• Interviews

Karen Sharpe on “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and Stanley Kramer’s Legacy

Karen Sharpe had an illustrious career, which included winning a Golden Globe Award in 1955 as New Star of the Year, in The High and the Mighty, in which she starred alongside John Wayne. She also acted with Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly in 1964. But her life changed for good when one day she stepped onto the set of Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools at Paramount Studios to watch Vivien Leigh work on her last film.

Kramer became obsessed with her and after a year of unsuccessful invitations, he won her over. She gave up her career to become his wife while remaining instrumental in several films while married to him, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. which was nominated for seven Golden Globes. At 87, Karen Sharpe is still the guardian of her late husband’s legacy and picks the winner and presents the Stanley Kramer Award during the event organized by the Producers Guild every year. We spoke with her at length over the phone about her late husband, during which time she revealed a few secrets about one of his most successful films.

Do you think that Stanley Kramer was ahead of his time, as an independent producer who cared about social issues? 

Oh, always. Well, when he came along in the ’40s to start his career as a producer, it was because producers were the visionary on every film.  It wasn’t the director or the writer, they didn’t have much say so, it was a producer’s medium at the time. That changed many years later.  But Stanley also knew that the independent field in the ’40s, which was originally started by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, had kind of dried up, everybody was under contracts for the studios. 

And a lone little guy like Stanley coming along, he formed this little company with people he met in World War II as a soldier. He knew that no studio was going to give him a chance.  He raised his own money, had two little short stories that he’d bought from Collier’s Magazine I believe, and they made those two films. The first one was called So This is New York and it was a failure because he premiered it in the Midwest. I don’t know why he made that choice, because it was all about New York. And he jumped right into Champion, in which of course Kirk Douglas was the star and it was nominated for an Academy Award. 

So, his second, third, fourth, and fifth films were all nominated, as independent films.  After Stanley passed away, I had a call from Martin Scorsese and the Tribeca Film Festival, which he was involved with at that time.  He said ‘we want to honor Stanley at Tribeca”, and I said, “that’s great”.  So, he said ‘we want to show one of his films’.  I said ‘well, okay, I will send you Judgment at Nuremberg or Inherit the Wind,’ I was talking about all the successful ones.  And he said the block to see this movie.  And it was so successful and the New Yorkers just loved it, it was so relevant, even after 40 years.  The relevance of that movie for New Yorkers was no, I want So This is New York.  It’s a great movie, it’s one of my favorite ones. You know, there were lines around just as fresh as it would have been when he first made it.  And it was so popular that they played it again. They played it twice, which they were not prepared to do.

What was the drive for him as a director?

His father left his mother during the first year of his life. He never met his father.  He was raised by a single working mother.  In 1913, that was a stigma for anyone, a woman not to have a husband or not to be married and to have a child that she had to raise totally on her own.  And they couldn’t afford anything hardly so they lived in Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  It was considered the most dangerous part of America to live in.  It was full of gangs, constant killings, and all that, and they built it up now and Hell’s Kitchen in New York has had a complete makeover and it looks pretty terrific. 

But it was not at the time Stanley was born, he almost had to join a gang to survive.  His mother had to take two jobs, she worked in Paramount Pictures in New York as a secretary.  And his grandparents came to live with them and they were from Poland and they could barely speak English.  So, his upbringing was a little different than I think that you would expect him to survive in the way that he did.  Because usually if you were born at that time in Hell’s Kitchen New York, you have three choices, you become a priest, you went to jail or you become a prizefighter to get your way out of it. 

But Stanley was a great student and he graduated from High School at 15.  He went to New York University at 15, he was the youngest student to ever go into university.  And it was during the Roosevelt era then and he was very, very influenced by Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  And Stanley joined a writing contest when he was still a teenager and he would win prizes for his writing.  And he continued with that and after he got out of college, he got paid to come to Hollywood California for three weeks to write an article.

The three weeks were eaten up with him trying to get a job and he didn’t have enough money to get back to New York.  So, he began to write scripts, and at that time radio was very popular.  So, Stanley began to write radio shows.  And about that time Marian Anderson, who was an African-American opera singer, was supposed to sing the National Anthem for the Daughters of the Revolution, which is an organization of women.  And Eleanor Roosevelt was a member.  But they wouldn’t let Marian Anderson sing because she was black.  And Eleanor resigned from the Daughters of the Revolution and she invited Marian Anderson to sing the National Anthem at the White House. 

Stanley wrote her a letter saying to Eleanor Roosevelt how much he respected her for what she did.  And she wrote him back and that began a correspondence between the two and then he began to write speeches for her radio shows.  So, he was very, very influenced by his life as a youngster and the fact that he had to fight very hard because he didn’t have a father.  And you know that would not be respected during that time, there was a stigma against them.  So, he was fighting.  And also he was Jewish.  A lot of things he had to come up against.  But I think that helped form a part of him, but I also know that Roosevelt influenced him when he was a very impressionable young man.  So, I think when he would read something or he would see something that didn’t seem right to him, he would figure out more about it and how to tell the story. And I think that’s kind of the way he fell into the films that he finally made.

There is a movie that doesn’t fit in Stanley Kramer’s filmography, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World because it was a crazy comedy and he did mostly serious dramas.

Mad World does fit and I will tell you how it fits. Mad World is about greed, we would do anything, look at those people. It was made as a comedy, of course, selling any subject is good if you do it a little bit funny instead of serious, and people will see if it’s fun and entertaining. He knew he had to entertain you.  We look at it and we are even worse today than we were in 1963. 

With greed and money, people will do anything for the almighty dollar that doesn’t belong to them, they will turn themselves inside out to get the money.  Everybody’s life is pretty much based on making money if you look at it.  It’s necessary in certain ways but for these guys, that might not even belong to them.  They had a secret given to them by a dying man. It could have been a drama you know. You look at the man who goes over the ravine. These guys go down to try and help and he reveals that there’s this money hidden in someplace and that could have been a drama, these men want to go get this money.

It was and it’s one of my favorite movies, as well as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which has always stood the test of time. I’m always introducing It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World every year and I always think about who is going to show up.  And there’s never a seat, even for me in the theater.  I have introduced that film all over the world.  Even two years ago I was introducing that film at the Cinerama Dome, the theater that Stanley had built to open his 4-hour movie with Intermission.  And no matter where I go, I don’t care where I am, any part of the world or any state or any situation, somebody comes up to me and says: ‘are you Mrs. Kramer?” and I say ‘yes I am’, and they ask ‘do you know what my favorite film of your husbands is?’, and I say ‘yes, It’s a Mad World because everybody tells me that.  That film is very popular. But that film is about greed and how it makes people make fools of themselves and even have risked their lives to get the money.

Is it true that your husband tried to make a sequel?

He did, he tried.  It was called Sheiks from Araby. And it was charming. It was a little different, but it was similar in many ways, it was a comedy and it would have been great.  He never did get it off the ground.  And then I wrote the sequel of the original, the offspring, that the money that they had was lost on that ladder, that went all over that place where they were trying to get the money and the money was scattered in the air and people were trying to pick it up on the street and stuff like that, and they never did get the money. But I came up with an idea that money was counterfeit and it came up on the news and all these people hadn’t seen each other in years, the original cast had not seen each other in years.

And it turns up that they were going to tear down Santa Rosita State Park and they were tearing that down and they were going to put a museum there.  And it comes up on the news.  And each one of these people in different locales is now with their families are saying ‘oh my God don’t remind me of that, that that place is going to go’, you just don’t know what I lived through. And some of the siblings say I know what you lived through dad because you told me that story a thousand times.

And somebody says in each one of these families, ‘well if that was counterfeit, then how do you know that there’s nothing still down there that you didn’t go deep enough?’  And then they say ‘well yeah and dad and mom, don’t you think you ought to, each one has had a different life, and we bring the offspring into it’.  And they all go back to dig deeper.  And what they find is a map of where this treasure from some Spaniard or something, I forgotten the story that I wrote, but that he had come and buried this map and there’s real gold and everything and had buried it there.  And you have got to find the Big V.

So, they all start all over again.  And anyway, it was an interesting premise, I could never get it off the ground. A lot of people wanted me to do it.  And we had MGM/UA, which had different heads of that studio over the years, I have gone to see every single one of them and I said ‘there is an audience, I can already tell you there’s a huge audience that would love to see this sequel made or a sequel made, why don’t you do it?’  I said ‘it’s the most popular film’.

The first one I encountered, just didn’t understand the value of that movie.  So, I said okay, ‘I tell you what, I am going to produce the 40th Anniversary, I am going to go to Cinematech and do it there.  And if I am successful, I want you to give me a brand new print, a 70mm print, and have it right, I can do the premiere at the Cinerama Dome theater, the theater Stanley had built, and I’ll make this work’.   They didn’t believe me. But I did it at Cinematech, and I brought in Turner Classic Movies to do a special on it, which they did do.  We turned so many young people away that night.  And MGM/UA didn’t even send anybody to see what I was doing.  So, I had to have letters written and I went to them and said ‘okay, this was so successful, so you promise me a brand new 70mm print and I am going to do it in the Cinerama Dome’.  Which I did do, with the klieg lights and I had every star in town there and I couldn’t even get a seat, I had to stand, you know how big that house is. And I introduced it and it was so successful.  I still couldn’t get the sequel made. So, I don’t know, I think it’s their loss.  They didn’t have to do my version.