IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD!
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 22 May 2009
It’s a mad world alright—a real mad world and in more ways than one. And every once in a while make-believe “Mad” and reality “Mad” intersect and, at least momentarily, it’s difficult to tell which is which. Today’s comment takes a cursory look at a film with a star-studded cast of characters that debuted 46 years ago and draws some light-hearted if not eerie parallels to the plot and cast of characters on center stage in America today.
In November 1963 United Artists released the Stanley Kramer directed comedy, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Please note today’s title has a couple of extra “Mad”s thrown in—and there’s a case to be made for the addition of a few more considering the passage of nearly five decades of madness. Frankly, there may not be enough “Mad”s to address even the last nine months but the title had to end somewhere. If you’ve not seen the film it won’t make a hill of beans difference reading this comment. But by all means make it a point to do so; if for no other reason than a good hearty laugh.
Good stories involve not only interesting characters but a simple, intriguing plot. Today’s political arena has much in common with the Hollywood classic. For instance, the movie started out with a car wreck. We have a pretty good car wreck of our own going on right now—one of mega proportions and with mass casualties. The plot of the film revolves around people scrambling for free money—likewise, today. And there are other similarities, e.g., a black man landing in the arms of Abe Lincoln. And, perhaps the most ironic one is folks digging under a “big W” for treasure.
In short, the film tracks the zany and hilarious greed-driven antics of a wacky group thrown together by happenstance after witnessing an automobile accident on a desert highway. Their quest, triggered by the confession of the dying driver and thief, is to unearth $350,000 big ones—a considerable sum of money in the day (some $2M today)—buried under a “big W.” Superficially, the treasure seekers agree to a hasty plan to work as a team to locate and share the booty. But in reality it’s every man (or woman) for him or herself with a smorgasbord of quirky circumstances constantly forcing new alliances amongst the irrationally thinking and misbehaving players. Sound familiar?
Today we have a similar cast of characters only these folks are fronting our country—they are amidst a fatal car wreck; bogged down in deserts; believe in free money; one heartily embraces Mr. Lincoln; and all are far too obsessed with discovering what may or may not rest under a “big W.”
Having recently seen the movie for the umpteenth time it struck me there are striking similarities between the actors who played characters 46 years ago and the characters that are acting in our current Administration. But unlike what unfolded on the silver screen decades ago for sheer entertainment, what we are watching and living is no comedy—though there is ample theater bringing laughter and tears, broken hearts, and shattered dreams; just like in the movie. Yet the consequences of the antics by our “cast” starring in our “reality show” are serious; serious indeed.
The cast—yesterday and today…
First to come to mind is Spencer Tracy as Captain Culpepper—the wise old lawman who has been investigating the stolen cash for years. He has quietly concocted a plan to fulfill his retirement dreams—an escape, with wife in tow, to Mexico once the cash is in hand. Culpepper is the cool one. He is calm, calculating, wily, and manipulative. He never loses sight of the big picture, knows exactly what he is doing, and what has to be done to get there. He is quick to utter convincing, reassuring words—out of both sides of his mouth. He has everyone fooled; even his wife and closest co-workers are clueless as to his intentions. Today’s Captain Culpepper? Easy, America’s Number One so-far-unflappable hepcat and smooth-talking devil—President Barak Obama; the man who prints cash instead of investigating heists.
Phil Silvers character, Otto Meyer, next comes to mind. Meyer is a con man. He’s a quick-thinking, shameless hustler and liar who will say anything to anyone—man, woman, or child—to get what he wants. He is not one to confuse fact with fiction—for him, they are one and the same. His toothy grin and impatient though genial—albeit corny and superficial—way about him is shallow but effective for as long as it needs to be—usually only mere moments—to get what he wants. After all, it’s all about him. Contrary to his self-perception as a hotshot “mover and shaker,” all others see him as a self-aggrandizing, babbling idiot and buffoon not to be taken seriously or trusted. If for no other reason, he’s good to have around for comic relief. His counterpart today—donned with a pair of “Buddy Holly’s” and houndstooth trousers less bad hair plugs and botox to better look the part—is, and there's no close second, our ever-stumbling Vice President, Joe Biden. Yes indeed, through Biden, Otto Meyer lives again—in living color. Biden's long-running con of the state of Delaware and a gaff every time he opens his mouth make him the perfect Meyer reincarnate.
Next up, Mrs. Marcus as brought to life by the one and only Ethel Merman. Marcus is a snooty, well-to-do, brassy, loud-mouthed, bossy know-it-all who uses her booming vocals, flailing gestures, and tantrums to make her point. She wears too much make-up, tacky bling, gaudy attire, and, if the screen offered scent, probably reeks of cheap perfume. She tries way too hard to come across as feminine and fails miserably. She is pushy and, even when wrong, is committed to having it her way. She is not going to relinquish her position for anything or anyone. She too will say anything to get what she wants. There’s only one gal qualified to fill the shoes of the easily riled and flustered Marcus and that’s our dear House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi’s recent shenanigans denying being briefed about the CIA’s sporty questioning methods of terrorists are Marcus-like. Fumbling through her prepared statement to remember what she knew during a slap-stick press conference only sealed her match to the abrasive Merman character.
Lennie Pike, played by Jonathan Winters, drives a moving van. The likeable, slightly rotund and hard-working Pike throughout the pursuit for the treasure is the alter-ego of all the others. Pike is endearing because he is honest and blindly trusting of others—time and time again to his own demise. But despite getting ‘burned’ repeatedly, he sticks to his principles and insists on doing what is right. He detests weasels and therefore is suspicious and contemptuous of the others; particularly Meyer and Marcus. Who else could fill the shoes of Pike other than the new director of the CIA, Leon Panetta. Dress Panetta up in cotton coveralls and a ball cap and he’d look the part of a 1960’s vintage moving van driver (or maybe a home appliance repairman). Like Pike, Panetta called it the way it was when he, in so many words, called Pelosi a liar when she denied being briefed about the CIA’s work. Panetta’s people, country, and doing what is right comes first—just like Pike, he’s a solid citizen and great American.
The next fit requires a gender change but what the hell. Buddy Hackett plays Benjy Benjamin, an opinionated sidekick who is more comfortable following than leading. He goes along to get-along and not surprisingly finds himself in over his head time after time. He’s a stooge but would never, ever see himself as such. He is a bumbling klutz under pressure and has a propensity to speak disregarding fact or thought and consequently gets it wrong—without fail. Though there is not much similarity in physical appearance other than being dumpy, having wild eyes, and they’d look about the same in a dress, the nod goes to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as jolly ol’ Benjy.
J. Russell Finch, played by Milton Berle, is the owner of an edible seaweed company. Russell is a skittish, henpecked compromiser who humors his wife to maintain a cordial, if not strained, relationship with his irritating mother-in-law, Marcus. The guy has no backbone. There are too many Obama adorers to name just one. Take your pick.
Terry-Thomas—the gap-toothed comic genius from England—is Lieutenant Colonel Algernon Hawthorne—a British Army officer with a passion for cactus collecting. He’s an unsuspecting Good Samaritan who innocently, if only for his own selfish reasons, gets caught up in the hijinx scrambling for the treasure. Hawthorne is educated, thoughtful, articulate, and an intensely proud Englishman. He is just a wee bit impressed with himself falling just short of smugness and is easily offended if he or his homeland is insulted. He has a difficult time concealing his emotions and like many of the others is more comfortable following than being in the lead. This one’s a tough call. Though he has no known tie to the Old Country, the Attorney General, Eric Holder, earns the nod as Hawthorne.
I could go on and on but enough about the characters. It’s time to address the “big W.” In the movie, a subtle and looming yet oh-so-obvious “big W” marks the spot of buried treasure. Just like in the movie there is today a “big W” that, in the minds of critics and down-right haters, secrets buried “treasure”—“treasure” cited time and again as the cause for the current Administration’s problems while trying to calm an impatient public. Yes, George W. Bush is the “big W” and the guy today’s characters continue to dig up—to blame for their inherited mess, rationalize their lack of progress, excuse their ineptness, and incriminate others for their self-serving purposes.
And as if that’s not enough for comparison, there’s the matter of cash. But there is no comparison—at all. For the cash at stake today—in the trillions and trillions of dollars—makes yesterday’s $350Gs look pathetically measly. In fact, it is far worse than a pathetically measly comparison. There is no comparison.
So what’s the point in all this? There’s not one really other than sometimes it’s good to pause and put life in perspective, and sometimes looking for humor amidst dire circumstances helps make the times a little more palatable—if only for a moment or two. And so much the better when the humor approaches reality—funny is it not how art and life can be so closely intertwined?
As in the movie, look for the mad world around us to change and alliances amongst today’s cast of characters to morph accordingly—sometimes unexpectedly and illogically—and for bit players to come and go as each goes about the business of promoting themselves and lining their pockets. And in the end, just like in the movie, look for many of the characters to one day end up battered, broken, and bandaged losers. Such is usually the case for those who engage in mischief. That’s reality. In a few years and with any luck, mad bystanders, including one known as the “big W,” will have the last laugh. Yep, it’s a mad world!