Dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” this movie is both a spoof and a loving tribute to the silent classics, with good guys, bad guys, romance, adventure, slapstick, music, wonderful antique cars, and the biggest pie fight in history. The opening credits are on a series of slides like those in the earliest movies, complete with cheers for the hero and boos for the villain, and a flickering old-fashioned projector that at one point appears to break down. Always dressed in impeccable white, the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is a good guy so good that his eyes and teeth literally twinkle. His capable mechanic and assistant is Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn). The bad guy is Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), assisted by Max (Peter Falk). Like Wile E. Coyote, Fate’s cartoonishly hilarious stunts to stop Leslie inevitably backfire.
After a brief prologue, in which Fate tries to beat Leslie in breaking various speed records, literally trying to torpedo him at one point, they both enter an automobile race from New York to Paris. So does a beautiful reporter (Natalie Wood as Maggie DuBois) trying to prove she can get the story — dressed in an endless series of exquisite ensembles designed by Hollywood legend Edith Head.
The race takes them across America, through the Wild West, to a rapidly melting ice floe in the Pacific, and into a European setting that is a cross between a Victor Herbert operetta and “The Prisoner of Zenda,” where a spoiled prince happens to look exactly like Professor Fate and it takes all of the stars to foil an evil Baron (Ross Martin) who wants to use Fate to take over the throne.
This is a perfect family movie, just plain fun from beginning to end. It may also provide an opportunity for a discussion of competition and sportsmanship. At the end, Leslie deliberately loses as a gesture of devotion to Maggie DuBois. Professor Fate, after all, shows some sense of honor — apparently it is all right for him to cheat to win, but not all right to win by having Leslie refuse to compete. “You cheated — I refuse to accept!” Modern adults may wince a bit at Dubois’ notion of how to attain equal opportunity — she ultimately succeeds by showing her leg to the editor, who becomes too dazed to argue further. But like “Mary Poppins,” it provides a chance to remind children that when their great-grandparents were children, women did not even have the right to vote.
Questions for Kids:
- Should Leslie have let Fate win?
- Why wasn’t Fate happy when he beat Leslie?
- Why was Fate so jealous of Leslie?
- Why did DuBois want to be a reporter so badly?
Connections: Curtis and Lemmon also appeared together in one of the greatest comedies of all time, “Some Like it Hot.” Children who enjoy this movie might like to see some of the silent classics it saluted, like “Two Tars,” in which Laurel and Hardy create chaos in the middle of an enormous traffic jam. They might also enjoy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” or “Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.” Children who have enjoyed Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert (who “loves to laugh”) in “Mary Poppins” may like to know that his son, Keenan Wynn, plays Leslie’s assistant Hezekiah.