Insignificant as cinema, overlong to an agonizing extreme, stodgy and clunky in technique and not so much poorly directed as barely directed, "Around the World in 80 Days" is also a colossally charming delight. It's a movie like none other, the first and last produced by Michael Todd, a rascally showman who believed in only the second half of the homily "Never a borrower or a lender be" and who married Elizabeth Taylor in 1957 -- the same year his movie won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Mike Todd's life story sounds like much richer material for a movie than Jules Verne's 1872 novel does, and to prove it, the rich and splashy new DVD release of the film includes "Around the World of Mike Todd," a 1968 documentary about the swashbuckling schemer produced by his son, Michael Todd Jr. The Verne novel is nothing if not resilient and a tempting blank canvas: A new version of "Around the World in 80 Days," starring agile Jackie Chan, will open in dozens of cities on June 16.
The new two-DVD "80 Days" set, just out on the Warner Home Video label, contains many other extras -- among them the complete version of French innovator Georges Melies's 1902 "trick" film, "A Trip to the Moon," excerpted in "80 Days' " prologue -- but the presentation of the movie is an extra in itself. Though video releases of the film go back to the earliest Betamax days, this is the first time, ever, that "Around the World in 80 Days" has been available in the wide-screen, letterbox format. This approximates the way the movie looked to theater audiences who, for the first year of its release, bought reserved seats to see it in its original, spectacular road-show edition.
As Hollywood movie studios continued losing their fight against television in the '50s, they came up with eye-filling, head-spinning wide-screen photographic processes such as CinemaScope, VistaVision and, for "80 Days," Todd-AO, developed at the behest of, and obviously named after, the producer. The first Todd-AO films, which included the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!", were meant to be projected on a curved screen, so even though the aspect ratio for "80 Days" is correct on the new release, as it has never been before, you'd still need a huge, curved TV screen to get a really good impression of how it looked to amazed audiences in 1956.
For that and other reasons, plopping "Around the World in 80 Days" onto your DVD player is like opening a time capsule, more so than with the average vintage movie because "80 Days" seems so vividly to reflect the concerns and mass passions of its era. Chief among the quaint and dated notions is the concept of technological change as our friend, a wizardly benefactor not yet perceived as a potentially ruinous sorcerer's apprentice. Of course we all knew about the H-bomb and long-distance missiles, but the promise of wonders to come seemed effortlessly to outweigh perils so perilous that surely no nation would be foolhardy enough to mess with them.
To make the point and give the movie a veneer of social significance, Todd opens it with an introduction by Edward R. Murrow, the most respected newsman in the history of broadcasting. If you wonder why Murrow, seated in a woodsy and manly office, waits for several seconds before starting to speak, it's because time was built in for the opening of a huge velvet curtain in the kind of big-city movie palace that still existed in the '50s.
That was the optimal way to appreciate the movie's early transformation: A normal movie image was projected on the screen, and then the filmmakers super-sized it. Murrow shows an excerpt from the Melies "Trip to the Moon," loosely based on a Verne book, and then the image gets wider and taller and still wider and still taller, until it's easily bigger than the broad side of a barn. At this point a rocket is launched that subsequently gives us a Todd-AO view of the Earth from outer space.
This clever way of opening the movie, of starting out with a look at the cutting edge in speed and then going back to Verne's once-amazing version, must have been the inspiration of S.J. Perelman, who worked with Todd and others on the script. The effect of the screen growing before our eyes is still to some degree impressive on a large-screen TV, but it was not original. "This Is Cinerama," a showcase for the grandest and mightiest of all wide-screen processes, began similarly in 1952. Lowell Thomas, a journalist not quite so revered as Murrow, cued the screen to expand to the size of three regular movie screens with the arguably immortal words, "and this is Cinerama."
Todd had in fact been among the entrepreneurs who helped bring Cinerama from the drawing board to the movie screen. Another was Merian C. Cooper, the gadfly and genius whose greatest previous cinematic achievement was producing "King Kong" a mere two decades earlier.
One of the "80 Days" gimmicks truly was a Todd innovation, however, and Todd is even credited with coming up with a name for it: cameo, or cameo appearance. Perhaps mindful that his movie was really just a glorified travelogue, Todd decided to spice up the scenery, gorgeous as it was, with a generous sprinkling of international stars in tiny, often incidental roles. Noel Coward is among the first to show up, playing the manager of a firm that sends out manservants to needy clients. Thus is Cantinflas, as Passepartout, dispatched to the home of crank and nitpicker Phileas Fogg (David Niven), the man who bets fellow members of his fancy-shmancy men's club that he can indeed make it around the world in the number of days ever-so-subtly hinted at in the title.
According to an introduction taped for the DVD edition, Cantinflas was, in 1956, the richest movie star in the world, thanks to his popularity in his native Mexico and the fact that he owned his own studio and had complete autonomy in making films. He was, clearly, the Mexican Chaplin. His abilities as a bullfighter were so celebrated that a comedic (and nearly interminable) bullfight was written into the picture. Unfortunately, something got lost in translation when Cantinflas came north to Los Angeles. Hardly anything he does in the movie seems funny. And Niven, as Fogg, succeeds mainly in making a dull character even duller.
The cameos, then, take on more importance and carry more weight than Todd probably meant them to. For the most part, the cameo stars are old-timers from an earlier era of motion pictures. Perhaps they can be thought of as the greatest generation of entertainers, soon to be replaced by the new stars that television would create. Among the dozens of familiar and fairly familiar faces popping up: Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Charles Boyer, Ronald Colman, Evelyn Keyes, Charles Coburn, Beatrice Lillie, Alan Mowbray, Andy Devine, Peter Lorre and, in a potent San Francisco bar sequence, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra doesn't speak, but Raft and Dietrich both have dialogue and play actual, if pint-size, roles. Starring with Niven, meanwhile, are Shirley MacLaine (in only her third film) and Robert Newton, who plays a suspicious Scotland Yard inspector and is best known for his definitive Long John Silver in Disney's "Treasure Island," and who, Robert Osborne says in his introduction, died of a heart attack only a few weeks after shooting was completed on the film.
There are no opening credits for the film, only Murrow's introduction, which segues right into the narrative, and a scene-setting appearance by the grenadier guards marching around London. The credit sequence, another of Todd's inspired ideas, was a movie within the movie, a cleverly animated sequence created by master graphic artist Saul Bass and positioned at the end of the picture. While Victor Young conducted variations on themes from his lilting score for the film, the audience stayed in its seats to watch a glorified cartoon telling them "who was seen in what scene and who did what."
Even the credits for this movie were glorious.
Today, "Around the World in 80 Days" would likely be called a triumph of hype, but in 1956, "hype" had yet to gain much popularity, and instead the friendlier term "publicity" was used to describe the fuss created for the movie -- at virtually every stage of production. Todd was celebrated more for his prowess as a publicist than for his powers as a producer. He didn't rely on research or test audiences or reams of data. It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of thing, and Todd was a larger- and-stranger-than-life character in the grand tradition of many a previous showbiz shaman.
Well after the movie opened, the publicity whirlwind was kept spinning -- via road-show engagements in major cities -- and continued for a full year, until it was time to celebrate the movie's first anniversary with a party to dwarf most other parties, tossed by party boy Todd at the original Madison Square Garden. Eighteen thousand "chums" of Todd and his new bride, Taylor, were invited to the garden, but millions more were entreated to attend via the CBS television network, which that week turned its celebrated drama anthology "Playhouse 90" into Todd's celebration of Todd called "Around the World in 90 Minutes."
As Todd's movie was just a travelogue in fabulously fancy trappings, so the party was really a circus parade -- a circus maximus parade -- with little participation by "guests" other than to applaud and gaze in awe and wonder at the legions that marched around the Garden track -- bagpipers, Philadelphia's Mummers, and palomino ponies from Texas.
Most of it was live on CBS, and because the broadcast was so sloppy and disorganized, it achieved instant-debacle status. Walter Cronkite was the anchorman, though there was no mention of "CBS News," only of "our CBS cameras," and one of the chief correspondents was Jim McKay, who later went to ABC and, of course, achieved great fame as a sportscaster. Also reporting from the floor, and at one point interviewing Taylor, was Bill Leonard, who would eventually graduate from correspondent status to become one of the most respected and admired men ever to serve as president of CBS News -- and he did so during particularly troubled and embattled times, when CBS News was enduring wave after wave of attacks from America's ever-angry right wing.
Your obedient critic remembers the "Playhouse 90" special for one main reason: the suspenseful elephant ride taken around the circumference by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who had ridden an elephant during his cameo in the film, too. Near the end of the course, the platform on which Hardwicke was carried by the elephant began to slip off, and guards in tuxedos rushed toward the lumbering creature to protect the aged actor. But he kept his balance and, to a standing ovation from the crowd, made it off into the wings without a spill.
Warner's DVD release of "Around the World in 80 Days," then, is more than a luminous Technicolor print of a big-time award-winning movie. It's a fulsome evocation of a particular moment in 20th-century American life, a time when advances in technology, including communications technology like the then-new Telstar satellite, gave Americans a new global sensibility, a feeling of oneness with the planet and, since its very existence was threatened by advances in the science of weaponry, a stake in its future.
The allure of the movie has little to do with its quality or the caliber of imagination behind it. As an example of workmanship, it is glistening and accomplished, but most of the deeper themes and wider significance have to be read into it. As seems the case with so many films that were very much of their time, "Around the World in 80 Days" also comes across as a celebration of innocence or, if not a celebration, then a memorial service. The Mike Todds would vanish and the Bill Gateses would arise. Earth seemed less the setting for a party than a rusted-out battleship ravaged by time and strife and war.
There are movies much better than "Around the World in 80 Days" that aren't nearly as much fun, or nearly so playfully portentous.