At the time it was released almost 70 years ago, “Around the World in 80 Days” was as spectacular an extravaganza as the movie screen had seen.
Producer (and Cinerama co-founder) Michael Todd spared no expense in bringing Jules Verne’s novel to film as a sprawling blockbuster that ultimately won the Oscar for best picture of 1956. Turner Classic Movies shows it Tuesday, July 19, as part of a festival of features based on Verne novels … and as fantastical as the others also may be, none holds a candle to the sheer grandeur of “80 Days,” which crammed every star it could get into the proceedings.
As much of a celebrity-driven pop-culture artifact as the movie is, it’s also quite faithful to Verne’s tale of Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven), the 19th-century Englishman who accepts a wager to prove he can circle the globe in — you guessed it — just under three months. He brings his valet Passepartout (Mexican actor and comic Cantinflas) along, using various means of transportation including a hot-air balloon to accomplish the journey.
Shirley MacLaine also stars as a princess saved from a terrible fate by the duo, becoming their companion as the path brings them to America … but Spain, Italy, India, Hong Kong and Japan also are on the itinerary, with filming actually done in every country featured in the saga. As a problematic police inspector, Robert Newton completes the starring quartet, but the “name” talent certainly doesn’t stop there.
The very clever animated end credits account for everyone who shows up along the way, and here’s a sampler: Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, Sir John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Red Skelton, Ronald Colman, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, John Mills, Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold. And if you have a great knowledge of classic character actors, you’ll spot many more familiar faces as well.
Though it opens with someone who was one of TV’s top personalities at the time — newsman Edward R. Murrow, in a prologue about how far means of travel had come — “Around the World in 80 Days” also was meant to challenge stay-at-home viewing, enticing patrons to keep coming to theaters by making full use of a giant, wide screen. Director Michael Anderson and his crew knew they had that extra mission on top of simply being entertaining, and they fulfilled it quite well.
“Around the World in 80 Days” has solid residency in the “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” category of filmmaking. It’s at once old-fashioned and breathtaking, and as many times as it has been remade, this version continues to stand the tallest.