Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/09/05 15:55:29

"Overlong, empty, but still a sheer delight."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Around the World In 80 Days” has long been considered one of the worst films to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. While it’s certainly no masterpiece, and while there were better films released that year, calling it a bad film isn’t very fair. Yes, it’s bloated and problematic, but hell, so was just about every epic production made by Hollywood in the 1950s.

Let’s consider the competition “80 Days” had that year for the top award: “Giant,” “The King and I,” “The Ten Commandments.” Even the fifth nominee, the “intimate” “Friendly Persuasion,” clocked in at just under two-and-a-half hours. Remember, this was the decade of widescreen spectacle, where Hollywood fought television for audiences by producing mammoth works. (Better, “smaller” films like “The Searchers” failed to get any nominations.)

I can see why modern audiences frown upon “80 Days,” since there’s a whole lot of movie here, a lot of it excessive. The film could probably stand a hefty trim. And yet, “80 Days” does in fact work as a mighty spectacle, a thoroughly enjoyable number that’s lighthearted enough to be, of all things, quite relaxing. Its comic tone and epic length make for an odd combination; it’s the kind of film you can watch half-heartedly, knowing you won’t miss much if you have to slip away to the bathroom for a few minutes, but you’ll still be quite entertained by the parts you do watch.

The story lends itself perfectly to the epic format. Adapted (loosely) from the novel by Jules Verne, it’s the famous story of eccentric millionaire Phileas Fogg, who, at the turn of the century, makes a wager with his fellow wealthy gentlemen that he can travel the world in a mere eighty days. Off he goes to parts unknown, and the film becomes a collection of travelogue vignettes of our hero in all sorts of exotic lands.

Played by David Niven, Fogg has just the right mix of elegance and goofiness. He’s a strong enough screen presence to carry the film for three hours. Accompanying Fogg on his mission is his valet, Passepartout (portrayed by the Mexican actor Cantinflas), who exists to provide comic relief and amazing stunt work. (Passepartout claims to have once been an acrobat, a cheap excuse that allows for many a dazzling stunt.)

The biggest claim to fame for “80 Days” is its impressive collection of cameos. Broadway producer Michael Todd, looking for a way to make his first film the ultimate in screen entertainment, convinced forty big name actors to appear in small surprise roles. (Todd himself coined the term “cameo” for this movie.) His hunch paid off, as not only was every star in Hollywood clamoring for an appearance in his flick, but soon the audience found itself in a terrific game of guess-who with the filmmakers.

The list of cameos is too long to mention, and it’s nicer to be surprised (Todd also put the credits at the movie’s end, as not to spoil the list of guest stars). I will say the list spans a vast range of celebrities, from Frank Sinatra to Peter Lorre to Noel Coward. Other stars fill larger roles, such as Shirley MacLaine as a lovely princess, making the whole film an exercise in star-gazing.

But even without the stars, “80 Days” would hold up as a prime example of fantastic showmanship. Working the travelogue angle of the globetrotting plot, and with Todd using his own widescreen process (Todd-AO), director Michael Anderson captured many a stunning image from all corners of the world. Like most of the widescreen epics of the time, “80 Days” is filled with great eye candy.

That may be why the film’s considered a lesser Oscar winner. It emphasizes spectacle over plot, size over substance - which keeps it from being a truly great movie. (Again, the movie would definitely benefit from some tightening: the filmmakers spend fifteen minutes on a bullfight, and another seven on an introduction on Jules Verne! Such a length forces the movie to show its thinness of story.) But “80 Days” is still a lot of fun. It has an old fashioned, “family entertainment” feel to it, and I find it more enjoyable and relaxing than some of the more heavy-handed epics of its day.

In other words, “80 Days” is pure fluff, but it’s so delightful in its fluffiness that the lack of any real depth doesn’t matter. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, nothing but a big, come-one-come-all showcase for escapist fun. And with master showman Michael Todd in charge, “80 Days” could be nothing less than the breezy, spectacular razzle dazzle it still is.

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