Saturday, 12 November 2016

Walt's Era - Part 8: Disney's Greatest Year? (1954-1955)

What is Disney's greatest year?

Is it the year that they put out their best work? Their largest volume of work? Drew the biggest profits? Made the most arbitrary and shortsighted IP acquisitions? Is it even possible to measure such a thing as a "greatest year," or is it even necessary?

My own an emphatic answer to that original question is mid-1954 to the end of 1955. I'm measuring years the same way Disneyland does.

What Disney did on the big screen that year was substantive enough, including THE MIGHTIEST MOTION PICTURE OF THEM ALL. This period includes some of my personal favourite Disney films, having begun with The Vanishing Prairie (which I covered in our last installment). What really mattered, though, was what Disney was doing on the small screen and in a former Anaheim orange grove.

Building on the experience of The Reluctant Dragon and One Hour in WonderlandWalt Disney's Disneyland debuted on October 17, 1954. The introductory episode was pitch-perfect, introducing both Disneyland the show and introducing Disneyland the park as a shared conceptual space, tying them both together with Disney's feature films into a complete brand package. Walt makes his advertising pitch very entertaining, and follows it up with a quaint Mickey Mouse retrospective that really imbues him with character even as he is on the cusp of transitioning to full-time corporate icon (much like Walt himself). The remainder of the season is astonishing in its breadth and entertainment value: Alice in WonderlandSo Dear to My Heart, The Three Caballeros, The Wind in the WillowsTreasure Island, two behind-the-scenes advertisements for True-Life Adventure features, multiple veiled "advertainments" for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Lady and the Tramp, two theme park progress reports, Man in Space, From Aesop to Hans Christian Andersen, a Donald Duck anthology, and all three episodes of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, all culminating in the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955. For sheer entertainment and for hungry fans of Disney company history, this first season is pure gold. It's a shame that it has never been released on home video in its original broadcast version.

Photo: Disney.

On October 3, 1955, Disney took over the airwaves again with the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club. The last Mickey Mouse cartoon was The Simple Things, released in April of 1953. His star had been eclipsed by Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Chip and Dale. New characters had also emerged, like Humphrey the Bear and Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore, who were introduced by Donald in 1954 and starred in two shorts of their own in 1956. They were so prominent that they also featured in The Mickey Mouse Club's opening fanfare. Mickey was settling nicely into his new role as a mascot. The mouse ears sported by the Mouseketeers would become the must-buy souvenir at Disneyland.

Oh yeah, Disneyland opened too.

There isn't much that I need to say about the opening of Disneyland. By now, people should have known that when Walt Disney set his mind to something, he would tenaciously make it work.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
December 23, 1954
127 minutes

Disney's first real attempt at a live-action feature film is in grand style. Previous attempts were in fits and starts... Small-scale, partly animated, using up funds locked away overseas, and some wildlife documentaries. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea pulls all of that experience together into an epic feature that deserves the "Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All" moniker. Nor was this an idle boast in a era of epic films. In the years preceding 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and afterwards, Hollywood produced King Solomon's Mines (1950), Quo Vadis (1951), The African Queen (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Around the World in 80 Days (1956), just to name a few. Lavish, large-scale, Technicolor and Cinemascope productions with high budgets and higher expectations. Into the mix of Biblical epics, swashbucklers, and forays into the dark heart of Africa, Disney threw Jules Verne, proving not only that he could make an epic live-action movie, but that he could do it with, to that point, a B-movie genre like Science Fiction. Around the World in 80 Days, as well as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Time Machine (1960), The Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), and Disney's own In Search of the Castaways (1962) were inspired by the success of 20,000 Leagues. It even set the tropes for Atomic Age adaptations of Victorian Scientific Romances, including atomic anxiety, catchy songs, funny animals, brassy aesthetics, and either James Mason or Peter Lorre.

It is easy to say that 20,000 Leagues works, just like it's easy to say that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs works. This one movie effectively launched Disney's full-time live-action department, and furnished him with television specials and theme park attractions for decades. They're still making attractions based whole or in part on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Its images have entered the popular lexicon, to where people who have never seen the movie nor read the novel at least have a vague idea of what 20,000 Leagues and the Nautilus are. There is a very real sense in which an era in the Disney Studios can be measured from this film onwards. The real question is, why? What about 20,000 Leagues works so well?

One of the most obvious answers is that, like Snow White, there was a very clear investment in the quality of the film. Everything about 20,000 Leagues is grand, sumptuous, luxurious, extravagant... Director Richard Fleischer knew how to use the widescreen Cinemascope to its fullest potential. Technicolor is rich and vivid. They actually went to shoot on-location in the Bahamas. When they didn't, it was in a soundstage that Disney had built specifically for this movie. Harper Goff's cast-iron, retro-Victorian rendering of the Nautilus is absolutely gorgeous. Peter Ellenshaw pushed himself to excel with his matte paintings. It has one of the best, effusively charismatic casts available at the time. Clearly, a lot of money was thrown into this production and it was all used very well. The overwhelming majority of Disney's live-action films are pretty cheap, but here he earns his reputation for financial extravagance.

Secondly, 20,000 Leagues is well-rounded entertainment. Granted, not only does it lack romance, but it even lacks female characters to speak of. Despite this, it has humour and drama, action and pathos, a song and a funny animal. Courtesy of the original source material, the story works on at least three levels. There is, first of all, the basic plot of three men trapped on a submarine by a genius madman. The principle cast are fantastic, charismatic actors who have lots of wonderful interactions and evolving relationships that are navigated very deftly. Something that I fear has been lost since the Seventies or thereabouts is the use of charismatic actors. There are many very good actors around today, in many ways probably technically better actors than before the Seventies. But few of these actors have the kind of screen presence, the charisma, of the older actors. The intensity of James Mason's performance leaps off the screen in the way his Disney Digital 3D successor in the inevitable failed remake/reboot will not be able to. Likewise with Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre, and even the fumbling Paul Lukas. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

The jail break plot shores up the other two levels. On the picturesque level, as with the book, you have the wonders of the deep. The Nautilus is a vehicle of exploration, and Disney's experience with the True-Life Adventure films translates well here. We've got real footage of Bahamanian coral reefs and beachfront, cannibals and giant squids, sunken pirate ships, and the sumptuous, ornate, textured ship itself. I sometimes wonder why Disney didn't include other scenes from the book that would have fit in extraordinarily well on this level, like the discovery of Atlantis and being trapped under Antarctic ice. I suppose that, at over two hours, it was already long enough. 20,000 Leagues captures a definite spirit of wide-eyed wonder.

Next is the sublime level of the Big Ideas. Nemo is actually a rather conventional character... Though his war on war is presented as a high ideal, his real motivation is simple revenge. Nevertheless, written into his character is that heady material about war and peace, and the appropriate uses of atomic power. That, in turn, leads to the third thing that works about 20,000 Leagues: it captured the zeitgeist and the anxieties of the Fifties.

The middle of the Twentieth Century lived under the hopes and the fears of the Atomic Age. The Space Race filled Americans with optimism for humanity's glorious technological future of ease at home and exploration in the celestial frontier. But the Cold War filled them with dread at the prospect of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. Disney addressed these hopes and fears directly in a later television episode entitled Our Friend the Atom, which begins with references to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was in this film that he really begins tackling the issue.

In the original novel, the Nautilus runs on a type of sodium battery. Just having electricity was the newest wiz-bang thing in the Victorian Era. Disney translated this into atomic power so he could address the possible uses of that power for peace and for violence. Nemo alone holds this secret, and wages the war within himself about how it should best be used. Using this source material, however, lets Disney give it that little reassuring twist that typifies his statements on this and any sensitive cultural issue. Setting the philosophical conflict and anxiety over atomic power 100 years in the past, he makes it a thing of the past. The movie closes out by Nemo saying that "In God's good time, all this too shall come to pass," understanding that he means now. Disney attempts to dissolve atomic anxiety by saying that "God's good time" has come and now humanity is able to handle this power responsibly.  

No wonder audiences took to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as they did. They saw great drama, great wonders, and came out feeling optimistic about the future thanks to a rousing Science Fiction story from the past. Disney entered a new phase beyond being merely a cartoon entertainer. He became America's optimistic, reassuring, comforting mass motivational speaker. Through his films, his theme park, and his smiling face on TV, he told people that life was good, there was hope for the future, and an amazing world out there to explore.

December 24, 1954
32 minutes

Unfortunately Siam, the next People and Places film, is not available on home video. Given the timing of Siam's release, one expects that it would have been shown as a B-feature to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and thus reinforced the ideas of life's wonder through an exploration of interesting, "exotic" cultures around the world.

Arizona Sheepdog
May 25, 1955
22 minutes

Neither a People and Places short nor a True-Life Adventure, but somewhere inbetween, Arizona Sheepdog traces the exploits of a beautiful border collie as he attempts to guide five errant sheep across the unforgiving Arizona desert to home and good pasture. Probably like Stormy the Thoroughbred, which is unavailable on home video, this short sets up what will become one of the dominant types of Disney live-action film in the coming decade, being narrative wildlife films. It's also not a bad B-movie to Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, since it deals with the Western lifestyle and wide open places of the American frontier.

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier
May 25, 1955
93 minutes

I have been fascinated with Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier for decades. Exactly why I'm hard-pressed to say, especially since, as a Canadian, there is a lot about it that has the opposite of the intended effect. I don't side with Davy during the Creek Indian War, nor at the Alamo. The USA was not in the right in either of those conflicts. Nevertheless I do find it a supremely compelling film... So much so that I wrote several term papers during my undergraduate degree that became the first and second parts of an extensive analysis on this blog.

If I had to pin it down, I think it has many of the same attributes that made 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a success: it has an entertaining story with charismatic actors, beautiful location footage and wildlife shots, high moral and philosophical ideals, and an epoch-making place in Disney's company history. While I don't always agree with it, it is engrossing to dissect the aplomb with which it projects an ideal of America and Americans through the folksy, charming, stalwart, honest, morally upright, confident character of Davy Crockett. Though I may have more sympathy for Red Stick or the government of Mexico, it's hard not to like Davy and see him as a fairly respectable role model.

Fess Parker does a career-defining portrayal of Davy. The character, which he would essentially reprise in all-but name in later films, wants for an actual character arc, but that's not really the point of Davy Crockett. Interest is sustained by seeing how this one confident character reacts to the world around him, how his ethics drive his behaviour in different situations, with the understanding that his is a model that his young admirers are supposed to be following. Buddy Ebsen as Georgie Russell, Basil Ruysdael as Andy Jackson, and the incomparable Hans Conried as Thimblerig all add fantastic charisma to the picture. In fact, its their scenes I most lament losing in the transition from television to cinema.

Davy Crockett began, of course, as three episodes of the Disneyland TV series. If Disney's oeuvre of movies could be plumbed for TV shows, why not the other way around? In an age before home video or widespread reruns, and with an immediate need to cash in on the unexpected Crockett craze, re-releasing the TV episodes as a single film was an obvious choice. The quality poured into the original episodes - having been shot in colour, on location, by a competent director and able cast - made it an easy transition too. The budget clearly isn't in the range of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it's not hard to look at either.

Editing three 53 minute episodes down to one 93 minute film required some editing. For the purposes of this review I watched the episodes back-to-back with the film and, for the most part, little of value was lost in the editing process. There are only two scenes that I wish were retained. The first was the full scene in the White House where Davy is chatting with President Andy Jackson, since the pared down version doesn't really explain the conflict over the "Indian Bill." The second is Thimblerig's introduction on the paddlewheeler, when he tries to pull a gun on Davy. Any chance to see more Hans Conried is welcome, and that scene does a much better job of establishing who he is. Otherwise, the film cuts out a fair bit of chaff that was fine to fill out a TV show but unnecessary on the silver screen.

Even with those lapses, it is a fine story well-told. As many have noted, for all the injustices it did to the complex real history of David S. Crockett, and for all of its two-fisted fun, it still had its share of mature themes. Like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Davy Crockett ends with the death of its motivating character, himself surrounded by carnage as he dies. One of the situations that this unchanging archetype is thrust into is mortality. Thus it embodies another of Walt's core philosophies, which is not to talk down to children. Instead of expunging the difficult realities of the world, he dealt with them in a gentle enough way that allows children to begin grappling with them (and consequently made the show watchable for adults too).

The craze it set off, as unexpected as it was for Disney, is not at all incomprehensible. Within seven months of the first episode's airing on December 15, 1954, over $100 million US dollars were spent on every imaginable object emblazoned with his name and likeness (equivalent to $885 million today). An eBay search at the time of this writing yielded over 5,000 vintage items for sale, including sidewalk chalk, a clip on tie, belt buckles, bubblegum cards, "teepee" tent, Swiss Army-style knife, and my personal favourite, a plush "B'ar that Davy Kilt" bear rug. It was indeed the Frozen or Pirates of the Caribbean of its day, including imprinting itself all over Disneyland. Very shortly, Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen would help open Frontierland at Disneyland's inaugural ceremonies with a performance in character. Yet it ended as quickly as it began. Not long after the film version ran through theatres, every child in America had as many coonskin caps, branded pop-guns, and The Ballad of Davy Crockett records as they needed. The "Davy Crockett Craze" is the textbook example of how fads flame up and sputter out.

June 16, 1955
33 minutes

Unfortunately, this next People and Places film is not available on home video.

Lady and the Tramp
June 16, 1955
75 minutes

Disney films of this period, in one way or another, evince reassurance. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea placed atomic anxiety in the past to reassure a worried public about the good uses of atomic power. Davy Crockett reassured Americans about the justice and rightness of their civilization in the post-war milieu. Very shortly, Disneyland would open, which reassured in plaster and lathe... Days of youth, flights of fancy, and the colonized pasts and futures of the Western and Celestial frontiers. A famous museum exhibit and companion volume of critical essays dubbed Disney theme parks "The Architecture of Reassurance."

Lady and the Tramp also offers reassurance. Through the story of a Tramp dog who is domesticated through the love of a good Lady, Disney makes it paean to suburban domesticity. What must Americans have been feeling, I wonder, that they could swing from WWI to the Roaring Twenties to the Dirty Thirties to WWII to finding themselves now living these relatively affluent and comfortable lives in single family suburban dwellings. Was this okay? Was it boring? Was it just fine thankyouverymuch?

For as charming as the Tramp is, there is never any question of Lady hitting the road with him. The film builds inexorably to the moment when the Tramp realizes the errors of his ways and throws in with respectable society. One could, I suppose, draw a full analysis from the ethnic and cultural stereotypes portrayed as dogs from the wrong side of the tracks who are always finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Is there any evidence that the Tramp is free to carry on those associations after his new-found domesticity? Why would he care to, though? He's got everything he could want: a loving wife and family, beautiful home, and all the things that come with it. (I actually did do a slight analysis of domesticity in Disney films here).

Relative to the dashing adventures of previous live-action and animated Disney films, Lady and the Tramp fittingly has much lower stakes. There are some exciting pieces, but its bears more similarity to something like Cinderella than Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland or Treasure Island or 20,000 Leagues. It is tonally domesticated. It is barely even a musical at that. "Bella Notte" is a beautiful and timeless sequence, and that's about as far as it goes. Lady and the Tramp never really seems to reach any overly lofty heights or deep valleys. It's kind of smoothed out and paved over, like a suburb.

Lady and the Tramp is, curiously, the fourth Disney animated film in a row to take place during the 19th century. Even if we excuse Cinderella as a fairy tale, that still leaves Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland as indicative of Disney's seemingly growing love affair with Victorian nostalgia. Given what Main Street U.S.A. would come to represent for Disney parks - the reversion to childhood, and Walt Disney's childhood specifically, an age of innocence and nostalgia, simpler times and the "good old days" - this probably isn't surprising. The Gay Nineties themselves became a reassuring myth, with Disney as one of its most ardent peddlers.

It's a good thing, then, that I love indulging that particular reassuring myth! Pardon me if I am sounding unnecessarily critical, but it has been merely to point out that the running theme of Lady and the Tramp is a glowing portrait of the domestic. This is a film I actually do enjoy in all its domesticity, though I wouldn't want to get carried away with liking it too much. That would not be respectable.

The African Lion
September 14, 1955
75 minutes

The African Lion has just about everything in it except the African lion. Certainly they are there, no True-Life Adventure could make that oversight, but there is also so much else to look at in this survey of the Savannah that we barely see them. Elephants, hippopotamus, many varieties of antelope, water buffalo, hyena, jackal and wild dog, ostrich, vultures, the whole panorama of African wildlife under the snowy dome of Mount Kilimanjaro. Each is given their due.

To see a single studio improve so drastically between films is a treat, and The African Lion is a much better pure wildlife documentary than The Vanishing Prairie. The latter is one of my favourite Disney films, but it does have its oversights and questionable extravagances. There are no lions belching out a piece by Wagner or Verdi in this film. "Mickey Mousing" is virtually nonexistent.  We just get the beauty of African wildlife as it is.

Sometimes there are errors - Winston Hibler intones that hippopotamus are buoyant, for example, which isn't true - but these are easily overlooked. Since the focus is, ostensibly, on the monarch of predatory cats, there is a surprising amount of bloodshed in The African Lion. Leopards, cheetahs, and lions are all shown making graphic kills, with scavengers close on their heels to rip the carcasses apart. This time, Hibler doesn't merely pay lip service to these things happening. We get to see the "circle of life" unfold in sometimes horrifying detail.

Virtually every True-Life Adventure has been better than the previous one in one respect or another. From Seal Island, the next shorts improved in cinematography and narration. When the shorts ran their course, they became feature films. And when those feature films were still perhaps a little too cartoonish, they have matured. Like the animal on which it is based, The African Lion is a more stately picture.  

Music Land
October 5, 1955
75 minutes

The creation of Buena Vista did not completely absolve Disney of their contractual obligations to RKO Pictures. After Peter Pan there was one more animated film they were required to release through the company, and instead of putting any real effort into it, they decided to repackage a suite of shorts from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. A new introduction, transitions, and ending were added in, but otherwise it was a perfunctory effort that has never seen a widespread theatrical or home video rerelease.

As an experiment, I decided to "recreate" the film by watching the original shorts that were included in Music Land. They were Trees, All the Cats Join In, After You've Gone, Once Upon a Wintertime, Pecos Bill, Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet, Bumble Boogie, Casey at the Bat, and Blame It on the Samba. The exercise didn't particularly shed new light on the shorts themselves. It was, however, enjoyable to revisit a "best of" from those two heirs to Fantasia.

During the Fifties and Sixties, the package films of the Forties never really disappeared. They were constantly being recycled for B-features. On March 11th of this same year, Bumble Boogie and Trees were released as a short called Contrasts in Rhythm. Blame it on the Samba was released as a stand-alone short on April 1st. Pedro from Saludos Amigos was released on May 13th, followed by El Gaucho Goofy on June 10th and Aquarela do Brasil on June 24th. The Flying Gauchito from Three Caballeros came out on July 15th. Peter and the Wolf from Make Mine Music was released on September 14th, ahead of The African Lion. Before the year closed out, Johnny Appleseed was released on December 25th. Whether on TV or the silver screen, Disney was great at squeezing the most out of his assets.

Men Against the Arctic
December 21, 1955
30 minutes

The next People and Places film is, perhaps, an odd choice of subject. Instead of a glimpse at the ethnic traditions of some far-flung country, it is looking at the monumental efforts of the US Navy to maintain bases in the high Arctic. Watching icebreakers, helicopters, and the base at Alert Bay makes one think more of a "Tomorrowland" featurette than a People and Places. It's still an interesting short with a fantastic, animated opening montage in a great pop-modernist style depicting historical explorations of the Arctic, from the Greek Pytheas to the Vikings to the 19th century quest for the Northwest Passage. Released in conjunction with The Littlest Outlaw, it is less like a People and Places than the feature film.

The Littlest Outlaw
December 22, 1955
73 minutes

I suppose they can't all be winners. The Littlest Outlaw has a perfunctory, Heartwarmingtm story about a boy trying to protect a prize showjumping horse by taking to his heels and travelling across the Mexican countryside. It has none of the things that made 20,000 Leagues or Davy Crockett as good as they are, and it has nothing to do with scale. This is just a cutesy little film that would have been better served by an episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland.

The real star was Mexico itself. Filmed on location in mid-century San Miguel de Allende, the panorama of Mexican life is the film's most appealing part: the pageant of a Franciscan animal blessing, a parade with fireworks, the beautiful church of La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the spectacle of a bullfight, the skill of the Mexican Army Equestrian Team... Those are what actually sustain interest through an otherwise indifferent film.

Unfortunately, I know going into this that The Littlest Outlaw is a harbinger of things to come. Given a chance, Disney's live-action films are better than their reputation. But no, they aren't always great.


  1. Lady and the Tramp is one of those films I loved as a child because I was mindlessly loyal to anything animated by Disney, especially if it starred talking animals...and love as an adult because it's surprisingly *good*. The animation is standard fine Silver Age quality, of course, but there's also the cleverness of the dog's-eye perspective on humans and their homes and institutions, and the parable on Victorian-era classism. It aimed for fuzzy domesticity and wound up being a mite deeper than that.

    1. Great observations! I suppose I was remiss on a few things with Lady and the Tramp... I actually love how they refer to the humans as "Jim Dear" and "Darling".

    2. What really hit me, my first time watching as an adult, was the scene after Lady has been retrieved from the pound, when the two neighbor dogs come over to comfort her. They are offering to marry her to saver her virtue and reputation!