Around the World in 80 Days
(SPOILERS) Around the World in 80 Days gets a bad rap. You’ll even hear it cited as one of the all-time worst Best Picture Oscar winners. Which is patently absurd, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to endure A Beautiful Mind. Or Nomadland. Or Oliver! It is, however, undeniably guilty of spectacle-first filmmaking, not so much due to the eager procession of cameos littering every port of call made by Phileas Fogg as the idea that simply visiting said port and lingering there, dramatically engaged or more probably not, would be sufficient. Perhaps it was, in some cases, with the vistas producer Michael Todd’s widescreen (Todd-AO 70mmm) cinematography offered; this was the kind of all-important visual event that made leaving the comfort of one’s home – and the then-usurping-movies new TV set – worthwhile. Mostly, though, this is simply an amiable picture, boosted significantly by David Niven’s presence but diminished somewhat by the illusion that Cantinflas is in some way inherently appealing.
Phileas Fogg: A ladies’ man, huh?
Such a position may well put me in the minority, as he clearly has his fans (including the entirety of his home country), but I quickly surmised a little of little Cantinflas goes a long way, and since there’s a whole lot of little Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days, he soon exhausted his welcome. It seems bona fide Frenchman Fernandel was approached – he cameos in the movie – but his English wasn’t up to scratch (also asked were Cary Grant for Fogg and Anne Todd for Princess Aouda. Ustinov auditioned for Inspector Fix; he’d have been great, and you’d have liked the character too. He went on to play the part in the 1989 Pierce Brosnan miniseries. Which features an arguably more satisfying selection of star cameos). If they’re were going to ignore the character on the page’s nationality, why not simply have Norman Wisdom as Passepartout? Rather than a randy Mexican sex pest (invariably during the movie, he gets himself in some soup or other when he is distracted by pretty ladies, and Marlene Dietrich, who invariably slap him)? Maybe, when I was eight, I found Cantinflas riding an ostrich hilarious. Now, I can quite do without.
Such deviations from the source material set the tone for later versions; the 2004 movie has Jackie Chan as Passepartout (and the ever-charmless Steve Coogan as Fogg). The recent David Tennant TV adaptation was fully versed in the gospel of woker-than-thou presentism, with Ibrahim Koma as Passepartout and Leonie Benesch as Abigail Fix. Likely defeated by the rash of problems they’d have to address with the Princess Aouda plotline – involving as it does sati/suttee, and what self-disrespecting wokester would wish to wade into that mire, or pyre? – they excised the character all together.
Likeable as she is in the movie – a defining feature of her ’50s work, something that’s easy to forget based on all later evidence to the contrary – casting Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess perhaps wasn’t her agent’s finest hour (I’ve seen it suggested too that her voice was dubbed). Her makeup also noticeably lightens once she’s left her “native” land, although her hair at least doesn’t revert to flame red. In some respects, it’s ironic the character was omitted from more recent takes, as it could be argued Verne was positing something rather progressive; a woman who proposes betrothal and embarks on an interracial marriage.
Princess Aouda: Will you have me for your wife?
It seems that, while such marriage was common during the 1780s (“The wills of East India Company officials, now in the India Office library, clearly show that in the 1780s, more than one-third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to Anglo-Indian children”), British society and religious stringency eventually reined in such embarkations and, “by the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared”. Naomi Eberly notes the novel’s apparent flouting of racial codes, but asserted “she actually plays a subservient role and reinforces colonial notions of a need to ‘improve’ the colonies. Fogg marries her out of duty and completes the colonial narrative of an Englishman needing to save the Indian women”. She also observes that the princess is described as “young, and as fair as a European”, her mitigating higher caste status and her education (the latter is amusingly noted in the movie: Fogg, mulling a rescue bid, is informed “She was educated in England”: “That decides it” he responds, resolute).
Of course, one might also infer an underlying, long-game globalist impulse in the mix with Around the World in 80 Days. When discussing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I noted that Verne occupies an undeniably core position in the cut and thrust of promulgated western futurism; whether he was a freemason or not, Verne’s publisher and mentor both had societal links, and if he wasn’t, he was surely an enormous boon in promoting scientist doctrines as they related to the landscape of the Earth and the tenets of progress.
Essentially Verne offered tribute to rational materialism, for all his Roman Catholic credentials (he is “the first writer to try to tell the story of what happens after God is de-throned”). He thus sets the scene for contemporary eugenicist HG Wells, whose works he disliked. Phileas Fogg is a member of the Reform Club, not necessarily an indication of secret-society credentials, nor of being in concert with its members – he is singled out for being mysterious and solitary, hence the suspicion of his being a bank robber. The club was, however, intended as a forum for the ideas of the First Reform Bill “a bastion of liberal and progressive thought” and latterly during the century counted Rothschilds, Goldschmidts, Bram Stoker and Henry Irving among its members.
Phileas Fogg: There was a time, not so long ago, when learned men thought that was flat.
Michael Anderson’s film takes up the mantle of Verne at the rationalist, scientific vanguard in no uncertain terms, beginning with the authoritative Edward R Murrow spoon-feeding his audience on how to perceive the world Fogg is set to traverse; armed with a globe (which he spins) and the visual evidence that “This is how the Earth looks, from a camera in a rocket” (uh-huh) he soberly warns us of the “shrinking” world. And that, in 1872, “the world was already shrinking” (events occur roughly 150 years after the mooted “reset”, and we’re now roughly 150 years after Fogg’s trip). The tone implies we were, relatively, backward – even the clever people used to believe the Earth was flat – but we’re now confidently progressing, all the way to the top. The proof of this being Fogg and his “prophetic” assertion: “When science finally conquers the air, it may be feasible to circle the globe in eighty hours”. That the limits of this “shrinking” world may themselves be a fiction, of those who ply us with images of its shape and maps of its content, isn’t up for discussion.
Around the World in 80 Days doesn’t allow itself much time to dwell on such sobering matters, though, as an American’s take – chaperoned by an English director, with a screenplay by two Americans and an Australian – on a Frenchman’s take on an Englishman’s attitude to globetrotting. And with Niven in the lead, there’s no need to overstate the character’s cultivation and propriety, although he’s inevitably less stiff than he might otherwise have been; “An Englishman never jokes about a wager, sir”, and quite evidently, America is “a very primitive country” (this before he encounters any Native Americans on the warpath, whom he’s more than ready to dispatch with impunity).
While I’m unlikely to make any great claims for Michael Anderson as a director, since he was more than capable of making movies that lay there inertly, disinclined to rouse themselves, it seems he might be off the hook for the weakest episodes here; it’s said original director John Farrow – also one of the credited screenwriters – shot at least some of the Spanish sequence before being fired. This is one of the first stop-offs, and it’s a real slog, with protracted table-top flamenco dancing and a bullfight for which Cantinflas, having experience, did the stunts for himself. The picture picks up with the Indian section and Aouda’s rescue, and the machinations of Inspector Fix also provide some much-needed pot stirring; Passepartout ends up drugged and deposited on a steamship with Peter Lorre (having prior Verne form that decade), so Fogg has to improvise.
Phileas Fogg: Sir, you are an insolent bully and I demand satisfaction at once.
Until it gets bogged down with a western pastiche (Passepartout is captured by Indians), the American section is reasonably good fun too, with cameos from Dietrich, George Raft and Frank Sinatra, a treacherous bridge crossing, and Fogg challenging John Carradine’s vulgar colonel to a duel after having clobbered him with an umbrella. The Atlantic crossing, with Fogg buying the boat and having all available items thrown into the boiler as fuel, is also engaging.
His false defeat and final victory are perhaps not as pronounced as they might have been – the film ends rather suddenly with Robert Morley announcing “This is the end” (cutely referring both to the film itself and Aouda entering the Reform: “No woman has ever set foot in the club. Because that would spell the end of the British Empire”) – but they deserve credit for avoiding endless epilogues. Besides which, Todd needed the space to list all the cameos over the end credits.
Phileas Fogg: Extraordinary. How does one take the temperature of toast?
These include Trevor Howard (as a Reform Club member), Noël Coward (as an employment agency manager), John Gielgud (as Fogg’s ex-valet), Cesar Romero (as a sheikh’s henchman), Ronald Colman (as a railway official), Buster Keaton (as a train conductor), Victor McLaglen (as a helmsman), John Mills (as a carriage driver) and Glynis Johns. Various prospectives were nixed (Sir Larry in the Gielgud part), with Gregory Peck apparently fired from his cameo for being too larky (as the US cavalry officer).
Alexander Korda apparently tried to dissuade Todd from taking on the project, but the “flash-and-cash showman”, who had bounced back from early bankruptcy, made a success of himself on Broadway and developed the Cinerama Todd-AO widescreen, wouldn’t be deterred. It seems he was right; only The Ten Commandments out-grossed Around the World in 80 Days that year. Although, in that regard, Anthony Sutton observed the Oscars were “really choosing one mammoth advertising binge over another”.
The biggest Oscar wrangling revolved around screenplay (something that would recur with the following year’s winner), first with James Poe – later nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lilies of the Field and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – and John Farrow suing for a credit (initially, only SJ Perelman, of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, was recognised). Their eventual win was no cert; Michael Wilson had strong prospects of winning an Oscar for Friendly Persuasion, but his backlisted status resulted in a new law. The Academy made Communist Party members ineligible for an Oscar and “a few quiet words from the studio bosses were enough to divert it to the writers of Around the World in 80 Days…”
Also notable is composer Victor Young winning (posthumously) on his nineteenth nomination. With regard to the score… it’s one of those where there’s a lot of it, and alas, it isn’t used judiciously. Around the World in 80 Days additionally won for cinematography, and it’s true: there are some quite resplendent golden sunsets. With five wins out of eight nominations, the big night yielded a very respectable tally. If it’s easy to point to the picture and claim it wasn’t the best of its year, well, neither were any of the other contenders (I’m well aware Giant has its staunch advocates, but I’m not one of them). There was probably a first-rate update of Around the World in 80 Days to be made, but such potential has been repeatedly levelled by the likes of Coogan and Tennant; we may have to settle for this as the definitive version, such as it is. At least, until the post-3D VR gives you the next gargantuan leap forward from Todd-AO widescreen.