Blake Edwards’ 1965 “The Great Race” is an childhood favorite of mine — I remember being about six the first time I saw it. I think I liked the cars, the broad slapstick, and the cartoony iconography. I watched it again a couple of years back for the first time in its entirety in probably more than 20 years and found it held up a lot better than I had expected, not least because of a really fine comic performance by Tony Curtis as the absurdly heroic and properly chauvinistic the Great Leslie.
In this scene — briefly interrupted by some very nice Laurel & Hardy-slapstick from villains Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk — good guy Curtis puts various gentlemanly moves on early feminist Natalie Wood, who he had also romanced the prior year in “Sex and the Single Girl.” It’s a very funny send-up of supremely confident romantic movie heroes of old and of Curtis’s own ultra-suave persona. It also features some very nice sword play by Curtis, who was actually knew how to handle a saber.
“The Great Race” airs Sunday night/Monday morning as part of TCM’s 24-hour Tony Curtis marathon tomorrow night at 1:30 a.m. Eastern/10:30 Pacific for you night-owls and DVR owners.
He had his biggest success on television with Bill Cosby on “I Spy,” historic in its way as the first inter-racial buddy adventure program on TV or, for that matter, in any medium and the tongue-in-cheek superhero comedy, “The Greatest American Hero.” Nevertheless, Mr. Culp, who died unexpectedly today from a fall at age 79, also made a notable mark on films.
Costarring with his colleague and friend Cosby, he directed an attempt to translate their TV fame into movies with 1972’s “Hickey and Boggs.” The film, which was written by a young Walter Hill, tried to go in vastly different, far grittier and grimmer direction than the TV show and failed at the box office. Recently, however, it’s been rediscovered by some cinephiles and crime film fans.
Still, a few year before that Culp appeared in one of the real cultural break-out movies of the 1960s, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” For better or worse, it helped popularized, or perhaps merely capitalized, on the idea of “swinging” and “free love” among the older, married set. I haven’t seen this one either and I have no excuse other than somewhat mixed-feelings about most of writer-director Paul Mazursky’s other movies. However, in her heartfelt farewell to Culp, Cinematical’s Monika Bartyzel was kind enough to provide the lengthy, terrific clip below. This scene with Natalie Wood really shows Culp’s way with both serious and light material as he experiences a pretty broad swath of emotions in a scene that starts out as something close to straight drama and gradually eases into some pretty delightful comedy. Now, I want to see this.
If things had gone a bit differently, she might well have been as huge a superstar as such contemporaries as Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood — she certainly had the talent and screen presence to do so. However, as I’m reminded by her New York Times obituary, an ugly situation involving a sexual proposition the married actress got from Howard Hughes may have prevented Jean Simmons from reaching the super-stardom she deserved as much as anyone. The vindictive aviation and filmmaking magnate may have deliberately put her in films he thought were inferior and refused to allow his film studio to lend her out for the lead in “Roman Holiday,” the role that deservedly made Audrey Hepburn a more or less instant star.
Nevertheless, Ms. Simmons, who sadly passed on yesterday at age 80 from lung cancer, outlasted her Hughes contract and gave witty and altogether enchanting performances in numerous and diverse films, ranging from break-out teenage performances as the young Estella in David Lean’s still-definitive 1946 version of “Great Expectations” (she’d eventually play Mrs. Havisham in a TV production) and as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” As a puckishly beautiful adult actress who pretty much owned the word “luminous,” she had no problem quietly stealing scenes on an epic scale from the likes of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s underrated “The Big Country,” and, most famously these days, Marlon Brando in her only musical appearance, “Guys and Dolls.” Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior, but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment.
An admitted survivor of alcoholism, Simmons was a class act on every level who famously complimented Hepburn on her great “Roman Holiday” performance, as painful as it must have been to watch and even though it’s not clear that she wouldn’t have been just as good in the role. She kept working through most of her life — her last significant role was her voice work in the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and her loss to the world of entertainment is not a small one. She was often low-key, but she was never dull.
The late Soupy Sales was a great comic who achieved his great fame through television but never had much of a film career. His one starring role, 1966’s “Birds Do It,” is essentially impossible to see. Given two of the comments currently on IMDb, perhaps for a reason.
Nevertheless, his pie throwing and receiving savvy tickled the funny bone of a couple of generations and certainly influenced the slapstick comedy of his era quite a bit. So, in honor of the late Mr. Sales, the most famed pie fight of the 1960s.
Considering that this scene from Blake Edwards’ 1965’s “The Great Race” features several of the biggest stars of its day including Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon (as two separate characters — the villainous Prof. Fate and the aimably drunken Crown Prince Hapnik), a pre-“Columbo” Peter Falk and character acting great Keenan Wynn (aka Col. Bat Guano of “Dr. Strangelove“), it’s also easily the most star-studded creamy pastry battle yet filmed.
And, remember the wise words of Mr. Sales and brush after every pie fight: “Be true to your teeth, and they’ll never be false to you.”