Saturday, 11 February 2017

Walt's Era - Part 11: A Gala Year for Disney (1959)

1959 was a good year for Disney in front of the cameras. In Disneyland, it was a "Gala Day" when the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and Disneyland-Alweg Monorail were opened on June 15th. The openings were commemorated on television with the program Disneyland '59 (to be re-released theatrically the following year), and inaugurated the new "E-Ticket." On television, Walt Disney Presents, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro were still going strong. On the silver screen, 1959 was Disney's best year since 1954/55... Sleeping Beauty, The Shaggy Dog, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, Jungle Cat, Grand Canyon, Donald in Mathmagic Land... After some of the low points of the last couple entries, such a consistently good slate of films is a welcome relief. New stars were also being built up, like Annette Funicello, who was rising to stardom with her first top ten single, Tall Paul.

Walt and the Nixons attempting to cut the ribbon for the Monorail.
Photo: Disney.
Behind the cameras though, the situation was tense. Annette was getting an improved sense of her own economic value with her rising stardom, and filed a suit to break her contract with Disney in order to make higher pay. Disney launched into their own dispute with ABC to break their contract. As a result, the last episode of Zorro aired on September 24th and the last episode of The Mickey Mouse Club aired on September 25th. It was competition from Pacific Ocean Park, which had started to outdraw Disneyland, that prompted the investment in new attractions. However, the low-capacity wagons and stagecoaches of Nature's Wonderland closed down. And despite how good the films were, Disney's theatrical releases also underperformed through 1959 and 1960. In 1960, the company reported their first fiscal loss in ten years, leading to substantial layoffs in the animation department.

As an aside, for the many fans of a particular Disney Parks attraction (myself included), Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone also debuted in 1959 on CBS. It would run for five seasons, ending in 1964. The show was not initially profitable, having to fight against the bias that Science Fiction was merely childish escapism, but has since become one of the most revered and respected adult television dramas of all time. That The Twilight Zone should have eventually worked its way into a Disney theme park is an ironic twist worthy of the show itself. Whereas Walt offered reassurance, Rod Serling did anything but. The dominant theme of The Twilight Zone was the existential angst of modern society, and especially the role of the modern man in a culture that seemed to be leaving him behind.

Grand Canyon
January 29, 1959
29 minutes

The accompanying short for Sleeping Beauty is a practically perfect marriage of the True-Life Adventures with Fantasia. I may be a little biased in that the Grand Canyon is one of my favourite places on Earth and Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite is one of my favourite pieces of music... Rarely does an orchestral piece so perfectly capture the spirit of a place as does the Grand Canyon Suite, and Disney was the first to match the music to scenes of the canyon itself.

The beginning refrains of Sunrise and The Painted Desert, the first two of the suite's five movements, are slow and mysterious, building to an epic climax. Disney mirrors this by stunning photography of the actual Painted Desert and Monument Valley, building to the clashing waters of the Grand Canyon's inner gorge. Ingeniously, Disney didn't take the straightforward approach of matching On the Trail to scenes of mules, which this third movement was intended to evoke. The screech of the violins represents the braying of the mules, and the click-clack noise their hooves. Instead, Grand Canyon puts that click-clack to the movement of a tarantula. This short film is a True-Life without Winston Hibler's narration and significantly better cinematography. It's almost unreal how well composed its shots are, from the mysterious Painted Desert to cougars and roadrunners against a backdrop of the canyon, to lone pines standing out amid the rocks and whole groves of trembling aspen twinkling in time with the music. The film ends with a snowstorm during the Cloudburst and Sunset movements.Altogether, it is a stunning work of cinema and music married together.

The year before, the Grand Canyon Diorama opened along the Disneyland Railroad, along with the Tomorrowland station and a change to how the DLRR ran. Previously, each of the two trains stopped at only one of the two existing stations: #1 C.K. Holliday stopped at Frontierland and #2 E.P. Ripley stopped at Main St. Now, with the addition of #3 Fred Gurley and a new station, the trains all stopped at each station, transforming the DLRR into a true transportation system instead of a mere ride. The cars were also altered so that benches faced inwards to best view the new 306 ft long and 34 ft high diorama. Grand Canyon was something of a living version of the diorama, and was, in fact, released the same year, on December 17th, 1958. It did not see wide release until it was packaged with Sleeping Beauty a month later.   

Sleeping Beauty
January 29, 1959
75 minutes

Largely due to Disney, Sleeping Beauty is my favourite fairy tale. I first encountered it in any meaningful sense through this film which draws from its every incarnation. The story borrows from Charles Perrault's original Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and the Brothers Grimm's Little Briar Rose and the music is borrowed from Tchaikovsky's ballet. It would be difficult to go wrong with those credentials.

Disney did make some story choices that I do, however, find baffling. The eponymous character only falls asleep in the last 20 minutes of the film, and within the film that repose could only have lasted a couple hours at most. Snow White spent more time in deathless slumber than she did. Could I go back and whisper into Walt's ear, I would have devoted the first half to Aurora's birth, the gifts of the fairies, the curse, her being raised by the fairies, and then being finally caught by Maleficent at dusk on her birthday. Then, as she is lain down to sleep, she begins a dream where she is dancing in the forest with a young prince. When the dream ends, it is the prince himself who wakes up. 100 years have passed, Aurora's castle is overgrown and forgotten, and the second half of the movie picks up with Philip's attempt to rescue her and destroy Maleficent. But alas, that version must remain locked up within my head.

Looking at what does exist, we see the effects of Disney's experimentation with a more modern, pop-style of art finally take hold in a feature film. Animators had been playing around with the more simplified, 2-dimensional, angular and abstracted style in shorts for several years now, but had kept to a very traditional Forties style for Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp, against the backdrop of Mary Blair's paintings. Eyvind Earle's attempts to replicate the look and feel of Mediaeval tapestries for Sleeping Beauty's backgrounds gave Disney's Nine Old Men the freedom to try out a comparable, two-dimensional modern look on the characters for the first time. Sleeping Beauty probably owes the most to the 1957 short The Truth About Mother Goose, which applied modernism to fairy tale, Mediaeval subjects.

Does it work? Well... Almost. The character designs are fantastic (Maleficent is, I think, Disney's best designed character, period), as are the backgrounds. But something is lost in the net effect. The pop-modern style thrown up in a feature film looks cheaper than it was to produce, betraying modernism's low-budget origins. The style originated as much from economic constraints as from artistic progress. The story problems also drag it down a little.  We know from Disney's own promotional materials that Sleeping Beauty had been in production since 1954, and five years is a long turnover time. There was practically a revolving door of directors, Earle walked off the studio lot, and Walt himself seemed only dimly interested in actually getting the project going. It shows in the "offness" of the finished product... A certain lack of something that is hard to specify. Audiences felt it as well, with the film just falling short of recouping its production costs. The experience of making it must have been traumatic, because Disney would not make another animated fairy tale film until The Little Mermaid. In fact, the expense was so great and the returns so few that Walt contemplated shutting down the feature animation department entirely.

With all that in mind, it's amazing that Sleeping Beauty turned out as well as it did! There is still a great deal to love about it, as I do. It's just not quite all it could have been. As I said from the outset though, it's hard to go really wrong with a combination of Perrault, Grimm, Tchaikovsky, and Disney. That may have, in itself, been the reason for what artistic success it managed to eke out. The foundation of something really great is in there, between the story, the music, the character designs, the backgrounds, and all those various parts. Even though they don't quite gel as nicely as one would want, Sleeping Beauty is still very compelling.

Cruise of the Eagle
March 19, 1959
18 minutes

This People and Places short about the trials of the US Coast Guard is not available for viewing.

Nature's Strangest Creatures
March 19, 1959
16 minutes

Would a True-Life Adventure by any other name smell as sweet? It simply wouldn't do for Disney's series of wildlife documentaries to revert back to shorts when they were still doing well as feature films, especially for a mere 16 minute whirlwind tour of Australia. The short duration was doubtless the consequence of The Shaggy Dog being an hour and 40 minutes, which was exceptionally long for a Disney movie. So far, only Fantasia and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea have exceeded it in length.

Nature's Strangest Creatures is not branded as a True-Life Adventure but it is one nonetheless. Winston Hibler narrates the lives of Australia's marsupials and monotremes in the familiar format. Only, having grown so accustomed to the True-Life feature films, Nature's Strangest Creatures barely feels like an introduction! Often, an animal is shown merely to be shown, and that's it. I wanted more!

The Shaggy Dog
March 19, 1959
104 minutes

After so many Westerns and documentaries, it's a nice change of pace to see Disney's first sustained attempt at a genuine comedy. The Shaggy Dog feels like the sort of thing that would have been aired on The Mickey Mouse Club, and for good reason. Shot in glorious black-and-white, it stars Disney's armada of child actors who had paid their dues on television. Tommy Kirk and Tom Considine are reunited from their stint as the Hardy Boys on two Mickey Mouse Club serials in 1956 and 1957. Annette Funicello also appears, along with the co-star of her eponymous Mickey Mouse Club serial, Roberta Shore. Kevin Corcoran is here in his "Moochie" persona, and for once it actually works. This might be his least annoying performance, as he manages to be actually entertaining as a boy so overwhelmed with his brother sporadically turning into a dog that he begins to treat him like a pet. The Shaggy Dog is the first film in Fred MacMurray's long association with the company, and Paul Frees even shows up in a uncredited role as a psychiatrist trying to get a handle on MacMurray's clearly insane belief that his son is a sheepdog.

The use of Mickey Mouse Club regulars and sets helped to keep the costs low, making The Shaggy Dog a smash success for the company. From it's $1 million budget, its relative profit was greater than any Disney movie up to that time. The contemporary setting doubtless helped things along, making it a fairly relatable suburban farce with enough silliness to appeal to kids, hip youthful hi-jinx (and Annette) to appeal to tweens and teens, and comedy to appeal to adults. The comedy is genuinely funny, and just as the "boy is his dog" gags start to run out, a spy plotline is suddenly introduced to give it focus in the second half. This stretches The Shaggy Dog out to twice the length of a regular Disney film of the time, but the midway shot in the arm doesn't make it feel so long. It has charm, whimsy, and novelty, and a kind of midcentury sitcom wholesomeness. There's a subtext about parental acceptance that runs the risk of reading too much anachronistically into it (doesn't help that Tommy Kirk is gay, lending credence to such anachronisms). It also inadvertently reinforces what I had said before, about how the best things Disney was doing were on the television and the theme parks. Even one of their better films was basically a scaled-up Mickey Mouse Club serial.

Eyes in Outer Space
June 18, 1959
25 minutes

All those satellite cameras in space are totally just to keep track of the weather guys! With help from the US Department of Defense, Walt trumpets the virtues of America's eyes in outer space in a fantastic bit of Tomorrowland retro-futurism. Paul Frees, Disney's voice of science (and ghosts), narrates a short that immediately goes off into left field in an extended expose on how weather works. It comes back around though, with a beautifully rendered, live-action and animation sequence of sciencey-looking men in a sciencey-looking place averting a hurricane with advanced weather manipulation technologies assisted by satellite. Some of the prognostications are naive and even frightening (like the idea of destroying desert and polar ecosystems by making them "productive"... come on Walt, you just made a bunch of nature movies about these places), but it's fun for a retro-futuristic kick.

Donald in Mathmagic Land
June 26, 1959
27 minutes

Donald Duck, dressed for a safari, wanders into my own personal nightmare world... Mathmagic Land, a terrifying Hellscape of numbers, formulae, and geometry.

I have to hand it to Disney for Donald in Mathmagic Land. True-Life Adventures and Tomorrowland featurettes are easy to make engaging, because they involve inherently interesting subjects like nature, space, and technological progress. To make math interesting is a whole special feat unto itself, and Disney largely succeeds.

The recipe involves an engaging character like Donald and an engaging narrator like Paul Frees, again, as the "true Spirit of Adventure." More so, it involves drifting away from those formulae and tables that drag popular interest in mathematics down, and instead connecting these ideas to real life. The opening sequence is not about how mathematics was invented or basic principles about multiplication or anything like that. Instead, it is the mathematical principles behind music. From there we migrate to the Golden Ratio and the mathematical principles behind art and proportion in nature, followed by the geometry in games like billiards.

Donald in Mathmagic Land isn't about to make a mathematician out of me, but it does help me appreciate what it is for, which for a failed math student like me is no small feat. I don't wonder that the short became wildly popular, an Oscar-winner, and the most widely distributed educational film Disney ever made. He actually creates a fascinating "wonderland" out of an otherwise monumentally dull and obnoxious subject.  

Darby O'Gill and the Little People
June 26, 1959
93 minutes

For a studio built on fairy tale animated films, Disney did surprisingly few live-action fairy tale, folklore, and fantasy films. They did a suite of Mediaeval historical dramas, but that's typically about as close as it has gotten. Tales of princesses, dragons, knights, and fairies never seemed to translate over from animation.

Except for Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Like many traditional Irish fairy tales, the film revolves around the well-meaning braggart Darby O'Gill and his ongoing battle of wits with Brian Connors, king of the leprechauns. There is a motivating plotline of Darby's forced retirement as the groundskeeper for a grand manor and the romance between his daughter (Janice Munro) and his replacement (a young and dreamy pre-007 Sean Connery), but that's pretty much just there to give some framework to the fun, frivolity, and amazingly good special effects.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People strikes an excellent balance between its elements. There is romance and sacrifice, but not too much to drag it down. Its scary parts are genuinely scary... When the banshee comes ahowling for the soon to be departed amid Gothic ruins and the Cóiste Bodhar (death coach) and its headless driver, the dullahan, come to spirit them away on a stormy night, its more reminiscent of the scarier characters from the Haunted Mansion (itself still a decade in the future). There's lots of fine Irish folklore in the story, and blarney, and at least one good sequence - when Darby plays The Fox Hunt for the little people - to break the viewer's brain with the insanity of what they're watching. Readers might have guessed by now that I relish moments when I can look at a film and exclaim "What... Is... Going... On?!?" Darby O'Gill has wit, heart, craziness, and undeniable charm, which is a winning combination.

Noah's Ark
November 10, 1959
19 minutes

Preceding Third Man on the Mountain was this odd little experiment in stop-motion animation. Odd because it was Disney's only experiment to speak of. Stop-motion would turn up again here and there, in a short or the credits of a feature film to come, but Disney never really applied themselves to this method. Noah's Ark was created using found objects - animals made of bottles and paperclips, a moose with antlers made of forks, that sort of thing - which is a cute novelty but not anything meaningful as trying to develop stop-motion animation as an art form. I couldn't imagine an entire feature film done in this style, and Disney never pressed the issue. Had Disney ever attempted stop-motion in a serious way, they could have undoubtedly done some incredible things with it (as they eventually did when Tim Burton pushed them kicking and screaming). Noah's Ark doesn't even feel like a Disney production, and I mean that in a bad way. It was ground that Walt seemed content to surrender to Gumby (whose show just entered syndication in 1959) and other innovators.

Third Man on the Mountain
November 10, 1959
105 minutes

Disney's story of obsession, maturity, and physical and emotional endurance is a good enough film in its own right. James MacArthur stars as Rudi Matt, whose father died on the forbidden Citadel mountain, not by an accident, stupidity or ambition, but by sacrificing his life to save the client he was hired to guide. I can never say that I'm overly impressed with MacArthur's work, but thankfully there is a good enough cast around him to make it interesting. Michael Rennie (Day the Earth Stood StillLes Misérables, The Robe) plays Captain John Winter, an English mountaineer looking to scale the Citadel. Janet Munro and Laurence Naismith play Rudi's sweetheart and friend who believe in his abilities, opposite James Donald as the uncle who is trying to keep him from following his father into death.

The real attraction is the mountain itself... The looming presence, the symbol of death and rebirth, aspirations and crushing defeats. In its stony silence it is a character in itself. The mountain in question is unmistakably the Matterhorn, and the story is based loosely on its first ascent by Edward Whymper in 1865. Location shooting took place in the gorgeous surroundings of Zermatt, Switzerland, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, lending gravitas to the mountain as a character. Peter Ellenshaw once again works his painterly touch to accent the vertiginous drops that thrill the viewer, but in this case, they are unequivocally exceeded by the real locale.

What's probably most interesting about Third Man on the Mountain is not the film itself as much as the inspiration it provided for the world's first tubular steel roller coaster. Walt was, as we all know, struck so much by the mountain that he wanted his own scale version for Disneyland. Thus was born the Matterhorn Bobsleds this same year, whose popularity has exceeded that of the film that partly inspired it. Since the Matterhorn Bobsleds is also one of my favourite rides, though that waxes and wanes depending on which incarnation of the bobsleds is in use any given time, Third Man on the Mountain is a decent film but sustains more interest for me by its connection with the ride than on its own merits.

Mysteries of the Deep
December 16, 1959
24 minutes

Jungle Cat
December 16, 1959
69 minutes

And so the saga of the True-Life Adventures comes to an end. It was a good run, and closes on a high note with Jungle Cat, as competent a True-Life as any before it. Unlike previous True-Life features, the story begins not with an overview of geography, but one of cultural history. The place of cats in societies across the globe starts us off... The artist's brush and Winston Hibler's narration begin with a statue of the Egyptian goddess Bast, and eventually survey through tigers, lions, Assyrians, cougars, and so forth leads to the deepest heart of the Amazon, home of the jaguar. From there is picks up much the same as any other True-Life Adventure, looking at the lives of jaguars and the lives of those species around them.

It's sad to see the series go, since there was still a lot of potential for as yet unvisited corners of the globe. The plethora of modern nature documentaries testifies to that, as do Disney's True-Life-in-all-but-name shorts like Mysteries of the Deep and Nature's Strangest Creatures. Those both had me yearning for the more involved treatment of a feature film. Mysteries of the Deep, which preceded Jungle Cat in its initial limited theatrical run, has the aquaria of Marineland, Florida, double as the mysterious depths in a more satisfying short than Nature's Strangest Creatures. It's like they're getting back in the swing of doing shorts on the cusp of Disney stepping out of documentaries altogether.

Granted there is a certain sameness to the presentation of the far-flung corners of the Arctic, Prairies, Savannah, Amazon... The subject matter is fascinating enough in its own right to offset any creative deficiency, but perhaps Disney didn't see it that way. The People and Places series was also winding down, and no more Tomorrowland episodes were being pilfered for theatrical release. Disney still persisted in education, but that venue switched to 16mm classroom flimstrips of scenes from the True-Life Adventures and Walt Disney's Disneyland. I still remember watching Fantasia's outdated dinosaur scenes in grade 2 science class.

In retrospect, it's amazing to watch the True-Life Adventures knowing that one is seeing the effective creation of a new genre in film. It's a bit like watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in its own way. The True-Life films echo down through today, even in the most recent documentaries like BBC's Life Story. When birds take wing to a soaring score, or an orchestra pounds out a rhythm to a lion's hunt, you're watching what Disney started. When the camera manipulates your sympathies but still presents the struggle for survival between predator and prey impartially, that was originally a choice made by Walt and his team. When you see everything but hide nor hair of human beings, that was the whole point of the True-Life Adventures

Besides their historical interest, the True-Life Adventures still hold up as good entertainment in their own right. Some parts may be a bit hokey because of too-enthusiastic Mickey Mousing or Winston Hibler's folksy dad-jokes, but the timelessness of nature and the skill with which it was brought to the screen keep these films interesting even today. As a whole, the series has been a pleasure to watch as a part of this project. From here on in, the closest we're going to get are even hokier scripted stories about funny animals, which have their own charm but lack the True-Life Adventures' majesty.

From here on in things start to get interesting for the company. Some might argue that 1959 may have even been Disney's last really good year, at least until the Eighties. That benchmark makes this a good place to take a brief reprieve. For the sake of relaxing our schedule and playing some catch-up, we'll be skipping Walt's Era next month and resuming on the second Saturday of April.


  1. "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" seems to be regaining some traction among the public of late. I had seen it once as a child, and then finally found a DVD for sale a few years ago. It was actually better than I remembered.

    As for "Sleeping Beauty," your variation on the order of events is interesting, but I think it was wise for the Disney team to do what they did with "Snow White" and have the central couple already be acquainted (in real life) before the climactic kiss. Otherwise, dream-meeting or no, it's just creepy. We would also lose the direct antagonism between Philip and Maleficent, and every amazing sequence that came out of it, and plenty of funny character scenes as well.

    1. My version of Sleeping Beauty would be almost the same as what was made, just with things reordered. So after Philip wakes up, he wants to track down the cottage in the woods, where he gets captured by Maleficent, who has been keeping her ear to the ground and becomes aware that the prince is seeking out Aurora. The good fairies hear about this, rescue Philip, him and Maleficent fight, etc. It only takes a few tweaks and nudges and there we go :) Plus, in my version, they did meet, just in a dream!

      The kissing prior to meeting is where I have to depart from modern interpretations and angst concerning the story. I most prefer the allegorical interpretation of the story, wherein Aurora represents humanity and Philip is more or less Jesus. The kissing before they meet doesn't skeeze me out because I'm looking at it through the lens of Divine grace. Or if one wills, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

    2. You're welcome to your allegorical interpretation, but you must be aware that the vast majority of viewers, including all those impressionable children, won't share it. They're going to read Philip and Aurora as a literal dude and chick.

      I's bad enough that she's barely 16 and about to get married. Yes, I know that wasn't remotely shocking for 14th Century nobility - nor indeed 1950s middle-class Americans - but I am glad that Disney finally decided to start portraying their leading romantic ladies as legal adults.

    3. Granted, but it's not usually the impressionable children I hear complaining about it either ;)

      I admit I get a little worried when I see increasing efforts to reframe fairy tales in light of modern Western anxieties, because the very value of fairy tales is their timelessness and universality... Deep, fundamental human concerns about love, death, courage, kindness, good and evil, etc. Forgetting that tends, in my opinion (which has itself been largely shaped by G.K. Chesterton), to lead to more impoverished, flatter interpretations. I think children are good to take the story at face value when they are children, and grow into layered, allegorical interpretations as they get older. If they must, I'd even settle for the most boring of allegorical interpretations - female puberty - over concerns about whether the Divine grace of breathing resurrecting life into the physically/spiritually/intellectually/morally dead had sufficient affirmative consent from the corpse. There is so much richness to all these stories that I'd hate to see lost by fixating on a single thing that seems unusual to one or another society in one or another point in time.