Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956)

Scene from Around the World in Eighty Days
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Around the World in Eighty Days
Release Date: October 17, 1956
Director: Michael Anderson, John Farrow (Uncredited)
Written By: James Poe & John Farrow & S.J. Perelman (Sreenplay), Jules Verne (Book)
Starring: David Niven, Catinflas, Finlay Currie
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
Running Time: 175 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 8
-Best Director
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Friendly Persuasion
-The King and I
-The Ten Commandments

And the winner is...

There is a strong chance that you wouldn't be able to make director Michael Anderson's Around the World in Eighty Days. No, seriously. While it may be considered a dated spectacle that awards style over substance, it's a film of high ambitions and scale that helped to format the modern blockbuster - all from an air balloon. With a couple dozen cameos, hundreds of thousands of extras, and a ridiculous amount of circumnavigating and shooting around the globe; this is a film with high ambitions that makes it all the more astounding that Anderson managed to produce it for a total of just $6 million. It's insane for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it's one of the most excessive, puzzling Best Picture winners in history.

The man behind the magic was producer Michael Todd, who seemed like an anomaly among the producing world. Around the World in Eighty Days was his first film after working in theater. He even did a production of the Jules Verne book as a stage adaptation with Orson Welles. When it became clear that the film was going to full of cameos, Welles complained about not being included, as he felt that he had given Todd the idea. Likewise, other producers persuaded him not to make the film, as previous adaptations had failed. Still, Todd would go forward with a version that he received from former writer and director John Farrow. Despite leaving the project early on, Farrow would go on to receive the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

The cameos were their own beast, as Todd was considered to be very persuasive. While the idea had existed, Around the World in Eighty Days was the first film to incorporate the idea of brief celebrity appearances. It would stimulate the audience and convince more people to sign on for very limited work. Wikipedia lists 48 cameos in the film ranging from Edward R. Murrow to Peter Lorre to international talents like Imanos Williams. Despite the packed screen, performers such as Gregory Peck and John Wayne turned down roles while Ava Gardner claimed to have participated in making the film despite there being no evidence. Beyond these actors, there were 68,894 extras that were used in the film, which was shot in 13 countries and had the cast and crew travel over four million miles during production. There were 74,685 costumes created for the film and 8,552 animals were used in the making of the film. The closing credits also lasted over six minutes. As of the time, each of these were the highest of any film production in history.

Contrary to popular belief, a large majority of the film was done on six sound stages in Hollywood, California and many of the remaining sets can be found in Century City. The film took many alterations from the book, most notably using a hydrogen balloon as the main source of transportation. Because of his international fame, co-star Catinflas had a lot of say in how the film was produced (he would also receive top billing in Latina American countries). Among his most noteworthy was the addition of a bullfighter scene that didn't exist in Verne's book. This was on account of his bullfighting skills. This scene alone featured 10,000 extras. In another case, there was a need for Indian characters. When there wasn't enough, 650 extras used a cumulative 50 gallons of orange dye. 

As one could presume from these stories, the production was met immediately by skeptics. Too had a few people he owed money to, which caused more taboo. By the time he died 18 months after the film's run, it had grossed $33 million, thus keeping it safe. However, it wasn't until later releases of the film that things became more problematic. There were various edits of the film, including some that took out a train sequence while others took out an opening that featured Murrow and director Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon in its entirety. It eventually was restored, but various cuts took removed these things. Part of this was due to ownership issues that eventually landed it in Elizabeth Taylor's hands. How? She was the widow of Todd and thus inherited it as part of his estate. As of 2015, the original version is available with all of its features.

Along with box office success (it didn't make wide release until 1958), the film did rather well at The Academy Awards that year.It took home five Oscars for its various achievements. Among the highlights was when the film won Best Adapted Screenplay. As mentioned, Farrow won despite leaving the project. However, the film's final screenwriter (S.J. Perelman) didn't make it. He sent Hermione Gingold in his place, who read a note that said:  "I'm very proud to receive this object on behalf of Mister Perelman, who writes.he cannot be here for a variety of reasons, all of them spicy. He's dumbfounded, absolutely flummoxed. He never expected any recognition for writing Around the World in Eighty Days. And, in fact, only did so on the expressed understanding that the film would never be shown." Along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it was the longest title to win Best Picture until The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won several decades later. It was also only the third film released in the widescreen format (a tactic that Anderson mostly used just to emphasize the size of the screen). 

While the film has earned a reputation as a big, glorious spectacle, what's probably most interesting about its legacy is the marketing tactic. When it was released, theaters were encouraged to present it like a Broadway theater production. This meant that even the advertising had a flamboyant and exciting look. This also meant that there wouldn't be any popcorn offered during the film. While the film hasn't necessarily aged well in the general zeitgeist's mind, it definitely deserves its place in history for being a film of expansive scope, wrangling in dozens of celebrity cameos, cross-continental productions, and giving a sense of wonder. Sure, directors like Stephen Spielberg would later turn this into a formula with the blockbuster, but it's interesting to see this film as being a predecessor to that. It's not perfect, but it offers hints of where cinema inevitably went.

Around the World in Eighty Days is a film full of excitement and wonder. It may not be as well regarded because of its style over substance, but there's no denying that the production is astounding and that it couldn't get made for $6 million nowadays, even when adjusted for inflation. It's a film that likely doesn't age well also because the cameos have lost their impact. Yet it's the film to which that gimmick must be thanked. It's a film full of fun moments that capture the excitement of cinema for mass audiences. It may not be the easiest one to watch, but I'd argue that it's one of the most ambitiously. With just three visual effects out of the entire production, it's amazing that it looks as good as it does.

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