Monday, October 17, 2011

“An Englishman Never Jokes About a Wager, Sir”

When, sometime during my boyhood (I was old enough to remember the incident, but too young to recall exactly when it took place), I went with my parents to a wide-screen presentation of the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days, I thought I’d never experience such thrills again in my life. I had heard stories about my great-grandparents’ ’round-the-world vacation in the early 20th century, and I had seen occasional reports on the television news about events taking place in other countries, but I’d never journeyed beyond America’s West Coast. Here, suddenly, was the world in Technicolor, with scenes unfolding in England, France, India, Spain, Thailand, and Japan. (No wonder it cost almost $6 million to make the picture! And that’s in 1950s dollars.) I could hardly take my eyes off the screen, and I credit Around the World in 80 Days, in part, for giving me a taste for travel that’s only increased over the years.

It was 55 years ago today that this film, based on French novelist Jules Verne’s 1873 novel of the same name, and produced by Michael Todd, premiered at the (now long-gone) Rivoli Theater in New York City. The 183-minute production starred David Niven as Phileas Fogg, a wealthy, precise, and imperturbable Englishman bachelor who, on a whim, strikes a wager with fellow members of his stuffy gentleman’s club that he can circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. It also featured Mario Moreno (“Cantinflas”) as Fogg’s talented and ingenious Parisian valet, Jean Passepartout; Shirley MacLaine as Indian Princess Aouda, who that pair--between hands of whist--rescue from the funeral pyre of her recently deceased husband, and then take with them for the rest of their journey; and Robert Newton as the relentless but unscrupulous Scotland Yard Inspector Fix, who has got onto Fogg’s trail with the gross misapprehension that he’s a big-time bank plunderer. The dozens of cameo appearances made in this film by fading big-screen stars are remarkable and include Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, José Greco, Buster Keaton, Hermione Gingold, Frank Sinatra, and even comedian Red Skelton.

Around the World in 80 Days won five Academy Awards in 1957, and it beat out not only The King and I and Giant, but also The Ten Commandments to win Best Picture honors.

I’ve read Verne’s original novel half a dozen times in my life, and watched Todd’s film on three or four occasions since I was first bowled over by its epic drama. Somehow, those experiences aren’t diminished by repetition. Yes, I think that there are points in the movie Around the World in 80 Days where the pace slackens a bit, but I would give my eye teeth to be with Phineas Fogg and Passepartout every inch of the way.

Below is the film’s 1956 theatrical trailer:

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