During the early twentieth century, there was a rivalry between two American daredevils, The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), who was championed by the people as his stunts were seen as the apex of their form, and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), a conniving schemer who was forever trying to sabotage Leslie's acts of derring-do while still trying to steal the limelight from him with his own spectacles. Unfortunately for the Professor, but fortunately for Leslie, he was more inept that capable, often ending up crashing and wrecking his equipment. But then an opportunity arises for him to truly get even...
The Great Race was proudly proclaimed as the most expensive comedy ever made, and if it wasn't that it was certainly one of the longest, as if offering the audience this much bang for their buck was an end in itself, no matter what the quality of the humour was. And anyway, if it didn't make you laugh as much as it was obviously straining to do, there was no getting away from the impressive scale of the production, which boasted a globetrotting plot not dissimilar to Around the World in Eighty Days which had been so successful back in the previous decade, though if anything in tone this was closer to Stanley Kramer's superproduction It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of then-recent vintage.
The fans of The Great Race compared to the Kramer may have been fewer in number, but they were vocal about how this really should be mentioned in the same breath as other, more enduring classic comedies, though the fact remained that while the film was dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy" there was not quite enough of the genuine laughter generated by that famed duo to be found in director Blake Edwards' efforts here. Nor was it quite the same type of humour, as while Stan and Ollie would create mayhem on a smaller scale - it would be harder to create it on a larger scale than this, granted - they had very specific character roles to play, whereas almost everyone here verged on the shrill.
Not Curtis, who remained admirably stoic throughout, but his co-stars fell back on yelling when they felt the wit of the broad jokes they had to deliver was not quite up to snuff. So there may have been very amusing lines and setpieces, but to be heard over the general blare the cast was forced to overact wildly, with Leslie as the cool, calm and collected centre of this movie hurricane. Certainly Lemmon was never as over the top as he had been here, it's exhausting watching him sustaining his incredible energy levels for over two and a half hours, and all credit to him for managing it as Professor Fate is beset with indignities as befitting his sneaky personality - sneaky yet bombastic, if such a combination were possible.
And viewing Lemmon's strength of performance, you'd better believe it was. As to the story, it was all there in the title: a newspaper arranges a cross-continent contest which Leslie and Fate enter, though the former barely acknowledges the intensity of competition felt by the rival he hardly notices. There are other drivers but Fate's right hand man Max (Peter Falk) sees to it that they fall by the wayside early on, leaving our main characters joined only by Natalie Wood's suffragette Maggie Dubois who is obsesssed with proving women the equal of men, and considers this the ideal arena. Predictably, she may be talking the emancipation talk, but her car soon breaks down and she teams up with Leslie for the love interest angle, though they have enough on their plates as you soon see. Passages centering on the Wild West, an Arctic ice floe (to carry the characters from Alaska to Siberia), and even a whole subplot spoofing The Prisoner of Zenda ensue, along with a massive custard pie fight, because why not? Some of it is funny, but mostly it's loud, brash and lavish. Without it there would be no Dick Dastardly. Music by Henry Macnini.