Pity poor Professor Fate.
He is a daredevil. The greatest daredevil of them all, blessed with unmatched inventiveness, tremendous bravery, and sheer chutzpa. His stunts have wowed crowd from all over, to watch him stand tall in basic black and gape at his neatly waxed handlebar mustache. The twentieth century has just begun, and the world should be his oyster. With his loyal subordinate Max Meen, he ought to stand alone atop the entire world, the daredevil all others should seek to copy, adored by a worshipful and deferential public.
And he would be. Except.
Except for one man. Clad only in white, his teeth sparkle when he smiles. Literally. Everything seems to come easy to him: fame, fortune, popularity, ladies. He seems perfect, too perfect to be true. Proper women swoon over him like cheap trollops! Often they pass out from his gaze -- though that is probably more from their over-tightened corsets than anything that . . . . .Leslie . . . . could actually perform.
The Great Leslie. The name itself leaves a bitter taste on Fate's tongue. Everything everyone wants to be. Acclaimed the greatest daredevil ever, by everyone. When that title should rightfully belong to the one, the only, Professor Fate.
Ah, but the Sentinel has announced that it is sponsoring a race, a long race from New York to Paris. They wish to promote the automobile, a tasty new technology Fate has already mastered. Professor Fate knows he can build a car superior to all others. That he will win, and for once stand alone, the Greatest Daredevil in All the World.
And if this Leslie gets in his way. Well . . . . .
Director Blake Edwards’ (10, The Pink Panther)’s The Great Race is a screwball comedy loosely based upon a real 1908 auto race from New York to Paris, won by the Thomas Flyer. The turn of the century was a heady time of auto racing, daredevil flyers such as the great Lincoln Beachey and unrivaled optimism about a bright new future.
Arthur O’Connell plays the henpecked publisher Hector Goodbody, who believes in the future and the automobile. Despite his suffragette wife. His paper will sponsor a race from New York to Paris. Naturally all the world’s daredevils want to win, particularly the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and the dark, brooding and downright mean Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon).
The opening section is brilliant, establishing the rivalry between Professor Fate and the Great Leslie with wonderful slapstick aplomb. Professor Fate is a genius, but then Wile E. Coyote was a super genius, and if they should meet many beers could be drank while they commiserated together.
It also establishes the primary love interest, reporter Maggie DuBois, played with energetic perkiness by the lovely Natalie Wood. Maggie is a suffragette, an independent competent, determined woman in an era where barefoot and pregnant was the only career for a woman. She wants to make her mark on journalism, and she’s determined to cover the race, from the inside. As a competitor.
There are highjinks galore, with polar bears and jealous cowboys. The racers even blunder into a coup d’etat where Baron von Stupe (Ross Martin) plans to use the Professor to overthrow kind and wine-loving Prince Hapnik. There are bar fights, sword fights, and the greatest pie fight in all filmdom, plus more adventures before the film ends up underneath the Eiffel Tower.
I really enjoyed the film. The first part is side splitting and though the later parts are not quite up to that level of brilliance, you'll keep laughing. The film pays honest homage to early film comedies. Peter Falk won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing Professor Fate’s loyal henchman Max Meen, and it was well deserved. Both thumbs up, and readily available on video.
Music is by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini
Screenplay by Arthur Ross
Producer: Henry Jurow
Editor: Ralph. E. Winters