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The Great Race

This enormous wedding cake threatens to topple under the weight of its frosting and filigree, but Blake Edwards' 1965 homage to the silent slapstick and roadster flickers of yore is a sturdy tall-tiered comic dessert. The Great Race takes the tropes of a bygone age — a daredevil hero clad in perfect white (Tony Curtis), a stage melodrama villain in black (Jack Lemmon), and a pretty woman in need of multiple rescues (Natalie Wood) — and whips them into a self-consciously camp series of set-pieces that tips a respectful top hat to the broad and raucous thrill-comedies of the silent slapstick days.

It's 1908. Our hero, "The Great Leslie" (Curtis), whose teeth and eyes literally sparkle, competes in a Paris-to-New York "auto-mo-bile" race against his arch-rival, dastardly Prof. Fate (Lemmon), who probably tied his own mother to the train tracks when she told him to clean his room. A brassy suffragette (Wood) bullies her way into the race as a journalist, so of course male-female rights and relationships are poked, romance ensues, rescues must be performed, and Ms. Wood is given a chance to appear in wet period undergarments/fetishwear. Come to think of it, seen as a product of its era, The Great Race serves as a primer on how pop entertainment typically dealt with Women's Lib issues. That is, by showing us how funny those mouthy dames were, but they still looked mighty nice when put in their place and hosed down.

While sprawling forth like an episodic TV miniseries, exaggerated to exploding-soufflé proportions are wild Westerns (a saloon brawl looks like a European soccer fan rumble), Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino, The Prisoner of Zenda, and the biggest pie fight until Blazing Saddles (reportedly over 2,300 deployed). The Great Race also takes cues from Chuck Jones and Tex Avery toons — astute fans will recognize Oscar-winning sound elements lifted from WB's Wile E. Coyote library, and Prof. Fate's death-dealing gadgets could have come from the Acme catalog. Dedicating it to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy," Edwards made The Great Race a high-gloss, high-cost love letter with elaborate production values. Tony Curtis' Great Leslie spoofs both the white-knight hero conventions and his own Hollywood image.

Jack Lemmon, who was paired with Curtis a few years earlier in Some Like It Hot, gets to cut loose and play Prof. Fate so hysterically over the top that you wonder if he'll twirl his Mack Sennett mustache right off his face. He's in full-on scenery-chewing mode, cackling and grimacing with effusive élan. Plus, in the Zenda sequence Lemmon pockets the trophy for comic character laughs with a second role, the perpetually soused PeeWee Herman-like Prince Hapnik of the Hollywood-eclectic European country Carpania. It's the estimable Lemmon's most outrageous farcical turn.

Fine supporting work comes from Peter Falk as Fate's put-upon assistant, Keenan Wynn as Leslie's majordomo, and Ross Martin (Artemis on TV's Wild Wild West) as traitorous Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, who gets a terrific sword fight scene with Curtis. Look for Larry (F Troop) Storch as six-gunnin' Texas Jack. As you might expect, Henry Mancini provides a catchy and inoffensive musical score.

Granted, Edwards is often a lazy director. The Great Race is sometimes stagy in that "Quinn Martin production" way. Occasionally a gag overstays its welcome or arrives already well telegraphed. Like Edwards' The Party, The Great Race is a movie half again as long as its material, and with Mancini's overture, entr'acte/intermission, and exit music, the whole thing is almost three hours long. Nonetheless, this epic of high silliness somehow pulls it all together by sheer force of its personality, and has garnered an enthusiastic array of fans, many of whom recall its ubiquitous TV rerun presence in the '70s.

*          *          *

This Warner DVD release is an exemplary piece of work. The all-new 2001 transfer looks as vivid as Leslie's teeth. Video hawkeyes should expect some digital artifacting and some occasional softness to the image, but nothing worth grousing about. Originally shot in Panavision and blown up to 70mm, The Great Race appears on this disc for the first time in its original widescreen aspect ratio, anamorphic 2.35:1. Good thing too, because Edwards uses every inch of that acreage. The soundtrack is clear and able in newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1, which translates here as a strong stereo mix plus a few unremarkable rear-channel elements.

For extras, there's the original trailer and a 15-minute 1965 puff-piece documentary, "Behind the Scenes with Blake Edwards' The Great Race," one of those self-flattering promo jobs that are so quaint now, though we do get glimpses of the cast and crew on location in Vienna, Salzburg, and Paris. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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