Push the button, Max.
This big-budget, globe-trotting comedy is almost exactly as old as I am and I’ve always held a warm place in my affections for it. It’s not quiet or subtle, but it is spirited, like a Clydesdale that thinks it’s a quarter horse.
The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) are rival daredevils at the turn of the 20th century. More accurately, Fate is Wile E. Coyote to Leslie’s Road Runner, as every attempt to top Leslie’s feats or sabotage them ends in a spectacular disaster. Leslie wants to help one of his patrons prove the reliability of those new-fangled automobiles, with a race from New York City westward until they reach Paris (based loosely on a real event). Sensing a chance to finally beat Leslie, Fate enters his own car, the Hannibal Twin 8, which has enough gadgets and weapons to be the great-grandfather of every car James Bond ever drove.
Also in the race is cigar-chomping suffragette Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), who’s determined to kick down the glass ceiling of the newspaper business and look fabulous while doing it. While Fate doesn’t take her very seriously, she manages to get up the nose of Leslie and his old-school mechanic, Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn). Fate is too busy ordering his hapless assistant, Max (Peter Falk), to sabotage the competition so the race is a head-to-head duel with Leslie.
The vast distances covered by the race allow the movie to have it’s fun in dusty western towns, frozen wastelands and storybook Central European kingdoms, crossing multiple genres and managing to play for a bit in all of their sandboxes. From Wild West saloon girls to a regency waltz, from pie fights to sword fights, The Great Race is like a tasty sampler platter of movie cliches. The real masterstroke of this movie is that it gives one of the best actors of his generation, Jack Lemmon, not one but two broadly comic roles and then just turns him loose. The other actors get to have their fun moments, but this is Jack Lemmon’s movie. The maniacal Fate and the boozy but childlike Prince Hoepnick are polar opposites but the actor throws himself into both with a sort of banzai gusto.
Tony Curtis complements Lemmon nicely as the slightly pompous but completely unflappable Leslie, while Natalie Wood plays a little against type as the brassy Maggie, who wants to be one of the guys while still treated like a lady.
The Great Race is no masterpiece. It’s a broad, slightly corny farce with a mammoth costume budget. Everyone involved had done better work in other movies and would do better work again. I don’t care and I never missed when it was on TV.