Mike Todd & Around the World in 80 Days
Michael Todd was a man of many talents. Or, perhaps, he only had one talent: The ability to convince people that there was nothing in the world he couldn't do. Which, for Todd, amounted to the same thing.
He was also a man of many birth dates: June 19 th 1911 according to a birth certificate he obtained from somewhere; June 22 nd 1907 according to his passport and International Motion Picture Directory; June 20 th 1908 according to his brother David, and 1909 or 1910 according to his brother Frank. Pick whichever one you prefer.
And Michael Todd wasn’t his real name either; that was Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen. He sort of ‘borrowed’ the name Michael from his son – who did know his birth date, October 8 th 1929 – after his own father died in 1931. The ‘Todd’ part came from his nickname, ‘toat’ (as a baby, he mispronounced the word ‘coat’ as ‘toat’, and the name stuck).
Todd started working as a child – and never stopped; first, in Minneapolis, as a newsboy, then a fruit seller. As the family moved around; Bloomington, Minnesota and Chicago he earned money as a cornetist, then a carnival pitch-man. At thirteen he was the youngest apprentice pharmacist in Illinois, then a shoe salesman. In Wallingford, he founded a brick-laying college, and at the age of eighteen, in 1927, was president of a construction company with a turnover of $2,000,000 a year – The Atlantic and Pacific Construction Co. The following year he was almost broke. He was also married to a young girl, named Bertha.
Before he was twenty, on a train to Los Angeles, he overheard a conversation about the necessity of soundproofing Hollywood studios now that sound films were being made. By the time he stepped off the train, he was an expert in soundproofing. During his first week in Hollywood he contracted to soundproof two silent stages at Columbia and one at Universal. He was back in the construction business, and as the firm grew, he made friends in the movie business. He became interested in the skills of the technicians behind the films and was amused by the so-called producers who made them. He rarely found one who was original or bright, and they took themselves so seriously. He wondered how anyone without a sense of humour could be successful in the field of mass entertainment. One day, he thought to himself, it might be fun to learn how to make pictures.
But not just yet. Shortly after young Michael was born, America found itself in the grip of the Depression and Avrom’s second empire came crashing down, necessitating a return to Chicago and unemployment. And he began to hustle again. He tried anything and everything – except the regular job that his wife’s family kept pushing him to take; he knew he would be finished if he settled for that. The problem was that he was Mike Todd, now, and Bertha had married Avrom Goldbogen and they had become strangers. He was broke again, but so what? He never looked back, he believed you had to keep moving forward; find a new scheme to sell to the public; he was, really, the ultimate salesman. He created and ran a legal lottery that was based on picking seven winners in randomly selected horse races. He looked at horse racing, then dogs – decided the public needed something similar, but smaller, that might be run indoors, so began to experiment with racing mice. He then moved on to being a bookie – twice – and unsuccessfully both times. One evening, while listening to a not particularly funny episode of an Eddie Cantor radio show – the radio being free - Todd decided he could write funnier stuff than that, so he drifted through the next two years, churning out gags and sketches with very little success.
He had gone to the offices of Variety and was trying to impress Danny Goldberg, the young man who ran that paper’s copyrighting service for vaudeville acts, of the quality of his repertoire, with little success. Exasperated, Goldberg told Todd that he’d have to go because he had an appointment with Dick Hood and John Macmahon at the Century of Progress Exposition – two hours ago! Todd begged to come along and meet the two well-known showmen. The impresarios, who ran the fantastically successful StreetsofParis exhibit, were disconsolate because their star performer, dancer Sally Rand, had just defected to a rival exhibit in the Italian Village.
“Danny”, they said. “If you hear of a big name who can follow Sally…”
Later Todd said, wistfully, “ They’re taking a hundred million bucks a year and I can’t get a buck of it”!
“You’ve only got to find another Sally Rand”, Danny said.
“Nah”, said Todd. “An imitation’s no good – you gotta have an original”
So that’s what he set out to find, and Mike Todd, the Showman, was born. He developed a ‘flame and moth’ dance with a series of pretty and willing young dancers. Wearing a wispy costume, the girl would dance around a flame, getting closer and closer, until the flame burned her costume off, sending her scampering – apparently naked – off the stage. It was as dangerous as it sounds – Todd would later delight in saying, “I burned up four dancers before. I got it right!” - and it was also a huge hit with audiences. Todd added eight showgirls and twenty four chorus girls to his Flame Girl, and called the show BringOnTheDames and took it to the Casino de Paris in New York, and then on to venues in Canada and even Mexico, wherever he could get a booking.
Bertha was not too happy with Todd’s new career, but he was in his element. He toured the show for months and was in the money again. Knowing that you always had to be looking for something new, he decided that one of the most durable stage productions of all time could benefit from an update. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, with the addition of some gorgeous showgirls, spectacular dance routines and new up-tempo jazz score, became The Hot Mikado, and was a Broadway smash in 1939. Many more hit shows followed; Star and Garter; Something for the Boys, with Ethel Merman; Mexican Hayride, with Bobby Clarke; Hamlet, with Maurice Evans; Catherine Was Great, with Mae West, and The Naked Genius, with Joan Blondell, who would become the second Mrs. Todd after Bertha died in 1947. During this period, he would also become involved – along with Orson Welles - with a stage production of Around The World In 80 Days, but he walked away after sinking $40,000 into it.
1947 was also the year that Todd’s gambling habit sent him into involuntary bankruptcy, with liabilities totaling $1,105,616.78. In spite of the scale of his losses, he maintained his extremely comfortable lifestyle, with a home in Westchester County and a lavish penthouse apartment that included seven floors and accommodated a staff of twenty-one. This gave rise to another of Todd’s famous one-liners: “I owed a million and a half, what was I supposed to do – cut down on my cigars?”
He bounced back, as usual, and still more successful shows followed, allowing him to pay back his debts. But gambling would bring him down yet again. By 1950 he would find himself nearly on his uppers again, this time with accusations of fraud thrown in. The press had a field day with his predicament, for which he blamed no one but himself, despite the fact that several of his so-called friends had failed to pay back monies they owed to him, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said nothing and named no one. He just moved on and never looked back.
The Roller Coaster
Joan Blondell had gone (though they remained good friends) and Todd’s first foray into television was grinding to a halt. The Bobby Clarke Show that he had been producing had just been cancelled from the Colgate Comedy Hour and Todd was looking for the next moneymaking scheme. On the radio, he heard the familiar voice of journalist and adventurer, Lowell Thomas describing his son’s return from Tibet and his forthcoming lecture tour and film. Some instinct prompted Todd to book Lowell Thomas Jr. into Madison Square Garden with his illustrated lecture. It went reasonably well, but the 16mm film that Thomas Jr. had brought back was wholly inadequate for the huge arena, and a 35mm blow-up proved to be not much better.
“We need a screen big enough to fill the Garden,” said Todd. His business manager, Frank Smith, told him that he’d heard about some guys experimenting with a big screen, out on Long Island.
Todd and his press agent, Max Gendel, rode out to look at it, and immediately he saw the demonstration film projected onto the huge curved screen – which had been set up in a converted tennis court – he forgot all about the lecture tour. Something stirred deep inside Todd; he felt that he had been waiting his entire life for something like this.
“Potentially, this is the most exciting thing in the history of show business!” he exclaimed. He turned to the inventors, Fred Waller and Hazard Reeves, and begged them to explain how this Cinerama thing worked. They did, and they also explained that they’d been all around Hollywood and the studios didn’t want to know.
“Forget Hollywood,” said Todd. “Let’s talk Cinerama!”
Todd just about managed to extricate himself from his financial problems in order to be able to form, with Lowell Thomas – who also happened to be a client of Frank Smith, Todd’s business manager – The Thomas-Todd Company. There were now three companies involved with Cinerama: Cinerama Inc., Vitarama and Thomas-Todd.
“All we need now is a picture,” said Todd.
The original plan had been for acclaimed documentary maker, Robert Flaherty, to shoot the movie, but he died, almost on the eve of the start of production, leaving the three companies in a quandary, because no one knew what his concept for the film had been. Eventually, after weeks of indecision from his other partners, Todd Grabbed the Cinerama camera and said, ”To hell with this – let’s get this show on the road!” He put the camera in a helicopter and shot Niagara Falls – he shot everything and anything that interested him, because he knew that if he was interested in something, so would the public. He also decided that they needed a big opening – to ‘grab’ the audience, and he liked the monochrome test footage that Waller had shot on the roller coaster at Rockaway’s Playland. His son, Mike Todd Jr. re-shot the sequence in colour (and in two parts, actually, because they were using short ends of film to save money and they ran out of film on the first pass. They reloaded the camera and went around again and Mike Jr. matched the two separate takes – to the frame – making a seamless join in the action).
Todd ran the footage they had shot so far, over and over again, trying to decide what else it needed – and suddenly it came to him: Europe. He reasoned that there must be plenty of stuff over there to shoot that the average American might never have seen before. So, Todd and Mike Jr. set off to film the sights of Europe: The canals of Venice; the Vienna Boys Choir; a performance of Aida at La Scala, Milan (the audience seen in this sequence are not actually watching Aida. After paying for the rights to film the opera, Todd couldn’t afford to pay for extras – especially in evening dress – to provide the audience reaction shots, so he hired a piano virtuoso to give a single performance and simply filmed the audience that came to watch him); the Edinburgh Military Tattoo; the bullfights of Spain. And, at last, they had their film.
But even as This Is Cinerama premiered at the Broadway Theater in New York, on September 10 th 1952, to an audience of 1200 amazed and delighted patrons – it was the only film ever to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, by order of the publisher – Todd was having some misgivings. He was already looking ahead; this film was finished and everyone was happy with the way it was, but Todd was more concerned with what it could be. He had become increasingly aware of the join lines between the three panels that made up the picture, and he felt it would be impossible to achieve intimate scenes with the unwieldy system. ”We can’t stay on that damn roller coaster forever,” he told his associates. “Sooner or later, a boy has to tell a girl ‘I love you’.” The others wanted to go on making the travelogues, but Todd wanted to make shows. He wanted to film Oklahoma! - the biggest show on Broadway.
There was another problem. The financiers discovered that of the three companies involved in the process, Todd-Thomas would be the most profitable. Their solution was to dissolve Todd-Thomas and absorb their assets – Lowell Thomas being its biggest asset – and Todd, well, he would have to go.
Everything out of one hole
Not to be deterred – and here is another of Todd’s legendary one-liners – “Who’s the Einstein of the optical racket?” he wanted to know. ‘Einstein’ turned out to be Dr. Brian O’Brien, who was the director of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, and he’d never heard of Cinerama or Mike Todd. He arranged a meeting with the scientist and described the Cinerama system to him, and then asked, “Doc, I want a Cinerama camera with everything coming out of one hole. Can it be done?”
O’Brien explained that it could be achieved, but that it would require the resources of a major commercial optical firm – and that he couldn’t help him. But Todd wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he bombarded the hapless scientist with phone calls every day, for weeks. Then, as luck would have it, O’Brien was granted a leave of absence from the university to become vice-president in charge of research at the American Optical Company. Todd seized his opportunity and persuaded the company’s elderly president to develop a lens system that would duplicate the effect of Cinerama. O’Brien knew when he was beaten, so he had an associate take a look at Cinerama. Work had begun on the system that would become known as Todd-AO.
[I’m not going to describe the technical aspects of the system here, as I covered them in our Making of the Alamo feature in WSMM No. 2. Comprehensive information on the development of Todd-AO can be found in John Belton’s WidescreenCinema or Michael Wysotsky’s Wide-screen Cinema and Stereophonic Sound. Alternatively, two excellent websites are Thomas Hauerslev’s …In70mm.com and Martin Hart’s American Widescreen Museum]
With his new process under way, Todd set out to secure the property he wanted to film. He managed to persuade Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein to come in with their hit show Oklahoma! – and the shrewd composers negotiated the biggest deal ever for the film rights to a musical show: $1,020,000 and forty per cent of the net profits, and with all rights eventually reverting back to them.
Todd planned to produce and direct the picture, and in doing so, unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own downfall – yet again. Rogers and Hammerstein refused to relinquish artistic control to Todd, and they had secured the backing of the boards of the two companies that had control of the Todd-AO process: The newly formed Todd-AO Corporation and Magna Theater Corporation. The two companies had secured the services of Hollywood’s then hottest director Fred Zinneman, and with Rogers and Hammerstein producing, they didn’t need Todd. Todd may have been an ace promoter, but he was a poor businessman. He was outmaneuvered by the sharper financial brains of his so-called associates, and found himself out in the cold again.
Todd had begun to think that things were going right for him again. He had been ousted from the company that bore his name, but he had moved on, as usual. Never look back.
He had secured an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to co-star in a film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and had persuaded Sir Alexander Korda to sell him the film rights, which he owned.
He arrived at Korda’s office to sign the papers, only to find that the deal was off. Not through any fault of Korda’s, but because Todd was not acceptable to the American financiers.
“I’m truly sorry, my friend,” said Korda.
Todd was stunned; he was speechless, for once. He wandered around Korda’s office in a daze, wondering why everything he touched seemed to fall apart. He saw some scripts on a shelf and picked one up at random.
“How much do want for this?” he said
“Forget it, Mike,” said Korda. “I’ve been trying to lick that one for years. Orson Welles even shot some test footage in Italy and Africa.” He shook his head. “A total loss.”
“How much?” Todd repeated.
“It’s too tough to make, and too expensive.”
“I dropped forty Gs on this project a few years ago and I’m gonna get my dough back!” Todd yelled, banging Korda’s desk with the script for Around The World in Eighty Days.
Todd made a deal with Korda and he was off and running again. He immediately began to assemble the cast and crew who could, and would, make the film exactly according to his concept, which would be unwavering
For a revamped script, he secured the services of one of America’s foremost humourists, S.J. Perelman. He liked Perelman because he never minded when Todd occasionally scrapped a day’s dialogue and re-wrote it Todd-style. They made a good combination.
Next, Todd hired director John Farrow (father of Mia) to bring his vision to life, but after a few days of shooting (he filmed some of the bullfighting scenes), they began to have ‘creative differences’ so Farrow was replaced by a young director from England, Michael Anderson, who had, up to that time, been earning sixty pounds a week.
Todd was determined to have the best, and nothing but the best, for his film, regardless of the cost, and this extended to sets, costumes, props and – stars. He wanted big names on the marquee; classy actors; famous actors – but how to pay for them? He was already scraping together every bit of cash he could find, when he hit on a revolutionary idea. He set about cajoling every big name he knew to take a small part in the film – maybe only a day’s work – for a modest fee. He sweet-talked the women and fast-talked the men, until they agreed – fifty of them: Noel Coward, Frank Sinatra, Mae West, Marlene Deitrich, Ronald Coleman, Trevor Howard, Red Skelton, John Mills, Evelyn Keyes (who was at that time living with Todd), Hermione Gingold, Peter Lorre, Fernandel, Martine Carol – the list went on and on, until there were fifty of them; some of the greatest names in the theatrical and variety entertainment world, all of them beguiled by the master persuader, Todd. When Todd had approached one of Spain’s most famous matadors, Luis Miguel Dominguin, to come out of retirement in order to stage and appear in the bullfight sequence, he agreed after a ten-minute conversation.
“We forgot to mention money,” said Todd, after the agreement was reached.
“How much do you need? “ was millionaire Dominguin’s dazed reply.
Having secured his ‘cameo’ performances, Todd now needed to cast his principals. He would need a special kind of actor for the central role of Phileas Fogg. This character appears in nearly every scene in a film that would have a running time of some three hours. So he needed an actor who could sustain such a long part convincingly, while having scenes stolen from under him by the brief appearances of the guest artists in their respective cameo roles.
When Todd telephoned David Niven (at the instigation of Evelyn Keyes, one of Niven’s old flames – unknown to Todd)) to offer him the role, the actor was at what he considered to be a low point in his career. He had just completed The King’s Thief (1954), a costumed swashbuckler, which was conceived as a romantic vehicle for two of MGM’ s newest young contract stars, Edmund Purdom and Ann Blyth. He had been uncomfortable in a Basil Rathbone-type villainous role as the Duke of Brampton, and was no happier in his next picture, a Mitzi Gaynor romance, The Birds and the Bees (1954), in which he was called upon to deliver his now-familiar performance of embarrassed reticence. For Niven, one of the few pleasant memories of The King’s Thief, was working with then newcomer Roger Moore – they became life-long friends.
Todd was told that he would never be able to secure, at any price, the services of Latin superstar, Cantinflas (Antonio ‘Mario’ Mareno) – one of the richest actors in the world - for the role of Fogg’s manservant, Passepartout. Todd was not to be discouraged. He flew to Mexico, and within a few days, Mareno had agreed to play the role – on a handshake – provided he could portray Passepartout as a Latin, so that to his Latin Ameircan fans he was still Cantinflas!
The Role of Princess Aouda was to have gone to Miss Ceylon, whom Todd had spotted in a recent Miss Universe contest that had taken place in Long Beach. When the overawed and terrified girl was told to report the RKO Studios one Monday morning at 10 AM, she declined, as she had an appointment with hairdresser at that time, and so lost the role of a lifetime. It went instead, to a young Shirley MacLaine, who had been understudying Carol Haney in The Pajama Game. Todd liked her ‘whimsical and pixieish quality’ and thought she would be perfect alongside the other principal actors.
The fourth principal character, that of the obtuse detective, Inspector Fix, proved difficult to cast, until Todd found the perfect actor for the role in Robert Newton. The gifted English actor was eager to play the detective, and told friends, “This is my best part.” Sadly, it would prove to be his last; Newton died one month after he completed filming his part.
Meanwhile, Todd’s financial arrangements for the picture were starting to unravel. He had negotiated a deal with the New York office of Columbia Pictures for them to put up seventy- five per cent of the money, and for them to lend him the remaining twenty-five per cent, with 100,000 of Todd’s Magna shares as collateral – he still had 200,000 of his original 300,000. But Harry Cohn, the head of the studio in Hollywood, would have no part in it, and called the deal off.
“What the hell do you know about making pictures?” he said to Todd. “You never made one in your life. We make the pictures. You stick to your girlie-girlie shows.”
Even Todd’s friend, Alexander Korda, became uneasy and pulled out, selling his ten per cent interest to Todd for $100,000. They were now about half way through the picture, and he was becoming desperate. Todd had poured everything he had, or could beg or borrow, into his movie, and he was rapidly running out of cash. The long western sequence, filmed in Durango, had more or less cleaned him out and he couldn’t meet the $329,000 payroll. Columbia’s New York office arranged to lend Todd the $329,000 provided he would consent to a releasing arrangement with them, which he was happy to do, but again, Cohn stopped the deal, determined to have no part of Todd or his picture.
Finally, on the very brink of disaster – the shutting down of the whole picture – Arthur Krim and Max Youngstein of United Artists, took a look at some of the footage. Also at the showing was Herb Golden of the Bankers Trust, backers of United Artists. They were sufficiently impressed with what they saw to offer Todd a cheque for $500,000 without a definite deal, only the promise to negotiate one. Todd managed to meet the payroll, and shortly after that, Paramount Theaters came in with an additional $750,000
Todd was making motion-picture history with the scale of Around the World in 80 Days. Apart from his fifty stars, 68,894 people from thirteen different countries appeared in the film. The entire population of Chinchon, in Spain, were used in bullfight sequence alone – 4,348 people. There were 112 natural settings and 140 constructed sets, with 2,000 set-ups. They filmed in eleven studios in thirty-two foreign locations and eight in America. Film was transported one and a half million air-freight miles, and four million air-passenger miles were traveled. 680,000 feet of colour 65mm film was shot, and 74,685 costumes were either made or rented. In spite of the globetrotting nature of the production, the bulk of the film was actually shot in Hollywood, utilizing space at RKO-Pathe, RKO, Warner Bros., Columbia and 20 th Century-Fox studios. The latter studio was where the boat sequences were filmed, utilizing the Sersen tank, under the supervision of master special-effects technician, Fred Sersen. Disney’s movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) had made use of the same facility a couple of years earlier.
The handling of the Todd-AO cameras was entrusted to cinematographer Lionel Lindon, who had shot such outstanding features as Going My Way (1944), Destination Moon (1950) and Submarine Command (1952). Described an enterprising craftsman, he was one of the first cameramen to don a diving suit to film underwater sequences, and to step on to an aeroplane wing in order to shoot aerial effects. Todd was so impressed with his work that he offered him contracts for his next two features. Sadly, they were never to be realized.
In spite of the spectacular nature of the photography, there were only a couple of process shots used in the entire movie, and these were in the balloon sequence, as Fogg and Passepartou look out over the Pyrenees. They were shot by animation cameraman, William Williams, who would go on to design and supervise the process shots for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
An unusual feature of the film, for its time, is that there are no credits at the beginning of the movie. Instead, a completely animated title/credit sequence – at a cost similar to that of the average B movie – was designed by the legendary Saul Bass, and placed at the end of the film.
It was also felt that an authoritative narration by distinguished journalist and commentator, Ed Murrow, was required to convince audiences of the reality of the opening sequence, which featured previously top-secret footage of a guided missile arching over the curvature of the Earth’s surface.
By the time Around the World in Eighty Days (the ‘Eighty’ would later be changed to ‘80’) opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on October 17 th 1956, the film had cost Todd $6,000,000. The critics were unanimous: Todd had a tremendous hit. The hustler with just enough education to be able to read box-office grosses had produced a movie that would, according to estimates, make between fifty and a hundred million dollars. It made $23,120, 000 on its initial release alone (a 24fps CinemaScope version was shot simultaneously to provide release prints for theatres unable to project Todd-AO’s 30fps 70mm prints).
It felt good to be right, for once, thought Todd, as he listened to the cheers and applause. He had waited a long, long time, and this was his big night. He would never have a bigger one. He had also brought a new companion with him to witness his triumph. Todd introduced her as Lizzie Schwartzkopf.
But everyone knew it was really Elizabeth Taylor.
Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1956. Against competition like George Steven’s Giant and Roger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I, that was no mean feat. It seemed like Todd could do no wrong. His relationship with Elizabeth Taylor developed into a great passion for both of them, and they married on February 2 nd 1957. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances. Todd began to plan his next project; it would be DonQuixote, and to write the script, he had secured the services of a writer by the name of Art Cohn, who’d had a recent success with The Joker is Wild, about which Todd raved. The pair of them hit it off immediately and Cohn became indispensable to Todd, and even agreed to write his biography, which he had almost completed.
Mike was due to attend a Friars Club dinner at the Waldorf Astoria and had arranged to leave on the Friday evening, March 21 st 1958, aboard his twelve-passenger Lockheed aircraft, the Lucky Liz. Elizabeth was to go with him, while Cohn had a reservation on a nine P.M. United Airlines flight to San Francisco.
Elizabeth developed a temperature of 102, and was unable to accompany her husband, so Cohn cancelled his trip to San Francisco and went with Todd instead – it was an opportunity to discuss the Don Quixote script.
On the Friday morning, the sky was overcast, and a high wind was blowing. By the evening it had become a torrential downpour. Neither Todd nor Cohn wanted to make the trip in those conditions, but neither would consider postponing it; and besides, the pilot said the weather was clear above the storm. The plane took off from Burbank airport at 10:41 P.M.
Some time during the dark, early hours of Saturday 22 nd March 1958, the Lucky Liz plunged from the sky over New Mexico and crashed, killing all on board. As Marta Cohn says, in the epilogue she added to her husband’s biography of Todd: Nothing, nothing on this earth could have kept them from that Appointment.
I have attempted, with this highly condensed version of Todd’s life, to merely give the reader a flavour of this unique and irrepressible figure. For the complete story of Michael Todd, see the Recommended Reading section for full details of Art Cohn’s book.
|Return to the Production Department|
Return to Widescreen Movies Magazine Contents Page
All original material copyright © 2002-2009
John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 19 November, 2009
Site created by FTL Design