Prompted by a recent screening of the original 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days we thought we would use it as an occasion to provide some background, since so many famous names are connected with the classic. And naturally it was a favorite movie of my childhood, that central magical image of the hot air balloon at the center of it, with its fairground and Wizard of Oz resonances. The film naturally induced me to seek out and read Jules Verne’s original 1873 novel in translation, as well, as a kid. The plot is simple: Phileas Fogg, a writer and adventurer, bets his fellow club members that he can encircle the entire globe in the stated time, which would be a record in those pre-airplane days. 80 days might seem glacial to us (after all, Prince tweaked it to Around the World in a DAY), but back then the concept was the height of modernism. It bordered on science fiction, although it was feasible with the technology of the time, and has been replicated. The fun of it as the travelogue aspect, of being taken to so many distant lands, as well as as the variety of conveyances: the foregrounded balloon, but also locomotives, steamships, elephants, horse-drawn carriages, etc. And of course, the nail biting moments when various mishaps delay them.
It can be claimed that the origins of the film lay a decade before, with Orson Welles’ legendary Broadway adaptation of the book for Broadway in 1946 (between his films The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai). This was a historic but apparently flawed production. A lavish, expensive spectacle, written and directed by Welles, with original songs by Cole Porter and all sorts of gewgaws and gimcracks, giving what one reviewer called a “vaudeville” quality. There were 38 sets inspired by the films of George Melies, automata, magic tricks, projected motion pictures, a troup of Japanese acrobats, a live elephant, and a mechanical eagle that swooped down on ropes and grabbed a man, lifting back into the wings. In contrast with everything Welles had done before, this was theoretically his most populist “show biz” show. But Welles, while a genius director, and a game actor, was not really a playwright, Even Citizen Kane had been cowritten by Herman Mankiewicz. He needed to supply more human elements. A common criticism of the show (and you could really make this about any version of this tale) was that it lacked characters and a plot — it’s just a series of fun set pieces. And apparently Porter’s songs weren’t his best. (You can name ten Cole Porter songs, right? Can you name any from this show? Some smarty probably can, but the rest of us can’t, and that’s the point). And so much had been spent on SCALE (not just the sets and effects, but an enormous cast and crew, hundreds of people) that the show could afford no stars, and stars help sell tickets. So the show closed after 70 performances, although many people spoke wonderingly about it for decades as one of the best things they had ever seen.
At any rate, the only reason we bring up the Broadway version at all is that one of the original backers of Welles’ show had been impresario Mike Todd. Then Todd backed out, leaving Welles to sink his own savings into the show. Welles lost his shirt — one of the many reasons why his films of the ’50s and ’60s were essentially Poverty Row productions: such resources as he had amassed during his breathtakingly successful early years had been squandered. His profligacy is probably one of the reasons Todd did not hire him to direct the film in 1956, despite “borrowing” his idea to adapt this vehicle.
The other thing Todd’s production has in common with Welles’s stage show was spectacle and scale. Location shooting around the globe, thousands of extras, and scores of major stage and screen stars in key roles. David Niven was cast as Phileas Fogg; it was to be his best known role. The great Mexican clown Cantinflas (who everybody was convinced was going to be the next Charlie Chaplin) was cast as Fogg’s man Friday Passepartout. Robert Newton (best known as Treasure Island‘s Long John Silver) plays an Inspector who trails Fogg as a suspected thief (adding a Hitckcockian element that lights a fire under the plot). Shirley MacLaine plays a widowed Indian princess whom Fogg rescues from a ceremonial immolation and who joins them on their journey. The film follows the original source material in not being too progressive on race.
I have written about many of the stars in the film, so we give you a brief run down of who’s in it. Members of Fogg’s hangout The Reform Club include Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, and Basil Sydney. Sir John Gielgud is Fogg’s former valet; Noel Coward is a clerk at an employment agency. In Paris they encounter Charles Boyer, Evelyn Keyes, and Fernandel. In Spain, Jose Greco. Gilbert Roland, and Cesar Romero (unfortunately) portray Arabians. They encounter a bunch of British colonials in Egypt, India and Hong Kong: Alan Mowbray, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Melville Cooper, Reginald Denny, Ronald Colman, and Charles Coburn. Mike Mazurki is a drunk in a Hong Kong bar, Peter Lorre a steward on a tramp steamer. Keye Luke plays…Keye Luke. In San Francisco we encounter George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and John Carradine. Buster Keaton is the conductor on a train to Fort Kearney, Nebraska (a magical choice given his Kansas origins, and his great locomotive comedy The General). Joe E. Brown is the stationmaster. It briefly turns into a western, with Col. Tim McCoy, and 650 actors playing Native Americans. They then catch a steamship home, the crew of which includes Andy Devine, Edmund Lowe, Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie. Back in London they encounter Beatrice Lillie as a Christian revivalist, a cabbie played by John Mills, and a couple of tarts played by Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold.
Plus Technicolor, Todd-A-O (widescreen format) and a screenplay cowritten by S.J. Perelman! I’d dare you to top that, but suprisingly someone tied Todd that same year. 1956 was also the same year Cecil B. De Mille released The Ten Commandments!
One film that definitely did NOT top the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days is the 2004 remake. I saw it in the theatre with my kids when it came out, and I walked away most unimpressed (and later I even forgot that it had existed, until later reminded). Directed by Frank Coraci, best known for directing The Wedding Singer and The Water Boy with Adam Sandler, it features an excellent cast though nothing on the order of its predessor: Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan in the leads, with some inspired choices like Kathy Bates as Queen Victoria, and Luke and Owen Wilson as Wilbur and Orville Wright, and also the likes of Jim Broadbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Cleese, and Rob Schneider. There is certainly no reason to boycott it. Just do what I did: watch it and forget it!
Addendum: But wait! I forgot yet another one! There was a 1989 NBC mini-series with the semi-illustrious cast of: Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle, Peter Ustinov, Jack Klugman, Roddy McDowell, Darren McGavin, Robert Morley, Lee Remick, Jill St. John, Robert Wagner, Henry Gibson, John Hillerman (of Magnum P.I.), Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee, John Mills, Pernell Roberts, James B. Sikking (of Hill Street Blues), et al, and Anna Massey as Queen Victoria!
To learn about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and to learn about silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.