The Great Race (1965) Blu-ray Review: Blake Edwards, How Great Thou Art

When Blake Edwards departed from this world in late 2010, he left behind a lasting and versatile legacy of contributions to cinema. From the hard-hitting drama of Days of Wine and Roses (a serious look at alcoholism made during the early ’60s, when civilized man enjoyed a steak and martini for breakfast), to a couple of noted musicals with his wife Julie Andrews (Darling Lili and Victor/Victoria), and even the odd thriller like the underrated Experiment in Terror (which Twilight Time was kind enough to issue on Blu-ray in early 2013), Edwards tried his hand at many different types of film genres. Nevertheless, with the exception of the vastly overrated Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Edwards will most assuredly live on via his comedies.

While a majority of his work with Peter Sellers (during the pre-postmortem days, that is) automatically find their way to the top of many a funny film lover’s list, one of Edwards’ biggest productions actually turned out to be a flop at the box office upon its initial release. Fortunately, the years have been kind to Blake Edwards’ 1965 comedy, The Great Race; a drastic directional change in the “critical” weather that has probably been attributable to the fact that nearly every one of the film’s major cast and crew have since passed on. Or maybe people were just too darn harsh on the epic photoplay when it first came out.

That said, it’s easy to see why many critics/filmgoers didn’t cling to the movie at first. Running a whopping two-hours and forty-minutes in length, the wacky adventure of competitiveness found serious competition at the box office in the guise of yet racing comedy, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (lest we forget It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from two years before) – a title that was officially declared the winner in a cinematic scurry to profit that Edwards never truly signed up for. All he wanted to do was make an homage to the old days of slapstick comedies. But people even took offense to that, citing that the writer/director’s efforts at physical humor were too novice, noting its stars were not the slapstick comedy types. Granted, they weren’t, but everybody has to start somewhere, right?

Lastly, the overall price tag on the comedy – which originally set out to be a United Artists production, before exceeding costs warranted Jack Warner to take the item under his wing, impressed with the success of Edwards’ previous work (Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the first two Pink Panther / Inspector Clouseau films) – kept inflating. In fact, when it was released, The Great Race would prove to be the most expensive comedy ever made; a fact that turned into an investor’s ultimate nightmare once the movie opened and failed to make the impact everyone had diligently prayed for. Fortunately, Mr. Edwards’ nod to the silent comedies and the madcap age of crazy daredevils at large has managed to redeem itself over the years, with a Manufactured-on-Demand Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive Collection being the latest (and greatest) revisiting of this oft-neglected gem.

The film opens by establishing the hell out of its two daredevil rivals, circa 1908. First, we have The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis, whom Jack Warner personally wanted in the part after Charleton Heston reportedly turned it down, thus upping the budget that much more) – a dashing, dashingly handsome man’s man always clad in white (and sports sparkling white teeth) who succeeds in whatever he sets out to do with the greatest of ease. And then there’s Professor Fear (Jack Lemmon, in one of his rare “villain” roles), a vile, loathsome, scheming fellow clad in black (replete with top hat and waxed mustache) who sets out to sabotage his constant contender’s efforts – only to always have them backfire. Each character has his personal sidekick; Leslie has the loyal Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn), the Professor has the dimwitted Max (Peter Falk).

After several long looks at how these two representations of good and evil play off of each other in the wild, The Great Leslie persuades an American automobile company to build him a specialty car – dubbed the Leslie Special – so that he may establish that his own country’s car manufacturer is second to none. To prove this, he suggests a race from New York to Paris – the long way around. And it works. Soon, several contestants are ready to drive cross-country to the still Wild West, up through the ice flow of Alaska to Siberia, and throughout upper Asia and Europe. In reality, such a race did occur in 1908, though that’s a course of a different color altogether, as the events of The Great Race are greatly exaggerated for the sake of comedy (even if few people appreciated it the first time).

Doomed actress Natalie Wood co-stars here as an emancipated journalist who sets out determined to win the race – whilst covering it, sending her reports back to editor Arthur O’Connell via carrier pigeons – but who eventually joins both parties, sometimes voluntarily, other times unwillingly. Vivian Vance is O’Connell’s wife, eager to liberate herself and the other ladies back home. A trip to the Wild West finds sultry Dorothy Provine singing a memorable Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer tune, as well as character actor extraordinaire Larry Storch as her angry gunfighter boyfriend. George Macready and the great Ross Martin (no stranger to the Wild West himself) get to play it up as crafty Eastern Europeans who plan to replace their incompetent crown prince (Jack Lemmon again, in a dual role) with that of a kidnapped Professor Fate. Marvin Kaplan paves the way for André Maranne in Edwards’ subsequent Pink Panther films as an unfortunate assistant (in this instance, to editor O’Connell), while Hal Smith and Denver Pyle co-star in their usual personae as the mayor and sheriff (respectively) of the aptly-named western town Boracho.

The Great Race was filmed throughout the world during its taxing shooting schedule (which would extend into a personal post-production hell of dialog replacement for co-star Natalie Wood, who never wanted to make the picture in the first place), and the Warner Archive Blu-ray presentation of this epic comedy shows off its exotic locations and stage shenanigans admirably for all. Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the transfer for The Great Race is quite beautiful, showing a fine amount of detail, contrast, and black levels throughout. Colors, too – and there’s no better way of proving that than in the film’s very silly pie fight scene, wherein just about every color of the rainbow splatters across the screen and into the kissers of the cast.

Accompanying the main feature is a 5.1 mix presented in lossless DTS-HS MA. While Mancini’s score stood out to me a bit more than usual during one particular moment, the mix is a fine one indeed, and optional English (SDH) subtitles are also included. Two special features can also be found on this Blu-ray: an old fashioned promotional featurette (which, oddly, starts out in widescreen before cutting to pan-and-scan) and a trailer for the film that seems inexplicably fond of using footage of its stars from other recent movies. Both featurette and trailer have been ported over from the 2002 Special Edition DVD.

Ultimately, The Great Race is about more than the crossing of a finish line for its viewers. (Warning: this all may be the caffeine talking here.) The film’s venerable variety of iconic characters actors perhaps click better now that we know them all for who they were in other productions better than they did back in 1965. This reuniting of Some Like It Hot stars Curtis and Lemmon finds the former crossdressing duo battling each other mostly offscreen from each other, relying on or playing off of their own respective film partners (Curtis with Wynn and Wood, Lemmon and Falk), but doing so admirably. Lemmon and Falk, though no Laurel and Hardy by any stretch of the imagination, tickled my funny bone the most, as they were intended to do, but more so when they didn’t try too terribly hard (the submarine scene, no; the dinner scene, yes).

Yes, it’s easy to see why the audience of ’65 was less-than-enthusiastic with some of the onscreen antics. That said, The Great Race is quite the riotous ride when taken today, wherein we as a cinematic-going species have been so far removed from the quintessential elements (or even theory of) slapstick and physical humor that the closest we usually to get to discovering that lost form of comedy is in the occasional Adam Sandler bomb. It’s a sad, scary thought, I know, but the bright side of that is that I can safely declare this once rather disastrous moving picture epic as not only highly recommended, but as a great work of art at the same time.

Thank you, Blake Edwards.

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Luigi Bastardo

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