Ask anyone to name the best screen adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and the answer will more than likely be this 1956 version. It is enjoyed for its beautiful cinematography and music score, but the film is probably best known for originating the cameo - a small role played by a well-known figure. There are numerous of them scattered throughout.
Before the adventure takes off, the main players are introduced. First off is Philius Fogg (David Niven), a member of the Reform Club - a sanctuary for respectable gentlemen to have tea, play cards and segregate themselves from the rest of the "uncivilized" society. Fogg is the most meticulous human being you'll ever meet. Breakfast at 8:24 is to be served exactly on the dot, not "at 8:23 or at 8:25". His toast has to be at the precise temperature, no higher or lower; his bathwater at the precise depth, no higher or lower. Fogg has an unbendable penchant for timekeeping, as shown by the multitudes of clocks and watches in the living room. Even the clothes in his wardrobe are categorized by time of day, weather condition and season.
Next is Passepartout (Cantinflas), a new arrival in town looking for work. Fortunately for him, Fogg's previous manservant (Sir John Gielgud cameo) has quitted citing unreasonable working conditions, allowing Passepartout to fill in quickly. Now Passepartout is the exact opposite of Fogg. He is very outgoing, an adept in many trades (including gymnastics, fire-fighting, chimny sweep) but prone to rash behavior. However, unlike Fogg, Passepartout proves to be an entertaining character as many instances in the film show. In fact, the odd bicycle that serves his transportation in the introduction scene tells you that he's going to be quite a character.
Back at the Reform Club, Fogg claims that it is possible for a person to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. When his fellow gentlemen challenges him on it, he wagers that he can do it himself. Bets are placed, the gentlemen's against his, and the adventure begins.
Two other main characters make their appearance in the course of the adventure. Police inspector Mr. Fix (Robert Newton) is introduced in the Suez, while in India an unforseen train stop prompts Fogg and Passepartout to detour into the jungle where they rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine). Fix is thorn on Fogg's side and briefly succeeds in delaying him by disposing of Passepartout, but later exacts his comeuppance on Fogg by arresting him for robbing the Bank of England. The exotic beauty Aouda does not step up as a character until near the end of the film in the only scene where Fogg bares his emotions unrestrain, but their romance has already been hinted from the start.
Who can forget the score, every track infectious and unforgettable. Victor Young is one of the greatest film composers that ever lived, and probably the only one that can be ranked above John Williams on sheer musical genius. His music covers a spectrum of moods from comedic to romantic, and a myraid of exotic colors to support the countries that Fogg and Passepartout stop over (Suez, Hong Kong, India, Japan, and several for different parts of their America travel). In addition, Young also arranges some familiar themes to represent the characters: "Rule Britannia" for Fogg, a variation of "La Cucaracha" for Passepartout, a segment from Gershwin's "An American in Paris" as a cue that Fogg and Passepartout are in Paris (when the dialogue does not mention anything), and "Yankee Doodle" as Fogg and company sail towards America. The most beautiful track, and the most unforgettable, is the waltz-like tune that is best known as the film's main theme. His ability to mix-and-match original and pre-existing pieces together is a testament of his brillance - check out the "Rule Britannia"-"Yankee Doodle" duet and the expansion of the "An American In Paris" segment into a cutesy Parisan flavor. Sadly, he won his only Oscar for this film posthumously. He clearly deserved more.
There are countless adaptations of Jules Verne's novel, each has presented its own Philius Fogg. But none can match David Niven's version. Niven is as detailed-oriented as the character he plays. The manner in which Fogg speaks to Passepartout, the way he swings his umbrella, how he responds to hostility, his gentlemanly restraint from showing emotions, his demeanor, attitude, expression and speech; every aspect of the character is impeccably defined. It is impossible to imagine someone else playing Fogg as so written and pull it off as well as Niven. Niven is Fogg, in the same way Christopher Reeve is Superman and Ben Kingsley is Gandhi.
Although Fogg is the most important character, the star is Cantinflas as Passepartout. He is the center of most of the drama. The stopover in Spain allows the Mexican icon to 'host' an impressive flamanco performance from Jose Greco and his troupe, as well as his own footwork and subsequent bullfight (to the spectator's chorus of "Ole!"). He has solo scenes in India - antagonizing a cow and being chased by a mob - Japan - finding his way around Yokohama and interacting with the statue of Buddha (the 'pounding' music emphasize Buddha's influence on him) - America - being captured by Indians. Cantinflas' perculiar comedic style shapes Passepartout into his own.
Newton is a terrific Inspector Fix. He is conniving and charmingly devious just from the look of his eyes. Fix is the driving force of the film's sub-plot: the pursuit of the Bank of England robber, which he suspects Fogg to be. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as Aouda, a role that she still feels that she was miscasted in. What is important in a performance is believability, and she is believable.
The cameos are an impressive ensemble of famed thespians and celebrity faces (see "Companion Guide" section for a complete list). Some of them are instantly recognizable, such as Peter Lorre as the Japanese steward (his voice is a big giveaway), Frank Sinatra as the saloon pianist, Marlene Dietrich as the saloon hostess (unforgettable face), and Cesar Romero in turban and cape as Achmed Abdullah's henchman. John Carradine gives an over-the-top cameo as Colonel Proctor Stamp, who tries to antagonize Fogg during his America travel. Jose Greco delivers a stunning number as the solo flamanco dancer. Other good cameos include Robert Morley as Reform Club member Ralph who is also a representative of the recently robbed Bank of England, and Victor McLaglen as the helmsman of the 'Henrietta'.
And what of those beautiful panoramic shots. The cinematography is breathtaking. Whether it is the giddy feeling of being in a hot-air balloon, the awe of the France's landscapes - Cathedral of Notre Dame, Garden of the Tulieries, et. al. - the balloon flies over, the fields of India that the train passes through, or the sights of the great America country - its mountains, running buffaloes or a horde of Indians - each in its glory is captured in celluloid. Even though Fogg and Passepartout never traveled in one in Verne's novel, the 'hot-air balloon' sequence has become the central image of the novel, as well as the film.
This 188-minute adventure (less 10 minutes if excluding the 6-minute documentary prologue and the 4-minute entracte) is not only rich in production quality and casting, but also an entertaining and delightful film. Such is a rarity among Best Picture winners, many of which scored in production and casting but failed to delight or entertain.
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