Milton Berle as J. Russell Finch, seaweed salesman and beleaguered son-in-law
Southern California, Summer 1962
Film: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Release Date: November 7, 1963
Director: Stanley Kramer
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas
Car Week continues with a look at a road movie very close to my heart, Stanley Kramer’s 1963 epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, released 60 years ago this November. I used to spend many weekends at my grandma’s house watching this cavalcade of comics—many of whom had died even before I was born—as they sped, flew, and chased each other through southern California in pursuit of a $350,000 payday.
The movie begins as a black two-door Ford Fairlane recklessly snakes its way along Seven Level Hill, a mountainous segment of California State Route 74 just south of Palm Desert, honking as it weaves through traffic. The Fairlane shakes its way past an Imperial Crown convertible, but the driver loses control of the car and the Fairlane goes careening—no, sailing—off a cliff. The four carloads of people behind it all pull to a stop and get out—surely no one could survive such a fatal tumble. But alas, the significantly schnozzed driver Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) hasn’t kicked the bucket yet, sprawled out among the rocky hillside.
In his dying moments, Smiler tells the gathered men of a hidden fortune, the $350,000 proceeds from a 15-year-old tuna factory robbery, buried under “a big W!” in Santa Rosita Park. He indeed kicks the bucket (and how!) before he can elaborate on the admission, leaving the witnesses to debate its veracity amongst themselves and as a group. When it becomes abundantly clear that, no matter what way they figure it, “it’s every man—including the old bag—for himself”, the four groups run back to their respective automobiles and tear off for the fictional Santa Rosita.
Though they’d been leading traffic when the Fairlane went sailing right past them off the cliff, the Imperial Crown is now trailing the others. At the wheel of the Imperial is mild-mannered J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), an edible-seaweed entrepreneur from Fresno on his way to Lake Meade with his prim wife Emeline (Dorothy Provine) and her brash mother (Ethel Merman).
On the 115th anniversary of Uncle Milty’s July 12, 1908 birthday, let’s dig into this iconic entertainer’s wardrobe from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
What’d He Wear?
Arguably the most affluent of the group, J. Russell Finch’s costume is coded for leisure. He tops his outfit with a peaked cap apropos his role as “captain” of his luxurious land yacht. The soft dark navy wool serge cover is detailed on the front with a gilt-embroidered pair of fouled anchors, crossed and superimposed by a life ring—a crest often associated with private yachtsmen thought it also resembles the foundation of the U.S. Coast Guard seal. A black braided strap runs around the front of the black leaf-textured grosgrain band, and the visor is black patent leather.
Finch wears a smart wool single-breasted sports coat, checked in gray, navy, and gold against a charcoal-gray ground. The jacket follows the tasteful and relatively timeless cut of the early ’60s, with slender notch lapels rolling to a two-button stance positioned at Milton Berle’s natural waist. The straight, narrow shoulders are lightly padded with roped sleeveheads, and front darts shape the jacket to flatter Berle.
The jacket has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets that slant gently rearward. Only the short double vents and spaced two-button cuffs date it to the ’60s, though these are more subtle than the trends that can date other eras’ clothing.
Finch wears a gray melange jersey-knit short-sleeved polo shirt. The top of the shirt has two smoke buttons, keeping both undone.
Finch continues the monochromatic color scheme with charcoal flat front trousers, detailed with belt loops and plain-hemmed bottoms. He wears a narrow black leather belt with the buckle pulled off to the side, presenting a clean look unbroken by the contrasting buckle.
Finch’s black leather shoes are typically cap-toe derbies with two-eyelet lace panels that cut away in a V-shape, elegantly elongating the vamp. However, a brief close-up of Finch’s feet as he and Hawthorne invert Mrs. Marcus to extricate the Jeep’s keys from her bosom show a pair (of shoes!) with at least four or five eyelets. Regardless of the shoe style, Finch always wears black socks.
Finch dresses his hands with a pair of rings, both of which seemingly Berle’s real-life jewelry. He wears a chunky gold ring with a jade-green stone on his right pinky, and his gold wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand.
As with his rings, Finch’s gold watch is likely Milton Berle’s own timepiece. Auctioned watches from the comedian’s own collection (per Bonhams and Classic Driver) show that he had a preference for round-cased gold watches on black leather straps—admittedly, a very popular configuration through most of the 20th century. Finch’s wristwatch has an assuming gold dial with a sub-register at the 6 o’clock position, somewhat similar to the Tiffany & Co. watch that Berle had been gifted by Irving Geist in October 1944, though the screen-worn watch lacks some of the Tiffany’s more obvious detail, like the large luminous Arabic numeral hour indices.
“We’re the ones with the Imperial and we’re running last?” an upset Mrs. Marcus shouts from the back seat after the chase has truly commenced. I can’t blame her for the frustration, as—of all the cars prominently featured in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—Finch’s ice-blue 1962 Imperial Crown Convertible may be the most desirable, blending luxury styling with a powerhouse Chrysler V8 engine.
Chrysler had been using the Imperial model name to denote luxury since the 1920s, though it wasn’t until 1955 that the company spun off Imperial as its own top-of-the-line marque to compete against Cadillac and Lincoln. Through its initial two-decade production timeline from 1955 through 1975, all Imperials would be powered by Chrysler’s largest V8 engines, mated to automatic transmissions.
Offered in a range of body styles, the Imperial underwent five major design phases. The second generation debuted in 1957, consistent with Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” design for Chrysler, emphasizing passenger comfort over performance despite the powerful V8 under the hood. Like their competition, tailfins came and went on the Imperial, replaced by an emphasis on size through the early ’60s. Indeed, the Imperial’s 227-inch length made it the longest American non-limousine at the time and, at just shy of 82 inches wide, the 1961-1963 Imperial models remain the widest non-limousine in American automotive history.
Of the 14,337 Imperials produced for the 1962 model year, only 554 were convertibles, sold at a base price of $5,939 (equivalent to nearly $56,000 in 2023). The only available engine was the 413 cubic-inch Wedge V8, Chrysler’s largest engine (until the development of the 426 Hemi two years later), mated to a push-button three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
1962 Imperial Crown Convertible
Body Style: 2-door convertible
Layout: rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 413 cu. in. (6.8 L) Chrysler RB “Golden Lion” V8 with single Carter 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 340 hp (253.5 kW; 345 PS) @ 4600 RPM
Torque: 470 lb·ft (637 N·m) @ 2800 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic
Wheelbase: 129 inches (3277 mm)
Length: 227.1 inches (5768 mm)
Width: 81.7 inches (2075 mm)
Height: 56.8 inches (1443 mm)
The Finchs’ Imperial gets damaged—presumably totaled—when Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) accidentally drives his truck into it. According to Buddy Hackett, the screen-used Imperial was purchased back by MGM after production ended and used for studio lot transportation for several years to follow.
How to Get the Look
J. Russell Finch signifies his comfortable position in the American leisure class with his early ’60s “smart casual” dress in a plaid sports coat, pollo shirt, slacks, and derbies—all coordinated in shades of gray and topped with a peaked captain’s hat.
- Charcoal plaid wool single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with narrow notch lapels, welted breast pocket, gently slanted flapped hip pockets, spaced 2-button cuffs, and short double vents
- Gray melange jersey-knit short-sleeved 2-button polo shirt
- Charcoal flat-front trousers with belt loops and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Narrow black leather belt
- Black leather 2-eyelet cap-toe derby shoes
- Black socks
- Dark navy serge-covered captain’s peaked cap with gold crossed-anchor embroidery, black leaf-textured grosgrain band with black braided strap, and black patent leather visor
- Gold pinky ring with jade-green stone
- Gold wedding band
- Gold round-cased watch with round gold dial (with 6:00 sub-register) on black leather strap
Do Yourself A Favor And…
Check out the movie.
You want me to tell you something? As far as I’m concerned, the whole British race is practically finished. If it hadn’t been for lend-lease—if we hadn’t have kept your whole country afloat by giving you billions that you never even said “thank you” for—the whole phony outfit would be sunk right under the Atlantic years ago.