Saturday, 8 July 2017

Walt's Era - Part 15: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 2 (1963)

This year brought a generally good slate of films... Mostly nice, solid, and some classic pictures like Sword in the Stone and The Incredible Journey... but once again the biggest advancement for Disney was in the theme parks. 1963 was the year that Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room debuted, revolutionizing the art of mechanical animation. The attraction still astonishes and enchants me every time I see it today, even with all the improvements in audio-animatronics in the past 50-some years. I can only imagine what a bolt from the blue it must have seemed like in 1963.

Walt visits the Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo: Disney.
On the business side of things, Walt began scoping out locations for the future Walt Disney World, settling on Florida. An assortment of false-front companies started buying up the necessary land, hoping to keep it under wraps to suppress avaricious real estate inflation. Walt also extended his 1953 contract with Walt Disney Productions, which included his ownership of the DLRR, Monorail, royalties from his name and WED creations, and this newest enchanted attraction. Even today, the attraction is formally known as Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, as a nod to the day when it was personally owned by Walt Disney and charged a separate admission fee of 75 cents. 

Son of Flubber
January 18, 1963
100 minutes

It's no easy thing to do a worthwhile sequel, and reportedly Walt Disney was only interested in a sequel for The Absent-Minded Professor because there were unused gags that were worth taking a chance on. Otherwise, as we all know, "you can't top pigs with pigs." This is a rare example of a sequel made during Walt's Era. It was ostensibly preceded only by The Three Caballeros and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and even then it's tenuous to consider those sequels, such was Walt's distaste.

For the most part, Son of Flubber plays it pretty safe in retreading the first film. Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) is once again in the financial driver's seat, holding imminent loan default and demolition over the heads of Medfield College, until Professor Brainard (Fred MacMurray) can come up with an inventive solution that somehow or other involves Medfield winning the big game - football this time around - while the smarmy Professor Shelby (Elliot Reid) once again tries to put the moves on Brainard's wife Betsy (Nancy Olsen). The unused gags are pretty good and it's familiar, fun fare in the same vein as the original.

What really makes the film justify it's existence is the first act, which sets up the remaining recycling. It seems that the Professor's exclusive deal with the Pentagon has left him in arrears. Money for the invention is not forthcoming, and everyone else wants to get their hand in. Brainard flies home from Washington to discover Betsy being wooed by executives making a pitch for everything from Flubber toothpaste to Flubber soda-pop. Part of their pitch is an advertising sizzle reel featuring Wally Boag pratfalling across a "Flubberoleum" floor. When they discover that the military has the rights to Flubber locked up, who should come calling but Bob Sweeny as an IRS man who, among other things, is proud of locking up his own mother and is taking notes on possible tax evasion by the newspaper delivery boy. The satire flies fast and thick against government and industry. 

Son of Flubber (so named in parody of the various and sundry "son of..." and "daughter of..." Sci-Fi and Horror movies) was a success for the company, so it was a good bet. Luckily the cast and material was strong enough to make it a enjoyable return to the world of the Absent-Minded Professor.   

Miracle of the White Stallions
March 29, 1963
93 minutes

Unfortunately this film was not readily available when it came time to do this review. While it is available on DVD, I don't happen to have said DVD or real inclination to order it from the Disney Movie Club at the current Canadian-American dollar exchange. For some unknowable reason, it's not posted for streaming rental either. 

I'm a bit bummed out by that, because I would have liked to see it. The story is inspired from the true story of the rescue of the world-famous Lipizzaner stallions from the Nazis. It seems to fall in the same class of film as the previous Almost Angels, as a docu-drama about a great cultural institution (in that case, the Vienna Boys Choir) shot gloriously on location. I could frankly care less about the WWII story, but would love to see the footage of the Lipizzaners showjumping. 

Yellowstone Cubs
June 1, 1963
48 minutes

Like the previous film, Yellowstone Cubs is one of those on-location docu-dramas that is sustained more by the setting than the story, at least for me. The plot of this post-True-Life wildlife film narrated by Rex Allen revolves around a mismatched pair of black bear cubs who are separated from their mother, getting into all sorts of hi-jinks while their mother braves the park rangers in pursuit. It's cute and I suppose if someone is seeing it for the first time they might get caught up in that.

I, however, was not seeing this for the first time. Yellowstone Cubs is one of my sleeper favourite Disney films because it was shot live, on-location, in that jewel of America's crown, Yellowstone National Park. As a docu-drama about Yellowstone, it is glorious in its footage of mid-century National Parks tourism. Allen, himself a former parks ranger, runs us through the various and sundry procedures of park life, including an extended sequence about why you're not supposed to feed the wildlife. Every year, there is incident after incident of people getting too close to bison, elk, and bears in Yellowstone, and in a sense it is even more distressing when you can see that the NPS has been trying to drive home wildlife safety messages for over 50 years. 

If I was going to be critical of the film, it would simply be for a lack of footage. There are no panning shots of the Old Faithful Inn's cavernous lobby, alas, though we do see the mother bear skulking around the staircase and fireplace. The adventure mostly takes place around the geyser basin, with Old Faithful and Castle Geyser being the most prominent. I love what there is and just want more.

Yellowstone Cubs has been a departure from the Rex Allen wildlife films so far. Granted, the Sedona region wasn't much to sneeze at in The Legend of Lobo, but the wilderness in these films is typically indistinguishable as a scenic locale. I suppose the fact that they bothered to have it in a distinguished locale makes me want to see more of it. I was kind of feeling the same way about the Grand Canyon in Ten Who Dared. "I want more!" probably isn't a bad criticism for a film, and I do turn back to this film any time I want a quaint little reminder about our own trip to Yellowstone that feels too long ago now. 

Savage Sam 
June 1, 1963
103 minutes

Yellowstone Cubs was certainly the more enjoyable part of this double-bill. Disney picks up the Western again with Savage Sam, a sequel to Old Yeller that makes use of all the maudlin melodrama left out of its much superior predecessor. Pa (Fess Parker) and Ma (Dorothy McGuire) are conveniently off to see ailing old Grandma, excusing their absence. That leaves Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran to annoy each other and the viewer, with Uncle Beck (Brian Keith) to drop in occasionally to ensure they don't kill each other, and Jeff York to eat their rations. But just as we worry that we'll be stuck watching two teenage boys for 103 minutes, a gang of Apache horsenappers show up to send the picture veering off into traditional Western territory. 

The film actually picks up considerably when Corcoran isn't on screen... This was the movie that finally broke Ashley and inspired in her a loathing for him comparable to my own. The only entertaining thing about his presence is watching his pubescent voice drop between the filming on location and the later voice-over dubbing. The real highlights, however, are recognizing a few faces and voices. Slim Pickens is part of the posse chasing down the Apache, who kidnapped Corcoran and Tommy Kirk's love interest, as is Royal Dano, the voice and face-model for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Pat Hogan, who played Red Stick in Davy Crockett, is also back. Still, they can't really redeem the movie. It underperformed at the box office, and despite a few moments, it's just not a particularly good film. Who knows what prompted Walt to go with a sequel this time around, except that the author of the original Old Yeller novel, Fred Gipson, published Savage Sam the year before. I guess a sequel that is itself based on a book is good enough? Well no. No it's not.   

Summer Magic
July 7, 1963
109 minutes

I have a soft spot for Main Street U.S.A. This gateway to Disneyland hits me in a couple important places. For one, it is the gateway to Disneyland (and Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland in its fashion). It is the first thing I see when entering and the last thing I see when leaving. Main St., as much as the castle, tells me that I'm in Disneyland. I enjoy treating Main St. U.S.A. as its own land, not merely a mall to get through on the way to the rides. I love the cinema and the penny arcade and the dioramas in the Emporium, and the Walt Disney Story, and the exhibits in the train station, and the vintage vehicles, and just enjoying the atmosphere. The Gay Nineties setting was also an historically important milieu for the Disney company, which I discussed at length on my Victorian Sci-Fi blog. Pursuant to the fact that I have a Victorian Sci-Fi blog, I also love the Gay Nineties, Main St. U.S.A. aesthetic tremendously. When I "enjoy the atmosphere" of Main St. U.S.A., it's not merely a passive appreciation of ambiance. I'm studiously taking mental notes and copious photos for home decor inspiration. Add some airships and Boilerplate-style automata and it would be my own personal paradise. 

One of the films falling into that milieu is Summer Magic, the next vehicle for Hayley Mills as an all-American girl with an inexplicable British accent. No explicit year is given for the events of the film, just the joke "Place: Boston. Time: Rag", but it has all the quintessential Gay Nineties stuff... Ladies in fetching clothes and giant hats, ragtime music, classic automobiles, a kid in a Buster Brown outfit, a high-ballin' steam train, lawn parties, croquet, and small town charms. This time around, Hayley's family, headed by Dorothy McGuire, falls into hard times with the death of the patriarch. They are reduced to humble means and forced to move to the town of Beulah, Maine. There, they fall under the wing of Burl Ives as the incorrigible, irrepressible Osh Popham, the town's all-purpose carpenter, postman, constable, caretaker, jack-of-all-trades. The problem is that the house that Osh is letting them live in doesn't technically belong to him... He's merely the property manager, acting on his own initiative to help out a charity case, until the actual owner comes calling. 

There's no particularly deep or meaningful message to Summer Magic, even an implied one, like the reassurances I pointed out in Pollyanna several months ago. It's just a lot of things that happen to some fairly charming characters, and it's pretty fun. Though 109 minutes, it doesn't generally feel to be outstaying its welcome. The Sherman Brothers are helping that along with a nice, though fairly obscure, selection of songs reminiscent of their work on A Symposium on Popular Songs and the album Tinpanorama. They're trying their hand at ragtime once more, and a few folk songs which sound perfect when sung by Burl Ives. And for Ren and Stimpy fans, the song "Ugly Bug Ball" begins with Ives declaring that "The little critters of nature, they don't know that they're ugly." I just about died the first time I heard that, discovering that it was an actual line in an actual movie. 

Less than a fully-fledged film, Summer Magic is more of a tribute to the romantic myth of the Gay Nineties. Perhaps I'm falling into the same problem I had with Yellowstone Cubs where I'm underselling the story because I liked the setting so much and have seen the film enough times to not be affected by that story. Someone watching it afresh, and especially someone not hampered by my love for the the Gay Nineties aesthetic, would probably get more caught up by the story, for good or ill. Given that it's not overly profound or moving, and not exactly regarded as a Disney classic, I suspect that enjoying the setting is key to enjoying the film. Maybe that's why the movie poster made the choice to advertise completely on the strength of Hayley Mills and downplayed that it was set sometime around 1900?     

The Incredible Journey
November 20, 1963
80 minutes

The Incredible Journey is the quintessential Disney wildlife adventure film. Of all those movies shot on-location, narrated by Rex Allen, featuring animals cavorting around doing animal things, this is the most well-known and well-received. So much so that it may even be rightly considered a Disney classic in itself, not merely the best of one of Disney's weird little sub-genres. The Incredible Journey stands up there with the first tier of Disney live-action films like Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Pollyanna, and Davy Crockett. It even warranted a remake by Disney in the Nineties, and watching this version still weirds Ashley out. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) is the version she knows from childhood. Being a bit older than her, it was a bit after my time. 

The plot is so simple that it defies much analysis. John Longridge has offered to take care of the three pets belonging to a family of friends while they are away. Far flung in Ontario, Canada's cottage country, Longridge takes off for the start of duck hunting season and the animals take the opportunity to make tracks back for home. Luath the Golden Labrador is the natural leader with the implacable drive to return to his family, no matter that old Bodger the Bull Terrier is not quite up to the task of traversing 250 miles. Tao the cat could really care less either way. The film follows their escapades as they fall in and out of trouble, including Tao being swept away in a river, a kindly but clueless hermit who intended to feed his guests but couldn't understand why they refused to sit at the table, an errant porcupine, bears and lynx, and the terrifying range of mountains that separates the final 40 miles of the journey home. 

All the right pieces are in place, learned over the previous Rex Allen-narrated animal features, and in perfect balance. The footage of Ontario (with some Pacific Northwest thrown in because forests on the Canadian Shield are not quite monumental and forbidding enough) is spectacular, especially in the opening autumnal sequence. Like Big Red, I enjoyed the contemporary Canadianess of it. The wilderness themes of Canadian film and identity are there, but not caricatured beneath fur traders and Voyageurs. Animal footage is perfectly timed and executed, with no extraneous material, and that lingering curiousity about how exactly they film a movie like this. They could have done with more convincing human actors... The animals were more lively than they were. Nevertheless, it is a decent, solid film. The simplicity is what commends it, and it is what it is, no more, no less. It might not go on a list of my personal favourite Disney films, but I would easily put it on a list of the objectively best Disney films of this time period.     

Sword in the Stone
December 25, 1963
79 minutes

At a point near the end of The Sword in the Stone, when Kay and Sir Ector were attempting to pull the eponymous weapon from its housing, it occurred to me that this is actually the "boys" version of Cinderella. The essential throughline is the same: a child of high estate is brought low and mistreated by their caregivers, but a magical guardian appears and, through a plot device, raises the child to royalty. Cinderella lives out the little girl's dream of becoming a princess, and Arthur lives out the dream of becoming a king and a knight. Well, that was the dream before pirates became the big deal, at any rate. 

The Sword in the Stone has a little more philosophical heft to it than Cinderella, as Merlin takes Arthur under his wing and teaches him life lessons through magical transformations. It's also a bit of a sausage party, with only two women to speak of, one of whom is a squirrel. No matter what, I always feel sorry for her as well, thanks to the manipulative animation and the knowledge that she will die a spinster, the mate she imprinted upon actually being a human. It's tragic.

I could do without Merlin's constant denigration of the Middle Ages, which were actually a far more inventive and progressive time than outdated ideas about the "Dark Ages" suggest, but at least he admits that the modern world is a mess as well, after his stint in 20th century Bermuda. Of all the characters in The Sword in the Stone, Merlin is easily the most full of character. Perhaps that is why he's the only one to have appeared much since, including leading the charge in Walt Disney World's Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom interactive game. Archimedes the owl is more like an extension of Merlin, and the only other character to come close is Mad Madame Mim. Unfortunately she is not in The Sword in the Stone for nearly long enough, and her presence is superfluous. The wizard's duel is a highlight, but serves no actual narrative purpose. It just feels like they needed some climactic battle with a villain because that's a thing.

That aside, I actually like The Sword in the Stone a great deal. It's a nice return to the pure Mediaeval milieu that's actually surprisingly rare in Disney films. The last time it popped up was Sleeping Beauty, and before that were the live-action films shot in England: The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose. Fairy tales actually set in the High Gothic are infrequent or obscured beneath layers of artistic licence, which is too bad because they really were a beautiful time. Monty Python has done our perception of the Middle Ages a great injustice... When visiting the The Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris, I was so overwhelmed with the beauty, craftsmanship, ornateness, and sheer sublime weight of history that I actually had to sit down and shut my eyes. I simply could not take it anymore. Coming awfully close was Notre-Dame de Paris, my spiritual home away from home. I've expressed my love of Victorian aesthetics earlier on, and one of its great conveniences is that Gothic Revivalism was a huge part of Victorian-Edwardian art and architecture, especially here in Canada where the British and French influence has been so strong. Why choose? 

Whereas Sleeping Beauty's pop-art style didn't work as well as was likely intended, Sword in the Stone's works well. This is Disney's first animated feature since One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Xerography is in full force. Now that they've figured it out, it's come together better here than in that 1959 film. Sadly, this is also a benchmark of sorts. Sword in the Stone was the final animated feature film released before Walt Disney's death. It was not the last he would be involved in, that distinction going to The Jungle Book, but it was the last to enjoy his guidance all the way through. At least it paid off well for Disney, being a box office success in its day.      

Disneyland After Dark
Unknown Date
47 minutes

The Walt Disney Treasures collection of DVDs curated by Leonard Maltin is without a doubt the best home video series ever released by Disney. The inexplicably defunct line was a goldmine of vintage material and these days is priced greater than their weight in gold on the resale market. But when the first series came out, it was met with some controversy. The Disneyland U.S.A. set, in particular, received criticism for promising uncut, original broadcast versions of key early episodes of the Disney anthology series (Disneyland, followed by Wonderful World of Color) but delivering on edited, trimmed down copies. One of those to suffer the worst was Disneyland After Dark, which cut several performers' sets. 

Luckily I have a copy of the original broadcast version, taped long ago off The Disney Channel's Vault Disney series. Comparing the two, I think a fair argument could be made that what ended up on the Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland U.S.A. set was actually the theatrical version of the episode. Like many episodes of the television series, Disneyland After Dark made its way to theatres after its airing on April 15, 1962. By May 25th of the same year it had its silver screen debut in the UK. In 1963, at an undetermined date, Disneyland After Dark was projected onto American screens. 

Unlike previous theatrical re-releases of Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color episodes, Disneyland After Dark was not a science or adventure story, but one of the company's self-promotional pieces. It was so entertaining, however, that the theatrical release was fully warranted. The main appeal of the episode is the glimpse of Disneyland in the early Sixties. Though at this moment in time there was yet to be the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Haunted Mansion, one still gets a sense of Disneyland at the height of its nostalgic charm. Granted the performances were staged, but they still capture the feeling of what an evening at Disneyland must have been like at the time.

The chances of catching Annette or Louis Armstrong playing on any given night were probably very slim, but the vignette of the Elliot Brothers Orchestra playing the Carnation Plaza Gardens was undoubtedly like what a "Date Nite at Disneyland" event was very much like. The Royal Tahitians were the regular performers at the Tahitian Terrace restaurant that used to overlook the Jungle Cruise where Aladdin's Oasis wastes space today. And the Young Men of New Orleans were one of two "house bands" performing Jazz and Dixieland favourites along the Rivers of America (the other being the Strawhatters). 

Some of the performances in Disneyland After Dark I could take or leave. It's nice seeing Annette or the Osmond Brothers Quartet, but I have no idea who Bobby Rydell is. I would have died and gone to Heaven to have seen Satchmo play with the Young Men of New Orleans aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat though. Sure, the Mark Twain was replaced with a set for the sequence, but let my fantasy slide. The amount of history, and talent, in that segment (the longest single performance in the episode) is unbelievable. Two of the members of the Young Men of New Orleans - Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory - performed with Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong in a band called the "Hot Five" in the Twenties in New Orleans, during the birth of Jazz. Kid Ory even wrote the staple anthem "Muskrat Ramble", which was performed in Disneyland After Dark. When Armstrong quips that they are going to "reee-cree-ate" he's not joking. We're watching the men who practically invented Jazz. And to see them aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat? Oh man... I'm feeling lightheaded just thinking about it. Did all them white folks clapping out of sync in the crowd have any idea what they were actually watching?

Oh yeah, the crowd is half the fun in this film. Sometimes I got a bigger kick watching them than the actual performer, like the guy who apparently doesn't know who Bobby Rydell is either, or the young man adjusting his glasses for the Royal Tahitian dancers (a clip which made it's way into the Disneyland 50th anniversary film with Steve Martin). Don't think anyone, in the entire episode, actually clapped with anything resembling a rhythm. At one point during Satchmo's performance, there were six or seven different people on the screen and not a one of them were clapping on the same beat.

The rest of the delight is simply the time capsule of Disneyland in the Sixties. The Dapper Dans also perform amidst Main St. storefronts that no longer exist. The Disney-Alweg Monorail delivers guests from the Disneyland Hotel, Jungle Cruise boats go by in the night, Main St. shimmers, Tomorrowland is actually lively, and overhead, Fantasy in the Sky booms. Now that I've finished watching the film, I want to pop in my vinyl LPs of Echoes of Disneyland (Dee Fisher on Main St.'s Wurlitzer organ), Date Nite at Disneyland (the Elliot Bros.), or Louis Armstrong. The fact that I want to do that demonstrates how intrinsic music is not only to Disney's films, but Disney's theme parks as well. The sounds take us back there as readily as the sights do. Of course, I'd trade all that in to actually be in Disneyland this evening. Shall we make a date in four (or eight) more years?    


1 comment:

  1. Learning that fun fact about the Ren & Stimpy quote gave me quite the spit-take! It's amazing where you'll find Disney films sampled.