Wednesday, July 01, 2015

On the Long Road With the Great Leslie and Professor Fate

Leslie (Tony Curtis): Are you a native of Burracho?

Lily Olay (Dorothy Provine): I ain't no native. I was born here!

"The Great Race," which made its theatrical debut half a century ago on this day in 1965, was pure slapstick from start to finish. If there was any doubt, the opening credits included this tribute: "For Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy."

It was set shortly after the turn of the 20th century. It was about a New York–to–Paris (by way of the Bering Strait) road race, and it was directed by Blake Edwards at a time when he was getting rave reviews for his early "Pink Panther" pictures — if you are familiar with his directorial style, you could see similarities between "The Great Race" and Edwards' other comedies.

Edwards made many of those movies, of course, with the great Peter Sellers, who had nothing to do with "The Great Race." In "The Great Race," Edwards worked with another of his frequent collaborators, Jack Lemmon.

The project also reunited Lemmon with his "Some Like It Hot" co–star, Tony Curtis, this time as genuine rivals (rather than the implied rivals — for Marilyn Monroe's affections — that they were in "Some Like It Hot"). And, although she seemed to shift her loyalties throughout the movie, Natalie Wood, as a feminist journalist reporting on the race, played Curtis' love interest.

Kind of an interesting twist, given that, only a few months earlier, Curtis and Wood had been adversarial co–stars in "Sex and the Single Girl."

In the context of 1965, "The Great Race" was a star–studded show with prominent people showing up even in small roles. Vivian Vance (probably best known as Ethel Mertz in the I Love Lucy sitcom), Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Larry Storch were there — along with others whose faces you probably would recognize even if you never knew their names.

"The Great Race" clearly identified the good guy and the bad guy. Curtis (The Great Leslie) was the good guy who always dressed in white; Lemmon (Professor Fate) was the bad guy, always dressed in black. And they periodically swapped the lead — for the screwiest of reasons.

In the end, the good guy seemed to be on the brink of victory — but he gave it all up to prove to Natalie Wood that he loved her.

When he stopped his vehicle inches from the finish line, Wood's character protested, "What are you doing?"

"Proving that I love you," Curtis replied.

"But you'll lose the race," Wood said.

"Can you think of a better way to prove it?" he asked before kissing her in a passionate embrace.

Sorta reminiscent of the Sylvester Stallone/"Rocky" experience, eh? When Rocky lost the fight and won the girl. Yo, Adrian.

Max (Peter Falk): We gotta do something.

Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon): Oh, don't worry. Before this iceberg melts and we drown like rats, we're going to do plenty.

Max: Yeah? What?

Professor Fate: We're gonna starve!

But Professor Fate wouldn't take a victory that way, though. After all, he had a reputation ...

"The Great Race" was terrific entertainment — complete with an honest–to–God pie fight near the end. Wood got pelted numerous times, but Curtis' character seemed unusually blessed, walking through a crossfire of pies without getting hit once, his all–white duds showing not even a trace of fallout from a pie — until almost the end of the fight.

Meanwhile, Lemmon's double, a dandified drunkard of a king, got hit with a brandy pie and encouraged the participants in the pie fight to hit him with more brandy pies, then got hit with a rum pie and scolded them with the admonition, "I never mix my pies!"

At the Oscars, "The Great Race" beat "Von Ryan's Express" for Best Sound Editing — and lost for Best Sound Mixing, Best Color Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Although he wasn't nominated for his work on "The Great Race," composer Henry Mancini went on to win four Oscars in his lifetime.