Saturday, 13 May 2017

Walt's Era - Part 13: Disney in Transition, Part 2 (1961)

The process of finding new footing continued for Disney into 1961. The company paid off its existing loans, debuted Wonderful World of Color on NBC on September 24th (and introduced America to Professor Ludwig von Drake), and released its first truly new animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theatres. Disney also ended their popular series of Donald Duck cartoons this year, against the backdrop of general changes in America's filmgoing habits. Nevertheless, they also acquired the rights to the Winnie the Pooh character. The first draft of Mary Poppins was finished, and it is in this year that the film Saving Mr. Banks is set, fictionalizing the challenges of working with Pamela Travers. Disney was setting itself up nicely for its new-new era.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians
January 25, 1961
79 minutes

I was uneasy coming into One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This is perhaps the one classic Disney animated film that I haven't watched since I was a child, and it was the first Disney animated film I had seen in theatres, during its 1985 re-release. It's also a childhood favourite of Ashley's, so I was excited to watch it on all those grounds. Watching Disney's films in order, however, has given me a perspective that made me dread the potential for disillusionment.

Last month didn't fill me with much hope. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was Disney's first Xerox film, and I had already seen how terrible that process looked on the short Goliath II. I was also feeling pretty low at the diminishing returns. I even ended off last month's post feeling down about Swiss Family Robinson! How would One Hundred and One Dalmatians play out?

Quite well, as a matter of fact! I was pleasantly relieved of my terror... One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a genuinely delightful romp of a film. It had a lot about it that was novel and refreshing, while at the same time holding on to much of what made the classic Disney films of a decade or two before so good.

The main thing it inherited was brevity. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a surprisingly simple story: the dogs (and their human pets) meet up, get married, have puppies (not the humans), the puppies are kidnapped, the puppies escape, they elude their captors, make it back home, and live happily ever after. There are no twists, turns, surprises, subplots, or anything else to muddy up the narrative simplicity. The only thing they could have done that added to the story was give a bit more background on Cruella De Vil and why she was making dalmatian coats. Otherwise, everything moved along at a brisk pace and there was no unnecessary freight to weigh it down.

The novelty was two-fold. First was the artistic style. As I said in my review of Sleeping Beauty, back in 1959, the "cartoon modern" pop-art style developed as much out of economic necessity as artistic expression. Much of the work of companies like the UPA was shaped by the need to make cheap animation look good. When Disney tried to make an expensive animated film in cartoon modern style, it ended up looking cheaper than it actually was. They solved the problem in this film by embracing economic efficiency. Xerox is a cheap-looking process, and they rolled with it, developing a comprehensive pop-art style around it that really works well. Even more than Sleeping Beauty, it's the first truly new Disney animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One Hundred and One Dalmatians has shed that artistic inheritance, to positive effect.

Mirroring that artistic innovation is the second novelty of its setting. It's a modern-looking film set in the modern day... Well, the modern day of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Walt feared that between the style and the substance, the animation department was veering too far off the tried and true realm of fairy tale fantasy. Though set in the then-modern day, the inherent fashion and architecture of post-war Britain still imparts a timelessness. It feels like it really could take place at any point in the early 20th century. Once Upon a Time placed Cruella's origin in the Roaring Twenties, and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom makes her the villain of Main Street USA. Both work.

Granted, this is not the first time that Disney set a film or short in the modern day. Several pieces in the Forties package films were clearly set in the Forties. Yet they did not reflect that quite as strongly as One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Perhaps it was because, fundamentally, for as modern as they tried to make them, they were drawn in the same house style used on Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. With One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Disney is finding a new and effective house style.

So it turns out that my misgivings were unfounded. The film was as enjoyable now as it was when I was eight. That's a relief, and a very good way to kick off this month's list of films.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith
March 16, 1961
13 minutes

The Sons of the Pioneers, that great treasure of Western music, return to the Disney fold after nearly 20 years to help present another piece of American fakelore. Last time we heard from them, it was to back-up Roy Rogers in Melody Time, sharing the story of Pecos Bill. Roy didn't come back for The Saga of Windwagon Smith, so the honour of narration fell to the new guy, Rex Allen.

The Saga of Windwagon Smith has a great concept and good character designs - a seafaring captain blows into a Kansas town on a Conestoga wagon fitted out with a mast and sails, promising to cross the Santa Fe Trail in 14 days as the crow flies - but its quality is a notable decline from Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. It appears to be embracing the new modern style of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but without the same budget, time, or possibly even effort. Which is not to say that it isn't fun... Like all good tall tales, it is told well. The Saga of Windwagon Smith has all the quintessential stuff, from the mysterious hero's entrance to his mythic exit. I don't know if it was intentional, but Captain Windwagon Smith bears a striking resemblance to Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The passion for animated theatrical shorts was on the wane at Disney during this time, and perhaps that is why The Saga of Windwagon Smith isn't everything it could have been. For what it is though, it hits me in just the right place. I love a good tall tale, crazy Victorian inventions, Weird Westerns, and the Sons of the Pioneers.  

The Absent-Minded Professor
March 16, 1961
97 minutes

Despite breaking into live-action film with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and riding it on a wave of success, Walt tackled Science Fiction infrequently at best. The Man in Space trilogy had Science Fiction elements, but those were relatively serious attempts at scientific speculation. Properly speaking, The Absent-Minded Professor was Disney's first Sci-Fi film since 20,000 Leagues.

Between those two films, it's clear that Science Fiction wasn't a genre that explicitly interested Walt or anyone at his studio, and when they did go for it, they always tried to bring something new to the table. Their first was a deliberately retro-Victorian Scientific Romance that was innovative for its time and begat a whole string of imitators adapting any available work of Jules Verne's or H.G. Wells'. 1961 saw three such films: Mysterious Island, Master of the World, and Valley of the Dragons. In The Absent-Minded Professor, we get a comedy that is more in tune with The Shaggy Dog than terrifying stories of rocket ships, alien worlds, atomic monsters, and mad scientists. Fred MacMurray doesn't even play a mad scientist... merely an absent-minded one.

One could speculate endlessly on why Disney didn't tackle Science Fiction. Could it have been that the subject didn't interest him? 20,000 Leagues and Absent Minded Professor are both Sci-Fi stories told through different milieus that Disney was more interested in: the Victorian Era and contemporary comedy, respectively. But then they did Man in Space. Could it have been that Walt really said all he had to say with 20,000 Leagues, and from then on the only relevant commentary was in "science eventuality"? That wouldn't explain why he made a dozen different Westerns, most of which didn't really say anything at all. Could it be that Walt typically offered reassurances that were missing from Science Fiction? As a genre, Science Fiction is often divided between pro-science fiction and anti-science fiction, and at the time almost universally ended off with a lingering sense of threat reflective of the Cold War reality. When Walt did deal with the threat of atomic destruction, it was through the lens of a 100 year old story, brilliantly offering the reassurance of time. But then that wouldn't explain the satirical farce of The Absent-Minded Professor.

Whereas Disney usually offers these goodnatured reassurances and toothless humour, The Absent-Minded Professor is surprisingly biting. The government is the victim of the majority of the satire, being ribbed constantly, up and down. One of my favourite moments is when Professor Brainerd (MacMurray) flies his Flubberized Model-T to Washington D.C. After failing to prove his identity ("I'm an American! See it? My credit cards!"), he flies behind the dome of the Capitol Building to avoid the missiles trained on him. The countdown continues. One of the missile commander's lackeys points out that Congress is in session and their lives would be endangered. The countdown still continues...

The film nicely balances different kinds of comedy. The bouncy Flubber provides plenty of physical humour, there's a love triangle to torment Brainerd, and some aspects of a caper comedy when the Model-T is stolen. All of this packed into an hour and a half, without the mid-way switch in plot necessary to sustain The Shaggy Dog. Brainerd's adventure to get back his jilted fiance, help his college win the big game, defeat the businessman who wants to steal his invention, and handing Flubber over to the government are all neatly woven together. The cast is also excellent, with MacMurray, Disney's go-to befuddled middle-aged man at his most befuddled. Hardcore Disney fans will also recognize Ed Wynn as the fire chief, Wally Boag as a reporter, the voice of Paul Frees scrambling fighter jets in Washington, and the occasional sighting of the Walt Disney Studios.

The initial incident in the plot - Professor Brainerd misses his wedding for a third time because he was distracted by the creation of Flubber - got under Ashley's skin a little bit. We are, after all, still practically newlyweds. A well-played dynamic of the film is that even though Brained is still insufferable as an absent-minded scientist, it is still easy to see why his long-suffering fiance still loves him. He has a sincerity and earnestness about him that is in stark contrast to his competition, a smarmy English literature professor from the rival college. That helped to put Ashley's mind at ease.

It's too bad that The Absent-Minded Professor is under-viewed today. It's a taut and very funny film. It's also too bad that Disney so infrequently went at Science Fiction. It's two for two at this point. Of course, we all know how The Island at the Top of the World, The Black Hole, Tron, Tron Legacy, John Carter, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet turned out. They're all decent films in their own way - and personally I think Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and John Carter are objectively good by any meaningful standard - but for some reason Disney's Sci-Fi doesn't seem to resonate with audiences.

Maybe that's the other possibility. A failed Western is still relatively affordable to produce. You just have to grab some horses, Fess Parker, and head out to the Golden Oak Ranch. Could you imagine what would have happened if a movie with a budget like 20,000 Leagues failed? The hard reality is that maybe it wasn't worth the risk.

Donald and the Wheel
June 21, 1961
17 minutes

Donald works his mathmagic again in another educational featurette. The subject of this short is the wheel and its history and various applications, with a ongoing refrain about human progress. It could easily have been excerpted from a Tomorrowland episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland, and if we take the Tomorrowland concept as being foundationally educational, then Donald and the Wheel is a Tomorrowland short by any other name. The key plot thread - that literal spirits of progress are leading caveman Donald through the history of the wheel - is actually reminiscent of Spaceship Earth and other comparable EPCOT attractions.

As notable as the fascinating narrative it weaves around this most basic piece of technology is the application of Xerox animation. In One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Disney experimented with covertly passing off three dimensional models as animation (Cruella's car was an actual model, painted in white with thick black outlines, photographed and Xeroxed) and is taking it to the next level here. Images of actual automobiles, engines, and industrial machinery were Xeroxed, coloured, and grafted with Donald. It's interesting, but still cheap-looking when all is said and done.

The Parent Trap
June 21, 1961
129 minutes

The majority of Disney's most notable films feature a broken family in one way or another... Orphans, single-parent families, deaths, and so on. Few of those films actually deal with the family's brokenness. It's one of the things that makes Lilo and Stitch both so touching and so difficult to watch. The characters are not merely chasing dreams, but dealing with their brokenness, and that can be hard.

The Parent Trap, second vehicle for Haley Mills, is another such movie. It's not as heart-rending as Lilo and Stitch, but the plot is driven by the family's brokenness. Mills plays a pair of twins who were separated at one year of age by their divorced parents. The one grew up on dad's ranch in California and the other in mother's mansion in Boston. Meeting unexpectedly at summer camp, they hatch a plot to switch places, chase off dad's gold-digging fiance, and reunite their star-cross'd parents.

Despite the serious subject matter (young Mills predicts, in 1961, that soon divorces will outnumber marriages), The Parent Trap is still a light contemporary comedy. Brain Keith returns to the Disney fold to play a stiff, strong, and quiet rancher opposite the stunning Maureen O'Hara's firey redhead who smugly knows all. Mills excels at the same not-so-subtle manipulations that she performed in Pollanna. My favourite is the droll minister who is thoroughly enjoying the fireworks when dad is caught with his ex-wife. Behind the scenes, the Sherman Bros. provide some decent songs for Tommy Sands and Annette to sing. As everyone knows, the effects work seamlessly. The split screen and use of a body double is phenomenal, and one almost forgets that Haley Mills isn't two people.

Though directly addressing the pain of a broken family, Disney still offers its usual reassurances. The couple involved never really work out what made them not get along to begin with, but at least they do end up together. Walt supplies hope that love can not only overcome death, curses, evil sorcerers, and the like, but that it can even overcome divorce.

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North
July 12, 1961
74 minutes

If Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue set the 1/8th Scottish part of my Canadian identity aflutter, then what about a film that is 100% Canadian? Nikki, Wild Dog of the North was based on the 1919 novel Nomads of the North by James Oliver Curwood, is set in "The Canadian Northwest" of 1899, was filmed in my own backyard of Banff National Park, and opens with a fur trading Voyageur singing the Quebecois folk song Un Canadien Errant. The story revolves around Nikki, a gorgeous malamute puppy owned by a friendly voyageur, who finds a lost black bear cub but is shortly separated from his master and forced to team up with the cub to survive in the wilds of Canada. Eventually he is captured by a cruel fur trapper and trained to fight in the pit at the nearby trading post.

Familiarity sometimes threatened to overshadow the film itself, as I picked out mountains (the film also opens with a shot of the picturesque Castle Mountain in Banff) or picked at historical inaccuracies (the high fur trade era depicted in the film was over by 1899). It was fun, though, to see Disney give some recognition to Canada. It was also lovely to see the wildlife of Banff and the dog that played Nikki was a beautiful, expressive animal. It did give me a warm, fuzzy feeling, I admit.

Less warm and fuzzy was the violence in it. Nikki is part of the same movement away from the traditional True-Life Adventures films and into narrated, fictionalized films about animal characters. Unlike The Hound That Thought He Was a Raccoon, this film was not narrated by Rex Allen, who will become the go-to man for this genre. Disney had the presence of mind to find a French-Canadian actor, Jacques Fauteux, to narrate. What he had to narrate were often scenes of nature being uncomfortably red in tooth and claw.

These narrated animal films draw a blurred line between scripted story and unfettered documentary. It's simply impossible to tell, from watching Nikki, which scenes of primal combat involved trained animals acting out and which involved actual wild animals fighting. It adds to the verisimilitude, but in so doing can detract from the enjoyment. It's hard to get into the fictional story when you're worried about what's happening to the actual dog.

That might be why Disney has quietly suppressed Nikki. As far as I know, Disney has never themselves put the film on DVD, leaving that responsibility to an old, now out-of-print DVD by Anchor Bay. For this review I watched it via Google Play, so it is out there, but Disney isn't exactly advertising it either. Though there is a happy ending for everyone (except the evil trapper), getting there can be too distressing. Ashley found herself wondering who this was made for, since it would be very discomforting to show kids. The allure of the Canadian northwoods, which may stir a Canadian heart, isn't of widespread appeal. Even by 1961, the "Northern" - a derivative of the Western featuring Mounties and Voyageurs in the northwoods - was waning. Only two such movies came out in 1961 (the other being The Canadians) versus five in 1954 and 11 in 1936.   

Greyfriars Bobby
October 11, 1961
87 minutes

Ashley and I both caught a little something in our eyes by the end of this biographical film about Edinburgh's famous mascot, the Skye Terrier named "Greyfriars Bobby". Disney's adaptation of these true-life events, filmed on location in the UK, begins with a sick old shepherd named Jock being released from a distant farm and forced to live the last day of his life in the Victorian slums of Edinburgh. Joining him, to the chagrin of the farmer and his family, is Bobby the Skye Terrier, who doesn't know that the man who he spent all his time with and who took care of him all his life wasn't technically his master. Upon Jock's burial in the Greyfrairs Kirkyard, Bobby holds an eternal vigil, and in so doing unites the fractured community around the cemetery. And by the end, yes, the waterworks begin.

The actual history of the little dog who became the toast of Edinburgh is more complicated, but Greyfriars Bobby is one of those films that nevertheless puts the lie to the idea that Walt went out of his way to "Disnify" his subjects. Within the first quarter of the film we watch as a poor, abandoned old man dies of pneumonia, followed by the trials of Bobby trying to keep his vigil against adversity, the joy he brings to orphans in the tenements, and his persecution by the authorities. It's not at all a "light" movie. Softened a bit, perhaps, though the bickering of stubborn old men can get a little tiresome. Yet it is dealing with some pretty heavy stuff about death, loyalty, compassion, and community. It's a good film, though I don't think it is one I would want to watch often because it is so heavy.   

Undoubtedly the lion's share of the credit goes to the British crew. Disney has tackled Scottish subjects before - Rob Roy, Kidnapped - and will again, and they've already done several films in the British Isles, from The Story of Robin Hood to Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Each time, a large portion of the cast and crew is British. Looking at the credits for Greyfriars Bobby, the names are mostly unfamiliar to previous Disney productions. It almost feels like Disney's live-action films about the 19th century United Kingdom are a parallel track to the material being produced in his Stateside studios. One might argue that Walt's hand is only seen on this film in the "Walt Disney Productions" credit. 

Perhaps that acknowledgment undermines the argument I just made about Disnification. It is something that Ashley has been noticing though, as we've been watching all these films. When exactly did the concept of Disnification begin? It's not something we're necessarily seeing in such films as Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Three Caballeros, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Greyfriars Bobby. In parts and spots perhaps, but there is considerably more complexity and emotional nuance to these films that one might expect by reputation. Is Disnification really Eisnerfication? Or Millerfication? Or is it just one of those things that people "just know" from having kinda' heard that the ending of The Little Mermaid is different from the original story but not having actually read the story themselves or seen the movie in years? Is it more a reflection of the viewer, their age, and the complexity of their own thoughts about it?

Also, a warning might be in order: the dog playing Greyfrairs Bobby is so adorable that it may make you want to get a Skye Terrier of your own. I'm presently trying to sell Ashley on the idea. 

Babes in Toyland
December 14, 1961
106 minutes

Or perhaps I spoke too soon... Just as string of films like Greyfriars Bobby and Nikki, Wild Dog of the North was making us question the idea of "Disnification", along comes Babes in Toyland to reinforce it all over again. I don't want to outright bash the film, because I'm sure that there are readers who just love it and for whom it holds a special, nostalgic place in their hearts. For me, however, it was very gaudy and gauche and feels like it drags on for longer than its hour and forty minutes.  

I should also know better than to take an immediate disliking to a Disney film, since they do tend to be better than one might think after the initial viewing (it even took me a couple times to grow more comfortable with Cinderella). There are some interesting things going on in Babes in Toyland... It's nice to see Zorro's Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon again, and Annette and Ed Wynn and Tommy Kirk. The film has most of Disney's stalwart stars of the period. Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz, does a fine job as the villainous Mr. Barnaby, cut from the melodramatic mold of Snidely Whiplash, Simon Legree, and other connoisseurs of mortgage foreclosures and tying ladies to train tracks. The most redeeming part of the film is the climax, when the shrunken hero rallies an army of stop-motion toy soldiers. That sequence was done very well, and I'm glad now that I can least catch that reference in Disneyland's Christmas parades..   

Babes in Toyland's set design resembles that of a stage production, and presumably this is on purpose. It opens with Mother Goose and her puppet Sylvester the Goose, or "Silly" for short  (the sort of laboured joke common in this film), opening up a curtain on a scene of garish painted flats and Papier-mâché domiciles in nursery rhyme land or wherever they are, which has a nice big public square for all the park-and-bark song-and-dance numbers. I gather the team from The Mickey Mouse Club was tapped to build the sets, and it shows. On the small screen in black-and-white that may work fine, but on the big screen in Technicolor it is left wanting. 

Maybe that is the biggest problem: it feels like a Mickey Mouse Club dance skit inflated to 106 minutes. Translating the Mickey Mouse Club serial vibe to the silver screen worked for The Shaggy Dog, but trying the same with the musical numbers just doesn't work for me. 

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