Premise: In 1976 Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It beat Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, and Network. While most of us love Rocky, we do feel like there were definitely some better movies nominated that year that maybe deserved it more. Rocky was the safe pick.
Sometimes it’s a tough call. My Fair Lady beat Mary Poppins, Becket, Zorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove in 1964. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, and Barry Lyndon in 1975. Those years were anyone’s game.
On rare occasions I all-encompassingly agree with the Academy’s decision (e.g. On the Waterfront was an obvious win). Sometimes a winner is reviled or labeled “overrated” by folks were preferred other nominees (e.g. Crash, Rocky, etc.). Rarer still is the occasion when I must defend a snubbed winner.
I know exactly why Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners, but I am here to defend it. I’m in an awkward place because this is actually one of my favorite movies. . . but did it deserve the Oscar? Let’s take a look at the successes and shortcomings of Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Perspective: 80 Days beat out Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper is a conflicted Quaker), Giant (James Dean finds oil), The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein ensure happy and balanced America-Thai relations FOREVER!…it’s actually still banned there, I think), and The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille makes the religious epic to end all religious epics).
Around the World in 80 Days was a bold widescreen period epic that employed nearly 70,000 extras and nearly 8,000 animals and required moving crews of thousands to relocate equipment and people to thirteen different countries. In addition to the wild costumes, exotic locations, and incredible set-pieces; countless Hollywood hotshots were given cameo bit parts throughout the film. Some movie star extras include Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown, Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jose Greco, Hermoine Gingold, Charles Boyer, Red Skelton, John Mills, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, and more.
Full Disclosure: Friendly Persuasion is good, but High Noon was the Gary Cooper film that should have won something. I actually haven’t seen Giant (yet), but I’m not a big Elizabeth Taylor fan and wonder if it really could be better than East of Eden for Dean flicks (my favorite). The King and I is a lavish, vibrant, and somewhat racist pageant show that boasts a few great songs and a lot of tedious bits. We can’t be too down on The King and I for racial mischaracterization because 80 Days is actually guilty of the same (and in way more countries). Finally, The Ten Commandments is an incredible visual feast with another epic cast list, and while I still do love a lot of the biblical melodrama and the impressive score, this film sometimes does feel too long (still maybe better paced than Ben-Hur though…but Ben-Hur is probably the better film).
I’ve heard it said that Around the World in 80 Days is proof you can buy an Oscar—due to its high production costs and lavish flourishes. But come on! The King and I and The Ten Commandments might be even more lavish and even flourishier. The only real difference here is that Around the World in 80 Days seems less pretentious.
I’m also somewhat biased because I do like travelogue adventures, Jules Verne, and levity.
The Skinny: Following a long prologue about the possibilities of technology and the influence of prophetic science-fiction writers on scientific progress, presented by Edward R. Murrow who shows us Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. . . our story finally begins.
Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is an exceedingly punctual and fastidious 19th century British gentleman. On a whim over a game of whist he decides to prove to his aristocratic colleagues that he can successfully circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. The wager is set.
Fogg takes his amorous new servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), along for the ride.
Detective Fix (Robert Newton), a Scotland Yard agent under the suspicion that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, pursues.
Despite the demands of the trek, Fogg and Passpartout manage to find the time to rescue an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) too.
Modes of transportation include trains, ships, coaches, hot air balloons, horses, ostriches, elephants, and more.
Lands traversed include England, France, Spain, India, China, Japan, the United States, and then some.
The Good: The cast and characters themselves are great. So Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly Indian, but Cantinflas certainly isn’t French (as he is described in the book). Niven is the perfect Fogg and Cantinflas is one of the most fun movie sidekicks of all time as Passepartout.
The film boasts some snappy dialogue, riddled with wit and smarm (one of the screenwriters was American humorist S. J. Perleman). There is an abundance of clever lines and welcome character moments. The script never let’s us forget the stakes or to remind us that it’s all for fun.
The scenery is great and the film makes wonderful use of the widescreen photography. Remember, in 1956 most people hadn’t really seen much of the rest of the world. This was their chance to get the Disney-fied Haliburton experience from the comfort of a theater seat.
The film has a loose buoyancy to it and never loses its spirit of fun and adventure—even when the ubiquitous threat of immolation at the hands of politcally incorrect uncouthed savages looms large. There is a pleasing and self-depricating sense of patriotism for both Brits and Yanks alike. That it can manage to be both cavalier and suspenseful at the same time is something of a noteworthy feat as well.
The score is fantastic. Composer Victor Young creates wonderful atmosphere and momentum. There are several very memorable themes. Each country and character gets special musical treatment. Seriously, find the soundtrack and listen to it. It is sublime.
The great intro credits artist, Saul Bass, also provides a very fun cartoon at the end. . . that summarizes the entire three hour film in about seven minutes.
The Bad: The production itself is a staggering achievement and that this ambitious globe-trotting feature is not a mess are positives, however, there are some problems. The movie, perhaps by design, is structured in a fairly episodic manner (there are a lot of isolated mini-adventures throughout, but that seems unavoidable in a story like this. Heck, the original Jules Verne novel is crazy episodic).
The film’s camera direction is actually stultifyingly unimaginative. Very basic shots. Establishing shots and two shots and wide shots. That’s about it. Nothing particularly inspired in the cinematography department, but it could be argued that the content being filmed was so impressively orchestrated that it needed no distracting angles or frills.
183 minutes is a long commitment and you notice more when scenes linger at that length. Most of the movie clips along nicely and there are very few boring scenes. The flight over France, the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain, and the train ride through the Indian jungle, however, as great as they are, do feel like they go on a tad too long. Perhaps they were just so taken with what they were filming they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it.
Some of the cultural representations might feel a little insensitive today. The angry mob that chases Passepartout after he shoos a cow in India; the bloodthirsty Native Americans attacking the train; German actor Peter Lorre being Japanese (a reference to his Mr. Moto days).
The ending is really perplexing. It’s funny, I guess, but even as a kid it felt tonally wrong. The last thirty seconds of this three hour movie are just so bafflingly off that if it wasn’t for the Saul Bass cartoon that immediately followed I reckon even more people would dislike this movie. You can’t invest three hours into something that is going to be written off so flippantly and strangely in the homestretch. It’s a decent joke, but it just comes at the wrong time.
The Leftovers: The novelty of seeing all those old Hollywood celebrities comprise the background atmosphere may have lost some its luster over time as many of the then-famous faces are now unknown to many today.
It’s not a great anthropological exploration of the many cultures around the world, but it’s not really trying to be (more a series of snapshots). With regards to its hasty and generalizing representations it can be likened to the It’s a Small World ride at Diseneyland. Oversimplified, but, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.
So what is it? It’s an adventure movie, a road movie, a comedy, a joking prod at British classism, a wild western movie, a suspense movie, and tack on a somewhat limited romance as well.
Ultimately: I suspect people think that Giant or The Ten Commandments should have won. I suspect they feel that Around the World in 80 Days was too light and fun to be important and too sweeping and grandiose while failing to be more artistic. I suspect they feel it was gimmicky and perhaps kitsch. Too broadly painted to be taken seriously.
Honestly, Around the World in 80 Days is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, but for me it still is a great feel-good crowd-pleaser. When I was a little kid borrowing this from my local library I had no idea it was such a hotly contested Oscar winner. I didn’t even know what the Oscars were or that it had won. Perhaps I am too nostalgic for it, but I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to hate this movie.
Maybe The Ten Commandments should have won. I don’t know. It’s not like the Oscars actually have any bearing over how good or bad a film really is. The Court Jester, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! weren’t even nominated that year (because comedy, science fiction, and atomic parables with giant lizards are not high art).
There have been plenty of wins, and even nominations, I didn’t particularly care for. There have also been plenty of movies I thought were great that never even got nominated. Does the say-so of “The Academy” really matter? Maybe not. So for all those haters out there who like to downplay Around the World in 80 Days, let me just remind you: get over it.
And while I still think Network and the other 1976 nominees were better than Rocky I don’t begrudge Rocky. Good for Rocky. But I have my alternative preferences.