Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael Anderson)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Although this is an abysmal film, it may not deserve some of the flack it’s gotten over the years. In 1956, it was conceived as an event that would be defined nearly exclusively by the setting and conditions in which it would be seen, as one of the most ambitious Hollywood productions since Intolerance, filmed at 30 frames a second to be screened in the innovative Todd-AO Scope process, shown on gigantic curved screens with a three-year residency in New York before it toured the country as a standard 35mm outfit. Hard not to predict that it’d already lost its luster by the time it left its original home. Whatever the case, Around the World in Eighty Days was never meant as a serious piece of narrative filmmaking or an honest-to-goodness Jules Verne adaptation; it is supposed to be a spectacle that looks cool on a big weirdly shaped screen after a curtain’s drawn and you’re sitting hushed with a bunch of other well-to-dos. It’s conceived and designed to be separate from ordinary “movie” notions and we have no reasonable way to judge it in the manner we’re bound to see it today, as a letterboxed presentation on our TV screens.

But we have to, so here we are. In the context now forced upon us, this movie is terrible, more for what it lacks than what it is — what it lacks is a concept, a story, a conceit, characterization, passion, verve, wit, anything. It’s nothing more than an obnoxiously superficial amusement park ride, the “amusements” being the endless slew of star cameos that serve to distract from a narrative absent of serious humanity or interest. And certainly absent of conflict. David Niven is a loose and ineffective take on Verne’s Phileas Fogg, who takes on the challenge of circling the globe in the titular period simply to stick it to his stuffed-shirt class-conscious friends. He sets out to do so, and does so, and that’s really it. Sure, he’s briefly jailed near the end, but that’s easy enough to fix (completely offscreen!) and though there’s some hand-wringing about the International Date Line, hey, it doesn’t really amount to much. It’s a point A to point B — or, really, point A again — story.

It’s probably not a great idea to stretch a point A to point A story out to 180 minutes; there is so little to recommend sitting through this interminable mess of winking cutesiness as it is, and to pad it out to three hours is something like an act of business fraud. We never get to know the people we’re spending time with, on hot air balloons, over sea and land, except as cardboard cutouts who commiserate with other cardboard cutouts along the way and invite them to join. International superstar Cantiflas fills out the consistent wing of the cast as a racist caricature of a manservant for Fogg, but he also lights up the sole interesting sequence of the film, an incongruous dance routine during the Spanish part of the voyage — sadly followed immediately by an unbearably overlong bullfighting routine.

The stakes are all quite low despite the size of the project; the (consistently unfunny) humor is of the understated Ealing Studios variety only without the actual jokes. The ending is such an anticlimax that the film itself seems, really, to be one big put-on. What an expensive joke, then. Michael Anderson’s direction is heavy on quirk and bravura theatrics, low on compelling cinematic technique. He’s torn between subsuming himself in the majesty of the many locations he photographs and playing up the attempted absurd comedy of the script. Anderson had little say in the creative direction of the film anyway, it being a pet project of producer Michael Todd, who laid his entire fortune on the line for it — one more reason, one assumes, for its rampant inoffensiveness.

The cameos, of course, have been a draw for audiences for decades; this film is, in fact, the source of the very coinage of the term “cameos” — a rubric drawn from the poster which placed familiar faces in such a format. It’s easy enough to imagine a crowd cheering when Frank Sinatra turned around from the piano, when John Gielgud showed up as a nervous former butler, when Cesar Romero and Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich (and Edward R. Murrow, of all people) among numerous others show up out of nowhere only to have the film sheepishly reveal it has nothing substantial or remotely entertaining to use them for. And even I cheered when Buster Keaton showed up as the cantankerous train conductor, but he’s Buster Keaton, and besides, the film can’t think of much to do with him either. Perhaps worst of all is the utter waste of Shirley MacLaine in a casting stunt as an Indian princess (yes, really) who trails along for the latter half of the trip; even she admits she was miscast.

If you make it to the end of this film, which is highly unlikely unless you’re in the midst a project like this, you are rewarded with Saul Bass’ witty and beautiful closing title sequence, a lengthy animated condensation of the film’s entire “plot.” It’s atypical of Bass’ work and is easily the most elaborate credits sequence he’d created up to that point, and it’s far more compelling and much more of a picture of its time than the actual film. There’s too much of composer Victor Young’s score in the film — it’s wall to wall — but as it swells up under MacLaine’s credit in Bass’ miniature film here, you can almost picture how much fun a night out to see this movie might have potentially been in the late ’50s. But that’s the only glimpse you get, and there’s absolutely no question that, seen today, this is among the most baffling of all Best Picture winners (though it still beats Going My Way).

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