In 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a luxurious bubble bath – a warm comforting experience. It was pleasant and enjoyable. As time wore on though that tub water deteriorated. The bubbles dissipated, the water got cold and the qualities that initially made it such a joy were no longer present. The production that apparently charmed audiences in 1956 has aged horribly. Today the Technicolor phenomenon now remains a long, bloated curiosity that stands as one of the most shocking peculiarities to have ever won Best Picture.
The feature is a distended 175 minute bore based on the 1873 Jules Verne classic and that’s not even including the 10 minute intermission. Our story begins with a long introduction by Edward R. Murrow seated behind a desk discussing the” fantastic fiction” of Jules Verne, including the novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for the 1902 Georges Méliès silent A Trip to the Moon. Murrow lectures on the advances we‘ve made in space travel since then. After that disastrous opening, the main story opens on a scene in London, England, in 1872 about Phileas Fogg, a Victorian gentleman who bets his friends at the Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £1.6 million today) . Accompanied by his newly employed valet Passepartout he visits many locations as he interacts with various people along the way.
The production was American theater producer Mike Todd’s crowning achievement. The theatrical impresario who had produced 17 Broadway shows during his career had never produced a theatrical feature. This was his first…..and last. He would tragically die in a plane crash a couple years later on March 22, 1958. He was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. It was her only marriage that didn’t end in divorce. The drama was filmed in a high resolution widescreen format called Todd-AO first used successfully in Fred Zimmerman’s Oklahoma! (1955). Mike Todd developed the 70mm print format with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.
If nothing else, Around the World in 80 Days is a spectacle. The period piece was shot extensively in thirteen different countries, utilizing 70,000 extras and 8,000 animals. Areas from all around the world were represented including such distant spots as Paris (France), Chinchón (Spain), Bangkok (Thailand), Calcutta (India), Hong Kong (China), Yokohama (Japan), and the USA (Colorado). These locales provided the setting for various vignettes, none of which are particularly exciting. For example the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain go on for far too long. Perhaps the promise of actual location shooting was enough to sustain a film at that time. Air travel was a luxury of the wealthy in the 1950s. Travel to far flung places wasn’t common. Regardless, these days any locale can easily be rendered via blue screen and computer, so the extravaganza doesn’t fascinate in the way it might have in 1956.
Then there’s the stunt casting. David Niven’s distinctly British (read fastidious) portrayal of Phileas Fogg is a saving grace. Ditto the appearance of Mexican movie star Cantinflas. The latter makes his American screen debut as Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout. The screen legend gets a comic bullfighting sequence created just for him, not in the text. But Shirley MacLaine, in only her 3rd screen role, is forgettable. She is perplexingly cast as a princess from India heroically rescued from being sacrificed by our heroic duo. Robert Newton is a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly thinks Fogg is a bank robber. His presence is charitably best described as an amusing annoyance. For star watchers there are nearly 50 cameos from then famous personalities, many of which are unknown today. I watch a lot of old movies and even I didn’t recognize a lot of these stars. However a few stood out including Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton and Frank Sinatra. This isn’t a quality film. It’s a sightseeing excursion with a chance to play “spot the star”. Call it an unfunny version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or a cinematic version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland.
There’s no other way to say it. Around the World in 80s Days is nothing more than a bland travelogue. What must’ve seemed like an grandiose marvel in 1956 doesn’t translate to the modern era. Our technologically advanced age makes this once epic period piece seem like an old dated relic. It still has value. Anthropologists should study this as a faded artifact of a bygone era. How this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture must certainly be one of the great anomalies in the Academy’s illustrious history. Now reflect on the fact that it beat The King and I, The Ten Commandments and Giant and the win seems even more egregious. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It snagged 5 Academy Awards out of its 8 nominations. The mind boggles. The only one it seems remotely worthy of consideration was for Best Cinematography and I would still argue it was up against stiffer competition. David Niven and Cantinflas make an entertaining duo. I liked them and the cinematography is pleasant. Oh and then there’s that animated end credits sequence titled “Who was seen in what scene…and who did what” created by Saul Bass. The whimsical cartoon is most delightful thing in the whole production.