Sunday, July 24, 2011

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS(1956)


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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (DIR: MICHEAL ANDERSON)  (SCR:  JAMES POE, JOHN FARROW, AND S.J. PERELMAN, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY JULES VERNE)

In a complete turnaround from the more subtle charms of the previous year's MARTY, the Academy's choice for best picture of 1955 was AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, a huge budgeted extravaganza, shot on over 140 locations with a literal cast of thousands; producer Micheal Todd would describe it as a fairy tale for adults, certainly an apt description.  And, while it takes far too long to tell such a simple story, it holds up well overall, and is, quite simply, a fun watch.
Although veteran English director  Micheal Anderson would eventually be credited with the direction, (replacing original director John Farrow), the film was Todd's baby all the way.  He had already produced a Broadway musical version of Jules Verne's 1873 novel in 1946 that was a flop, but he was determined to get it right.  Years later he brought the rights to the novel from director Alexander Korda, who was having trouble getting it made, to take another try at it, realizing that for the story to work it would have to be told in the grandest possible manner.  This meant developing a new style of 70 millimeter projection that came to be known as the Todd-AO process; he would also demand that movie theaters treat it as a special production, with reserved seats and playbills handed out before the movie started.  His strategy would work as the film returned over 20 million dollars on a budget of around six. 
Set in 1873, the film tells the story of the English upperclassman Phlieas Fogg, who bets his friends at his exclusive men's reform club 20,000 pounds that he can travel the entire world in 80 days, a then unheard of feat.  Along with his faithful manservant Passepartout, he travels by train, ship, elephant and, most famously, hot air balloon to make the journey, and they encounter everything from bullfighting in Spain to hostile Native Americans in the US, while saving the life of an Indian princess(Shirley MacLaine) who joins them on their trip.
 Todd cast  David Niven to play Fogg, and really, the stuffy, punctual Fogg seemed like he was written for Niven to play, and he would later say it was his favorite role.  Todd made an even better choice when he hired the Mexican comedy star Cantinflas, in his first American film, to play Passepartout, even though the character in the novel is French.
Over the years this film has often been criticized for being too long, and while I agree with that to a certain extent, it should be remembered that the film was intended to only be seen in theaters with 70 MM screens.  I've seen the film twice, once on a TV screen, and once as it was meant to be seen at the beautiful Stanford University theater in Palo Alto, California, and it certainly plays better on the big screen.  The many long shots of stunning scenery and huge casts of extras don't seem as dull in the proper format.  Indeed, the film's most impressive visual moment, a long tracking shot of an enormous parade down the streets of San Francisco that seems to constantly expand to include more and more people, is downright eye popping in 70MM.
The Oscar winning script by James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman follows the source novel closely, and the additions that were made are welcome, such as the ride in the hot air balloon, and Passepartout's bout of bullfighting.  More importantly, it  never takes the story too seriously, and therefore it's easy to forgive it's occasional absurdities (like the incredibly easy way that Passepartout saves the Indian princess).

David Niven and Cantinflas

Still, at 167 minutes, the film's story often feels padded, far too much time is spent on a subplot in which Fogg is wrongly believed to be a bank robber by policeman Mr. Fix (Robert Newton), which does nothing but slow the film down.  Also, the script draws the film's climax out to an extreme level that grows frustrating for the audience, while it's final scene seems oddly rushed.  Even worse, I often find it hard to like the character of Fogg: he is stuffy, sometimes rude and condescending, and often uses his money to buy his way to victory, which seems unfair.  He also doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring the exotic places that he travels in, preferring to stay inside and play cards, a trait I find particularly annoying.  True, he does have one noble moment when he leads the charge to save Passepartout from the Native American tribe, but other than that, I find him a bit of a prig.  Worst of all is the ludicrous casting of Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess who has white skin and blue eyes!  Not only is MacLaine unbelievable, her character is a real bore; while she is in the novel, and the movie just had to have a romance, I wish she had more to do than stand around and look concerned while the male characters save the day.  And at the end of the movie, she abruptly mentions her love for Fogg, partly because he saved her life, when actually it was Passepartout who did all the work saving her (and he would have made a better romantic match for her, too).
 Along with the impressive wide screen look of the film, it's best characteristic is in Cantinflas's winning performance as Passepartout.  Although unknown in America, Cantinflas was a huge star in Latin America, where he was given star billing.  And really, that's how it should be, it really is Passepartout's film more than Fogg's, as we often see the exotic sites of the places they go through his eyes, and he seems to be the one who winds up in dangerous situations more than Fogg (one can see why Jackie Chan was hired for the role in Frank Coraci's disappointing 2004 version of the same story).  Cantinflas was known as the Spanish Charlie Chaplin (the outfit he wears in most of the film resembles Chaplin's famous tramp costume), and his flair for physical comedy is apparent from the first time we see him skillfully riding an enormous wheeled bicycle.  His character claims that he has 12 professions, including trapeze artist and athletic instructor, and we believe him; in the course of the film we will see him do a flamenco dance, climb on a moving train, ride on an ostrich, and become a reluctant matador (for which he did his own stunts).  He is so good in the role that it's a shame he didn't work in Hollywood more, but we do have this film as a tribute to his talent, which is its biggest strength.

Cantinflas and Marlene Dietrich


Finally, I should mention the film's gimmick of having big stars like Frank Sinatra and Peter Lorre appear in cameo roles; inevitably, this dates the film, but it is fun for fans of old movies to pick them out, and it probably was a thrill for audiences at that time.  The best of the lot is sultry Marlene Detrich as a leggy saloon gal of the old west who flirts with both Passepartout and Fogg, while glowering gangster actor George Raft looks on in anger; it's a clever scene that works even if you don't know who the stars are.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While it's clear that I do have a fondness for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, I don't think it holds up as well as George Steven's epic GIANT, Laurence Olivier's RICHARD III, or Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING.  But it's hard for me to dislike a movie that's so eager to please, so I won't complain about the Academy's choice.