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January 22, 2012


The_big_w.colesmithey.comStanley Kramer's 1963 screwball comedy sent the genre into an orbit of epic proportions. Using a treasure-hunt plot that allowed his gigantic cast of character actor comedians to run with the ball, Kramer didn't just capture lightening in a bottle; he caught a volcano's worth of comic fireworks.

Written by the husband-and-wife writing team of William and Tania Rose, the movie kicks into gear on a two-lane highway in the Mojave Desert where aging criminal "Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante) goes off a cliff trying to outrun a couple of plainclothes detectives. Smiler has been on the run for 15 years since stealing $350,000 from a tuna factory heist. Four vehicles' worth of witnesses stop to check on Smiler's dubious condition at the bottom of the cliff he ejected from. Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, and Milton Berle leave the women (Edia Adams, Ethal Merman and Dororty Provine) with the cars to climb down the embankment where Smiler miraculously has enough life left in him to describe his stash of loot buried beneath "a big W" in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border before he kicks the bucket--quite literally.


Naturally, the men rush back to their respective automobiles to head for the border like bats out of hell. A brief roadside attempt at concocting a civilized method for splitting up the cash, should it be found, is broken up by Ethel Merman's unforgettable domineering shrew Mrs. Marcus, the mother-in-law to Milton Berle's character and his wife Emeline (Provine). It's each man, or woman, for him or herself.

Little does the group of treasure-hunters know that a police captain named Culpepper (wonderfully played by Spencer Tracy) is surveying their progress with bated breath. Captain Culpepper has been waiting 15 years to be led to Smiler's fortune so he can drop the cop act and go on a permanent vacation with his wife.


Apart from a plethora of perfectly pitched comic cameos by the likes of Jerry Lewis, Jim Backus, Norman Fell, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, and even the Three Stooges, the movie is remarkable for its comic action set pieces that go gleefully over the top. Jonathan Winters’s truck driver Lennie Pike single-handedly razes an entire gas station with sidesplitting fury to the ground. Watching Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett crash land a twin-engine airplane into an airport cafeteria is a classic image that informed Arthur Hiller’s great 1976 comedy “Silver Streak.”

When the unpredictable slapstick hits its uncontrolled fire-truck-ladder climax of body-tossing insanity the film achieves a deeply satisfying kind of comic catharsis you just won’t find in any other film.

Not Rated. 205 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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