Saturday, 13 August 2016

Walt's Era - Part 5: The New Disney Emerges, Part 1 (1950-1952)

From the crucible of war, Disney reemerged in the Fifties, expanding and innovating on who they were as a company. Cinderella put them back in the animated feature film business, Seal Island was such a success that they began pairing a new True-Life Adventure with each feature release, they created the Wonderland Music Company to handle their own music publication, and Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart primed them to enter the field of live-action feature films. They also pushed forward in another direction that had most film studios running for the hills: television.

On Christmas Day, 1950, Disney celebrated its grand return with One Hour in Wonderland. This pseudo-pilot for the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series to come brought back the paradigm of the Disney "behind the scenes" originated in The Reluctant Dragon, but in a form that audiences didn't have to pay a movie ticket to see. Walt was able to leverage his studio's assets - namely clips from Snow White and Song of the South, a Mickey and a Pluto cartoon, and a song from the Firehouse Five Plus Two - into what was essentially an advertisement for Alice in Wonderland that was entertaining in its own right. In so doing, he subliminally elevated his upcoming film to the same status as two of his biggest film successes. With One Hour in Wonderland, Walt ingeniously figured out how to make this new medium of television work for him, instead of against him. The idea was repeated in 1951 for The Walt Disney Christmas Show, reassembling the cast to promote Peter Pan.

There was also something else brewing behind the real scenes, away from the prying eyes of the public. In late 1952, Walt reassigned some of his most creative staff members into a shadowy new unit dubbed WED Enterprises.

In Beaver Valley
July 19, 1950
32 minutes

In Beaver Valley marks the second True-Life Adventure short and the first in Disney's clear A/B-movie pair. It was the B-movie preceding Treasure Island, and though it doesn't mesh well with the content of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of seafaring adventure, it makes an entertaining nature documentary.

The True-Life series is finding its strengths and Winston Hibler is finding his more even, less affected voice, making a more satisfying film than Seal Island. Deep in the heart of the American Rocky Mountains - filmed somewhere in Montana, and I'm sure there are a few shots in Glacier National Park specifically - is a secluded valley shaped by the industrious activity of the North American beaver. We see a lot of the life of this adorable rodent (one of my favourite animals, in fact) and its ability to transform the landscape around it. Wildlife photographer Alfred Milotte also treats us to the broader world around the beaver, showing peregrine falcons, white-tail deer, moose, salmon fighting their way upstream to the gaping mouth of a black bear, otters, and other denizens of the American Rockies. There are a few errors (like many people, Hibler can't tell the difference between a golden-mantled ground squirrel and a chipmunk), but overall, In Beaver Valley is a great short feature that still holds up.

Treasure Island
July 29, 1950
96 minutes

After a couple dry runs, Disney finally set about to produce their first fully live-action feature film. Funds tied up in England after the Second World War were put to use at Denham Film Studios, employing their space and expertise in delivering a larger scale adventure story than Song of the South or So Dear to My Heart. Bryon Haskin directs one of the great pirate stories of all time, arguably Disney's second greatest after the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and the most beloved version of it.

A slightly older Bobby Driscoll pops up again as Jim Hawkins, supported by a decent enough cast. Robert Newton is the one who steals the show as the irascible Long John Silver, single-handedly inventing the popular conception of pirates, at least until they became mascara-dripping rock stars. Like a good scallywag, Silver is a foil to Jim Hawkins' story, which keeps him entertaining. A lesson later Disney pirate movies could have taken to heart was that a roguish pirate is not in himself an interesting character. He can be charming, entertaining, funny, etc. but not especially interesting. Would Treasure Island have been a better movie if it was about Long John Silver, following his story and his character development? Not really. He's only a curious character through the eyes of Jim Hawkins, seeing how he transforms in Hawkins' eyes and through his relationship with Hawkins. It's probably not surprising that Haskin and Newton reprised the character in an independently made pseudo-sequel Long John Silver (1954) and follow-up 26-episode series The Adventures of Long John Silver (1954-55), and that their attempt was unsuccessful.

Cinematography and direction on Treasure Island are adequate... Not excellent, but certainly well enough. The footage shot on location aboard a tall ship and Bristol's docks have a nice breadth to them. The eponymous island is shrunk down to size and there are a few scenes where the fabric ripples on the sky are clearly visible. Peter Ellenshaw works magic on his first movie for Disney, providing evocative matte paintings to give scope to soundstage contortions. His work on this and subsequent films gives Disney's live-action movies a painterly quality that still imparts the feeling of an animated background.

Treasure Island was a success right out of the gate, and for good reason. I don't think it is quite as good as some of the films to come, but it is still one of the live-action Disney classics. It is muted (which might have as much to do with the quality of light in England as anything of human origin) but Newton more than livens it up. It also nicely sets the stage for Disney's move beyond domestic-scaled live-action films into grand adventures.

Nature's Half Acre
July 28, 1951
33 minutes

Dubbed "more amazing than Seal Island or Beaver Valley," Nature's Half Acre foregoes the spectacle of the larger, more charismatic animals of an ecosystem to peer down the magnifying glass of one's own backyard. Winston Hibler sets up how "nature's half acre" is really anywhere: a field, an abandoned corner of an orchard, a backyard... Anywhere that a person cares to go looking. And in that half acre is the beautiful, grotesque, and often violent world of birds and insects.

Nature's Half Acre is an interesting departure from the previous True-Life Adventures and shows the durability and variety that is possible with this new thing Disney was inventing called the "wildlife documentary." It didn't always have to be epic in scope, and by looking at what is close to home, they also inspire the viewer to pay more attention to what is around them.

It's also, by accident or design, a fine little accompaniment to Alice in Wonderland, since Alice spends so much of her time in among flowers and caterpillars!

Alice in Wonderland
July 28, 1951
75 minutes

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a notoriously difficult story to adapt, mainly because it doesn't really have a plot. It is a string of nonsense things that happen to little Alice, with snippets of Lear-like verse, social commentary, common sayings, children's games, and so forth. When Paramount Studios made a star-studded film in 1933, it was panned by Variety: "A viewing of this feature brings to the fore the fact that a screen story, as one of its first essentials, has to have a definite progress - a parade of events that dovetail and carry the interest along.  A series of scattered, unrelated incidents definitely won't do to hold interest for an hour and a quarter."

This put Walt off of making it for a few years, but he was prepared to try again by 1939. The careful viewer will see references to it (and Peter Pan) in both Pinocchio and The Reluctant Dragon. Then World War II put it off again. As the Fifties dawned, the time was ripe for a successful attempt. Successful artistically, that is. For audiences and critics alike, it was a dud that Walt somewhat regretted having made.

The two problems that any version of Alice in Wonderland have is that there is no story and no heart. It's just a bunch of things that happen to a very matter-of-fact child. G.K. Chesterton observed that "Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels... The problem of the fairy tale is-what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world?" (By contrast "Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming... The problem of the modern novel is-what will a madman do with a dull world?") Alice is perfectly fine, and therefore not in herself very interesting or warm. She moves through incidents without a whiff of rhyme or reason, much like a dream, and while that is a story weakness it is also the charm of the book. Through Alice's encounters we meet the array of delightful characters who have become literary and popular classics: the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and the White Rabbit. Chesterton also observed that madness can only look romantic from the outside, to sane people. From within, it is quite prosaic.

Animation is suited better than any other medium to catch the dream logic of Alice's adventure, and to make Wonderland truly wonderful. Mary Blair once again works overtime lending her designs and colour palate to flesh out this madhouse. The characters are slightly rounded off and sanded down, Disneyfied, but no fundamental injustice is done to them. They still stand head and shoulders above the parts of the film that were inserted by Disney. When Alice is lost in Tulgey Wood, we see frogs and birds made of instruments and housewares because "ISN'T THAT WEIRD YOU GUYS!! LOOK HOW ZANY THAT IS!"

Disney managed to resist the most common and offensive form of "Americanization" that one sees thrust upon Alice, which is the attempt to make it into some kind of action-packed, heart-felt story. Between watching the film and writing this review, I was reading about how Eisner's Disney attempted to buy Doctor Who from the BBC, which could only have ruined the very Englishness that makes the series so good. This urge to fit it into Hollywood's schematic was the biggest failing of Tim Burton's crack at it, as well as Once Upon a Time's. Wonderland is manifestly not the setting of an epic Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It's a wry little book of English nonsense, and needs to stay that way to be at all charming. The 1951 film manages to keep most of that air, which might be why it sputtered in 1951 but later rose to being a cult classic. Unlike the spotty record of the films of the Forties, Disney really does hit its stride with its four theatrical animated films of the Fifties.

Thankfully Walt, bless his heart, was not a man to let things go. Having gone to the trouble of making Alice in Wonderland, he was going to make you like it, damnit! Though the film never had a theatrical re-release until 1974, Walt did televise it, made two theme park attractions out of it, and alluded to it in Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959).

The Olympic Elk
February 13, 1952
27 minutes

The next True-Life Adventure in the series, fronting the 1952 re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is a return to one of the most charismatic animals of North America, in one of the continent's most charismatic settings. Highlighting the value of national parks without directly stating as much, The Olympic Elk begins with a painted landscape of the cities, highways, and shipping routes that encircle Olympic National Park: Seattle, Tacoma, Victoria, Port Angeles, Olympia. Nestled between, impenetrable and imperturbable, are the Olympic Mountains.

This is some of the best footage of any True-Life Adventure thus far. It is difficult to go wrong with the vistas of Olympic National Park. All you need is to point a halfways decent camera in the right direction. It is also difficult to go wrong with as majestic an animal as the elk. From one winter to the next, Winston Hibler takes us along the migration of the elk into the Olympic highlands, where these kingly deer engorge themselves on the richness of the summer alpine meadows. Fantastic footage of hundreds of elk on the hoof is inspiring. We also experience the odd fact that wild animals also have their own personalities. A lingering snowpack inspires some downright silly bounding, bouncing joie de vivre.

Up to now, True-Life Adventures have tried to approximate the sounds of native wildlife in the studio. Cameras were not yet sophisticated enough to capture the real thing. Most of the time, its pretty obvious. I don't know if they actually managed to capture it or just do an exceptionally good imitation, but I was struck that when they finally showcased the elk's distinctive, bloodcurdling shriek, it sounded exactly like it. Granted, all one needs to imitate it is a particularly rusty gate, but it was impressive nonetheless. It is not a sound that is easily forgotten.

Water Birds
June 26, 1952
30 minutes

The world of birds is often, shockingly, competitive and violent. Disney's next True-Life short, preceding The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, introduces us to this world as it is experienced by the diversity of fowl who make their living off the water. Different species from across the globe and ecological ranges have their time on celluloid, from high mountains to sunny beaches.

Water Birds demonstrates how well the True-Life Adventures have hit their stride. It tries to mix up the pattern by featuring snapshots of the lives of different species, but that approach loses narrative strength. There is a charming little ballet of the birds for the last 5 minutes or so, but this is the first True-Life Adventure that, I am sad to say, I got somewhat bored with. It wasn't bad, but neither was it especially engaging.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men
June 26, 1952
84 minutes

Robin Hood is one of the most enduring characters in the English language. In minstrel song, written work, or the silver screen, he combines the appeal of the wild man myth with the romance of chivalry and the Middle Ages, and variously the man of high estate fighting for justice or the commoner standing up to the corrupt nobility. It is a story so perfectly suited to Disney that they adapted it twice: once as their second live-action film in 1952 and again as an animated film in 1973. Both versions have their good points and their distinct challenges. The 1973 version, for instance, is one of those sprawling, aimless sorts of films that Disney did in the wake of Walt's passing, without his keen eye for paring a story down to its essentials and building an adventuresome story from that. It's entertaining enough, for a film that never really goes anywhere.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men has some of the same faults as its preceding film, Treasure Island. Also shot at Denham Studios, it doesn't have Hollywood slickness behind it. Much larger sets and deft matte work by Peter Ellenshaw impart a grandness of scale lacking in Treasure Island. Ken Annakin doesn't over-exert himself in his Disney directorial debut, but over his career and the next batch of films he would do for Disney and others, he never really goes in for anything fancy. As retellings of one of England's foundational myths, it is better than many.

The problem with any version of Robin Hood is that the character is really better known as an archetype than as a story. There are certain episodes that a Robin Hood story needs to have - the quarterstaff battle with Little John, the archery competition - but he is mostly known by the static elements that make up the archetype. You have Robin Hood and his Merrie Men in Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, locked in eternal combat with Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Most versions are prone to giving him a story with a beginning and an ending, and this is no different. While I did criticize the 1973 version, it actually comes the closest to engaging with that fixed archetype.

Comic writer Alan Moore once said that "All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave." I'm inclined to disagree with him. Timeless heroes tend most to be a fixed archetype. Yes the story of King Arthur has a definite beginning and ending, but most people conceive of him in stasis between those points. The 1919 pulp which introduced Zorro, The Curse of Capistrano, also ended his career. Nevertheless, he rides eternally through Spanish California, righting wrongs and vandalizing walls, doors, etc. Superheroes remain in perpetual stasis. Disney would encounter this problem a few years from now, when it calmly killed off the historical Davy Crockett at the Alamo, only to reinvent him the following year as an archetypal American myth. Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill both walked off into the sunset, and they're reportedly still out there somewhere.

All this is to say that Robin Hood would probably be best served in an episodic series rather than a feature film. For what this one has, it's done well. Richard Todd is dashing and irreverent as Robin, Joan Rice is glamorous as Marian, the Merrie Men are actually merry, Will Scarlet is fine in his red tunic, and Alan-a-Dale sings his way through as a good minstrel should. It's not Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, but what is? It's not even Kevin Costner, but at least everyone has authentic British accents! That this is a thoroughly British production, even under Walt's name, gives it a certain charm as well.

What is also charming is that this is one of the closest instances of Walt adapting an actual fairy tale to live-action. Most of his live-action films previously and henceforth are musicals or adventures set in the 19th century or contemporary America.  


  1. I actually quite like the animated Alice in Wonderland. The screenwriters managed to give it a narrative through-line and even some character growth for Alice without violating the spirit of the book. And it's certainly prefer to Burton's, American McGee's, or any of the other "edgy" adaptations.

    1. Oh my God yes, I hate 2edgy4you reinterpretations of fairy tales. There's been this meme going around Facebook that is objecting to this by reinterpreting edgy adult shows as children's fantasies... Game of Thrones is really a Dungeons and Dragons game with the worst DM ever.

      The older I get, the more I appreciate the innocent as being, in a sense, more honest. Teenagers pretend to be adults by being edgy, but when you're an adult, there is more to life than being edgy and sexy and violent and stuff. That all comes off as rather childish. I've been looking for things with more emotional honesty, which oddly includes fairy tales.

      To quote Chesterton, as I am wont to do: "All who are adherents of romanticism (as I am) have it for their first and fixed and central principle that romance is more serious than realism. We say that romance is the grave and authoritative and responsible thing; the permanent religion of mankind. We say that studies from life and human documents are more frivolous and fugitive than great and enduring decorative art. Realism, we say, is life seen as somebody sees it. Romance is life felt as somebody feels it."

    2. "Edgy" seems to be mostly a Gen-X thing. I suppose my age (born in 1977) qualifies me as a Gen-Xer, but I find the Millennial zeitgeist far more palatable. The archetypal Gen-Xer uses cynicism as a defense against a world full of negatives they are powerless to change; the archetypal Millennial seeks to be the change they want to see in the world, even at the risk of getting hurt.

      And then there are the Baby Boomers, who created the problems to begin with. (Okay, not really.)

    3. I was born at the tail end of 1977... I think I'm right on the line between Gen-X and Gen-Y. But I was raised by my father who was born in 1932, so I was instilled with a lot of pre-Baby Boom attitudes and values too. Which is really to say that I don't know where I fit in :)