Accent on Living
THIS is perhaps a belated time to come forward with remarks in behalf of Around the World in 80 Days. Even from showings restricted to first-run theaters at fairly stiff prices, in the larger key cities, the film’s gross receipts are well into the millions already. In the New York theater where it opened almost a year ago, it has been showing virtually to capacity all the way, taking in some $37,000 a week. For a long period earlier this year in New York, Around the World was described as “the next hardest ticket in town, second only to My Fair Lady,” which is not bad going for a motion picture in a theater, in these days of TV. So, I offer a short report on the most delightful three hours I have spent in a theater in many a day.
Nothing in the comments of my friends who had seen it gave me the least preparation for the film as I eventually found it. Years ago, when Charles Gilpin was playing the title role of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, a supposedly normal adult described it to me as “a play about a Pullman porter.” Similarly, I was told that Around the World was “a travelogue, only wonderful,” “a burlesque of old-time Hollywood comedies,” with a cast “full of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, and all sorts of others.”
There was some grain of truth in all these statements, but what I found for myself was a good, solid melodrama with great pace and tension, loaded with high comedy, including a succession of beautiful effects such as one rarely encounters anywhere, astute casting, and faultless acting. There was a hero, a villain, and a female in distress, and I believed every word of it.
As to the dazzling list of celebrities in the cast, it was not merely amusing to discover, unexpectedly, Beatrice Lillie in the role of an overzealous Salvation Army lassie; the point was that Beatrice Lillie, actress, becomes a better overzealous Salvation Army lassie than one could envision from any other performer. Who else could register at the same time an expression combining equal parts of Christian charity and intense hatred? Marlene Dietrich is stunning and convincing as the proprietress of a Barbary Coast dance hall — so much so that it makes no difference whether or not one knows who she is, although it was fun to recognize her.
The effect of meeting dozens of outstanding personalities, as they came and went in truly tiny parts, was twofold: to find one of them in such a part seemed almost a private joke between the player and the audience, and their wonderful competence gave an air of great lavishness to the whole production.
It may be odd to characterize any production of Michael Todd’s as benefiting from understatement, yet understatement is among the film’s strongest appeals, and the S. J. Perelman script is a model of taste and wit in this respect. It is surely a lavish bit of understatement to present Buster Keaton in a half-minute appearance as the conductor of a train, and the comic line with which Perelman endows him on this occasion is worth listening for. There is, in fact, surprisingly little talking in the film; its best comedy lies in situations rather than words and results from brilliant directing and the incomparable services of the Mexican Cantinflas.
Around the World in SO Days is the first American production in which Cantinflas appears, and how Hollywood failed to attract him long before this is puzzling. It is true that comedy has languished in Hollywood ever since the great days of the silent films, and it may be that Cantinflas, by reason of his immense success in Around the World, could be procured to put it back on its feet. One thing is certain: the film’s earnings are likely to dispel Hollywood’s belief that comedy does not pay. What passes for comedy in Hollywood very likely does not pay , but the PerelmanCantinflas-David Niven combination produces a different sort of comedy altogether: it’s funny.
Among so many comic episodes it is hard to assert the best, yet the pantomime between Cantinflas and a drunk at a free-lunch counter seemed to fetch everyone: the drunk graciously offers Cantinflas, who is broke, a hard-boiled egg, and Cantinflas responds in the most courtly way imaginable by tendering the drunk a small pickle.
One hears complaints that Around the World is too noisy, but its noisiest intervals seemed to authenticate the situation and the locale in each case. The band marching through a London street with a detachment of the Brigade of Guards is probably the loudest band ever to reach the screen, and the San Francisco election parade is sheer bedlam, but these are hardly the occasions for muted instruments and they reach the audience with a tremendous wallop. The musical score, incidentally, is charming and nostalgic, especially in the French and English episodes.
In so magnificently mounted a production, it was odd to find Phileas Fogg traveling as he did on two occasions in entirely unconvincing ships. We were airily given a glimpse of the rigging and yards of a big sailing vessel — possibly Nelson’s Victory — to impress us with the complexity of travel under sail, but the ship next shown to us in reality proved to be slatting about with what looked like a couple of bedsheets hung on curtain poles, and with no trace of the lofty spars we had just seen. But this is a minor point to make against so constantly entertaining a film, so abounding in beautiful sights and amusing ideas. The Spanish scenes alone, with José Greco and Cantinflas, are worth the price of a ticket. In its present form the film requires special projection equipment, and this may reduce the number of theaters where it can be shown; otherwise one might reasonably predict that its earnings will eventually out rank those of the greatest box-office success thus far, Gone with the Wind.