Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) Watching some films from bygone days is almost an anthropological experience. Not just for what’s shown on-screen, but what led to what’s shown on-screen. Around the World in Eighty Days is one such curio, not only portraying the world of 1872 as seen from 1956 (84-year difference), but also telling us much about 1956 Hollywood from today’s perspective (61-year difference). The basics of the film are simple enough, adapting Jules Verne’s globetrotting adventure tale into a lavish three-hour-long spectacle. But it’s the way it is put together that captivates as much as the narrative of the story. Famously filled with cameos, Around the World in Eighty Days regularly grinds to a halt as then-famous faces grin at the camera to remind us that they’re in the movie. Of course, sixty years later, it’s hard to identify most of them unless you’re a dedicated movie buff: what remains are nearly incomprehensible skits revolving around famous people without us knowing that they’re famous people. (The Fernandel and Frank Sinatra examples are particularly egregious, except that Sinatra is still somewhat recognizable.) David Niven is good but occasionally inscrutable as the main character, while Cantinflas (wildly popular then, almost unknown now) is a revelation as Passepartout. Around the World in Eighty Days remains strange and kind of charming in its own way. What’s not quite so funny is the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes that parade through the entire film. Nobody escapes unscathed, whether it’s the British (eccentric to a fault, and never willing to sacrifice tea in the middle of a crisis) or the Americans (frontier barbarians obsessed with electioneering) or any of the non-English-speaking nationalities. The Native-American segments are particularly tough to watch, but by no means the only uncomfortable moment in the movie. Still, the film moves with a decent amount of action, humour and scenery—while largely filmed on Hollywood studios, the production did spend a lot of effort to make sure that the details were correct, and did travel to foreign countries in order to capture establishing shots. The result is one-of-a-kind. I’d normally welcome a remake, except that a loose comedic remake was completed in 2004 and has since already sunk away from view so thoroughly that I still haven’t seen in on TV or any of the major streaming platforms after a year of searching. In the meantime, the original Around the World in Eighty Days remains available for anyone’s viewing pleasure, but if there’s a film that screams out for pop-up notes, it’s this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *