A man (Jimmy Durante) is careering along a Californian desert highway, overtaking at high speed and acting recklessly considering the landscape - but it brings about his downfall when he loses control and flies over a cliff, crashing below. Four vehicles stop and five men get out to investigate to find the man lying on the ground, thrown from the wreck, and they think he's dead, but he isn't - not quite. He starts to babble about a huge sum of money stashed under a "Big W", with instructions of where to locate it, and then he kicks the bucket. Now what would you do with information like that?
How about letting your avarice get the better of you and beginning a mad dash to the park where this mysterious Big W is, hoping to get there before anyone else does? Why, that sounds like a movie, and indeed it was, a megahit that erupted on American audiences just about the time President Kennedy was assassinated, one of the major entertainments that happened along to take the nation's mind off the tragedy, resulting in one of the biggest successes of producer and director Stanley Kramer's career. It was successful elsewhere as well, but perhaps meant more to the United States considering the talent assembled.
Many of them were well known there for their television or nightclub work, as Kramer had drawn up a list of every comedian he could think of and invited them to appear in his movie, some for mere seconds as Jerry Lewis showed up to run over a hat in his car, Jack Benny did his look, Buster Keaton ran about a bit, and The Three Stooges dressed up as firemen (and that was all they did). Never before had such and array of talent been recruited for a comedy, and this was set up as the comedy to end all comedies, but once the dust had settled some began to wonder what the fuss had been about, and the broad humour fell out of fashion.
Therefore you're just as likely to find someone who has no reaction to this other than a stony faced expression as you are someone who laughs at every gag, and middle ground is a rare thing to be on in relation to it. But it really wasn't the greatest comedy of all time as Kramer had planned, and the frenzy the characters work themselves up into didn't really translate off the screen mainly due to the whole thing being incredibly long for a film of its type (and at its premiere had been even longer until Kramer decided to cut it). That said, individual scenes did prompt some genuine laughs, and you couldn't say the cast were not trying hard as they wrung every drop of humour out of the script.
It was observed that for a producer who took pride in his relentlessly humanistic outlook, this work was curiously down on that humanity, as if the only way he could laugh at them was to see them at their worst. So Ethel Merman is the mother-in-law from hell, Phil Silvers is possibly the most moneygrabbing he ever was, and that includes every episode of Sgt Bilko, and everyone else sees any common sense they may have had fly out of the window once the whiff of free cash hits their nostrils. Not that all of them appeared to have much savvy beforehand considering the often destructive antics they get embroiled with, but there was one Kramer-friendly character, Dorothy Provine's Emmeline, the wife along for the ride who is disgusted by the madness everyone descends into around her.
As near-retirement cop Spencer Tracy (with ulterior motives) keeps tabs on their cross country race, the story is kept in the air like a juggling act - if nothing else the editing was impressive - and surprisingly almost all the performers make an impact above the noise and stuntmen who were particularly overworked here as the actors often gave way to them; this was as much an action movie as it was a joke machine. Especially funny were Terry-Thomas as a British colonel who keeps getting into ungainly physical encounters as arguing is what takes up most of the dialogue when they're not flying around (sometimes literally), Dick Shawn as Provine's hipster brother, one of the few film roles to do the eccentric comic justice, and in a smaller capacity Jim Backus, generating chuckles as a drunken pilot. There were too many famous faces to mention, as was the intention, but you can have too much of a good thing and finally it was more frantic than hilarious. Music by Ernest Gold.