Push the button, Max!: “The Great Race” (1965)


By Scott Ross

Blake Edwards’ wildly extravagant paean to slapstick humor is excessive, overlong… and absolutely wonderful. The premise involves an early 20th century New York-to-Paris road race viewed through the delicious prism of a classic rivalry: Tony Curtis as the white-suited hero The Great Leslie, and Jack Lemmon — complete with black cape and twirlable mustache — as Professor Fate.

Edwards and his co-scenarist Arthur A. Ross add an “emancipated” female reporter (Natalie Wood, reportedly in personal misery during filming but ravishingly beautiful, fast-talking, and quite funny);

Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot featuring Lemmon in a very fey second role;

and a plethora of marvelous comedians adding diamond-bright cameos and supporting performances: Keenan Wynn, Vivian Vance, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Ross Martin, George MacCready, Dorothy Provine and, as Lemmon’s sidekick Max, the matchless Peter Falk. (“Push… the button, Max!”)

Lemmon gave far better performances in much greater movies, but — aside from Some Like it Hot — he was never funnier than he is here. His timing is perfection itself, and he gets more out of a single raised eyebrow than most comedians can squeeze from a roomful of props. A two-part television airing of The Great Race on successive Sunday nights was my introduction to Lemmon, at age 11. I thought he was the cat’s pajamas. I still do.

Interestingly, and appropriately, the sound effects were provided by the great Warner Bros. Cartoons editor Treg Brown, who won an Oscar; listen carefully and you’ll hear Brown’s trademark “voice” throughout. (A torpedo is one sequence bears more than a passing aural resemblance to the sounds that herald the appearance of the Tasmanian Devil.) The score, naturally for an Edwards’s movie, is by Henry Mancini, with lyrical assists from Johnny Mercer.

Blake Edwards demonstrating the science of throwing pies. His guinea pig is Natalie Wood. Jack Lemmon said of the massive pie-fight which climaxes the Prisoner of Zenda sub-plot that the first couple of takes were fun; after that, it began to feel like being hit in the face with sacks of wet cement.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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