Before Saul Bass, a film’s opening credits were something to get done with as fast as possible (yes, and now the closing credits seem to go on forever). But Bass changed that in the 1950s. Using animation, slow motion, soft focus, and every trick in the printer, he made those credits fun, or exciting, or both.
This series has allowed me to revisit two movies I loved from my youth, Around the World in 80 Days and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. These were both comedies, but they were also big-budget roadshow spectaculars, shot and originally presented in large formats, with overtures and intermissions. Each, in their full version, ran over three hours (most roadshows were shortened after a few months).
Each film is filled with cameos (bit parts played by famous actors). Buster Keaton pops up in both pictures. When I first saw them, I vaguely knew who he was.
And seeing them again, I found both disappointing.
Around the World in 80 Days
The Best Picture Oscar winner of 1956 is a moderately well-made 90-minute comedy, stretched out to three hours. When it works, it’s entertaining, but when it isn’t, you find yourself noticing that almost everything in this “trip around the world” was shot on soundstages. The filmmakers don’t even try to make those stages look real; most of the rooms look like they’re just painted.
A large part of the fun is the familiar faces throughout. Along with Keaton, you get glimpses of Joe E. Brown, John Carradine, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, and Beatrice Lillie. Frank Sinatra’s cameo is just there to show us that it really is Sinatra. Edward R. Murrow narrates the prologue.
By the way, there’s no balloon in Jules Vernes’ original novel
What about the leads? David Niven seems to be having fun as a comic exaggeration of the ultimate British gentleman. The Mexican comedian Cantinflas is funny and lovable as his sidekick (I wish we could see more of his films in the states). Shirley MacLaine is miscast as an Indian princess (yes, the film is occasionally racist). As he did in Olivier’s Henry V, Robert Newton proves that he couldn’t act, but he sure could overact.
Unlike most of the films in this Saul Bass collection, you won’t see Bass’ work at the beginning. All of the credits, including the title, are at the end of the movie.
I give it a B if you see it on a big screen. Otherwise, a C+.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
This is a bad, bad, bad, bad and occasionally funny movie.
This is what happens when a producer/director who specializes in serious social dramas (Stanley Kramer) decides to make the ultimate physical comedy. The picture starts with an unfunny, lethal car accident, and ends with everyone in the hospital. There are only two likable characters, and they’re not all that likeable. Most of the main characters don’t talk; they just yell. The only real moments of true comedy come from a few of the cameos.
Spencer Tracy gets top billing, followed by such big names of the day as Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters. The cameos include Jim Backus, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Jerry Lewis, and, of course, Keaton.
But I do love Dick Shawn as a whacked-out beach bum.
When I was ten, this was the greatest movie ever made. Today, I give it a D+.
More from Bass
This program contains 16 other films with Saul Bass credits. I particularly liked the credits for these five (I haven’t seen all the movies; just the credits):
- Storm Center
- The Man with the Golden Arm
- The Big Knife
- Anatomy of a Murder
- Walk on the Wild Side