Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is one of the few movies on this site that gets a fairly full summary of the events onscreen, maybe leaving out a few of the dull moments and avoiding the ruining of any real surprises. These posts are not done as movie criticism but more as cultural reporting. Though it was judged harshly by some, this movie marks a time when the human race began to look forward and backward in almost equal measure.
Mike Todd won the Best Picture Academy Award for producing this epic travelogue and it continues to impress travel movie buffs today. It seems picturesquely artificial to me, but fascinating for the failure of its intentions. Based on Jules Vern’s classic novel, published in 1873, this is Hollywood’s best effort at a pictorial tour around the middle of the world.
There is a prolog by legendary 50s newscaster Edward R. Murrow linking the theme of the round-the-globe journey to modern space voyages. Included in this sequence is footage from Georges Méliès’ short film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). The point is made that just over half a century after the Méliès movie was made, it became possible to imagine not only a pleasure trip around our world, but a trip that departs from Earth and returns again. This early French fantasy film stands as an iconic cornerstone for the thousands of movies that followed it.
David Niven takes the role of Phileus Fogg, a gentleman of proper English reserve and a paragon of polite repression. Set in 1872, Niven is at his London club and proposes a wager among his fellow members that he can travel around the world in a mere 80 days. Cantinflas, the Mexican comic, looking very Chaplinesque, is Niven’s manservant and calls him “master.” The two begin their journey by crossing to France only to find the trains out of service to Marseilles. Fogg buys a balloon and they sail across the mountains, landing off course in Spain among the Gypsies. This provides an opportunity for an extended performance of Flamenco dancing (Jose Greco) in a cabaret. Next, Cantinflas does an equally lengthy comedy turn in a beautiful bullring (giving the impression that he has done this routine before). The style of this production is somewhere between operetta and vaudeville revue. No part of this long Spanish interlude is from Verne’s novel. The two travelers eventually get themselves across the Mediterranean to Suez, and then sail for Bombay.
On the train for Calcutta, the travelogue elements of this film are fully indulged. Encountering yet another obstacle, they are forced to purchase an elephant. Coming upon an elaborately choreographed fire ritual, they discover that a beautiful Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine!) is to be sacrificed by being burned alive on a pyre. Niven takes the noble course and engineers her rescue. The grateful princess joins the traveling party, which has already been enlarged by Robert Newton as an English detective who believes that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England. As they pass through Rangoon, they are treated to the sight of a royal canoe on the river (it looks very much like Bangkok). They make it to Yokohama though Cantinflas has been separated from the group. He arrives alone in the city and wanders past the giant statue of the Buddha before he finds work as an acrobat in a Japanese circus (very interesting depiction of this unique circus style). Fogg finds him there
Intermission with music.
They board a splendid sailing craft that delivers them across the Pacific. As they arrive in San Francisco, there are parades and various forms of rowdiness associated with an upcoming election. In a busy saloon, Frank Sinatra is the piano player and Red Skelton plays a drunk who runs afoul of the proprietor, George Raft. Baseline says Marlene Dietrich sings a song here but it did not happen in the TV version I watched. They get on an eastbound train with Buster Keaton as conductor. Perhaps in Keaton’s honor, the train speeds over a collapsing bridge. When the train is captured by Indians, there is a reprise of the savage vs. civilization motif when Cantinflas is almost burned at the stake by the Sioux (who are represented as only a cut above the Indians in the musical Peter Pan). Niven again rises to the occasion once again and rides to the rescue with a bugle-blaring cavalry.
Arriving in New York, they embark on a ramshackle steam-driven boat bound for Venezuela. Fogg pays the captain to direct the craft toward London. When they run out of fuel, Fogg buys the boat and demands that it be torn apart so that anything made of wood can be thrown into the boiler.
The intrepid travelers make it back to England only to have Fogg’s enterprise thwarted by his arrest for bank robbery. The deadline for the wager has passed and the travelers fall into a slough of depression. MacLaine proposes marriage to Fogg and though they have never even held hands, an immediate wedding is arranged. Who better, it must be asked, to play a maiden of India than Shirley MacLaine?
In the process, Cantinflas discovers that because of the time change they have arrived a day early and can still win the bet. There are some silly complications in traversing this last few obstacles in the journey – not one bit of this charade is remotely believable, but it is good theatrical fun. Fogg makes it in the nick of time to the gentleman’s club where the journey began, and the submissive MacLaine follows him. When Robert Morely finds a female in these precincts of dominant maleness, he takes it to signify the end of the British Empire.
Hardly two centuries before the making of this film, the only way to imagine going around the world in one trip was to join the crew of a bold and probably foolhardy explorer; or later, to serve on a whaling vessel. Within the decade following the making of the 1956 movie, NASA’s Apollo program began preparations for sending astronauts to the Moon, accomplishing one flyby and six manned landings between 1968 and 1972.
There is a sense in which the 1906 silent film by Georges Méliès’ can be viewed as a precursor to the ultimate 20th century expression of travel film genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which begins with a trip to the Moon. Within the timeframe between 1906 and the year 2001, the lenses through which the human race viewed the world changed many times over. This, I have discovered, will be the organizing theme for my website and the book that will follow.
This film, despite its accolades, failed to return on its investment and it appears on Wikipedia’s List of Box Office Bombs just above Ishtar. But don’t let that put you off if you are a true Movie Journeyer. There is a good map of Fogg’s world travels in the Wikipedia entry for the Vern novel, and the movie is filled with good old-fashioned vaudevillian humor (see The Vaudeville of History).