“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Hollywood film industry released many films that were later dubbed as ”blockbusters”. These films had been made to compete with the growing popularity of television during the post-World War II era. Most of the blockbusters released during the 1950s turned out to be period dramas and musicals. The period dramas and musicals continued into the 1960s. However, they were joined by all-star comedies with long running times. One of these comedies turned out to be 1965’s ”THE GREAT RACE”

Directed by Blake Edwards, ”THE GREAT RACE” told the story of a long distance road race from New York City to Paris in 1908, between two daredevil rivals. One of these rivals happened to be Leslie Gallant III (aka “The Great Leslie”), a handsome, brave and dashing daredevil who represented the epitome of the well-groomed American gentleman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leslie also possessed a slightly condescending manner that matched his superficial perfection to a “T”. The Great Leslie’s rival turned out to be a swarthy, mustache-twirling villain named Professor Fate – also a daredevil. But whereas Leslie’s successful stunts gave him respectability from American businessmen and the media, Fate has been nearly regulated to the status of a buffoon, due to his constant failures. The latter resulted in Fate’s eternal grudge against his more handsome rival. When the white-suited hero proposed a long road race from New York City to Paris in order to promote a new car (the Leslie Special) designed by him and built by the Weber Motor Company, Fate decided to thwart Leslie’s plans of victory by building his own super car for the race (the Hannibal Eight). Meanwhile, a female photojournalist and suffragette named Maggie Dubois managed to convince the editor of the The New York Sentinel to hire her to cover the race.

I might as well be blunt. I tend to have mixed views about Hollywood blockbusters. I either love them, in spite of themselves. Or I dislike them. While viewing some of these blockbusters from the 50s and 60s, I noticed they were just as bloated as some of today’s blockbusters. And ”THE GREAT RACE” struck me as blockbuster of the bloated variety. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, it seemed to long. Really. The movie shared a similar flaw with another 1965 blockbuster, ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”. In other words, it is a long movie about a race in which only a small percentage of the film featured the actual event. First of all, Edwards and his co-writer, Arthur A. Ross, spent at least 40 to 45 minutes of the film setting up his characters and the preparation for the race. Forty-five minutes. And although the next two hours centered on the actual race, moviegoers only saw the participants race during the first leg of the race that featured the results of sabotage committed by Fate’s assistant Maximilian, against Leslie and Fate’s other competitors. Most of the movie centered around the main characters’ adventures in the small Western town of Boracho, in Alaska, Russia and a fictionalized European country called Carpania and its capital of Potsdorf (during which the movie became a spoof of Anthony Hope’s classic, ”The Prisoner of Zenda”). Moviegoers were able to see the race one last time, when the Leslie Special and the Hannibal Eight raced along the outskirts of Paris and within the city itself. One the two competitors reached the Eiffel Tower, the race ended. For a movie called ”THE GREAT RACE”, very little racing was actually seen.

Another problem that ”THE GREAT RACE” shared with ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” was the abundance of slapstick humor in the story. It dangerously came close to being too MUCH for my sensibilities. I did not mind the Boracho saloon fight (an obvious spoof of fight scenes in Hollywood Westerns). Nor did I mind Maximilian’s sabotage of Fate’s other competitors at the beginning of the race. But Fate’s attempts to sabotage Leslie’s daredevil stunts in the movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes and the pie fight inside the Potsdorf royal kitchen really irritated me. I believe that both scenes may have unnecessarily dragged the film.

Yet, bloated or not, I cannot deny that ”THE GREAT RACE” is a very, very entertaining film. Edwards and Ross did a top notch job in creating a story set during the pre-World War I era. During this period, Western society was in its last gasp of clinging to the nineteenth century – a world filled with constricting fashion for women, elegant manners, European royalty with some political power, and society’s rules. And yet . . . Edwards and Ross’s story made it clear this world was also changing, thanks to the presence of motorized vehicles on the roads, the suffragette movement, the popularity of daredevils like Leslie and Fate, the threat of political loss for European royalty and the diminished presence of Native Americans in the West. What made ”THE GREAT RACE” so amazing was that Edwards revealed these social changes in a cinematic style straight from silent era films like ”THE PERILS OF PAULINE”, with slapstick comedy added for good measure.

Speaking of the movie’s comedy, I realize that I had complained a good deal about some of it. However, Edwards and Ross’ script did provide plenty of comedic moments that I absolutely enjoyed. One such moment featured the Great Leslie’s meeting with the board members of the Weber Motor Company. The meeting itself merely served as the springboard for the race. But a surprise visitor gave the scene a comedic touch that I found particularly funny. Other funny moments included:

*Maggie Dubois’ reaction to singer Lily O’Lay’s flirtation with Leslie

*The entire Boracho sequence

*Maggie Dubois’ successful attempt to replace Hezekial Sturdy as Leslie’s co-driver

*Fate’s explanation of the attraction between Leslie and Miss Dubois

*The entire Alaska sequence

*Fate, Miss Dubois and Max’s arrival in a Russian town

*General Kuhster’s attempt to instruct Fate on how to impersonate Crown Prince Hapnick’s laugh

*Leslie and Miss Dubois’ quarrel during the race’s last leg

*Fate’s rant against Leslie’s perfection after the two competitors reached the Eiffel Tower

”THE GREAT RACE” also included an entertaining score written by Henry Mancini. The composer also co-wrote two songs with Johnny Mercer – a charming tune called ”The Singing Tree” (that also served as the movie’s main tune) and a rousing song called ”He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”. Donfeld aka Don Feld designed some colorful costumes, reminiscent of the fashions of the 20th century’s first decade. However, I must admit that I found one of Natalie Wood’s costumes a bit over-the-top – namely the Western outfit she wore following the Leslie Special and the Hannibal Eight’s departures from Boracho. The movie also featured a swordfight between Leslie and a Carpanian aristocrat named Baron Von Stuppe during the Potsdorf sequence, which I consider to be one of the best in Hollywood history. I am aware that Curtis had some theatrical sword fighting experience in some of the swashbucklers from the 1950s. But Martin’s skills with a sword took me by surprise. Perhaps he learned it while training for the theater.

As far as I am concerned, the best asset of ”THE GREAT RACE” was its cast. Edwards managed to collect a top-notch cast filled with extremely talented performers. Aside from the stars, the movie was filled with some great talent. Arthur O’Connell and Vivian Vance were hilarious as Maggie Dubois’ long-suffering editor and his pushy suffragette wife, Henry and Hester Goodbody. Marvin Kaplan portrayed Frisbee’ Mr. Goodbody’s slightly befuddled assistant. The Boracho sequence featured a hilarious performance by Larry Storch as the town’s ruthless local outlaw, Texas Jack. And Dorothy Provine gave one of the movie’s best performances as Boracho’s local saloon chanteuse, Lily O’Lay. Not only did she give a rousing rendition of ”He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”, she also injected her character with plenty of wacky humor and charm. The Carpania sequence provided George Macready to give a solid performance as Prince Hapnick’s solid, but traitorous aide, General Kuhster. And Ross Martin was deliciously suave and villainous as Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, General Kuhster’s ally in the coup d’état against the Crown Prince.

Peter Falk garnered a great deal of notice as Maximilian, Professor Fate’s loyal, yet slippery henchman. And he deserved all of the good notice he had received, thanks to his subtle and sly performance. More importantly, Falk managed to create a first-rate comedic team with Jack Lemmon. Keenan Wynn’s role as Hezekiah Sturdy, Leslie’s assistant. Wynn basically gave a solid performance as Leslie’s right-hand man. But Edwards gave him two scenes in which he absolutely shone without saying a word. One featured a moment in which his character tried to work up the courage to ask a beautiful Carpanian aristocrat to dance at the royal ball. Another featured his silent, yet long-suffering reaction to Leslie and Miss Dubois’ final battle-of-the-sexes during the race’s last leg into Paris.

Tony Curtis had worked with his two co-stars in previous movies. He had co-starred with Natalie Wood in 1964’s ”SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL”And he worked with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic,”SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In ”THE GREAT RACE”, he created screen chemistry with the pair, once again. He portrayed the handsome, clean-cut and well accomplished daredevil, Leslie Gallant III aka the Great Leslie. Superficially, his character seemed rather dull and bland in compare to Lemmon and Wood’s. Superficially. But after watching Curtis portray the embodiment of early 20th century male perfection, one could finally understand why Professor Fate disliked him so much. Curtis’ Leslie was soINSUFFERABLY perfect. Anyone who spent even a day in his company could easily develop an inferiority complex. And Curtis did such a superb job in portraying Leslie’s rather annoying perfection with an excellent mixture of slight pomposity and tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best moments featured a long speech by Leslie, followed by a cinematic twinkle in his eyes or on his teeth that led other characters to do a double take. Curtis’s Great Leslie gave a perfect example of why straight arrow types are secretly despised.

The one character that managed to create cracks in Leslie’s perfectionism turned out to be the suffragette/journalist, Maggie Dubois – portrayed with great enthusiasm and perfection by Natalie Wood. The curious thing about Miss Dubois was that Edwards and Ross wrote her and Wood portrayed her with a mixture of Leslie and Fate’s personalities. Like Leslie, Miss Dubois was an accomplished and highly intelligent woman who also happened to be a multi-linguist and excellent fencer. On the other hand, she shared Fate’s cunning and taste for manipulation. She also possessed a moral ambiguity that led her into conning Hezekiah to relax his guard, so that she could handcuff him onto an eastbound train. Unlike other women, Miss Dubois never allowed herself to swoon at Leslie’s feet . . . even if she wanted to. Instead, I found it a pleasure to watcher her tear down Leslie’s self-esteem, until he found himself declaring his love for her.

One cannot discuss ”THE GREAT RACE” without mentioning Jack Lemmon’s performance. His Professor Fate has to be one of the best roles in the actor’s career. More importantly, I believe that Fate is one of the most entertaining villains in Hollywood history. This was a character that seemed to revel in his villainy with a bombastic manner, a five o’clock shadow on his chin and deep impatience and contempt toward anyone who was not . . . well, him. Yet, he was shrewd enough to surmise that Maggie Dubois’ dedication toward women’s sufferage would prove to be the Great Leslie’s chink in the latter armor . . . or Achilles’ heel. And his rant against his handsome rival near the film’s conclusion was a delicious study in Fate’s insecurities about Leslie. If portraying the moustache-twirling villain was not enough, Lemmon also portrayed the affable, yet drunken Crown Prince Hapnick of Carpania with a slight effeminate twist during the film’s parody of ”The Prisoner of Zenda”. Hapnick’s regal, yet slightly drunken entrance turned out to be one of the film’s highlights for me. I always thought it was a shame that Fate and Hapnick never really got the chance to interact with each other. Considering Lemmon’s comedic talent, such a scene would have been a hoot.

As I had stated earlier, ”THE GREAT RACE” has plenty of obvious flaws. It is an overblown film about a long distance road race, in which little of the actual race was shown. And there were times when the slapstick comedy threatened to become just a bit too much. Especially during the famous pie fight sequence. But Blake Edwards, with co-writer Arthur Ross, created a fun and colorful film that re-created the world of old-fashioned road races and daredevil stunts during the turn of the last century. It also featured colorful costumes and settings, great humor, one of the best screen swordfights ever and a superb cast led by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. I highly recommend it.

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