The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars
1. The Jules Verne novel. “Around the World in 80 Days” reflected a growing interest in adventure travel when he wrote it in 1872. We see an age of great optimism about what man could accomplish. The novel inspired an era of competition with people trying to beat the 80 days of character Phileas Fogg. You can read more about that in a new book, “Round About the Earth,” which I reviewed at A Traveler’s Library.
2. Location, location, location. While some of the gorgeous shots of scenery and oceans were rather obviously made without the expense of trucking the actors to the site, the actors actually are in London, Paris, Japan, and a few other places. Most of the street scenes around the world seem to be sound stage sets and seem pretty hokey by today’s standards, but still, that scenery and shots of well-known sights around the world may make you want to voyage yourself.
3. Cameo roles. The term was invented by producer Mike Todd to persuade people like Frank Sinatra, John Gielgud, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Buster Keaton, Joe E Brown and dozens more that playing a few seconds role would be worth their while.
4. Playing ‘Spot the Cameo.’ It is such fun trying to spot the actors playing the cameo roles. JackieChanKids.com lists 46, but I am not sure how accurate it is. For instance, they list Shirley MacLaine, although she had a supporting role rather than a cameo.
5. The introduction, by newsman Edward R. Murrow. It includes a lengthy clip from the famous silent film by French pioneer Georges Méliès, as he filmed another Jules Verne story, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902).
6. Humor. The satire on Western movies, including the Lone Rangers’ theme music, cracked me up. And there were some gems of dialogue (see S. J. Perelman).
7. David Niven. This actor plays the perfect uptight English gentleman. He said this was his favorite role.
8. Shirley MacLaine. Her role in this movie is only her third, and she’s a beauty.
9. Cantinflas. I saw some carping in online comments about who this guy was and why he took up so much of the film. Actually, in re-watching the film, I realize that Cantinflas totally dominates. The choice of a Mexican actor was controversial, since the character of Phileas Fogg’s gentleman’s gentleman, Passepartout, is French in the original. But Cantinflas was an international star in 1956 (the wealthiest in the world, according to one source) and probably a brilliant choice for bringing in audiences. I actually feel that his acrobatics and his Chaplin-esque humor hold up well over the years.
10. The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1957. (It also won four other Oscars.) Best Picture competition included “Giant,” “The King and I” and “The Ten Commandments.” This is particularly interesting since it was the only movie Mike Todd ever made.
11. Mike Todd. The two-disc DVD includes as much information about Mike Todd as about the movie itself. Just as the picture was a larger-than-life, ground-breaking film, Mike Todd was one of a kind. He says, “I wanted two things in life, to win an Oscar and to marry Elizabeth Taylor.” And true to form for a guy who went after what he wanted, he got both. His story is as interesting as anything Jules Verne could dream up, and his optimistic, can-do attitude perfectly matched the age of Phileas Fogg.
12. S. J. Perelman. Although there are three writers listed, if you are familiar with Perelman’s humor, you’ll recognize him in some of the very funny dialogue (which holds up despite being 50 years old).
- On coming upon a torchlight parade in San Francisco, Passepartout says, “Is this a religious spectacle?” Fogg replies, “Some sort of election, I suppose.”
- The incomparable Marlene Dietrich, playing a saloon girl, tries to waylay Fogg. “Never be in a hurry. You’ll miss the best parts of life,” she says. He replies, “I’m looking for my man.” “So am I” says the aging sexpot.
- When someone says he’s paid too much for an elephant, Fogg replies, “Undoubtedly. But it’s not often one needs an elephant in a hurry.”
Downside? Besides the rather phony location shots mentioned above, this movie has very long scenes that do not advance the plot. Today’s audience may chafe at the length of the flamenco dancing scene (although in 1956, you would have paid a bundle to see Jose Greco and his troupe of dancers).
Additionally, the movie is loaded with bits that would be found offensive if they showed up in a movie today — particularly the treatment of Native Americans. And some of the humor is a bit silly.
At the end of the movie, when Fogg shows up at his club to collect on his bet, Aouda, his lady friend (Shirley MacLaine) follows him, creating an uproar. “No woman has ever been seen in this club.” “It would mean the end of the British Empire.” And then a self-satisfied club member leans toward the camera and says, “Well, this is the end.”
And it is.