Writer/director Blake Edwards was known for his penchant for slapstick physical humor and Vaudevillian visual gags, which he totally indulged while writing and shooting this film, mostly in sequences involving Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk.
Chris Lemmon, son of actor Jack Lemmon (Professor Fate), said in an interview on KMOX-Radio in St. Louis that he considers Lemmon's role in this film to be his father's finest. Jack Lemmon himself has said he got more mail about Fate than about any other character he played.
This film was the inspiration for the Saturday morning cartoon show Wacky Races (1968): Dick Dastardly and his sidekick Muttley were based on Professor Fate and Max, Penelope Pitstop was based on Maggie DuBois and Peter Perfect was based on Leslie.
During the pie fight, the Great Leslie remains clean while everyone else is covered in pie. Tony Curtis was actually changing clothes several times, because he all too often got hit with pie during filming.
A moose head hangs on the wall of Professor Fate's (Jack Lemmon) dining room, but when the Professor and Max run out the front door you can see that the rest of the moose stands in the foyer, with just his head poking through a hole in the wall. Ernie Kovacs originally did this gag on one of his TV shows. Lemmon was a great friend of Kovacs and used this gag in the film.
The ice floe sequence was shot on what is now known as Warner Bros. Sound Stage 16, the biggest and tallest sound stage on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Originally, in the early days of the studio, it was known as Stage 7. If you look closely at the water that surrounds the actors and the automobiles on the slab of ice, you can see a multitude of reflections from the lights on the stage's catwalks. Stage 16 was originally a standard-sized sound stage, but when the studio needed room to film tall-masted ships in its earlier years, the entire stage was jacked up while steel and concrete buttresses were built underneath the structure for added support, doubling the stage's height after the new foundation was poured. Its floor is retractable to reveal a deep flotation tank as well as windowed camera cabins for underwater filming. In "The Great Race," a portion of the gradually "melting ice floe" was attached to cables that kept the slab of "ice" in position and the portion which gradually gave way underneath Professor Fate was pulled down by an underwater diver in the tank.
In the film's press kit, Natalie Wood divulges that she took fencing lessons, sidesaddle lessons and practiced smoking cigars, but her biggest challenge was driving the Stanley Steamer. The steering was difficult ("like turning a tractor, I suspect", she says) and going into reverse was nearly impossible.
The pie fight scene lasts four minutes and was shot in five days. It is the longest pie fight sequence in movie history. At first, the cast had fun filming the pie fight scene, but eventually the process grew wearisome and dangerous. Natalie Wood choked briefly on a pie which hit her open mouth. Jack Lemmon got knocked out a few times: "a pie hitting you in the face feels like a ton of cement". At the end of shooting the fight, when Blake Edwards called "Cut!" he was barraged with several hundred pies that members of the cast had hidden, waiting for the moment
This movie is based on an actual event that took place in 1908. On February 12, the "Greatest Auto Race" began with six entrants, starting in New York City and racing westward across three continents to Paris.
However, the film is a comedy and only the race route and the era of the race are accurate.
Jack L. Warner asked Tony Curtis if he would give a percentage of his film royalties to Natalie Wood as an enticement, but Curtis refused. He said, "I couldn't give her anything to make her want to do the movie." Curtis and Wood had worked on two films previously, and had developed an acrimonious relationship.
Both the "Hannibal 8" and the "Leslie Special" are on display in the Hollywood Gallery at The Peterson Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California. The other "Leslie Special" is on display at the Tupelo Automobile Museum in Tupelo, MS. The Hannibal 8 driven by Professor Fate was powered by a Corvair six-cylinder engine and three-speed transmission. Six Hannibal 8 cars were built for the movie at a reported cost of $150,000 each, three of which used the lazy tongs lifting mechanism, so fragile that it broke constantly. The "Leslie Special" was designed and built by the studio using parts from several cars.
As the budget for this film ballooned from $3 million to $12 million, Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Bros., said Blake Edwards was spending money like water. Edwards, in turn, accused Warner of being "tight". Warner then served Edwards with legal papers to remove him from the picture. Edwards made several concessions to the studio, however, and continued with the project.
Both the Leslie Special and the Hannibal 8 are now owned by the Stahls Automotive Foundation and are on display in its museum in Chesterfield, Michigan. Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk have autographed the cars.
The film's world premiere was a black-tie affair held at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday evening, July 1, 1965. Tickets for the premiere ranged from $25. to $100. with all but $3.50 of each ticket benefiting the Crippled Children's Guild of Orthopaedic Hospital.
As its production budget swung wildly out of control, this film became the most expensive movie comedy ever made at the time. And with a duration of 160 mintes, it's also one of the longest comedies ever made.
The actual 1908 New York-to-Paris race was anything but comedic to the drivers who took part. There were very few paved roads, and in many parts of the world no roads at all. Often, the teams resorted to straddling locomotive rails with their cars riding tie to tie on balloon tires for hundreds of miles when no roads could be found. Alaska and Siberia were the most difficult conditions for racing, with some competitors not making it through those areas.
According to Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood, Natalie found working on the film to be taxing. On Friday, November 27, the day after Thanksgiving, Wood wrapped up the last bit of 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.
Though not specifically stated, this movie takes place between 1901-1909. This was the period Theodore Roosevelt held presidency which in turn is hinted at by Maggie Dubois during her capture in the Potsdorf dungeons.
Henry Mancini's "The Great Race March" (A Patriotic Medley) is one long musical joke; the melody consists entirely of snippets from the American patriotic songs "The Star Spangled Banner" (the main melody that appears in the score), "Hail to the Chief", "Columbia Gem of the Ocean", "Dixie", "America the Beautiful" and "You're A Grand Old Flag".
Real pies were used in the pie fight scene, and the cast ate many of them during filming. However, during a weekend break in filming, the pies spoiled. The stink was so bad that the building required a thorough cleaning and large fans to blow out the sour air.
Despite being among the biggest box office hits of 1965, earning $11 million in rentals for Warner Brothers, its outrageous budget over-runs meant that it failed to make a profit in its initial release.
Professor Fate's Rocket Car, torpedo, and one of the Hannibal 8's produced for this movie, are located at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois. As of January 2010, these three items were for sale for $350,000. As of September, 2013, the Hannibal 8 and the torpedo are on display at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angles, California.
Natalie Wood reportedly did not like making this film, and would seize upon any excuse to miss a day's filming. Her main complaint was the fact that she felt she was being sexually harassed by both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Part of what convinced Jack Lemmon to take this film was the chance to play two utterly disparate characters: The outrageously evil Professor Fate, and the gentle-souled, puppy-like Prince Frederick. Lemmon played both roles with a comic abandon rarely displayed by this highly disciplined actor.
During filming Life magazine covered the pie fight scene. If you listen very closely, at the beginning of the fight, before the music kicks in, you can hear the click of the still camera's shutter and the camera's motor advancing the film.
The Boracho music hall in which Dorothy Provine sings "He Shouldn'ta, Hadn'ta, Oughtn'ta Swang on Me" was a long-standing set on the Warner backlot, and had previously appeared in many studio musicals and Westerns, among them the 1953 Doris Day/Howard Keel hit Calamity Jane.
The music playing at the beginning of the race, "The Great Race Gallop" (aka "They're Off!", aka "Get A Horse") actually included lyrics written by Johnny Mercer, but not performed in the film. It can be heard as a song on the 2000 CD "The Dapper Dans - Shave & A Haircut."
In the opening balloon sequence Leslie (Tony Curtis) dangles upside down from the balloon while he escapes from a straitjacket. Curtis had done a similar stunt in Houdini (1953), except he was on a flagpole.
Towards the end of the movie, when everyone's encamped and cleaning-up from the pie fight, Heziakiah (Keenan Wynn) starts noodling around on his left-handed guitar. When he puts it down, Maggie (Natalie Wood) picks it up and starts playing it right-handed and singing "The Sweetheart Tree". The string order would have been wrong and completely reversed for her to play it.
In the film, when The Great Leslie argues with Maggie DuBois over her deceit about the fate of his assistant Hezekiah, he mentioned the name of the train of which Hezekiah was handcuffed on: "The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe", before being corrected that the train's real name was "The Southern Pacific". The name "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" is a direct reference to one of the most popular songs of the 1940s: "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe". Originally performed by Judy Garland, Ben Carter, Marjorie Main, Virginia O'Brien, Ray Bolger, and the MGM Studio Chorus for the motion picture The Harvey Girls (1946), the song was written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (who also wrote the lyrics for the songs for The Great Race (1965), thus the connection between the two films) and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1946.
Another homage to early movies is during the song "The Sweetheart Tree." While the song is sung, the lyrics appear on screen, with a bouncing ball over the syllables being sung prompting the audience to sing along with the actors. This was a frequently used device during the early talkies and in animated cartoons, and is the origin of the phrase, "Follow the bouncing ball."
The entire Pottsdorf sequence, especially the dueling scene between Leslie and the Baron, is a takeoff on the various film productions of "The Prisoner of Zenda", where a prince about to be crowned is kidnapped and replaced by an impostor.
The steering column on the three main vehicles (driven by Leslie, Professor Fate, and Maggie Dubois) were on the right. This was true of American cars until 1908 when Ford introduced a steering column on the left, which is also the year the movie takes place.