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Film: The Great Race

The Great Race is a 1965 comedy film about a car race around the world. It was directed by Blake Edwards, and starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood and a pre-Columbo Peter Falk.

The film is (very) loosely based on the 1908 New York to Paris automobile race. The protagonist is The Great Leslie (Curtis), a dashing and wealthy daredevil known for setting speed records and other dangerous stunts. His nemesis, Professor Fate (Lemmon) and his sidekick, Max (Falk) try to outdo him, but always fail hilariously. When Leslie enters a race from New York to Paris to promote a new car, Professor Fate promptly joins the race as well, hoping to finally defeat his hated rival. Photojournalist and suffragette Maggie DuBois (Wood), intent on covering the story, enters the race too. Shortly after the start, Fate's dirty tricks eliminate all contestants except Leslie and Maggie. Later, Maggie's car breaks down and she's forced to ride with Leslie — not long after that, Leslie's mechanic gets "conveniently" sidetracked. Should anyone be surprised that a relationship starts forming between the two of them?

The Great Race contains many silent movie-era slapstick and visual gags and parodies. While not a big success in its own time it has since become something of a Cult Classic. It was also a major influence on the cartoon series Wacky Races.

Not to be confused with H.P. Lovecraft's Starfish Aliens.

Contains examples of:

  • The Ace: The Great Leslie, as the name suggests.
  • Acting for Two: Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate and Prince Hapnik.
  • And Another Thing...: Maggie attempts this but never gets to finish it as Hezekiah drags her from the tent. She does manage to get in a nice air-kick though.
  • Annoying Laugh: Prince Hapnik, which Fate must soon imitate.
  • Artistic Title: The opening credits are presented in the form of a turn-of-the-century slideshow.
  • Asexuality: Possibly Professor Fate. Nowhere does he show any interest in anything other than inventing ridiculous artillery / machinery to outdo Leslie. Examples include how all the men in the bar were going ga-ga over Lily... except him. He seemed to find her extremely annoying, and kept avoiding her - she had to actually pull him over to her in order for her to act like he was trying to put the moves on her (to go in sync with her song). And then there's how he shows no interest in peeking on Maggie bathing in the lake, and even gets frustrated at Max for peeking.
  • Ash Face: Happens to the Professor and Max a couple of times.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Played for laughs; when Fate impersonates the prince and is about to be crowned, he abruptly leaves in the middle of the ceremony.
  • Badass Moustache: Hezekiah has a prominent one. He pairs this with...
  • Bald of Awesome: Hezekiah, again. His baldness is how he identifies himself to Leslie at some distance during the film's second-act.
  • Bar Brawl: One of the greatest. "Now who's gonna give a man some FIGHTIN' ROOM?"
  • Battle Butler: Max and Hezekiah both act as domestic servants to their employers, in addition to their duties as bodyguards and assistants in their daredevil acts.
  • Beard of Evil: Baron Von Stuppe rocks a villainous goatee, and both secondary antagonists General Kuhster and Texas Jack have prominent moustaches.
    • Leslie, as the hero, is constantly clean-shaven.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: When Maggie is imprisoned, she makes one out of her clothes. Though her escape attempt was unsuccessful, it certainly wasn't pointless.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Maggie and Leslie To the point where he throws the race just to make a point to her.
  • "Be Quiet!" Nudge: Done by Leslie to Hezekiah during the Laugh with Me moment mentioned below.
  • The Big Race: Obviously.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Borracho means "drunkard" in Spanish.
    • Natalie Wood was actually quite fluent in Russian, and her lines in Russian were accurate.
  • Bulletproof Fashion Plate: The Great Leslie's clothes never get stained. Lampshaded continually throughout the movie, culminating in a very funny rant by the Professor.
    • They do at one point - during the massive pie fight. Even then, he makes it mostly through clean. Then Maggie hits him with one completely by accident. And that one pie is the same color as his outfit - quite possibly the only pie in the entire pie fight that didn't have a colorful filling.
    • Apparently, they had to stop the fight several times during filming so that Tony Curtis could change clothes - he was constantly getting hit by bits of flying pastry.
  • Car Fu: Max storms the Baron's castle using the Hannibal 8; he rams down the main gates and uses the car's cannon and smoke dispenser to take on the Carpanian infantry.
  • Catch Phrase: Professor Fate's "Push the button, Max!" (It even has its own Leitmotif: sample here.)
    • Which was appropriated by a certain team of scientists down in Deep 13.
    • That music (more strictly a "theme" than a motif) is associated rather with Professor Fate himself than with the button. If you listen to the track called "A Royal Waltz," you'll hear the same theme transformed into a Viennese style waltz-tune, reflecting how Prince Hapnick is the mitteleuropäisch version of Professor Fate, in a context where there is no button and no Max.
    • As well as his other catch phrase he screams whenever something goes wrong: "MAAAAAAAAAAAXXXXX!!!"
  • Chekhov's Skill: The film early on sets Leslie up to be a master swordsman. Baron Von Stuppe as well is introduced as being a proficient duelist. A duel is imminent.
    • Maggie mentions in passing her ability to speak, read and write in Russian, French and Arabic. Much later she, the Professor, and Max end up in Russia and the two men are both comically unable to get anything whatsoever across to the stoic populace until Maggie intervenes.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Pretty much every scene with the Professor. Best example, though, is probably his rant at the end of the film.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Leslie, who can't resist the good will of any woman.
  • Colour Coded Characters: Leslie wears white and all his gear is white. Professor Fate wears black and his car is black.
  • Conservation of Competence: Max is completely ineffectual as Professor Fate's sidekick. Though when he isn't by the Professor's side, he actually does display competence: namely, during the rescue mission for Professor Fate (and the others), he actually manages to effectively disguise himself as a fryer friar, go ninja on everyone, and defeat / distract 99% of the guards, thereby aiding the escape immensely.
  • Cool Airship: Professor Fate has an exceptionally small one - two-person, pedal-powered. It works pretty well, except that the bomb-releasing mechanism is slightly misplaced.
  • Cool Car: The Hannibal 8 and the Leslie Special. Both were built for the movie.
  • Cooperation Gambit: After Professor Fate and Maggie DuBois are kidnapped by some bad guys, Fate's minion Max joins forces with the Great Leslie to rescue them. Of course, being a villain Max betrays the heroes during the rescue.
  • Covered in Gunge: Everybody (except, of course, Leslie) after a large pie fight.
    • Even Leslie gets this by the end. Not as bad as everyone else, but still...
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Professor Fate is quite possibly the Trope Codifier. Dick Dastardly is actually based on him. And he resembles Snidely Whiplash, as well, though that is likely a coincidence.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Professor Fate, yet again (though he's far from deadpan).
    • On being told the iceberg he's stranded on is sinking: "Of course I'll keep it to myself... until the water reaches my bottom lip and then I'M GONNA MENTION IT TO SOMEBODY!!!"
  • Decoy Damsel: When her car breaks down, Maggie lies down on the ground as if she had fainted, so Leslie would stop and help her.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Professor Fate in spades.
    • In point of fact, Dick Dastardly was clearly based on Professor Fate, so this is fact the trope's origin.
  • Dirty Coward: The Sheriff of Boracho. Once the saloon fight starts, he pins his badge on a semi-conscious cowboy and quickly runs out the door.
  • Driven by Envy: Professor Fate's jealousy towards Leslie is his main motivation. He's driven to drive.
  • The Edwardian Era: Though no precise date is given, Maggie once tells the Carpanians that they'll have to answer to "Teddy Roosevelt and the United States government", which sets the film between 1901 and 1909.
  • Epic Race
  • Escalating Brawl:
    • In the town of Borracho, a fight between The Great Leslie and Texas Jack quickly turns into an all-out Bar Brawl.
    • The pie fight scene in develops this way; people walk in to the bakery, see what's going on, get hit by a missile intended for someone else and join the scrum—except, of course, for The Great Leslie, who walks through the crossfire unscathed until Maggie gets him in the face at close quarters purely by accident. Obviously, this is Played for Laughs.
  • Evil Chancellor: General Kuhster and Baron von Stuppe
  • Evil Laugh: Professor Fate has a particularly memorable one.
    • This trope is played with in the scene where General Kuhster gives Fate an impromptu lesson on laughing like Prince Hapnik. It doesn't appear to have any effect.
  • Fake King: In a subplot, parodying The Prisoner of Zenda, Prince Hapnik, crown prince of a fictional kingdom is replaced by Fate, who looks exactly like him.
  • Flynning: The sword duel. Lampshaded when the Count suggests they switch to sabers and they trade their fencing foils for movie foils; still foils, only with elaborate, saber-like hilts.
  • Follow the Bouncing Ball: When Maggie sings "The Sweetheart Tree".
  • Food Fight: Contains the largest pie fight in cinematic history. The scene used 4000 pies and took five days to shoot.
  • Frankenstein's Monster: Professor Fate's marvelous Hannibal-8 racer is a variant of this trope. It's a car made from the finest parts of other cars, much as the Monster is a patchwork of other people's parts; the scene of its unveiling in the Professor's gothic manor is reminiscent of similar ones in various Frankenstein movies; and Max's appearance with a stolen Rolls Royce magneto in that scene is suitably Igor-like.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: Not evil, per se, but Fate's colour scheme is all blacks and greys, whereas valiant Leslie's is wholly white.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Edith Head, the costume designer for the movie, really went to town on the splendid 1900's outfits (from riding habit to motoring costumes to evening gowns) that Natalie Wood wore.
  • Grand Romantic Gesture: Leslie loses the race on purpose (stopping right before the finish line) to show Maggie that he cares about her more.
  • Hand Signals: During Professor Fate's first stunt (being pulled up into the air by an airplane), he and Max both signal each other with hand gestures.
  • Harmless Villain: Professor Fate is all talk, but for intents and purposes he is relatively harmless; his numerous weapons and plans always do more damage to him to than to anyone else.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The trailer calls the film the gayest comedy in the world.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Max does one very briefly when working with Leslie to free the others. It turns out to be an Enemy Mine when Max quickly resumes his villainous tendencies once the Professor is free.
  • Henpecked Husband: Maggie's editor, Mr Goodbody.
  • Honor Before Reason: At the end of the movie, Fate wins the race, but only because Leslie threw the race to make a point to Maggie. Fate immediately rants at Leslie for this and demands another race so he can win on his own terms.
  • High Dive Escape: Parodied. After Baron von Stuppe realizes that Leslie has defeated him, he says that he has a boat waiting, adds a We Will Meet Again, and jumps out the window into the lake. Unfortunately for him, his escape boat is small, wooden, and located right under the window, so he smashes through the boat and sinks it.
  • Hilarity Ensues: Professor Fate's attempts to outdo or sabotage Leslie.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Professor's speciality. He gets gassed by his own security system, nearly mauled by his own attack dogs, blown-up repeatedly by his car's own cannon and is sidelined early in the race by his and Max's own mechanical sabotages.
  • Hyperspace Wardrobe: Maggie must have a truck following her on the race with her entire wardrobe in it.
  • Identical Stranger: Fate and the Prince (both played by Jack Lemmon).
  • The Igor: Max is one, albeit one that is a lot easier on the eyes than most. His sneaky hunched over walk makes do for his lack of a true hunchback.
  • Incoming Ham: "I AM PROFESSOR FATE!"
    • Met with dead silence by the (Russian-speaking) villagers.
    • It comes even early. In the very first scene: "A PARACHUTE!?!"
  • Intermission: (2 minutes long, with music)
  • Informed Ability: Texas Jack is described as the toughest man in the area and everyone is scared of him when he first shows up at the bar, and even the sheriff backs down from his threats, but once the fight starts he's not any better than Leslie, Hezekiah, or his own goons for that matter.
  • Instant Messenger Pigeon: Maggie uses homing pigeons to deliver her stories to the newspaper sponsoring the race. The pigeons return directly to the newspaper building, not their dovecots, and reach it almost immediately even though they're crossing most of the U.S. to get there.
  • Intimate Healing: In Alaska, Leslie explains to Maggie that they have to sleep under the same blanket to keep warm.
  • Iron Butt Monkey: Professor Fate and Max.
  • It's Pronounced Tro-PAY: Leslie doesn't exactly mispronounce the word "automobile", but he over-enunciates it so badly that it counts, ending up sounding like there are four separate words instead of one longer one.
  • Kiss-Kiss-Slap: Maggie slaps Leslie, after he kisses her.
  • Kiss of Distraction: Leslie pulls one on Maggie early on; after she handcuffs herself to him and declares, essentially, that she's going to keep talking at him until he gets her into the race, he grabs her, kisses her, and uses the distraction to slip out of the cuff and put it on her other wrist.
  • Large Ham: Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate. His laugh takes this Up to Eleven - and it's awesome.
  • Laughably Evil: Professor Fate, yet again. The submarine gag and the iceberg scene are good examples.
  • Laugh with Me: When The Great Leslie and Hezekiah meet Crown Prince Hapnik. The prince makes several jokes, each time gesturing for the crowd to laugh, which they dutifully do. At one point Hezekiah keeps laughing after every one else stops, until The Great Leslie elbows him in the ribs. Watch it here.
  • Literal Cliffhanger: Early in the film, Professor Fate jumps out a window. When the horrified observers rush over and look down, they see him hanging from a pole below the window.
  • Lots of Luggage: Maggie DuBois takes along a large amount of luggage when she takes part in the title car race. When her car breaks down and the Great Leslie rescues her, she insists that he take her luggage along.
  • Man in White: Leslie.
  • Meaningful Name: Borracho. Which is Spanish for drunk.
    Lily: If by now, you haven't mastered
    The gentle art of getting plastered,
    You're just a Low-Down, you ain't mastered
    The motto of our town!
    • Possibly Baron Von Stuppe, who's said to be very popular with the ladies
  • Mister Big: Texas Jack, despite having a fearsome reputation and being the scourge of Boracho, is a tiny man. In fact, both the main characters and Jack's minions are bigger than he is.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: We get our first glimpse on Professor Fate and Max when he is following Leslie's latest deed inside a shrubbery.
  • Monumental Damage: Professor Fate and Max accidentally blow up the Eiffel Tower at the end.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Maggie, who spends a significant amount of time in the third act in just her underwear.
  • No Indoor Voice: Professor Fate, once again. He does a disproportionate amount of shouting, and aims it at everyone.
  • Odd Couple: See Opposites Attract below.
  • Of Corsets Sexy: Maggie wears pretty much only her corset (with attached garters and stockings) throughout the final major sequence of the film. She also has her clothes blasted away, revealing her corset, when she pays a visit to Professor Fate's lair early on in the proceedings.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: Professor Fate has one in his mansion, complete with the requisite rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Played with in that it's a player pipe organ — all he does is pump the pedals.
  • Omniglot: Maggie boasts to Leslie that she can speak, read and write Russian, French and Arabic. He responds that so can he - plus five other languages.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Professor Fate to Leslie, naturally. He sabotages all the other cars in the race to keep between between the two of them, and suffers a major breakdown when Leslie deliberately and gracefully forfeits at the end instead of being beaten by the Professor.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: Maggie daringly exposes her stockings to the shocked newspaper editor, Mr. Goodbody.
  • Opera Gloves: Maggie wears them several times.
  • Operation Jealousy: Maggie gets fed up with Leslie's flirting with other women... so she decides to play this out. With Professor Fate of all people. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Opposites Attract: The Great Leslie - charming male chauvinist. Maggie DuBois - militant women's libber.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: Max takes a peek at Maggie when she's bathing in a lake (though she's not naked). The Professor throws a bucket of water on him.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Professor Fate tends to don these. Most notably an instance where all he does is add a fake beard and a ridiculously over-the-top Scottish accent.
  • Parasol of Prettiness: Maggie has one.
  • Pie in the Face: See Food Fight, above. Every major player gets at least one pie in the face — Max gets 8 in the first round.
    • Considering that Maggie is wearing little more than Victorian lingerie, many consider this scene Ground Zero for so-called "wet and messy" Fetish Fuel.
  • Plucky Girl: Maggie, of course
  • The Precarious Ledge: Played for laughs. Henry Goodbody, the editor of the New York Sentinel newspaper, sends his assistant Frisbee out on the ledge of a skyscraper to retrieve a messenger pigeon with information about the progress of the title race. The assistant almost falls but manages to retrieve the pigeon.
    Goodbody: Frisbee, next time be more careful. If you're falling, let go of the bird.
  • Pretty in Mink
  • Put Their Heads Together: While The Great Leslie is infiltrating a castle he knocks out two guards by slamming their heads together.
  • Road Runner vs. Coyote: Leslie and Professor Fate.
  • Running Gag: "Push the button, Max," which inevitably leads to "MAAAAAAAAAAAXXXXX!!!"
  • Ruritania: Prince Hapnik's country of Carpania.
  • The Savage Indian: Subverted. The Professor and Max are chased into Boracho by what they assume are savage Indians. It turns out they were just the Mayor's welcoming group dressed up.
  • Say My Name: Professor Fate always screams Max's name whenever something goes wrong. It's pretty funny, actually.
  • Shout-Out: The dedication: "To Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy"
  • Show Some Leg: Maggie convinces her editor to give her the assignment of covering the race with showing him her legs in silk stockings.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: The Great Leslie and Maggie DuBois.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Leslie smokes a white pipe.
    • Maggie smokes cigars to demonstrate that she's an emancipated woman.
  • Stay in the Kitchen; Maggie originally wanted to travel with Leslie, but he rebuffed her. So she entered the race herself.
  • Stealth Pun: Perhaps not so much a pun, but definitely a stealthy joke - it may take you a minute to think about Natalie Wood's line 'If you harm one hair on his head...' (She is talking about Hezekiah)
    • This troper missed the joke because he assumed she was talking about his mustache...
  • Stocking Filler: Maggie abundantly displays her black-stockinged legs (said stockings being held up by garters attached to her corset) during the kidnapping and pie-fight sequences.
  • Storming the Castle: Leslie and Maximilian storm the Baron's castle in order to rescue Maggie and the Professor. See Car Fu above.
  • Straw Feminist: Maggie has some shades of this. For example, despite her stated goal of "taking women off the pedestal," she is not above pretending to be a Distressed Damsel when it suits her. She also makes a habit of reading misogynist undertones into the comments of other characters where none exist, such as insisting that Leslie's genuine compliments about her driving ability are all secretly suffixed with "for a woman."
  • Strolling Through the Chaos: Leslie during the pie fight, though he eventually gets one in the face.
  • Sweetie Graffiti: Appears in "The Sweetheart Tree".
  • Sword Fight: Von Stuppe vs Leslie. Neither wins, surprisingly; Leslie is obviously the better swordsman, but Von Stuppe pulls a Villain Exit Stage Left and jumps out the window.
  • Tagalong Reporter: Maggie sets out to be one, but when neither Professor Fate nor The Great Leslie will take her with them, she enters her own car in the race. Ends up being a tagalong reporter through most of the race anyway, with one group or the other, when her car breaks down.
  • Tap on the Head: At least 11 people altogether.
  • Tempting Fate:
    Prof. Fate: Do you realize the odds against a storm in this part of the ocean at this time of year?
    Max: No, what?
    Prof. Fate: 100-to-1.
    • With his approach to all his (painfully) failed attempts in various daredevil feats, Professor Fate is constantly tempting... well, fate.
  • Those Magnificent Flying Machines: Professor Fate uses a small pedal-powered airship to try and drop a bomb onto Leslie, with predictable results.
  • Tongue on the Flagpole
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Subverted when Professor Fate arrives in Siberia. There are crowds of people holding torches lining the streets, all ominously silent. They don't respond when Fate speaks, but when Maggie greets them in Russian they throng the car, enthusiastically cheering.
  • Twinkle Smile: Leslie.
  • Undying Loyalty: Hezekiah and Max, to Leslie and the Professor respectively.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Maggie wears a different costume in every scene.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: The villain's sidekick sabotages all the cars before the race... including their own. They realize it about a second before their engine falls out of the car.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There actually was a NY to Paris Automobile Race in 1908, and some of the more nonsensical aspects of the movie (crossing the Bering Strait on an ice floes, for instance) were actually considered for the actual race before common sense prevailed. Three cars finished and all still survive today in museums.
  • Villain Exit Stage Left: Baron Von Stuppe pulls one of these on Leslie after the hero proves to be better than him in fencing / swordfighting. He bungles the exit somewhat in a parody of the climactic scene from The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The Professor suffers an incredible breakdown, upon finding out he only won because Leslie chose to lose in order to prove a point
  • Wacky Racing
  • Weaponized Car: The Hannibal 8 (Fate's car) has a built-in cannon, among other things.
  • We Will Meet Again: Von Stuppe: "He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day" before escaping.
  • World Tour: New York City to Paris, via the American Midwest, the Bering Strait, and eastern and central Europe.
  • The Von Trope Family: Baron von Stuppe


Push the button, Max!
Genghis KhanFilms of the 1960sThe Greatest Story Ever Told

alternative title(s): The Great Race
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