Around the World in 80 Days: A Beautiful, Flat Comedy

Welcome back for another #MovieMonday. I’m steamrolling forward this week to Michael Anderson’s epic, Around the World in 80 Days. Enjoy reading and, as always, comment and share if you like it.

To say that Around the World in 80 Days is an all-around good movie would be accurate. But, to say that it’s a great movie, one that is worthy of a Best Picture nod is, in my opinion, just not true.

For everything this movie does well, like acting, cinematography and set design (more on those below), there are just as many areas where it doesn’t shine.

Around the World in 80 Days won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1956, the 29th movie to win the award. And, while the Academy likes to con us into believing they know what they’re doing, this movie proves that a Best Picture can be bought. According to IMDb, the film had an estimated budget of $6 million in the mid-1950s, which is more than $50 million today. And it seems a wise investment. The movie is gorgeous with bold sets, vivid costumes, sweeping score and amazing settings that it tricks you into thinking that it’s actually good.

In reality, it’s a 181-minute snooze fest in which about half the movie could be cut out and it would be the same. Interestingly enough, making absurdly long movies seemed to be a theme around 1956, as this movie wasn’t even the longest in its class of nominees. That honor belongs to The Ten Commandments, which at 220 minutes is more than one hour longer than an average baseball game.

It’s also worth mentioning again that this movie came out in 1956. It was time in which society had much different views on things such as offensive stereotypes and race. There are several instances of both in this movie that I can’t ignore.

The different cultures that Phileas Fogg and his manservant Passepartout come across in their travels are overly simplified and so stereotypical that I can hardly stomach it. The most noticeable of these was their portrayal of Native Americans. All appearances of Native Americans in the movie are of men with giant feathers on their heads. While this was a garment worn by native peoples, it’s hard to believe that all the tribes shown in the movie (Fogg and Passepartout encounter two of them) would wear the exact same thing.

Additionally, there’s a point in the movie in which Passepartout (Cantinflaus) is captured by an unfriendly tribe, their first move is to tie him to a post and chant in a circle around him while they try to burn him at the stake. This is a simplistic look at a Native American culture, even if it is an unfriendly tribe. The Native American culture was so displayed so stereotypically that I can hardly stomach it. However, the movie is a reflection of the time from which it came. Therefore, I cannot hold this against Around the World in 80 Days. This is surely not the last time I will come across this in this blog.

Now, for the review:

Writing/Dialogue

Around the World in 80 Days won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Best Screenplay, Adapted. The script was written by John FarrowJames Poe and S.J. PerelmanJules Verne also received a writing credit. The writing is full of witty humor and, when delivered by David Nevin, hit the exact kind of sarcastic tone that the authors surely intended.

However, there are some flaws. The script scrubs all accents from it and by the time the cleaning is complete, you’re left with flawless and “perfect” British accents. This felt very inauthentic.

The dialogue, at times, feels like it’s trying to be superior to me and, at others, is blatantly obvious. At one point in the movie, between the end of the second hour and the start of the third, the train that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda, an Indian princess rescued by Fogg, and Inspector Fix, an undercover policeman pursuing Fogg, are on is stopped by Native Americans. Fogg asked a steward what has stopped the train and delayed him. The steward responded, “Indians. But they’re peaceful Indians. You can tell because they’re smoking a peace pipe.” He also foreshadows by saying that the “Indians” up ahead are not so friendly. Naturally, the film cuts to a peace pipe being shared by the train drivers and the Native Americans.

I have to disagree with the Academy here. Even though the movie won in this category, I can’t get over the flaws with the script, even if it is funny at times. 0.

Directing

Around the World in 80 Days is the only movie that garnered director Michael Anderson an Oscar nomination. He did not win the award for Best Director. However, this movie is really a masterpiece for Anderson. The film is obsessively detailed, as far as the visuals go. The use of long shots during film meant that everything and every actor had to be in the right spot for every single take.

There’s one scene in particular where this is evident. Shortly after Fogg and Passepartout arrive in Spain, they’re treated to a flamenco dance. The entire routine is more than two minutes long and it’s shot in one take. Not only is there the dancer, but you have two major characters and hundreds of extras in the scene, in addition to the film crew. That kind of coordination is nothing short of a miracle.

That scene is my personal favorite in the movie. It’s colors, sound, camera movement and dancing (duh, the dancing) make it incredible. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I did. 1.

Set Design

Set design is another area in which Around the World in 80 Days excels.

I’ll start with the settings. It’s evident that the crew went all over the world to shoot this movie. Along the way, you see London, a Spanish village, Egypt, India, China, Japan and the American west. There are plenty of shots of the landscape, too. This reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia in a way. The location was just as prominent a character as Fogg and Passepartout.

Second was the clothing. One of the things I picked out of this movie right away was how damn beautiful it was, right down to the clothing. The colors popped while still seeming authentic. David Nevin wore a terrific white suit for a good chunk of the movie.

Finally, I have to say something about the extras. There’s a bull fight in this movie, and when you watch it, you’ll notice a large population in the stadium. There’s 10,000 of them and they’re all extras. The sheer number of people in this movie was staggering. They were everywhere: crowds when Fogg took off in his hot air balloon, in train stations, on boats and in markets. There was no shortage of people.

All of these combined to make a showy, yet authentic movie pop off the screen. I was dazzled by the colors and ambitious settings. This easily gets a 1.

Cinematography

When I was reading about this movie (I find most things on Wikipedia. this is a simple research project, after all), I was not surprised to learn that this movie was shot on 70mm film. For those of you that don’t know, 70mm is a widescreen format with a considerably higher definition than the standard 35mm. Around the World in 80 Days uses an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. This means that the width of the picture is 2.20 times wider than the height. Your widescreen TV is 16:9, or 1.77:1, so this is even wider than that. Basically, it’s really wide and the film can capture a lot of crap on the sides. This particular movie was shot with a new (at the time) process called Todd-AO. This process was pioneered by the producer, Michael Todd.

It’s also worth noting that the movie was shot in 30 frames per second, which is much faster than the standard 24 frames per second that we still use today. This increase in the frame rate means there is less motion blur and the image seems to be sharper. I couldn’t find a good YouTube guide for comparing 30 frames per second to 24 frames per second. However, I did find this very cool video that was shot in 60 frames per second. Notice how crisp the movements are compared to what you’ve seen in movies or other videos.

One more little fact about this film is that the Todd-AO process was meant to show movies on a curved screen. When I watched it, I noticed two things that would look great on a curved screen. First of all, Lionel Lindon, the director of photography, used an ultra-wide curved lens on some shots. This gives the appearance that you’re looking through one of those peep holes in a hotel door.

Second, there is a lot of ancillary stuff going on in the fringes of the shots. There are often actors that are waiting patiently or watching what’s happening in the rest of the shot. When the action moved to the actors at the side of the screen, there was time for the audience to literally turn their heads to see it. The widescreen capabilities of 70mm helped to capture this.

If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, then you know what widescreen really is. But Lawrence and Around the World both use widescreen to effectively show off what the world is like. Lawrence of Arabia shows the stark landscapes of Middle Eastern deserts. Around the World in 80 Days uses it to the opposite effect. The wide screen simply shows off the incredible depth in a particular scene that we’re physically very close to. One of these is when a shot of the Reform Club, shortly after Fogg departs (and veers off course) when the members are talking about his early struggles. The actors are spaced in such a way that they fill up the entire screen. The white space in conjunction with the action, makes this a very beautiful scene. 1.

Sound

The most notable thing about sound in Around the World in 80 Days is the score. It’s very cheery, and helps set the tone of the movie. It’s also, in my mind beautiful. The score was composed by Victor Young. It’s sweeping tones lend to the film’s majestic settings during the travels of Fogg and Passepartout. This score did win the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. 1.

Acting

Like Annie HallAround the World in 80 Days features two actors. The first is David Nevin, who plays Phileas Fogg, while Cantinflas plays Passepartout. There are, however some cameos, most notably is Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich (in the same scene, nonetheless).

David Niven (Phileas Fogg) Fogg is one tough cookie, he’s the most punctual man in Britain who has clocks everywhere in his house and even carries two watches. He prefers his toast at exactly 83 degrees, no more and no less. But Fogg starts out as snob and he ends as one, too. He does not develop during the movie and watching him made me feel inferior. I could never connect with a character that seemed to do nothing wrong. Niven’s performance was not what I expect from an actor in a Best Picture winner.

Cantinflas (Passepartout) There’s something appropriate about a one-named man playing another. Poor Passepartout is Fogg’s newest manservant who has to leave for a trip around the world during his first day on the job. But Passepartout is often the comic relief in this move. He’s put in the most awkward situations like a bull fight or playing in a Japanese circus. Passepartout, in my mind, steals the show from Fogg. And while his character is just as flat as Fogg, he is infinitely more lovable. 0.

Plot

When Phileas Fogg challenges the hoity-toity Reform Club to go around the world in 80 days, his troubles never seem to stop. In 1872, going around the world in 80 days is not impossible, but many things have to go right on your trip to make each connection. This is a struggle that we may not fully appreciate with the convenience of air travel.

But, Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days puts you in Fogg’s shoes as he tries to cross the globe, encountering delays along the way from scheduling, avalanches, Native Americans, a buffalo herd and even the police. Fogg and Passepartout even pick up an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) and an undercover cop (Robert Newton) along the way.

Every time there is a delay or some other setback, it’s an issue for about five seconds and then Fogg just magically solves it. It’s mostly through money. He buys almost everything he comes across to solve his issues. There’s very little drama or suspense during the journey. However, I don’t think that this is what Around the World in 80 Days is about. This is an adventure movie; an epic that sees one man take on the entire globe just because he can. The fun is in the journey, not so much the destination.

Around the World in 80 Days is what a former theatre professor of mine would call “flash and trash.” The exterior of the movie, everything you can experience with sight and sound, is unbelievably beautiful and ambitious. However, the film lacks a depth that I expect from a Best Picture winner. Is it a good movie? Yes. Is it a great, all-around film? No. Not close. 0.

Bonus Points

Since it is my longest section, I have to give two bonus points to cinematography. I don’t have enough words to describe how pretty this movie was. But it also captured my attention with several little camera tricks. This mostly has to do with Michael Anderson and Lionel Lindon putting the camera on things. It’s on the front of a bike and a train. My personal favorite was a shot on the back of an elephant as Passepartout and Fogg are navigating an Indian jungle. It’s easy to see why this movie won the award for Best Cinematography, Color.

Final Score: 6/10

Oscar Facts

Around the World in 80 Days won the 29th Academy Award for Best Motion Picture on March 27, 1957 at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by Jerry Lewis and Celeste Holm. The 29th Academy Awards were the first time that all five nominees for Best Motion Picture were in color. Around the World in 80 Days beat out Friendly PersuasionGiantThe King and Iand The Ten CommandmentsGeorge Stevens won Best Director for Giant. The award for Best Actor went to Yul Brynner for his role in The King and I, while Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for Anastasia. Best Supporting Actor was grabbed by Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life and Best Supporting Actress was Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind. Giant received the most nominations with 10 while Around the World in 80 Days and The King and I won the most awards with five each. Best Picture, Best Director and all acting Oscars went to different movies for only the second time ever.

Around the World in 80 Days was nominated for eight Oscars and won five. It won Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music and Best Writing. Janet Gaynor presented the award for Best Motion Picture and the award was accepted by Michael Todd, the producer.

Next Week

Next week, we stay with long-form movies with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, the 55th Best Picture winner in 1982. Following that, it’s Rocky, The Broadway Melody, Kramer vs. Kramer, Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Emperor.

10 Comments

  1. What a good review, very detailed and descriptive! I haven’t seen this movie but after reading this I’d like to so I can hear the beautiful music and see the beauty you describe.

    Like

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