The Great Race (1965)
July 24, 2020 | by Shannon
1965’s The Great Race is a lavish, slapstick comedy that harkens back to the films of such classic comedians as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. But depending on who you ask, The Great Race is either a genius tribute to these legends of early Hollywood, or a complete failure.
I’ll tell you right off the bat that I fall closer to the first category: though I admit that The Great Race is not a perfect film, it’s charming and entertaining throughout its two hour-plus running time.
Directed by Blake Edwards at the peak of his Hollywood career, The Great Race cost a staggering $12 million to make, securing its position as the most expensive film comedy ever made, up to the time. And with an all-star cast, including our Star of the Month Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, and one of my all-time favorite stars, Natalie Wood, the talent and charisma present in each scene of The Great Race is impossible to deny.
If you missed the film on TCM last week, it’s still available to watch on tcm.com. You can also rent or purchase The Great Race here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
It’s the turn of the century, and rival daredevils The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) are about to embark on the greatest automobile race in history, one that will start in New York City, and end in Paris. Leslie is your archetypical good guy, decked out in all white at all times, while Fate is perennially garbed in ratty black attire, complete with a thick mustache, and accompanied by his dim-witted side kick, Max (Peter Falk). These are blatant stock characters by design, and there’s no hiding who the good guys are, and who bad guys are, in this film!
Suffragette Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood) also enters the race, sponsored by The New York Sentinel, as a reporter covering the proceedings, who also hopes to be the first one through the finish line.
But Maggie’s car, a fashionable Stanley Steamer, just isn’t cut out for long distance and tough terrain, and breaks down not far into the race. From here on out, if Maggie wishes to make it to the finish line, she’ll have to use her brain and feminine wiles to bum rides off of Leslie and Professor Fate.
You probably guessed that Leslie and Maggie fall for each other—not hard to do if you’re Natalie Wood wearing 19 different beautiful gowns designed by the great Edith Head—but it’s not an easy relationship, and Maggie insists that Leslie adopt her suffragette point of view before she will permit any romance. They’ll fight a lot, and Maggie will use Professor Fate to make Leslie jealous, before accepting his advances.
The Wild West, Iceburgs, and European Kingdoms!
After various adventures, like a barroom brawl in a stereotypical Old West Town, and getting stuck on a melting iceberg at sea, Professor Fate and Max, and Leslie and Maggie, make it to Europe!
In Pottsdorf, Professor Fate gets caught up in a royal scheme when the aids of Prince Friedrich Hapnick (also played by Lemmon) attempt to oust Hapnick from the throne by coronating Professor Fate—who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Prince—in his place.
But it’s Leslie to the rescue! After dueling with an evil aid to the prince, Leslie, with the unlikely help of Max, successfully rescues Maggie and Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn), Leslie’s right-hand man, from jail (I don’t entirely get why they had to be jailed in the first place, but whatev), before meeting up with Professor Fate in a royal bakery, just moments after Fate escapes the coronation. The most epic and expensive pie fight ever breaks out—slapstick comedy, remember??—before the race is back on!
Leslie and Maggie, with Hezekiah now tagging along, are in a slight lead, but Leslie decides to prove his love for Maggie at the finish line by stopping just inches before crossing. Professor Fate and Max win the race, but Leslie’s selfless act wins the girl!
Fate, realizing he won because Leslie let him, angrily challenges Leslie to another race, this time from Paris to New York. This second Great Race begins just after Leslie and Maggie tie the knot.
And that’s the end of the film!
Just three years before The Great Race premiered in July of 1965, Tony Curtis experienced the first truly negative publicity of his career when he became involved with Christine Kaufmann, his seventeen year old co-star from the epic film, Taras Bulba (1962).
The relationship shocked the public, and not just because of Christine’s age: as far as Tony’s fans were concerned, Tony and his first wife, Janet Leigh, were Hollywood royalty. This was a duo the public fully expected to stay together FOREVER. So when rumors began flying around town that Tony was crazy about Christine Kaufmann, and would probably leave his wife and two young daughters—Kelly and Jamie Lee—to be with her, guess whose side fans were more sympathetic to?
I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t Tony’s.
It was easy to just blame Tony for the end of the marriage, but according to Tony, the split was much more multi-faceted than him falling for Christine: Tony and Janet had been experiencing marital troubles for years, and it hurt him to suddenly become such a hated star overnight.
“Anyone who tells you there’s no such thing as bad publicity has never lived life in the public eye when things take a turn for the worse.”
Yet through it all, Tony continued making whatever movies were offered him, partly because he was a firm believer that if you were lucky enough to find film work, you shouldn’t be too picky about what roles you accepted, and also because he needed the income. After the divorce, Tony would pay for 1/3 of the living expenses of Janet, his two daughters, and Janet’s new husband, in addition to the living expenses of his parents, younger brother, and a few relatives back in Hungary.
Tony married Christine Kauffmann on February 8, 1963, and the bad publicity began to dissipate. By the time Jack Warner offered him the role of Leslie in The Great Race in 1964, Tony Curtis considered himself a very happily married man.
No 'Thank You' Note
Jack Warner’s enthusiasm for casting Tony may have been the only reason he got the role, for director Blake Edwards was looking to cast just about anyone else as The Great Leslie, preferring George Peppard, Robert Wagner, or even Burt Lancaster. For reasons that remained a mystery to Tony, Edwards, despite the fact the the two men had been great friends around the time of Operation Petticoat (1959), was now cool and distant towards his old buddy.
Despite this coolness from Edwards, Tony and his agent, Irving Lazar, worked out a pay increase for not just Tony, but for Edwards and Jack Lemmon as well: after Lazar’s negotiations, all three men received a raise of $25,000, earning $125,000 a piece for their work on The Great Race.
But then a funny thing happened: Tony never heard a word from Lemmon or Edwards about it:
“So everybody got a nice raise, thanks to Irving. If someone had done that for me I’d have gone over to his house with roses, saying ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for me.’ But I never heard a word from either Jack Lemmon or Blake. Times like this left me feeling alone, and perplexed.”
There are few things more confusing or disappointing than ingratitude, right??!
Lazar also got Tony a percentage of the film, and Tony continued to receive royalties from The Great Race until his passing.
And, Tony made sure to say thank you:
“After the movie came out, I got a small check every month. So far I’ve gotten more than two hundred thousand dollars in royalties from Warner Bros. for The Great Race. And I made sure to let Irving know how much I appreciated his efforts on my behalf!”
Now that’s class!
An Interesting Request
You may have noticed that one major star was conspicuously not included in Lazar’s salary negotiations: Natalie Wood.
For some reason, Natalie’s agent thought the best way to get Natalie a pay increase was to ask Tony to give her a percentage of what he was earning on the film…here’s how Tony says that interesting exchange went down:
“I was surprised when her agent came to me and asked if I would give Natalie a percentage of what I was getting.
‘I don’t know why I would do that,’ I replied.
He said, ‘Because Natalie’s in the movie.’
I declined, thinking perhaps he could have come up with a more persuasive rationale. Truth is, I had never heard of asking an actor to give part of his or her salary to another actor.”
This was just the beginning of the interesting relationship Tony and Natalie would have on the film…but more on that drama later!
The Most Expensive Film Comedy EVER
By 1964, Blake Edwards had Operation Petticoat (1959), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and The Pink Panther (1963) under his belt. Edwards was at the top of his game, and the budget Jack Warner approved for The Great Race, a whopping $6 million, was evidence of Edwards’ prestigious reputation as a creative director who produced lucrative films.
Edwards pulled out all the stops for his comedy to end all comedies. The Great Race was his homage to the great comedians and slapstick style that Edwards so loved, and no cost was spared.
In addition to location filming in Europe, Edwards went all out with the cars Leslie and Professor Fate drive in the race. The Leslie Special was designed to look like a Thomas Flyer, the car that won the actual 1908 race from New York to Paris, which had inspired the film. Four Leslie Specials were built to ensure that Edwards would have a car for whatever stunt or shot he desired.
Professor Fate’s Hannibal Twin-8 was built with a Corvair six-cylinder engine, a prop cannon, and smoke generator. This was one extravagant car, coming it at a cost of $150,000. Edwards would have five (some sources say six) copies of the vehicle made.
If the cars weren’t enough, Edwards also rented a full-sized train for Professor Fate’s close-call with a locomotive, at a cost of $100,000 for a week of filming.
The Pie Fight!!!
And then there was the pie fight.
Edwards’ epic pie fight, coming in at four minutes and twenty seconds long, was referred to as “the pie fight of the century” in the film’s script for good reason: the scene took five days and $200,000 to shoot!!
$18,000 of that total cost went to purchasing the pies, of which the scene required 4,000.
That’s right, 4,000 pies.
At the end of each day of shooting the pie scene, the actors were each photographed so that their pie-splattered appearances could be replicated for the next day’s filming.
Now that would have been a unique experience in the make-up chair!
Adding to the cost was the fact that filming of the pie fight wasn’t completed before a weekend break…
So when the cast and crew came back after the weekend, the various pie fillings that encrusted the walls and floor of the set were no longer the brilliant, fresh colors they had been before the weekend…and THE SMELL!!!!!
Well, I don’t think I have to go into details on that…
Rancid smell and browning colors combined meant that the whole scene had to be re-created, which meant more money spent…
Quick side note to the pie scene: if you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be hit in the face with a pie, this description from Jack Lemmon, who blacked out after being hit in the face one too many times, will squash any thoughts you had about a pie in the face being a delicious, or pleasant experience in any way:
“a pie hitting you in the face feels like a ton of cement.”
And if that’s not enough of a turn-off, Natalie Wood choked on pie when a too perfectly aimed pie in the face blocked her airways.
Who would have thought that a pie in the face could have such scary consequences??
As you can imagine, such extravagances meant The Great Race went waaaay over budget. In fact, the budget actually doubled to $12 million, or $98.36 million adjusted for inflation, making it the most expensive film comedy of the time. Tony Curtis perfectly described this snow ball budget effect in his 1993 autobiography [aff. link]:
“…the Great Race went on and on and on, way over budget. Warner was constantly on the edge of pulling that picture because it got so exorbitant…Nobody seemed to be able to do anything about it. It [the film] just kept rumbling along under its own power.”
As Tony mentions, this exorbitant spending did not sit well with Jack Warner, and for a time, Blake Edwards was removed from the picture. But Tony recognized Edward’s “ability to get the best out of actors,” and, setting his personal differences with Blake aside, teamed up with Natalie Wood to ask Jack Warner to bring Edwards back on. Blake was reinstated, and filming finally completed in November of 1964.
Tony and Natalie: Friends, Lovers, or Foes??!
So let’s get back to that drama I mentioned between Tony and Natalie.
Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood went pretty far back, and The Great Race would be the final of three films the two made together.
Tony would say in his 1993 autobiography [aff. link] that he and Natalie had a great “chemistry” on Kings Go Fourth (1958), the first film they made together. But out of respect for their respective spouses—Robert Wagner and Janet Leigh, Tony refrained from putting the moves on Natalie.
But….Tony also gives a subtle hint in his 1993 book that at some point during his and Natalie’s relationship, they were, as we say, “friends with benefits.” And in his 2008 book [aff. link], Tony is very honest about when that intimate time in their friendship occurred. According to Tony, it was during filming of The Great Race.
“Once we started filming The Great Race, something happened between Natalie and me that often happened with my female costars. Natalie warmed up towards me…Now I felt a strong desire to be with Natalie, just to be near her. Every time the camera would stop, I would go over to her and start talking nonstop. I’d ask her what she thought of the scene, what kinds of movies she wanted to make…anything to hear her voice.”
As Tony tells it, he and Natalie eventually spent one intimate evening together during filming that was
“a highlight not just of working on that picture but of my entire life. We didn’t say anything before…or after…although she and I worked beautifully together for the rest of the shoot, neither of us ever spoke of our moment…”
Well, that’s Tony’s story, at least.
The Other Side of the Story
According to Martin Jurow, Blake Edwards’ producing partner on The Great Race, and his wife Erin, Tony and Natalie could barely stand the sight of each other during filming. Jurow, seconded by Tony’s ex-wife Janet Leigh, insists that something happened between Tony and Natalie before filming that led to an estrangement during the production. Perhaps it was Tony’s refusal to give Natalie a percentage of his earnings on the film? Who knows.
Jurow would say that
“We knew about the angst…because Tony was very vocal about it. He just didn’t really want to work with her.”
The Jurows would also insist that Tony
“‘bothered’ Natalie thought filming, ‘like little boys in the playground pick on certain little girls, very juvenile.’”
Now, this really could have just been what Tony described as his “need to be near” Natalie, how his growing feelings for her compelled him to try to talk to her nonstop, and Jurow just misinterpreted Tony’s motivation. But director Blake Edwards, when asked at the end of The Great Race filming if there would be an extravagant cast party replied that
“Sure. It’ll be quite an occasion. Natalie and Tony are going to set each other on fire.”
Well that doesn’t sound very romantic!!
A Tough Time for Natalie
So, were Natalie and Tony good friends on set? Were they more than friends? Or did they absolutely hate each other during production? If only we could hear Natalie’s perspective. One thing’s for sure, The Great Race was a trying film for Natalie, and she really didn’t want to be there. For Natalie, The Great Race was an obligation she had to fulfill in order to do Inside Daisy Clover (1965), a film she was excited about.
Troubles on the set compounded with a difficult revelation in her personal life when Natalie discovered that her ex-husband Robert Wagner, whom friends and family confirm she still had feelings for, was expecting a child with his new wife. The news was difficult for Natalie, who, at this stage of her life, desperately wished to be a mother herself.
After filming of The Great Race completed in November 1964, Natalie, feeling alone and depressed at the course her life was taking, swallowed a bottle of her prescription pills.
Lucid enough to make a call to her trusted friend Mart Crowley, Natalie luckily made it to the hospital in time to survive her attempt to end it all. According to Crowley,
“All I can say about it is it was very serious, and she almost did die.”
Natalie's Dream Fulfilled
If you’re familiar with the life of Natalie Wood however, you know that things did turn around for her: Natalie’s dreams of motherhood came true, and she would revel in her role as a loving and dedicated mother to two amazing daughters, Natasha and Katie. Natalie would even remarry Robert Wagner in 1972, and the two would spend nearly a decade together happily married before Natalie’s untimely death.
The Great Race: Not Such a Great Failure
Much has been made over the years of the exorbitant $12 million production cost of The Great Race. Today, the belief persists that the film was a complete dud at the box office, failing miserably to make a profit.
While it’s true that The Great Race didn’t turn a profit on its release, it’s most certainly not true that it failed miserably: in reality, The Great Race just about broke even, bringing in $11.4 million at the box office, and it ranked as the fifth highest grossing film of 1965.
As Tony Curtis points out,
“If The Great Race had been made at is original price, it would have been a huge success.”
So very true.
Despite its imperfections, The Great Race is an entertaining picture that gives us a chance to appreciate the work of a great director and a handful of legendary stars. When there’s that much talent and charisma in one film, it’s hard not to appreciate what’s unfolding on screen.
More Tony Curtis Next Week!
And that’s it for The Great Race!
Join me next week for our last week celebrating Tony Curtis in what is quite uniformly recognized as his most skilled dramatic performance, 1968’s The Boston Strangler.