Saturday, 14 October 2017

Walt's Era - Part 18: Life After Walt (1967)

The Disney company did not close down shop with the death of Walt Disney. On the contrary, the period after his death was a general period of expansion for the company, particularly concerning its Florida resort.

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with the Magic Kingdom, Contemporary and Polynesian Village Resorts, and Fort Wilderness campground, and steadily added to it throughout the following decade, culminating in EPCOT Center in 1982. A year later, Disney's first international resort, Tokyo Disneyland opened. Ironically, Walt's brother Roy, who took charge and saw the WDW project through in honour of Walt, himself died only a few months after the opening of the "Vacation Kingdom." Under the leadership of Card Walker and Ron Miller, Walt's son-in-law, Disney expanded into new fields of film (including the adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures label) and new types (including such innovative films as Tron and Pete's Dragon). Wonderful World of Color was rechristened to the now more-familiar Wonderful World of Disney in 1968 and The Disney Channel began broadcasting in 1983. For those not willing to wait for television's schedule, Disney released its first videocassettes in 1980. In 1967 alone, less than a year after Walt's passing, both Pirates of the Caribbean and the new Tomorrowland debuted, the latter including Adventure Thru Inner Space, Carousel of Progress, and the PeopleMover.  

Nice jumpsuits. Walt Disney World opens October 1, 1971. Photo: Disney.
Unfortunately, this experimentation did not regularly pay out box office dividends. Disney's films typically underperformed and during this time, up to 70% of the company's revenue came from the two theme park resorts, Disneyland and Walt Disney World. By 1984, the majority of Disney's theatrical releases were reissues of their classics. 1969 alone saw the re-releases of  Darby O'Gill and the Little People, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Incredible Journey, Fantasia, and Swiss Family Robinson. The Robinsons would find themselves back in theatres in 1972, 1975, and 1981, hardly letting grass grow under their feet. In 1979, Don Bluth lead a mass exodus of animators, practically destroying the department. Unbelievably, the only film to be released under the Disney brand in 1984 was Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, the short that got him fired from the company. This underperformance led to fractured board of directors, a takeover bid by Saul Steinberg, followed by the ousting of Miller and introduction of Michael Eisner.

What could account for it? For one, there had been diminishing returns in the years preceding Walt's death. The public became less entranced with Disney from the financial loss of 1959-1960 onward, and it's difficult to say that the company wasn't mainly peddling in mediocrity from 1964. The quality of Disney's films into the Seventies was largely consistent with the Sixties, though without the same highlights.

The blame isn't directly on Roy Disney, Walker, Miller, or the Disney company per se. That consistency might have put them at an even keel had society not changed around them. After the Golden Age of global peace promised by Walt in the Fifties, America's youth now found themselves bitterly divided on the question of Vietnam. The Space Race was won by America on July 20, 1969, and promptly forgotten. The new frontier was not outer space or inner space or liquid space, but a broadening idea of justice at home. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements, American Indian Movement and emergence of Native Americans as a political voice, Second Wave Feminism, the Sexual Revolution and Summer of Love, Woodstock, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, Vatican II, post-colonialism, the decline of the British Empire, and the British economic depression that fermented the Punk movement, all transformed Western society irrevocably, let alone the United States. On August 6, 1970, the Yippies took over Disneyland in vain defiance of squaredom. President Jimmy Carter even took to the airwaves in 1979 to chastise Americans for their sense of pessimism and malaise. This spirit entered into film, perhaps no better exemplified than in the indulgent motion pictures of Stanley Kubrick. Dour spectacles of barbarism and hopelessness like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange left Disney's productions looking beyond quaint. 

Monkeys, Go Home!
February 8, 1967
101 minutes

Dean Jones does another good job as the comic straight man, Yvette Mimieux is cute as a button, and Maurice Chevalier is his usual jocular self, but this first feature film released after Walt Disney's passing is... well... It's a movie that happened. Maybe if they condensed the good material down to 70 or 80 minutes it would have been better. Which is not to say it's bad, it just never works up enough of a head of steam to be good either. A fair bit of it is built around the idea of chimpanzees being funny doing chimp things, but that entire concept has moderate appeal at the best of times and the chimps didn't really do anything that funny here. Another large part of the film is Mimieux and Jones' characters talking past each other, and her undermining him, rather than talking too each other.  As we established with The Ugly Dachshund, that doesn't play very well with me. Overall, Monkeys, Go Home! is as one would expect from the company from 1965 onward. 

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin
March 8, 1967
108 minutes

Well that was unexpected! The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin was as delightful as any of the great Disney films of the Fifties, and then some. This California Gold Rush misadventure captures as much of the tone of a Mack Sennett silent comedy as it does a Fess Parker Western, with a relatively star-studded cast that is on point. We genuinely weren't anticipating to encounter a film this genuinely entertaining this late into Walt's Era, and we were exceedingly glad for it. 

Roddy McDowell stars in the title role, a butler to the newly impoverished Flagg family. The passing of the household's great patriarch, Admiral Flagg, has left a mountain of debt forcing his only heirs, 12 year-old Jack (Bryan Russell, last seen as Emil of Emil and the Detectives) and Arabella (Suzanne Pleshette, herself last seen in The Ugly Dachshund), to sell the mansion and everything within. Jack gets the bright idea to go to California in search of gold, and Eric Griffin pledges to intercept him. Unfortunately, they run afoul of Judge Higgins (played marvelously by Karl Malden), who causes them to remain as stowaways on the ship bound for California. Higgins, for his part, was on the trail of Quentin Bartlett (Richard Hayden, voice of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland), a Shakespearean tragedian with a map to a great motherload in the hills of California. The trio of victims become good friends and work their way through the Golden State, in pursuit of gold and Judge Higgins, in a series of incidents that ultimately leads to a slapstick boxing match between the lithe "Bullwhip" Griffin and the burly bouncer Mountain Ox (Mike Mazurki, Bigfoot Mason in Davy Crockett). Not only is there gold at stake, but the honour of Arabella, Griffin's unrequited love interest who followed them to San Francisco and now works as a saloon singer. 

The closest of any film to the peculiar mania that The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin offers is Michael Todd's 1956 epic Around the World in 80 Days, perhaps with Blake Edwards' The Great Race or Ken Annakin's Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (both 1965) as seconds, though far inferior to Bullwhip Griffin. I'm not sure if there is a particular name to the sub-genre of expansive Victorian-Edwardian comedies paying homage to the early silent days of cinema, but these films would fall into it. Whereas The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men... kind of flop around awkwardly to modern sensibilities (due mainly to laboured gender comedy in the former and racial comedy in the latter), and the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days is doing a lot more than comedy, Bullwhip Griffin hits it in just the right spot. It can drag a bit in the middle but otherwise doesn't feel too long to sustain its comedy, and its comedy is genuinely funny. Karl Malden does a near-virtuoso performance as a shifty chimerical villain while stopping just short of too-obvious homage to Simon Legree-style moustache twirling.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the debt this film owes to Ward Kimball. Credited as providing "titles and things", Ward's guidance feels like it is present through the entire film. As a borderline lunatic himself and dedicated aficionado of the antiquated, Ward was certainly the resident expert on the kind of tone and sensibilities that Bullwhip Griffin portrays. At the very least, he provides interstitial titles (and some overlay animation) that is every bit as evocative of the Victorian as his moving illustrations for the Man in Space trilogy, which he directed and did animation for. His closing retro-1849 drawing of modern San Francisco, complete with fanciful airships and a truly golden bridge, is a particular visual feast. He was undoubtedly responsible for the handbill-style movie posters as well. Had the director not been listed as latter-day Disney stalwart James Neilson (whose other credits include The Moon-Spinners, Bon Voyage!, Moon Pilot, and episodes of Zorro), I could have sworn that this was Ward's baby from beginning to end. The Sherman Bros. provide the tinkling piano and narrative lyrics for Ward's interstitials.

I don't think it's the bias of context making this charming movie appear better than it might actually be. This is at least one of the best Westerns of Walt's era, and may even be one of my new favourite Disney movies period.          

Scrooge McDuck and Money
March 23, 1967
16 minutes

Scrooge McDuck and Money would seem to be the first, and worst, episode of DuckTales... Huey, Dewey, and Louie visit Uncle Scrooge for advice on saving their hard-earned $1.95. In return, he gives them a musical lecture on how money originated and the necessity of keeping it in circulation through investment. This short, Scrooge McDuck's first substantive appearance in animation (preceded only by a few cameos on The Mickey Mouse Club), is an attempt to explain economics in a manner comparable to the way Donald Duck had previously explained math and the wheel. Its first half, about how money was invented, is quite interesting for how it ties the invention first of money and then of credit is part and parcel of human progress, as much as the wheel was. Perhaps it's only a connection I'm noticing in context of the previous films, but it feels almost like it's presenting money and economics as a kind of technology that ought to have an exhibit in Tomorrowland. The second half, on investing, is not overly clear. It says you ought to do it, but doesn't really explain why. It's actually less elucidating than the financial planning song in Mary Poppins. It's almost like the whole system behind investment really is an insensible mess reduced to my giving the investment firm a couple hundred a month because my financial planner says I ought to do it so I can actually look forward to a retirement some day. This obfuscation makes it inferior to the prior Donald Duck films. On another note, I thought it was hard getting used to David Tennant as the voice of Scrooge, having grown up with Alan Young in the role. Apparently Scrooge's first voice as Bill Thompson, who also provided the voice for Mr. Smee, Ranger Woodlore, the White Rabbit, and half the characters in Lady and the Tramp, including Jock, whose voice he uses for Scrooge.    

The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle
June 21, 1967
48 minutes

Unfortunately, this cinematic adaptation of a Hopi legend is not available on home video. It's baffling me how Disney can't just throw everything they got up on Disney Movies On Demand. Nevertheless, from six minutes of this 48 minute film that someone posted online, it appears to have much in common with films like The Littlest Outlaw. Revolving around a boy rescuing an animal, the main interest seems to be anthropological and geographical in nature. Hopi culture and the picturesque vistas of the American Southwest seem to figure prominently.   

The Happiest Millionaire
June 23, 1967
164 minutes

The last live action film with which Walt was personally involved was The Happiest Millionaire, a phenomenally long love letter to the Gay Nineties aesthetic that was so influential on Walt's life and fantasies. In format and content, The Happiest Millionaire mirrors Disney's first true Broadway-style production in Mary Poppins, blending it with the "family saga" trope from Bon Voyage! and Follow Me, Boys!, both of which also starred Fred MacMurray. It was also given plenty of time to tell its saga: the original cut, with an overture and intermission/entr'acte stretches nearly three hours.

The Happiest Millionaire's troubles behind the camera are a perfect example of the problems that would come to plague Disney moving forward after Walt's death. Like Follow Me, Boys!, I can sense a spirit of self-reflection in the film, as though The Happiest Millionaire was another example of Walt looking back upon his own life and career. It was Walt who insisted on MacMurray, his film double, for the lead role of true-life Philadelphia philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel Biddle. Originally it was not planned as a musical, but the success of Mary Poppins (as well as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music) changed Walt's mind on that. The first cut of the film was completed before Walt's passing, Producer Bill Anderson and company COO Card Walker fought bitterly over the final cut, with Walker wanting to trim even more from it than Anderson intended. The critics weighed in and The Happiest Millionaire was axed down to 118 minutes for general release, losing just under an hour of content. The full, original cut was not seen again until the 1980's.

It's hard to say if cutting it down was the better choice. It is a very, very long movie, and not all of it feels entirely necessary. However, trimming it down might also cause it to lose much of its Gay Nineties charm. If Main Street U.S.A. exploded into celluloid, The Happiest Millionaire is what it would look like. It's got just about everything, including some 3000 gorgeous period costumes and an unaccounted for number of stunning automobiles. The Biddle family drama plays out against the historical backdrop of The Great War, which ended the Edwardian Era and broke Western culture's continuity with the Victorian Era. There are Irish immigrants and Irish pubs and Irish constables, palatial Edwardian mansions, old money and nouveau riche, soda shoppes, Harper's Bazaar (and wonderful Harper's Bazaar-style art for its title screens), and nods to a movement called "Muscular Christianity," which emphasized ideals of physical and moral health, manliness, athleticism, self-sacrifice, discipline, teamwork, and both patriotic and religious duty ("Three men seemed to have struggled within his breast" as one proponent was described, "the devout Christian, the earnest philanthropist, the enthusiastic athlete."). One of its most famous proponents was Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most manly man that ever manned, and gave rise to the YMCA.

Intentionally or ironically, The Happiest Millionaire deals with transitions. It opens with John Lawless (Tommy Steele), and Irish immigrant looking to start a new life in the United States. The plot revolves around Biddle learning to cope with a growing daughter (Lesley Ann Warren in her cinematic debut) finding her own way in the world, and her fiance (John Davidson) trying to find his. As alluded to before, it looks at the conflict between inherited wealth and the nouveau riche, the transition to the automobile, and the transition from the Victorian-Edwardian Era to the modern one. This theme not only arrived in time for Disney's own corporate transition, but for society's. The Summer of Love would come in 1968, as well as the peak of America's involvement in Vietnam. I wonder what one might have thought of Disney putting out a nostalgic Gay Nineties musical lionizing America's involvement in World War One.

I've always had a soft spot for this film because I love the Gay Nineties aesthetic dearly. The Happiest Millionaire is a visual smorgasbord. Like so many films, this project has helped to contextualize it for me, recognize its flaws and accept criticisms of it, but I still enjoy it tremendously. You just have to, you know, take a break during the intermission, go for a walk, snack-run or liquor-run, something like that. It's a fitting enough film for Walt's final live action production. 

Disneyland Around the Seasons
Unknown Date, 1967
Unknown minutes

This final theatrically re-released episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color is mainly an introduction to Disneyland's new arrivals of 1966: It's a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, New Orleans Square, Primeval World, and Fantasy on Parade (and these were already old news by 1967, when Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland '67 opened). I'm not sure what, if anything, was cut out for its theatrical release, since its only available form is as an episode. Nevertheless, it's once again a valuable glimpse into a golden time for Disneyland and, bittersweetly, one last romp around the park with Walt himself. The episode itself aired on December 18, 1966, just days after he passed away.

The Gnome-Mobile
July 19, 1967
84 minutes

Nope. Nope, nope, sorry. The Gnome Mobile goes down in my personal hall of infamy, alongside Wreck-It Ralph, as one of the only Disney movies I've actually chosen to stop watching within the first half-hour. This first movie made completely without Walt's involvement is a genuine piece of garbage. 

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar
October 18, 1967
75 minutes

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar is another example of Disney's post-True Life wildlife films narrated by Rex Allen. The story revolves around "Good Time Charlie", an orphaned cougar cub raised by the forester of a Pacific Northwest lumber company. As much time is paid to documenting the goings on of lumberjacks and lumber mills of the period as to Charlie himself. There isn't much to say about it beyond that... This sub-genre is all good, clean, fun entertainment with a nice bit of cultural and natural interest thrown in. It's nice to see some constancy here, especially after The Gnome-Mobile, but it wouldn't last either. This was Rex Allen's last feature film of this type for Disney. His folksy voice would come up again for similar episodes of Wonderful World of Disney though, finally ending with a narrator credit for 1978's The Shaggy D.A. Oddly, the advertising materials (like the poster here) and some dialogue try to paint Charlie as a hip and swingin' modern youth, which is terribly out of place for Disney. The Beat-like theme song is just awful. Amidst the classic Disney entertainment I'm suddenly confronted with how Disney is quickly going to become as square as it gets. 

The Jungle Book 
October 18, 1967
78 minutes

Well, here we go... The final film on our viewing list. The Jungle Book was the last film Walt presided over, having died during production. It is a transitional film, showing his obvious influence while at the same time betraying some of the lack of focus that he would have exerted had been present through its final stages. Nevertheless, it's still an enjoyable film and a fitting end to Walt's life and career.

A large part of the credit for its success goes to its stellar voice cast. I'm not sure there has actually been a Disney film, at least up to this point, with a better one. Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Phil Harris, Louis Prima, and Sterling Holloway as the principle cast (in addition to director Wolfgang Reitherman's son Bruce as Mowgli) do a fantastic job. It's like comfortably meeting up with a gang of old friends. The character animation is also quite good. I've heard that Reitherman really took the opportunity of Walt's death to showcase the animation, allowing scenes to linger simply for the sake of showing the draughtsmanship of Disney's animators at work. Unfortunately, more than a few corners were cut, with obvious recourse to reused animation.

That overuse of reused animation brings the tone down a bit, but the nature of The Jungle Book excuses it a bit. Walt decreed that it should be primarily a character-driven film rather than a plot-driven one, leading to an episodic feel along a simple, inexorable path from wolf's den to man's village. The most memorable thing about The Jungle Book are its vignettes... "Bear Necessities," "Wanna' Be Like You," "Trust in Me," "Col. Hathi's March," with little recollection of what falls in-between. The finished product is not as fully polished as one would like, though it is oddly reflective of the episodic nature of the original Kipling book. Each episode of the film is snappy and catchy and well done though, which really counts.  

A strong plot is something that would have to wait for Disney's more recent live-action remake. That was, in fact, the strongest part of the remake and legitimized its existence. The company's current fetish for live-action remakes has generally been good, but is at its best when it genuinely adds something overlooked by the original cartoon. Cinderella did that, as did The Jungle Book, whereas Beauty and the Beast, while very slickly produced, was essentially beat by beat. But I digress. The animated Jungle Book doesn't have the same strong plot or emotional arc as the eventual remake, but is still highly enjoyable. As I said, it is a fitting end to Walt's life and career, and to this insane project to watch all of his films in order. 

Stay tuned next month for our conclusion and lists of top films from Walt's Era!  

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