold of the shooting script? I'd love to have a copy but I can't find it online.

    ReplyDelete