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Warner Home Video presents
"A gentleman never jokes about a wager, sir!"
DVD ReviewDuring the 1950s, there was a definite trend for mistaking the spectacle and extravaganza for good filmmaking. That is really the only explanation one can find for the massive number of honors placed on this moderately entertaining, though undeniably ambitious, roadshow attraction.
In 1872, utterly precise Englishman Phileas Fogg (David Niven), noting the advances in transportation, accepts a wager that he can travel entirely around the world in the space of 80 days. Accompanied only by his new manservant, Passepartout (Mexican comedian Cantinflas), Fogg uses a variety of novel modes of transportation to make his way through the less civilized areas of the world. Complicating matters is a contemporaneous robbery of the Bank of England, and Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) decides that Fogg's suspicious behavior indicates that he may be the culprit. The race against time is thus made more difficult by Fix's machinations to delay or capture Fogg.
The auteur theory that credits the director as the prime moving force behind a film occasionally runs up against striking exceptions in the form of strong-willed producers, such as David O. Selznick. Another such example is Michael Todd, whose name is securely affixed to this picture (his first and only film) not only from its use of the Todd-AO widescreen projection system, but from his absolute control over nearly every aspect of this production. Michael Anderson, who hadn't done much before being named to take over this already troubled production, is named as director, but it's a pretty thin credit. Every bit of documentation provided here makes it clear that Todd was pulling each and every string and Anderson seems to have just been someone to sit in the chair. A veteran Broadway showman, Todd was astute when it came to promotion and spectacle, but his lack of interest in subtlety and shading of character helps make this picture a caricature of a movie.
Niven isn't required to stretch his talents very much here at all; Fogg is entirely one-note until a sudden change of character in the finale that really comes out of nowhere. Newton's Javert-like Fix is similarly one-dimensional; he's intended to be an obstruction and that's about all that we see of him. Cantinflas is given quite a few opportunities to exercise his art, and the crew and screenplay wisely get out of the way and let him do his Chaplinesque routines. Much of his business is quite unrelated to Verne's novel, such as a lengthy bullfight segment, but he gives the film a good deal of its much-needed humor. Despite the furor over casting a Mexican as the Frenchman Passepartout, Cantinflas is one of the best things about the picture. Even though I generally despise Shirley MacLaine, she turns in a reasonably good performance as the Indian princess Aouda, rescued from the suttee pyre by Passepartout's ingenuity, though some contact lenses to disguise her blue eyes probably would have been a good idea.
One of the factors that gives the picture its notoriety is the multitude of cameos; indeed, producer Michael Todd is credited with coining the phrase "cameo role." Over 40 famous faces make an appearance, ranging in duration from a brief glimpse (Frank Sinatra) to extended sequences (Marlene Dietrich). One of the best is what seems to be an improv food fight between Cantinflas and Red Skelton. One can't help but end up paying more attention to the famous faces who pop up than the admittedly thin story. Nonetheless, the last hour or so does have some very effective suspense elements, both in the crossing of the Atlantic as Fogg feeds the entire boat into its furnace, and Fix's final efforts to hinder Fogg. These segments, ones that seem to stick the closest to Verne, still hold up quite well. But all too often Todd seems content to engage in travelogue footage. Although it's certainly linked thematically to the story proper, it causes everything to crash to a halt whenever the second unit (or worse, stock footage) shows up.
Most of the roadshow version is restored here, including the deathly dull prologue featuring Edward R. Murrow, the Intermission, Entr'Acte and Exit Music. The IMDb gives a total running time of 188 minutes, so if this is correct, apparently about five minutes is yet missing from the entire picture, but I have no idea what's still errant. This is the first release on home video ever of this much material in a widescreen format.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C
Image Transfer Review: The Todd-AO picture is generally very attractive, though it was intended to be shown on sharply curved screens. The anamorphic widescreen picture hasn't been rectified for our flat screens, so there is a definite warping of the image at the sides that some may find distracting. But the color is vivid and attractive and black levels are very nice. An occasional flicker can be seen in shots that include the sky. Edge enhancement and artifacting are nominal only. The picture is crisp and clean, without any significant problems with the source material.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: This picture was originally released with six-track audio, so this modern 5.1 remix isn't all that far away from the original theatrical experience. There's some modest hiss and noice, but it's quite acceptable overall for its age. Victor Young's score has decent depth and range and isn't shrill or unpleasant at all.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 50 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Brian Sibley
Layers Switch: 00h:56:36s/00h:34m:50s
The first film adaptation of Jules Verne, Georges Méliès' Trip to the Moon (seen in the prologue) is included here in the same form as it appears on David Shepard's The Movies Begin set, complete with the faux-French narrator. About 15 minutes of outtakes, sans sound, are provided set to Young's score, but they're only in nonanamorphic widescreen format. A programmed stills gallery contained dozens of black-and-white and faded color stills, while those with DVD-ROM capabilities will be given access to a 72-page book, Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days Almanac, which includes a good deal of information, including a list of everyone, counting extras, who worked on the picture.
Two lengthy documentaries provide a substantial background to both Todd and his film. Around the World of Mike Todd (1968) (50m:29s), hosted by Orson Welles, includes interviews with many of those closest to Todd, with sizable contributions by Elizabeth Taylor (who otherwise remains quite missing from this set), Gypsy Rose Lee, and Ethel Merman. A fair amount of behind-the-scenes footage makes its way into this program. A sense of how beloved the feature was in its day is given by the fact that the esteemed showcase, Playhouse 90, devoted an entire program to the party Todd threw to celebrate one year from the premiere of the film. Wildly out of control, with a 14-foot tall cake and 18,000 guests—not to mention the sight of Sir Cedric Hardwicke riding (and falling off) an elephant—it's quite loopy in its own right. Never let it be said Todd couldn't laugh at himself, though, because some taped bits included in this program depict him as his notorious reputation demanded, with a particularly funny bit with James Mason, as Todd decides to abandon War and Peace for Around the World, demonstrating in the process he's never read either one and has only the dimmest idea what each is about.
Several dispensable featurettes cover footage from the LA premiere, the 1956 Oscars, and the publicity travels engaged in. Two trailers, one from 1956 and another from 1983, are presented, though the 1956 one is clearly from well along in the release, since it refers to 25 million people having already seen it. An earlier version of the trailer, if one still exists, would have been nice. Also MIA is the deleted first version of the prologue, though it's referenced both in the documentaries and in the commentary. If it doesn't exist any more, it would be nice if Sibley would so indicate. But otherwise there's nothing else I can imagine wanting in this comprehensive set.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsAlthough not by any means deserving of the plaudits heaped upon it nearly fifty years ago, it's a passable time-waster that undeniably wastes a lot of time. The transfer's very nice and for those who love the movie there are an enormous array of extras.
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