Around The World in 80 Days (1956) Review
Although it is Michael Anderson who is named on the credits as director, there was only ever one man in charge of the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, Mike Todd. Todd had one of the briefest, and yet most glorious, careers Hollywood has ever seen. In little under four years Todd had, in order, created a brand new widescreen techniquue which he christened Todd-AO, become a first time producer who put together a hugely expensive film that brought together some of the greatest names in showbusiness (from both sides of the Atlantic), toured the world receiving the subsequent awards (over seventy), collected five Oscars for his trouble and, perhaps the ultimate sign of his place in Hollywood history, married Elizabeth Taylor and had a child with her. He was a colourful, charismatic character, who in his life had seen both highs – at one time he was responsible for the four biggest shows on Broadway – and lows (he’d lost a million dollars, twice over, by the time he was twenty one) but survived through it all, carried forward by his immense personable charm and his willingness to take huge risks, and damn the consequences. Around the World was one such risk – he put everything he had into it, despite being warned by both friends and people in the film industry that it was destined for failure – and, typically, one that paid off in spectacular fashion. Although he never said it, the phrase they who dare win could have been coined for him.
Even if you didn’t know the story (and who doesn’t?) you could guess it by the title. In 1872 English Gentlemen and eccentric Phileas Fogg (David Niven) bets fellow members of the Reform Club in London that he can transverse the globe, returning to the club before eighty days have elapsed. He bets his entire fortune on it, and sets off immediately, accompanied by new manservant Passpatout (Cantinflas). Soon the entire nation becomes enthralled in his attempt, which attracts the attentions of Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) of Scotland Yard. Believing Fogg to be the perpetrator of a robbery at the Bank of England, he sets off in pursuit.
True to its origins as one of the great examples of late-nineteenth century popular literature, the film is high on action and adventure but low on subtlety. Both its characters and the situations in which they find themselves are strictly stereotypical, the film positively revelling in the cultural stereotypes that were prevalent at the time that Verne was writing. The film sets out not just to make an adaptation of the book, but also to use it to catalogue the attitudes held at the time. In Phileas Fogg we have the classic example of how the world liked to view Victorian English gentlemen, complete with stiff upper lip, impeccable manners, a disdain for anyone foreign (“They’re talking some bizarre foreign lingo,” he puffs exasperatedly at one point) and resourceful in even the most dire crisis. His manservant Passepartout in the film is a Mexican (changed from the Frenchman from the book with the casting of Cantinflas) and as such is shown to be an incorrigible chaser of women, forever to be distracted the moment he catches sight of a bit of ankle.
Equally, the situations the protagonists find themselves in comes straight from The Classic Book of Adventure Story Cliches. Travelling through Spain what else is there to do but have a bull fight? Travelling through India what more can one expect other than to have to rescue some Indian princess from a death rite by those Thugee chaps (aided, but of course, by an elderly Colonial Colonel in the British Army)? And really, you can’t expect to travel across the American continent by train but run into some blood thirsty Red Indians at some point, can you? All of these and more are to be found in the film. It could be argued that it’s all terribly politically-incorrect nowadays, but that would be both inaccurate (all stereotypes are treated equally, none are exploited more than any other) and rather pedantic – after all, this isn’t meant to be a serious social document.
How the viewer responds to these situations depends on how tolerant they are to (very) old fashioned story telling. For myself, raised on a diet on H Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson, it’s all good stuff, comfortingly uncomplicated and fun to watch. It’s like a comedian telling jokes you’ve heard a million times before - if told with sufficient artistry there is still a lot of pleasure to be had from them, no matter how hoary they may sound nowadays. And, just as we smile along at them even though we know the punchline, here we can still be entertained by the scenes, despite the fact we’ve seen it all before. Some work better than others – I found the Spanish section went on far too long, and the San Francisco section a bit boring – but combined they certainly do give the impression of having given a good tour of the globe. The script, by SJ Perelman, is full of good lines, and even though there are times the humour is derived from laughing at Fogg’s, (and as such, the British Empire’s in general) general stuffiness (his idea of wooing is to enthrall a woman with tales from the whist table) it’s all so good natured that it doesn’t really matter.
Fortunately for those who find it all a bit simplistic, there is much else to be enjoyed about the film, and makes the journey worth taking. The film is immaculately put together. Although its occasional flirtation with the idea of working as a travelogue is ludicrous, precisely because the portrayal of the cultures is so one-dimensional, its on-location photography is still very diverting. We fly over the French countryside in a hot air balloon, we travel by train through the Indian and American countryside, we watch the (authentic) Royal Boat of Siam make its stately progress across the river, all of which were filmed at the real locations. The amount of work that went into the sets, too, is first rate, with the various locales around the world feeling authentic, while there is never a repetiveness in the design – occasionally with films set in disparate locations around the globe the look can be uniform, but not here. The set pieces are nicely put together, although not exactly the sort that will bring modern audiences out in a sweat, with the notable exception of the Indian attack, which could have come straight from one of the better Westerns.
And, most of all, our travelling companions are so genial. David Niven always said that Phileas Fogg was his favourite role, and it’s easy to see why. For an actor who made a career out of playing reserved English gentlemen with a twinkle in their eye, the role is tailor made for him (it’s difficult to think of any other actor, then or now, who would fit it so well) and he plays it with relish, whether it be in tossing out his horrendously politically-incorrect patronising one-liners (“Probably chasing after some woman… these foreigners you know,”) or remaining the centre of calm while his companions panic at whatever latest crisis has befallen them. Equally well cast is the odd-looking Cantinflas, making his debut in an English-speaking role. Although he is hardly remembered at all now, at the time Cantinflas was the wealthiest actor in the world, a physical comedian many considered the Mexican equivalent of Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin himself was an admirer). It was a considerable coup by Todd to get the actor involved, and it pays off, with a subtly unshowy performance. You would expect an actor as well renowned as he evidently was to hog the limelight in the role but unlike some (coughJackieChancough) his is not a look-at-me performance. He gets to demonstrate many of the gifts for which he was so well known, performing bullfighting in a genuine ring and acrobatics at a Chinese circus, but the rest of the time he does exactly what he was meant to, be Niven’s loyal sidekick. Of the other two leads, Robert Newton as Fix (in his last role) is his usual entertaining self but Shirley Maclaine, who before this had only two film credits to her name, makes little impact and its difficult to see how she manages to enrapture Fogg so quickly – perhaps it’s simply the first woman he’s ever had real contact with?
Of course, one of the things the film is best known for is its plethora of celebrity cameos – indeed, the term cameo in the sense we know it today was actually coined by Todd for this film. Even when the film enters one of its more tiresome sections (notably the San Francisco sequence) there is much pleasure to be had from spotting the famous faces that pop up. To list them would be tedious, and indeed spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the credits are a good record of the names of the great and the good at that time. Pleasingly, the appearances are never intrusive (although a certain crooner’s straight look at the camera comes close) but rather slot in as though they just happen to be regular bit part actors.
All that said, Around the World is a very old fashioned film, and I rather suspect it would fall completely flat on a modern audience. With a running time of nearly three hours, with some slow-moving parts, it’ll test the patience of anyone not keen on earlier periods of film. For those that are, however, it is still splendidly entertaining, both in the way it’s put together and in its central (and not so central) performances. It’ll never rank as one of the greatest films ever made, despite the numerous accolades poured on it at the time, but it is a good example of the time it came from, and is well worth a watch, even if it’s only to see that they truly don’t make them like that any more.
As for Mike Todd, Around the World proved to be his last, and, appropriately, greatest triumph. Less than two years after it premiered he was dead, killed in a plane accident while flying from the West to East coast. He left behind him a grieving widow and six month old daughter, (who later was said to be the embodiment of her father). The Todd/Taylor marriage had been a fiery one – they were so well known for their public arguments that they were often asked about them by inquisitive reporters, and yet it was clear that Taylor loved him deeply, and had difficulty getting over his death. He had left an indelible mark on her, as he did on everyone he met, and it’s something to be thankful for that we have something as tangible as this fine film to remember him by, a film that, with its ambition, bravado, wit and sheer charm is a fitting testament to its creator.
The film is presented over two dual-layered disks, the film split at the handy interval built into the film. Pleasingly, the film’s print includes the complete interval (or entr’acte, as the film card would have it) music and card, which can of course be skipped easily. However, on putting in the second disk the viewer must manually select to continue watching the film. Most of the extras are to be found on the second disk and all, aside from the two trailers, come with subtitles. The case has no accompanying leaflet with it.
A disappointing transfer. The print is marked with many regular blemishes, and many scenes have a fair level of grain on them. The picture is not as sharp as you would wish for either, but at least there is little evidence of any digital artefacting occurring. It’s watchable, but never for one moment can you forget the film was made nearly fifty years ago.
Again, not marvellous. Dialogue levels vary at different points in the film, with dubbing very obvious at times. It’s listenable to, but again it does betray the period it was filmed in.
Introductions By Robert Osborne
Nearly all of the following extras have the option to be prefaced by a small piece by Robert Osborne, who is apparently the host of Turner Classic Movies. Osborne is a bit of a stuffy host and, while his affection for the film is evidently genuine, the speeches, which are made directly to camera with little visual variation other than the very occasional clip or picture, are a bit awkward. That said, a lot of what he says is very interesting and illuminating, especially in his eight minute introduction to the film itself. It’s always nice to have a knowledgeable expert for a film such as this, it’s just a shame he wasn’t presented in a more visually interesting way.
Feature-length Commentary By Brian Sibley
Excellent commentary by BBC Radio's Sibley. Sibley comes to the film with his commentary already prepared, which means that what it lacks in spontaneity it gains in sheer depth of information that he crams in. We get extensive notes on all the cameos in the film, historical notes on the various places the film was made, commentary on how the film was made, and many more miscellaneous tidbits. The only problem, and it’s a good one to have, is that there’s such a wealth of data to absorb that it can be overwhelming to listen to all at once.
Around the World of Mike Todd
Fifty minute documentary from 1968, hosted by Orson Welles (one of the few stars of the day not to appear in the film), which uses extensive interviews with Elizabeth Taylor and other close friends to paint a picture of the showman. An intriguing watch, reading between the lines there is the sense that Taylor was a little uncomfortable during her time with Todd (although she speaks of him with the warmest affection possible) while the story is illustrated by a lot of contemporary footage of the man himself which is good to watch. The undoubted highlight, however, is the moment when Taylor caustically puts down a nosy reporter and Todd mischievously just nods at him, as if saying “So there.”
The 23/12/56 Los Angeles Premiere
Two minutes of footage from the premiere, silent but backed by the film’s score, and another chance to play spot the star.
Highlights from the 27/3/57 Academy Awards
It’s a bit of cheek calling these highlights, for two reasons – firstly, there is only one clip, and secondly it’s just a two minute sequence of Todd and Taylor after he won the Oscars. It’s churlish to be critical of what isn’t there, but I was disappointed not to see actual footage of the ceremony itself (especially as a bit of it is included in the Mike Todd documentary). As it stands, this is a bit of a boring clip, showing us nothing new in the Todd/Taylor relationship, but at least it’s another chance to see the pair's dynamic.
Excerpts from Playhouse 90’s Around The World in 90 Minutes
Playhouse 90, which ran from 1956-61, was considered to be the pinnacle of quality drama being broadcast on American television during that era. This particular edition was a departure from the norm, being a broadcast from the party Todd threw to celebrate the one year anniversary of the film’s premiere. Later described by Taylor as “an unmitigated disaster,” the guest list ran to some eighteen thousand guests and descended into chaos. As it was broadcast live, this has an immediacy about it and gives it an excitement not akin to any big live broadcast we have nowadays. There’s very little sign of the problems that beset the party later on, although it’s clear that there is less organisation than perhaps there should have been. Very entertaining.
Spain Greets a Lovely Envoy
An oddity that doesn’t really fit in with the style of the rest of the extras (and about which Robert Osborne has nothing to say), this is still an interesting piece, a two minute newsreel focusing on Taylor during her promotional visit with Todd.
A collection of shots not used in the final print of the film. Because at the time they were thought of as having no interest, the sound tracks from the shots were not kept – indeed, only the video was retained because it was in Todd’s own collection. As such a musical medley from the film plays over these clips, some of which are more interesting than others – without the sound, some seem to be perfectly acceptable shots for the film, and we’ll never know why they weren’t used, whereas in others it’s plain to see someone making a mistake. Interesting but frustrating at the same time.
A large selection of images from the film, behind the scenes photos and poster artwork used to advertise the film.
Enthusiastic trailer for the film’s release that does a good job of selling it, while showing pretty much all of the major sequences – evidently it’s not just modern trailers that liked to give the entire film away.
1983 Re-Release Trailer
Another good trailer that shows off a lot of the spectacle without spoiling it.
Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days Almanac
A DVD-ROM extra, this appears to be a facsimile of a book available at the time the film was released. Featuring a foreword by Michael Todd, a detailed synopsis of the film, biographies of the leads, numerous photos and miscellaneous trivia, it’s the 1956 equivalent of a “Making of” book nowadays (and with a similarly hefty price tag - $1 in those days was a lot!) A nice thing to have for completists.
Although Around the World in 80 Days hasn’t aged particularly well, there is still much entertainment to be had from the charm of its leads and its scale. The print transfer is a disappointment, but is compensated by a fine selection of extras that covers the film, and her maker, in the kind of detail I wish all Special Editions had.