THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (1956)

In 1957, the 29th Academy Awards ceremonies were held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles and the NBC Century Theatre in New York City. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1956 and December 31, 1956 the awards were held on March 26. The Academy introduced a new permanent category for Best Foreign Language Film. Previously, foreign language films had been sporadically recognised with a Special Achievement Award. The first winner of the new category was Federico Fellini’s La strada.

This was the first year where all five Best Picture nominees were colour films, marking the start of a new era of the Academy Awards. It was also the first ceremony to be videotaped for later broadcast, in order to accommodate certain NBC affiliates who could not screen the event live. It was a step that would lead to the end of the dual bi-coastal ceremonies the following year.

For the second time, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo won Best Original Story but was not credited with the victory. His screenplay for The Brave Ones was written under the pseudonym Robert Rich, and the award was accepted by the film’s director Irving Rapper. In 1975, the Academy reissued the statuette with Trumbo’s name, as well as amending their official records to credit him with the win.

Victor Young became the second posthumous Oscar-winner, after he was awarded Best Dramatic or Comedy Score for Around the World in 80 Days. Young had passed away from a brain hemorrhage a few months earlier. The film was the big winner of the evening, with five wins, including Best Picture, from nine nominations. It became the sixth film in history to win Best Picture without any acting nominations. For only the second time, the winners of Best Picture, Director, and all four acting categories were from six different films.

The nominees:
Around the World in 80 Days
Friendly Persuasion
The King and I
The Ten Commandments

The winner:
Around the World in 80 Days

Based on Jules Verne’s classic novel of the same name, Around the World in 80 Days is the epic adventure of one man’s incredible journey around the globe. In 1872, eccentric English aristocrat Phileas Fogg (David Niven) boasts to a group of wealthy businessmen he can circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. Skeptical of his ridiculous claim, the men dare Fogg to attempt his wild claim, and place a £20,000 wager that he will fail at this epic feat. Together with his trusted valet, Passepartout (Catinflas), Fogg accepts the challenge and sets off around the world, visiting everywhere from Paris to Spain to India to the United States. The race is on, but will Fogg make it back in time to win the bet and prove his doubters wrong?

Why did it win?
Well, it was nice while it lasted. After honouring a string of groundbreaking and original films, the Academy fell back into its old ways, and awarded Best Picture to a big, epic blockbuster, overloaded with flashy, extravagant set-pieces, and very little substance. The scope and production of Around the World in 80 Days were immense, and the result is a sprawling adventure which dazzled audiences and critics alike. While its narrative and character development is light, its focus was solely set on showcasing exotic locations around the world, with a global film shoot unlike anything ever produced.

Filmed in just 75 days, and costing a surprisingly low $6 million, the film was shot in 112 locations in 13 countries around the world including England, France, India, Spain, Thailand, and Japan. The cast of extras totalled almost 70,000 people, with 10,000 extras employed for the bullfight sequence in Spain alone. The film also utilised 8,000 animal extras including horses, sheep, buffalo, and elephants. The wardrobe department spent over $400,000 on the costuming, creating over 74,000 pieces in total. And this was all the work of a man who had never produced a film before.

Known for his work as a Broadway producer, Mike Todd was a pioneer of camera technology, helping to develop Cinerama, a widescreen film process that used three film projectors to create a giant composite image on a curved screen. He would then develop his own system, Todd-AO, which only required one projector. Around the World in 80 Days would be the first film to use his new technology. As such, his debut film as a producer was rather groundbreaking, and the response was immense.

Taking in $16 million at the US box-office, and a total of $33 million worldwide, the film was the second-highest grossing film of 1956, beaten only by The Ten Commandments. Audiences rushed to see the film, as the opportunity to see so many exotic locations within one single piece of cinema was enormously appealing. The film received a fairly mixed response from critics. The New York Times hailed it a “sprawling conglomeration of refined English comedy, giant-screen travel panoramics and slam-band Keystone burlesque,” whereas TIME Magazine called it “brassy, extravagant, and long-winded.”

Much like several of their early choices for Best Picture, Around the World in 80 Days was simply too massive a production to ignore. Todd campaigned for his movie relentlessly, and many have insinuated he essentially “bought” the Best Picture victory through his many Hollywood connections. Regardless, it’s clear The Academy felt the film needed to be acknowledged and recognised for the impressive production feat the film represented.

Did it deserve to win?
It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of Around the World in 80 Days. The production could very easily have taken place on a Hollywood backlot, like most films of this era taking place in exotic locations. It would have been cheaper, and, more importantly, much less stressful. One has to admire Todd and director Michael Anderson for choosing to shoot on location, and managing to actually achieve their grand vision for the piece. And it really is a beautiful film to behold. The location cinematography is glorious, capturing each country in spectacular fashion. But at almost three-hours long, it becomes a rather tedious journey.

As we stop at each location, the excitement of Fogg’s race around the world comes to a crashing halt. There is often a bizarrely long amount of time spent in each destination, and it causes the pacing of the narrative to crawl terribly slow. The film ultimately feels more like you’re being dragged around Epcot at Walt Disney World by your parents, being forced to admired every little detail about every single location you visit. There’s even an exhaustively dull Disneyland-esque train ride through the wild plains of America, where we witness herds of animals galloping past and take in the wide-open spaces.

But, just like a theme park ride, each location feels far more like a stylised and stereotypical version of each location, rather than an authentic representation. In a 2017 context, the film is actually rather racist and offensive. Native Americans are portrayed as vicious savages who attempt to hijack the train and burn Passepartout at the stake. I believe we’re meant to cheer when the white men show up on horseback to rescue him, and subsequently straight-up murder them all. In one of the most ridiculous pieces of casting, Shirley MacLaine portrays Aouda, an Indian princess. Yes, you read that right. All-American sweetheart Shirley MacLaine plays an Indian princess. Baffling.

The film is credited with coining the term “cameo appearance,” as it features brief appearances by over 40 big-name stars, including Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, and Marlene Dietrich. As with most cameos, these famous faces do nothing for the narrative, but merely serve as a “hey, look who it is!” moment in the film. Sinatra doesn’t even utter a single word. Part of me thinks it was just Todd showing off how many celebrities he knew and could convince to stop by and do him a favour. Regardless, it was the birth of the cameo and a new Hollywood trademark.

At the end of the day, as impressive as Around the World in 80 Days may be, it’s shallow, pointless, and terribly long. It’s a film you need see once, and never again. The production itself is admirable, and stands as a mighty achievement in spectacle filmmaking, but it’s far from a great piece of cinema. There were better films this year, and this film had no place calling itself the Best Picture.