Sunday, December 1, 2013


Long considered one of the weakest films to win Best Picture, Around the World in Eighty Days is, to put it bluntly, a big, dumb, ridiculous mess. I don’t even know where to begin with this one old sport. In some ways, the task of writing about a really crappy film is almost more difficult than writing about a really great film. When you feel like you’ve been sold a dud and been completely taken for a sucker, any subsequent feelings on the matter emerge covered with barbs. It’s challenging to refrain from just pouring acid all over a junk film instead of respectfully placing it under the microscope and offering it due analysis. 

Above all else, the fact remains that Around the World in Eighty Days is not only a dreadful film, particularly in comparison to its fellow Best Picture winning colleagues. It’s just a terrible film altogether. It really is an embarrassment to the legacy constructed by the films before and after it that have stood atop the cinematic podium and collected Oscar gold. In the category of Best Picture, it rightfully has no business maintaining any type of a presence. Its victory is made all the more outrageous upon realizing that it defeated four other films far more superior: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments. Anyone of these films would have been a more worthy heir to accept the baton from Marty and carry it forth until the Academy Awards crowned a new winner the following year. Thus far into this little writing project, the only other film I would consider worse is The Broadway Melody, which can be justly cut some slack given that it came out in the early days of motion pictures. Unfortunately, Around the World in Eighty Days can make no legitimate claim to this excuse. I’m sorry, but it’s 1956, not 1928, and Hollywood should have their act together by now to make a good Best Picture winning film.

Directed by Michael Anderson, Around the World in Eighty Days received eight Academy Award nominations, packing up and shipping out with five wins, including Best Picture for 1956.  The film stars David Niven, Shirley MacLaine and Cantinflas, but is noted more for the nearly fifty famous cameos sprinkled throughout the film of well-known actors, comedians and other personalities. Among the many famous faces that do pop up around the world are Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Bustor Keaton, Edward R. Murrow and Frank Sinatra. However, perhaps the marquee star in this film’s case is its brassy and ballsy producer Mike Todd, a Broadway showman with a reputation for going big or going home. His vision expanded the scope and scale of the picture far beyond what most anyone else would have conceived it as being. Just to put into perspective how sprawling this project was, the film featured 7,959 animals, including over 2,000 American buffalo, 74,685 costumes and 68, 894 extras. In one scene featuring Cantinflas as a bullfighter, Todd utilized all 6,500 residents of a small Spanish town to play extras. In deciding that the scene required still more extras, Todd rounded up an additional 3,500 residents of nearby towns to fill the stands of the bullfighting ring. In still another scene involving a band of Native Americans attacking a train in the American West, Todd employed 650 extras. Many of these extras were actual Native Americans, but many were not. Todd’s solution? Use 50 gallons of orange-colored dye to alter the skin color of all 650 extras so their skin uniformly held the same tone. If he were alive today, with access to all of the modern-day moviemaking tools, I’m sure he would be producing deafening, FX driven films that would possibly make Michael Bay envious.    

Based on the book of the same name by the futuristically-minded Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days concerns Phileas Fogg, an island of an English Gentleman whose chief delight is a solemn game of Whist. Upon entering into a discussion with his fellow chaps at the distinguished Reform Club concerning the speed at which one could traverse the globe, Fogg soon finds himself entering into a wager that he can travel around the world in eighty days. Together with his bumbling, yet loyal valet, Passepartout, Fogg sets off to prove his comrades wrong, along the way encountering the long arm of the law and the tender arms of love.

I’m not even sure where to go from here. For starters, Around the World in Eighty Days has a bloated, overly-indulgent running time of more than four hours. It felt like it took 80 days just to watch the whole damn thing. I don’t know how it ever picked up an Oscar for Best Editing because it doesn’t appear that anything was left on the cutting room floor. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not habitually opposed to the lengthy nature of a film. If there is a legitimate need for a film to take up four hours in order to properly tell its story, then disco. Unfortunately, Around the World in Eighty Days does not make a justifiable case for the amount of time it vacuums up. One main reason owing for its extravagant length is that it is overly preoccupied with parading about long-winded sequences of the journey in what feels like real time, where a couple of minutes would have sufficed. For example, while in Spain, someone felt the need to showcase a Spanish dancer atop a table doing his thing for several minutes in one, uninterrupted take. Another point involves a train passage through India consisting of lingering shots of non-descript scenery passing by. As the main characters are scarcely present in any of these scenes, it only serves to heighten the notion that it’s all just narrative deadweight. These scenes do nothing except smother the story from being able to move along. Among the many reasons it’s frustrating to watch these large, extravagant scenes is that one gets the sense that the filmmakers were trying to visually sweep everyone off their feet by dressing the film up with a sense of epic grandeur. It’s as though they thought to themselves that if they stuff this turkey with as much visual splendor as possible, the public would interpret it to be some great cinematic achievement. But just like the emperor’s sartorial choices, there really isn’t anything to behold but some feckless man, as it were, in his under garments.

Apart from being inexcusably long, there was next to no plot development throughout the entire movie. They travel for 80 mofo days around the world and nothing really ends up happening. It’s all just a random lottery of meaningless encounters and a series of near escapes with no real cohesiveness to them except for boat and train schedules and geography. For example, en route to Japan, Fogg and Passepartout become separated in Hong Kong, with Passepartout arriving several hours earlier on a different boat. During his curious wanderings through Yokohama, Passepartout ventures into a Japanese circus where he is somehow straightaway annexed into the show as a performer. Almost immediately upon landing, Fogg himself happens to meander into the same theater, sees his servant onstage, calls out for him and thus the picture concludes their adventure in Japan. 

I get it. This film is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to have a dash of silly, slapstick humor. But sadly, it really isn’t any of those things. It’s unimaginative, uninspired and fails to take advantage of the possibilities. I don’t believe that the most creative scenario conceivable for the story’s heroes whilst in Japan was the one that ended up onscreen. The same can be said for any of the stops along Fogg’s exotic journey. It’s puzzling to me as to why the filmmakers didn’t take better advantage of shooting in so many exotic locations to tell a more interesting story. Around the World in Eighty Days employed 112 locations in 13 different countries, utilizing 140 sets. But instead of creating a thrilling adventure, each chapter of this global excursion becomes a loosely predictable, paint-by-numbers scenario: After landing on some new shore, Fogg all but disappears into the background of the story to play Whist, while Passepartout wanders off to admire the native women before eventually offending the locals by unwittingly trespassing over some cultural boundary. After four hours of this, the needle moves from mildly entertaining to put-out-your-eyes annoying.

It’s no great insight to say that a bad movie usually emanates from an equally terrible script, and the film in question does nothing to buck this trend. Ironically, it feels like there is absolutely nothing at stake in this film, which I think is partly a reflection of the dragging pace at which it moves. At about the mid-point of the film, I stopped caring altogether whether Fogg would return to London on time in order to win his wager. In fact, by the end of the film I started to hope he would lose just so that something interesting would happen. But the script is about as bland as the love child of vanilla ice cream and plain yogurt. With the possible exception of Cantinflas, the script doesn’t provide a scrap of flavor for the actors to sink their teeth into, leaving them stranded and looking dull and wooden. It’s says a lot about a how dreadful a script is if it leaves talents like David Niven and Shirley MacLaine looking lackluster and leaden. The simple fact is that MacLaine’s presence in this film is perhaps the zenith of its mistakes, setting the table for the film’s ridiculous tone that spreads to all of its other aspects. She is cast as an Indian princess that Fogg and Passepartout rescue from a ceremonial sacrifice. (Yes, the same woman who played Ouiser in Steel Magnolias was cast in the part of an Indian princess.) I’m sure casting her in this role has more to do with the time period in which this film was made. However, if they wanted a Caucasian actress for the part, there must have been alternatives that would have looked a little more convincing, especially given that apparently no acting abilities were required for the role.

Instead of Around the World in Eighty Days, the film that should have been made is the one about the life of the film’s producer Mike Todd. This fellow truly had a larger-than-life persona who pitched his tent closer to the edge of risk than most people ever dare to venture in their lifetime. He pursued and married arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time: Elizabeth Taylor. In his professional pursuits, he also gambled big as a showman, often times finding himself in the company of both soaring victory and gaping defeat. He represented that combination of colossal imagination and unbridled energy that resulted in big ideas bathed in decadence and grandeur. Just to give you an example, on the one year anniversary of the premiere of Around the World in Eighty Days, Todd and Taylor hosted an over-the-top gala for 18,000 of their “closest friends.” Being typically Todd, the whole affair was anything but subtle, coming complete with a 14 foot high cake and a 24 foot high Oscar statute replica made from 100,000 copper colored Chrysanthemums. Tragically, he died at the age of 48 when his private plane, ironically called Lucky Liz, crashed in New Mexico. As much as I disliked Around the World in 80 Days, you have to tip your hat and respect the sheer ambition of it all, leaving one to wonder what other vast and daring film productions would have flowed from the mind of Mike Todd were it not for his untimely death. 

Best Line: Honestly, there weren’t any noteworthy lines in this film, probably because there was next to no dialogue, which is ironic in a movie with a running time this long.

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