From July 8, 2011 – It can be dangerous to tamper with your past by going back to a movie you loved as a child but haven’t seen since.
When I impulsively pulled “Around the World in 80 Days” off a video store shelf last week, I thought I was in for a nostalgic treat.
The 1956 best picture Oscar winner wasn’t the first movie I ever saw, but because it was such a big deal to see it in a first-run engagement the occasion is burned into my memory.
A huge theater in downtown Chicago.
Reserved seats like at a play.
A glossy souvenir program book.
And then, three hours of Jules Verne’s British hero Phileas Fogg racing around the globe in 80 days to win a bet he made at his men’s club in London.
The movie was presented in Todd-AO — a super wide-screen process pioneered by the picture’s producer Michael Todd, who was also involved with the development of another giant screen process, Cinerama, a few years earlier.
The combination of the humongous screen, the travelogue aspect of location filming all over the world and the lush, booming Victor Young score made “80 Days” more an experience than a movie.
But I held on to my fond memories of being overwhelmed by the movie as a child. Imagine my surprise last week when I found the landmark film to be virtually unwatchable.
1950s and ’60s epics all tend to look bloated now, featuring glacial pacing that was designed to show off expensive location work and mammoth sets.
The long static shots were accepted by audiences who were wowed by the gigantic screen and rich stereophonic sound.
To compete against the fairly recent introduction of TV, Hollywood aped stage conventions with reserved seats, overtures and intermissions, and greatly expanded running times. Pictures like “Ben-Hur” and “Exodus” would play exclusive runs in mammoth downtown theaters, with only two shows a day, and because of this limited booking policy, the first run engagements would often extend to a year or more.
“Around the World in 80 Days” helped to establish a format that would continue to work well for another 15 years. The reserved seat idea would start to collapse after a series of late 1960s disasters including “Star!,” “Paint Your Wagon” and “Camelot” and then vanish as Hollywood opted for the much quicker pay-off of the wider release strategies of the 1970s and ’80s.
The leisurely pace of these epics was built into the way they were originally presented. Watching them now at home, however, they simply seem monstrously padded.
“80 Days” starts with a 10 or 15 minute prologue that would be inconceivable now. Newscaster Edward R. Murrow drones on and on about the wonders of modern travel vs. the period of the Verne story.
For no apparent reason, we are shown lengthy excerpts from the Georges Melies silent film, “A Trip to the Moon” and then newsreel footage of a U.S. rocket launch before we get to the story of Phileas Fogg which is told at a snail’s pace. Todd and his director were so fond of the location footage they brought back from around the world that there are several scenes in which the traveller characters played by David Niven, Cantinflas and Shirley MacLaine (as an Indian princess!) simply stare out the windows of trains and boats and we get minute after minute of the local color passing by.
The movie held me as a curio from the distant past — how was I not bored to tears as a five-year-old? — but as the final credits rolled (they last seven minutes!) I was very happy that they don’t make them like this anymore.