The Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1956 may not have aged especially well, but remains a stalwart family film which, for all its Hollywood pageantry and epic bloat, tells Jules Verne's 1873 story with surprising fidelity and admirable elegance.
Around the World in Eighty Days was directed by Michael Anderson, but it's Michael Todd's film. Todd was a notoriously rakish producer, and with this film he seemed to make the impossible possible. Despite logistical obstacles and a ballooning budget, Todd delivered a critical and commercial success.
Todd's shtick was excess, and he begins the 182-minute film with a prologue which puts Verne into whimsical and scientific context. Newsman Edward R. Murrow talks of a "shrinking planet" and introduces excerpts from Georges Méliès's 1902 silent short classic "Le Voyage dans la lune" ("A Trip to the Moon"), based also on a Verne novel.
From there, Anderson descends on London, the first of many eye-catching locations. Infiltrating a gentleman's club which represents the height of pomposity, Anderson and screenwriters James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman introduce us to Phileas Fogg, an exacting believer in man's organizational capability. In brisk succession, Fogg breaks in a new valet named Passepartout (played by Mexican superstar Cantinflas) and proudly wagers against the balance of the gentleman's club that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days.
In what he described as his favorite role, Niven plays the unflappable Fogg with a stiff upper lip and a gentleman's snap. When young Shirley McLaine, as Indian Princess Aouda, asks, "Mr. Fogg, why must you be so...so British?", Fogg replies, "Madam, I am what I am." Cantinflas—who enters, magnificently, on a penny-farthing bicycle—follows in Chaplin's footsteps with nimble baggy-pants deadpan. Robert Newton adds flavor as the ever-exasperated Mr. Fix, an inspector who—believing Fogg has robbed the Bank of England—trails Fogg, Passepartout, and the starry-eyed princess around the world.
Todd famously introduced the word "cameo" to convince dozens of big-name stars to populate his magnum opus. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot, among others, Sir John Gielgud, Noel Coward, Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Charles Boyer, Jose Greco, Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland, Reginald Denny, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, Hermione Gingold, Glynis Johns, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Tim McCoy, Jack Oakie, Victor McLaglen, Andy Devine, Edmund Lowe, John Mills, and Beatrice Lillie.
Around the World in Eighty Days requires a long attention span, but easily transports to the viewer not only to multiple exotic settings but to bygone days of cinema, when wide-angle lenses were a spectacular novelty (and you know what, Lionel Lindon's Oscar-winning photography is pretty spectacular), elegant dialogue was a must, and an Overture, Entr'acte, and Exit Music were mainstays of epic cinema. Victor Young's sprightly score constitutes a medly of warring themes, and it, too, won an Oscar, one of the picture's five wins from eight nominations.