The Great Race

A while back I posted an entry about the 1965 movie Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines. In that post, I mentioned another film that came out the same year called The Great Race. While I am entranced by the old planes in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying machines, The Great Race is really my favorite of the two.  The film stars Tony Curtis as “The Great Leslie,” a stereotype 1910 pure as gold hero in white and Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, a stereotype 1910 pure villain in black and tells the story of their race around the world by automobile. Leslie and Professor Fate are not the only cars racing.  The race starts with a much larger pack of automobiles;

however by the end, they are all that is left; thanks in part to Professor Fate’s chicanery in which he is abetted by his lackey Maximillian Meen (Peter Falk).  While a few of the automobiles may have a passing resemblance to real cars of the time the two lead cars are anything but normal.  Leslie’s car, the Leslie Special, seems almost immune to damage and looks a bit too modern for the time the movie is set.  It looks more like a late 1920’s car.   Professor Fate’s car, the Hannibal 8, would have been perfect for a 1900’s Batmobile … except the special devices didn’t always work right.   There is a third major personage in the race, suffragette Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood)  who not only plans to cover the race for the newspapers, but also drive in the race herself if that’s what it takes to do so.   Of course, there is a developing love/hate relationship between her and The Great Leslie.

The Great Race is full of funny situations, slapstick and sight gags. It is a very family friendly film even if it does feature some over-the-top stereotypes.  Jack Lemon’s son Chris once said that he thought his father’s role as Professor Fate was his father’s finest.  I would not totally agree, I believe that description better fits his role as Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts, however, I do believe the role is among his best and certainly one of his most entertaining. Tony Curtis’ role, on the other hand, is very two dimensional.  But this is exactly as it should be.  The Great Leslie is a cardboard cutout hero and it is a tribute to Tony Curtis’ acting ability that he can take such a stereotype and make it work.  It is much more difficult to accomplish this successfully than people think.                                                                                                                                                                                           

The great race is essentially a melodrama/farce.  Every aspect of personality and situation is larger than life. There is a large amount of trivia regarding the making of The Great Race that one may find interesting.  One of the most famous is that the film holds the record for the most pies thrown in an on-screen pie fight.  No film has yet topped this accomplishment.  The two cars, The Leslie Special and the Hannibal 8 were put on display at the Volvo Museum and later moved to the Peterson Auto Museum in Los Angles, California. Many of the special features of the Hannibal 8 really worked; at least some of the time.