Saturday, 8 October 2016

Walt's Era - Part 7: The New Disney Emerges, Part 3 (1953-1954)

We're in the homestretch now. The last of Disney's co-productions with England's Denham Studios was released in the latter half of 1953, closing out the preliminary era of their first fully live-action films. Inspired by their success, Disney had Stage 3 built at the studios, which was in use through late 1953 and early 1954 to film THE MIGHTIEST MOTION PICTURE OF THEM ALL. A crew was also sent to the Bahamas to do the extensive underwater footage.

Filming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Stage 3's water tank. Photo: Disney.

The first feature-length True-Life Adventures was released during this time, followed by my favourite of the entire series. True-Life shorts had run their course and it was time to either expand it or close it down. Disney chose expansion. The weight of pre-movie shorts would be henceforth picked up by People and Places, new live-action shorts, and eventually cannibalized episodes from ABC's Disneyland television series.

Speaking of which, it was also sometime in early 1954 that Disney penned their deal with ABC for funding Disneyland. With funding in place, ground could be broken and work begin.

Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue
October 26, 1953
81 minutes

Like a sizable number of Canadians - about 5 million out of 35 million total - I have 1/8th Scottish ancestry. And like a slightly smaller but even fiercer number of them, I am proud of that heritage. It helps that Canada as a whole and my region of it were heavily influenced by Scots and people of Scottish ancestry. I'm a native of Calgary, which was named in 1875 by Colonel James Macleod of the Mounted Police after a bay in Scotland. Just about my favourite place in the world is the Banff Springs Hotel, in the town of Banff in Banff National Park. Banff was itself named after Banffshire, Scotland, and the Banff Springs Hotel was designed to resemble a Scottish baronial castle. Before its being renamed to the dull, flavourless "Bow Valley Grill", the hotel's main restaurant was called The Rob Roy Room.

Those positive associations with Scotland and Rob Roy in particular run deep, which make me particularly vulnerable to the last of Disney's British films. The same crew as The Sword and the Rose return for Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, including Richard Todd in the title role. Large casts of British and Highland soldiers were supplied by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders infantry, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Korea.

This version, as one might expect, has little to do with actual history. The events of Rob Roy MacGregor's life are compressed, historical personalities outlive their natural life spans as the plot requires, and the complexities of Hanoverian politics are glossed over. What is left behind is the pure, full-bodied romantic myth of Defoe's and Scott's Highland Rogue. Rob Roy's actual blood feud with the Duke of Montrose had more to do with cattle debts than the cause of freedom, but that wouldn't do for a mid-century Disney movie. The Story of Robin Hood was a dress rehearsal for Rob Roy, the Highland Rouge, from which would evolve Davy Crockett and Johnny Tremain. These historical people, under Disney's hand, become ever more the mythological figures of romantic nationalism. They extol the virtues of courageous men standing stalwart against the injustices of tyrannical regimes, but ready to lay down their arms if their enemies are willing to see reason and pursue peace.

Whereas Davy Crockett, who we'll be meeting soon enough in this series, remains largely unchanged through his story arc, Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue is about his own evolution towards peaceability and negotiation. He is a man of action, leading to a lot of great fight scenes, but the subtext is that this is a war he cannot really win. His journey is to come around to realizing that. In the process, this becomes the most satisfying of the three British costume dramas and the direct model for Disney's forthcoming live-action successes. The plot works, the character arc works, the location shooting and the costumes work, the actors are all very good. It's a right bonny film. Disney's finally got this live-action thing figured out.  

Ben and Me
November 10, 1953
20 minutes

True-Life Adventures migrated to feature film format on November 10, 1953, and now a short was needed for it. Rather than double-load a documentary with a People and Places short, the B-film was Ben and Me. This fairly adorable little animated film, Disney's first animated two-reeler (a film 20 minutes or over), adapts Robert Lawson's 1939 children's book about the mouse who guides Benjamin Franklin through the most significant events of his career.

There isn't too much to say about it. It is cute enough, though doesn't resonate particularly strongly with me since I'm not an American. Sterling Holloway lends his familiar voice to Amos the mouse, and Hans Conried is unmistakable as Thomas Jefferson, delivering the Declaration of Independence as written by the mouse. It is probably most notable as the first film to technically be released by Disney's house brand, Buena Vista Distribution.

The Living Desert
November 10, 1953
69 minutes

The first True-Life feature film begins is suitably epic fashion. The familiar painted globe dangles in space as a Renaissance-style map is drawn around it. Winston Hibler intones about the tradewinds that blow across the Earth, which carried the great European explorers along with them. Blocking the winds breezing above the Pacific are the vast ranges of the Sierra Nevada. As a consequence, a wide stretch of land between them and the Rockies, extending from Idaho to Mexico, is a rain-parched desert. Death Valley, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley... Footage of the great rocky monoliths dotting the American West opens The Living Desert.

A landscape considered by most casual observers to be devoid of significant life might seem an odd choice for such an important picture. Why not the African Savannah, with its dramatic stories of lions and elephants? Nevertheless, the desert has a sublime, solemn beauty that it ably lends to The Living Desert. The desert has an unmatched grandeur exactly because of its great desolation. There are no forests or plains, no fogs or oceans to obfuscate the sheer, immense power of barren rocky cliffs and endless desert sands. It is fitting grandeur for a feature film. Disney is also making a deliberately counter-intuitive statement: The Living Desert. Not a dead, dry, dusty, lifeless place... A living place. Come experience it.

Without the animals to fall back on, Disney does a remarkable job of a covert geological documentary. The desert is itself a living force in The Living Desert unlike the landscape of any previous True-Life Adventure. The Olympic Mountains were there, Seal Island was there, the desert is. Slowly it introduces us to the few more charismatic desert dwellers, including the iconic scene of a bobcat chased up a saguaro cactus by an ornery sounder of peccaries. This footage works well, but a good portion of the film is taken up with staged micro-scale scenes of tarantula and the wasps who prey on them, snakes, kangaroo rats and ground squirrels, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, and a scorpion hoe-down. The "Mickey Mousing" (musical score that too-closely matches the action on screen) is starting to call attention to itself.

This much footage of the ugly critters of nature isn't for the squeamish (Ashley had to leave the room several times). The excellent shots of the desert's stark beauty more than make up for it, however. The new life of the True-Life Adventures is off to a very good start. 

Stormy the Thoroughbred
March 12, 1954
46 minutes

Unfortunately, Stormy the Thoroughbred does not seem to be available on any home video format. I've listed it here as a matter of completeness.

The Vanishing Prairie
August 17, 1954
71 minutes

It is not unlikely that the second True-Life Adventures feature film resonates with me so well because it is about my own home turf. I am a prairie boy, Alberta born and raised, living my life among the foothills, grasslands, rolling prairies, craggy Rocky Mountains. It has never been wholly unusual to me to see a bighorn sheep, a coyote, a deer, a badger, a prairie dog, a falcon, or a bison. Neither has it become wholly uninspiring either. When Ashley and I went to Yellowstone National Park, my earnest desire was to see more of them. Whatever the reason, its own intrinsic virtues or my own sentimental attachments, The Vanishing Prairie is one of my favourite Disney films.

Like every True-Life Adventure, Winston Hibler and his paintbrush set the stage. He shows us the wagon ruts of the pioneers along the Oregon Trail, and tells us of the Native Americans who called the vast North American savanna home. Then he purports to take us to the time before the arrival of humans, when the plains belonged to Mother Nature alone. The conceit is a false one, since the Great Plains that existed at the time of European exploration co-evolved with Native Americans. Human beings arrived in North America around 16,000 years ago, when the North American savanna was still dominated by mammoths, sabre-tooths, giant sloths, giant bison, horses, American lions, dire wolves, and other denizens of the Ice Age. Hibler's conceit is an interesting one nonetheless, and The Vanishing Prairie builds itself around the idea of glimpsing "the way things were" in a vanishing world with vanishing wildlife.

Meditation on the vanished would be melancholy in hands other than Disney's. The Vanishing Prairie revels in its subject, the sweeping expanse of the prairies, the power of the buffalo herds, the cuteness of the prairie dogs, and many moments of genuine humour, beauty, tension, and majesty across a majestic landscape. At times, how it is offset is actually too cartoony. Just when one thinks that "Mickey Mousing" couldn't become any worse, The Vanishing Prairie feeds us ducks sliding across the ice to Ride of the Valkyries, prairie dogs chirping out Home on the Range, and bighorn sheep headbutting to The Anvil Chorus.

Also offsetting the potential melancholy is The Vanishing Prairie's unique bloodlessness. The occasional stand off between predator and prey is depicted, but it always ends with the predator foiled. Hibler informs us that it isn't always this way, and he articulates this point fairly as nature's dispassionate opportunity for all her children to survive, but we never see the fatal blow on screen. Instead, it was the graphic footage of a live bison birth that caused censors to ban the film from being shown in several American jurisdictions!

What Disney's naturalist-photographers managed to capture on film, like the bison birth, is remarkable. Later this same year, the Walt Disney's Disneyland TV show ran a behind-the-scenes episode entitled Prairie, showing the great lengths they had to go to. In summer they inched dangerously close to their subjects by wearing buffalo robes borrowed from local tribes. In winter they boarded new-fangled snowmobiles to zip in amongst herds of bison navigating their way through snowbound Yellowstone. Accenting this footage is the film's original score. The "Mickey Moused" pieces were excessive, but the bison leitmotif is haunting in its sublimity. It was so popular that it was reused for a Disney Western film that we will encounter down the road.

Mentioning the endangered status of the whooping crane and the bison, Disney comes close to expressing an overt conservationist ethos that is ordinarily only implicit. Nods are given to the protected places that preserve this vanishing landscape. Perhaps it was Walt's nature as a showman to be more concerned with catching footage of ducks slipping into each other than to impart an explicit political message. He deftly allows the fact of the prairie's disappearance to sink in, trusting the viewer to contemplate and act upon it. What The Vanishing Prairie presents is sufficiently compelling to want to make one experience it first-hand, and doing so necessitates protecting and preserving it. Or least, that's what this prairie boy figures.

The Vanishing Prairie is also the effective kick-off of what I consider to be the greatest year of Disney's creative output. And that is what we will be looking at next time...

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