The makers of Around the World in 80 Days, based on Jules Verne’s novel, start with an intriguing innovation. Instead of gradually settling into the story, the film begins with a direct address from Edward R. Murrow discussing Verne and his prescient prophecies for the future. As evidence, Murrow compares what you are about to see with Georges Méliès’s loose adaptation of a Verne story, A Trip to the Moon, which is shown largely uncut. After Murrow makes a few more comments, the image dissolves into the main story.
It is odd to start any film by quoting another, but particularly striking given what follows. Directed by the reliably dull Michael Anderson, nothing else approaches that level of unconventionality. Rather, as Ed Sullivan would have put it, this is a “Really Big Show” that tries to entertain with grandiose mediocrity.
At the center of this Michael Todd super-production is Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his manservant Passepartout (Cantinflas). Despite a fairly close adaptation of Verne’s story, the pair are little better than props who move from one over-scaled setup to another. At times World feels little better than a three-hour travelogue, a kind of self-confident, unconscious expression of “Imperial” braggadocio. The famous sequence in a balloon, for example, seems included only to provide one postcard after another of the French countryside, while the trip across “India” consists of little more than Cantinflas repeatedly looking out a train window to motivate point-of-view sequences of separately photographed location shots. Still, there is just enough story to perk up things a little when the film threatens to sink under its elephantine ambition.
The decision to use Verne as the excuse for a vacation slideshow may explain why World is remarkably placid despite the built-in suspense of needing to get back to England in eighty days. Produced in the ’30s, the material might have made for a taut little black-and-white back lot adventure with contract players providing atmosphere and all push-push-pushing things forward. In the otiose ’50s, lacking a purpose beyond inflated display, a host of big-name cameo appearances turn the adventure into a moderately diverting game of spot the celebrity. Some register more easily than others (Marlene Dietrich blows everyone else off the screen with something like three lines), but their scenes are largely confined to sound stage shots interlarded with yet more location inserts.
As for the leads, David Niven stands stiffly stalwart while Cantinflas hyperventilates. Shirley MacLaine’s Hindu Princess Aouda looks about as “Indian” as I do, not that verisimilitude is an issue for anyone. Her character’s inclusion may be Verne’s doing, but it still feels like another example of Hollywood’s determination to provide sex regardless of whether or not it has any place.
Todd et cie. should never have started with A Trip to the Moon. Its inventive, dexterous wit sets a standard that cannot be equaled with ostentatious bloat. If this were Around the World in 80 Minutes it would be a lot more fun.