In the fifties, everything about the movies was big: Big screens, big sound, big casts. It was the era of Cinerama, CinemaScope, "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," and from 1956 "Around the World in Eighty Days." To paraphrase Whoopi Goldberg, if the movies weren't big, they'd be TV.
There was, of course, a concerted effort in the fifties to get people out of their houses, away from their newfangled television sets, and back into theaters. So everything from widescreen and stereo to 3-D and Smell-O-Vision was used to lure folks to the pictures. "Around the World in Eighty Days," needless to say, was among the biggest of them all, icing its message by winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the year. Warner Bros. sees to it that so stylish a movie is done up on DVD in appropriate style in another of their celebrated Two-Disc Special Edition sets.
The story is based on one of Jules Verne's few realistic (that is, non science-fiction) stories, the 1873 novel about circumnavigating the globe in only eighty days, an almost superhuman but not impossible feat back then. A man casually remarks over a card game at a stuffy London men's club that a person could, indeed, go around the world in eighty days, and his whist partners bet him that it can't be done. The fellow takes the bet and sets off on the quest.
The movie is little more than a glorified travelogue, with a whole lot of beautiful and exotic settings (filmed largely on location around the world), a few totally random adventures, and the biggest cast of cameos ever assembled for a motion picture thrown together in a gargantuan three-hour block. Yet it's more than enough to hold one's attention for its 182-minute duration. Either you're marveling at the spectacular scenery, admiring the brilliant cinematography, enjoying the stereo sound and Technicolor, or seeing how many famous actors you can spot in minor roles. Today, this cameo-spotting game is a little more challenging even for movie buffs, since most of the actors in the film have either died or been forgotten.
David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg, a cold, friendless, unmarried, upper-class English gentleman of indeterminate means, who takes the bet of going around the world in what in 1873 was considered an inordinately short period of time. But Fogg is nothing if not punctual, always living by the clock, and insists it can be done, laying out his entire fortune of £20,000 on the wager. In the course of events, Fogg becomes a celebrity as newspapers worldwide follow his escapades; and reading about him, Scotland Yard becomes suspicious that he may be the man responsible for robbing the Bank of England! This supposition would not be lost on the film's audiences then or now, because Niven had already played a gentleman thief in the movie "Raffles" (1940) and would again play such a character in "The Pink Panther" (1963) as Sir Charles Lytton, the notorious Phantom (or as Inspector Clouseau says, "Sir Charles Phantom, the notorious Lytton"). Fogg may be an insufferable snob of exacting expectations, but he is nevertheless endearing, and Niven would later say it was the favorite role of his career. Watching Fogg slowly transform into a human being is delicious.
An even more varied and equally endearing character is that of Fogg's new valet, Passepartout, played by Mexico's most famous comic actor, Cantinflas, whom Charlie Chaplin once described as the "world's greatest comedian." Cantinflas was said to have been able to do almost anything (rider, juggler, wrestler, bullfighter, gymnast, clown), and he is put to good physical use in the film, becoming its most quietly heroic figure.
The only other two actors of note in the film are Shirley MacLaine in one of her first screen roles as the Indian Princess Aouda, who comes to melt Fogg's icy exterior; and Robert Newton, better known to American audiences as Long John Silver in "Treasure Island," as Police Inspector Fix. While MacLaine was at the beginning of a lengthy and successful film career, Newton would die of a heart attack shortly after the movie was completed. Strange are the ways of Fate.
Almost as notable as its principal players, however, is the movie's use of cameos. This is, in fact, the movie that started the trend, the term "cameo role" having been coined specifically for the film by its producer, Michael Todd. I won't bore you by listing everyone who appears in the story, but I'll mention a few who show up for at least a moment or two: Sir John Gielgud, Noel Coward, Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Charles Boyer, Jose Greco, Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland, Reginald Denny, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, Hermione Gingold, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Tim McCoy, Jack Oakie, Victor McLaglen, Andy Devine, Edmund Lowe, John Mills, and Beatrice Lillie among many others. Distinguished newsman Edward R. Murrow narrates the prologue.
The movie was directed by Michael Anderson, who had not done many films of distinction before "Around the World" except perhaps "The Dam Busters" (1954), which was more notable for Eric Coates' music ("Dambusters March") than anything else, and "1984," and who would do little of distinction afterwards, except perhaps "The Shoes of the Fisherman," "The Quiller Memorandum," and "Logan's Run." Anderson's job was to keep things moving at a reasonable pace, at which he succeeds.
The film's producer actually upstaged the director in the filmmaking department. Mike Todd had never produced a movie before "Around the World," having only worked as an executive producer on one other theatrical release, "This Is Cinerama," in 1952. And he died in a plane crash in 1958, leaving "Around the World" as his only legacy. But showman and entrepreneur that he was, he ensured that his one-and-only film would have a lasting impact. Not only did it win all those Oscars and make him a multimillionaire, the film would predate and influence such notable comic epics as "The Great Race," "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines," and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
"Around the World in Eighty Days" is a feast for the eyes if not for the brain. It's filled with mindless "fiddle-faddle" as Fogg would say, as well as atrocious stereotypes; but if it's accepted for what it is, the viewer will be rewarded with an entertaining time. It is a cartoon movie for a bygone age when Native Americans where still wild Indians and a princess from India could be played by a Virginia-born native. Besides, there's Victor Young's musical score with its unforgettable theme song also to consider. "Around the World in Eighty Days" may have its faults and lost some of its original allure, but it remains a sure-bet even today.
The movie looks great, presented in a 2:10 ratio anamorphic widescreen that comes close to matching its original 2.20:1 Todd-AO dimensions. The new digital transfer makes the film sparkle again, its colors deep and well defined thanks to a fairly high bit. Sometimes one notices a slight glassiness about the picture and a few moiré effects, but for the most part the image is remarkably stable and well focused, with very little color bleed-through. Hues are well modulated, never too bright and never too dull but vivid and natural throughout. Since simply looking at this movie is half the show, it was important that the image quality dazzle the eye, and it does.
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 remixed soundtrack is a little on the hard side, and there isn't much information fed to the rear speakers, but otherwise these are pretty good sonics regardless of their age. While the early stereo sound provides a wide front-channel spread, good dynamics, and an especially well-extended high-end response, the deepest bass is wanting, and the loudest passages appear a tad harsh. In essence, though, there's nothing to worry about in terms of audio reproduction.
As usual with a Warner Two-Disc Special Edition, every inch of disc space is crammed with material. But this time because the film is so long and WB wanted to use as little compression as possible, the movie occupies both discs. Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of Part 1 of the feature film, about the first two hours up until the intermission; a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Disc one also includes an introduction to the movie by Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne; an audio commentary with BBC Radio's Brian Sibley; Georges Melies' classic, 1902 silent film, "A Trip to the Moon"; eleven outtakes totalling some sixteen minutes; a stills gallery; both the 1956 original and 1983 re-release trailers; some DVD-ROM links; and thirty scene selections.
Disc two contains the widescreen presentation of Part 2 of the feature film, the final hour or so; Mr. Sibley's audio commentary continued; a 1968 biography of the producer, "Around the World of Mike Todd," narrated by Orson Welles; excerpts of a Playhouse 90 gala, "Around the World in 90 Minutes," narrated by Elizabeth Taylor, among others; highlights from the March, 1957, Academy Awards ceremony; vintage newsreels of the Los Angeles première and the opening in Spain; and twenty more scene selections covering the rest of the film.
In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, "Around the World in Eighty Days" won Oscars for Best Cinematography (Lionel Lindon), Best Film Editing (Gene Ruggiero and Paul Weatherwax), Best Music (Victor Young), and Best Writing (James Poe, John Farrow, and noted humorist S.J. Perelman, who wrote some of the Marx Brothers' early films). It was further nominated for Best Director, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction, plus won a ton of other awards from the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and the New York Film Critics Circle.
Did the movie deserve all the praise, all the success, all the awards? In retrospect, probably not. After all, the contenders for Best Picture in 1956 were "Friendly Persuasion," "Giant," "The King and I," and "The Ten Commandments," any one of which strikes me today as a better picture than "Around the World in Eighty Days." But that's neither here nor there. The movie is big, the movie is fun, the movie is spectacular to watch. Which is all that counts.
Incidentally, the film was known in the U.S. as "Around the World in 80 Days," the number expressed as an arabic numeral, not as a word, and it's the way the title is presented on all of WB's documentation. However, the only time the film's title is announced on the screen, at the end of the closing credits, the number is written out as a word. Besides, Verne wrote out the number in the title of his book, "Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours," and if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me.