Saturday, August 17, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Great Race

The Great Race
directed by Blake Edwards
I first saw this film as a child many many years ago but had forgotten the title. I recently ran across it. It's a slapstick comedy with a side order of The Battle of the Sexes. This film works the same side of the street as films like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or later works like Smokey and the Bandit

The scene that stuck in my head was when the heroine challenges the hero to a duel, snidely announcing that she was the Women's International Fencing Champion. Unperturbed, the hero accepts the challenge, swiftly defeats her and coolly reminds her that he was the Men's International Fencing Champion.

You wouldn't see a scene like that in many films today. And if you did, it wouldn't be good natured like this movie. Men and women can complain and snark but each makes the other possible. Although the film is humorous it's not the anarchic over the top style of The Three Stooges, at least not until the end. Although I enjoyed watching the film for old times' sake it was rarely laugh out loud funny. I smiled and chuckled though.

By modern standards this film is tame on sex and violence. There is minor slapstick mayhem and Natalie Wood in a few (well more than a few) revealing outfits but that's it. At the beginning of the 20th century Leslie Gallant III (Tony Curtis) is a daredevil. He's always dressed in white, supremely confident, polite and protective of women, children and the downtrodden. 

Leslie's opposite/nemesis is Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon). Professor Fate cheats and lies as regularly as he breathes. Professor Fate goes out of his way to commit small acts of meanness. He lives to do wrong, even when he doesn't profit from it. Fate does like to compete, though.

Fate always dresses in black, twirls his mustache, is almost never seen without his top hat, and is prone to speeches outlining his plans to do in Leslie, though these plans never seem to work out and leave him sputtering in rage to his long suffering associate Maximillian "Max" Meen (Peter Falk).

Leslie has challenged Professor Fate , and anyone else who dares, to an automobile race from New York to Paris. One person who dares is Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood), a spirited, feisty, and talkative feminist photojournalist and suffragette who intends to win the race and show the world that women are just as good as men at everything, if not better. She's representing her newspaper. If you are in her way, Maggie will run you over. Literally. Most men eventually give her what she wants because of her persistence. Maggie thinks that the confident almost arrogant Leslie is exactly the sort of male chauvinist she needs to take down several notches. Leslie thinks Maggie is very similar to him, which she is.

Although there were originally seven competitors, Max sabotaged many other cars, winnowing the field to just three teams: Fate/Max, Leslie and his mechanic Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn), and Maggie. With plenty of hijinks, backbiting and dirty play, these three teams attempt to drive across the US, up across the Bering Straits, across Russia and Eastern Europe and then to Paris.  

Along the way there will be alliances of convenience, kidnappings, arguments about the roles of men and women, romance, and one massive pie fight. There are a tremendous number of running gags, sight gags, and references to previous, often silent, comedies. Although Curtis is cool as ice and Wood is very nice looking and energetic, it's Lemmon who seems to be having the most fun here. His over the top shenanigans are the film's most consistent source of humor. Larry Storch of F-Troop fame shows up.

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