Monday, November 2, 2009

1956 - Around the World in 80 Days

As I complete the Best Picture nominees from 1956, make sure you check out the Supporting Actress Smackdown for the same year, which StinkyLulu has now posted. A lively discussion of the nominees for that race can be found there, including my own musings. Fascinating stuff, indeed.

Saturday night was my first Halloween in New York and an impressive sight it was. The effort that the people of this city go to is spectacular. The weather was atrocious and yet the party-goers were out in droves. Kat and I joined the multitudes lining Sixth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the parade. That experience was less than pleasant, mostly due to the discomfort provided by the rain and the crowds, but observing the array of creatively attired people wandering through Union Square more than made up for it. Some very inventive costumes everywhere we looked. We felt quite inadequate with our witch's hat and skeleton mask.

In my previous post, I erroneously cited the project's next film as the longest of the nominees due to the equally erroneous information on Netflix's website. In any case, to conclude the 1956 Best Picture contest, yesterday I watched...

Around the World in 80 Days
Michael Anderson
James Poe, John Farrow & S.J. Perelman
(based on the novel by Jules Verne)
David Niven, Cantinflas, Robert Newton, Shirley MacLaine and dozens of star cameos
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture

Similar to fellow Best Picture nominee The Ten Commandments, producer Michael Todd's grand opus Around the World in 80 Days begins oddly with a hosted introduction. Unlike DeMille's picture, however, the introduction is not by the film's director, but by popular broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, the first of a great many cameos in the film. He throws to clips of the silent classic A Trip to The Moon, considered to be the first science fiction movie ever produced, before the main feature begins.

Phileas Fogg is a wealthy English gentleman of the 19th century with far too much time and money on his hands. While at his gentlemen's club playing whist with his peers, the discussion turns to the advances in long-distance passenger transportation. Fogg comments that it would now be possible to circumnavigate the globe within eighty days, a claim doubted by his colleagues. A wager is set and the race is on. To accompany him on the trip, Fogg brings along his new valet, the highly resourceful and multi-talented Passepartout. Following them closely is Inspector Fix, who intends to arrest Fogg on suspicion of robbing the Bank of England. Using various methods of transport, they travel through Europe, Asia and North America, experiencing the local customs, in their attempt to return to London in time to win the bet.

Around the World in 80 Days is a charming adventure with a great deal of humour. My biggest gripe about it, though, is not so much the length itself, but the fact that it is an unnecessary length. There are simply too many sections that are drawn out gratuitously. The introduction is a prime example. We are shown clips of a classic French short film. The link to the main feature that follows is tenuous. Both stories are based on works by Jules Verne, but I imagine, just like The Ten Commandments, it is intended to instill in its audience a sense of wonderment and grandeur. Perhaps this is simply a convention to which a modern audience cannot relate, because I found myself merely wishing for the film to begin already.

Thankfully, once the introduction is complete, the story begins quickly. Fogg and Passepartout are in a hot air balloon (pictured) before you know it, having begun their race around the world. But the excitement from the thrill of the deadline does not last long. Once in Spain, there is an elongated bullfight scene that, although comical, could easily have been shortened by half without affecting the plot. And it continues this way through most of the film. With myriad sequences of local sights and customs, it almost feels like a geography lesson.

It's a double-edge sword, I suppose. On the one hand, the episodic feel of the film allows for an interesting and enjoyable diversity. On the other, we only catch a glimpse of each new mini-story and its characters that we are simply not invested enough in the outcome. However, I'm not convinced this is the source material's fault. The lingering shots of the dazzling locations are at the expense of much needed detail in the subplots.

After spending the majority of my review complaining about the film's gratuitousness, let me shift gears now in order to avoid giving the wrong impression. On the positive side - and there are honestly plenty of positives - the humour in the film is delightful and it is chock full of clever adventure. Fogg is constantly needing to be innovative to overcome the various obstacles. Plus, no method of transport is left undiscovered, allowing such gems as, "Follow that rickshaw," to be followed a few minutes later by, "Follow that ostrich." The final hour of the film regains some of that exhilarating urgency as they approach the conclusion of their journey. There is a particularly exciting action sequence on the train to New York, involving some stereotypically hostile Native Americans, made all the more amusing when several arrows miraculously bounce off Passepartout's body.

David Niven is highly amusing as the snobbish Phileas Fogg, the perfect complement to Cantinflas' adorably entertaining Passepartout. A young Shirley MacLaine plays an Indian Princess saved from a fiery death. Although from the subcontinent, her character got her education in England, and it seems she may have gotten her complexion there, as well. And then there are the numerous cameos. In fact, this film is often credited with coining the term 'cameo'. My favourite was Peter Lorre as the Asian steward of an ocean liner. And don't blink or you'll miss Frank Sinatra.

That concludes the nominees for 1956. The verdict is up next and, like my previous verdict for 2001, no one film is standing out as a clear favourite. So, yet again, my brain has its work cut out.

1 comment:

  1. Around the World in 80 Days was the second of the 1956 films I saw during its initial release. I remember liking it as a kid, primarily due to Cantinflas. I rewatched it for the first time in a very long time, and must say it seamed more like a travelogue than a movie. The Todd AO cinematography has held up - it still looks spectacular. While it was fun to pick out the cameos, today its a common practice. I don't understand the editing Oscar. Its episodic format became routine and many of the edits were I thought, unimaginative.

    Once again, in the context what Hollywood thought they needed in 1956, and placed along side the other nominees, it was a lavish piece of entertainment. I think David Niven has said it was his favorite role and performance. I could name a handful of others by him that I preferred.