AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS was the big winner at the 29th Academy Awards. And I do mean BIG. Producer Michael Todd took Jules Verne’s slight story, then hired three writers to fashion an even slighter screenplay.
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.
With over 40 star cameos from Charles Boyer and Frank Sinatra to Noel Coward and Red Skelton, the result is a bloated, earthbound three-hour travelogue that flies by like years. Every time Fogg checks his watch (which is often), you may find yourself doing the same.
Lionel Lindon’s lovely, Oscar-winning cinematography makes great use of the new Todd-AO process, but it is up to Victor Young to provide aural interest in the long stretches of scenery viewed from a train or a boat. 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 desperately needed energy. However, his limitations as a dramatic composer occasionally show, especially in the Western sequences.
Whatever 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.
Unfortunately, Young died of a heart attack a month before the film 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.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is one of the worst Best Pictures winners in the history of the Academy, right down there with other embarrassing choices like CIMARRON and the odious CRASH. The award should have gone to THE KING AND I or, if excess was the name of the game, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. But the film does end on a high note with a six-minute, animated end title sequence (in lieu of the main titles) that provides a virtual tone poem of Young’s delightful, Oscar-winning score.