Saturday, 12 August 2017

Walt's Era - Part 16: Disney's Peak? (1964)

Did Disney reach its peak in 1964?

On the WED Enterprises side of things, this year was the start of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, with its four WED-designed exhibits: Carousel of Progress, It's a Small World, the attraction that would become Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Ford's Magic Skyway which would add Primeval World to Disneyland and pioneer advancements leading to the Peoplemover and omnimover system. This was also the year that Marc Davis applied his hand to improving the Jungle Cruise, land was secretly being bought up in Florida, and the original plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow were being drafted. On September 14 of this year, Walt also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad.

A tram shuttles passengers past It's a Small World and Rolly Crump's
Tower of the Four Windsat the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. 
Progressland, home of the Carousel of Progress, sits in the background.
Photo: Disney.

In film, 1964 was the year of the big one... Disney's best film of the period and, indeed, one of the best Disney films of all time. After years of production, Mary Poppins finally graced movie screens to universal acclaim (except by the book's author, of course). After it's 1960-61 reorientation, which had already produced a goodly sum of classic films, Disney released one that is widely regarded as Walt's own magnum opus.

Yet unlike what I considered the best year of "Walt's Era", 1954-55, the New York World's Fair and Mary Poppins were about all that happened. The remainder of the films released in 1964 are okay, generally... Decent, but not exceptional, which has been a bit of a running theme for this period. And if Mary Poppins was Walt's peak cinematic accomplishment, then what's left? It has been argued that Walt at least appeared to have lost interest in film by this point. With this film in the can, was there anything more he could do with the medium, especially in a period where the studios slipped into a reliance on relatively inexpensive live-action films? If we take Mary Poppins out of the equation, are we taking a cold, hard look at an unexceptional future for the Disney Studios?    

A Tiger Walks
March 12, 1964
91 minutes

Well this is a bad way to start out... A Tiger Walks is technically available on DVD through the Disney Movie Club, but I'm afraid I won't be ordering in a copy at this stage of the game (and with the Canada-US exchange rate being what it is). Furthermore, for some inexplicable reason, it has not been made available for digital rental via the usual channels. As a result, we'll have to take a pass on this. It stars Brian Kieth as a small town sheriff torn between his duty to protect the citizenry from an escaped circus tiger and the pleading his daughter, an animal rights activist who would rather see it re-captured. It is also notable as the last film of Sabu, the Indian-American actor most famous for his role as Mowgli in the 1942. Apparently it didn't do well in theatres, and that's that.

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones
March 25, 1964
91 minutes

It hasn't been unusual for Disney to re-release episodes of Walt Disney's Disneyland and Wonderful World of Color into theatres. Already we've passed Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and The Sign of Zorro as feature films and a handful of theatrical shorts like Man in Space. It is slightly more unusual for a pair of episodes to be edited together into a feature film without ever having aired on television, but that seems to be exactly what happened with The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. Though never confirmed by Disney, the rumour goes that NBC gave such a warm reception to the two episodes that Disney got the idea to pull them from the home market and throw them into theatres. The reception they got on the silver screen was also extraordinary, making The Misadventures of Merlin Jones a surprise hit.

Given who was in it, what it was, and what was going on at the time, maybe it shouldn't have been that surprising. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones reunited Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello as students of Midvale College who run amok of the jocks and the squares and get into all sorts of hi-jinx. Tommy stars as the title character, a mad scientist in the vein of Fred MacMurray, but obviously as a teenage keener instead of a befuddled middle-aged man. Annette is his long-suffering girlfriend who mostly has to get him out of trouble with the local judge who rapidly alternates between being Merlin Jones' nemesis and best buddy and back again. Besides Disney's An Escapade in Florence, the pair had been making  name for themselves with another studio and a particular kind of film it specialized in. 

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones is, in a sense, Disney's response to the teen "beach party" movies produced by American International Pictures. An upstart studio specializing in low-budget drive-in fare, AIP's two most popular products were a string of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired horror movies starring Vincent Price and teenage bikini, beach, and surf-culture musicals starring Annette and Frankie Avalon. The first of these was Beach Party in 1963, and its success lead to AIP drafting a seven year contract with Annette. The following films were Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). In a particularly weird confluence of forces, Vincent Price also starred in a similar film for AIP called Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). Walt was in the odd position of having to ask to borrow Annette back for The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

Tommy Kirk co-starred with Annette in Pajama Party but his career was taking an unexpected, very sharp downturn. The secret of his homosexuality was exposed and Disney felt compelled to let him go once the filming of Merlin Jones wrapped up. The success of Merlin Jones ensured that the divorce between Tommy and Disney would not be wholly absolute, but the conservative film industry of the time took its toll on Tommy's mental and physical health. That's the future, however. Right now, Tommy and Annette revive their charm and chemistry in a couple of fun little capers.

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones
 managed to tap into the same teen screwball comedy zeitgeist as Annette and Tommy's films for AIP. Perhaps its not as risque, since this is Disney after all and Walt had already communicated to a departing Annette that she ought not to expose her *gasp* navel in those beach movies she was doing. It doesn't reach the same feverish consistency of The Absent-Minded Professor, but it is still pretty enjoyable and only made to look better by the company surrounding it at this point in Disney's cinematic output.      

The Three Lives of Thomasina
June 4, 1964
97 minutes

As Ashley observed at the conclusion of The Three Lives of Thomasina, it is a surprisingly deep film. What might otherwise seem to be another cutesy Disney animal movie ends up overflowing with themes of death and renewal, tradition and modernity, science and emotion, love and loss, and small town politics. It has a lot going on in a rather heavy hour and a half. 

Though the cat Thomasina gets the name billing, the events that befall her are merely the structure upon which the human drama is set. The main part revolves around Dr. Andrew MacDhui (played by Patrick McGoohan in his second role for Disney after The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh for television), an embittered veterinarian in a small Scottish town in 1912. For a vet he betrays a startling lack of empathy and a all-too ready willingness to euthanize people's pets. This understandably turns the town against him, who were already mistrustful of this university educated man and his high-fallutin' book-learnin'. Contrasting him is "Mad Lori" MacGregor (Susan Hampshire), a lovely maiden living alone in a croft in the woods, where she happily works on her weaving and tending to sick animals, enjoying the privacy afforded to her by gossipy rumours about her being a witch. When the townsfolk no longer trust MacDhui, they return once again to the old ways of the witch in the wood.

The two eventually come to a head over the well-being of MacDhui's daughter, played by Karen Dotrice in her first role for Disney. An accident struck down her cat Thomasina, who contracted tetanus from the injury. Rather than deal with the complex medical and emotional issue, MacDhui simply had the cat put down. To his daughter's mind, it was both her cat and her father who died that day, and the rift between them eventually claims her own health. Only by learning to reconcile head and heart, and the discovery that Thomasina survived the failed euthanasia attempt, can he hope to win back his daughter's life and devotion.

Joining Dotrice is Matthew Garber as another of the town children. The Three Lives of Thomasina unleash the children to put their own spin on the film's events. As adult viewers we can understand the human drama at play, but the children take a different perspective that can sometimes be frustrating. For example, it is Garber and the boys who work to turn the townspeople against MacDhui with slanderous rumours. Yet they can be charming, like when they hold a funeral procession for Thomasina, complete with bagpipes. Following this is a strange dream sequence in which Thomasina visits cat Heaven and its patron goddess Bast. The strength of Dotrice and Garber's performances led Disney to contract them for another film he was making: Mary Poppins.

The Three Lives of Thomasina feels longer than it actually is, perhaps because it is dealing with such heavy material. Unfortunately it falls short of actually saying anything substantial about the issues it brings up. At least reconciliation comes when these dialectic poles are reconciled to each other, showing the importance of being a well-rounded, multifaceted person. Though MacDhui has the most to learn, the film does not patronize us by making him the only one with something to learn. Even the lovely "Mad Lori" learns the value that veterinary science can offer.     

The Moon-Spinners
July 8, 1964
118 minutes

James Bond exploded onto the screen in 1962 with the film Dr. No. Beyond merely another spy film, Dr. No and its sequel From Russia With Love (1963) captured something essential and aspirational about the time period. They featured exotic and glamorous settings like Jamaica and Turkey, exclusive casinos and international chess tournaments. They featured fast cars, neat gadgets, and beautiful women. Bond was the sort of person that every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with. These films blended Cold War anxiety with the ethos of the Swinging Sixties, Jet Set, and Cool Britannia, to creatre a new cinematic icon. Later in 1964, the third Bond film, Goldfinger, would establish and petrify the Bond formula that has been in force over the last 50 years, 24 films, and six actors. Goldfinger, an elaborate heist movie at heart, introduced some of the most iconic Bond images like Shirley Eaton painted head-to-toe in gold, the Aston Martin, Bond strapped to a table to be bisected by a laser while bantering with his captor, and women with names like "Pussy Galore." Bond was, in many ways, the archetypal hero of his time and the movies became a licence to print money.

I'm not sure that, amidst all this success, that anybody really thought to ask "Gee, I wonder how Walt Disney would do one of these films?"

The Moon-Spinners is basically Disney's take on the Bond-style thriller. Set in exotic Crete, it almost begins like any other Disney film set in one of the globe's more picturesque locales. It even has the same sort of ethnographic footage, in this case a Cretan wedding. But it does not take long for Hayley Mills, playing her usual sort of character, to get caught up in a nefarious and potentially deadly plot involving stolen jewels. Peter McEnery stars opposite Mills as the disgraced bank employee under whose watch the jewels were stolen, looking to clear his name by apprehending the culprits. When the action picks up the scenes rapidly start shifting between Greek Orthodox churches, rocky coastlines, the catacombs beneath ruined temples, the mansions of British consulates, and even a posh villains' lair. This particular lair is the sumptuously decorated private yacht of Pola Negri, the silent film star who was enticed out of retirement by Walt. 

Does it work? Well, it's not bad. The Moon-Spinners a decent family-friendly version of a James Bond-type film, which is fine for a family audience. That, however, kind of misses the mark of a James Bond-type film. Trying to be both a Disney film and a Bond-type film and not fully successfully being either makes it a bit of an oddball within the Disney oeuvre.    

Mary Poppins
August 29, 1964
139 minutes

What could I possibly have to add about Mary Poppins? It is Walt Disney's most lauded film, receiving a whopping 13 Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Original Song, Score, and Adapted Score. It was Walt's only Best Picture nomination, though it didn't ultimately take away the Oscar (in the end it won five). Still, that's impressive, and Mary Poppins is widely considered Walt Disney's personal best. The company even made a movie about the making of the movie, and is currently filming a disingenuous 50-year later sequel. It has also been the only film predating the "Disney Renaissance" to be made into a Broadway musical, which shouldn't be surprising because, at heart, it is the first of Disney's Broadway-style musicals. Disney has specialized in musicals since forever, but Mary Poppins is the first to consciously follow that particular form. It is even reflected in the theatre marquee-style movie poster. 

I would feel just awful saying anything bad about it, or even insufficiently exultant. There are a lot of people to whom that would be tantamount to blasphemy. Besides Dick Van Dyke's accent, pretty well everything about Mary Poppins is, well, practically perfect in every way. Watching it for the first time since reading the book, I have a renewed appreciation for how much of its success is owed to Disney. Despite P.L. Travers' objections, Mary Poppins was a fine book spun into pure gold by the team of Walt, the Sherman Brothers, scriptwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, and director Robert Stevenson. I'm particularly surprised by the last name on the list there. Robert Stevenson was Disney's workhorse director, whose underwhelming work during the Thirties reduced him to TV work by the time Walt picked him up in the Fifties. Many of his films for the company are darn good - The Absent-Minded Professor, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, In Search of the Castaways, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and later The Love Bug, That Darn Cat!, Blackbeard's Ghost, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks - but nothing that makes you sit up and notice any great directorial talent on display. The Academy Award nomination for Best Director is a something of an overdue recognition. 

The Mary Poppins book has a lot of charm to it, and lots of interesting and ideas and episodes. There are good parts, but no real story to hang a hat on. Disney provided that story, and the heart that Travers herself lacked. Mary Poppins' mission to "save Mr. Banks" was wholly invented by Disney; it was not in the book. They turned the eponymous character from a mainly comic character, vain, arbitrary, and often cruel (much like Travers), to someone genuinely charming, entrancing, and even heroic in her own way. Julie Andrews gives what could easily be argued to be her career defining performance. If anything comes close, it would be Maria in The Sound of Music. Accent aside, Dick Van Dyke is a perfect counterpoint to the prim Poppins, who can swing between manic pratfalls and gentle wisdom with ease. The kids are fine, Glynis Johns is funny enough in a role that wasn't really necessary, at least not to the extent of having it's own song, and David Tomlinson does a stellar job as the Edwardian patriarch being forced kicking and screaming into a character arc. They needed a character that was definitively British and Edwardian, and in Tomlinson's performance they found him. It's kind of nice to see that version of a character that might have otherwise been played by Fred MacMurray.

It was a smooth move by Disney to transplant the story into the Edwardian Era as well. I've already documented, over and over again, how smitten Walt was with the Gay Nineties aesthetic, and it is well-used here. There's no way to tell why Disney didn't simply set it in the modern day or the time the book was written, the Thirties, except that maybe having lived through the Thirties, they weren't as romantic a time for him as the Victorian-Edwardian. A que might have been taken by Poppins herself, who more closely resembles someone from that time period. It may have been a deliberate choice on the part of Travers to have had her protagonist seem somewhat out of date for the Thirties. Walt put her right back in date, and quite fashionably so at that.

The two major sequences of the film - "Jolly Holiday / Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Chim Chim Cher-ee / Step in Time" - are just knockouts. If I had any real complaint, it's just that it takes so long to get there. At two and a half hours, Mary Poppins is a little bloated. The "Jolly Holiday" doesn't even start until nearly an hour in. Thankfully it doesn't feel that long, except in unnecessary songs like "Sister Suffragette" and "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", which may only be a couple minutes at a time but make the whole finished product seem longer than it needs to be. Even with those, Mary Poppins manages to move along at a fair clip. 

So is Mary Poppins Walt Disney's best film? It certainly is for this time period... Has the studio been declining into mediocrity in the last few years because they were investing so much time, talent, and energy into Mary Poppins? If so, it certainly paid off. Mary Poppins almost feels like it's coming out of nowhere, as if a different studio made it. It doesn't fit in with the Thomasinas and Merlin Joneses the company is making now. It almost feels like something Biblical, a Moses from Sinai, face gleaming with Divine light and fury, descending from glory into a benighted world. Is it Walt's best live-action film up to this time? It's hard to say... Compared to what, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Davy Crockett? Swiss Family Robinson? Pollyanna? Song of the South?

Of any of those films, Mary Poppins probably delivers the best Disney formula most successfully. I noted when reviewing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that the best Disney films are the most extravagantly produced and most well-rounded. Mary Poppins has that in spades, even more so than 20,000 Leagues. It has more songs, and better ones, than most other live-action Disney films. It has comedy and pathos, and if not action it at least has a sense of adventure inside chalk paintings and atop London rooftops. Those rooftops lend an air of mystery, or even sublimnity. There is plenty of magic and whimsy, and character drama. It doesn't directly have a romantic angle - poor Bert got himself friendzoned - but the "Jolly Holiday" is nevertheless a love song sort of sequence. Mary Poppins has it all, and is done very well.

It would be apples and oranges to compare Mary Poppins to 20,000 Leagues, my favourite live-action Disney film. I would agree that it is more Disneyish than 20,000 Leagues, more family friendly and possessing more diversity in its offerings and more real heart. For me it's really more of a taste issue at that point. I have slightly more taste for Victorian Science Fiction than for Broadway musicals. We're getting into the differences between "best" and "favourite". But on either chart, Mary Poppins is right up there.        

The Tattooed Police Horse
December 18, 1964
48 minutes

The short feature preceding Emil and the Detectives was another documentary on the subject of horses. This time around, it's the world of harness racing and a fictional standardbred named Jolly Roger who journeyed from racetrack to street patrol and back again. The horse's story is interesting enough, and if you are familiar with the world of harness racing then apparently several big names from the time make cameo appearances, but it is surprisingly dull. Usually Disney documentaries are a little jazzier in their presentation.

The tattoo in question, by the way, is the tattoo placed on the inside lip of a racing horse to identify them and their pedigree. So the title is meant to denote the odd situation of a pedigreed racing horse serving with the police.    

Emil and the Detectives
December 18, 1964
92 minutes

I've never done an extensive study on the genre of the boys adventure movie, but I imagine it's been around for some time. The archetypal modern one is The Goonies, and I gather that was a fairly intentional tribute to the boys adventure films from the past. The ones I'm most familiar with are those by Czech auteur Karel Zeman, the visual effects maestro famous for adaptations of Jules Verne and other Victorian Scientific Romances. Journey into Prehistory (1955) and The Stolen Airship (1967) feature a gaggle of boys making off in wild adventures into the prehistoric past or aboard fantastic flying machines, respectively. 

Disney's Emil and the Detectives, adapting a 1929 German children's novel, falls roughly into the same category. Young Emil Tischbein has gotten his grandmother's money stolen by a wolf in a checkered suit, and it's up to him and a group of boy detectives to try and get it back. The attempt embroils them in an even bigger plot to steal millions from a bank. This plot naturally lends itself to some satire of Film Noir tropes, the on location shooting in post-war Berlin was interesting, and overall it was more enjoyable than we were expecting. I doubt it would ever warrant a second viewing though.  

The Golden Horseshoe Revue
Date Unknown, 1964
48 minutes?

Now this is more like it! The Golden Horseshoe Revue is the real wildest ride in the wilderness, and this episode of Wonderful World of Color turned theatrical short is the only filmed documentation of Disneyland's longest-running, best-beloved live act. What an act it was! Wally Boag supplies uproarious humour juxtaposed with Betty Taylor's grace and incredible set of pipes, peppered with slapstick and pratfalls and dancing girls, oh my. In this special, ostensibly to celebrate the show's 10,000th performance, the dynamic duo is joined by Ed Wynn, Gene Sheldon, and Annette. Wynn's contribution is especially poignant as he recollects the times he performed on the actual Vaudeville stage in the 1910's and '20's. Much like Disneyland After Dark before it, we're watching more than a cinematic document of Disneyland's early years. We're catching a then-living link with history, the early days of a new art form. In Disneyland After Dark it was Louis Armstrong reuniting with the Young Men of New Orleans to recreate Jazz aboard Disney's Mississippi riverboat, and here it is a Vaudeville veteran remembering the crucible of modern American showbusiness. Walt's nostalgia for his own younger days has preserved for us an inestimable record of the Vaudeville, saloon show type, connected to the people who experienced it firsthand.

For Disney nerds though, it's the only official video documentation of the original Golden Horseshoe Revue that matters most of all. Beginning on opening day, July 17, 1955, the Golden Horseshoe Revue ran until 1986. It went through a number of different performers in that time, of course, but excepting a three-year stint at Walt Disney World getting the Diamond Horseshoe Revue going, Boag retired in 1982. Let that sink in for a second... After starting in 1955, he didn't leave the role until 1982. The show itself only went on four more years without him. Betty Taylor did even one better. She actually closed the show down, performing all the way from 1956 to it's last show. In a strange twist of fate, she passed away in 2011, one day after Wally Boag did. The film Golden Horseshoe Revue first aired on Wonderful World of Color in 1962, was edited into a theatrical short for the UK market in 1963, and then brought to US theatres in 1964. The only other official documentation that comes close is a 1957 Disneyland Records album Slue-Foot Sue's Golden Horseshoe Review, now available on iTunes.   

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