Balloons on the Big Screen
The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is the classic hero in white, handsome, courteous, talented, and successful.Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) is the villain, Leslie’s nemesis, dressed in black, sporting a black moustache and top hat, and dogged by failure. Leslie proposes an automobile race from New York to Paris, to prove a new car, the Leslie Special. 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 City’s most prominent newspaper. Driving the newspaper’s car is beautiful photojournalist Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a vocal suffragette.
The six-car race begins, but Fate’s sidekick Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) has sabotaged three other cars (and his own, by mistake, but it is repaired). The surviving teams are Leslie with his loyal mechanic Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn), Maggie DuBois driving by herself, and Fate and Max. The newspaper’s car breaks down and Maggie accepts a lift in the Leslie Special. Fate arrives first at a refueling point, a small frontier town where the racers see a variety show featuring singer Lilli Olay (Dorothy Provine). A local outlaw named “Texas Jack” (Larry Storch) becomes jealous of Olay and a saloon brawl ensues. Fate steals the fuel he needs and destroys the rest. Maggie convinces Leslie to carry her after tricking Hezekiah and pretending he has 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 compel all four racers to warm themselves in Leslie’s car. They awake on a small ice floe which drifts into their intended Russian port, where Hezekiah is waiting for Leslie. Maggie is snatched by Fate, who drives off in the lead. After driving across Asia, both cars enter a small kingdom whose Crown Prince Hapnick (also played by Lemmon) is a double for Fate. Usurpers under the leadership of Baron Rolf von Stuppe (Ross Martin) and General Kuhster (George Macready) kidnap the Prince as well as Fate’s party. Fate is forced to masquerade as the Prince during the coronation, so that the Baron and the General can gain control of the kingdom. Max escapes, and he and Leslie rescue the others. Leslie bests Von Stuppe in a sword fight. The dueling expands into an extended pie fight involving all the racers. As the five leave the small kingdom with Maggie now back in Leslie’s car, it becomes a straight road race to Paris. Nearing Paris, Leslie and Maggie have a spirited argument regarding the roles of men and women 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 winner’s mantle, but after a brief triumph becomes indignant that Leslie let him win. Fate demands a rematch: a race back to New York. The film ends with the start of the return race, with newlyweds Leslie and Maggie now a team. Fate lets them start first, then attempts to destroy their car, accidentally bringing down the Eiffel Tower instead.