I suspect that even people who were very, very far from having been alive in 1963 reacted with some suspicion at the narrative recited by Don Cheadle at last September's Emmy Awards show, the gist of which was that John F. Kennedy's assassination in late-ish November of 1963 cast a pall over the United States that was only lifted when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964. While I think that lay people and historians can certainly agree about some of the pop culture ramifications of the Kennedy assassination—Phil Spector's Christmas album definitely, irrefutably took a hit, likely rendering what was already a dubious mental health picture that much shakier (in an alternate universe in which Kennedy hadn't been shot, would Spector be a free man today? I bet "yes!")—that "Beatles saved America" claim is a real reach. It wasn't until I started researching this post, which I'd merely intended to be about an idea and an emotional resonance, that I put together that this movie, directed by Stanley Kramer and recently released by the Criterion Collection in a remarkable dual-format home video package, happens to land smack-dab in the middle of the fall 1963 timeline of tragedy.
I don't remember ever having seen It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in a theater, although I reckon my parents had, maybe without their two kids—I had turned four in the summer of '63, and my sister Kathleen had turned three, and while my parents frequently took us on their drive-in jaunts, I reckon by November of that year it had gotten a little nippy for outdoor movie viewing and in any event it's possible that World didn't even hit the drive-ins on its initial theatrical run. The only reason I suspect my parents saw it was because it was an immensely popular picture that became the third-biggest box office hit of the year, this in spite of having been released almost at year's end and being three hours long. I remember the Kennedy assassination, or, more specifically, I remember the sense of urgency and upset that gripped all the adults in my world when the Kennedy assassination happened. As for World, as I grew older and grew up and grew into movie-obsessiveness, World was something that was always there: something that the generation before mine had identified as an instant classic, and which I came to look at as a not-particularly peculiar white elephant, as well as an emblem of everything that was "square" in cinema. But it's entirely probable (and maybe this is the seed of an idea that I ought to be pitching to a book publisher or something) that World was the nation's gloom cure rather than Beatlemania. Because aside from featuring a boatload of talents that Young Adult America had grown to love from the television (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, etc., etc.), the movie was also a soak of Old Hollywood comforts ranging from its other leading cast members (Spencer Tracy, Andy Devine, a pre-My Three Sons William Demarest , also etc. etc.) to its production value to its hypertrophied madcapness and so on.
Indeed, as someone who claimed to have never cared for the movie for much of his adult life, and who sincerely believed in that claim without ever feeling the need to subject it to much examination, I was slightly surprised when, watching the Blu-ray disc of the movie for the first time back in January, to find it enveloping me in a warmth that was virtually amniotic. Again, I had no memory of ever having seen it whole (I had caught bits and pieces of it on television over the years, my initial reflexive eye-rolling mutating into a snarkily ironic tolerance mutating into an aghast respect for it as a Unique Cinematic Artifact); nor could I really put my finger on the idea of its having held a truly special place in the consciousnesses of the people dearest to me in my childhood. And yet the movie embraced me in the way that has always made me feel the safest and the happiest. This particular emotional state is located in a pre-sleep state in childhood, tucked into my bed, lying maybe on my side, my hands balled up in little non-threatening fists holding tight to the blanket, the sound of the adults downstairs puttering about, chatting and maybe laughing a bit, the "all is well" place that led me gently into a dream state.
Regardless of the actual "statement" that World aspires to make, in spite of its eccentric cinematic inappositeness (widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals, Fritz Lang said something like that in Contempt; and he obviously had not seen World, else he would have added "car windshields;" Kramer's camera looks into moving car windshields more so than Bela Tarr's camera looks out of them in Satantango, and Tarr's film is twice as long and change), the extradiegetic world it inadvertently presents to the contemporary viewer with enough background to appreciate its signifiers is one in which All Is Right. Spencer Tracy, despite his character's descent into lawlessness, still functions as Spencer Tracy, the gruff but benign face of patriarchy. Buzzing in his periphery (he doesn't actually meet the band until the film's climax) are the kings and queens of comedy of this era, very few of whom made their most significant impacts in the movie realm. But their television fame renders them a little cozier. It scarcely matters if their contributions to the movie are genuinely funny; their presences alone suffice to constitute an axiom, if one is himself or herself in the context to receive it.
The movie bore me into an innocuous past: a past of giant movie palaces, of Cinerama itself, of the Times Square my mother used to speak of where she and some work colleagues could wander into a picture show and stay in there until midnight and then catch the A to the George Washington Bridge for the bus home. A past I not only had no direct experience of but which I had conceptually rejected with extreme prejudice well before I had even heard my first Velvet Underground LP. I was so beguiled that I watched the entire reconstructed 197-minute roadshow version of the movie less than five days later, this time listening to the commentary from Michael Schlesinger, Mark Evanier, and Paul Scrabo. Full disclosure: Michael is an old and dear friend. He is also, not to tell tales out of school, a few years older than me, and hence at least a little more clearly keyed in to World's cultural moment. I have to say, objectively speaking, the commentary is one of the best I've ever heard, affectionate without being fulsome, and incredibly informative. But it is also suffused with a subtextual yearning for an ostensibly less complicated time, and the kind of movie-love expressed by these fine fellows is very much tied to notions of both show business and showmanship that have less and less purchase in the ever-digitizing landscape.
My new-found appreciation for It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World does not, as far as I know at the moment, signal some kind of move toward an aesthetic reactionaryism. It's not like I'm selling all of my Sonic Youth records or anything, although, wait a minute, the first Sonic Youth record came out, like, 33 years ago. It probably means nothing, besides signalling the fact that I'm a human being who's aging, and who, as is not unusual, experiences a certain softening of attitude in the face of encroaching mortality, and in the realization that one's hardened attitude didn't really end up accomplishing a whole lot of good, or of significance. And a few other even less flattering things, maybe.