By Scott Ross
One of the most completely entertaining movies of its time, and one that continues to deliver enormous pleasure, even reduced to home viewing size. That any independent producer, let alone the much-bankrupted Michael Todd, managed to get it made is remarkable. That is was a hit was extraordinary.* That it is so sharp, intelligent and funny, as well as huge, is a bloody miracle.
Todd got the idea for the movie (“stole” might be an apter word) from Orson Welles, who adapted it as a memorable Campbell’s Playhouse radio show and later as a Broadway musical extravaganza produced by Todd… who left everyone in the lurch, forcing Welles to scramble for money to keep it going. That the musical’s score, by Cole Porter, contained not a single number with any afterlife is telling; the period during which the show was written was Porter’s professional nadir. For Welles, who cast himself as Inspector Fix as well as directing the thing, it was an over-extended, and ultimately unsuccessful, magic-act. (He had much better luck, at least in England, with his astonishingly theatrical stage play Moby Dick — Rehearsed, which Kenneth Tynan famously — and, based on the published script, correctly — noted “turns the theatre once more into a house of magic.”)
As a literary adaptation, Around the World in 80 Days bears unusual fealty to its source. (The book itself has a more compelling narrative than, say, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Jules Verne novel Disney actually improved upon in his picture of two years previous.) While the screenwriters (James Poe, John Farrow — father of Mia — and S.J. Perlman, who doctored the script and shared the Oscar® it won) alter a few sequences and add an immoderate dash of polished wit to the dialogue — most of which I suspect is Perlman’s — the storyline is almost entirely Verne’s. Todd, rightly, believed the urbane David Niven the only natural choice to portray Verne’s whist-mad, clock-watching Phileas Fogg. His casting of the inescapably Mexican Cantinflas as Fogg’s valet Passepartout, on the other hand, raised more than a few eyebrows. Yet the diminutive comedian proves himself perhaps the only performer of his time to truly bear comparisons to Chaplin; you can easily imagine Charlie doing most of what Cantinflas does, and for once the comparison does not harm the performer assuming Chaplin’s mantle.
The natural casting choice for an Indian Princess? A redheaded, Scots-Irish Virginian contract starlet named Shirley MacLaine. Rounding out the central cast is Robert Newton, making a veritable meal of Fix (“Follow that hostrich!”) There was nothing subtle about Newton. When he needed to be frightening, he went for absolutely terrifying (Bill Sykes in Lean’s Oliver Twist) and it is his Long John Silver most people are imitating when they lapse into pirate-speak (“Aaarrr, matey, aaarrr.”) Fix was, sadly, his last role; he suffered a fatal coronary a month after filming was completed.
Some observers (at the time and often since) complain that Todd’s use of four-dozen “guest stars” in small roles was mere publicity-seeking stunt casting. I beg to differ. What he got, and gave to the movie, was what those actors and comedians did best, in roles that might otherwise have served as mere filler. It’s great fun seeing all those familiar faces (and hearing their equally famous voices) in supporting roles. True, a few of them (Evelyn Keyes, Fernandel, Mike Mazurki, Frank Sinatra, Victor McLaglen) last mere seconds. But a couple (José Greco, Beatrice Lillie, Edward R. Murrow) get specialty items and quite a few of them (notably the British) craft sparkling little gems out of what Todd termed their “cameos”: Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Harcourt Williams, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, John Mills, Hermione Gingold, Glynis Johns and, especially, Ronald Colman.
Colman is not among my favorite actors by any stretch of the imagination, but his perfect dismissal of a bogus news item (“That must have been The Daily Telegraph. You never would have read that in The Times.”), a line that bears the fine Italian hand of S.J. Perlman, is not merely my favorite line in this script, but a favorite, period, and is delivered with altogether smashing sang-froid. The only sour casting note is Todd’s hiring that genocidal racist Col. Tim McCoy as a Calvary officer, but I’m thoroughly flummoxed that the splendid Phillip Ahn, as an elderly citizen of Hong Kong who takes a little of the starch out of Fogg’s Imperialist snobbery, was not included in the credits. (And that Keye Luke appeared un-credited as well. As whom?)
Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is often stunningly effective, making the picture-postcard scenery of the movie’s various locations vividly real; it must be a knockout on the big screen. Michael Anderson’s swift direction keeps the whole big ball of wax from dissolving, and in what proved to be his final score Victor Young provided one of the era’s most charming, and infectious, soundtracks. An added fillip, which I imagine must have tickled the movie’s many patrons immensely, are Saul Bass’ delicious end credits, perfectly set by Young as a kind of cantata of thematic reprises bound together by a relentlessly ticking animated clock.
Todd rode his success hard; unsurprisingly for him, the producer was also one of the earliest of the movie ballyhoo artists. Not only was the soundtrack LP a bestseller (Young won a posthumous Oscar® for the score) but there were countless instrumental albums by a dizzying array of bands.
There were also, in addition to an Avon paperback tie-in (profusely illustrated, as they used to say, with stills), two editions, from Random House, of a pasteboard souvenir book, one large, one digest-sized. (Although identical in content and illustration, the smaller version’s color photos, for some reason, were not as crisp as those in its larger counterpart.)
During his brief career in movies, Todd initiated the superb wide-screen alternative to Cinerama that would eventually bear his name (Todd-AO), coined the term “cameo” for those starry bit roles, won Elizabeth Taylor’s hand, and snagged the gold ring on his very first production. He was uncouth, vulgar, at least provisionally heartless, and quite possibly dangerous. (When Todd’s ex-wife Joan Blondell, whom he once allegedly held out a Manhattan window, heard that he had died in a plane crash two years later she snapped, “I hope the son of a bitch screamed the whole way down.”) Yet, somehow, he knew how to charm and corral talent and, having hooked them, respected their gifts. That fact shines through every frame of this movie.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
*$42,000,000 profit on a then jaw-dropping $6 million budget.