Thursday, July 19, 2012

Watching Oscar: Around the World in 80 Days

Film: Around the World in 80 Days
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When a film wins an Oscar for anything, some people are going to be upset. In retrospect, though, few choices for Best Picture have been as rethought and questioned as the 1956 winner, Around the World in 80 Days. It is very much a film in that classic Hollywood vein slightly after the true golden era of film, and that’s likely one of the reasons it captured the top spot. It was also ably assisted by a very weak field.

The film is a screen adaptation of the book of the same name by Jules Verne, and it’s no different than the title suggests. For a film that runs around three hours long, it’s remarkably easy to sum up. A British gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) undertakes a bet with several other gentlemen of his club. The bet is that, in the time of the film (the mid-1870s) it would be possible to circumnavigate the globe in precisely 80 days. The men accept the bet and Fogg heads off taking with him a suitcase full of cash and his new manservant, Passepartout (Cantinflas). Coincidentally at the same time, a daring robbery of the Bank of England has taken place, and Fogg’s behavior seems suspicious. So, Mr. Fix (Robert Newton) pursues Fogg around the globe in the hopes of bringing him to justice for a crime that Fogg (of course) didn’t commit.

That’s really it. The film is less a narrative and more a series of particular events as man and servant travel from place to place. They cross the channel, and then discover that they cannot travel the way they wish, so they take a balloon and end up in Spain. From here they hire a boat, eventually travel to India and rescue a princess (Shirley MacLaine!), who travels with them. They get separated, reunite in Japan, and cross the Americas, finally buying a steamship to cross the ocean when they miss their ship to Liverpool. Of course, there are problems right at the end, and of course everything works out for the best.

One thing this film has is spectacle, and I can’t deny that. There is a great deal of fantastic scenery throughout this film, and we’re spared none of it. That’s a good thing, though, because frequently, the travel portions of this film are the most interesting part of it. It is gorgeous to look at, and in that respect, the film never drags.

It does have a series of problems that cripple it, though. Some of these are a product of when the film was made while others are simply a product of the story itself. The first are easier to overcome, since they can potentially be overlooked as being a function of a film being made in 1956 rather than now. Let’s start with Shirley MacLaine, who has no business being cast as an Indian princess. Whitewashing of casts was typical then, though, so while it seems odd, it’s understandable. In a similar way, David Niven is considered the star of this film, but it’s truly Cantinflas who is the center of the action. He’s the one who comes up with the daring plans and puts them into execution. He fights the bull in Spain, rescues the princess, joins the circus, and fights the natives in the Western U.S. All Phileas Fogg does is stand around complaining that not everything his up to his standards.

So, while Cantinflas didn’t get much credit in the States (he was top-billed everywhere else), it seems strange that a man who speaks fluent Spanish would be forced to portray a Frenchman, as he is here. Again, it’s part of that same whitewashing—not only is he not considered for Best Actor in 1956 (and he probably should have been), but as a Mexican he is forced to pretend to be French. Evidently, all foreigners looked the same to Americans of the time.

But these problems are easily overlooked. A bigger problem is that we learn almost nothing about these characters. Having spent three hours watching this film, all I can tell you about Phileas Fogg is that he’s rich, dresses impeccably, loves whist, and is a creature of fanatical habit, changing nothing for anything. That’s it. And with the exception of Passepartout, he is the best and most fully-drawn character of the lot. Near the end, when the princess asks Fogg if he will marry her, I wasn’t surprised (thus no spoiler tag), but I was still confused. There’s no chemistry between them. She’d be a better match for Passepartout, who at least has real skills that don’t involve playing whist or drinking tea.

More significant is the fact that it feels very much that there is no rising action here. There is a problem, the problem is overcome. There is another problem, the problem is overcome. The story never becomes more complicated. It’s a series of small hills, with each obstacle simply passed around or climbed over before moving on to the next one.

And with that, there’s a lot of dross here. For instance, there is a long sequence of Spanish dancing (by Jose Greco, no less) that amounts to nothing more than “look at all of the Spanish dancers!” There’s no story here, just spectacle—it’s icing without the cake. The same can be said of a lot of the cameos, and this film literally invented the cameo. There are a number of stars here for a couple of minutes or a quick shot of screen time. Frank Sinatra has no lines, while silent star Buster Keaton has a couple. But that’s it. So, if I don’t care much about the characters (and I don’t) and the story gives me no real reason to stay involved (it doesn’t), I have to wonder why the film is worth the bother (it isn’t).

Why to watch Around the World in 80 Days: A journey unlike any other.
Why not to watch: This is in no manner the best film of 1956.


  1. "icing without the cake."

    Good quote.

    Haven't seen this movie yet, and I feel like the only thing to compel me to see it is as part of a checklist of Best Picture winners, and not on its own merits in the least.

    I just checked the list of other nominated films for Best Picture in '56: Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and Friendly Persuasion. Barf. What a weak year.

    1. Agreed. The other films of that year, in general, were foreign and thus "eligible" but not really considered, or of a genre not taken seriously. The lone exception is The Searchers, which I think should have been nominated, and then should have won.

  2. I agree that this film is really about the adventure, not about the characters. In regards to Cantinflas playing a Frenchman, Passepartout was French in the original Jules Verne novel, so they didn't change it for the movie. And Cantinflas was stunt casting to bring in the global market because he was the biggest actor in the world, outside the U.S., at the time. The whole Spain sequence was added to allow Cantinflas to do some of his schtick. It's not in the book.

    1. I wouldn't have a problem with the film being mostly about the adventure if there was much adventure. There simply isn't. Things more or less seem to happen around them without (often) happening to them. This is particularly true of Phileas Fogg, who just sort of stands there most of the time.