Best Picture #29: Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Around the World in 80 Days is a three hour long trip around the world that focuses on the time spent in trains, balloons, ships, elephants, and other modes of transportation, with few minutes dedicated to the actual world as we follow Phileas Fogg, a British gentlemen of the sort daring enough to make a wager for all of his money but still proper enough to remain calm and collected and averse to displaying hardly any character traits. Still, I found the film to be a marvelous bit of old Hollywood escapism. It opens like many films of that brief time period confusingly did, with a respectable looking man in an office telling you exactly what is going to happen, but combining it with clips of Méliès, even that becomes transfixing. As the story begins and the trip around the world occurs, each place is fleeting but a brilliant snippet of fantastical Hollywood sound stage exoticism. Though David Niven’s Fogg is more plot device than character, his manservant, Cantinflas’s Passepartout, is a wonder to behold as he drives everything forward with plenty of humor and physical displays that ground them in each place. All the others they encounter on their way are just as exciting as each location features a new lineup of cameos from such legends as Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, and many, many more. The plot of the film itself is a good adventure story, if occasionally feeling a bit long in the wrong places, but the true pleasure of it lies in how of the time it was and how each set, each shot, and each actor, seems to be there to show just how large a scale a Hollywood production could have. Of course, given the years that have passed since then, it can often feel small by comparison to what can now be done and not a great display of the magnificent spectacle of film, but even at those times, the sense of scale and the ability to be transported are enough to keep it afloat and, given the isolation the world is in now, they can be very compelling things to see and, if nothing else, those Saul Bass end credits are worth sticking around for.

The Real Best Picture:

There were a whole bunch of films that similarly had a massive scale that year and they all come pretty close to deserving it in my opinion but I think I would have to go with Giant as my favorite.

Best Picture Winners

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