Movie impresario Mike Todd’s greatest legacy is the 1956 film adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” The movie was a cultural phenomenon: the title song was inescapable, it was a “must see” for everyone, it dominated the Academy Awards the following year. Todd’s brilliant innovation was that he stuffed the movie with celebrity cameos. Current and past stars showed up in tiny bits and appearances. It was a clever gimmick: in a long, leisurely film, it gave the audience a “Where’s Waldo?” game to play, and the raft of VIPs provided a sense of grandeur and importance. Some of the appearances were inside jokes; some completely gratuitous. The effect, after one has seen, for example, Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra and Edward R. Murrow show up in the same movie, was to wonder, “Who will be next? Donald Duck? Harold McMillan?” (No, but Noel Coward arrived.) It was like a party.
Since the trick worked (ATWIED was a huge hit), the obvious drawbacks of the concept were not considered, prime among them being that focusing attention on actors as actors rather than the roles they are playing risks destroying the crucial suspension of disbelief. The other problem is that playing the star game tempts film-makers into using the gimmick as a substitute for making a good movie.
In fact, an argument could be made that this is what Mike Todd did. Today, it is almost inconceivable that “Around the World in 80 Days” was regarded in its time as a great movie, or that audiences would sit still for it. Personally, I find it nearly unwatchable, and I recognize all of those stars, The average viewer under the age of 80 will not. Mike’s innovation has a limited shelf-life.
Ah, but “Around the World in 80 Days” not as unwatchable today as some of the movies it spawned, not even close. After Todd’s triumph, the idea that having many famous performers in small parts was a formula for a hit took root. It worked sometimes, in cases where the story was an epic or particularly important, as in “How the West Was Won” and “the Longest Day.” It created a fun “Which celebrity will die next?” game in the better disaster movies of the Seventies. However, the legacy of “Around the World In 80 Days” includes several of the worst big budget Hollywood films ever made, with some of the most stellar casts ever.
The first of the worst, and a harbinger of horrors to come, arrived the very next year, when Irwin Allen (later of TV’s “Lost in Space” and Hollywood’s “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” fame) had the crack-brained idea of making a movie out of Henrik Van Loon’s children’s history book, “The Story of Mankind.” Since it had a sweeping title, and since the screenplay was terrible, the movie seemed like a perfect vehicle for Mike Todd’s strategem. Thus a story about a celestial trial in which Mr Scratch, aka The Devil (played by Vincent Price, of course), seeks the death penalty for mankind while the Spirit of Man—I’m not making this up!–played by past-his-prime Ronald Coleman argues for mercy.
The “evidence” is presented in skits and vignettes. The cast wasn’t as stellar as Allen wanted because so many stars read the script and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Most of the celebrities who said yes were on the down slope, but still Allen got, in addition to Colman and Price, Hedy Lamarr, the Marx Brothers, Virginia Mayo, Agnes Moorehead, Peter Lorre, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (as God), Cesar Romero, John Carradine and others. All you have to know is that Harpo played Isaac Newton. The movie isn’t funny or dramatic, it’s just embarrassing.
Perhaps the last of the deformed offspring of Mike Todd’s masterpiece was 1978’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” How anyone thought casting Peter Frampton to star(as “Billy Shears”) in a Beatles-less rock opera dramatization of the iconic Beatles album (that had no story) would be anything but a bomb is beyond me, but Robert Stigwood, in the middle of a streak of terrible movies, went full Mike Todd (you never go full Mike Todd.)
He cast (among others most would no longer recognize) The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb) ,Steve Martin, Frankie Howerd, Donald Pleasence, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, George Burns, Peter Allen,George Benson, Stephen Bishop,Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, Donovan, Dr. John, José Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Heart, Dame Edna, Etta James, Mark Lindsey, Curtis Mayfield, Cousin Brucie, Peter Noone, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett, Anita Pointer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Minnie Riperton, Chita Rivera, Johnny Rivers, Monte Rock III, Seals & Crofts, Sha-Na-Na, Del Shannon, Connie Stevens, Al Stewart, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Gwen Verdon, Margaret Whiting, Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Winter, Wolfman Jack, and Bobby Womack.
“Rotten Tomatoes” rates Stigwood’s debacle as even worse than “The Story of Mankind,” but it’s not; it’s just more offensive in its incompetence and hubris. Speaking of hubris, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees actually said:
“There is no such thing as the Beatles now. They don’t exist as a band and never performed “Sgt Pepper live in any case. When ours comes out, it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed.”
The third Todd-begotten horror is “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood,” which came out to stunned audiences two years earlier. It’s an alleged Hollywood spoof, and like all of these things (as is “Around the World In Eighty Days”) a sort-of comedy directed by someone who has no idea how to direct comedy. In many ways, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” could be on this list: almost all critics hated it (and still do), and it is definitely a film that embraced Todd’s cameo fetish. However, the over-blown Cinerama slapstick comedy is just too good (and since I passed my 14th birthday, I no longer argue that it is good). Compared to the films we’re discussing here, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” looks like “The Battleship Potemkin.”
“Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood,” a botched satire loosely based on the story of silent movie dog star Rin Tin Tin, is a case of a bad screenplay and an incompetent director (who never was allowed to direct another major studio film) that the producers tried to cover for by stuffing their movie with cameos. I cannot begin to describe how unwatchable thfilm is, and trust me, you do NOT want to find out for yourself. Among the stars, many of them waaaay over the hill, that ended up in this monument to ineptitude were, in addition to leading actors Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn, and Art Carney, are Phil Silvers, Ron Leibman, Teri Garr, Ronny Graham, Dorothy Lamour, Joan Blondell, Virginia Mayo, , Henny Youngman, Rory Calhoun, Aldo Ray, Ethel Merman, Nancy Walker, Milton Berle, The Ritz Brothers, WalterPigeon, Rhonda Fleming…oh hell, it’s not worth listing them all. Go to the link if you care; there’s about 50 more.
And yet..and yet!…even this is not the worst of the movies “Around the World In Eighty Days” spawned! Can you guess the worst?