The Best Picture Winners: Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

| November 4, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Michael Todd’s big ol’ elephantine reproduction of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” is like a slice of wedding cake; fluffy, overly-sweet, and containing no nutritional value what-so-ever.  It’s superfluous, all frosting and sugar.

I can’t love the movie, but I understand its purpose for being.  By the late 1950s, Hollywood was fighting the battle of the box.  The new phenomenon of television was keeping audiences at home and with that the studios sought to make bigger, grander epics that the minuscule medium of television couldn’t capture.

What history left us with would be some of the greatest epics ever made: Giant, The Ten Commandments, Bus Stop, Forbidden Planet, The Searchers, The King and I, Moby Dick, War and Peace.  At the center was Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days which I suspect was made to take advantage of the new Cinemascope process.  Anamorphic lenses allowed the process to project a film up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, twice as wide as the previous format which had been 1.37:1.

The result was the IMAX of its day; a larger screen, a larger picture and a fuller and more immersive experience.  The process worked for what was put on the screen as spectacle, but as a story (as in the book) it’s all as light as a feather, a travelogue that follows the adventures of the punctiliously punctual Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his ever-faithful manservant Passepartout (Cantinflas) on their celebrated journey around the globe, taking us to Spain, England, India, China, Japan, Pakistan, France and the United States but it isn’t much more than that.

We never really get to know Fogg at all, nor the other galaxy of characters that he meets along the way.  Todd employed a galaxy of guest stars with recognizable faces like Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, George Raft, Red Skelton and Shirley MacLaine, some with speaking roles and other just to stand around and be recognized.  Most of these actors are given nothing to do, especially poor Shirley MacLaine who joins the journey after being rescued from a Thugee sacrifice and then spends the rest of the movie sitting to David Niven’s right and is hardly even given a line to speak until the film is nearly over.

As I said, it’s a light entertainment – too light, for my taste.  There’s no meat on the bone.  But I guess I shouldn’t expect it.  When I read the book as a kid I was disappointed that the story didn’t have time to stop to develop a character.  It’s was fun, but not a trip I’ve ever been willing to take a second time.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.