The sort of movie that beats one into submission, Blake Edwards's The Great Race hails from that bygone era when epic, big-budget comedies had "guest stars" and lavishly recreated an even more bygone era of fabulous vehicular machines. As such, this live-action cartoon has enough strengths and weaknesses to confuse and subdue a weak-hearted critic like myself into provisionally recommending it. It's not a good movie, per se, but it is a grand one.
After the overture (showcasing Henry Mancini's alternatingly rinky-tink and brassy score) and lilting slide-show titles (complete with boos, cheers whistles, and a dedication to Laurel and Hardy!), Edwards kicks off his turn-of-the-last-century melodrama with a sort of jumbo-length Road Runner cartoon. Tony Curtis plays the Great Leslie, a celebrated professional daredevil whose teeth glisten and eyes twinkle in traditional white-hatted, heroic fashion; his sidekick is the trusty Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn). Jack Lemmon plays the dastardly and exasperated Professor Fate (complete with handlebar moustache), ever failing to one-up or sabotage the great Leslie, despite the "help" of his bumbling henchman Max (Peter Falk).
When the great Leslie proposes an automobile race ("I mean a long race. A very long race," he says, and he ain't kidding), Fate enlists to contest him. Seeking career advancement and adventure, spunky suffragette Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood, both lovely and funny) railroads newspaperman Henry Goodbody (Arthur O'Connell) into letting her enter and cover the New York-to-Paris race. Seven cars swiftly dwindle to three: the Great Leslie's "Leslie Special," Fate's "Hannibal Twin-8" (the original monster truck) and Maggie's doomed Stanley Steamer.
Edwards and screenwriter Arthur A. Ross bloat The Great Race with obviously expensive set-pieces and travels through pictureseque locations, but here the scale's the thing. The most memorable production-value showcases are a couple of sword duels, what may be the original tear-down-the-set barroom brawl, a grand ballroom waltz, and a penultimate (and ultimate) pie fight. Plus, Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer contribute two songs: a domestic violence cautionary tale sung by Dorothy Provine's saucy Lily Olay ("He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Couldn't-A Swang On Me") and a literal follow-the-bouncing-ball relic called "The Sweetheart Tree."
Arguably, though, the best and funniest section of the film is a rambling plot diversion that's long enough and elaborate enough to be its own film, a takeoff on The Prisoner of Zenda. This wrong-headed third act sidetrack has nothing to do with the race itself or even developing the characters (as the pre-race first act does), but affords Lemmon--at his deliriously amusing height of scenery chewing--a second role and allows Curtis a sword fight with Ross Martin, so shut up and enjoy.
At one point, Curtis's Leslie demurs, "Greatness is a light-hearted title for theatrical amusements," and that sort of self-aware understatement might best prepare you for the film's charming appeal. In one sense, it's too much more than the sum of its many parts. In fact, this film is probably best treasured as prime babysitting material, given its simple, kid-minded appeal (Wood's "emancipated" hero, as you might suspect, isn't quite the feminist she's cracked up to be). Given the three-hour length, it's tempting to dub this The Drag Race, but it'd make fine fare for a rainy day or a Jack Lemmon film festival.
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