The Great Race is a 1965 slapstick comedy movie directed by Blake Edwards, written by Blake Edwards and Arthur A. Ross, with music by Henry Mancini and cinematography by Russell Harlan. Starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, and Vivian Vance.
The Greatest Auto Race of 1908 will also be commemorated on its 100th Anniversary by Great Race, the cross-country rally race for classic cars, held in the U.S., every summer. Great Race 2008 - New York to Paris will start on May 30 2008 in New York City and will finish at the base of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France, on August 2 2008.
Only the approximate race route and the time period were borrowed by Blake Edwards in his effort to make "the funniest comedy ever" Building on the dedication to "Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy", the film makes use of every silent movie era slapstick and visual gag, along with double entendres, parodies and period-related absurdism (amongst these are the elaborate gowns of Maggie DuBois and the fact that, with limited luggage, she never repeats an outfit). A western saloon brawl embodies a parody of Westerns in general, and a plot detour launched during the final third of the film is a direct parody of The Prisoner of Zenda. The unintended consequences of Professor Fate's order, "Push the button, Max!", is a running gag, along with the untouchability of The Great Leslie.
Music for the film was by Henry Mancini and the costumes were designed by Edith Head. Production design, so important in setting the period but also in establishing a setting for the visual humour, was by Fernando Carrere who also designed The Great Escape and The Pink Panther for Blake Edwards.
Leslie proposes that the Webber Motor Company promote its brand-new open-top tourer by sponsoring, entering and (hopefully) winning a race from New York to Paris. Fate is at pains not only to build his own supercar, the Hannibal Twin-8 (complete with features reminiscent of James Bond's movie cars), but also to sabotage Leslie's preparations. Meanwhile, the editor of New York City's most prominent newspaper--The Sentinel--is cajoled by Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a young female photojournalist and suffragette, into entering a car with her as the driver, since her previous attempts to insinuate herself into either Leslie's or Fate's cars have failed.
As the race begins, Fate's sidekick Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) carries out his master's instructions to sabotage all the other cars except the Leslie Special (and DuBois' car, since she was late to the starting grid). Fate's motivation is for the race to be a one-on-one standup-fight between himself and Leslie. Max mistakenly sabotages his own vehicle as well, but eventually takes the lead on the road. Fate antagonizes the officials of Boracho, a small western-frontier town where the racers stop to refuel. DuBois' car breaks down in the desert, and she is given a ride by Leslie; she continues the race as a demanding passenger, and switches teams several times throughout. Fate steals the fuel he needs and sets the rest on fire (which destroys half of Boracho), consigning Leslie to a long delay. Yet, in due course, this is erased when both cars reach Alaska and park side-by-side in the snowbound middle-of-nowhere.
DuBois has conned Leslie so she can remain in his car, at the expense of his loyal mechanic Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn). As the two cars sit out a snowstorm, Leslie begins his first real efforts to break down Maggie's resistance (which is merely a hard-to-get act; her attraction to Leslie was made obvious earlier in the story). But with both cars parked alongside each other in the snowstorm, a few mishaps compel all four (Leslie, DuBois, Fate and Max) to sleep in Leslie's car. They awake to find themselves adrift on a small iceberg no bigger than their two cars. Fortuitously, as the iceberg melts close to the point of submergence, they drift right into their intended Russian port. There Hezekiah is waiting. To avoid her being left behind ("She is his Achilles-heel! She is our ace-in-the-hole! She must not be left behind!"), DuBois is snatched by Fate who drives off in the lead.
After an uneventful trip across Asia, both racers (now out of contact with each other) enter the small European kingdom of Carpania and its capital of Potsdorf, where Fate's exact resemblance to Crown Prince Hapnick (also played by Lemmon) leads to a significant — and dangerous — interlude, which parodies (at some points literally) the 1937 film version of The Prisoner of Zenda. Rebels under the leadership of Baron Rolf von Stuppe (Ross Martin) and General Kuhster (George Macready) kidnap the Prince. They hold Maggie and Max prisoner, forcing Fate to masquerade as the Prince during the coronation so that the Baron and the General can gain control of the kingdom. The plot is foiled after Max escapes and convinces Leslie to attempt a rescue. Leslie (narrowly) bests von Stuppe in a swordfight, and the main characters go through the (reputedly) biggest pie fight in cinema history (where Leslie's untouchable panache is tainted for the first time).
As the five escape (with Maggie now in Leslie's car), it becomes a straight road race to Paris. Within the city of Paris itself, Leslie and Maggie have a raging argument over the relationships and roles between men and women (one of the film's main themes). The argument ends when Leslie stops his car, just meters from the finish line under the Eiffel Tower, to prove his love for Maggie by sacrificing the race. Fate drives past to claim the winner's mantle, but when it becomes apparent that Leslie threw the race ("You cheated!"), Fate demands a rematch. The film ends with the start of that race back to NYC (Leslie and Maggie are in his car with a "Just Married" sign hung on the rear), and the sight gag to end all sight gags (Fate tells Max to fire the cannon, and they knock the Eiffel Tower down).
The Great Race was generally not well-received upon time of release and was considered both a box office and critical flop, making it the first notable failure for director Blake Edwards. Most critics attacked its blatant and sometimes overdone slapstick humor claiming it was merely a "joke" movie and it had little substance as a film; it also suffered from comparisons with another race-themed "epic comedy" of 1965, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (which was a commercial success and found favor with many critics). Regardless of its initial reception, it has since become something of a cult film due to the solid performances of its main cast (in particular, those of Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon) and such memorable scenes as a large fist fight in a Western Saloon and a rather lengthy pie fight towards the film's climax.
The film also won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects as well as being nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Henry Mancini) and Best Sound. It currently has a 74% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Sweetheart Tree
Music by Henry Mancini
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Performed by Natalie Wood (dubbed by Jackie Ward)
He Shouldn't A Hadn't A Oughtn't A Swang on Me
Music by Henry Mancini
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Performed by Dorothy Provine
The film was a major influence on Wacky Races, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. The film's characterizations were themselves rather cartoonish. Furthermore, film editor and sound-effects man Treg Brown, who worked on many classic Warner Brothers cartoons, worked on this film, and many sound effects will be familiar to cartoon fans. Brown's sound design won the film its only Oscar.