It’s difficult today to place one’s head in the mindset of Academy voters honoring Michael Todd’s mammoth travelogue, Around the World in 80 Days (1956). As Best Picture winners go, it’s an one-of-a-kind oddity. Certainly, nothing like it had been seen on the screen before. Perhaps, such novelty played its part in the enthrallment; the picture surpassing such titanic efforts as George Stevens’ Giant, DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Still, Todd’s opus magnum proved itself the one that could not be denied. Having spent a bundle on its preplanning, after a failed attempt (together with Orson Welles) to bring such spectacle to the Broadway stage, Todd endeavored to give audiences a grand show – perhaps not of narrative force or even marginal strength, but of mammoth scope and size, unprecedented in the history of film-making. His timing could not have been more apropos. After the fallow war years, Hollywood emerged like a hungry bear from hibernation, ready to launch into its most profligate decade yet.
Still, Jules Verne’s 1873 novel was hardly ideal; a clumsily strung together series of misadventures following the exploits of a staunchly determined adventurist who enters into a seemingly impossible wager – to encircle the globe by whatever means at his disposal in a mere eighty days – purely to save face at his gentleman’s club. In preparing Around the World in 80 Days, Todd was determined his movie should have every luxury; amassing a mind-boggling potpourri of talent only a bullish showman of his enterprising bombast would dare. “There have been many other pictures loaded with big names,” Todd would later admit, “…but the story has always been built around the stars. My idea was to have each star fit the part in the story…besides, running into them, (like) old friends, is one of the many delights of this production."
Indeed, Todd may have had something there; his coining of the term ‘cameo’ becoming common practice in the movies ever since. Most of the famous names featured in Around the World in 80 Days came to the project with little cajoling while others, like imminent stage and screen star, Noel Coward, would eruditely suggest later on, “Todd bullied me over an inferior lunch and so I just gave in!” Around the World in 80 Days is really not a movie, per say, but the manifestation of Todd’s driving ambition to give his audience a spectacular visual feast of every movie idea ever conceived; all rolled into one intoxicating and delicious pantheon of screen magic. At intervals, it’s a lavishly appointed drama, a comedy, a race against time, a road picture, and an adventurist’s daydream, teeming with a visual resplendency few movies of either the past or present can hope to compete; a daring and decorous cavalcade of stars doing what they used to do best.
The original prologue intended for Todd’s brainchild was of travelling companions, Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and Passepatout (Cantiflas) seated comfortably on a modern Boeing commercial airliner, marveling at the aerial view from 10,000 feet; the rest of the passenger list padded out by some of the stars who would later appear ‘in cameo’ somewhere in the rest of the film. But as other concepts began to metastasize to Todd’s fertile imagination he harbored even greater delusions of grandeur. Eventually, Todd settled on a series of curiosities to open his show; a prologue featuring respected newsman, Edward R. Murrow narrating the history of travel itself; also man’s aspirations to venture on a trip into outer space. From here, Around the World in 80 Days moved into a truncated screening of Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent sci-fi classic, A Trip to the Moon, then, a top secret rocket launch somewhere in the New Mexican desert. During this the latter sequence, the traditional 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio of the screen dramatically opened to reveal the expansive curved vistas of the Todd A-O screen. At a glance today, these introductory moments seem relatively archaic and not terribly prepossessing. Indeed, on the surface they have nothing to do with the central narrative about to regress us all the way back to 1872. Yet, set aside modern day prejudices and Todd’s audacity to provide us with context via contrast is already awe-inspiringly brilliant.
At its core, Around the World in 80 Days deifies progress, not only in mass communication and man’s ongoing exploration of the world, but equally as a showcase for the technological advancements in movie-making. As Todd had never produced a movie before, he placed his zeal in the capable hands of accomplished British director, Michael Anderson. The film’s pedigree continued to expand with the hiring of James Poe , John Farrow and S.J. Perelman to bring cohesion to the screenplay; Victor Young to write a memorable score, and Lionel Linden to lens the spectacle in the less complicated, but just as cumbersome Todd A-O process, employing its unique ‘bug-eye’ lens, capable of capturing 120 degrees in a single shot. Initially, John Farrow had been assigned to direct the picture. But after a mere two days shooting, Todd fired him and took on Anderson in his stead. The split came during the location work in Toledo, Spain for the sumptuously mounted corrida – or bullfight sequence. In retrospect, it’s one of the most spectacular sequences in the picture if not, in fact, its lopsided centerpiece; employing 6,500 extras (most of them inhabitants from the tiny hamlet of Chinchón), with Todd eventually importing another 3,500 from Madrid.
To accommodate the gargantuan assignment of clothing everybody, Todd turned to the vast storehouses of the Western Costume Company – the largest costumier in Hollywood. Alas, Around the World in 80 Days proved so titanic an effort, Todd would eventually raid the costume and prop departments of MGM, Universal, Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros.; in essence, tapping every major studio in Hollywood to sheath his production in a patina of ultra-glamour. A lot of Around the World in 80 Days was shot on sound stages and/or back lot facades, in addition to a daunting production schedule that included no less than 13 countries and 116 locations. To add even more cache to class, Todd sought out the biggest names in showbiz on both sides of the Atlantic; beginning with Noel Coward. “Get Coward and you’ll have the rest,” Todd later admitted. And so it proved to be true; the likes of John Gielgud, also Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Robert Newton falling into line. The latter proved a cause for concern. Newton had been one of Britain’s brightest stars before ramped alcoholism brought his fall from grace. In engaging Newton to play the film’s wily Inspector Fix, Todd made the actor promise he would not only remain sober while working, but on the wagon with not a drop of booze to spare. Desperate to work again, Newton agreed to these terms, but immediately following completion of his part in the movie, went on a bender of such magnitude it ultimately foreshortened his life. He died without ever seeing Around the World in 80 Days completed.
Meanwhile, Todd was endeavoring to do the impossible. His first order of business was to secure the famous Mexican comedian, Cantinflas for the pivotal role of Fogg’s ever-devoted man servant, Passepartout (described as a Frenchman in the Jules Verne novel), whose healthy penchant for young ladies frequently lands him in trouble. To date, Cantinflas had resisted doing any American film; enjoying unprecedented notoriety and good fortune as an undisputed comic genius in his native Mexico. Indeed, at the time Around the World in 80 Days went into production he was a much beloved figure. He owned his own studio in Mexico and wielding autonomy unlike any other star of his generation. While Cantiflas would later suggest his reluctance was heavily influenced by his lack of mastering the English language, he nevertheless garnered praise for his Chaplinesque quality. Chaplin himself called Cantiflas the greatest living comedian. Accepting second billing under David Niven, Cantiflas would reap the rewards when Around the World in 80 Days began to ring cash registers everywhere. Its’ overwhelming success would make Cantiflas the highest paid actor of his generation.
About billing: although David Niven’s name would remain above the rest for the American release, abroad, these credits were altered so Cantiflas’ name dominated the marquee. Viewing Around the World in 80 Days today, one can see how great Todd’s respect was for this Spanish social satirist who clearly has the meatier and more flamboyant of the two costarring roles. To play the congenial world traveler, Phileas Fogg, Todd turned to David Niven whose pre-war career in Hollywood had slightly stalled after the war. Nevertheless, Niven had born a reputation as a dedicated workhorse and was so pleased by Todd’s blunt pitch to star in the picture he offered to do the role for nothing; an allowance Niven was grateful Todd refused to accept when the landslide of residuals began pouring in. Niven, a Scot by birth (though frequently mistaken as the epitome of the erudite Brit), evidently received a telephone call from Todd one Sunday in 1955; Todd bluntly inquiring if the man on the other end was, in fact, Niven and then commanding he go immediately to the house of Joseph Schenck for a tête-à-tête and to shake hands on the deal. “I cleverly protected myself by picking up my agent along the way,” Niven would later muse. He really had nothing to fear. Todd, among other things, was a man of his word – generally, a man of few, but always, potently, a force of nature to be reckoned with. “If he respected you there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you,” co-star, Shirley MacLaine (cast as the Indian Princess Aouda) later suggested, “He was tough as nails, but just as fair.”
Todd had been fascinated by Verne’s pseudo literary epic ever since his failure to bring it to the stage in 1946. It became a compulsion of sorts for Todd. As a neophyte film producer, the property had its intangibly delicious appeal. And although most of the cameos would be filled with stars personally decreed by Todd himself, the part of Princess Aouda proved something of a minor challenge to cast. Initially, Todd had hoped to entice Jacqueline Park – a former Miss Ceylon and also an experienced actress – to accept. Unable to win her participation (Ms. Park apparently wanted too much money to partake), Todd briefly toyed with casting either Suzanne Alexander or Marla English; two long-forgotten names in the cinema firmament. One of Todd’s most endearing qualities was his mastery of the con – or rather, his ability to make any star believe a smaller part was of the utmost benefit to their career. As rumors began to snowball about the producer’s pet project, shaping up to be one of the grandest entertainments of all time, its’ cost a whopping $6 million (the final budget swelling to twice that much), Hollywood’s biggest names began to clamor for an opportunity – however small – to be in it. As such, Todd could afford to be choosy rather than having to beat a path to the front doors of these stellar talents he equally as desperately wanted in his picture.
From such dizzying heights it was perhaps inevitable Michael Todd’s own star should fall. But for the moment at least, he was basking in the most glorious coup ever wrought in a town usually far too jaded to take notice; convincing no less an authority than Edward R. Murrow to introduce his story, the kaleidoscope of swirling images of the earth captured by tacking on a camera to the backside of a guided missile, leading into the real beginning of our story. Around the World in 80 Days is something of an affront to the precepts of traditional movie-making. Todd had decreed it such, and his director, Michael Anderson was not about to disagree with the master showman paying his bills. Indeed, if Todd knew nothing of film-making, he certainly had a very firm handle on what he liked and also what he fervently expected to see up on the big screen. Todd was exceptionally proud of the fact London’s Reform Club, exclusive and haughty for well over a hundred years, had at least allowed him access to photograph his star, David Niven in full Phileas Fogg regalia inside its walls. In the film, however, only the exterior of the club is glimpsed, the rest of it, including a lavishly appointed foyer and front parlor, constructed at Britain’s Shepperton Studios.
Ever since Todd A-O’s initial foray with the debut of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Mike Todd had been searching for the ideal project to really show off what his process could achieve. Around the World in Eighty Days was actually born of this passion and, in hindsight, the movie excels as a visually resplendent 70mm test subject, boldly conceived in its compositions and color design. The idea to transform Jules Verne’s novel into a movie had been British producer, Alexander Korda’s. He actually owned the film rights to a 1946 Cole Porter musical adaptation of the novel, produced for the stage by Orson Welles. Korda would eventually sell off his interest to Todd for $130,000 forewarning Todd of the unfeasible nature of the project. But with Todd at the reigns, Welles’ participation fell by the waste side. Todd then briefly courted independent, William Goetz and Columbia Studios to co-finance his movie, leaking a story to The Hollywood Reporter of a deal already struck. Perhaps Todd was reaching too high. For Goetz and Columbia would never partake in this movie; nor, would Columbia’s president, Harry Cohn commit to distributing Around the World in 80 Days even after some of Todd’s rough cut footage from his Spanish location shoot had already been screened.
Todd’s replacement director, Michael Anderson was intended only to cover the British shoot, with Todd already planning to hire an American director once production moved state’s side. But Todd was so impressed with Anderson’s work he decided to keep him on instead. And so, the globe-trotting began. In London, Todd cluttered the city streets with all manner of Victorian transportation, including Hansom cabs, horse-drawn carriages and a Penny-farthing for Passepartout’s arrival at the employment offices of Roland Hesketh-Baggott. The agency is overseen by a rather stuffy manager (Noel Coward), who, at present, is listening to the protestations of Phileas Fogg’s latest ex-valet, Foster (John Gielgud). Passepartout endeavors to fill this position and, after brief consideration, is afforded the opportunity to at least try. He finds Fogg a rather demanding sort, but is unafraid of the challenge to become his right-hand man.
In short order, Fogg is cajoled by various members at the Reform Club into accepting a wager to do the impossible – encompass the world’s circumference in just eighty days. For this sequence, Todd gave Fogg a formidable array of Britain’s top talent, including Findlay Currie, Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Basil Sidney and Ronald Squire; the disarming Brits resurfacing throughout the picture to chart Phileas’ arduous progress from the comfort of their armchairs. Meanwhile, Fogg and his man servant have left London for Paris to book their passage inside the stately offices of Thomas Cook and Sons, presided over by Monsieur Gasse (Charles Boyer). Passepartout makes a flirtatious nuisance of himself with a girl at the train station (famed French actress, Martine Carol). She slaps his face, however, and their carriage rides off through the streets of Paris, conducted by another beloved French star, Fernandel; a role originally intended for Maurice Chevalier who, like Jacqueline Park, stalled negotiations with Todd and was eventually discarded. The Parisian shoot, although brief, was amongst the most arduous for Todd, who narrowly escaped incarceration after giving his production team the green light to break into and push out of the way or otherwise have towed various automobiles parked in the streets, owned by the locals.
Interestingly, Fogg’s jaunt between Paris to Spain is conducted in a large balloon; a mode of transportation never discussed in Jules Verne’s novel, but preferred by Todd as it would afford the Todd A-O process some magnificent aerial views. Taking to the skies from the French Square set on Universal’s backlot, Fogg and Passepartout inadvertently land in Spain, encountering the world famous Flamenco dancer, José Greco and his entourage in the Cave of the Seven Winds (actually, a set built at the old RKO studios, soon to become the home of TV’s I Love Lucy). Fogg is determined to gain access to Achmed Abdullah’s (Roland Gilbert) steam ship to rectify their oversight and make up for lost time. But Achmed’s henchman (Cesar Romero) is proprietary about his master’s belongings. Nevertheless, Abdullah is most impressed when Passepartout demonstrates a bullfighter’s prowess, using a red table cloth as his cape, to entice one of the female dancers into a spirited pas deux. If Passepartout will entertain them all with a similar demonstration in the legitimate bullfighter’s ring the next afternoon, the seafaring vessel will be given to Fogg without question or charge.
Todd now moves us into Around the World in 80 Days first impressive set piece; the corrida, shot on location in the magical town of Chinchon, Spain and teeming with extras, spectacularly attired by a gracious whim of fate: more on this in a moment. To contemporary tastes, this sequence may appear to halt the momentum of Fogg’s globe-trotting journey. In point of fact, it does exactly that for nearly fifteen minutes; an interminable duration by today’s impatient standards. But the sequence is so spectacularly staged, lensed with Todd A-O’s bug-eye to encapsulate the vast expanses and the glitterati of ole Spain, one simply cannot help but marvel at the spectacle of it all; also, to reconsider the machinations fraught to bring this moment to the screen. It began when Todd hired semi-retired bullfighter extraordinaire, Luis Miguel Dominguín to appear in the sequence. Even by 1953, bullfighting was vaguely regarded as quaintly barbaric by the rest of the world. But in Spain, it represented a national heritage and celebration of both pomp and pageantry, and, human dexterity and skill. Reportedly, Dominguín enthusiastically agreed to Todd’s request after only a brief conversation. “We forgot to mention money,” Todd insisted, to which Dominguín is rumored to have incredulously replied, “How much do you need?”
Indeed, Dominguín could afford to be magnanimous. He was a millionaire. But he also became quickly disillusioned by the costumes Todd had accrued for this sequence. Instead, Dominguín offered Todd access to his private collection of authentic Goya-period museum pieces, amassing an impressive assemblage of Spain’s most accomplished bandoleros and picadors to appear alongside him in the ring. Eight identical bulls were used to represent one bull and Cantinflas did all of his own stunt work. Having conquered the beast and gained the admiration of the village, Fogg is given access to Abdullah’s steamship. A notorious rumor develops; that Fogg has stolen £55,000 (approximately £4.3 million in today’s dollars) from the Bank of England to finance his jaunt around the world. As such, Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) picks up Fogg’s trail in Bombay – or rather – a Bombay set on the 2oth Century-Fox backlot, ingratiating himself to Passepartout to gain access to his employer. To augment this sequence, Mike Todd sent a second unit to India to photograph authentic travelogue moments, later inserted into the picture and infrequently used as process plates.
Fogg and his man servant take the Great India Peninsular Railway, befriending Sir Francis Cromarty of her Majesty’s Royal Fusiliers en route to Calcutta. Regrettably, the tracks have not been completed and Fogg and company quickly find themselves at the mercy of the jungle (again, a sequence shot entirely at 2oth Century-Fox on with rubber foliage, flora and fauna added). As night falls, Fogg, Passepartout, Fix and Cromarty witness a funeral processional. It seems an aged Prince has died. By ancient decree, his much younger wife/now widow, the Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) must be burned alive atop his funeral pyre so they may spend all eternity together. Fogg is appalled by this custom, the murder narrowly averted when Passepartout, masquerading as the corpse, rises from the pyre, causing the inhabitants to flee into the night.
From here, Fix orchestrates a delay in Hong Kong deliberately designed to separate Fogg and Passepartout, forcing Fogg to forge on ahead with only the Princess. Fogg and Passepartout are later reunited and continue on to California’s notorious Barbary Coast; in reality a thriving enclave for the criminal element where everything from prostitution and drug trafficking to white slavery was being practiced. The film’s Barbary Coast isn’t quite as foreboding. In fact, Todd has staged it as a mostly lavish evening parade a la Mardi Gras, complete with marching bands, fireworks and cheering crowds. Fogg, Passepartout, the Princess and Inspector Fix befriend Colonel Proctor Stamp (John Carradine); a wily San Franciscan politico who intends to make the next length of the journey across the American west with this entourage. In the meantime, Passepartout wanders into one of the many saloons, where he encounters a playful drunk (Red Skelton) at the buffet and the likes of Frank Sinatra, playing the piano.
We are also briefly introduced to the saloon’s madam (Marlene Dietrich) and her protector/bouncer (George Raft), who repeatedly threatens Fogg with a switchblade until everyone departs for the nearest railway depot. The trek aboard the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railway is hardly a pleasure, despite its picturesque backdrop of towering and craggy stone buttresses and densely forested canyons. An Indian attack places everyone in peril, the train’s conductor (Buster Keaton) taking up arms, along with the Colonel and Fogg. The men had begun their journey on acrimonious terms, but now discover an alliance of quantifiable mutual respect against this enemy. In its initial stages, this sequence was to have included Gregory Peck as a United States Cavalryman, the part eventually recast by Todd with Tim McCoy. Todd had also sought out John Wayne to appear in this sequence, although this time around it was Wayne who refused to fall into line with Todd’s request. Narrowly averting disaster along a very shaky trestle that collapses mere moments after the train has cross it, and, stalled by a buffalo stampede, Fogg and company are stranded at a barren outpost after their steam locomotive experiences mechanical difficulties. Fogg’s quick thinking manages to rig a makeshift sail to a flatbed; the stiff and formidable Santa Anna winds pulling their open cart along the tracks at a breakneck pace.
To consolidate the narrative and also manage the film’s skyrocketing budget, we return to the members of the Reform Club, discussing the latest length of Fogg’s journey from Omaha to New York where he has boarded a steamer – the Henrietta – to take him to Venezuela. Herein, we pick up the journey on Fogg’s return sail to Britain, the Henrietta running out of fuel in the middle of the ocean and Fogg, having purchased the vessel outright from its Captain (Jack Oakie) commandeering every available scrap of lumber, including its masts and planking, to be torn up and fed into its furnace to ensure their safe return. Alas, Fogg is met at the Liverpool station by Inspector Fix who is waiting to arrest him. Delayed yet again, Fogg is beside himself, believing he has lost the wager by missing his prearranged Saturday arrival date. A contrite Fix confesses to Fogg the real culprit was apprehended in Brighton. So, Fogg is free to go. Having begun his journey with blindsided determination, in his shame now, Fogg is a ruined man – not only by reputation, but equally, financially. Alas, he has discovered how to love another greater than himself and has acquired the Princess Aouda’s love in return. Fogg announces to Passepartout he and the Princess shall marry at once and directs him to fetch a parson.
Salvation of a different sort is at hand, however, when Passepartout hurries past a newspaper seller, discovering the date on his placard still reading as Saturday. Relaying his discovery, Fogg reasons that by crossing the International Date Line they have, in fact, gained a whole day on their proposed time of return. Fogg has not lost the wager, but actually arrived home ahead of schedule. There is still time to reach the Reform Club and win his bet. Meanwhile, at the club, the members have already begun to gloat over their victory, pompously assured such a venture could never have been undertaken successfully. However, as the clock chimes 8:45pm, Fogg unexpectedly strolls in, followed by Passepartout and the Princess; her presence startling the members and causing minor pandemonium to break out as no woman has ever been allowed inside.
Viewed today, Around the World in 80 Days is far more interestingly an anomaly than a movie; its 160 day shoot one of the longest on record at that time. In retrospect, it owes more to the Cinerama craze gripping America in the mid-1950s; not surprising since Mike Todd had been one of the proponents behind the Cinerama Corporation. Todd’s departure from Cinerama was predicated on his own distaste for the heavy and obvious seams between the format’s tri-panel mode of projection; also the cumbersome three camera apparatus necessary to photograph it – at least, by Todd’s logic – virtually impossible for anything other than travelogues. Getting too close to the Cinerama camera created a queasy vertical warping of the image. Approaching American Optical’s Brian O’Brien to develop a Cinerama-esque process by which the entire image came, as Todd put it, “out of one hole”, O’Brien helped pioneer and patent Todd A-O; its 120 degree bug-eye lens nearly rivaling Cinerama’s 140 degree vista. Better still, O’Brien developed a series of interchangeable lenses so Todd A-O’s wide gauge format could accommodate virtually all the luxuries a cinematographer was used to; able to create medium and close-up focal ranges with startling clarity. Only the second movie to be shot in Todd A-O, Around the World in 80 Days, benefited immensely from O’Brien’s expert advances in design; also from Todd A-O’s 30 frames per second exposure through the camera, virtually eliminating flicker during projection.
Even in post-production, Around the World in 80 Days proved a Herculean effort. As there were no facilities anywhere in the world, except in Hollywood, capable of screening 65mm dailies, the movie’s original editor, Paul Weatherwax – responsible for the first rough cut assembly – was often the very first person to see what director, Michael Anderson had shot on the other side of the globe. When Weatherwax left the production, citing other commitments, Todd replaced him with Gene Ruggiero from MGM. To keep production costs down, Todd had enlisted various local governments in Thailand, Bangkok, Spain, France, the U.K., as well as the United States, to offer whatever assistance was possible. In hindsight, the story is rather obviously cobbled together from a rich amalgam of backlot fantasy, shot under optimal conditions, later, grafted onto brief establishing inserts shot on locations around the world. As example; Todd’s infamous aerial sequence employed ‘La Coquette’ – a hot-air balloon hired from the Balloon Club of America, was carted from the Universal backlot to Nevada, then France, and finally, Spain. For close-ups of Fogg and Passepartout surveying the stunning French countryside effortlessly passing underneath them, Todd had a replica of the balloon’s basket and the underside of its bulbous bag erected on a crane, capable of being operated with a painted blue sky and clouds backdrop subbing in for the stratosphere. Todd would also order the construction of nearly $75,000 worth of miniatures, including the steamship Henrietta, as well as Acmed’s private yacht.
As Around the World in 80 Days was reaching completion, Mike Todd found himself in hot water over the ‘potential Communist influences’ attached to his project; chiefly, two members of the studio orchestra, Eudice Shapiro and Victor Gottlieb, who had both refused to name names during HUAC’s recent interrogations. Universal-International had, in fact, fired the pair to prove a point – albeit, an idiotic one. Todd, however, had no quam about hiring either to perform their part in Victor Young’s ebullient and memorable score. Ironically, none of this brouhaha would have come to pass had Todd not hosted a luncheon for Russian Minster of Culture, Vladimir Surin; the event covered by an interviewer for The Hollywood Reporter. Todd had shown some enthusiasm for shooting a forthcoming project in Russia, but was later ‘encouraged’ by producer, Stephen C. Apostolof to ‘rethink’ these plans. Consequently, Todd never followed through to make a movie in the Soviet Union.
When Around the World in Eighty Days opened in New York on October 17, 1956, not even Michael Todd could have imagined the magnitude of success in store. As there were only a handful of theaters willing to retool for the 70mm premiere engagement, Todd reluctantly agreed to allow United Artists to make 35mm Cinemascope reduction prints for a wider general release. Nevertheless, it was the road show in New York that drew the most praise and crowds; line ups forming at five-thirty in the morning and advanced ticket sales for nearly nine months. Around the World in 80 Days took home a slew of Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture Award, with other honors bestowed upon the screenplay, cinematography, editing and musical scoring. The latter was a bittersweet honor, composer, Victor Young having died mere months before. The following year, the picture’s production designer, William Cameron Menzies would also pass away, just as Todd was preparing for a lavish one-year anniversary party for the movie (still playing in theaters) at Madison Square Gardens. Michael Anderson, who had been overlooked by the Academy as Best Director, nevertheless won the Outstanding Directorial Achievement Award from the Screen Directors’ Guild and Todd found himself accepting the even more coveted Jules Verne Medallion, bestowed upon him by the Jules Verne Society International.
By any measure of success, Around the World in 80 Days is an impressive achievement. Yet deprived of its original opening night splendor in magnificent Todd A-O (a process designed to rival the then jaw-jobbing clarity and panoramic view of Cinerama), and jam-packed with a cavalcade of the world’s most accomplished glitterati and thespian talent yet seen together in a single picture, Around the World in 80 Days is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. Todd – a showman, not a film-maker – could take immense pleasure in realizing he had effectively broken a time-honored mold in picture-making to the tune of a mind-numbing $65 million in box office returns, playing for two consecutive years uninterrupted at premiere venues across the country. Alas, his victory would be short lived. On March 22, 1958 – barely eighteen months after its triumphant premiere, Todd was killed in a plane crash in New Mexico, age 49.
The time has come for Warner Home Video to make a concerted effort to restore Michael Todd’s opus magnum, preferably on Blu-ray. What’s here on DVD is adequate, though just barely, and frequently reveals the painful ravages of improperly stored elements in a perilous state of disrepair. A goodly amount of the visuals are marred by age-related artifacts. A lot of the process shots and some of the location inserts look very rough. There are also a few sequences where color is not only faded by misaligned; disturbing halos, fuzziness, pallid hues and perhaps a hint of mold damage and vinegar syndrome to boot. I also detected some minor edge enhancement, sporadically scattered throughout. Around the World in 80 Days in 70mm ought to have been stunning. The DVD is mediocre at best. This will not be an easy restoration to undertake. But it really must be undertaken and soon if this movie is to survive in a condition befitting its opening night splendor, so that subsequent generations will be able to marvel and appreciate it for what it’s worth.
Warner has done its utmost to preserve what’s currently left to salvage, but without lifting a finger to meticulously commit to cleaning up these visuals with a new image harvest. There are cringe-worthy moments scattered throughout this presentation; huge amounts of dirt, scratches, a few tears and the occasional sprocket wobble to distract. Pity this and other movies like Around the World in 80 Days that will likely fade into obscurity over the next fifty years simply through neglect, lack of funds and executive oversight. It’s a double-edged argument: restorations cost money. No kidding! Will that money be recouped in home video sales and distribution once the dollar amount has been allocated and spent? Hmmmm. But in this case, I do not have the heart to look the other way.
Around the World in 80 Days is a cultural touchstone and a benchmark in American film-making. We can debate the film on the grounds of its ‘artistic merits,’ but as an artifact of a bygone era worthy of study it has few – if any – real peers. On the DVD: colors can appear quite solid at times throughout this 179 minute presentation spread across two discs and cut appropriately at the intermission. At times, the visuals can even marginally impress. But Fogg and Passepartout’s flight over France exhibits a disastrous amount of color fading; ditto for the bullfighting sequence shot in Spain. These were moments of epic grandeur. Now, they appear no more captivating than an old faded postcard long forgotten and/or locked away in the upstairs’ attic or in someone’s damp and musty basement! For shame!
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio fares considerably better; remarkably so, in fact, with exceptional clarity and spread, showcasing Victor Young’s beautiful score. Extras include a Playhouse 90 Tribute to the film, vintage and anniversary documentaries on the making of the film and a very thorough and engaging audio commentary by the BBC’s Brian Sibley, worth the price of admission alone! As we are unlikely to see Around the World in 80 Days get the full restoration treatment in hi-def Blu-ray any time soon I am going to recommend this DVD for posterity only. It’s woefully subpar to what we have come to expect from Warner Home Video, however, and I’ll be among the very first to champion a charge for Warner to reconsider this film as a flagship property worthy of their immediate consideration and restorative efforts.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)