Saturday, 10 December 2016

Walt's Era - Part 9: The Year of Fess Parker (1956)

We have hit something of a milestone with Walt's Era. For the first time in this series, an entry covers a single year and has no animated films. Fantasia was re-released on February 7th, but no new animated films came out in 1956. Of the four feature films that were released, all but one featured Fess Parker, star of Davy Crockett. The outlier was a True-Life Adventure.

A native Texan, Fess came into the Disney fold after Walt spotted his cameo in the classic Science Fiction film Them! He practically leapt off the screen as a pilot driven mad by the sight of gigantic, mutated ants, which appealed to Walt (who had been watching the film to check out lead actor James Arness for the role of Davy Crockett). Fess won the role of his career, and lead Davy Crockett into becoming a household name. Walt saw the makings of a legitimate feature film star, took him off television, and made him the company's #1 lead actor.

Fess Parker at a department store live appearance.

He stayed with the company from 1955 through 1958, when he and Disney had a falling out. In the mean time, he not only became the second most recognizable face of the company and helped to open Disneyland USA, but also had a series of LPs on Disneyland Records. Besides the storyteller and soundtrack albums for his films, he released Yarns and Songs in 1956 and Cowboy and Indian Songs in 1957. His irresistible folksy charm helped shape the company's image during the new Golden Age.

February 15, 1956
30 minutes

This People and Places short is not available. It likely preceded the February re-release of Fantasia.

The Great Locomotive Chase
June 20, 1956
85 minutes

Pulled from the pages of history, The Great Locomotive Chase isn't as compelling as Davy Crockett in its own right, but it does have lots of great stuff in it. The two main things are the cast, human and rolling stock.

It's grand reunion for the Davy Crockett cast, headlined by Fess Parker as James J. Andrew, the civilian Union spy who spearheaded the plan to commandeer a Confederate train and destroy their supply line. Kenneth Tobey (Jim Bowie in Davy Crockett) and Don Megowan (William Travis) join in, and Jeff York makes his first appearance in a Disney film. He will go on to become a fixture opposite Fess for the next year. We don't get to see his full charm and fury here though. Both he and Fess offer more subdued performances. Slim Pickins has a small role as a Confederate engineer, Jeffery Hunter (The Searchers, King of Kings, Capt. Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot) plays William Fuller, the Confederate conductor who almost single-handedly foiled Andrews' plot. Stan Jones plays one of "Andrews' Raiders", beginning the Western singer's long association with Disney. He would go on to play supporting roles in a number of Disney films and release several albums through Disneyland Records, including Creakin' Leather, with his own rendition of his famous song (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.

The trains do their part to steal the show away from the human cast. The B&O Railroad Museum lent out some of their gorgeous American 4-4-0 engines to stand in for the historical chase's engines The General and Yonah, while the Nevada State Railroad Museum supplied another American 4-4-0 to stand in for both the Texas and William R. Smith. For those not in the know, in railway notation, a 4-4-0 engine has two lead wheels on each side, two driving wheels, and no trailing wheels. "American" is the particular make, the classic steam train profile with the diamond stack. The Roy O. Disney on the Walt Disney World Railroad is a 4-4-0 American. The B&O Railroad Museum's William Mason - which played The General in this film - is the oldest operational steam engine in the Western hemisphere. As you might be able to glean, I'm a little bit of a train nerd, so The Great Locomotive Chase appealed to me in that respect.

As a whole movie, one can see how Disney was attempting to recapture the glory of Davy Crockett... Take an historical personality, overwrite it with Fess Parker and everything he had come to represent about stalwart mid-century American masculinity, and adapt a quintessentially American story, filled with acts of courage, ingenuity, and self-sacrifice. Though heralded in the credits as a "True Life Historical Adventure", it doesn't quite have it though. As I said, Fess isn't as engaging here as in his more famous role. The choice of story material doesn't succeed in the same way either. Andrews' scheme wasn't a great success for the Union, and the person to get the most mileage out of it was Buster Keaton with his romantically antebellum comedy The General in 1926. The way the story is structured, Jeffery Hunter is actually the hero. If they had really wanted to go the Davy Crockett route, they could have done with a few speeches about Providence shining down on the Union, and the need to create a free nation where free men could live in freedom, and that sort of thing.

Davy Crockett and the River Pirates
July 17, 1956
81 minutes

Man in Space
July 18, 1956
35 minutes

This was a uniquely enjoyable evening in the carrying out of my mission. Three of the best episodes of the Walt Disney's Disneyland series have now popped up again in the form of a theatrical rerun, in an age before home video. It is a testament to the effort that Walt's team poured into the series, and the quality of the work that came out of it, that these episodes could be recycled for the silver screen and still hold up. Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is better than the last four Disney feature films I've watched, and Man in Space is one of the best shorts thus far. Nor is that unexpected. All three of these episodes were aired during 1955, what I have previously called "Walt Disney's Greatest Year."

That said, I cheated a bit in saying that Man in Space is one of the best shorts thus far. I actually haven't seen it in theatrical form, since that has never been released on home video. Based on the poster and my inclinations, I suspect that it would have pared the original 51 minutes down to the history of rocketry, the effects of space on the human body, and the hypothetical first launch into outer space. Whatever was included, it is rich in its mid-century Space Age modern style. With its sleek designs, minimalist animation, tense music, and futuristic subject matter, this first episode from Tomorrowland is the epitome of what the physical place should be. But I could bemoan the unfocused melange of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm all day and night. I would have loved to see Tomorrowland when it still lived up to the pace set by Man in Space and subsequent episodes Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond, Our Friend the Atom, Magic Highway U.S.A., and Eyes in Outer Space.

Then we travel from Tomorrowland to Frontierland. How appropriate! In the physical park, these two lands balance each other in contrast. Frontierland exemplified a past age of exploration, the conquest of a past frontier, and the waging of past political conflicts. Tomorrowland exemplified a utopian future of exploration in the new frontiers of outer, inner, and liquid space, devoid of the political conflicts of humanity's pre-Space Age infancy. So we go from the technological documentary of Man in Space to the rustic tall tale of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

With Davy Crockett left for dead at the Alamo, the only option open to Disney for further episodes were prequels with the sensibility of tall tales. Four such prequel episodes were planned, but only two were made, which were then edited down (barely) into this film. The Davy Crockett fad had run out and Disney was counting on Fess Parker as a legitimate film star. Davy Crockett and the River Pirates does not have the same scope as the first Davy Crockett film, but it never set out to. There wasn't anything left to cover in that grand description of the historical Crockett's life. This tall tale was simply a fond return to the characters.

Mike Fink was an historical personality, as brash and hard-drinking and full of fight as all river men were at that time. He is played to perfection here by Jeff York, who goes at it with both barrels. When York gets up a full head of steam, he's great to watch. Boisterous and bragging, he makes a nice contrast to the unflappable, humble Crockett. Davy will always come out on top, of course, but Fink isn't just played for laughs. He can actually deliver on his claims to "out-run, out-hop, out-jump, throw-down, drag out, and lick any man in the country." Whether or not Crockett and Fink ever met in historical fact is ambiguous, but their stories were quickly linked in American dime novels and popular legend. Even early writers gleaned on to how well the two play off each other. Buddy Ebsen once more does a great job as Davy's pal Georgie, and the chameleon-like Kenneth Tobey is back as the wily Jocko, a perfect sidekick to Mike Fink. Walter Catlett returns to the Disney fold in a live-action role, after having performed lines for J. Worthington Foulfellow in Pinocchio (leading to one of those "I know that voice!" moments).

Just as Man in Space made me reminisce for a Tomorrowland I've never experienced (Magic Kingdom's comes awfully close though), so does Davy Crockett and the River Pirates make me long for the Frontierland I missed by a couple decades. While Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier is a specific historical biography with its narrative limits, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates has an open-ended timelessness to it that recalls the same timelessness of the theme park. An overhang on the original Tom Sawyer's Island was designated as the river pirates' lair, and of course there were the keelboats. To win their race against Mike Fink, Davy and Georgie cut across a bayou, and at the end of the big river is New Orleans herself. I was also gratified, when Disney finally shut down the burning settler's cabin once and for all, that it was renovated into Mike Fink's cabin, with audio clips from the film. That almost felt like a personal shout-out, since I know of exactly no one who is as much a fan of Disney's Davy Crockett as me.  

I know we'll see Fess again, playing virtually the same type of character (something that would eventually become a bone of contention between him and Walt), but I'm a little melancholy that we won't see him playing this character again... Davy Crockett, the one and only.  

Cow Dog
November 6, 1956
22 minutes

Cow Dog, the short feature supporting Secrets of Life, is not available in its theatrical form. It was later recycled into a 1974 episode of Wonderful World of Disney entitled Stub, the Best Cow Dog in the World. In that version, the 22 minute short was supplemented with newly shot footage. That version is available on Disney Movie Club DVD, but I don't have it. So I must pass this one up.

Secrets of Life
November 6, 1956
70 minutes

Up to now, the True-Life Adventures have tended to focus on the more charismatic creatures of the world. The Living Desert was forced into the micro-scale because of the subject matter (not a lot of large mammals in the desert), but for the most part it's been all lions, bison, elk, elephants, seals, and so forth. Secrets of Life takes us in the opposite direction, narrowing the camera down on the little critters of nature: plants, insects, fish, crustaceans, and so forth.

To offset the apparent minor subject, the film begins and ends with the creation of the planet and its massive geological upheavals. The painter's brush shows and abstracted primeval world and the film ends with spectacular widescreen footage from Hawaii's devastating volcanoes. Unfortunately, a good chance to reuse or remake The Rite of Spring was bypassed. The Dell comic book adaptation had that stuff, and it would have been amazing in film. One part that did amuse me was Winston Hibler intoning in the introduction that the Ice Age was a dead, desolate time in Earth's history... I'm currently shopping around a book on the Ice Age (I'm a science and history educator in my day job), and I can assure you that the Ice Age was a particularly dynamic time of climate fluctuations and evolutionary adaptations.

The bulk of the film is taken up with some fantastic miniature photography... We see plants moving, twisting, pollinating, and going to seed in time-lapse. Sped up to an animals pace, there is no mistaking the oft-overlooked fact that plants are living beings. We take an intimate glimpse inside the cooperative world of the honey bee and the violent one of the ant. In water we range from the ruthlessly predatory world of single-celled organisms to the breeding struggles of stickleback and grunion. It's not material that might really sustain a feature film (notice that the main poster does not advertise what it's actually about), but it is interesting in its own right. This feature could have been more effective as two or three shorts. I do have to give them credit for trying something radically different with the True-Life series, however.

Disneyland, U.S.A.
December 20, 1956
42 minutes

I have to admit that I'm a little baffled by the thought process that went into this People and Places short. "Hey, you know that series we have on interesting ethnic cultures around the world? Let's do one of those about Disneyland!"

It doesn't make a lick of sense as a People and Places film. It is, however, pretty amazing as a thorough a look at Disneyland only a year after opening its gates to the world. As an historical document, it is invaluable. Nor is it poorly shot... Aerial photography gives an excellent overview, and it typically lingers in all the right places. The longest part of the short is paid to Frontierland, which is understandable given the popularity of Westerns at the time and Westward Ho, the Wagons! for which it served as appetizer. Fess Parker even makes an appearance leading a parade in character as Davy Crockett, alongside Walt Disney himself.

There is no real sense in which the Disneyland of 1956 is better than the Disneyland of today (though I might argue that the Disneyland of the mid-1990's is...). The rides aren't better and neither is the decor. Nevertheless, watching Disneyland, U.S.A. fills me with a sense of nostalgia for that which I never had the chance to experience. This is especially true of Frontierland. The Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland is second on my list of extinct attractions I wished I could have experienced. The Native American village and drum circle would have been wonderful to see, and I wish Disneyland kept up more culturally edifying experiences like that. Fort Wilderness was open, and Tom Sawyer's Island was an untempered playground. The Mark Twain Riverboat is always a favourite of mine, even today (fifth on my list of favourite attractions at Disneyland, in fact).

If there was a way to argue that Disneyland of 1956 had something that Disneyland today lacks, it would be a direction. With Winston Hibler articulating Disneyland's purpose as he does, there is a genuine sense that it has a purpose beyond merely making money. At the beginning he places the park in the grander story of the United States: a place that could only exist where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are a birthright. Throughout he quotes Walt Disney's own dedication speeches for each land and the park itself. Today one feels that Frontierland isn't so much "a tribute to the faith, courage and ingenuity of the pioneers who blazed the trails across America" as it is a problem that Disney wishes they could just mow over for more pirates, Pixar, or Star Wars. Likewise with Tomorrowland. When I see Main Street Cinema playing actual silent films like The Eagle or Keystone Cops, and a Penny Arcade advertised as its own attraction instead of just an extension of the candy shop with barely a penny arcade machine left, I feel like there was more of an intention behind it. And when they show the antique car club performing the Easter parade, and the Native American drum circle, it demonstrates a collaboration to a common goal beyond merchandise sales.

Disneyland, U.S.A. succeeds in what were undoubtedly its foremost goals, which were to satisfy public curousity and make me wish I could go.

Westward Ho, the Wagons!
December 20, 1956
90 minutes

The history of the Oregon Trail is writ large in Disney's Westward Ho, the Wagons! More than any Conestoga Wagon filled with settlers for the "Big Waters", this Western is a vehicle for Fess Parker once more playing the stalwart American man. Unlike The Great Locomotive Chase, he is much less restrained here, fitting just as easily into this role as he did into Davy Crockett. Since his guitar helped him impress Walt Disney during their initial interview and Disneyland Records was preparing to release his first albums, they finally made use of his musical talent. Stan Jones, Western singer and new arrival into the Disney fold, supplied the song Wringle Wrangle, Tom Blackburn and George Bruns wrote the film's theme and The Ballad of John Coulter, and Fess himself wrote the lyrics to I'm Lonely, My Darlin'. Best of all, The Vanishing Prairie's buffalo leitmotif returns as Pioneer's Prayer.

Joining Fess is his new buddy Jeff York, who isn't quite as raucous as Mike Fink but still charismatic in this role. Sebastian Cabot - who is oddly, somehow, one of my favourite actors of the time period - also shows up as a French fur trader, and practically leaps off the screen as he is wont to do. Some Mousketeers appear as children in the wagon train, and ubiquitous "Hollywood Indian" Iron Eyes Cody (actually an Italian American actor) also shows up. Peter Ellenshaw almost finds himself out of work against the live location shooting, but still renders up characteristic images of landmarks, forts, and distant mountains along the trail.

Native American tribes provide adversity for the wagon train, and the film's most troubling elements. It's not unambiguously troubling though... This isn't Peter Pan. The Pawnees who threaten Fess in the first half are mere caricatures, whooping, hollering, stealing horses, and racing the fleeing wagons to safety. In the second half, the Sioux provide a more subtle threat. The Shaman has taken a shine to the wagon train's little blonde girl, which certainly has creepy overtones to modern viewers. This puts a tension between the wagon train and the Sioux, culminating when the chief's son is gravely injured in an accident and the only person who can help is Fess. Sioux are presented not simply as movie villains like the Pawnee, but actual human beings with a culture, ambitions, and values of their own. It's still a mid-century film with mid-century attitudes, but that is nevertheless a step up.

Ostensibly this was Walt's first attempt at a real, cinematic Western. Technically The Great Locomotive Chase was a Civil War period piece, and Davy Crockett was the televised story of a mountain man. Legendary Western actor, director, and stuntman Yakima Canutt was borrowed from MGM to direct the second unit, which included the fight against the Pawnee. Westerns were still largely a B-movie genre when Westward Ho, the Wagons! was released, but there had still been a number of epic, large-scale films befitting the era of Cinemascope. John Ford's The Searchers, starring John Wayne, was released the same year, for example. Unfortunately, for as decent and enjoyable as it is for Disney fans, it's not nearly in the same league as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was in a similar position relative to Sci-Fi films of the time. Westward Ho, the Wagons! wasn't going to revolutionize the genre, or even be widely remembered.

As an aside, the currently available DVD version through the Disney Movie Club is an affront to the film. Shot in Cinemascope widescreen format and taking full advantage of it, the DVD available through the Disney Movie Club (and consequently the on-demand version) are in fullscreen. Director William Beaudine was not as adept at Cinemascope as Richard Fleischer was in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea... His compositions aren't nearly as visually interesting or dynamic. He does, however, make sure the actors stand far apart, which is a disadvantage at fullscreen. This hatchetjob unceremoniously cuts off parts of the actors. Hopefully, someday, Disney will rectify the situation.

December 25, 1956
32 minutes

This People and Places short is also not available.

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