Standing by Stanley
It's a mad, mad, mad, mad interview with actor Karen Sharpe Kramer, the widow of the iconoclastic director
"There's a lot to know about Stanley Kramer," Kramer proclaimed within her first breath of our interview regarding the new special edition remastered print of her husband's comic epic, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Austin's Paramount Theatre is the second venue to feature the revamped work (Nov. 21-25) after its re-premiere at Los Angeles' Cinemarama Dome last month. While Kramer's career as an innovative and controversial filmmaker certainly heightens curiosity, Mrs. Kramer's undying, cinematic-style affection for the man whose films garnered 85 Oscar nominations intrigued me even more.
They met when she was working with Jerry Lewis on The Disorderly Orderly. "I played Nurse Julie, and Stanley was making Ship of Fools across the soundstage with Vivien Leigh," Mrs. Kramer recalls. "I love Vivien Leigh. Who could resist Vivien Leigh, when you'd grown up with Gone With the Wind? So I took a chance, walked across, and he demanded to know who I was." After a make-up artist saved her from getting thrown off the set, the then Ms. Sharpe's manager was barraged by phone calls from the maverick director.
"It took Stanley a year to get a date with me. I was always working and didn't date those people. They tried to kiss me goodnight, I'd say no, and I didn't get jobs," Mrs. Kramer says, muting her smugness. But when her manager became increasingly worried that he would begin to lose gigs for his other clients, she capitulated. "Finally I said, 'I'll give you two hours,' and I was very rude to him," she says proudly. Playing hard-to-get with the Irving G. Thalberg recipient finally worked in her favor. "He was relentless in pursuing me, and I fell in love with him. We were married nine months later and stayed together for 35 years."
Chatting with the former starlet who had appeared in films with John Wayne (The High and the Mighty, 1954) and Robert Mitchum (Man With the Gun, 1955) feels like that special day in American history class -- the day the teacher has laryngitis and lets you watch a movie instead of thumbing through the textbook. Kramer's canon developed right alongside several benchmark events in American history, and Mrs. Kramer's anecdotes about her husband's work have that sepia wash of glory-day nostalgia that my generation does not know but seems to remember still.
"President Kennedy couldn't come because he was planning a trip to Dallas," says Mrs. Kramer of the larger-than-life premiere for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 40 years ago. "He sent Bobby and Teddy instead, and Ronald Reagan and Adlai Stevenson were there, too." After Kennedy made his trip to Texas in November 1963, "Stanley's film helped heal a nation," Mrs. Kramer declared. "Once it debuted, it played a year and three months continuously."
Producer/director Kramer was known for breaking molds of McCarthyism and interracial marriage in his socially conscious dramas like High Noon (1952), The Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and other films during his pre-Columbia independent filmmaking days -- not for making zany comedies. Despite her husband's label as innovator of these "message films," Mrs. Kramer insists that he could also use comedy to add to his list of firsts.
Originally, Mad World was five hours long and then edited to under four. "Not since Gone With the Wind had there been a four hour film with an intermission," says Mrs. Kramer. His original intermission, which included police radio transmissions of the whereabouts of the film's characters piped into lobbies and restrooms, had been discontinued because it frightened unsuspecting bathroom goers. "During opening week, this woman came out screaming, 'There's a man in the bathroom!'" describes Mrs. Kramer, "it caused such a commotion that Stanley took it out, but I brought it back."
Mad World, also the first film shot on 70 mm and to have cartooned opening credits, was the Cannonball Run of its day, sans Dom DeLuise. Comedic and other heavies, like Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Durante, Don Knotts, Peter Falk, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and the Three Stooges come together in a comic collision of car chases and treasure hunting, all in the name of $350,000 hidden under a great, big "W."
"Stanley was the first to put all those comedians in cameos," boasts Mrs. Kramer, "and people were upset they couldn't be in the film." When Mrs. Kramer was assembling the speakers for the re-premiere, she encountered some lingering bitterness. "I called Red Buttons, and he said 'no' [to her invitation]," she reports, "He said that he was genuinely upset that he could not get in that film. 'Red,' I said to him, 'Lucille Ball and Bob Hope weren't even in the film.'"
Despite Mad World's relative silliness in the wake of Kramer's other serious endeavors, Mrs. Kramer sees a sobering message in her husband's anomaly comic feat. "It is a lesson film. You see what we'll do for that almighty dollar," she laughs, "we'll make absolute fools out of ourselves. It doesn't speak well for us as human beings." With today's madness of contestants willingly ingesting worms on Fear Factor and having their flesh burned off on Survivor, she has a point.
Undoubtedly her husband's biggest fan, Mrs. Kramer has already remade High Noon (2000) for TBS, starring Tom Skerritt, and she has finished writing the sequel to Mad World. Her dream cast includes Billy Crystal as Milton Berle's son and Jack Black as Jonathan Winters' offspring. "I also want to do the real documentary and the real book," she plans aloud for him just as she did when he was alive. "I used to say, 'Stanley, you should run for president,' but I knew he didn't want to have to wear a suit."
Mrs. Kramer recently got the satisfaction of defending her husband against one of the many critics who often lambasted his work. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was probably Kramer's most high-profile controversial film, and Richard Schickel, then a writer for Life, wrote the worst review, in Mrs. Kramer's opinion, that the film ever received. "Some critics aren't too bright," says Mrs. Kramer, "they say 'why wasn't he a postman?'" The critics' largest beef was that Sidney Poitier's character was too good-looking and acceptable to be much of a threat to the parents of the white woman (Katharine Hepburn) he wanted to marry. "He couldn't have been a postman," exclaims Mrs. Kramer, whose life along with her husband's was threatened several times due to the film's subject matter, "his position as the most beautiful and intelligent black man made it believable that they disapproved only because he was black."
By the time the AFI compiled the top 100 films of all time, many of those same critics changed their tune. "Three years ago, I had heard that Richard Schickel called me to inform me that two of Stanley's films [High Noon and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner] had been chosen, and I said I'm gonna slap him." She describes with great glory the moment she finally spoke to him: "I said, 'Forgive me if I laugh, Mr. Schickel, but who could forget the dastardly review you wrote?'"
So what was it that made the hard-to-get starlet give her life to the director 20 years her senior? "He was like no one I had ever met. He was so ill at ease with women even though he had discovered greats like Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas," she recalls as her chuckle turns into pride, "I learned so much from being married to this man, and I'm still inspired by him." Indeed.