Movie Reviews

Movie Review: “The Great Race” (1965)

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I mentioned this back in my “Duel Of The Sun” review, but I find the concept of the “epic” genre  fascinating. They don’t make movies like an epic anymore. There might be some films that have a grand scale, like “The Lord Of The Rings” films, but because it’s all a fantasy and not based on historical events, something just doesn’t quite feel right.

What makes an epic movie is not just the scale or the enormous cast of characters or cast of thousands, but that the film is also a depiction of our past. A point in history where the lives of millions of people are affected and the course of humanity is forever changed. It is why films like “Lawrence Of Arabia,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” are the first movies often mentioned when thinking of an epic.

But what about epic films of a different genre? Can epics only be limited to action pieces or drama?

While it is rare to see an epic step outside of these boundaries, there are  a few that exist beyond that realm. One such film is Blake Edwards’ epic comedy, “The Great Race,” that chronicles the 1908 Great American Car Race from New York to Paris. While the film takes great liberties with historical events, it is all in the name of comedy, according to Edwards. Though the film does have some unbelievably funny moments, due to some wonderful comedic acting, there is part of me that feels a bit weirded out by the films perspective and way of conveying comedy.

The world is taken aback by the famous stuntman, the daring, dashing, smooth and proper, the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), as he performs acts these amazing feats of bravery, always coming out clean and handsome. But it seems all the attention Leslie has garnered has attracted another person who wants the spotlight, the cold, calculating, uncaring, wise and incompetent, Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon). Their constant need to out-do one another has created a rivalry that promises to end in disaster, especially for Fate.

When Leslie offers to show the true power and strength of an American automobile by conducting a race around the world, Professor Fate vows to enter the competition with his own car and finally defeat Leslie once and for all. Things become even more complicated when a female driver enters the race, Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), to prove that a woman can do anything a man can do, and fights for the affection of the Great Leslie.

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So, based on the plot description, could you tell what I might find strange about this film? If not, then let me describe Leslie and Professor Fate in more detail. Leslie is perfect in every conceivable way. He always wins, gets the last word, he is smooth with the ladies, always finds the easiest way to outsmart the villain and succeeds with flying colors. Fate is always scheming, trying to find a way to get rid of Leslie, wants the world to see how great he is, but is always outdone by his own stupidity.

Do you get it now? This is the same relationship between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are, for all intents-and-purposes, playing live action versions of their Looney Tune counterparts.

I have no idea if this was intentional or not. I know that Blake Edwards was trying to pay homage to silent cinema, with all the slapstick, outrageous and over the top characters, parodies of other genres and the tribute to Laurel and Hardy. But I feel this film owes more to the Looney Tunes than it does silent cinema.

Professor Fate and his sidekick Max (Peter Falk) are able to survive a lot of outlandish crashes, explosions and mishaps with nothing more than a few scratches or bruises. They have their garage blow up on them twice and are ready for the race the next day. They are launched over a mile into the air by a rocket and come down in on a farm and just walk it off. If that isn’t cartoon logic, I don’t know what is.

During the famous pie fight sequence, Leslie is a spectator throughout the entire festive brawl, yet is able to avoid getting hit by a pie with just a simple turning of the body. Just like Bug Bunny, he never gets hurt and laughs off competition with little more than a smile.

If “The Great Race” were paying homage to the Looney Tunes, then I would see nothing wrong with this. But because Leslie and Fate’s personalities are so much like Bugs and Daffy, it is hard to imagine these characters as nothing more than their cartoon counterparts. Thus, they feel more like caricatures instead of characters.

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The only time the film strays from this is when they take a break from the race and have the caricatures do something else, such as prevent a rebellion in a smile European nation ruled by a monarch who happens to look like Professor Fate (also played by Jack Lemmon).

These segments do not do the movie any favors. While they do add a variety of comedy and help build up the world of this film, these scenes are so far removed from the racing sequences that its hard to care about any of these new characters introduced two-thirds of the way through the film.

“The Great Race” is at its strongest when they focus on the racing and the continued rivalry between Leslie and Fate. When it tries to do anything else, like trying to replace the monarch with Professor Fate, the film loses my interests fast.

However, the film does contain many solid slapstick sequences, especially in the beginning when Professor Fate attempts to sabotage Leslie’s stunts. As much as his plans resemble that of Daffy Duck or Wile E. Coyote, they are still fun to watch as they backfire stupendous. To see his missile, designed to attack the loudest engine, go for Leslie’s speedboat, only to turn around when Fate starts up the engine of his broken down automobile, does get a good chuckle out of me.

5

Which is why I have such mixed feelings about “The Great Race.” While I am uncertain about the parallels between the films’ main characters and the Looney Tunes, there are plenty of well-timed jokes and some great comedic acting from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

I will think of “The Great Race” as a two and a half-hour long episode of the Looney Tunes, only on a grander scale. From locations all across the world, to understanding the tension for women’s rights in the 1900s, to the constant struggle to find out which nation builds the best automobile, the sense of time and scope is massive.

Though the film may drag at points, “The Great Race” was an enjoyable ride that offers a different kind of epic that can be appreciated and respected for the size and absurdity of the comedy. Unlike its other epic counterparts, this film is about cramming as many laughs and pies as possible into the audiences’ face.

Final Grade: B-

 

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