The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) are competing daredevils at the turn of the 20th century. Leslie is the classic hero – always dressed in white, handsome, ever-courteous, enormously talented and successful. Leslies nemesis, Fate, is the traditional melodramatic villain – usually dressed in black, sporting a black moustache and top hat, glowering at most everyone, maniacal evil laugh, grandiose plans to thwart the hero, and dogged by failure. Leslie proposes an automobile race from New York to Paris, to prove the ability of a new car named after him. Fate builds his own race vehicle, the Hannibal Twin-8, complete with hidden devices of sabotage. Others enter cars in the race, including New York Citys most prominent newspaper. Driving the newspapers car is beautiful photojournalist Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a vocal suffragette.
The six-car race begins, but Fates long-suffering sidekick Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) has sabotaged three other cars (and his own, by mistake), leaving just three cars in the race. The surviving teams are Leslie with his loyal mechanic Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn), Maggie DuBois driving a Stanley Steamer by herself, and Fate and Max. The newspapers car breaks down and Maggie accepts a lift in the Leslie Special. Fate arrives first at a refueling point, the small Western frontier town of Boracho. A local outlaw named "Texas Jack" (Larry Storch) becomes jealous of the attraction to Leslie shown by showgirl Lily Olay (Dorothy Provine) and a saloon brawl ensues. Fate sneaks outside amidst the chaos, steals the fuel he needs, and destroys the rest. Leslie uses mules to pull his car to another refueling point, where Maggie tricks Hezekiah into boarding a train and handcuffs him to a seat, telling Leslie the mechanic had quit.
The two remaining cars reach the Bering Strait and park side-by-side in a blinding snowstorm. Keeping warm during the storm, Leslie and Maggie begin to see each other as more than competitors. Mishaps, including a polar bear in Fates car, compel all four racers to warm themselves in Leslies car. They awake on a small ice floe which drifts into their intended Russian port, where Hezekiah is waiting for Leslie, who in turn casts off Maggie for deceiving him. Maggie is snatched by Fate, who drives off in the lead.
After driving across Asia, both cars enter the tiny kingdom of Pottsdorf, whose alcoholic and foppish Crown Prince Hapnick (also played by Lemmon) is a double for Fate. Rebels under the leadership of Baron Rolfe von Stuppe (Ross Martin) and General Kuhster (George Macready) kidnap the Prince, Fate, Max, and Maggie. Max escapes and joins Leslie to rescue the others. Fate is forced to masquerade as the Prince during the coronation so that the rebels can gain control of the kingdom. Leslie and Max overcome Von Stuppes henchmen and confront Von Stuppe. Following a climactic sword duel with Leslie, Von Stuppe attempts escape by leaping to a waiting boat, but bursts the hull and sinks it. Leslie and Max return the real Prince in time for his coronation and depart with Fate and Maggie. Fate takes refuge in a bakery but falls into a huge cake. A pie fight ensues involving the racers, the Princes men and the conspirators.
As the racers leave Pottsdorf (with Maggie now back in Leslies car), it becomes a straight road race to Paris. Nearing Paris, Leslie and Maggie have a spirited argument regarding the roles of men, women and sex in relationships. Leslie stops his car just short of the finish line under the Eiffel Tower to prove that he loves Maggie more than he cares about winning the race. Fate drives past to claim the winners mantle, but becomes indignant that Leslie let him win. Fate demands a rematch: a race back to New York.
The return race commences, with newlyweds Leslie and Maggie now a team. Fate lets them start first, then attempts to destroy their car with a small cannon. The cannon misfires, knocking down the Eiffel Tower.
Director Blake Edwards based the film on the 1908 New York to Paris Race, very loosely interpreted. On February 12, 1908, the "Greatest Auto Race" began with six entrants, starting in New York City and racing westward across three continents. The destination was Paris, making it the first around-the-world automobile race. Only the approximate race route and the general time period were borrowed by Edwards in his effort to make "the funniest comedy ever".
Edwards, a studious admirer of silent film, dedicated the film to early film comedians Laurel and Hardy. The Great Race incorporated a great many silent era visual gags, along with slapstick, double entendres, parodies, and absurdities. The film includes such time-worn scenes as a barroom brawl, the tent of the desert sheik, a sword fight, and the laboratory of the mad scientist. The unintended consequences of Professor Fates order, "Push the button, Max!", is a running gag, along with the spotless invulnerability of "The Great Leslie".
Edwards poked fun at later films and literature as well. The saloon brawl scene was a parody of the western film genre, and a plot detour launched during the final third of the film was a direct parody of The Prisoner of Zenda, wherein a traveler is a lookalike for the king and stands in for him.
Because of the success of Edwards previous films Breakfast at Tiffanys, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, the films budget started out at a generous $6 million. Mirisch Productions initially financed the film for United Artists, but the films escalating costs led UA to drop the film but the project was picked up by Warners. Edwards wanted Robert Wagner to play the leading man, but studio executive Jack L. Warner insisted on Tony Curtis, possibly due to Wood having recently divorced from Wagner. Working with Warner, Curtiss new agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar negotiated US$125,000 for Curtis, more than Edwards and Lemmon who were to receive US$100,000 each. After Warner signed the Curtis contract, Lazar reasoned that Edwards and Lemmon should also make US$125,000 and Warner upped their compensation to match Curtis.
Natalie Wood did not want to make The Great Race, but Warner talked her into it. Wood was unhappy with her career and her personal life, having recently divorced from Robert Wagner in April 1962. Warner asked Curtis if he would give a percentage of his film royalties to Wood, as an enticement, but Curtis refused. He said, "I couldnt give her anything to make her want to do the movie." Instead of more money, Warner promised Wood that if she completed The Great Race, she could star in Gavin Lamberts drama Inside Daisy Clover, a role she greatly wished to have. Wood agreed, thinking that filming would be brief on Edwards movie.
Shooting began on June 15, 1964. Many of the sight gags for The Great Race were expensive to create, and the costs ballooned to US$12 million by the time the film was finished. Edwards, sometimes with Wood in tow, repeatedly visited Warner in his office to ask for more money. Warner approved nearly all of the requests. When it was released it was the most expensive comedy ever filmed.
In November 1964, the actors were done with all the film except for dialog replacement. During the five months of filming, Woods unhappiness was not visible to the cast and crew, and her characterization of Maggie DuBois was playful. Her sister Lana Wood thought that Wood looked the prettiest she ever had, but Lana sensed that the film "was physically taxing" for Wood. On Friday, November 27, the day after Thanksgiving, Wood wrapped up the last bit of dialog work, then went home and swallowed a bottle of prescription pills. Groggy from the drugs, she called her friend Mart Crowley who took her to the hospital for emergency treatment.
Music for the film was by Henry Mancini and the costumes were designed by Edith Head. Production design, setting the period and augmenting the visual humor, was by Fernando Carrere who also designed The Great Escape and The Pink Panther for Blake Edwards.
The heros white car, named the "Leslie Special" was specially built by Warner Brothers to resemble a Thomas Flyer, the car that won the 1908 New York to Paris Race. According to the Petersen Automotive Museum, four "Leslie Specials" were built. One of the four is at the Tupelo Automobile Museum in Tupelo, Mississippi, listed as a 1963 Leslie Special Convertible.
Another of the four appears painted dark green in the 1970 Warner Brothers film The Ballad of Cable Hogue—the grille can be seen bearing the words "Leslie Special", with the wheels and tires remaining their original white color. This vehicle shows up during the last 30 minutes of the movie carrying a lead character, and has a pivotal role at the end of the movie.
The villains black car was named the "Hannibal Twin-8"; five were constructed. One of them is on display at the Petersen Automobile Museum, powered by a Volkswagen industrial engine. Another is at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois. This model includes a prop "cannon" and a working smoke generator. The Volo museum describes the Hannibal Twin-8 as built by Warner Brothers at a cost of US$150,000, powered by a Corvair six-cylinder engine with three-speed manual transmission and six wheels. All four rear wheels are powered by a chain drive.
Both vehicles were first on display at Movie Worlds "Cars of the Stars" museum in Buena Park, California, until the museum closed in the late 1970s. It was located adjacent to the Movieland Wax Museum.
The Technicolor pie fight scene in the royal bakery was filmed over five days. The first pastry thrown was part of a large cake decorated for the kings coronation. Following this was the throwing of 4,000 pies, the most pies ever filmed in a pie fight. The scene lasts four minutes and twenty seconds and cost US$200,000 to shoot; US$18,000 just for the pastry.
Colorful cream pies with fillings such as raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and lemon were used. For continuity between days of shooting, the actors were photographed at the end of each day and then made up the following morning to have the same colorful appearance, the same smears of pie crust and filling.
Edwards told the cast that a pie fight by itself is not funny, so to make it funny they would build tension by having the hero, dressed all in white, fail to get hit with any pies. He said, "The audience will start yearning for him to get it". Finally, the hero was to take a pie in the face at "just the right moment".
Shooting was halted while the actors took the weekend off. Over the weekend, the pie residue spoiled, all over the scenery. When the actors returned Monday morning, the pie filling smelled so bad that the building required a thorough cleaning and large fans to blow out the sour air. The missing pie residue was carefully recreated with more pies, and shooting resumed.
At first, the actors had fun with the pie fight assignment, but eventually the process grew wearisome and dangerous. Wood choked briefly on pie filling which hit her open mouth. Lemmon reported that he got knocked out a few times; he said, "a pie hitting you in the face feels like a ton of cement". At the end of shooting, when Edwards called "cut!", he was barraged with several hundred pies that members of the cast had hidden, waiting for the moment.
The pie fight scene paid homage to the early Mack Sennett practice of using a single thrown pie as comedic punctuation, but to a greater degree it was a celebration of classic movie pie fights such as Behind the Screen (1916) with Charlie Chaplin; The Battle of the Century (1927) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; and In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) with the Three Stooges. In his script for The Great Race Edwards called for a "Battle of the Century-style pie fight". Though Edwards used 4,000 pies over five days, many of these were used as set dressing for continuity. Laurel and Hardy used 3,000 pies in only one day of shooting, so more are seen flying through the air. Leonard Maltin compared The Great Race pie fight to The Battle of the Century and determined that Laurel and Hardys pacing was far superior; that the more modern film suffered from an "incomplete understanding of slapstick" while the 1927 pie fight remains "one of the great scenes in all of screen comedy."
The Great Race was generally not well-received upon release and was considered a critical flop, making it the first notable failure for director Edwards. Most critics attacked its blatant and overdone slapstick humor and its lack of substance. It also suffered from comparisons with another race-themed "epic comedy" of 1965, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Film critic Richard Schickel wrote that, though the film "bumps along very pleasantly for the most part", Edwards failed at his attempt to recreate the slapstick atmosphere of a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Schickel felt that Wood was "hopelessly miscast", and that the energies of Lemmon and Curtis did not quite make the slapstick work. Maltin wrote that Wood "never looked better" and that the films comedy sometimes worked but was otherwise forced: "a mixed bag". It currently has a 77% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Before the film was released, the soundtrack was re-recorded in Hollywood by RCA Victor Records for release on vinyl LP. Henry Mancini spent six weeks composing the score, and the recording involved some 80 musicians. Mancini collaborated with lyricist Johnny Mercer on several songs including "The Sweetheart Tree", a waltz released as a single. The song plays on along the film as the main theme without chorus (except in the entr acte) and it was performed onscreen by Natalie Wood with the voice dubbed by Jackie Ward (uncredited). It was nominated for but did not win an Oscar for best song. The full track listing is:"He Shouldnt-A, Hadnt-A, Oughtnt-A Swang on Me" – Mancini/Mercer
Performed by Dorothy Provine
"Buffalo Gals" – Traditional Western song performed by the chorus girls in Boracho saloon, with different lyrics and a middle section, for a 1900s atmosphere
"The Sweetheart Tree (chorus)" – Mancini
Performed by Natalie Wood (dubbed by Jackie Ward)
"The Royal Waltz" – Mancini
"Great Race March" – Mancini
"Theyre Off" – Mancini
"Push the Button, Max!" (Professor Fates theme) – Mancini
"The Great Race March" – Mancini
"Cold Finger" – Mancini
"Music to Become King By" – Mancini
"Night, Night, Sweet Prince" – Mancini
"The Pie in the Face Polka" – Mancini
"The Desert Song"
Music by Sigmund Romberg
"It Looks Like a Big Night Tonight"
Music by Egbert Van Alstyne
"Big Night Tonight"
"Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565"Written by Johann Sebastian Bach
"Tales from the Vienna Woods"
Written by Johann Strauss
"The Beautiful Blue Danube"
Written by Johann Strauss
The film won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects as well as being nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Song, and Best Sound (George Groves). It was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Jack Lemmon).
At the 4th Moscow International Film Festival, the film won the Silver Prize.Overture (3:41)
Push the Button - Max! (2:57)
The Royal Waltz (1:41)
Night - Night Sweet Prince (3:04)
Theyre Off! (1:31)
The Sweetheart Tree (1:59)
The Great Race March (1:51)
He Shouldnt-A - Oughtnt-A Swang on Me! (3:11)
Music to Become King By (2:38)
Cold Finger (2:29)
Pie-In-The-Face Polka (2:25)
The film was a major influence on Wacky Races, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. The films characterizations were themselves rather cartoonish. Furthermore, film editor and sound-effects man Treg Brown, who worked on many classic Warner Brothers cartoons, worked on this film, and many sound effects will be familiar to cartoon fans. Browns sound design won the film an Oscar.