Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Epic" does not necessarily mean "good"

Sure, ever since movies like Heaven's Gate were huge bombs (and why did we even get Kevin Costner's Waterworld?), we've known that spending the entire budget of Lesotho on a movie doesn't guarantee it will be any good; nor does putting more stars in it than there were in Dinner at Eight (which, coincidentally, is airing tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM ET on TCM) automatically make for a classic. TCM is running three "comedy epics" tonight, and one of them clearly doesn't stand up today: The Great Race, overnight at 2:30 AM ET.

Tony Curtis plays the Great Leslie, a handsome and virtuous daredevil in th efirst decade of the 20th century who performs feats of danger that wow the ladies. He's got a rival, though, in the form of Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), who tries to sabotage all of Leslie's stunts. Leslie decides, in conjunction with one of the early automobile makers, that his next stunt should involve taking part in (and winning, of course) a car race from New York to Paris, via a transpacific crossing. Professor Fate learns about this, and immediately decides he has to enter the race, and ensure that nobody else can win.

The two rivals, however, are not alone. Maggie Dubois is a suffragette who, in trying to raise the status of women, insists on forcing the publisher of one of New York's newspapers (Arthur O'Connell) to give her a job as a correspondent. And what would be the perfect job? Going on the "great race" in a Stanley Steamer and reporting on the race. The publisher doesn't like the idea, but his wife (Vivian Vance, TV's Ethel Mertz in one of her rare movie roles) is rather warmer to the idea, so off goes Maggie. You know that the two male rivals are going to compete over her as well, although they've got a third rival, in the form of her ideals. As for the race, it sets off, with Leslie being a team with his longtime assistant Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn), and Prof. Fate having assistant Max (Peter Falk) accompanying him.

The problem with The Great Race is that the humor largely falls flat, if not inducing cringes. The movie all too slowly makes its way through the American west, followed by a trip across the Bering Strait on a melting iceberg, and eventually ends up in an unnamed eastern European principality in a parody of The Prisoner of Zenda. The Zenda sequence, in particular, goes on much too long, climaxing with a pie fight that's much more tedious than funny.

Still, some people may enjoy The Great Race, and Natalie Wood gets some nice period costumes to wear. (Although, how she could pack all those changes of clothes is a mystery.) For those are new to the "epic comedies", the first two are rather better:
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at 8:00 PM; followed by
Around the World in 80 Days at 11:15 PM.

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