Saturday, 10 September 2016

Walt's Era - Part 6: The New Disney Emerges, Part 2 (1953)

Big things were brewing behind the scenes as Disney charted out its new course in the Fifties. Most of it worked out quite well for Disney in the end, though it caused back room friction at the time.

Walt Disney Productions bore the name of Walt Disney, but was not synonymous with him as a business unit. In this year, the company's board of directors signed a deal to licence Walt's name for forty years and give him a personal services contract to the tune of $3000/week (which would be pretty good money now let alone in the Fifties). Walt's own company, WED Enterprises would create the attractions for Disneyland which Walt Disney Productions would then purchase. Three board members resigned over the arrangement, and later in the year, a shareholder would sue Walt and WED Enterprises. Nevertheless, plans for Disneyland were proceeding apace. 160 ares of orchard along the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim were purchased, ready to be leveled. WED began preliminary design work for the park, including the first full rendering by Herb Ryman, drawn over one weekend with Walt looming over his shoulder.

Significantly for Disney's business operations, Buena Vista Distribution was also incorporated this year. RKO Pictures, with whom Disney had a relationship since 1937, had little faith in the first True-Life Adventures feature film. Not one to let small minds deter him, Walt pushed ahead to take distribution of his films back into his own hands. By contractual necessity, a few more Disney films would be distributed by RKO for the next few years, including a series of now-lost themed anthologies of shorts such as New Year's Jamboree, 4th of July Firecrackers, Fall Varieties, Halloween Hilarities, Thanksgiving Day Mirthquakes, Mickey's Birthday Party, and Christmas Jollities (all 1953).

Bear Country
February 5, 1953
33 minutes

It's hard to go wrong with black bears. They're pretty cute, and rolly-polly, and therefore quite photogenic. This True-Life Adventure plays it up against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.

Once again we're back to following one of the North America's charismatic animals through its seasonal round, from winter to winter, through birth, adolescence, and mating. This was much more engaging than Water Birds, but that might only be accounted for by how I love black bears. There isn't really anything more to do with the form of a True-Life Adventure by this point. It has hit stasis. All that seems to really change up is the subject matter, and soon, the length.

Peter Pan
February 5, 1953
76 minutes

Peter Pan is Disney. While the story doesn't have quite the same arrangement of elements as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there is a very real sense in which it encapsulates everything vital about Disney, especially at this period in time. Walt Disney could be Peter Pan himself: the pied piper of youthfulness who beckons us all to his Neverland on film, screen, and theme park. What is Neverland, after all, but the world of a child's imagination, populated by all its preoccupations in pirates, mermaids, "Indians" and "Cannibals"? And what is Disneyland but exactly the same thing? The only thing J.M. Barrie's version lacked was rocket ships. Walt happily supplied those.

Once upon a time, Walt said:
I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty. Call the child 'innocence.'... In my work I try to reach and speak to that innocence, showing it the fun and joy of living; showing it that laughter is healthy; showing it that the human species, although happily ridiculous at times, is still reaching for the stars.
That is the same essential message as Peter Pan... A celebration not simply of children, but childlikeness. Innocence. The fun and joy of living. This emphasis - demonstrated most strongly by Mr. Darling - lead to some of the minute changes from the original story. Barrie had an unsentimental view of children, admiring their innocence while recognizing that "innocence" doesn't always mean "good." A Freudian joke suggests that the only difference between a "kid" and an "id" is the extra letter. One of the most astoundingly bad arguments against the Christian doctrine of Original Sin is that children are born innocent. Children pull the legs off of spiders and the wings off of flies just to see what will happen. Children are a primeval force, sweetly and innocently capable of astonishing cruelty. Peter Pan is the archetype of all children's cthonic currents.

Disney has echoes of that, but he is much more genteel. He does seem to imbue the idea of childhood innocence with moral virtue, reverting to it as a moral imperative. Barrie's book ended with Wendy realizing the necessity of growing up, and doing so. The Lost Boys realized it too, and joined the Darling household. Disney subverts this. The Lost Boys "weren't ready" quite yet, and Mr. Darling has an about face on the idea of Wendy shuffling off to her own room. Don't grow up, not quite yet, stay a child for as long as you can.

Disney's reputation for lacking subtlety is not entirely undeserved. Remember that he didn't even "get" The Wind in the Willows: a charming, nuanced story filled with subtle emotions which he characterized as just a corny bunch of talking animals. A similar thing happened to Bambi, which I grant was partly the problem of translating a highly literary book to film. It might have been that Walt just didn't notice that Barrie presents children in all their sweetness and all their terror. Or maybe he did and chose not to highlight it for sentimental or ideological reasons. Or, like much of Disney's output, he did a better business in nostalgia and reassurance than in unflinching, nuanced portrayals of childhood. Recognizing children's inherent capacity for innocent cruelty could raise questions about human nature that a society beaming with optimism (and terrified about The Bomb) would rather not consider.

That slight twist is not enough to break the charm of the story. With the exception of that one part (you know the one), it is an anthology the most beautiful and thrilling sequences of any Disney film. My heart soars through London along with the kids, which in turn makes me so thankful for both Peter Pan's Flight and Kinect Disneyland Adventures. I almost, maybe, just about, nearly get a little moist in the corner of my eye when the golden pirate ship takes wing over Neverland. The confrontation between Hook and Pan in Skull Rock is supremely exciting as Disney cartoons go. Hook himself is one of the most iconic villains in all fiction, made even more engaging by the incomparable Hans Conried. Beaumont and Driscoll do well in their roles, and its sad to think of what became of the young star hereafter. This would also be Beaumont's last role for Disney until her adulthood. What was going on at the studio?!

Like Snow White, Peter Pan set a creative standard for the company.

The Alaskan Eskimo
February 18, 1953
27 minutes

When the True-Life Adventures were first released on DVD, it was followed with justifiable disappointment that the People and Places series was not. As an historical artifact, this companion series to the True-Life Adventures would be highly prized. For a company conscious of its image and elements in the public chomping at the bit for any conceivable slight, I can understand why they have opted not to.

The Alaskan Eskimo - first of the People and Places films - opens much like a True-Life Adventure. A globe, a compass, a logo fading in to great fanfare, and an explanation that this series will feature unscripted moments with "unusual people." Replete through Winston Hibler's narration are words like "primitive," "strange," and other exoticizing terms that would give a first year liberal arts major a heart attack. Presenting wildlife as comic alien entities is a victimless crime. Presenting human beings and their cultures in such a way is something else. It was insensitive even in its historical context, and only comprehensible when taking that into consideration.

That said, Disney still makes Peter Pan and Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier available, so they're not as cautious when it comes to Native Americans as they are when it comes to African Americans.

If one does manage to track down a copy of The Alaskan Eskimo and take its context into account, it is still a fascinating glimpse into the traditional ways of Alaska's Aleut people. I do wish there was more on their intangible culture. Disney guides us through how they hunt, how they make a boat and a house, what they eat in the dark hours of winter, and so forth, but only shows us a glimpse of a religious ceremony at the very end. Showing how the Aleut live life is interesting, certainly. Understanding how they view life would be even more interesting. That real gaze into the culture is sadly missing. Perhaps it was a technological limitation of the time, but no Aleut people are actually interviewed.

Unfortunately there are so few examples of later People and Places films available by which to compare how the series grows over time. It has potential, if Hibler finds a more mature voice for narrating different cultures and they veer away from "look at these strange, primitive, weird non-Americans! Aren't they quaint!"

Prowlers of the Everglades
July 23, 1953
32 minutes

Prowlers of the Everglades is the last of the True-Life-Adventure shorts produced by Disney. Having enjoyed the highest commercial and critical success, including a string of Oscars, the series had run its course in the short subject format. Henceforth, only feature film treatment would be good enough.

The short series ends on a high note. Pulling away from the allure of the mountainous northwest and the high Arctic, we are brought low to the mysterious, forbidding Florida everglades. In a departure from the usual introduction, an animated map unfurls, recalling the bygone days of pirates and Conquistadors. These primeval swamps shelter holdovers of an even more primeval vintage. Prowlers of the Everglades really plays up these moss-draped cypress swamps as vestiges of prehistory, whose kings have gone unchanged by time.

The film is exciting for a change of venue if nothing else. The best footage comes from beneath the bayou's still waters. The True-Life camera takes us beneath the surface to see what goes on away from prying eyes. It is a narrow, surreal world, as Winston Hibler points out, topped by a mirror ceiling. I've never seen underwater wildlife footage that has quite captured this same sense of the alien element. Especially weird, it caught the onset of a torrential Florida rainshower from below. It was fascinating to see how it churned the surface, but its fury penetrating only a foot deep.  

The Sword and the Rose
July 23, 1953
92 minutes

Disney takes on the Tudors in a sumptuous costume drama devoid of blood or real scandal. Based on Charles Major's 1898 novel When Knighthood Was in Flower, it does the typical Disney injustices to history and source material in the attempt to build an ideal romantic fantasy. Though not at all unexpected, its particularly curious in this case because it was the third of the company's British productions. One might have hoped that, being a British production, it might have been truer to history. However, its British crew was offset by Charles Major being an American author, and Disney being an American film studio, and Walt himself having a greater hand in the finished film. The Sword and the Rose is a British film made for an American audience.

After The Story of Robin Hood's relative success, the same crew was assembled for another Mediaeval romance. Ken Annakin directs Richard Todd once more, this time as Charles Brandon, erstwhile suitor of Mary Tudor (Glynis Johns), sister of King Henry VIII (James Roberston Justice). In historical fact, Brandon was a childhood friend and confidant of Henry. In this Americanized version, he is a commoner who only ever wished to pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a life for himself in the New World, but who rises astronomically through the affections of Mary. In both fact and fancy, Mary was promised to the elderly King Louis XII of France and permitted to marry whom she wished once he joined the Great Majority. This leads to some amusing, though disturbing, scenes of Mary deliberately trying to get Louis XII killed. An adversary is invented in the Duke of Buckingham, played ably by Michael Gough. Though Henry VIII would have been 23 during the events depicted in the film, Justice looks exactly the part of the great, rotund, busy-handed founder of the Church of England.

The historically-minded would have a field day with The Sword and the Rose. Its real strength comes in its costumes, sets, and matte paintings recreating the Tudor period. I swear that Peter Ellenshaw is working harder and harder with every one of these pictures. His depictions of Windsor Castle and The Louvre of the Middle Ages are stunning. Some very grand sets have been built, populated by people in very grand period dress. It is definitely a feast for the eyes.

Despite this, and the Americanized changes, the film didn't play well. Reputedly, the cool reception for The Sword and the Rose is what led Disney off Mediaeval costume dramas, which is surprising given how these were exactly the sorts of films one would expect Disney to do. Accepting the pomp over the historical exactitude, I enjoyed it.

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