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The Great Race (1965), Blake Edwards' loving tribute to the slapstick movies of old, is dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy" but it owes more to the style of earlier silent comedies with a dastardly villain, a spotless hero and outrageous and thrilling stunts.
Tony Curtis is the hero, "The Great Leslie," a daredevil and adventurer who enters a 1908 road race starting in New York City and going west to end at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Leslie wears only immaculately white clothing and his teeth gleam in the sunlight. In pursuit are Leslie's arch-nemesis Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) and his henchman Max (Peter Falk). Fate always wears black including a black top hat and thick mustache. His car, the "Hannibal 8," is fitted with the latest and most devious devices such as a smoke screen and even a cannon. No old-timey chase comedy would be complete without a damsel in distress and here it is Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), an early feminist, who sets out to cover the race and ends up shuttling between the attentions of the Great Leslie and the clutches of the evil Professor Fate.
Director and co-writer Blake Edwards had just made two of the most popular comedies of the early sixties - The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964) - which featured Peter Seller's clumsy Inspector Clouseau. With The Great Race, the director wanted to salute the source of that slapstick on a grand scale. "This is a kind of cartoon I've presented with real-live people," Edwards remarked. "There is a humor in this now that was somewhat inherent in The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark but there is almost an unbelievable humor in that you allow things to happen to people, that they could not survive in a million years, for the sake of a laugh. You never explain it. You simply go back and they're all right and you start it again. It's very stylized and yet that's the difficulty of it, to keep the wild style and still maintain enough believability so that you become involved."
Not content just to recreate silent-era comedy, Edwards changes genres with the racers' locations. Their trek through the American West turns the film into a parody of Westerns. When they arrive in the mythical European country of Carpania, Professor Fate's resemblance to the goofy Prince Hapnik (Jack Lemmon in a dual role) sparks a spoof of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952).
Edwards' fought with the producing studio Warner Brothers throughout the making of The Great Race and the result doubled the cost of what was already a large and expensive film. The film was popular, but not enough to make back its cost and began a string of films for Edwards that were failures at the box office but subsequently became cult classics such as The Party (1968). The Great Race has also developed a steadily growing cult following and has inspired other comedies, most notably Yellow Submarine (1968), whose lead villain also has a henchman named Max, and Hanna-Barbera's cartoon television series Wacky Races that replaced Max with a sniggering dog named Muttley.
The Great Race won an Academy Award for Best Sound Effects and was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Song, "The Sweetheart Tree," with music written by Henry Mancini.
Producer: Martin Jurow
Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: Arthur A. Ross
Production Design: Fernando Carrere
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Costume Design: Edith Head, Donfeld
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Prof. Fate), Tony Curtis (The Great Leslie), Natalie Wood (Maggie DuBois), Peter Falk (Max), Keenan Wynn (Hezekiah Sturdy), Arthur O'Connell (Henry Goodbody), Dorothy Provine (Lily Olay), Larry Storch (Texas Jack), Ross Martin (Baron Rolfe von Stuppe), George Macready (General Kuhster), Denver Pyle (Sheriff).
C-160m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Brian Cady