Around The World In 80 Days (1956)

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS “was the greatest experience of my whole life. I had the concept of making it as a fairy tale for adults. Look at the people’s faces in the theatre; you’ll see they look like children.”  That was producer Mike Todd, the breathless huckster who cannily put this 1956 extravaganza together. Dying in a plane crash two years later, after numerous fortunes made and lost, he went out on a win, seeing his $6,000,000 spectacle reaping box-office bonanza and five Academy Awards. How good it is as a movie (an amiable slog) contrasts with more certifiable value as nostalgic period piece and a heck of a show.  Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel had inspiration from a number of sources (even the title was lifted), but, like Todd’s technology-enhanced escapade, the Victorian tale hit the right tone at the right time. *

One thousand pounds for an elephant? It’s outrageous! You’ve been diddled.”

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Quintessential British dandy, supercilious club-member, whist fancier ‘Phileas Fogg’ (David Niven, 45, perfect casting) bets his stuffy crony crowd of gentlemen he can circumnavigate the planet in a set time period. Yanking along his new valet, ‘Passepartout’ (Mexican superstar Cantinflas, 44, his first of only two English-language films), the finicky Fogg and his frolicsome friend have one mini-adventure after another within the greater one.  In the second half of the journey they’re accompanied by a Hindu princess they rescue from suttee (Shirley MacLaine) and a sneaky Scotland Yard detective, a terrier who smells a rat (Robert Newton).

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Fogg’s dominance gives way to Passepartout’s hijinks, and Niven, while nobly doing what is asked (it was his favorite role) is rather straight-jacketed by Fogg being such dry toast. It’s a testimony to his honed skill as well as that estimable charm that he plays true to the fussy Fogg but still keeps your affection, all while holding the massive endeavor in  tea-at-three order. After two decades of steady laboring, this put Niven into front-rank stardom, which, thanks to an Oscar a few years later, he’d smartly craft for a good run.  Cantinflas gets several lengthy stunts to strut his undeniable physical comic and acrobatic skills; whether you find him endearing or trying is an individual taste—the padded scenes of bullfighting, dealing with Indians (East and West, the indigenous Americans in the worst segment), and so on add many minutes that slow down the already leisurely story and frequently bring it to a crawl.  MacLaine, 21, in her third movie, may as well not even be there, it’s such a throwaway part. Newton does his usual amusing growling. It was his last film, he died before it came out, age 50.

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And furthermore, you play an abominable game of whist. Good day, sir.”

Every other character they meet are—suitably enough—in passing, and along with the location shooting, are the raison d’etre of Todd’s gambol, basically inventing the idea of “cameo” roles for stars to pepper the plot.  A few are allowed extra morsels—Charles Boyer, John Carradine, Cedric Hardwicke; Jose Greco gets a flamenco number—- the rest just get a handful of lines or a fleeting wink. Spot in spots: Martine Carol, John Mills, Beatrice Lillie, Fernandel, Edmund Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Andy Devine, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Finlay Currie, Reginald Denny, Charles Coburn, Alan Mowbray, Evelyn Keyes, Glynis Johns, Jack Oakie, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, Noel Coward, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Luis Dominguin, Trevor Howard, Ronald Colman and Melville Cooper. Reliables like Mike Mazurki, Tim McCoy, Philip Ahn and Richard Loo turn up in the teem.

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As with the cast swarm, the production deals in superlatives. Including an extended opener hosted by Edward R. Murrow, intermission music and a colorful 7-minute credits sequence at the end whipped up by Saul Bass, the running time came to 3 hours, 4 minutes. 25,734 feet of wide-screen Todd-AO film (Mike’s process—he also had a hand in Cinerama) was edited down from a mountain of 680,000 feet, shot on 140 sets, over 112 locations, in 13 countries.  68,894 people donned 74,685 costumes as extras, and 7,959 animals were goaded into service.  164 people toiled on hair & makeup alone, 33 assistant and 2nd-unit directors helped Michael Anderson direct. The cast are often posed on obvious sound stages, but they’re also out there for real, in stunner setups using the charms of Hong Kong, Madrid, Colorado, Yokohama, Bangkok, London, Paris, New Mexico, Tokyo, the Persian Gulf and Bangladesh.

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“I wanted two things in life, to win an Oscar and to marry Elizabeth Taylor.” Todd again, and chutzpah to the metal, he did both. His movie took home the little golden men for Best Picture, Screenplay (S.J. Perelman, James Poe and John Farrow), Cinematography, Music Score and Film Editing. A few of those were deserved—Victor Young’s wonderful soundtrack and Lionel Lindon’s fine camerawork—the others are a longtime bone of contention for the Oscar-interested. Nominations went for Director, Costume Design and Art Direction. **

Sailing into #2 for the year, behind The Ten Commandments (Todd vs. God), it grossed a grand-scale $36,600,000. Add subsequent re-issues (I first saw it in 1968), then multiply for inflation and a 2018 tally balloons Around to around $576,000,000.

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Like any trip, it’s a mixed bag. Nice people, great scenery, too much luggage. Some of the cameos are fun for old timers, but to modern audiences they’ll mean next-to-nothing. A little Cantinflas goes a long way, and there’s a lot of him here (his other US film, Pepe in 1960, was an all-star disaster). There are droll lines throughout the script, but in directing it, Michael Anderson flattens everything out. There are just two close-ups (guess who?) in the entire three hours: everything is distanced from the actors to take in the sets, making many of the conversations like watching someone talk from across the street.

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The eye-filling location cinematography and the rhapsodic music score carry the lions share. It was one of Victor Young’s last assignments: he died a week before the premiere, only 56. His 218-credit legacy includes stirring emotions in For Whom The Bell Tolls, Samson And Delilah and Shane, but this may his best all round. Playful, rousing and bold, lyrical, lofty and lilting, its main theme became a popular hit. The score key-highlights the single best sequence in the film, the captivating train ride across the timeless landscape of bygone India (Bangladesh standing in). It also does well by the rollicking American West segments, although that part of the movie is really hurt by a long, clumsy, insulting bit of chase nonsense with an idiotic portrait of Native Americans. It’s frankly terrible, so gauche, outdated and unfunny it may as well be from the 1920s.

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All in, good & bad, beautiful & blundering, Around The World In 80 Days is a period piece reflecting its own time as much as of the one it works so elaborately to recreate. It’s a fun flick, but it does play better in memory.

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* A trio of technological breakthroughs occurred in 1869–70 that made a tourist-like international journey possible for the first time: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in America in 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal the same year, and the linking of the Indian railways across the sub-continent Raj in 1870. One age of exploration was closing; now global-scale tourism was possible in relative safety and comfort (money helped). Along with the fecund Verne’s, countless imaginations sparked that anyone (money helped) could plot a schedule, buy tickets and travel around the world, a feat of bravura heretofore reserved for only the most daring and hardy of adventurers (uh, money helped).

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In 1889, pioneering newswoman Nellie Bly undertook doing Jules jaunt in 80 days. Pausing to meet Verne in France, she managed to girdle the planet with eight days to spare. Her “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days became a best seller.

A  French theatrical adaptation Verne co-produced ran decades, logging 2,610 performances. A German silent was done in 1919. Orson Welles played Fogg on radio in 1938, a week before he unleashed “War of The Worlds”. Eight years later Welles staged and Cole Porter wrote music and lyrics for an audacious musical version on Broadway. Mike Todd was one of the guys who put up money for it. It flopped, Welles lost the equivalent of $4,000,000. Later, it was done as a TV miniseries with Pierce Brosnan (good call) in 1989, then disastrously remade as a feature for Jackie Chan in 2004.

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** When the delightful Hermione Gingold accepted the Screenplay Oscar for S.J. Perelman she tickled the house: “I’m very proud to receive this object d’art on behalf of Mr. Perelman, who writes . . . “–she read from his note–“…he cannot be here for a variety of reasons, all of them spicy. He’s dumbfounded, absolutely flummoxed. He never expected any recognition for writing Around the World in Eighty Days. And, in fact, only did so on the expressed understanding . . . “–flipped the note over–” . . . that the film would never be shown.”  The other nominees for Best Picture of 1956 were Friendly Persuasion (very good), Giant (ditto), The King And I (fun) and The Ten Commandments (thou shalt not understand it: fine, I’m going to hell, so at least I can finally meet Errol Flynn). We’ll let Victor Young keep his posthumous award for that glorious music score, no problem. The BEST picture of 1956 was not in the lineup, not even so much as nominated in a single category—The Searchers.  “That’ll be the day…”

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