Friday, April 25, 2014

Around The World in 80 Days (Best Picture 1956)

Attention, all you people out there who have ever seen a motion picture and thought, "THIS film won Best Picture!?" You know who you are, raise your hands. Okay, that's most of you. You should be on my side this week. For the rest of you who say you have never felt this way, direct your attention to March 1957 and Exhibit "A": the so-called "best" picture of 1956, an awful dog-and-pony show called Around The World in Eighty Days.

This year's other nominees were 1. one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's best musicals, The King and I; 2. a touching morality story about pacifists engulfed by the Civil War, Friendsly Persuasion; 3. Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments; and 4. James Dean's last film, a 3-hour opus on Texas oilmen, Giant. The winner was a travelogue about an Englishman who attempts to circumnavigate the globe within three months. "And the Oscar goes to...." indeed!

Perhaps the biggest problem with this film is the sheer lack of drama.  If you think I'm "spoiling" anything by telling you that Phileas Fogg succeeds in his goal, you are either not up-to-date on your English literature (the book by Jules Verne was written at the turn of the century) or you're a hopeless pessimist. Yet the last section of the film would have us believe that he did, indeed fail...for the most inane reason imaginable. After more than two hours, you think the film is going to end with an, "Oops, can't be done"??

Part of the reason I dislike Around The World in Eighty Days must be the fact that it simply is not my cup of tea. Similarly to An American In Paris (1951) or The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), the "road show" film is simply not that entertaining to me. In addition, the story and characters are so absolutely artificial that I find them annoying rather than enduring. Let me try to give you a a few examples.
There was no balloon in the book.
While Phileas Fogg and his man-servant Passpatout are traveling through India, Passpatout scares away a cow wandering through the marketplace. This probably is supposed to elicit a laugh, but the locals scream bloody murder and begin to chase Passpatout with looks of demonic rage on their faces. So in a film that purports to showcase the world, its scenery, and its people, here is a nearly-racist caricature of a mob instead of characters. This isn't entertainment, it's condescension. 

Fogg leaves England on his dare soon after an infamous bank robbery is in the news. Later, at the Suez Canal, a police detective named Inspector Fix believes that Fogg's situation means he must be the escaping bank robber. Therefore, Fix chases after Fogg for the rest of the journey (and the film). Of course, we know that Fogg is innocent, so there is absolutely no drama to this conflict. This character is nothing more than an annoyance and a plot contrivance. The great character actor Robert Newton is wasted in the role.

Speaking of wasted roles, the great Shirley MacLaine has nothing to do in this film except stand around demurely and try to act like a Rajah Princess. That she was cast as an Indian at all is insulting in this day and age; that she has nothing to do is an insult to her skills as an  actress.

After the trio of Fogg, Passpatout, and the Princess get to Hong Kong they are separated and end up traveling to Yokohama (Japan) in different boats. However, in a city of millions, they happen to find each other at a Japanese circus. It was ridiculous, and worst of all it was obviously filmed on a sound-stage. I've been to Yokohama, and in fact got lost there, so I find this absolutely unbelievable.

The idea of having celebrity "cameo" roles in the film seems like a fun idea; however, pretty quickly it becomes tiresome. Am I supposed to recognize that actor? Was this character written in just so that Red Skelton could portray him? Yes, and yes.
The movie is not all bad, of course. David Niven as Fogg is absolutely the best part of the film. He portrays the ultimate Englishman from start to finish with not a single wrong note. Likewise, Cantinflas, the Mexican film star, does wonderfully as Passpatout. He handles the physical comedy perfectly, and his acting is where it needs to be for such a light-weight role.

The Academy Award obviously went to this film for the scale of the production. No actors were nominated, and the director, although nominated, did not win. Skip this film and watch any other David Niven film (Separate Tables?) and a National Geographic film instead.
Around The World in Eighty Days
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1956*
Produced by Michael Todd
Directed  by Michel Anderson
Screenplay by James Poe, John Farrow, and SJ Perelman 
Based on the book by Jules Verne
This is a perfect trailer for this movie....
watch it, and you won't have to watch the actual picture!
Seriously, this gives a great example of what must have
been this film's appeal to the Academy.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Friendly Persuasion
The King And I
The Ten Commandments
In my opinion, any of these films is a better choice as Best Picture than Around The World in Eighty Days. Rent them and watch them and tell me that you disagree with me. 

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