Blake Edwards’ The Great Race is a 1960s equivalent of today’s “summer tentpole” films. At $12 million in 1965 dollars, it was the most expensive comedy ever made up to that time, a huge spectacle staged with the hope of receiving blockbuster ticket sales in return. Like many of today’s efforts, it failed, and for many of the same reasons.
In many ways this was one of the first movie-nerd films. Edwards started with the story of the 1908 race from New York to Paris, and applied his love of the old silent films, especially the comedy team of Laurel & Hardy to whom the movie is dedicated. The opening credits are a love letter to that era of movies: fake boos for the villain’s title card, fake cheers for the hero, fake wolf whistles for the female lead, and numerous faked projection breakdowns. As the evil Professor Fate, Jack Lemmon sports a Snidely Whiplash mustache which went out of style around the time that movie characters started talking.
However, once the movie starts, a lot of the joy goes out of it. Fate and his assistant Max (an amazingly young Peter Falk) are constantly trying to foil the world-record-setting daredevil feats of The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis). So, when Leslie decides to promote a car company by staging a land race from New York to Paris, Fate and Max are in it to win it, as is Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a reporter devoted to women’s suffrage who is fed up with Leslie’s womanizing ways.
Leslie’s first stunt is a laughably fake-looking escape from a straitjacket while hanging from a balloon. Fate and Max try to foil him in the most Wile E. Coyote way possible, via giant crossbow, and receive a Wile E. Coyote sort of punishment when they fail. That’s all fine; it clearly establishes from minute one that we are not meant to take any of this seriously. The problem is that there are almost forty-five minutes more of scenes like these, before we even get to the start of the titular race.
It’s not that this movie needed a different editor or director; Edwards paces each scene perfectly to deliver the Looney Tunes nature of the slapstick. The problem is that Looney Tunes shorts only work as comedy because they are short. The deliberate pace of a lot of those old Wile E. Coyote gags would put kids to sleep over two hours and forty minutes, and indeed I slept through about fifteen minutes of this film. It’s not just that the production design is too lavish and the set-pieces are too huge – all of that money thrown at The Great Race caused its story to become heavily bloated as well.
According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Natalie Wood seemed to have been a victim of the bloat. She did not want to be in the movie, and had to be wooed with the promise that filming would be brief. As you might imagine from a wildly expensive 160-minute epic, shooting was anything but brief, and Wood’s psyche suffered as a result: after shooting she overdosed on painkillers in what may or may not have been a suicide attempt. Given all of that, I really liked the amount of professionalism in her performance. She never seems to be bored or tired with the role and she’s game for all of the arguing she has to do with Curtis.
The real issue is that those conversations just aren’t interesting. The Curtis/Wood scenes do not deliver very much in terms of social issues, or dramatic tension, or character growth. Obviously this is not a movie which is supposed to have any of those things, it’s a slapstick comedy, but those scenes are not funny either. There’s no His Girl Friday banter here, just a bunch of flat declamatory statements about how women do not belong in races such as this, and about Mr. Leslie being a pig. This is not a comedic relationship; it’s two characters stating what they are supposed to be feeling in the other’s direction, and saying it very quickly in the hopes of making us laugh.
The Great Race picks up a little bit after the intermission, when it strangely transforms into a different film. All of the race participants get sidetracked in a fictional kingdom whose Crown Prince (Lemmon again) looks just like Professor Fate, and the race stops cold as a swashbuckling adventure story breaks out around a mistaken-identity coup. At this point Lemmon’s performance goes from one-note to two-note, and even though the Prince is little more than a regressive gay stereotype, you have to appreciate that Lemmon goes all-out in his dedication to the role. I also found the sword fight in this section quite entertaining, and it ends with the largest pie fight ever staged, which is interesting for its novelty value if nothing else.
At that point, though, the movie rushes right back to the race story, and we get more deadly dull non-banter from Curtis and Wood as they scurry to the conclusion. That conclusion left me cold in the same way that the rest of the movie did: I chuckled now and then, but I was never on board with this story, and at a certain point I was just hoping it would hustle toward the finish line as quickly as possible.
Reviewed by Mark Young