There can never be a true remake of this classic comedy. A few have tried claiming they were "inspired by" but have failed anyway. Stanley Kramer's epic "Comedy to end all comedies" had an amazing cast of comic actors old and (at that time) new which could never be recreated. It is a snapshot of a particular moment in time when comedians stretching back to the borscht belt and vaudeville met up with a new generation of comics working in clubs and on television. In fact many who had had small careers in films had found a much larger audience in the relatively new medium of TV. It may not be the funniest film ever made - that is every person's own opinion - but it is funny and succeeds in the impossible task of keeping up an atmosphere of comic mayhem for over a 2 1/2 hour running time. Enormously popular in its day (it was the third highest grossing film of 1963 taking in over 45 million) it has become a greatly beloved classic even now, over fifty years later.
It was written by British screenwriter William Rose, who had written the Alec Guiness comedy, The Ladykillers. It was written originally as a madcap chase through Scotland. He sent an outline to director Stanley Kramer. I'd love to know why, because Kramer was a director of big, serious films with important social messages like The Defiant Ones (racism), On the Beach (atomic war), Inherit the Wind (freedom of speech) and Judgement at Nuremberg (the aftermath of World War II). He would seem like the worst possible choice to pitch a comedy to, but maybe the word was out that Kramer was interested in making a comedy, perhaps to not be typecast. Once things got going, the production, much like the film itself, took on a momentum of its own and soon practically every comedian in town was calling Kramer asking to be in it.
There are so many great actors in roles big, small and in cameos that it would take up too much space to name them all. It was great to see some of the older cast members like Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman and Milton Berle go out with a big film that would be remembered. Actors in smaller roles often put in hilarious performances doing their usual schitck. Paul Ford as the bumbling Colonel Wilberforce (he had been the bumbling Colonel Hall on the Phil Silvers Show); Jim Backus as rich alcoholic Tyler Fitzgerald (it adds an extra laugh to know he was the well-known spokesman for Western Airlines whose tagline was "It's the only way to fly"); and Don Knotts in his nervous man routine. British comedian Terry-Thomas got roles in major pictures for years afterwards. Some faces, like Jesse White (TV's Maytag repair man) were only known from television exposure, which is probably missed by aOne would have wanted to see the cameo actors a little longer and some were underused (Stan Freberg, Edward Everett Horton) but the movie was originally over three hours as it was. The Three Stooges are only on for a few seconds and don't actually do anything but stand there but I can attest that they got a huge laugh from the audience just for being there.
All of the principals were at their best. Even when they didn't have a line, just watching their faces is hilarious. But it was Jonathan Winters in his first film role who is most remembered. His eight minutes of total mayhem in Ray & Irwin's Garage is one of the great comic scenes in any movie. Again I can attest that in its first run in late '63 the audience was in a state of total sustained pandemonium almost literally rolling in the aisles as this scene played out. I've never again experienced an audience in so complete a state of hysteria.
The film also has great support from the entire production team. There is one of the great comic scores of all time by Ernest Gold, a mad carousel-out-of control theme that wildly creates the right mood during legendary animator Saul Bass's creative title sequences. Despite its assertive character the music doesn't try to dominate the film but drops in now and then to enliven a driving scene that would look dull if silent or to accent brief moments of pandemonium. The film was beautifully shot in Super Panovision 70, which simulated a Cinerama effect without the "seams" created by the old three-camera process. And the scenery is spectacular with the Southern California desert, coastal towns and aerial footage. The editing, sound effects people and stuntmen were all major contributors to the film's success.
Not everyone liked it and this is still true. A number of the critics of the day dismissed it as too dumb for words. But you have to understand that many critics of that era and before were very high toned and felt only films of great intellectual depth were worth seeing. Bergman, yes, but not something like this. It took until the early 80's for film critics to loosen up a bit and admit they could like both types of films. Others found it too long and too slapstick. Both accusations are true in their way but this was meant to be gargantuan and its excess is part of its nature. Also, a big film made with a big budget had to be pitched to a large general audience and so it needed to have lots of broad humor and not be a witty comedy of manners or something like that. Besides, it's kind of an homage to the whole history of film comedy and actually uses a lot of classic silent comedy bits. All in all the film knows exactly what it is doing, building on its momentum to its conclusion. And it's still a Stanley Kramer film and does contain a deep, cynical observation that totally nice, everyday people can go entirely insane over money as can the entire culture. The movie ends nicely with what could be a nod to Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, illustrating the value of laughter on the simplest level with the oldest joke in the world.
Amazon's streamed film looks beautiful. I saw a streamed version a few years ago in the early days of streaming and it looked terrible because it had that over-sampling problem that made it look like daytime television, like it had been shot on somebody's video camera. I'm happy to say there's no trace of that. There are some great tributes, interviews and clips etc. on YouTube and I'd like to point out two really good ones. One posted by The Criterion Collection as "Location Comparison" shows many of the main locations then and now. There are others like this but this one is professionally shot at the exact camera angle as the film. The second is a "Cast Guide" that posts the name and dates of virtually everyone who appeared in the film while showing you a scene they're in.
EXTRA NOTE: A few major comics wanted to be in the film but couldn't for one reason or another. Bob Hope's studio wouldn't lend him out even for a cameo. Lucille Ball was too tied up with her TV show being taped for the coming season. Red Skelton's manager wanted him to be paid the same as the primary cast even for a cameo. Stan Laurel sent regrets but said he had sworn never to appear in a film again after Oliver Hardy's death and could not break his word.