Classic Movie You've Got To See: 'The Great Race'

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I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw the classic 1965 Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race on television. But I do remember loving the silliness, the epic pie fight, and the amazing (19) costumes (designed by Edith Head) worn by Natalie Wood. One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons when I was little was The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, a sort of feminist spin-off to The Wacky RacersPenelope, getting into one dangerous situation after another, was far from a helpless female (despite her silent-movie cries of "Help! Help!" and always managed to triumph over her arch-enemy, The Hooded Claw (voiced by Paul Lynde), and look great while doing it. I may not have consciously made the connection until much later, with repeated viewings, but The Great Race was clearly an inspiration for both cartoons.

Professor Fate, "What's next?"

Max, "Car number five, the engine falls out!"

Professor Fate, "Car number five! Ha ha ha ha! ... Max ... we're number five."

Director Blake Edwards has acknowledged that The Great Race was also inspired by silent comedies, especially the slapstick featured in Laurel and Hardy (to whom Edwards dedicated the film). Edwards was riding high on the successes of The Pink Panther andA Shot in the Dark, and The Great Race had a huge budget — it cost two million dollars to make, the most expensive comedy film for its day. Much of the budget went to securing its star cast — Jack Lemmon in a dual role, as the scheming Professor Fate and Prince Friedrich; Tony Curtis as the spotless, ever-clad-in-white hero The Great Leslie; and Natalie Wood as suffragette Maggie DuBois, as loose and funny as we would ever see her in movies.

Credit Image: © SNAP/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com

The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Maggie DuBois sip champagne while stranded on an iceberg.


On a more recent viewing of The Great Race it also became abundantly clear that it was a comic source for many subsequent movies — especially for some of Mel Brooks's comedies, like Blazing Saddles and Space Balls. Edwards pulled out all the stops. Just about every film genre is showcased: a western segment, complete with saloon singer Dorothy Provine and a barroom brawl brings Blazing Saddles to mind. Other mini-parodies within the film include a romantic desert tent, a la The Sheik, as well as a climactic sword fight, that wouldn't be out of place in any Errol Flynn or 1940s swashbuckler, between Curtis and Ross Martin as Baron Rolfe von Stuppe. The amazing pie fight sequence has been replicated but never equaled, although Lemmon didn't count it as his favorite time on the set, "A pie hitting you in the face feels like a ton of cement."

An interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit — Tony Curtis was not the original choice for The Great Leslie. Edwards wanted Robert Wagner, but he and Wood had recently divorced, and she was still reeling from the impact. Wood was distraught throughout the shoot, and reportedly took too many sleeping pills after filming wrapped (she was fortunately awake enough to call a friend for help, who got her to a hospital), but her personal distress never shows for an instant on film. Charlton Heston (!) is also rumored to have been offered the part.

 

Max, "Red sky. Gonna be a storm."

Professor Fate, "What are you babbling about?"

Max, "Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning."

Professor Fate, "Why, you simple-headed gherkin, do you know the chances of a storm in this part of the world at this time of the year?"

Max, "No, what?"

Professor Fate, "Hundred to one." 

[Thunderclap — it begins to pour rain]

Curtis and Wood are winning romantic leads, but as usual, Jack Lemmon walks away with the film. He is brilliant, whether he is scolding his sidekick Max (Peter Falk) on another evil plan gone awry, or as the foppish, perpetually drunk Prince Friedrich — no one in the film is having as good a time as he is, except possibly the audience. Let Lemmon, Curtis and Wood take you on a wacky, laugh-filled journey — The Great Race is still as funny today as when it first premiered in 1965.

Notes:

Zeitlin, David. "Greatest pie fight ever creates a horrendous SPLAAT!LIFE Jul 9, 1965. pp. 84–88.

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