The Great Race Reviews
Director Blake Edwards based the film on the 1908 New York to Paris Race, very loosely interpreted. On February 12, 1908, the "Greatest Auto Race" began with six entrants, starting in New York City and racing westward across three continents. The destination was Paris, making it the first around-the-world automobile race. Only the approximate race route and the general time period were borrowed by Edwards in his effort to make "the funniest comedy ever".
Edwards, a studious admirer of silent film, dedicated the film to early film comedians Laurel and Hardy. The Great Race incorporated a great many silent era visual gags, along with slapstick, double entendres, parodies, and absurdities. The film includes such time-worn scenes as a barroom brawl, the tent of the desert sheik, a sword fight, and the laboratory of the mad scientist. The unintended consequences of Professor Fate's order, "Push the button, Max!", is a running gag, along with the spotless invulnerability of "The Great Leslie".
Edwards poked fun at later films and literature as well. The saloon brawl scene was a parody of the western film genre, and a plot detour launched during the final third of the film was a direct parody of The Prisoner of Zenda, wherein a traveler is a lookalike for the king and stands in for him.
The Technicolor pie fight scene in the royal bakery was filmed over five days. The first pastry thrown was part of a large cake decorated for the king's coronation. Following this was the throwing of 4,000 pies, the most pies ever filmed in a pie fight. The scene lasts four minutes and twenty seconds and cost US$200,000 to shoot; US$18,000 just for the pastry.
Colorful cream pies with fillings such as raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and lemon were used. For continuity between days of shooting, the actors were photographed at the end of each day and then made up the following morning to have the same colorful appearance, the same smears of pie crust and filling.
Edwards told the cast that a pie fight by itself is not funny, so to make it funny they would build tension by having the hero, dressed all in white, fail to get hit with any pies. He said, "The audience will start yearning for him to get it". Finally, the hero was to take a pie in the face at "just the right moment".
Shooting was halted while the actors took the weekend off. Over the weekend, the pie residue spoiled, all over the scenery. When the actors returned Monday morning, the pie filling smelled so bad that the building required a thorough cleaning and large fans to blow out the sour air. The missing pie residue was carefully recreated with more pies, and shooting resumed.
At first, the actors had fun with the pie fight assignment, but eventually the process grew wearisome and dangerous. Wood choked briefly on pie filling which hit her open mouth. Lemmon reported that he got knocked out a few times; he said, "a pie hitting you in the face feels like a ton of cement". At the end of shooting, when Edwards called "cut!", he was barraged with several hundred pies that members of the cast had hidden, waiting for the moment.
The pie fight scene paid homage to the early Mack Sennett practice of using a single thrown pie as comedic punctuation, but to a greater degree it was a celebration of classic movie pie fights such as Behind the Screen (1916) with Charlie Chaplin; The Battle of the Century (1927) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; and In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) with the Three Stooges. In his script for The Great Race Edwards called for a "Battle of the Century-style pie fight". Though Edwards used 4,000 pies over five days, many of these were used as set dressing for continuity. Laurel and Hardy used 3,000 pies in only one day of shooting, so more are seen flying through the air. Leonard Maltin compared The Great Race pie fight to The Battle of the Century and determined that Laurel and Hardy's pacing was far superior; that the more modern film suffered from an "incomplete understanding of slapstick" while the 1927 pie fight remains "one of the great scenes in all of screen comedy."
man this is such a highly entertaining movie 2 watch its got such a fantastic cast throughout this movie......it is such a brilliant enjoyable comedy movie 2 watch, with such a fantastic cast throughout this movie......
To be fair, a lot of great epics came out of those years. But when they tried to make epic comedies, results tended to be mixed at best. The Granddaddy of Bloated Comedies is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Over three hours, some of it hilarious, quite a bit of it not so much, a very long crawl to the finish line.
The Great Race came out of this atmosphere. It runs 2:40, not as long as IAMMMMW, but still plenty long for a comedy. It does a much better job at sustaining the comedy, too, because it isn't spread over 100 different comedians of wildly varying calibers performing in plots of wildly varying comic value. It's a single plot driven by the four main actors, each at the top of their game.
Jack Lemmon - perfect, as always. Has any actor had such equal and first-rate facility with comedy and drama?
Peter Falk - perfect, as always.
Tony Curtis - perfect, and he wasn't always perfect. But when he was in the right movie, he was terrific. In this one, he was totally in the spirit of the campy perfection of his character.
Natalie Wood - perfect, and good Lord, did she look amazing. Almost distractingly amazing. I mean, Jeez Louise, A-freakin'-MAZING! In an era that was pretty blatant about exploiting actresses' beauty, I can't think of an actress in a movie of that era looking hotter.
Blake Edwards' concept for this movie was as a tribute to old slapstick movies, starting with a dedication to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. TMC, true to their cineaste integrity, broadcasts the entire movie, first frame to last. This includes an overture of the two Henry Mancini songs written for the movie, played over a static graphic of an old-timey glass slide that reads "Overture." There's an entr'acte after the intermission, too.
When in the history of movies has there been an overture? How is that a tribute to any movie tradition, let alone slapstick? Overtures and entr'actes are for stage musicals, and nowhere else. And these particular songs are hardly show-stoppers. So right out of the gate, we're spending four minutes of a very, very long tribute to old movies with a tribute to something that has never existed in movies. And THEN they run the opening credits!
However, that's okay, because this allows me to go on my rant about how much I hate overtures.
You're in a musical. The audience is in the theater. They've paid for their tickets, they're ready for the show, we're ready to perform it. Everybody's excited and eager and ready for the show. We have a hot audience on the other side of that curtain!
Now let's make them sit in the dark for five minutes and listen to music. And tip off all the songs in the show to boot.
I never understood the necessity of overtures and entr'actes. If I direct a musical, I get rid of them if I can get away with it. If it's really to cover the arrival of latecomers, start the show five minutes later. But when the lights go down, I want the curtain up and my audience entertained.
After watching The Great Race for the first time in about 30 years, some of the lines struck me as familiar. After a cursory search, I was unable to confirm that Mystery Science Theater 3000's "Push the button, Frank" was inspired by Professor Fate's frequently delivered line, "Push the button, Max." I found some speculations about it, but no confirmation from anyone who would know.
But the even more glaring potential tribute/plagiarism issue deals with the movie Blazing Saddles. In The Great Race, Dorothy Provine plays Lili Olay, a beautiful blonde singer who is the star of the floor show in the local Western saloon. In a later sequence, Ross Martin plays a character named Baron Von Shtupp.
You see where this is headed, right?
I can't believe that Mel Brooks intended Madeleine Kahn's character's name to be a tribute to The Great Race. It's a fun movie, but it was only ten years old when Blazing Saddles came out, and wasn't quite tribute-worthy to a cutting edge comic artist like Mel Brooks. The Lili Von Shtupp character was based on Marlene Dietrich, whose nickname was Lili Marlene. So the Lili name must have come pretty easily. One of the writers of the movie, maybe even Brooks, must have seen The Great Race and made a sub-conscious connection for the last name.
Can't find any confirmation online of how Brooks came up with this character name. I know I'm not the first person to make this connection, but I'm curious to know how it happened. It's SUCH a huge coincidence.
At the risk of overanalyzing a light comedy, I'll comment on the gender politics of the movie. The Great Race was set at the turn of the 20th century, when women had a lot to protest. Aside from the right to vote, things hadn't gotten too much further by 1965, when this movie was made. Mad Men, for instance, showed clearly how difficult it was for women in the workplace in that era. Nowadays, with the hindsight of the last 50 years of gender politics, the Battle of the Sexes presented in this movie seems fairly quaint.
However, the arguments that Leslie and Maggie have over women's rights issues actually have a little spirit and heft. Blake Edwards doesn't tilt the argument too heavily in either direction. Indeed, he provides room for The Great Leslie, who at all times in this movie is as perfect as a Hero-in-White can possibly be, to actually come off as something as a douche. He cynically concedes an argument to Maggie, pretty much to get in her perfectly tailored, Edith Head-designed pants, and she sees right through it and gives him the smackdown he deserves.
It was also very clever of Professor Fate to pick up on the tension between Leslie and Maggie and use it against Leslie. This is a pretty smart plot point. It helps raise the undercurrent of sexual tension and gives his rather cartoonish character a bit of dimension.
Honestly, I wouldn't have minded seeing Edwards flesh out this subplot more pointedly. It's a two and a half hour movie, he could have taken a few minutes - say, by getting rid of the freaking OVERTURE! - to bring their argument over the genders (and there were only two back then) closer to the brink. It might have made his decision to throw the race more satisfying.
Granted, it does show its age at times (Mostly with the green screening and the fist fights) but, for the most part, the effects for their time are jaw dropping, the cast is fantastic, the acting is great, the characters are all extremely funny and likable in their own ways, the set design is awesome, the stunts are incredible, the story doesn't waste our time, the music is awesome, and the slapstick, the banter between characters, and just the writing in general is just fucking hilarious! And its also home to probably the greatest pie fight ever put to film!
If you haven't seen this movie, ya got two and half hours to spare, and ya just want a good laugh, watch it right now!!!!
Not to say that comedies from the 60s are all slow. "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "One, Two, Three" are comedy masterpieces at quick pace.
Two stars out of respect that it may have been funny back in the day to some people.