Saturday, 9 September 2017

Walt's Era - Part 17: Walt's Last Years (1965-1966)

The end of an era is upon us, in more ways than one. With bizarre prescience, Walt Disney sold WED Enterprises to Walt Disney Productions, finally bringing the future "Imagineering" department into the Disney fold proper. To handle the royalties from his name and the Disneyland Railroad, Walt created the company RETLAW. Yet just as Walt Disney Productions acquired WED, there was talk of General Electric or Westinghouse purchasing the company. And oddly enough, as an ironic footnote, the original Hyperion Rd. studio used by Disney way back in the early days, the studio in which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was created, was bulldozed to clear space for a supermarket. 

Yet it was also a time of beginnings. The New York World's Fair closed in 1965, and over the course of that year and the next, attractions would slowly begin their migration to Disneyland. It's a Small World opened in Fantasyland with a brand new, more dramatic exterior. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln took up the Main Street opera house. The dinosaur scenes in Ford's Magic Skyway were excised and placed alongside the DLRR as the Primeval World diorama. In 1967, the Carousel of Progress would become one of the keynote attractions of the 1967 "New Tomorrowland." New Orleans Square would also open in 1966, though absent either of its headline attractions. 

Outside of the original Magic Kingdom, newspapers rooted out that Disney was buying up property in Orlando and Uncle Walt was forced to publicly announce the Florida Project on October 25, 1965. Disney also made its ill-fated bid for the Mineral King Resort and began conceptual work. One of the concepts was an animatronic stage show of musical bears designed by Marc Davis. The last time Davis saw Walt, he had come by to look at these sketches. One particular image - a rotund bear wrapped in a tuba - sent Walt into fits of laughter, and as he finally stepped out of the door, he uncharacteristically bid "goodbye" to Davis. It was more customary for him to say that he'd see you next week or come by tomorrow or something along those lines. Parting with Walt was never final.

On November 7, 1966, Walt was diagnosed with cancerous tumours in his left lung. Even though surgery could remove the consequences of a lifetime of smoking, he was given only six months to a year to live. He didn't even make it that long. On November 30 he collapsed at home and was taken to the hospital adjacent to the studio. On December 15, at 9:30am, at the age of 65, Walt Disney passed away. 

A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood
January 28, 1965
37 minutes

Those Calloways
January 28, 1965
131 minutes

1965 kicks off with two environmental parables that, in their own way, portray the tension between urban and rural life. The first, a short, deals with a coyote from the Mohave Desert that accidentally finds himself in downtown Los Angeles. The second, and our feature presentation, is ostensibly about a family struggling to create a nature preserve for wild Canada geese against the siren song of hunting resort developers.

A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood is the more compelling of the two pictures, if for no other reason than its brevity. It is another of the nature pictures narrated by Rex Allen, and is served well by its length. Watching a wild coyote try to make sense of urban life in Griffith Park and its surrounding neighbourhoods is amusing and does not outstay its welcome. The film also touches on an oddly fascinating and counter-intuitive subject, which is Los Angeles' inner-city wildlife. Not only are coyotes found in Griffith Park - home of the Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, Greek Theater, Los Angeles Zoo, Autry Museum of the American West, and the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society - but so are mule deer, bobcats, and cougars! After navigating the urban jungle, the country coyote makes his way back to the wild (with some assistance), but perhaps he's got a little of big city life in his blood now...
Those Calloways might have a good movie in there somewhere, but it gets distracted along the way and once it finally gets back on track, my patience is shot. The film begins with a fistfight between young Bucky Calloway (Brandon deWilde) and a town bully (Tom Skerritt) over his crazy father's desire to create a Canada goose sanctuary along the nearby lakefront. This plan intrigues a visiting dandy (Phillip Abbott) who sees the potential of a hunting resort for the well-to-do in this old fashioned Vermont town circa 1920's. Having duly set-up the core story, it then forgets about it for the next hour, absorbing itself with Bucky's attempts to man up and woo the girl (Linda Evans), the father's breaking a leg on the trap line and his drinking, financial troubles, a cabin-raising, and a host of other meaningless filler. Eventually it winds back to the story and could get interesting as the dandy attempts to play up the father into unwittingly helping along the hunters, but it's too late by then. A two hour and ten minute long character drama about a family could have been interesting if the characters were more compelling, but at the heart of it is Brian Keith as the father, pulling his strong, silent, possibly alcoholic and abusive, backwoodsman type. Bucky is apparently a chip off the old block, and his relationship with the girl has uncomfortably abusive tones as well, which detracts from what is apparently supposed to be a significant subplot.  

There's nothing inherently uninteresting about the subject matter, if one considers the lives of people like John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, or Archie Belaney, an early Canadian environmentalist from England who masqueraded as a Native American under the name "Grey Owl." This treatment in Those Calloways sucks the interest out of it though. Had they trimmed it down an hour, stuck to the main plot, and developed it a little better, it would have made a much stronger, more focused film with a more poignant message. As Disney's first movie after Mary Poppins, it must have been a huge disappointment.   

The Monkey's Uncle
July 14, 1965
87 minutes

Merlin Jones and company return in this episodic pair of ongoing adventures dealing mainly with the Midvale College football team. In the first episode, Merlin must figure out an honest way to cheat so that the football team aren't expelled for academic failure. In the second, he must build a human-powered flying machine to win an endowment that will save both the school and the team. The gang's all here, and a particularly noteworthy performance is given by Leon Tyler as the flying machine's guinea pig. The Beach Boys also famously duet with Annette for the title song, penned by the Sherman Brothers. It's all in good fun, and more of the same from The Misadventures of Merlin Jones

The Monkey's Uncle is also notable as a closing chapter in the Disney careers of Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. This was the final film that either made with the company. I charted out their careers in the previous review of The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, so all that's left to say is that Annette's moving on is almost as much an end of an era as Walt's own passing.   

That Darn Cat!
December 2, 1965
116 minutes

As if Annette leaving wasn't bad enough, That Darn Cat! marks Hayley Mills' departure from the company. Like the last two Annette films, this is also an attempt by Disney to cash in on the genre of teen movies. Literally, one of the characters is a surfer dude and they go watch a surf movie. That Darn Cat! does it better than the Merlin Jones movies though, in my opinion, and is a very entertaining film.

The best Disney films are more rounded, and That Darn Cat! is no exception. The central plot is not simply a bunch of kids capering around, antagonizing the squares. It's a kidnapping case where the best lead is a Siamese cat (in fact, the same feline actor as in The Incredible Journey). The FBI have to set up a sting, trailing this cat around in the hopes that its nightly prowls lead them back to the kidnap victim. Against that inherently comic story you have the various subplots of Hayley Mills' relationship with the surfer dude, and her sister's relationship with a creep played by Roddy McDowell, and the nosy neighbour played by Elsa Lanchester. The capering works well when there is a solid framework for it to act around (and a surprisingly serious and adult one, for Disney, being a couple of hoodlums calmly discussing how they are going to kill their victim and dispose of the body). For her final Disney film, Mills is in true form as an inexplicably British All-American Girl who easily manipulates everyone around her into doing her bidding.

Notable for her departure, That Darn Cat! is also notable as Dean Jones' first Disney film. Charming as a hapless straight man, Jones' excellent comic timing made him a valuable asset to this film and many more to come. Jones would go on to be Disney's new go-to lead actor through the remainder of the Sixties and the Seventies. I'm getting ahead of myself, but several of my favourite films from after Walt's era star Dean Jones.    

Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree
February 4, 1966
26 minutes

Disney fans take Winnie the Pooh for granted now. He's as much a fixture in Disney as Mickey himself, and for a good long while has out-earned the company's mascot in profits. It's not difficult with TV show after TV show and direct-to-video film after direct-to-video film. I actually know the intro song to The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh cartoon as well as I do the original Sherman Bros. theme, and watched Welcome to Pooh Corner religiously as a child (both of these dating myself). About the only time Pooh seems particularly resented is when he displaces a beloved theme park attraction, yet his ride is also the best one in Tokyo Disneyland!

Yet there was a time when Pooh was new, and it was Disney's job to introduce him. Even by the Sixties, the books by A.A. Milne were relatively unknown in the United States, Winnie-the-Pooh having been published in the UK in 1926. Rather than drive straight ahead into a feature film, Walt opted to start with a string of animated shorts that wold eventually be collected into a feature film in 1977. The first of these was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, which does indeed begin with introductions to each of the characters before launching into Pooh's health problems.

If One Hundred and One Dalmatians figured out the best uses of xerography in animation and a new pop art style to go with it, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree figured out how to use them in the form of Disney's classic fairy tales. The Pooh stories aren't Mediaeval folk tales in the sense of a Grimm or Perrault, but this short captures the sensibilities of how Disney adapted them, right down to the similar beginning, with a book being opened. In keeping with the new house style, it goes further than simply pulling the book down from the library shelf and opening it's cover... Ingeniously, we see the pages of the book itself being animated and the characters interacting with the words and creases on the pages.

What makes this so ingenious, besides some serious "fourth wall" type breaks, is that the Pooh stories are all transcriptions of Christopher Robin's adventures with his stuffed animals. It is a child's world of imagination come to life. So Disney's animators played fast and loose with that premise, having them move in and out of that world. They live both within the Hundred Acre Wood and on the printed page. It might have even been nice to see them crawl off the page and into Christopher Robin's room to grab things they needed for the story, like the balloon Pooh uses to float up to the honey tree. Still, it's pretty smart not to deliver this as a straightforward fantasy story, artistically.

I should hope that I don't need to explain by now how well suited such a flight of childlike imagination is suited to Disney and Disneyland!

The Ugly Dachshund
February 4, 1966
93 minutes

Man, I hate movies like this. Dean Jones stars opposite Suzanne Pleschette as a husband and wife who get into all sorts of dog-related problems because they can't just sit down and talk to each other. Unless you're really trying to do a character drama about how egotism, pride, and lack of communication break apart marriages and destroy lives, it's just a cheap way to drive a conflict. Over and over again I wanted to yell at these two to suck it up and talk to each other. Seriously, the plot would have been resolved in five minutes if they did that, and it's no fun sitting for an hour and a half waiting for them to figure that out. 

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.
June 25, 1966
110 minutes

It had a few moments, but overall, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is a comedy deadzone. Dick Van Dyke stars in this modern remake of Robinson Crusoe that just flops around and dies on screen. The pacing is so poor that nothing ever builds up enough momentum to be funny, then it switches into awkward Sixties gender "comedy" that is very dated today, and then into unbelievably denigrating racist caricatures that makes anything in a previous Disney Western or island movie look practically progressive in comparison. About the only thing this film had going for it was a half-decent soundtrack to add into one's home Tiki bar iTunes mix (if one can even find it). I wish the content of the film could have lined up better with the Hawaii location shooting and fanciful Tiki idols. The saddest part of all was that this film was Walt's only story credit (as "Retlaw Yensid"). He not only approved this... he scripted it.    

Run, Appaloosa, Run
June 29, 1966
47 minutes

This was a welcome palate cleanser... Though technically released a few days after Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Run, Appaloosa, Run was the preceding short shown in general distribution. The contrast between the two films could not be more stark. Whereas Robin Crusoe is a largely anti-entertaining mess with boorish racial caricatures, Run, Appaloosa, Run is a much more compelling docu-drama portraying the Nez Perce Native American tribe with relative sympathy (despite casting non-Nez Perce and even non-Native American actors in some of the major roles). 

The short, narrated once again by Rex Allen, follows the troubled life of an Appaloosa colt named Holy Smoke. After losing his mother to a cougar just days after his birth, Holy Smoke survives and is trained by Mary Blackfeather (Adele Palacios) of the Nez Perce to run the dangerous Hell's Mountain Relay. She hopes to be the first woman to run the race, and through victory to being glory, prize-money, and business to her tribe. Unfortunately the winds of necessity blow in and Holy Smoke is blown out to a big city dude, and from him to a rodeo rider, and from him to a rodeo clown, until he finally ends up back in Mary's hands. Reunited the two take on the bloodthirsty, cutthroat relay...

Larry Lansburgh was the film's story writer and director. His wife Janet acted as screenwriter. The subject matter was right up Lansburgh's alley: a former stuntman who found his way to the Disney Studio after a bad accident, he was part of Disney's South American goodwill tour, produced The Littlest Outlaw, and directed Stormy the Thoroughbred, Cow Dog, The Wetback Hound, The Horse with the Flying Tail, The Tattooed Police Horse, and several episodes of the Disney TV show (in addition to an episode of Lassie). Often the animals in his films ended up in pleasant retirement as his own ranch. 

Lansburgh's eye for interesting stories about horses and the West as struck gold again with this glimpse into the proud horse-breeding traditions of the Native Americans of Idaho. The Nez Perce tribe acquired the venerable Spanish horse early on (there are even cave paintings in Europe resembling the Appaloosa), and used them to great effect in conflicts with the expanding United States. Sadly for them, the Nez Perce lost the war with the US in 1877, and most of their horses along with. It took dedicated breeders to maintain the bloodlines of this horse, named for Idaho's Palouse River, until 1938 when an official breed registry could be established. Today, the Appaloosa is one of the most popular horse breeds in the United States, is the official state horse of Idaho, and mascot for the Florida State Seminoles athletic program. It's a venerable breed worth of, at least, a high-caliber short like Run, Appaloosa, Run.                 

The Fighting Prince of Donegal
October 5, 1966
110 minutes

Like many films released in 1966, this film was also released in 1966.

Follow Me, Boys!
December 1, 1966
131 minutes

The last film to be made during Walt's lifetime is oddly poignant, as an It's a Wonderful Life-style generational drama about the influence one man's life can have. Fred MacMurray stars as Lem Siddons, an itinerant Jazz musician in 1930 who decides to put down roots in the small, Main Street U.S.A. village of Hickory. Getting a job as a clerk in the general store, he immediately begins wooing Vida (Vera Downey), the clerk in the neighbouring bank. In his pursuit, he ends up forming a Boy Scout troop and becoming a positive, transformational force in the lives of the community and, specifically, succeeding generations of the town's boys. In particular, he takes the troubled youth nicknamed "Whitey" (Kurt Russell) under his wing. By the end... two hours, twenty minutes, and twenty years later... we see just how deep the roots he set have grown.

The parallels with Walt's life are unmistakable. Walt has identified with MacMurray's go-to middle aged character many times over, and this version's career spans the same length of time as Walt's own. The scope of their lives is obviously different, from Hollywood mogul to small town Scout troop leader, but Lem's life was a lot like the one that Walt wanted. With all the magnificent capital and creativity at his disposal, the opening act of Walt's dream kingdom was a recreation of small town U.S.A. It was a conceptual space that he returned to often in film. He even envied his family for leading that kind of life:
So I think happiness is contentment but it doesn't mean you have to have wealth. But all individuals are different. Some of us just wouldn't be satisfied with just carrying out a routine job and being happy. Yet I envied those people. I had a brother who I really envied because he was a mailman. But he's the one that had all the fun. He had himself a trailer, and he used to go out and go fishing, and he didn't worry about payrolls and stories and picture grosses or anything. And he was the happy one. I always said, "He's the smart Disney."

Follow Me, Boys! feels a lot like Walt's own idealized retrospective on his life, in its most idealized setting and his most idealized self. I wish I had Lem's ability (or writers) to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment, unfailingly. I suppose it's being that idealized retrospective might excuse how needlessly long it is, then.

The fault of Follow Me, Boys! is that there is a solid 80 minute movie in there, bookended by two half-hour episodes that are entertaining enough but strained our patience. There is a key point, in the middle of the film, where an incident leads Whitey to attempt to run away and Lem to attempt to quit the Boy Scouts but they agree together to stick around. That would have been the ideal spot to end it, dramatically. Most of the key incidents of the remaining half (like the Boy Scouts obtaining the land for their camp) could have been folded into the preceding half, and the finale could have been a "20 years later" jump. That might actually have had more emotional punch than us sitting there watching the decades go by, and feeling it. We didn't really need to know what exactly happened, only that decades have passed and Lem made his influence felt. 

Nevertheless, Follow Me, Boys! is an entertaining, moving, fitting, and oddly prescient ending to 1966 and Walt Disney's life.

Walt's Era is not quite over yet. The end of Walt's life was not the end of his influence. In the next chapter, we look at the films released immediately after his passing, which had been in production during the last year of his life. The following chapter will be the grand conclusion to Walt's Era.     

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