Saturday, 10 June 2017

Walt's Era - Part 14: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 1 (1962)

1962 is another landmark year in this series, in a certain way. This is the first year that not only lacks an animated classic, but lacks any kind of classic to speak of. There isn't even anything that might be called a minor, cult classic among Disney fans "in the know". The films are not bad, but not a one of them is on most people's top 10, or top 20, or maybe even a top 30 list. In Search of the Castaways, Moon Pilot, The Legend of Lobo, Big Red, etc. are pretty okay films and on the balance, 1962 was a pretty okay year. There are no truly awful films - even Bon Voyage has its merits -  at the expense of nothing truly outstanding. Luckily the company also re-released Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp to offset things.

Behind the scenes, WED moved from the Disney studios to Glendale as construction began on New Orleans Square in Disneyland. The Swiss Family Treehouse also opened this year, adding the second actual attraction to Adventureland and its first expansion since opening day. Walt Disney Productions renewed its contract with Walt and WED Enterprises. Walt received some $3500 per week plus another $1666 in deferred payments and a percentage of profits from the films, with an additional $1500 going to WED.  

Swiss Family Treehouse, circa 1962.

Moon Pilot
February 9, 1962
98 minutes

Disney makes their third attempt at Science Fiction with Moon Pilot, which is really more of a satirical farce in the vein of The Absent-Minded Professor but without its same non-stop, screwball style of comedy. Tom Tyron, seen previously on Walt Disney Presents as Texas John Slaughter, stars as a hapless Air Force Captain who inadvertently volunteers for America's first manned lunar orbiting mission. Brian Keith, now one of Disney's regular contract players, is his perpetually screaming commander trying to make sure that this politically expedient launch goes off without a hitch. Edmond O'Brien plays the incompetent FBI-by-any-other-name agent employed to keep an eye on the errant astronaut. And French actress Dany Saval makes her American film debut as Lyrae, an alien chasing Tyron around San Francisco to try and save him from catching the space madness in America's under-engineered, inadequately-protected rocket capsule. Tommy Kirk also makes a brief guest appearance.

Though not as consistently manic or funny as The Absent-Minded Professor, Moon Pilot still has its moments and is generally entertaining overall. The main targets are the Air Force, FBI, aerospace program, and Beatniks. Legend has it that the FBI protested the insufficiently dignified portrayal of the film's "Federal Security" agency. The Science Fiction elements are largely limited to Saval's accent, the lion's share of the film being shot on location in San Francisco. Following from my observation in last month's review of The Absent-Minded Professor, it's unsurprising that another Disney Sci-Fi film would be so low on the Sci-Fi elements. Moon Pilot is actually closer to a comedy version of the Man in Space trilogy than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or, in many ways, The Absent-Minded Professor itself. Then there is the ambiguous ending... Does he have space madness or not?
Like many of the films this year, it would be an overstatement to say this film is underappreciated. I don't expect that enough people have even seen it to build any kind of consensus.

Bon Voyage
May 17, 1962
130 minutes

Bon Voyage is Disney's great paean to middle-class, middle-American values, a love-letter to France, and one of the better extended arguments against having children. Fred MacMurray stars once again as Disney's go-to befuddled middle aged man who has finally been able to give his wife (played by Pollyanna's Jane Wyman) their long dreamt of trip to France, persistently pushed back because of the arrival of one child after another. The children in question are played by Deborah Walley, Tommy Kirk at his most insufferably angstridden and rude, and Kevin Corcoran at his most insufferably Kevin Corcoranish. The holiday goes awry in every possible way as the children do their damnedest to undermine and destroy their parents' happiness, as an erstwhile sexual predator hounds Wyman. 

It sounds dreadful on paper, but there's a surprising amount of maturity and nuance in it. MacMurray finds himself befuddled and frustrated at every turn as, for example, he misses going to the Louvre one day after another because of his kids' hijinks. Sometimes he acts inexcusably: when your wife is coming to you to take her home from a party because she is practically being sexually assaulted by some creep, you take her home. You do not act jilted and jealous and like she's wronging you. But other times he carries himself with a certain amount of enviable aplomb. In one scene, a well put together woman in a streetside cafe takes him for a wealthy American and tries to woo him, and he lets her down with gentle grace and civility. At another time, Tommy Kirk gets himself in trouble with a young lady and her mother who clearly lie in wait for wealthy Americans to "take advantage" of her "virtue". MacMurray's quick wit saves the day, though we're left with the lingering question of what exactly Kirk's character did with her. His biggest challenge is his teenage daughter and her confusing relationship with a gloomy, troubled young son of truly wealthy, divorced, socialite parents (played by Michael Callan). He eventually figures out that he has to let her fly on her own, make her own decisions, and trust that he and his wife have raised her to make the right ones. 

My opening line might sound facetious, but I actually didn't intend it to be so, and the reason why has a lot to do with Disney. There is a lot of social inertia behind looking down one's nose at middle-class, middle-American, middle-aged values. Both Tommy Kirk and Michael Callan provide a voice for that in the movie, as well as the Boston socialites that Wyman's character went to school with. Classism and regionalism can take on new vocabularies every generation - today it dons the robes of identity politics - but is still, at heart, a disdain for the "tacky", suburban, "plebeian rabble". Disney is often included in this disdain... Shortly after Disneyland first opened, Julian Halevy penned a scathing critique:
As in the Disney movies, the whole world, the universe, and all man’s striving for dominion over self and nature, have been reduced to a sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell. Romance, Adventure, Fantasy, Science are ballyhooed and marketed: life is bright-colored, clean, cute, titivating, safe, mediocre, inoffensive to the lowest common denominator, and somehow poignantly inhuman. The mythology glorified in TV and Hollywood’s B films has been given too solid flesh. By some Gresham’s law of bad art driving out good, the whole of Southern California and the nation indivisible is affected. The invitation and challenge of real living is abandoned. It doesn’t sell tickets. It’s dangerous and offensive. Give ’em mumbo-jumbo. One feels our whole mass culture heading up the dark river to the source—that heart of darkness where Mr. Disney traffics in pastel-trinketed evil for gold and ivory.
One would think that Walt ran over his cat. This in turn, prompted a letter by Ray Bradbury, which sarcastically lead off with "'Sirs,' it said, 'like many intellectuals before me I delayed going to Disneyland, having heard it was just too dreadfully middle-class. One wouldn't dream of being caught dead there.'" Several years ago now, I read an article on Steampunk that began with an assertion of hipster credibility, bemoaning "Disney and suburban grandparents" as a tripartite axis of uncool. 

Canadian philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter identify this disdain as the critique of mass society, the conviction that one's highest fulfilment comes by distinguishing oneself as an individual against the seething masses of supposed conformists. It is the opposite of "sonder" ("the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.") and is, sadly, as Heath and Potter prophesied over a decade ago, one of the driving forces in our current social, political, and financial economy. The palpable contempt for middle-class, middle-American, middle-aged values drove one of the greatest political upsets in American history: the sublimely vengeful act of voting in Donald Trump for president.

As a Goth and preoccupied with fairly traditional liberal concerns (multiculturalism, anti-war, pro-labour, civil liberties and human rights, challenging gender norms, being as Canadian as possible under the circumstances, etc.) it would have been easy to collapse into that same critique of mass society, and I must confess that I undoubtedly skirted its fringes many times, in retaliation against real or perceived slights against me. It's fairly normal to want acceptance. It's more difficult to accept others who are unlike yourself, especially when you feel justified in not doing so.

A love for one of that Axis of Uncool - Disney - helped save me from it. "I go right straight out for the adult," Walt once famously said. "As I say, for the honest adult. Not the sophisticates. Not these characters that think they know everything and you can't thrill them anymore. I go for those people that retain that something, you know, no matter how old they are; that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of the world of fantasy and things like that. I go for them. I play to them. There's a lot of them. You know?" Another time, he declared that "I don't pose as an authority on anything at all, I follow the opinions of the ordinary people I meet." He did so with good reason too:
The public has been my friend. The public discovered Mickey Mouse before the critics and before the theatrical people. It was only after the public discovered it, did the theatrical people become interested in it; and did the critics become interested. Up to that time, the critic wouldn't have bothered using any space, you see? So it all comes down that newspapers and people who write for newspapers are only interested in people after the public is interested. The key to it is the public.
What was his secret to reaching the mass public? "Well, we like a little mystery in our films, but there's really no secret about our approach. We're interested in doing things that are fun — in bringing pleasure and especially laughter to people. And we have never lost our faith in family entertainment — stories that make people laugh, stories about warm and human things, stories about historic characters and events, and stories about animals." Walt could reach the public because he was sensitive to their needs, wants, ambitions, fears, and hopes. He refused to look down his nose at them. "Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children's approach to life. They're people who don't give a hang what the Joneses do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there. They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought — sometimes it isn't much, either." 

It's hard to argue with the success he managed to build by treating these tacky, unsophisticated, middle-class, middle-American, middle-aged, Caucasian, cisgendered, family types seriously. And it is hard not to be beguiled by its kindly simplicity. He makes an implicitly confident and compelling case that this dignity and sympathy really is the way that people ought to be treated, regardless of their adjectives, pronouns, dialect, sexuality, gender identity, region, religion, or class. Maybe we really ought not to be mocking people for trying to live decent, healthy, happy lives, as though that makes them some kind of deviant. It's one of the tragedies of the current Western political climate that we increasingly treat decency as deviance, and decreasingly treat individuals as worthy of dignity and sympathy out of mistaken notions of "privilege."

Bon Voyage gives us an interesting insight into a Disneyfied, Hollywoodized version of this middle-class, middle-American family and its challenges. In that respect, its genuinely fascinating and one can easily feel as Callen does at the film's close, wishing we could kind of have a caring family like that or holding onto the one we may have been blessed with, and recognizing it for the blessing it is. 

Big Red
June 13, 1962
89 minutes

"I liked it. I didn't expect to like it, no offense, but I liked it." That was Ashley's assessment immediately after watching Big Red. Two things contributed to that impression that we could both agree on. The first was that it was a Disney dog movie that didn't end in tragedy. The second was its very Canadian sensibilities. 

Walt only did a small handful of movies filmed and set in Canada. White Wilderness was a wildlife documentary in the True-Life Adventure series, and we've already seen Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. The latter was fairly typical of an American "Northwoods" film, replete with fur trading Voyageurs in thick French accents set against the backdrop of endless spruce forest. About the only thing it was missing was a Mountie. To Disney's credit, he did actually venture to film in Canada, in the vicinity of Banff National Park. Most Hollywood "Northerns" tended to film in the region of Lake Tahoe in California's Sierra mountains. Good enough, I suppose, when all one needs to communicate is rugged, forested wilderness to suggest Canadianess. 

Big Red, and a fifth Canadian film to follow soon enough, is a radical departure for the time. There is rugged wilderness, to be sure... The actual rugged wilderness of rural Quebec, filmed on location. The actors are Canadian as well. No Mounties with Brooklyn accents here. In fact, no Mounties here, period. Or Voyageurs. This is not a story about the Klondike Gold Rush or the days of fur traders or Indigenous peoples. On the contrary, it is a fully contemporary story about a show dog who takes the prize at the Montreal dog show, is purchased by a dog breeder, and forms a special attachment to the boy who works for him. There's nothing overtly Canadian about it, which is the most Canadian thing about it. It's like we're normal people who happen to be Canadian! The only time Canadianess hits you in the face is a moment towards the end of the movie when a Canadian National Railways train is stopped on the tracks by a moose, which is actually the sort of thing that could still happen in Canada today (with surprising frequency). 

Another subtle Canadianism that one might not pick up on if they're not Canadian, and not from eastern or central Canada specifically, is the mix of English and French. The young boy can speak "Franglish" (also know as "Franglais" depending on one's original tongue) but loses the English part when under stress, which is pretty much how it goes in French Canada. Meanwhile, the wealthy English dog breeder who has an estate in rural Quebec could not speak French, which was also par for the course in the province. That may be slightly less true now, but historically, cities like Montreal could be very segregated by language. The linguistic mix is a comfortably normal Canadian trait.  

That story about a boy and his dog is your standard Disney heartwarming fare, and there really isn't much to say about it besides that. It's sweet, but leaves some points dangling, resulting in a bit of a hollow absence where more heart should be found. Ashley added in the comment that it's a comfortable movie, and there's nothing wrong with a nice, comfortable movie. The dogs are adorable, and after our debates over Greyfriars Bobby, Ashley now wants a red English Setter of her own. 

Almost Angels 
September 26, 1962
93 minutes

If narrative films of wildlife replaced the True-Life Adventures, I wonder if films like Almost Angels could be said to have replaced the People and Places series? The plot is fairly standard stuff about persevering, working hard, and excelling at one's chosen discipline despite naysaying family members. The interest is sustained by this plot being draped upon the Vienna Boy's Choir and the gorgeous location shooting in Austria. It is reminiscent, in a way, of The Littlest Outlaw, insofar as the film's strength is in the cultural pageant of its setting. As a Disney film it is quite weak - and probably no surprise that it was paired with The Lady and the Tramp's 1962 re-release in a double-bill - but it has nice music and nice backdrops.  

The Legend of Lobo
November 9, 1962
67 minutes

Apparently the pairing of Rex Allen with the Sons of the Pioneers in the previous year's short The Saga of Windwagon Smith was successful enough for a repeat performance in The Legend of Lobo. Allen resumes his duties as narrator to post-True-Life narrative wildlife films, only this time accompanied by America's Western music institution on the soundtrack and background vocals. Allen's narration is interspersed with song, as the tales rises up to folk song status. 

The film was based on the accounts of Ernest Thompson Seton, a wolf-hunter who became an early conservationist after his encounter with the legendary wolf Lobo. Extraordinarily intelligent, Lobo had consistently managed to defy attempts on his life by poison, trap, and bullet. In 1894, Seton was lured by the $1000 bounty on the wolf into a four-month-long ordeal. Lobo's downfall was Seton's execution of his mate, whose body and scent were used to lure the wolf into a trap. Afterwards, Seton hung up his wolf-hunting gear and pledged himself to the preservation of wildlife. He realized that humans had no right to persecute such intelligent, emotionally-developed animals.

Disney's adaptation manages to end on a higher note, as one would expect. Though one again has to wonder how such films were shot... Were they trained wolves? Was it genuine nature photography with some staging? Lobo and his pack were played by genuine wolves apparently running free in the stunning surrounds of Sedona, Arizona... How does one go about managing that? 

And yes, the scenery is as breathtaking as the story itself. How could it not be? The gorgeous red deserts of Arizona, the mesa, the ancient cliff-dwellings, and open range are practically characters unto themselves. Into this world, it is humans that are the interlopers. The Legend of Lobo is told from the perspective of the wolves, and by default the landscape itself. Humans are only a small, small presence there, for as much trouble as they make for it. It is an excellent way of making a conservation film that subtly plays to sympathies without beating you over the head.     

A Symposium on Popular Songs
December 19, 1962
19 minutes

Ludwig Von Drake makes his first theatrical appearance in this animated short, but the real stars are the Sherman Brothers. Richard and Robert knock it out of the park in this loving tribute to American musical history, which more often than not was a direct homage to their father, the early 20th century popular composer Al Sherman. Their approach to satirizing ragtime, crooners, and doo-wop was to simply write workable, straightforward songs in those genres that happen to have humourous subject matters. The strategy worked so well that the songs were rerecorded, supplemented, and released on a Disneyland Records album in 1965 called Tinpanorama (another homage to their father and Tin Pan Alley, the New York music industry of which he was a part). 

Each song is animated with stop-motion work that is, sadly, crude even by 1960's standards. The Sixties were the great age of stop-motion. Harryhausen was still producing his best work, and had himself been active since the mid-Fifties. Gumby had been airing for several years, and in two more years, Rankin-Bass would debut the holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Disney's occasional run at stop-motion is poor in comparison, and betrays the marks of a side-hobby that the company could never be bothered to invest in. Some of the designs are charming and whimsical (I love the guy playing the piano during the song "Puppy Love is Here to Stay") but the quality of the work is primitive even and especially by Sixties standards.  

In Search of the Castaways
December 19, 1962
98 minutes

It's difficult for me to be wholly objective about In Search of the Castaways, since it hits me right in my love for the works of Jules Verne. I already wrote a lengthy piece several months ago comparing this film to the original novel, and another on my Victorian Science Fiction blog Voyages Extraordinaires placing it in the wave of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells adaptations that crested in the wake of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Typically, that's how I tend to view In Search of the Castaways as well: one in a string of adaptations like The Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Time Machine, First Men in the Moon, and Around the World in 80 Days

Viewed in that light, In Search of the Castaways is an odd choice. Despite coming from the same pen as 20,000 Leagues it is a very different film. Rather than a robust Science Fiction story like From the Earth to the Moon or Off on a Comet might have yielded, Disney opted for one of Verne's non-Sci-Fi adventure stories and then rendered that in the form of a family musical starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier! The story is one of Verne's globetrotters in which the children of the marooned Captain Grant convince a wealthy shipping owner to help them trace the 37th parallel in search of him, crossing the Andes, Australia, and New Zealand's Maori country. Somehow, though not being Science Fiction, it still manages to be even more fantastical with a plethora of credibility-straining scenes... Perhaps the most improbable being the expedition trapped by alligator-infested floodwaters in a giant flaming tree that also has a leopard in it, which is quickly doused and ripped asunder by a cyclone. This was after an earthquake in the Andes caused them to go bobsledding through a glacier on a collapsed boulder from which the young boy flew off and down a gorge only to be caught by a giant condor which was subsequently shot down by a conveniently timed Patagonian native. Ironically, the episode in the tree is actually taken directly from the book!

I've rarely thought about In Search of the Castaways in light of Disney's oeuvre... How and where it sits in the company's own catalogue, besides the cultural fetish of Jules Verne movies. In that respect, it's a fascinating coalescing of several trends in Disney films up to this point. It was Hayley Mills' third film for the company, following on the heels of Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, and should certainly be understood as another vehicle for the young star. By extension, it fits into Disney's trend towards films centred on young actors, like Toby Tyler and Old Yeller. Joining Mills are Keith Hamshere as her brother and Michael Anderson Jr. as her paramour. The adults - Maurice Chevalier and Wilfrid Hyde-White - provide some guidance, comic relief, and the means for the children to have their adventure.

The Victorian setting of In Search of the Castaways plays well to the resurgence of Gay Nineties imagery in films of the time, and especially those peddled by Disney. Rather than something relatively domesticated like Pollyanna, this Victorian reminiscence is played out against exotic locales and its dangers. Though of a much lower budget and therefore relying more heavily on Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings, this aspect echoes films like  Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped. The closing act in New Zealand even adds in some of the Polynesian, Tiki flair that was ascendant in mainstream culture and Disney's studios. 

The last ingredient is music by the Sherman Brothers (who had so ably provided In Search of the Castaways' pre-show, A Symposium on Popular Songs). The score was composed by William Alwyn but the Shermans supplied a trio of songs that warranted their own Disneyland Records single release. Their magic works again in In Search of the Castaways.

What is the net effect of all these pieces? Well, In Search of the Castaways was the best-received Disney film of the year and came in third in the US box office for 1962, behind Laurence of Arabia and John Wayne's The Longest Day, and ahead of Marlon Brando's Mutiny on the Bounty and To Kill a Mockingbird (the only other Disney film of the year to get on the chart was Bon Voyage which came in at #10). At the risk of letting my lack of objectivity carry me away, it is definitely the best film Disney made in 1962, and one of the best in several years, barring One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Absent-Minded Professor.

In Search of the Castaways is not a cinematic masterpiece in any particular respect, but it is highly enjoyable and criminally underappreciated. Nobody's life will be particularly impoverished by never having seen it, but it's odd that it's not better known than it is. It may be that it has been overshadowed by Hayley Mills' and Jules Verne's other films. Disney never tried this particular formula again either. In the years to come, we'll see the same fracturing of these different ingredients into disparate films once more, though it does have a certain rapport with another Victorian-Edwardian Sherman Brothers family musical Disney would release. After all, who would remember In Search of the Castaways when Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Mary Poppins are on your lips?    

Escapade in Florence
Unknown date, 1962
81 minutes

A bit of unfinished business closes out this pretty okay year, in the form of a 2-part episode of Wonderful World of Color edited into a single 81 minute film. Escapade in Florence is not unlike previous oddball Disney films that benefit the most from the setting, as in the case of The Littlest Outlaw or Almost Angels. In this, it's a mad chase around the gorgeous city of Florence. It is inestimably improved, however, by the presence of Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello as the two leads... A pair of American kids who get mixed up in a ring of art thieves. It's nice to see Annette back in action in a fuller role opposite Kirk, which was narrowly missed in both The Shaggy Dog and Babes in Toyland. Sadly, while having her is great, the film does expose the weakness of Annette's singing. Several songs pepper the film, which pair Annette with actual singers, and the difference goes beyond striking to actually painful. She will always be the Disney girl, so have mercy on her, but yikes. It's not enough to bring down the film as a whole, and it's still... well... pretty okay.   

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