In this clip from “The Great Race” (1965), we see our hero, The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), perform his daredevil stunt hanging from a hot air balloon in a straightjacket, while the nefarious Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) and his dastardly sidekick Max (Peter Falk) attempt to thwart his feat of derring-do. But they fail and are hoisted with their own petard when the damaged balloon lands on them. Meanwhile our hero is unscathed, as he floats safely to the ground via a parachute. This kind of “purple prose” (perhaps read by William Conrad) seems an appropriate way to start a discussion of the cartoonish nature of the scene: As so many have already pointed out, the picturesque setting and the vibrant colors are reminiscent of the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940’s & 1950”s (but not the 1960’s). The hero in subdued white with sparkling teeth, and the villains in outlandish black costumes is another cartoonish effect. Professor Fate looks the embodiment of the Snidley Whiplash character from the Dudley Do-Right segments of “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.” Finally, the moving bush and concealed crossbow with the ridiculously large arrow also looks straight out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Many have mentioned that it looked like a product from the Acme Corporation, but it couldn’t have been. After all, it actually worked!
Much of what made it cartoonish also made it an homage to early slapstick comedies. What better format to carry out the most outlandish forms of visual slapstick than with animation. All the defining elements are present but the physical (which is represented by make-believe). The Warner cartoons are, in themselves, an homage to earlier slapstick (especially in the 1930’s and early 1940’s). Any attempt to integrate the cartoon into live-action features would tend to make that feature more slapstick. In this scene, all the elements are present and played to the extreme.
When the period costuming and setting are combined with the exaggerated caricatures of the principles, it calls back affectionately to the era and methods of the early slapstick comedies.
The most obvious visual indicator of Edward’s depiction of The Great Leslie as the “definitive hero and Professor Fate as the “definitive villain” is the use of a black or white clothing dichotomy (representing the evil or good natures of the main characters) This costume effect allows no shade of gray (or middle ground) between the protagonist and his antagonists -- each represents the opposing extremes of a good/evil continuum. A secondary indicator (still visual with Leslie, but visual and verbal with Fate) is their respective demeanors. On the one hand, The Great Leslie is calm, deliberative and purposeful in his actions. There is a sparkle in his smile, as he surveys the adoring crowd. “Women love him; men want to be him (and he knows it).” On the other hand, Professor Fate acts and speaks in a fitful and agitated way. His facial gestures are scowling and his body movements are erratic. His speech is punctuated with gasps of exasperation and fits of evil laughter. The total effect is to create a villain so despicable and unhinged that “no women love him, and only Max wants to be him.”
I, too, was happy to see reference to Frank Tashlin by Dr. Edwards. He was a Warner Brothers cartoonist in the early forties who left to pursue a career in screenwriting and, ultimately, directing live action pictures. Like Blake Edwards, it was his desire to integrate elements of cartoon-like humor into his works. He worked on the screenplays for Bob Hope’s western spoof, “The Paleface” (1948), and Jack Carson’s “Good Humor Man” (1950). As a director, he worked with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and after the team broke up in 1956, he continued to work with Jerry Lewis. His success in bringing cartoons to life was eclipsed by Blake Edwards, but he did direct what I consider a classic comedy in 1952 -- “The Son of Paleface” starring Bob Hope. He accomplished something relatively rare in Hollywood; he made a sequel that was even better than the very good original that it followed, and that movie had a number of scenes that were influenced by Tashlin’s cartooning experience.