Monday, February 18, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956)

Poor "Around the World in 80 Days." If it wasn't so burdened by that mantle of having won a Best Picture Academy Award, I think people would regard it much more fondly. Instead they'd see a fun, light piece of extravagant entertainment -- pure spectacle for its own sake.

When "World" does get mentioned these days, it's usually not too far from the words "worst Best Picture winner ever" or something to that effect. And indeed, while watching the picture I was rarely able to push that distinction out of my mind. It's a thoroughly engaging, fun movie with massive production values and featuring a host of movie stars in cameo roles -- many of them blink-and-you'll-miss-it fast, such as the piano player in an Old West saloon turning around to reveal Frank Sinatra's wordless profile.

But Best Picture? There's simply nothing about "World" that announces itself as Best Picture material. Its other competitors from 1956 were "The King and I," "The Ten Commandments," "Giant" and "Friendly Persuasion" -- not exactly an outstanding cinematic year, by most reckonings. Perhaps only 1952 beats it out for the weakest Academy Awards field ever, when "The Greatest Show on Earth" took the top prize.

"World" also won Oscars for cinematography and editing (both deserved) as well as screenplay and musical score. It was based on the Jules Verne book, with many changes and embellishments -- e.g., the sequence of the two men riding over the Alps in an air balloon, perhaps the most iconic image from the movie, is a total fabrication.

It tells the tale of straitlaced British adventurer Phileas Fogg, played by David Niven, who accepts a challenge from fellow members of the snooty Reform Club to travel around the world in 80 days, with 20,000 pounds wagered. In 1872, this is considered an astonishing feat. But Fogg, a stand-in for the futurist Verne himself, muses that it will be accomplished in 80 hours eventually.

Just a few days earlier, some bold criminal stole a fortune from the Bank of England, with Fogg the prime suspect. Certainly the way he throws money around on his trip -- purchasing and then discarding the balloon, an elephant and even a steamship -- suggests something nefarious. He spends far more than he could hope to win from his wager.

Thus Fix (Robert Newton in his final role), a police inspector, shadows Fogg most of the trip, perpetually waiting on a warrant to arrive in the right place so he can apprehend his supposed culprit. Of course, he could just hold him for questioning until the warrant arrives, but then we wouldn't have a movie.

Also coming along for half the trip is Shirley MacLaine as Indian (!) Princess Aouda, whom Fogg rescues from a ritual sacrifice ceremony. Aouda says and does astonishingly little for most of the trip, finally casting some doe eyes at Fogg near the end and, in what must have been shockingly funny in 1956, asking him to marry her. The porcelain-skinned MacLaine, slightly decorated with dusky makeup, is most unconvincing as a native denizen of the Near East.

Also along for the trip is Passepartout, Fogg's valet whom he just hired earlier the same day he sets off on his excursion. A former circus gymnast and jack-of-all-trades, Passepartout has an array of skills that come in handy throughout the trip, including playing at bullfighter for a reluctant benefactor. Fogg has run through his serving men at an astonishing pace because of their failure to meet his persnickety standards, but Passepartout is the unlikely one who measures up.

A mild-mannered ladies' man with patched trousers, mustachio tips and a bowler hat reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Passepartout is played by Mexican superstar Cantinflas, considered by man (including Chaplin) the greatest international clown of his era. Hollywood had been begging Cantinflas to make a movie with them for years, and he had always refused until "World," when he was in his mid-40s. He would make only a few more American pictures before returning to Mexican cinema.

Passepartout actually dominates the story for a good chunk of the narrative, playing the comedic protagonist while Fogg operates as the straight man. In fact, Niven received top billing only in English-speaking countries, while Cantinflas was billed as the lead everywhere else in the globe. (The casting would follow a similar theme for the film's underwhelming 2004 remake, with Jackie Chan as Passepartout and the relatively unknown Steve Coogan as Fogg.)

My favorite part was when Fogg is making the final leg of his journey across the Atlantic and the steamship runs out of coal. Niven buys the ship from the captain, and proceeds to have the crew tear apart every inch of the vessel that is flammable and toss it into the boiler. By the end they're riding on a floating barge with an engine room and a pair of wheel paddles, and not much else.

Directed by Michael Anderson with a screenplay adaptation by James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman, "Around the World in 80 Days" is light, carefree entertainment, filled with plenty of laughs and fun. All the cameos by stars end up seeming rather pointless, but there's no denying it's an engaging flick, even at a hair over three hours long.

Watching it got me to thinking about this year's Best Picture race. "Argo" had been considered an early front-runner for that award, but a growing backlash seemed to conclude that it was too unserious to be named Best Picture. Or, more accurately, that its story theme did not have the prerequisite "heaviness" to earn that distinction.

"Argo" is indeed a dramatic film, but it has plenty of moments of levity, with Alan Arkin's character as the nexus for the frivolity. The overall tone is of a crime caper -- a deadly serious one to be sure, but one in which we know the good guys get out of Iran safely.

"Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" are both more classic versions of a Best Picture pedigree -- historical dramas based on real figures, with a heavy spritz of Hollywood fact-fudging.

It's instructive that comedies have earned so few Best Picture nominations, let alone wins. "Annie Hall" and "Shakespeare in Love" are the only two to take the Academy Award in the past half-century, and both have plenty of serious moments that render them more of a dramatic-comedy blend.

In that sense I suppose we should be more appreciative of "Around the World in 80 Days," since it represented a genre that has not gotten its due respect from the Academy.

3 stars out of four

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