TCMFF 2017 Special Presentations, Part 2: It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World

May 30, 2017 

As I’ve mentioned previously, I didn’t stay for the screening of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) at TCMFF, but I couldn’t resist a Ben Burtt and Craig Barron production. With a total of three Oscars in between the team for sound effects editing (Burtt: 2) and visual effects (Barron: 1), I assumed the discussion would center around the technology behind Cinerama, but I was wrong. With their signature banter and lighthearted zest, the duo gave those of us who made it out of bed for a 9am start time a whirlwind introduction to the “Unsung Heroes” of IAMMMMW, the picture the very theater we were sitting in, the Cinerama Dome, was built for over 50 years ago. As usual, the presentation was both educational and engaging, which surely helped before a 3.5 hour early morning screening for those who stayed for the main event.

Ben Burtt (left) and Craig Barron (right) presenting It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World at TCMFF. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

So without further ado, the "Unsung Heroes" of IAMMMMW are:

Stuntmen - and woman

With a cast filled to the brim with some of the most illustrious comedians around, director Stanley Kramer was tasked with hiring stuntmen and women just as venerable, who, in addition to their physical skills, were called upon to don Dick Smith-designed latex character masks, to boot. But where did one locate a stunt man/woman back in the day? The Stuntmen’s Association Directory, naturally, which provided potential employers with a headshot along with what Burtt referred to as phone numbers - though the numbers were the same for at least three of the men. Maybe they were all roommates?

 

Stunt driver Carey Loftin signed on as stunt supervisor and many other stunt pros, including Harvey Parry (a stunt driver who also doubled for Jimmy Cagney in the 1930s) were recruited. Helen Thurston, arguably the most famous female in her profession, was the sole stuntwoman on the picture, filling in for Ethel Merman. (Fun fact: Thurston doubled for Marilyn Monroe in 1954's The River of No Return.)

Can you guess which is Harvey Parry and which is Jimmy Cagney? It shouldn't be too difficult...

Aside from drivers and doubles, stunt fliers Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz played a part in IAMMMMW, perhaps most notably in the scene where Tallman soars through a billboard. Don't worry - the advert was composed of balsam wood and paper for 'easier' gliding. (Though it was dangerous enough for the crew to operate the camera, sat atop a platform, from a switch below.) For another hazardous plane-related trick in which an aircraft crashes into a restaurant, an iron support secured the plane in a hole dug beneath the tarmac, and a cable was attached underneath the plane. This allowed the aircraft to advance to a certain point and stop, you know, so it didn't careen into the restaurant where all the extras were.

Yup, that plane actually flew through that billboard. 

On-set special effects personnel

Special effects supervisor Danny Lee was certainly a superstar on the picture; among his duties were creating on-set effects such as smoke, fire, and explosions. He also brought along his famous nail board, the “mouse and keyboard” for a VFX artist at the time, Burtt explained. I still don’t fully understand the scientific nuts and bolts of this piece, but apparently wires were rigged from each pyrotechnic explosion off-screen, and those wires were attached to a nail on this board. Meanwhile, Lee held a conductor rigged with another nail and battery, which would set off the explosions - or whatever effect one wanted, within 1960s reason - when he made contact with the nails on the board. Wondering how the final shootout in Bonnie and Clyde (1966) was arranged? This way. Lee probably even used the exact same nail board.

 

Speaking of advanced tech, Lee also orchestrated radio-controlled cars that were utilized during sequences when unmanned vehicles dive off cliffs. Though managed remotely, even technology couldn't assure the trajectory of the vehicle, as most cars crashed without bouncing. The team propelled vehicles over the edge until they got the bounce just right; overall, they wrecked over 20 vehicles throughout the course of the filming for this and other car-related stunts.

I'm assuming this was one of the unmanned cars Burtt and Barron talked about...

Visual effects artists

Rear projection and matte paintings also came in to play to supplement filmed footage. For instance, rear projection master Farciot Edouart helped out during shots that were just too dangerous to capture with actors or even stuntmen as intended, such as a scene in the finale involving characters atop a fire escape. Veteran visual effects supervisor Linwood Dunn also contributed phenomenal effects - some we don't even notice. One such example involves the lobby of a condemned building, which was actually a regular set with the addition of a matte painting created on glass to add the dilapidated look. The image also boasted a lovely light streaming through the window, and Dunn was extremely proud of this shot because no one could tell it wasn't a ramshackle building; he prided himself on creating 'invisible' effects like that.

 

Pretty much everything involved in the finale...

IAMMMMW's spectacular, climactic ending was basically one gigantic special effect sequence filmed on the Universal lot. I thoroughly enjoy when Burtt and Barron pull back the curtain to demonstrate just how these types of scenes were pulled together, which they did for this extended procession. It's hard to believe how much work when into just one piece of a 3.5 hour film!

 

The finale takes place in a plaza, aka a set on the backlot. From there, Kramer and team captured the live action in the foreground, and Dunn photographed a separate traffic shot that was inserted into the left side of the frame to increase movement. Next, part of a building the crew had constructed atop a hill was filmed from a low angle, precisely to make it appear taller. Then, multiple characters/stunt people performed the required action along the building's facade, and finally, a matte painting, used to fill in elements that were missing in reality, sealed the grand illusion together. Voila! (Fun fact: When Dunn delivered speeches on special effects, he brought this matte painting with him, but he had to cut the piece in half and insert a hinge so he could check it in his luggage!)

Shots like these are rarely what they appear on the surface; so many special effects, stunts, and illusions are behind the magic.

Dunn also shot 16mm home movies behind the scenes, which provide an extraordinary glimpse into what the set looked like - stunts, miniatures, dogs and all. For the trick atop a fire escape ladder, the stunt team swung as the camera, perched above, peered downward to capture a bird's eye view from the character's perspectives; the crew actually had to be lifted via crane four stories to the perilous looking tower at the top to get this shot! (That shot from Dunn's home movie was enough to terrify me, and I'm not usually afraid of heights.) Even select members of the main cast went out on a (danger) limb – photos Burtt and Barron shared showed Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett all strapped up in the stunt gear for their close-up shots…30 feet above the ground.

 

Another element employed during the finale were miniatures, particularly puppets, which were tossed about in hopes of serendipitously nabbing shots when the dolls decided to fall the 'correct' way; these select frames could then be inserted into live action scenes. Literally, there were videos of puppets catapulting off a mini springboard. I so wish I had access to those.

I couldn't locate any videos of the puppets to share, but here's what one looks like - now. Time has not been kind to these. 

Two rather loaded stunts and an additional trick that turned out way more difficult than intended closed the picture. The first maneuver involved George Robotham, stunting for Dick Shawn, being flung from a palm tree, sliding down a banquet table and landing in a cake. Robotham had to be swung at just the right angle to land correctly and safely; this feat was so dangerous that the home movie footage stressed me out! The second remarkable ruse involved a zip line and Spencer Tracy - I mean, Bill Couch in a Spencer Tracy latex mask - zooming across the plaza on a wire with no safety straps. Oh, and at the end he's released violently through a window. Even though I'm sure the 'glass' was some softer type of material, the action still appeared quite hazardous - and a bit painful.

This shot isn't from either of the two above scenarios, but here's a behind the scenes look at some of the stunts filmed for the finale. The wires holding those men up are barely visible. 

But all this led up to perhaps the greatest feat of them all – one that on the outside looked simple but actually required special effects to appear as envisioned. What was it? A Doberman licking Spencer Tracy on the face. Why was this seemingly easy deed so hard to capture? Well, the crew could not get this animal (or any other animal, for that matter) to lick Tracy's face – or at all. Finally, the Doberman bestowed Tracy with a slobbery kiss, but he/she did so only once. Cue visual effects wizard Dunn, who was brought back in to loop the image almost like a modern day GIF so it would play back and forth to make it appear that the Doberman kept licking him. Something like that could only happen to Spencer Tracy.

Stay tuned for my recaps from Republic Preserved and The Great Nickelodeon Show, coming soon! If you missed my piece on This is Cinerama, you can find that here

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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