I've been watching all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the next up was the 1956 winner, Around the World in 80 Days, directed by Michael Anderson, starring David Niven and Cantiflas. It was the only movie produced by iconoclastic visionary Michael Todd and was the first sound adaptation of the Jules Verne book. This script was by S.J. Perelman, famous his work with the Marx Brothers.
The movie is a three-hour extravaganza of colorful cultural sequences intended to dazzle the viewer. To modern audiences, however, the film feels dated and slow.
The film faced tough competition in the Best Picture category, where the fellow nominees were Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments.
At the beginning of the film, the ever punctual Phileas Fogg (David Niven) accepts a wager from his gentlemen's club to travel around the world in 80 days. He takes along only a couple changes of clothing, a large carpet bag containing money and timetables, and his recently hired manservant, Passepartout, played by Cantiflas, a Mexican actor and acrobat who at the time was the wealthiest actor in the world. This was his first English-speaking film.
Of course, the transportation network in Victorian times, when this film is set, presented a host of challenges, from routine schedule delays to incomplete railroad tracks to attacks from unfriendly natives. During the course of their travels, Fogg and Passepartout travel by hot-air balloon, sailing ship, train, steamer, and even by elephant. Through it all, Fogg retains his British aplomb, played to perfection by Niven. Cantiflas is entertaining as the real heart of the movie, falling into adventures and fumbling his way out of them with quick thinking, acrobatic ability, and charm. No wonder Todd insisted on casting him in the role of Passepartout, described as a short Frenchman in Verne's novel.
Along the way they catch glimpses of world culture, viewing Flamenco dancing and a bull fight in Spain, stopping a ritual suttee in India, and witnessing a political parade in the United States.
A number of the cultural portrayals, while they probably seemed fine to 1956 audiences, are decidedly non-PC. In particular, they encounter some Native Americans in the Western U.S., first meeting with a friendly tribe. How do we know they're friendly? They smoke peace pipes with the train crew. Later on, of course, the travelers run across an unfriendly tribe, who attack the train (natch).
As was the practice at the time, most of the foreign peoples were actually played by white people. Instead of casting an Indian woman, Shirley MacLaine played the role of Princess Aouda, the hapless widow rescued from the brutal practice of suttee, which demands that a grieving widow be burned on the funeral pyre along with her dead husband. Sadly, this practice was actually routine among certain groups in Victorian times.
In addition to hundreds of extras, producer Michael Todd used his considerable persuasive powers to hire a number of well-known actors for bit parts. He coined the term "cameo role," to make these small parts seem more important. Among the participating actors were John Gielgud, Noel Coward, Trevor Howard, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Frank Sinatra, and Buster Keaton. Edward R. Murrow served as the prologue narrator.
Todd developed his own wide-screen format used in this movie, called Todd-AO (also used for a special 70 mm version of 1955's Oklahoma). He was frustrated with the limitations of Cinemascope, which was shot and projected on three cameras, and worked with technicians to develop a one-camera technique. The panoramic result does produce some distortion on the sides, akin to a wide-angle (or "fish eye") lens. The format works well for the B-roll of sweeping landscapes, but distortion is noticeable in the crowd scenes shot on studio sets.
At that time, the movie used the most animals ever in any film and called for more costumes (34,685) than any other film. It used 140 sets at six Hollywood studios and used 68,894 extras while shooting in 13 countries. Most of the film, however, was shot in Hollywood.
While 1956 audiences were probably wowed by the spectacle of this movie, in our days of 24-hour global satellite television, modern viewers are less impressed with sweeping panoramic shots and glimpses of colorful costumes and practices. It takes a lot more than that to excite today's viewer.
Rating (out of 5): ***
Yesterday's spectacle is today's nostagia.