Saul Bass and the Big Comedies

Before Saul Bass, a film’s opening credits were something to get done with as fast as possible (yes, and now the closing credits seem to go on forever). But Bass changed that in the 1950s. Using animation, slow motion, soft focus, and every trick in the printer, he made those credits fun, or exciting, or both.

The Criterion Channel is currently offering a selection of films called Saul Bass Turns 100, containing 18 features that began (or sometimes ended) with Bass’ work.

This series has allowed me to revisit two movies I loved from my youth, Around the World in 80 Days and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. These were both comedies, but they were also big-budget roadshow spectaculars, shot and originally presented in large formats, with overtures and intermissions. Each, in their full version, ran over three hours (most roadshows were shortened after a few months).

Each film is filled with cameos (bit parts played by famous actors). Buster Keaton pops up in both pictures. When I first saw them, I vaguely knew who he was.

And seeing them again, I found both disappointing.

Around the World in 80 Days

The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1956 is a moderately well-made 90-minute comedy, stretched out to three hours. When it works, it’s entertaining, but when it isn’t, you find yourself noticing that almost everything in this “trip around the world” was shot on soundstages. The filmmakers don’t even try to make those stages look real; most of the rooms look like they’re just painted.

A large part of the fun is the familiar faces throughout. Along with Keaton, you get glimpses of Joe E. Brown, John Carradine, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, and Beatrice Lillie. Frank Sinatra’s cameo is just there to show us that it really is Sinatra. Edward R. Murrow narrates the prologue.

By the way, there’s no balloon in Jules Vernes’ original novel

What about the leads? David Niven seems to be having fun as a comic exaggeration of the ultimate British gentleman. The Mexican comedian Cantinflas is funny and lovable as his sidekick (I wish we could see more of his films in the states). Shirley MacLaine is miscast as an Indian princess (yes, the film is occasionally racist). As he did in Olivier’s Henry V, Robert Newton proves that he couldn’t act, but he sure could overact.

Unlike most of the films in this Saul Bass collection, you won’t see Bass’ work at the beginning. All of the credits, including the title, are at the end of the movie.

I give it a B if you see it on a big screen. Otherwise, a C+.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

This is a bad, bad, bad, bad and occasionally funny movie.

This is what happens when a producer/director who specializes in serious social dramas (Stanley Kramer) decides to make the ultimate physical comedy. The picture starts with an unfunny, lethal car accident, and ends with everyone in the hospital. There are only two likable characters, and they’re not all that likeable. Most of the main characters don’t talk; they just yell. The only real moments of true comedy come from a few of the cameos.

Spencer Tracy gets top billing, followed by such big names of the day as Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters. The cameos include Jim Backus, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Jerry Lewis, and, of course, Keaton.

But I do love Dick Shawn as a whacked-out beach bum.

When I was ten, this was the greatest movie ever made. Today, I give it a D+.

More from Bass

This program contains 16 other films with Saul Bass credits. I particularly liked the credits for these five (I haven’t seen all the movies; just the credits):

  • Storm Center
  • The Man with the Golden Arm
  • The Big Knife
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Walk on the Wild Side

Bass created more credit sequences than these 18. Among the missing are Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Spartacus, and Goodfellas.

One thought on “Saul Bass and the Big Comedies

  1. I wrote this when the article posed but forget to post it here.

    My favorable nostalgia for both films is surely the stargazing. I saw AROUND at the Coronet in its Todd-A-O roadshow. As a kid going to this BIG screen event was sure to make it a fun experience. And it seemed to deliver then.

    Niven was charming and I loved Cantinflas whose next American film was PEPE, also packed with movie star bits in an unbelievably boring 195 minutes bust and ended his career in American films. He retained the rights to most of his Mexican films but upon his death a legal battle held them up for years. They are readily available online (be careful to look for English subtitles if you don’t understand Spanish) and I bought several in the low-cost bins at Walmart years ago. A biopic CANTINFLAS is not very good but it does tell his fascinating life story with some terrific incidents (how he resisted Mike Todd and bargained in his favor) with an excellent portrayal of the actor by Oscar Jaenada.

    But the lasting legacy for me was that Edward R. Murrow prologue (cut from general release prints) because he shows George Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON and I found my first cinema hero. It was not easy getting much info on the French director in 1956 (I was eight) but bit by bit I learned about him and eventually Blackhawk films released several titles in 8mm. He is still one of my favorites,

    As to MADx4 I was so let down because little was funny and by then I knew enough about filmmakers to also know that Stanley Kramer made no sense as the director since he made “important” films on serious issues. Jonathan Winters had his moments and I agree Dick Shawn was the film’s saving grace. I actually met him later that year at a hotel swimming pool while on a family vacation. He was very friendly and encouraged me in my hopes to be a filmmaker.

    Maybe slapstick chase films need to be short. Blake Edwards, comfortable in many genres was especially good at comedy but his attempt to make a MADx4 type spectacle, THE GREAT RACE, also largely fell flat except the pie fight. My hunch is that many people wish MADx4 was the film they wished for and a cult has developed among people who have not actually watched it again, especially the unneeded restoration. Go back to the classics from silent-era shorts through Marx Brothers and screwball comedies—and Peter Boganovich’s successful homage, WHAT’S UP DOC?

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