‘IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD’: THE DICK SHAWN/BARRIE CHASE SYLVESTER DANCE BIT

As a kid I would repeatedly attempt to watch ‘It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World’ every year when it received its annual nighttime network showing. But I always fell asleep at some point as the movies massive length eventually defeated my ability to stay conscious. One thing I always stayed awake for, however, was the above scene–which features a hysterical Dick Shawn and his go-go-girl dancing paramour Barrie Chase. I never really understood the scene, which was part of my fascination with it. Why was he so madly taken with her strange dance? Why did she have no expression? What was it they were doing in that little cabin while barely dressed? The whole thing gave off an aura of kink that I as a ten year old didn’t understand but that I most certainly responded to.

How did the screenwriter William Rose script this scene? Did it simply say: ‘INT. CABIN–Sylvester and his girlfriend have a beatnik dance party’? How did the director Stanley Kramer–as square as a square can be–develop and direct this scene? My guess is that he didn’t. Shawn was a comic genius who was known as a performer who would fully COMMIT–whatever he did, he did to its fullest. (When he died at the too-young age of sixty-three, he was in mid-performance and most of the audience assumed it was part of his act). Barrie Chase, the go-go-girl partner, was Fred Astaire’s dance partner on his 1950s and 60s television specials and is still with us, the last surviving member of the cast. Her zonked out, deadpan dance was very much a parody of the nouveau trend seen in the ‘How To Stuff A Wild Bikini’ genre of teen movies; nobody came out and said it but the implication was that girls were hypnotized by drugs and, as a result, reveled in an unrepentant sexuality which was demonstrated not by exuberant behavior but by darkly seductive, other-worldly attitude.

‘IAMMMMW’ has legions of devoted fans. Alas I can’t say I’m one of them. I love parts of the movie but taken as a whole it’s like a dinner made up of all-dessert dishes. After awhile I simply can’t eat another rich pile of calories. But the above scene remains one of the best–until Ethel Merman’s beyond-grating presence interrupts things. Then I fall back asleep…

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