Cover, The Great RAce

This is one of the three 60’s comedies I play when I want a good laugh. Unlike Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines or Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies it does not really have an international cast, and is clearly a satire of movie stereotypes. It was based (very loosely) on a real event, an auto race from New York to Paris via Alaska.

In the real race, the first car to Alaska made it to Alaska via steamboat and was stopped by mud, not drifting sea ice. (Having driven the south end of the Richardson highway even after its paving, and knowing that there is still no summer overland access to Nome, where the cars were supposed to cross the sea ice to Siberia, I find it incredible that cars actually finished. The race was rerouted after the first car found the Alaskan “roads” impassible to allow steamship passage to Asia.) The geography of the movie makes no sense at all, especially drifting across the Pacific on an ice floe.

The movie version features three principal characters, all extreme stereotypes. Tony Curtis plays the Hero, the Great Leslie (cheers!) always in spotless white, with sparkling eyes and teeth, always succeeding in his daredevil stunts. Jack Lemmon is the mustachioed villain Professor Fate (boos and hisses), always wearing black, always failing in his daredevil stunts, and hating The Great Leslie. Natalie Wood is the suffragette newspaper reporter Maggie DuBois (wolf whistles) determined to cover the race start to finish, even if it means planting herself on one or the other (she switches off) of the contestants.

The hero and villain have sidekicks, of course. The Great Leslie’s is Horatio, a strong, silent, mechanical genius who is very much not impressed by Maggie. Professor Fate’s is Max, whose loyalty is somewhat surprising under the circumstances and whose obedience all too often leads to disaster.

The movie is full of things that, like cartoons, seem reasonable but are not — like the rocket-propelled railway carriage that goes so fast it starts flying. Or the “iceberg” that stays comfortably horizontal. I still wonder how the director managed to have the polar bear climb into Professor’s Fate’s car.

I think my favorite scene (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is the great and carefully choreographed pie fight. Choreographed? How else can you explain how The Great Leslie’s clothing stays spotlessly white in the midst of cream pies flying in all directions?

This is by no means a serious film, but it’s still wonderful satire.