Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn
Director: Blake Edwards
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars
In 1908, The Great Leslie (Curtis), a famed daredevil who all men want to be and who all women want, proposes a race from New York to Paris to celebrate the glory of the automobile and the power of the American automotive companies. The race gets strange and crazy when Leslie's nemesis--rival daredevil Professor Fate (Lemmon) and his sidekick Max (Falk)--decide the circum-global race is the perfect opportunity to show that he's the superior man--and cigarillo-smoking suffergette Maggie DuBois (Wood) decides the race is the perfect chance to prove a liberated woman is the equal of any man.
"The Great Race" is a spectacular spoof of movies like "Around the World in 80 Days" and a fantastic homage to the style of comedy seen in the silent movies and early talkies. Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk are great as the bumbling, highly sympathetic villains of the piece, Natalie Wood is hilarious (not to mention drop-dead gorgeous) as the ever-scheming pig-headed Maggie DuBois, and Tony Curtis stands as the brave and so-virtious-dirt-never-sticks-to-his-all-white-clothing-and-so-sauve-his-car-never-runs-out-of-chilled-champagne romantic hero Leslie at the center of the crazy antics of the film's antagonists. (There's a pie fight that breaks out in the movie's second half, and Leslie wanders through the mayhem and never gets so much as a fleck of whip cream on him!)
From beginning to end, this is a good-natured film, filled with likable and even lovable characters. Although Professor Fate and Max are constantly trying to sabotage Leslie's stunts, are trying to win the race through all sorts of underhanded tricks, everything seems to be in good fun. (Well, not from Professor Fate's point of view, but the audience can't resent him, because nothing ever goes right for him... and he's obviously so insecure that if he wasn't so funny we'd be feeling sorry for him.)
Another source of this movie's charm is that it contains virtually all the standards of the classic movie comedies from the 1920s and into the 1930s, as well as many of the standards of the "steampunk" movie genre that flourished briefly in the 1960s (which included such flicks as "Around the World in 80 Days", "At the Earth's Core", and "First Men on the Moon") in the form of the flying bicycle, submarine, and bizarre automobile that Professor Fate and Max travel around on.
The film also spoofs classic meldodramas, via the upstanding Leslie and the dastardly Professor Fate and by including a hilarious "Prisoner of Zenda" take-off where Professor Fate is roped into posing as the Crown Prince of Potzdorf by evil Prussians because of the uncanny likeness he shares with the dimwitted drunkard. We're treated to a swordfight as Leslie once again has to save the day, and one of the most hilarious displays of American patriotism on screen ever filmed. (Even while typing this, I find myself chuckling at recollection of Natalie Wood and Keenan Wynn breaking into "God Bless America" while imprisoned in the Potzdorf dungeon.)
Every scene in this film, and every actor performing, displays perfect comedic timing. There isn't a gag that doesn't come off perfectly, there isn't a scene that runs overlong, and there isn't a moment wasted in the film. Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk make a great team in their Laurel & Hardy-inspired roles, and Natalie Wood is funnier and more gorgeous than she ever was in any other movie she made. Tony Curtis has the thankless job of being the straight man, but he is perfect as the dashing hero.
I've seen the 160-minute running time mentioned as being too long, but to me it seemed just right--and I generally think that a movie shouldn't run more than 100 minutes. Perhaps the criticism of the film as being to long comes from the way we watch it today; when it was shown in theaters, there was an intermission just before the film launches into the Potzdorf segment. As fate would have it, my viewing of the film was interrupted almost at that same exact moment, so I got the "intermission experience", and I therefore didn't get restless. Still, at the rate the gags were coming--and as funny as Jack Lemmon was playing the dual role of Professor Fate and Prince Hapnick, I still doubt I would have felt the film was too long. Everything and everyone is perfect in this movie.
Blake Edward's REAL "Ten" isn't the movie he made by that title, but rather "The Great Race". It's a must-see for lovers of classic movies and great comedies.