Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days was the big winner at the 29th Academy Awards. And I do mean BIG. Based on the Jules Verne novel, this is a film that does not subscribe to the theory that “less is more.”

Prim, punctual, Victorian gentleman Phileas Fogg (David Niven) bets his cronies that a man can travel around the world in eighty days. Accompanied by his new manservant, Passepartout (Cantinflas), a rescued Indian Princess (Shirley MacLaine), and pursued by a Scotland Yard detective (Reginald Denny), Fogg and company span the globe.

Producer Michael Todd took Verne’s slight story, then hired three writers to fashion an even slighter screenplay. The result is a bloated, earthbound three-hour travelogue that might have been fun for audiences in the mid-1950s, However, Everytime Fogg checks his watch (which is often), you may find yourself doing the same.

Still, there are pleasures to be found in the film. Celebrity cameos flit across the screen, including John Gielgud, Cesar Romero, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lorre, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Victor McLaglen, Red Skelton, and George Raft. And Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, making use of the new Todd-AO process, is excellent, as it should be for a picture like this.

It is up to Victor Young to provide aural interest in the long stretches of scenery viewed from a train or a boat. And he does so with wit, ease, and his typical slick professionalism.

Composing music for multiple locales from London, Paris, and San Francisco, to Spain, India, and Japan, Young’s score is awash with melody, infusing the picture with a desperately-need energy. However, his limitations as a dramatic composer occasionally show, especially in the Western sequences.

For the most part, though, the score is a delight. There is a rousing Spanish bullfight fanfare, a lonely monk choir accompanying the Jpanese sequence, and the strings swirl like prairie dust as the sail car rushes along the Western plain. Passepartout’s theme is charming and non-threatening, with the use of xylophone and a quote from “La Cucaracha” signaling his detours at the sight of a pretty woman.

No matter the pros and cons of Young’s score, there can be no faulting the title tune, one of the most popular melodies of the 1950s. The gentle waltz carries Fogg and Passepartout aloft in the hot air balloon at the beginning of their journey, and the memorable tune soars through the sky with them.

Young incorporated a plethora of borrowed tunes for the score, mostly for comic effect. “Rule Brittania” represents the stiff, uppercrust Fogg and conspicuous use of “Yankee Doodle,” “Shoo Fly,” and Rossini’s William Tell Overture, to name a few, can also be heard. But the pre-existing tunes do not detract from his accomplishment, especially when so cleverly woven into the fabric of the score.

Unfortunately, Young died of a heart attack a month before Around the World in 80 Days premiered in December 1956. Though he was not able to enjoy the film’s astonishing (and inexplicable) success, the score is a fitting tribute to one of Hollywood’s most gifted melodists. His posthumous Oscar is well-deserved.

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