Blake Edwards was on quite a roll. Having just directed “The Pink Panther” in 1963 and “Shot in the Dark in 1964,” both starring the great Peter Sellers, the director utilized his ample penchant for slapstick comedy to hilarious effect in 1965’s “The Great Race.”
It’s just after the turn of the 20th century, and two daredevils are competing for public attention by trying to outdo one another with various stunts. The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is the quintessential good guy—handsome, fit, with a gleaming smile that almost outshines his all-white suit. Leslie’s assistant is a man named Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn).
On the other side of the equation is the dastardly Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), a villainous character who constantly conspires to usurp Leslie’s crown as king of the stunt world. The professor’s assistant is Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk).
This heated rivalry reaches a critical moment when Leslie proposes an intercontinental race from New York City to Paris. Of course, Fate asserts that he’ll be the winner of the contest and finally prove to everyone that he, not Leslie, is the greatest.
Covering this grand spectacle is journalist Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood), a suffragette who joins the festivities in order to report on everything that transpires. Some light romance ensues between Dubois and Leslie as the race takes its contestants to exotic locales.
This film is a comedic interpretation of the real-life 1908 New York to Paris Race, which began in Times Square in New York City on Feb. 12, 1908, and, of course, terminated in Paris.
Like other epic comedies of the 1950s and ’60s, this film features a somewhat bloated script with a lengthy run time. Fortunately, its talented cast uses that time well, with lots of laugh-inducing pranks, stunts, and ridiculous (in a good way) gags. Jack Lemmon is the standout here in dual roles—one as the ill-fortuned Professor Fate, and the other as goofy Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick. The movie is also famous for featuring the largest pie-flinging contest in cinematic history.
Thankfully, unlike many of today’s comedies, this film never delves into lewd or dirty humor; it’s all pretty wholesome, and even charming at certain points. Similar to “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), we get to follow these zany characters as they traverse various environs and move from one outrageous situation to the next.
Is “The Great Race” perfect? No. But it works as a good old-fashioned, family-friendly film, and it’s definitely a breath of fresh air in these increasingly cynical times.
‘The Great Race’
Director: Blake Edwards
Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 17, 1965 (to all of USA)
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5