RACING TO THE BOX OFFICE

             In the 1960s, there was a genre of film comedy about fictional international races to promote the seminal days of modern travel, The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965) and  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969). Largely inspired by It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World  but with Victorian backdrops, these films have large famous casts, big budgets, long running times and were released as events in “Showcase Theaters” able to feature Wide Screen technology and stereophonic sound.

THE GREAT RACE

Filmed in Hollywood, with some inspired moments, passable effects and a score by Henry Mancini, The Great Race is not a great film and did not recoup its 12 million dollar budget. It had, though, a real bonus for teenage boys like me: watching and hearing Natalie Wood larger than life. The direction is overwrought as was the occasional wont of director Blake Edwards; the story is less than intriguing but like Magnificent Men has a strong dose of feminism. An international car race circling the world is sponsored to publicize a newspaper; Vivian Vance plays the feminist wife of the newspaper’s publisher (Arthur O’Connell) who refuses to allow his female cub reporter (Wood) to do a dangerous story. Wood’s character, Maggie Dubois, is industrious and connives to tag along in the car of The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis). Leslie’s rival, Professor Fate, is played by Jack Lemmon as an ill tempered, snidely whiplash villain. His not too bright assistant is played by Peter Falk. Except for scenes in the southwest desert, most of the ‘foreign’ locations – Russia, France etc. – are clearly filmed indoors or on the backlot of Warner Brother’s Burbank studios. It has that studio’s fakey, 1960s look ala My Fair Lady (filmed on the same sets the year before). In a major sequence, Lemmon and Curtis’ cars are stranded together on an iceberg – clearly filmed indoors. With its American cast it lacks the international flavor that made the next film such a big hit.

THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES OR HOW I FLEW FROM LONDON TO PARIS IN 25 HOURS 11 MINUTES

The masterpiece of the three films – exciting, cinematic and a real crowd pleaser. A similar feminist story, it’s about an international air race in 1908 at the birth of air travel. Sarah Miles is Patricia, the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a sponsor of the race. She is clearly challenging mores when we first meet her by posing nude on a beach for an oil portraitist. Her suitor, Richard, a young aristocratic pilot played by James Fox, refuses to take her “up”, old fashioned is his belief that proper women should be grounded. She finds a sympathetic ear in a rugged Arizona cowboy, Orvil, played beautifully by Stuart Whitman (one of his best roles) who sees little difference between rustling a wild bull or airplane.

The flying scenes are sensational and palpably put the audience into the air (“Great Race” has one flying sequence that is badly matted). A lot of care was taken to reproduce the era’s airplanes and they really fly! Director Ken Annakin* was a scion of Victorian era and you can feel its rhythms and pacing in his thrilling film. It’s an “outdoor” movie that clearly takes us on an adventure in super wide-screen 70 mm Todd-AO by cinematographer Christopher Challis (who shot some Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger films and shares their aesthetic for color). The sets and costumes clearly put us back in turn of the century England with comedic performances by Terry Thomas, Gert Frobe, Alberto Sordi, Jean Pierre Cassel, Benny Hill, Red Skelton, Eric Sykes and Robert Morley. The romantic triangle between the American cowboy, the young feminist and the snobby upper-classman powers the story. Though produced by the 20th Century Fox and personally supervised by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, Annakin’s capable English crews make for a euro-sensibility.

THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES

In 1969, Magnificent Men director Annakin and co-writer Jack Davies made Monte Carlo or Bust” released in the U.S. as Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, another big budget but independent production (the copy I saw was distributed by American International though IMDB credits Paramount). Despite a deviously funny and nasty turn by Terry Thomas (in one scene, when he is told on a golf course his father has died, he can hardly hide his glee at his coming inheritance and insists the game go on), it is a lame copy of Magnificent Men clearly designed by it’s producers to replicate its success, even putting Tony Curtis back into a Victorian car race. Frobe and Sykes return with different character names but play basically the same parts.

There were others: Those Fantastic Flying Fools  (1967 Burl Ives joins Terry Thomas and Gert Frobe in a race to the moon), as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968 again – Frobe) adapted by Roald Dahl from Ian Fleming’s novel – fantastical, Victorian  entertainments – but by 1970, the genre had pretty much died out. In less than a decade, the Merchant/Ivory team would begin to paint a different picture of how we perceive the Victorian era.

***

SOME BACKGROUND ON KEN ANNAKIN

Though Annakin’s early British career produced critically acclaimed low budget, mostly B&W films like Hotel Sahara (1951), Across the Bridge (1957), Crooks Anonymous (1962) and The Fast Lady (1963), he quickly developed a bent for commercial studio fare. His Huggetts family series featuring Petula Clark (sequels were rare back then) did well at the box office and are considered, along with the films of Douglas Sirk, a precursor to TV soap operas. Next up was a series of live action Technicolor adventure films for Disney: The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), Third Man on the Mountain (a childhood favorite -1959) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960 – a massive hit). He became a “go to” guy for extremely big budget productions like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) – often with mixed results. This talent for complicated productions and big casts paid off handsomely, however, with the heartfelt Magnificent Men.

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