The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

There are epics, and then there are EPICS. In the age of such immense, gigantically-scaled films of the 1950s and 1960s, studios pulled out all the stops in hopes of impressing moviegoers. Huge all-star casts with thousands of extras, lavish sets and costumes, and in general, a sight to behold on the big screen. Some movies were just made for a viewing that only a full-size movie theater can offer, like 1956's Around the World in 80 Days.

It is the 1870s and new technological advances have made travel to far-off places not only possible but quicker, more efficient, and more entertaining. A prim and proper Englishman, Phileas Fogg (David Niven), even boasts to his fellow members of the Reform Club that he can travel completely travel around the world in just 80 days. The club members laugh at the thought, but Fogg maintains his stance and a bet is born. With a significant amount of money on the line, Fogg and his assistant/valet, Passepartout (Mexican actor Cantinflas), embark on a journey around the world against the clock with no idea of what will be actually thrown their way during their adventurous travels.

If you were trying to define what an old-school Hollywood epic is to someone who didn't know, this would be a great start. Filming in locations around the world from Japan, the U.S., Thailand, Spain, England, France, Pakistan and China, '80 Days' is a true visual stunner. The screen is filled with incredible locations packed to the gills with the cast and then hundreds and thousands of extras behind them. Director Michael Anderson filmed with a Todd-AO technique, an ultra-widescreen filming process that makes certain shots look like epically wide panoramic shots. I was impressed watching the film on my 32-inch TV. I can only imagine what this film would look like on a movie screen. As well, composer Victor Young's score (which won an Oscar) is light-hearted and fun, keeping the travels moving.

It is hard to criticize this movie on its technical levels. It is far easier to criticize the movie for basically everything else. Oh, didn't see that twist coming, did you? All that epic quality comes at the expense of character, story and any sort of development involving either of those. This is a movie you appreciate, just sit back and enjoy it. The widescreen filming process is a sight to behold, but they become tedious by the 11th or 12th such long shot of a mountain vista, train running down a track, Cantinflas fighting a bull. Yes, I get it. On visuals alone, this is a stunningly beautiful movie. But at almost three-hours long, it feels like nothing more than an extended world travel guide. There never is even the slightest sense of urgency to the 80 day deadline until the final 10 minutes. Instead we get the visual, Niven's Fogg paying someone to right a wrong, then another nature shot.

I'll go into more depth about the supporting cast of thousands in a bit, but let's start with the lead performances. David Niven is one of my favorite actors, but I came away disappointed here. His Fogg is the definition of a prim and proper Englishman. He's even asked 'Why must you be so British?' at one point. At no point though does he actually look interested in bringing the part to life. To me, Niven look bored, and that's tough to say as a fan. Famed Mexican actor Cantinflas sure takes some grief for his part as Passepartout, but I thought he did a fine job with his limited grasp of English. His bit with Red Skelton is a highlight, the duo shoveling food into the others mouth in a very funny routine. Other bigger parts include Shirley MacLaine oddly cast as an Indian princess traveling with Fogg and Passepartout, and Robert Newton as Mr. Fix, a bank investigator trailing Fogg who's convinced the Englishman is an infamous bank robber.

Then there's the cameos, a long list that must put even The Greatest Story Ever Told to shame. Take a deep breath, and here goes. Look out for Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Victor McLaglen, John Mills and Glynis Johns among others. I include those names because I recognized them in the cast, not because I necessarily saw them in the actual film. They are the 'blink and you'll miss them' type of cameos to the point many don't even register. Sinatra is shown over his shoulder three times and then turns and smiles. Mind you, he doesn't even say anything. He SMILES. That's it. Yes, it's fun seeing all these actors/actresses together but give them something to do.

This is a tough one to review in the end. It's too long, downright dull at times, a visual treat to watch, and a movie experience unlike any other. It's flaws though are crippling. '80 Days' may be three-hour longs but because of its schizo, hyper kinetic energy that bounces all over the place, it feels significantly longer and has not aged well over the years. A movie to be appreciated for its positives for what it does amount to, even if I won't be watching it again anytime soon. Okay, maybe in a movie theater.

Around the World in 80 Days <---trailer (1956): ** 1/2/****         

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