The “Around The World In 80 Days” Curse, Or How Good Things Can Lead To Bad Results, Cont.: The Worst

I won’t keep you in unnecessary suspense. The worst of the “Around The World In 80 Days” -spawned monstrosities is, by far, 1967’s “Casino Royale,” the most misbegotten movie in history. In fact, it was  finally seeing this film all the way through that inspired the post. I had avoided the film in 1967, because I followed movie reviews scrupulously then and “Casino Royale,” was panned by almost every critic. In the intervening years, I attempted to watch the movie, or parts of it, at least four or five times, in each instance abandoning the effort after 15 minutes or less. Finally, this week, TCM ran it, so I resolved to stick it out.

The movie was even worse than I had thought it would be. It is unimaginably incompetent, and I would have said unwatchable, except that I watched it.

BUT the film includes in its cast (among others), David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Joanna Pettet, Woody Allen, Barbara Bouchet, Terence Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, William Holden, Charles Boyer, John Huston, Kurt Kasznar, George Raft, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jacqueline Bisset, Peter O’Toole, Stirling Moss, and Geraldine Chaplin.

What’s so horrible about the film? It was made because the production company had acquired the rights to the single Ian Fleming James Bond novel not sold to the Broccoli group, then in the middle of making the first wave of wildly successful James Bond films starring Sean Connery. Unable to squeeze enough money out of Broccoli to satisfy their greed, and knowing that the public would not accept heroic James Bond who wasn’t named Connery, the Agent/Producer Charles Feldman and his partners resolved to use the title to trash the franchise it couldn’t be a part of. “Casino Royale” is a film version of vandalism. The idea was to make “Casino Royale” into a spoof, and apparently their idea of a spoof was chaos.

At least 10 writers had a hand in the screenplay, including Terry Southern (“Candy”), Ben Hecht (“Front Page,” “Chicago”), Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot”), and Joseph Heller (“Catch 22′). Woody Allen and Peter Sellers wrote their own scenes. The movie had six directors, with John Huston directing his scenes. Whole sections necessary to the plot were never filmed, or they were cut. The movie makes no sense, because making sense was never an objective.

The concept was that British intelligence kept identifying agents as James Bond after the real one (David Niven) was knighted and retired. We meet five other 007’s two of them female, and one “Jimmy Bond,” played by Allen, a mad super villain. It’s not funny.  Like the other movies discussed in Part I, a viewer frequently feels sorry for the performers, especially when they strain to be funny and fail (like Deborah Kerr, using a bad Scottish accent), or look like they wish they were dead (like William Holden, in a demeaning cameo). Peter Sellers, whom we now know was insane, decided that he was going to play his James Bond straight, like a real James Bond, which just makes it look like he’s in a different movie. He also disappeared from the set for long periods, and his section of the plot is never resolved.

Why does Niven play Bond with a stammer? Why does Sellers suddenly impersonate Toulouse Lautrec? Why does Orson Welles, playing Sellers in a baccarat showdown, start performing cheesy magic tricks (like Welles did on The Tonight Show)? Why does the movie suddenly turn into a Woody Allen skit at the very end? What’s going on here?

The movie ends with a super bomb killing everyone, and the whole cast dances around in heaven wearing fake wings and carrying harps as the Tijuana Brass plays the theme song. (The movie has the best score of any bad movie ever.) Amazingly, “Casino Royale” was a hit despite terrible reviews and made money despite an inflated budget. Yes, that’s how popular James Bond was in the mid-Sixties. Justifying “Casino Royale” on this basis is consequentialism. It deserved to be a failure in every way, but was lucky. It wasn’t just a failed artistic work; I could respect that. “Casino Royale” was lazy, assuming that, “Around the World in 80 Days”-style, just a having a bloated cast of stars,  distracting action and a title with cachet is enough to make a good movie. It wasted talent and money that could have been used to make something that wouldn’t be a laughing stock for the ages. The producers realized that they had a James Bond property that would make money at that time even if the resulting film ended up as crap, so they made crap.

All four of the films that tried to follow in the footsteps of “Around the World..” are unpleasant to watch, but only “Casino Royale” makes me angry. At least the other films tried. Ed Wood tried; he was just an idiot, George Stevens, a great director, tried to  make his celebrity cameo-filled story of the life of Christ, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a great epic; he failed, that’s all. There’s nothing shameful in that. “Casino Royale is shameful,

So we learn, from the progeny of  “Around the World in 80 Days” several life lessons, if we pay attention:

  • The fact that an original tactic works in a particular circumstance should not be considered evidence that it will work in all circumstances, or ever again.
  • Gimmicks are not substitutes for substance and quality. They are ways to distract from the absence of them.
  • Some projects succeed despite incompetence and irresponsible conduct. That’s just moral luck. It is not an excuse for being incompetent or irresponsible.

7 thoughts on “The “Around The World In 80 Days” Curse, Or How Good Things Can Lead To Bad Results, Cont.: The Worst

  1. Agreed, although “Towering Inferno” was another loaded-up cast movie that did work, thanks in part to a lot of the actors knowing how to dial back, in part to the cooperation of the SFFD, in part to an excellent musical score, and in part to the excellent talents of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

    • I love TI, but I’m not sure it belongs in the gratuitous cameo category. There really were no cameos, Around the World style. Fred Astaire seemed like a stretch, but he had a substantive part (and, absurdly, even got an Oscar nomination for it.) Dabney Coleman shows up in a small role, but he wasn’t a star then. In a true offspring of Mike Todd movie, the mayor, his wife, the Hispanic bartender, the engineer, Paul Newman’s assistant who is the first victim—they all would have been major stars. Some of the cast size arose because the movie was a mash-up of two films about burning skyscrapers that had already gone into production.

  2. I certainly will not quibble over the poor quality of Casino Royale.

    However, it’s interesting to note that David Niven was Fleming’s initial choice to play Bond. When Dr. No was in preproduction, his dream cast was Niven as Bond and Noel Coward as Dr. No. This film would have been more the end of an era than the beginning of one. (Niven is also the only film star mentioned in the original books — in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as the only decent person in Hollywood).

    Fleming was desperate for a film series, as he knew that was where the money was to be made. Aside from Niven, Fleming floated movie stars as diverse as James Stewart (then 53), James Mason (also 53), Cary Grant (58), and…Susan Hayward (45) for the role of Bond. (In Hayward, he would have changed Bond into a Mata Hari like seductress; an idea not without merit.)

    In the end, it was a happy confluence of incidents that led to the James Bond phenomenon of the Sixties, including toning down the more outlandish elements in the novel Dr. No, to its happy casting of Sean Connery as the world-famous secret agent. However, one wonders what would’ve happened had Fleming had his way: a David Niven/Noel Coward Dr. No would have been a delirious romp; a blood-spattered drawing room comedy with a sense of insouciant fun.

    • I don’t go in for gender swapping for its own sake, but I want to visit the world where we had a 60s film series featuring a fortysomething Jane Bond.

      In the same year as Casino Royale, Susan Hayward was getting her wig snatched in another spectacularly trippy failure with a stacked cast, Valley of the Dolls. She is a stone cold pillar of dignity throughout.

    • Writers are notoriously poor judges of who should play their creations. Niven is physically and temperamentally wrong for Bond, as I suspect he would have decided himself. Supposedly Cary Grant was the first choice to play Bond—he would have been terrific, of course, but was too old to be able to make the sequels after Dr. No. (They also offered him Niven’s part in “Casino Royale”) Rod Taylor was offered the part of 007 before Connery—he would also have been excellent—and stupidly turned the role down as beneath him.

      In the Sixties and Seventies, David Niven made more horrible movies than any actor of his stature, some so bad you never see them anywhere, and it all started with “Casino Royale.” Watch, if you can, “The Statue,” “The Brain,””Prudence and the Pill,” or “Old Dracula.” (Yes, I saw them all.)

    • My brother and I thought it was hilarious when we were 11ish. I have never revisited it and looking back I have no idea why our dad rented it for us.

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