Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

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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.

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Orson Welles performing some literal magic during his disastrous stage musical of Around the World in collaboration with Mike Todd and Cole Porter.

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.”)

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Learn by doing: Cantinflas and David Niven consult a manual on ballooning… after they lift off.

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 Walt Disney had actually improved upon two years previously.) 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 French 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.

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The 22-year old Shirley MacLaine as Princes Auoda.

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.

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Robert Newton, about to slip a “Hong Kong Snickersnee” — otherwise known as a Mickey Finn — to an unsuspecting Cantinflas.

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Some observers at the time (and 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 small clutch (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.

Ronald_Colman_Around_the_World_in_80_DaysColman 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?)

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Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is often stunningly effective, making the picture-postcard scenery of the movie’s various locations vividly real; it must have been a knockout on the big, wide 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, Fogg-like animated clock.

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The Spanish poster, which makes it seem to a Latin audience besotted with Cantinflas that he, not David Niven, is the star of the movie. If that caricature isn’t by Al Hirschfeld, it’s a damn good imitation.

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One of the finest musical scores ever composed for an American movie gets a remarkably faithful, if necessarily truncated, soundtrack album.

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.) And, a year on, a notorious bomb of a live television “party” at Madison Square Garden, financed by and celebrating Mike Todd.

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The movie’s director, Michael Anderson, confers on-set with Mike Todd, presumably over how best to frame Sinatra’s cameo.

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 his movie.

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*$42,000,000 profit on a then jaw-dropping $6 million budget.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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By Scott Ross

Those born after 1980 will scarcely credit it, but there was a time when the Hollywood studios did not routinely program huge, “high-concept,” multi-million-dollar action spectaculars as their main source of revenue. Smaller movies, with life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-) characters, were the norm. The spectaculars were fewer and further between — and even they had a peculiar tendency to be intelligent. These movies were made, as David Denby noted in his review of the 1987 reissue of The Manchurian Candidate, in another country, one where it was still possible to present a reasonably complex narrative without talking down to a media-surfeited, cranially-stunted audience, here and abroad. It was that country, in the year of my birth, which produced The Guns of Navarone.

I first saw the picture on television, in the early ’70s; that was in another country, too, one where the networks and local affiliates actually deigned to air movies (including many “older” titles like this one) on a regular basis, helping engender an interest, among young people like myself, in film. Although it was, perforce, in pan-and-scan format — there were at the time actual FCC rules in force prohibiting the screening of widescreen images on television — and, in our home, in black-and-white — the movie, as with so many one encounters during puberty and early adolescence, made a marked impression on me. The characters were vivid, the big set pieces excruciatingly tense, and there were odd curlicues that remained in the memory: The machine-gun appearing from beneath the sails; the shipwreck on the rocks and the subsequent perilous climb; the little girl holding a bouquet of flowers; the revelation of Anna’s treachery; the sudden, and shocking, Quisling behavior before the Germans of Anthony Quinn’s seemingly implacable Andrea.

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Carl Foreman, who both produced the picture and adapted Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel (and who, as a blacklisted scribe, did not receive credit for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years earlier) added two dramatic elements and altered an existing third. In MacLean’s book, there are no conflicts between Andrea, Mallory (Gregory Peck in the movie) and Miller (David Niven); Foreman grafted onto the narrative Miller’s unspoken antagonism toward Mallory, and Andrea’s vow to murder his compatriot, once the war is over, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. In MacLean, it is a male Greek partisan who is, or is suspected of being, the traitor; in Foreman, it is the mute Anna, for whom Mallory develops tender feelings, which dovetails neatly with the Mallory/Miller sub-plot. (It isn’t going too far to call Anna an informer, a special breed of loathsome for any blacklistee.)

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Corporal Miller smells a rat. From left, Irene Papas, James Darren, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Gregory Peck.

In an escapist novel, one can accept the lack of conflict between the leads; in a movie, some sort of complication is almost demanded, in an Aristotelean sense. It was a smart move on Foreman’s part, and he handled the additional dialogue with superb ease and intelligence; the Peck/Niven standoff precedes, and compels, the movie’s most poignant moment, then succeeds it, leading to the seemingly unflappable Mallory’s gesturing with his pistol in Miller’s direction (“You’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and by God, if you don’t think of something, I’ll use it on you! I mean it!”) Niven’s mounting fury is remarkable to watch, particularly since we don’t expect it of this usually (and uniquely) charming actor, any more than we are fully prepared for a blast of excoriating rage from Peck.

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The marvelous Irene Papas.

Foreman likewise added the fierce but emotionally accessible Marie (the name of Andrea’s off-stage wife in the novel) and cast the great Irene Pappas, whose superb face absolutely sticks with you. (Anna and Marie, neither of whom have counterparts in MacLean, could be said to have sprung from Pilar and Maria of For Whom the Bell Tolls.) If Foreman lost the novel’s moving scene in which the young, injured lieutenant offers himself up as a sacrifice, he gained far more, in the main. That injury is transferred in the movie to Anthony Quinn’s “Lucky,” to whom Peck’s Mallory whispers contradictory information he hopes will be extracted by the Germans; it is this act which enrages the otherwise likable (if occasionally overbearing) Miller.

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Lee Thompson’s direction is, like Alan Osbiston’s editing, straightforward and un-fussy, yet beautifully sustained. Thompson (“Lee-Thompson,” as he was later known) had a knack for keeping as many of his ensemble cast on-screen at the same time as possible, yet the set-ups never feel stagy, or even staged. Oswald Morris’ cinematography is often strikingly effective, particularly in his vivid day-for-night shots, and even the rear-screen projection effects look better than usual, aided as they are by such events as a storm at sea. Dmitri Tiomkin’s main title theme adds an immeasurable kick, but (remarkably, for him) the composer seldom over-stresses or strains for effect. Indeed, it’s notable how often he — or Foreman, or Thompson, or somebody — opted to leave a sequence alone and let the exciting visuals speak for themselves. At the movie’s end, Tiomkin repeats, not the big theme, as might be expected, but the plaintive “Yassou,” heard first in a soft, a cappella choral arrangement, closing the movie on a grace note.

Such poise is something else that separates the country that produced The Guns of Navarone from our own.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Dodsworth (1936)

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By Scott Ross

This William Wyler-directed romantic drama is one of the most adult movies ever made in Hollywood. A successful, middle-aged automobile magnate (Walter Huston) decides to chuck it all and enjoy the remainder of his life. He takes his pampered, willful wife (Ruth Chatterton) to Europe, where she alienates him and takes a callow young lover (David Niven), driving Dodsworth into the arms of an understanding woman (Mary Astor).

It sounds like melodrama, yet its touch is astonishingly light and its emotions honestly earned; the final scene is, in terms of emotional satisfaction, among the loveliest ever filmed.

Sidney Howard adapted his own play, from the splendid Sinclair Lewis novel.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross