Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Around the World in 80 Days

Here’s a film that won an Academy Award for Best Picture that rates only a 6.8 on the imdb.com viewers’ scale. Why so? Well, time changes things and what once seemed inspired and cutting edge can easily become an embarrassing out-of-style novelty.

Around the World in 80 Days is a 1956 adaptation of the Jules Verne classic in which a British gentleman wagers all that he has on the conviction that with modern transportation he can do what the title says. The film stars David Nevin as the anal retentive Phileas Fogg, and his butler sidekick Passepartout, a cross between Harpo and Chico of Marx Brothers fame. (Looks a little like Chico, is haplessly comical like Harpo.)

Some of the reviewers at imdb deposited kind-hearted summaries like this one: "Mike Todd's version of Jules Verne tale offers a refined English comedy, giant-screen travel landscapes, dazzling brilliant color, famous actors in small roles... as Phileas Fogg and his comical valet made the tour of the world beginning in England, going to Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia..."

But others show no hesitation in making digs:
"Around the World in 80 Days" recreates the sensation of looking through someone else's vacation pictures. Some of them may be pretty, but by the time you've seen your fifth picture of palm trees and sand, you're ready to move on."

In point of fact, this latter is exactly what I was thinking at times when I watched the film recently. The footage reminded me of some of my grandparents’ home movies when they went out west in the fifties to visit kin and take in the sights. Except in this case, David Niven and his valet have gone global.

It’s the film version of a National Geographic subscription. And for sure the best way to appreciate this film is with a little historical context such as this explanation, again from imdb. "With the exception of 'On the Waterfront' the Academy went out of its way during the fifties to award the Best Picture Oscar to movies that were safe, family friendly, non-controversial, non thought provoking and politically neutral . " Around The World in 80 Days" is no exception. Basically, this is just a 3 hour travelogue with pretty photography and alot of over the hill actors in cameo roles."
Some reviewers criticized the casting of Shirley MacLaine as a Hindu princess, but if you're going to quibble about casting, those "Native Americans" looked pretty hokey to me. Definitely not Dances with Wolves.

Another surprise was the blemishes on the camera lens in a couple places. My original Sony digicam had to be discarded because of the blemishes that would show up in so many of my photos when there was sky or a white background for a drawing. It was quite a surprise to see this same marring on the lens of the camera that shot footage in a couple of scenes in this film.

No question this film capitalized on the fascination with exotic cultures that was prevalent in the fifties. I remember going to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with my parents and having my dad point out to me the shrunken heads displayed there.

Around the World was shot in over 100 different locations around the world, in full cinematic and Technicolor brilliance. And there was no doubt a time when this was a special event, seeing so many exotic locations and cultures in the span of a few hours. But contemporary audiences have already seen all this and more in films like The Constant Gardener, Babel, Spy Game, a dozen Bond films and a whole host of others too numerous to list here.

A few of the noteworthy cameos that made an appearance in the film included Sir John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Glynis Johns, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine and many more.

All in all, the film has little emotional impact and frequently gets tedious, but you might enjoy it. Or you might not, like glabella from St. Louis:

BOOORRRRINNNGG!!!!!!, 28 November 1999
In the '50's, TV was wrecking the movie industry, so the studios fought back with gimmicks like 3-D and bloated studio set pieces like "Around The World In 80 Days." There is nothing to this vapid marathon of cameos and strenuous set designs in the way of emotional concern for the characters or a feeling of a time and place long gone. This film is unwatchable after an hour, but it won the Oscar for best picture anyway. Which goes to show that the Academy was rewarding mediocrity back then, as it does now. (Recent winners: Cher, Kim Basinger, Roberto Begnini.) Not that there weren't some great films in '56...Friendly Persuasion, Giant, Kiss Me Deadly, The Killing, Rebel Without a Cause, Baby Doll...but not this indigestible tripe.

Well, there you have it. It could have been worse.... like the 2004 Jackie Chan remake.

In the meantime... have a good day. Enjoy the movies.

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