Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Embracing the Melodrama #20: Ship of Fools (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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The 1965 best picture nominee Ship of Fools follows a group of passengers as they take a cruise.  The year is 1933 and the luxury liner, which has just left Mexico, is heading for Nazi Germany.  Both the passengers and the crew represent a microcosm of a world that doesn’t realize it’s on the verge of war.

There’s Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn), a dwarf who has the ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience about all of the fools that have found themselves on this ship.  He alone seems to understand what the future holds.

There’s Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle who spends almost the entire cruise flirting with the crew and other passengers, desperate to recapture her fading youth.  That also seems to be the main goal of Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin), an unsophisticated former baseball player who spends most of the cruise brooding about his failed career.

There’s the Countess (Simone Signoret), a political prisoner who is being transported to an island prison.  She falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner).  The doctor’s dueling scar suggests that he is a member of the old aristocracy and he is literally the film’s only good German.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also in the process of dying from a heart condition.

And then there’s David (George Segal) and his girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley).  David is a frustrated and depressed painter while Jenny is far more determined to enjoy life, which should be pretty easy because the boat is also full of performers and dancers.

Finally, there’s the buffoonish Rieber (Jose Ferrer), a German industrialist whose dinner table talk hints at the horrors that are soon to come.

Ship of Fools is a big, long film in which a large cast of stars deal with big issues in the safest way possible.  In short, it’s a Stanley Kramer film.  As one can tell from watching some of the other films that he directed (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and R.P.M.), Stanley Kramer made films that were often easier to admire than to actually enjoy.  As the critic Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and he retained the sensibility of a producer even after he stared directing.  As such, his films would address issues that were certain to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, he would never run the risk of alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues.  His films would have the type of all-star casts that would, again, bring in an audience but Kramer rarely seemed to give thought as to whether or not an all-star cast would distract from the film’s message.  Finally, unlike the truly great directors, Kramer never really figured out how to tell a story with images.  As a result, his movies were often full of characters whose sole purpose was to explain the film’s themes.

Does that mean that Stanley Kramer never made a good film?  No, not at all.  Judgment at Nuremberg remains powerful and R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Kramer was usually smart enough to work with talented professionals and, as a result, his films were rarely truly bad.  Some of them even have isolated moments of greatness.  It’s just that his films were rarely memorable and truly innovative and, therefore, they are easy for us to dismiss, especially when compared to some of the other films that were being made at the same time.

With all that in mind and for reasons both good and bad, Ship of Fools is perhaps the most Stanley-Kramerish of all the Stanley Kramer films that I’ve seen.  The film was apparently quite acclaimed and popular when it was originally released in 1965 but watched today, it’s an occasionally watchable relic of a bygone age.  How you react to Ship of Fools today will probably depend on whether or not you’re an admirer of any of the actors in large cast.  For the most part, all of them do a good job though you can tell that, as a director, Kramer struggled with how to make their multiple storylines flow naturally into an overall theme.  Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin give the two most entertaining performances and Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderfully hissable villain.  Oddly enough, I find myself most responding to the characters played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley.  I’m not sure why — their storyline is rather predictable.  Maybe it was just because Elizabeth Ashley’s character goes wild and starts dancing at one point.  That’s what I would do if I found myself stuck on a boat with a tortured painted.

(What is especially interesting is that neither Oskar Werner or Simone Signoret are particularly memorable and yet they both received Oscar nominations.  Perhaps 1965 was a weak year for acting.)

In the end, Ship of Fools is a movie that will be best appreciated by those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM and take a special delight in spotting all of the wonderful actors that, though they may no longer be with us, have at least had their talent preserved on film.  Ship of Fools may not be a great film but it does feature Vivien Leigh doing an impromptu and joyful solo dance in a hallway and how can you not appreciate that?

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