Saturday, April 26, 2014

Professor Fate of "The Great Race" ( 1965 )

Blogathon season is in full force and Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings have teamed up to devise the fiendishly clever Great Villain Blogathon to add to the mix. In our opinion there is no dastardly scheming archetypal villain greater than Professor Fate and so, naturally, we have chosen to spotlight him as our contribution to the event. 

The maniacal evil laugh of Professor Fate rings throughout The Great Race, Blake Edward's 1965 epic homage to the Golden Age of slapstick comedy. When he is not playing his four-tiered player-organ, Fate spends his energy hatching deviously diabolical plans to foil the Great Leslie. His all consuming passion is to become the greatest daredevil in the world, and only the tan-faced, spotlessly clean, lily-white clad Leslie stands in his way. When Leslie proposes a world-wide automobile race - the ultimate test in endurance - Professor Fate cannot resist the challenge to prove his superiority and what results is a wild and wacky adventurous match of two of the greatest slapstick daredevils filmdom has ever seen. 

Blake Edwards had great success in the early 1960s with such blockbuster hits as Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, but he had yet to make a epic comedy ( which he later became known for ) in the vein of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ( 1963 ).


The Great Race was to be his greatest comedy to date and, with such lofty intentions in mind, he plunged the generous sum of $6 million dollars into the project. Natalie Wood was - reluctantly - cast as the beautiful heroine of the picture, Maggie DuBois, a spunky suffragette who was always more than willing to put herself in peril for "the cause". 

Robert Wagner was Edwards original choice for Leslie Gallant III, but when he turned it down Edwards offered it to Charleton Heston, who thought it highly amusing, but nevertheless declined the part as well. George Peppard and Burt Lancaster were also considered before Tony Curtis was given the part ( Jack Warner's original choice ). 

" Ha, ha, ha.....Haaaaaaaa! "

While choices for the lead actors were hopping to and fro, there was no doubt in Edwards mind that Jack Lemmon was the man he wanted as Professor Fate. Complete with curling mustache, black cape and his sinister crooked top hat, Lemmon created a magnificent character role that defined what we have come to know as cliches of the "master villain". 

Peter Falk, who had given a marvelous performance as the Brooklyn taxi cab driver in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was cast as Professor Fates faithful servant, mechanic, henchman, and all-around dog, Max. Kennan Wynn, Arthur O'Connell, Dorothy Provine, Vivian Vance, and Larry Storch rounded out the "Great" cast. 


The Great Race took five months to complete and by the time it was ready for release, the enormous sum of $12,000,000 had been racked up on its bill. It became the most expensive comedy every made. In spite of Edward's great hopes for the film, it floundered desperately upon its initial release, with critics giving it mixed reviews ranging from "weak" to "adequate" in terms of belly-laugh ratings. Since then it has gained an enormous following with Professor Fate's engaging character being one of its most notable drawing features.

Professor Fate's Inventions

For years Fate and Leslie have been building elaborate contraptions to break speed records, soar to new heights, and make ladies swoon in terror of their unabashed bravery and continually Fate has tried to sabotage Leslie and send him to his doom. When the Great Leslie announces he will strap himself in a stray-jacket, hang upside down while an air balloon carries him high in the sky and wriggle free in time to descend safely to the ground, Fate is there - with a missile in hand - prepared to shoot him down. 


Like Wiley Coyote, destroying Leslie becomes Fate's all-consuming passion and he is ever ready with his ACME inventions to hail disaster down on his singular enemy. 

" Maaaaaaaaax!!!! "

When the Great Leslie attempts to break the speed record on water in his glittering white speedboat, Professor Fate and Max bring out their latest sound-seeking torpedo to blow him to smithereens. The plan backfires on him.

When the Great Leslie announces that he will drive the custom-built Leslie Special in an automobile race to end all automobile races, Fate hovers above in a two-cycled powered miniature zeppelin, prepared to destroy the car before it is even unveiled. He blows himself and Max up.

Fate is not just foiling the Great Leslie at every chance he can get....he is busily working at establishing himself as a great daredevil too. However, while Leslie has women swarming around him with puckered lips ready for kissing, the only crowds Fate manages to draw are jeering children and skeptical reporters. With his skull-faced equipment and loyal Max by his side, Fate always attempts the impossible, begins to get away with it...and then finds himself covered in the dirt of a humiliating crash. 


When the Great New York to Paris automobile race is announced, Fate takes up the gauntlet and enters himself and his greatest invention to date into the race - the Hannibal Twin-8. This machine, which hardly resembles an automobile, was built with endurance and villainy in mind. It features six wheels ( complete with caterpillar tracks ), an ice-melting heat iron, miniature cannon, smoke generator and an escalating mechanism. 

Jack Lemmon took the typical silent-era style villain and raised him to magnificent heights in his portrayal of Professor Fate, creating a character that entices the audience to hiss, jeer, boo, and cheer all in one breath. What other villain inspires children to write "Fate is a Fink" on the gates outside his house? He is a failure through and through ( even his initials bring to mind the dreaded school grade of "F" ) and yet one can't help applauding him for his marvelously cunning mind and unstoppable drive. 


Professor Fate became such an inspiring creation that Hanna-Barbera continued the character on in their cartoonified Great Race animated series, The Wacky Races. Fate became the famous Dastardly Dan, while Max was incarnated into what he truly was - a big shaggy dog. Today, children the world over still love these cartoons and they are introducing them to the great film that is The Great Race. 

16 comments:

  1. Ha Haaaaa! I adore Professor Fate. Lemmon in this role makes me laugh more now than I did when I would watch this as a kid. Snidely Whiplash come to life! And Peter Falk is sublime. Also, love Jack in the "Zenda" spoof. A total hoot.

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    1. When I was doing a little research before writing this post, I found that Chris Lemmon considered this to be his father's best role. I personally love Lemmon best in "Good Neighbor Sam"...but I'd have to make Professor Fate a close second!

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, even though I've never seen The Great Race. In fact, I knew so little about it that when I saw the first picture in your post, I thought, "Wow -- that actor looks a lot like Jack Lemmon!" LOL I will have to give this one a look! (Why didn't Natalie Wood want the part, do you know?)

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Karen! Natalie Wood was going through a rough period in her life. She just divorced from Robert Wagner and really didn't want to do a zany comedy role. She wanted the lead role in "Inside Daisy Clover" desperately and so Jack Warner told her that if she did this project he would let her do Daisy. That was the only way she signed. Her co-stars said she seemed to be enjoying herself during filming, but a week after the shooting wrapped she attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. Poor Natalie really had a roller-coaster life and couldn't seem to get it under control.

      Wood is miscast in the film, but I'm not sure who COULD have played her part instead. I hope you enjoy the movie....it's zany but sure is fun! Keep an eye out for Dorothy Provine's "He Shouldn'ta, Hadn'ta, Ought'na, Swang on Me!" song...that's a hoot. Just the year before Lemmon and Provine co-starred in "Good Neighbor Sam" together.

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    2. Thanks so much for the scoop about Natalie. I had no idea!

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  3. I love a villain with a slick moustache and black top hat. Jack Lemon is perfect as Professor Fate – he seems to have a little too much fun in the role, no?

    Thanks for joining our blogathon with a marvelous villain!

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    1. He really did enjoy himself! You'd think that Lemmon took this as a break from doing serious parts, but he actually had a lot of comedy roles in the early 60s. I guess he just bit into the role with gusto!

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  4. Hahah! Jack Lemmon is sooooo wonderful and perfect as Professor Fate. He just makes me grin, from his player organ to every thing he tries that goes wrong. I can't imagine anyone but Lemmon bringing this character so much life. Such a fun movie. And I never tire of the pie fight!

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    1. How true, I really think it is Jack Lemmon's performance that makes this film come alive ( not that Blake Edwards gets denied any credit of course ).

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  5. Man I love "The Great Race"!!! I think I'll watch this one today, as you have reminded me that it has been to long. A wonderful write-up on a great villain, with the greatest moustache in film history.

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  6. Haven't seen this yet but recently got it so I can't wait, I love this type of stuff. Familiar with Dastardly Dan and that comment is right on about the resemblance to Snidely Whiplash. Can't beat an actual literal mustache twirling villain. Thanks so much for being part of this event with such a fun choice!

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    1. I hope you enjoy the film. And yes, you're quite right, Snidely Whiplash is another copycat character based on Professor Fate. What would Saturday morning cartoons have been like without such great inspiration for their villains?

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  7. There's something so magical about Professor Fate, I remember watching this when I was younger and being completely immersed in his world. Thanks for reminding me of a much loved classic!

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    1. That's the whole idea behind blogathons....introducing films to others and reminding us movie lovers what great films we have to re-watch as well! We're glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

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  8. This film is so cool! Near th end, my cheeks were hurting of too much laughter. Without a doubt Lemmon shines in here (doesn't he always?) and steals all the scenes. And to date I still love to quote Push the button, Max!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/04/peter-lorre-o-vilao-subestimado.html

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