In the good guy camp there’s The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis (Winchester ’73)) with his impeccable white outfits, worldly knowledge, sophisticated demeanor, top of the line automobile and perfect teeth that sparkle when he smiles. In the bad guy camp there’s Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon (Grumpier Old Men)) with his all black attire, mean spirited attitude, propensity to clumsily fail in every endeavor, self-made monstrosity of a racecar and long twirl-y mustache. Basically he’s a Snidely Whiplash rip off (that character debuted six years earlier).
Natalie Wood (Miracle of 34th Street) plays a reporter and fierce women’s rights advocate who covers the race from start to finish. This could’ve been a much stronger character but unfortunately she keeps getting into situations over her head and eventually becomes the typical damsel in distress. Making this move is a bit of a slap in the face because she bails both The Great Leslie and Professor Fate out of some dicey situations throughout the race and her reward is to get stripped down, tied up and threatened by some eurotrash asshole.
But overall this is an incredibly fun adventure comedy. And there’s a huge emphasis on both of those parts. For instance the movie opens with The Great Leslie and Professor Fate trading off daredevil stunts like parachuting out of a hot air balloon and rocketing down a stretch of railroad track at hundreds of miles per hour. The race itself is filled with colorful settings like the American west, the Antarctic and eastern Europe. And the two opponents have to overcome adversity around every corner. Remember this takes place in the early 1900’s so if their car breaks down they have to fix it themselves, rely on their own navigation skills as maps aren’t totally reliable and finding gas is a recurring issue.
The comedy is a different thing. I mean I love it but not everyone is gonna go for the extremely zany jokes like Professor Fate using a comically large crossbow to shoot at The Great Leslie, or staging a colossal pie fight with everyone getting plastered head to toe in custards and preserves. All of the jokes are very old timey, even for when the film was made in the mid 60’s.
Every time I go back to this picture it just amazes me how big of a production it is. The idea is ambitious and luckily we get the full treatment that matches the true scope of the premise. This sucker is two hours and forty mins long with an overture, an intermission, two musical numbers and the last half hour turns into The Prisoner of Zenda which involves a plot to have Professor Fate impersonate a prince so that evil folks in the regime can gain power. It’s jam packed with so many mini storylines and grand set pieces and great actors and a fantastic score by Henry Mancini and etc.
Blake Edwards did this after making the first two Pink Panther movies back to back so he was on a helluva roll. His films tend to get a little sidetracked after a while though. It’s like he gets bored two thirds in, his mind wanders and then suddenly he snaps out of it and realizes he has to wrap this thing up. But his cartoonish yet dry sense of humor coupled with his straightforward way of filming is something I really dig. He lets his actors, costumes and sets do all the work. He’s simply there to make sure everyone is in frame and in focus.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say The Great Race is an acquired taste. Either you’re gonna enjoy the exaggerated craziness or find it annoying from the first scene. It’s not really a “just stick with it, trust me” kinda picture. But in my book this is a tremendous big time Hollywood type film with star power and enormous vision and all that shit that goes into the making of an epic. It lives up to the title. This race right here is pretty damn great guys.