Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Around the World in 80 Days ( 1956 )

In 1872 London, Phileas Fogg ( David Niven ), a methodical Englishman of independent means, makes a wager with fellow gentlemen at the private Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the globe within 80 days. His skeptical comrades think that with all of the unforeseen delays that could happen en route - typhoons, shipwrecks, missed trains - it is impossible. But with £20,000 at stake, Fogg is determined to prove them wrong. 

"An Englishman never jokes about a wager, sir."

Joining him on his expedition is his faithful manservant Passepartout ( Cantiflas ), Princess Aouda ( Shirley MacLaine ) whom they rescue in India, and, following along behind, the unshakable Inspector Fix ( Robert Newton ) who believes Fogg to be the recent robber of the Bank of England. 

Around the World in 80 Days is a three-hour epic to behold. It doesn't play out like your usual big dramatic blockbuster spectacle ( as perhaps some critics may have expected ) but more like a mega travelogue sans the voice of Fitzpatrick. In fact, this is exactly the way it was supposed to play because it is not a regular movie and was not intended to be one. It was a filmed event. Producer Mike Todd stressed this when promoting Around the World in 80 Days to distributors: "Do not refer to Around the World in 80 Days as a movie. It's not a movie. Movies are something you can see in your neighborhood theatre and eat popcorn while you're watching them....Show Around the World in 80 Days almost exactly as you would present a Broadway show in your theatre."
Mike Todd, who earned his household-name status through his 1957 marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, had always enjoyed the novels of Jules Verne and long dreamed of putting this story into production as a live show. In 1946, he invested $40,000 to co-produce with Orson Welles (!) a Cole Porter musical adaptation of "Around the World in 80 Days" but pulled out after one glance at the unusable script. Eight years later, he once again felt ready to attempt an adaptation of Verne's classic tale of adventure, this time making sure that he remained in full control of every aspect of the film. 

"Crisis or no, nothing should interfere with tea!" 

Filming began in August 1955 and quickly wrapped within 75 days. Todd, a Broadway impresario, had never made a motion-picture before but he knew what he wanted and knew how to get things done. He was involved in every aspect of the production, down to the most minute detail. He personally visited every country to keep an eye on filming ( with 33 assistant directors employed there was a lot to keep an eye on ) and to cast all of the characters. The King of Thailand, a friend of his, loaned him his 165-foot royal barge for a 15-second sequence; he persuaded the Nawab of Pritam Pasha in Pakistan to loan him his private elephant herd; bribed Ronald Colman to make a cameo appearance by gifting him a yellow Cadillac for a half day's work; and most impressive...he convinced the entire population of the city of Chinchon, Spain ( 6,500 people ), to appear as extras in the bullfight sequence! 

Todd assembled a huge cast that was comprised of the four principal players, over ninety featured players, and guest appearances, or "cameos" as Todd christened them, by 40 top actors from around the world. These included Marlene Dietrich, Cesar Romero, Noel Coward, Frank Sinatra, Red Skeleton, Beatrice Lillie, Trevor Howard, Evelyn Keyes, John Gielgud, Victor McLaglen, Joe E. Brown, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, Hermoine Gingold, and Robert Morley, to name just a few. 
With the "extra" players, the cast amounted to 68,894 people, the largest ever assembled for a film ( not counting the 7,959 animals employed! ). Of course, these actors needed to be costumed as well, and so 74,685 costumes were created. 

It was one of the most expensive productions in history ( $6 million ) but grossed seven times its cost in box-office receipts. The all-star international cast, exotic locales, and the lure of Todd-AO ( the latest 65mm widescreen process that Todd helped create ), made Around the World in 80 Days the attraction of the year. 

Critic reception, however, was mixed. Some felt that the voyage around the world was unendurable ( "about two hours too long" ) while others enjoyed every step of the journey. While it is true that the film's script is about as exciting as a game of whist, the location scenery, the fun of spotting the celebrities, and the impressive cinematography more than make up for its occasional moments of boredom. 
At the Academy Awards, Around the World in 80 Days was nominated for eight Oscars, walking away with five of the little statuettes, including the coveted Best Picture award.  Some viewers feel that it was the film's sheer "spectacularness" that earned it the Best Picture Oscar, but looking at the other nominees that year ( The Ten Commandments, The King and I, Giant, Friendly Persuasion ) it was a race against equally spectacular productions, so I feel it justly earned its place in the Best Picture winner's circle for its grandeur....even though Giant was definitely the better picture in terms of acting and directing. 


  1. I've been known to use Around the World in 80 Days as a sleeping pill. On the other hand, there have been times I've been known to stay awake to catch this or that cameo and marvel at how enjoyable it is to watch David Niven.

    1. A sleeping pill....ha! I felt that way about The Saint for many years ( the tv series ), but lately I've really come to enjoy the show, and the same is true with Around the World in 80 Days. The atmosphere of adventure makes up for its dull script.

  2. My grandparents in Houston took me and my sister to see it whenever the roadshow was showing back in town. I have come to realize it was their way of saying get out and see the world. Eventually I did. I have been all over the world, but not yet around it. My daughter is half Filipina, my master's degree is from London, I have been to Spain 12 times, I taught in China for six years, and still wonder how the marriage of Phileas Fogg and Princess Aouda went. I didn't get a chance to ask Shirley MacLaine when I was on the set of Terms of Endearment -- everyone was too busy working...