The Film and The Performance:
By 1965, director Blake Edwards was slowly becoming known as one of the pinnacle comedy directors. After his first two Pink Panther movies and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he wanted to produce a more large-scale film that would guarantee a variety of laughs. That film would be The Great Race, which Edwards loosely based off the 1908 race of New York to Paris. Using this premise, Edwards wanted to emulate famous satire and slapstick icons, such as British greats Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This seemed like a very capable task for Edwards, especially considering his Pink Panther movies were slapstick gold, which proved to audiences that exaggerated circumstances could be funny. However, Edwards missed one detail regarding his former films: Peter Sellers was the primary reason why they succeeded. Sellers’ performance as Inspector Clouseau was entirely improvised and largely ignored the script Blake Edwards’ wrote. Sellers was an actor whose comedy was at its best when he was not limited to the written word and was allowed to embellish the role or situation in any way that suited his character. That is why The Pink Panther films were so successful; They were successful due to Sellers ability to integrate his personality into the character, which fused life into a performance that would have been otherwise marginalized if he had stuck to the script. It appears Blake Edwards either ignored this fact or was ignorant to the reality that his slapstick writing wasn’t actually funny when he wrote and directed The Great Race. It is evident all his actors within this film stuck to the script, and as a result, the film is disastrous.
The Great Race easily could have been a comedy classic with its simple plotline offering a variety of different locations, thus a versatility of laughs. Instead, The Great Race is comprised of the same exact laughs in every scenario, but is tweaked just enough to fit the new location. Whether it is an elaborate saloon fight, a building blowing up, or even the most ultimate pie fight, the laugh is exactly the same: Destruction. Therefore, the film falls stale almost immediately. A freshness of comedy is essential in a comedy film, especially within a slapstick comedy.
When applying this statement to the most relevant of slapstick comedies that could be linked to The Great Race, lets look at It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which is another race movie: A handful of colorful characters are all racing each other in order to be first at a location in California to claim a buried treasure of money. What made Mad World such a successful slapstick comedy was its ability to be hilarious without ever overtly trying to be funny. The comedy came from the situation, which created a seemingly organic comedy experience. Furthermore, what made the comedy feel fresh was that the mania that the comedy was stemmed from was manipulated just enough to fit with certain characters and only those characters. For instance, in Mad World there was Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, whose characters were trapped in a hardware store basement and every attempt to get out turns into a hilarious ordeal of something going wrong. At the same time, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett were characters hilariously trying to fly a plane after their pilot is accidentally knocked out. In both the airplane and basement plots, the jokes were technically the same, but the circumstances were changed just enough that they felt new. Furthermore, with the situations being limited to the respective characters who endure them, it gave the actors an opportunity to make these moments their own. That is where the success of Mad World truly rested upon.
The Great Race doesn’t have that luxury and it sticks to its script so rigidly that the film comes off just like that, ridged. However, it is obvious that Blake Edwards put more focus on specific sequences, such as a major western saloon brawl, the characters stranded on a melting iceberg as it crosses the Bering Strait, or the elaborate pie fight in Russia (which is the scene this film is best known for – Click HERE to see the pie fight scene). These sequences, arguably are the best portions of the film despite their lack of comedy. As for the remainder of the film outside of these sequences, the film is disjointed and unfocused. It is evident that Edwards placed zero emphasis on a narrative that worked fluidly and actually brought the characters from one situation to the next, thus linking the film into a cohesive whole. Instead, the characters go from one elaborate situation to another with barely any in-between to create the notion of the film having a sort of progression. With the film failing to do that, the characters have no depth, to which the viewer doesn’t care about who may win this great race, therefore the race is not important to the viewer. That is a glaring directorial flaw with this film.
The film does attempt to formulate overarching narratives that travel the film, but they all fall flat. The primary storyline is the rivalry between The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), which is what spawns the race to occur. However, without any exposition as to why their rivalry exists and any understanding as to why Professor Fate is who he is, this rivalry has close to no impact within the film. Natalie Wood also stars as a character, touting for women’s rights and uses the race as a means to highlight her cause. While the film is sure to emphasize this plot point, Wood’s character ultimately contradicts herself by her character being entirely dependent upon Tony Curtis’ character, thus her arguments for equality tapers away and her character falls into the cliché of a love struck female.
However, the most glaring plot deviation is the race itself. A large portion of the film’s second half dedicates itself to a subplot about Professor Fate being captured in Russia by rebels and being forced to impersonate the Crown Prince (also played by Jack Lemmon) in an effort to commandeer the throne. This subplot then had Tony Curtis’ character becoming the hero of the film, who saves the Russian throne and Professor Fate at the same time. Of course, these sequences were done with Curtis shirtless, who has a fencing duel with the Rebel leader, which was all clearly done to emphasize his masculinity. Not only were these sequences completely irrelevant, but they served no purpose within the film other than being ‘something that happens’ along their travels. Arguably this subplot could have been an opportunity to formulate some character development, but that was not the purpose for these sequences at all. These Russia sequences were aimed to be funny and ‘put something at stake,’ but again, they do not fit in an already disjointed film.
These missed opportunities are entirely due to poor direction. It is evident that Blake Edwards felt that if a circumstance were to be exaggerated enough it would instill guaranteed laughs. This is a misguided notion since extreme exaggeration leads to a blatant attempt to make its audience laugh, to which they won’t. It’s the exaggeration that, in fact, ruins the film. This unfortunately puts Jack Lemmon mostly at blame, whose performance as Professor Fate is blatantly overdone and borders on being campy. One cannot deny that Jack Lemmon genuinely tried to give the performance his all, which can be said is more than any other cast member of the film offered. However, Lemmon’s performance is hysterical, obnoxious, and bland all at the same time. However, Lemmon should at least be commended for being able to incorporate two contradictory negatives into the same performance.
While this may have been Lemmon’s intention, the performance does not fit with the canon of other characters within the film, all of which were played by actors who decided to play their roles ‘straight,’ which made Lemmon’s character stick out more than it should have. The issue with Lemmon’s performance is not necessarily his caricature-style of acting, but the mere fact that the other main characters of the film are utterly devoid of humor. With Tony Curtis, for example, his character is entirely comprised of being the ‘masculine of masculine’ male of the film. He plays his role matter-of-factly and he is never phased by any of the film’s events. Therefore, the character is obscenely dull and comes off somewhat arrogant as a result. What also hurts Curtis’ performance is his inability to show any form of acting range throughout the film. He merely is a masculine daredevil, who upholds of the honor of women, travels his race smoothly, rescues a country from ruin, and ultimately wins the girl. The character is so clichéd and Curtis is sure to remain within that masculine stereotype that his performance and character have the personality of a dial tone. Ironically, Curtis’ poor performance enhances Lemmon’s, making his exaggerated portrayal as Professor Fate much more tolerable, even though the performance is overdone. Nonetheless, it was two acting extremes within a movie that was supposed to be funny.
Bluntly put, the film is a disaster from start to finish. The directing style of having overdone sequences and plot narratives was a poor choice. The acting in the film is either overdone or underdone. The film’s narrative is close to nonexistent. The film’s focus is disjointed and manic. Lastly, the film isn’t funny. That is the ultimate reason why this film cannot be considered as being somewhat watchable: It’s not funny. The Great Race was a critical and commercial flop when it premiered in theaters in 1965 and it is understandable why.