Thursday, August 26, 2010

Around the World in 80 Days: Todd's Zenith; Oscar's Nadir

1956 proved to be one of the finest years in cinema ever. John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers—recognized by the American Film Institute as the finest Western ever made and career highs in the prolific careers of both Wayne and Ford. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. A pair of sci-fi classics—Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—were both overlooked. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece—The Seven Samurai—though released in Japan in 1954, hit American soil in 1956. What does each of these great films have in common? Little no absolutely no Oscar recognition. Even among the Best Picture nominees, Giant (which took home the Best Director trophy for George Stevens) is the only film that holds up under both critical and popular acclaim (The Ten Commandments and The King and I, though each incredibly popular then and now, don’t measure up by critical standards as great films).

What did happen in 1956 was a film completely undeserving of an Academy Award took home the biggest Oscar. Worse than being undeserving—several quality films have won Best Picture yet didn’t deserve it—Around the World in 80 Days plain stinks. If you’re following the blog and thinking, “Hmmm, with the victory of Marty, wouldn’t it signal the beginning of an Oscar trend to reward small, intimate and honest films?” you’d be dead wrong. If Marty is film haiku, then Around the World in 80 Days is an epic ballad on crack.

The film is the brainchild of its producer, Michael Todd. Todd made his mark in entertainment as a very successful producer of Broadway shows (he is also famous for being husband #3 to Elizabeth Taylor). His other significant contribution to film history is the development of the Todd-AO process. In Todd-AO, film was shot on 65 millimeter film which was blown up to 70mm for projection purposes. Films shot in Todd-AO have an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. Films shot in Todd-AO are meant to be projected onto a curved screen at 30 frames per second (a bit faster than the standard 24 fps), giving the film a richer, high-definition feel which eliminated many imperfections like flickering. Unlike the other major widescreen presentation, Cinerama, which used three projectors, films shot in Todd-AO had the advantage of needing only one projector to be screened.

Okay, we all get the point. Michael Todd wanted to make a really big fucking movie. Around the World in 80 Days is a big fucking movie, so good on Todd for accomplishing what he set out to do.

Unfortunately, Around the World in 80 Days is also a really big fucking mess.

The film is liberally adapted from Jules Verne’s 1873 novel. In the book, protagonists Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout (played in the film by David Niven and Cantinflas, respectively) attempt to circumnavigate the globe to win a wager of ₤20,000. Their primary methods of transport are trains and steamships. Not sexy enough for Todd, who has Fogg and Passepartout embark on their journey via hot air balloon, creating a huge misconception about the source material.

The casting of Cantinflas is another issue. Loath though I am to knock a fellow Mexican—especially one regarded as Mexico’s version of Charlie Chaplin—but his presence in the film ultimately distracts from the storyline. Cantinflas’ casting was a huge coup for Todd, and entire scenes in the movie are designed to show off his considerable physical comedic talents. The bullfighting scene is a perfect example of this. No bullfighting scenes were in the Verne novel, but Todd felt obligated to showcase his big international star. In fact, although Niven received top billing for the film, upon viewing, it is obvious that Cantinflas is the true star. He gets far more to do, all the major set pieces revolve around his character, and he receives the bulk of the screentime.

(As an aside, David Niven sort of made a career of being overshadowed. In 1958, he won Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables, a film where he is third billed in an ensemble cast and received a scant sixteen minutes of screentime for his performance. It remains the shortest performance to ever win Best Actor. He was also Sir Ian Fleming’s personal choice to play James Bond, though the role went to Sean Connery. When Niven did finally get to play Bond, it was in the satirical 1967 version of Casino Royale, where he plays one of six characters called “James Bond” in the film and totally overshadowed by a huge cast with actors like Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen—who also plays a Bond—hamming it up in an obviously ridiculous film. Finally, in 1974, as one of four hosts of the Academy Awards ceremony, Niven was interrupted by a man named Robert Opel, who streaked across the stage flashing the peace sign at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Niven, unflappable, got the last laugh in that situation, saying “the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping and showing off his shortcomings.”)

Anyhow, Cantinflas’ antics become the real excitement in the film (anyone with half a brain, even if you’ve never read Verne’s story, knows that Fogg is going to win the wager), so much so that the film should more accurately be titled The Cantinflas Show. Don’t even get me started on the fact that a Mexican is playing a Frenchman (and when Around the World in 80 Days was remade in 2004, Jackie Chan played Passepartout, a Chinese actor playing a French character).

More strange casting decisions are made in regards to ethnicity. Shirley Maclaine—in one of her first films—is cast in the lead female role as Princess Aouda. The strange thing is, Princess Aouda is Indian. Fair-skinned, blue-eyed, red-headed Shirley Maclaine was cast as royalty from the subcontinent. A Mexican plays a French guy and an American plays an Indian in two of the three main roles in the film.

The film also has an astonishing number of cameo roles. Todd, in fact, is credited with coining the phrase “cameo appearance”. Over forty stars have cameo roles in Around the World in 80 Days. There are at least four Oscar winners (Ronald Colman, John Gielgud, Victor McLaglen and Frank Sinatra) to make cameos in the film, alongside some really legendary actors like Marlene Dietrich and Buster Keaton. Anytime the film meanders or gets a little boring—which happens quite often—an actor in a cameo pops up. “Look! There’s Sinatra!” “Look! That’s Red Skelton!” “Man, Dietrich and Keaton got old!” (I did like Peter Lorre’s cameo the best.) The film is also reputed to have 8,552 animals on screen, a veritable menagerie worthy of Noah’s Ark. If old celebrities aren’t your thing, there are plenty of lions and tigers and bears (Oh my!) to ogle. Distractions abound.

Also, the film has one of the oddest openings I’ve ever seen. It begins with legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (who must have enjoyed the payday) in a prologue where he describes otherworldly journeys man has undertaken, including rockets being blasted into space (current events for 1956). The rocket footage is accompanied by clips from Georges Méliès 1902 early science fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Todd is obviously and bluntly equating the journey in the film to astronomical exploration (and hoping his film will be as important to cinematic history as Méliès’).

The overall effect is not watching a film as much as a parade. I don’t know about you, but I pretty much despise parades (and watching a parade on television is especially cruel torture). No matter what the theme of the parade is, you can always count on basically the same stuff. Corny marching bands, fancy or ridiculous or obnoxious (or all of the above) modes of transportation, a litany of animals (along with animal poo), acrobatic performers, a princess or two, a politician, and candy being tossed your way (which is probably the only way a parade is better than Around the World in 80 Days—at least you get bubblegum and Tootsie Rolls when you watch a parade). And like this film, parades are neverending. At three hours, Around the World in 80 Days is at least twice as long as it needs to be. Two whole Marty’s could fit inside this picture.

What a disaster of a movie.

But, in the 1950’s Hollywood was terrified of television. Films needed to provide a larger-than-life experience, and Michael Todd took the concept to an extreme notion in Around the World in 80 Days. I think also, its Oscar victory is a clear signifier that the Academy was more concerned with how mightily a film tried to entertain an audience instead of how much a film made an audience think, or be moved, or feel an emotional bond with the characters. And frankly, the more deserving films like The Searchers (or any of the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph), were simply way, way ahead of their time and ultimately initially widely misunderstood in terms of their lasting impact.

Nothing could ever be misunderstood about Around the World in 80 Days. The film is as blunt as an anvil, as subtle as dynamite.


Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Director: Michael Anderson

Starring: David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley Maclaine and 40 cameo appearances including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Peter Lorre, etc.

Studio: United Artists*

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture—Michael Todd, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Director—Michael Anderson, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color))
*UA held the rights to the film from 1956 to 1976; Warner Brothers has held the rights to the film since 1983

NEXT BLOG: The Bridge on the River Kwai


  1. ["and when Around the World in 80 Days was remade in 2004, Jackie Chan played Passepartout, a Chinese actor playing a French character."]

    Actually, Jackie Chan's character was Chinese, who was pretending to be French to the very naive Mr. Fogg in order to accompany the latter out of Europe and reach China.

  2. I agree. Pretty sloppy film in many areas. How it won Best Picture is a travesty.