Saturday, 11 November 2017

Walt's Era - Part 19: Conclusion and Top Fives

What does one learn by watching every Disney film of Walt's Era, in order? 

Almost all of these films I had seen before, in one way or another, mostly through building up our own DVD collection. Walt's era has long been an interest of mine and my favourite era in the company's history. It was, after all, the era when the company rose to ascendancy, built Disneyland, and produced nearly all of my favourite Disney films. Yet I never sat down to watch them in order, which turned out to be a monumental task that was great in the good years and surprisingly tedious and demoralizing in the not-so-good ones. Here's what I learned...

It was interesting to see Disney's artistic development contextualized. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a very different film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and now my understanding of why and how is better grounded in an understanding of Disney's artistic development. Yet for as different as they are, watching the evolution of Disney's art has also helped me better articulate how they are similar in key ways that set Disney's films apart from their contemporaries.

A commitment to romance, in both senses of the word, suffuses the best of Disney entertainment. That means not only the romance of love affairs, but the romance of a general love affair with life. It is in Disney's fairy tale cartoons, with their romance of chivalry and courtly love. It was in Disney's romantic nationalist epics, most of which starred Fess Parker. It was the romance of the natural world that suffused the True-Life Adventures and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was even in Hayley Mills' romantic comedies and Fred MacMurray's family dramas. The Absent-Minded Professor had to fight for his girl as much as Prince Philip did. It is romance given physical shape in Disneyland.

Disney films, the best of them, were also defined by a well-roundedness of romance, adventure, drama, humour, music, artistry, and even horror. They were movies that, for the most part, could effectively balance something for everybody in the truest meaning of a family film. In one movie, like the monumental Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you literally had a bit of something different at every turn. One minute, the Prince was wooing Snow White, the next she was fleeing through a terrifying forest in a scene that notoriously even gave chills to Vincent Price.    

The most fascinating thing has been to watch how the company transitioned and did, or didn't, respond to its times.  I can't imagine that I'm saying anything radically insightful when I observe that Disney really was a product of the interwar and immediate post-war years. Walt rose to prominence as a fixture of Hollywood's Golden Age of the Twenties and Thirties, innovating with synchronized sound cartoons in 1928 and feature length animated films a decade later. In between, he and his mouse were two of Tinsel Town's shining lights. Disney deservedly held his own with the big studios and the great stars. This is perhaps nowhere better reflected than in a film I did not cover in this project: the 1934 MGM vehicle Hollywood Party. This star-studded extravaganza included an appearance by Mickey Mouse, his first in a feature film, alongside Laurel and Hardy, Jimmy Durante, The Three Stooges, Eddie Quillan, and Lupe Velez.

Yet just as soon as Disney's first "golden age" began, it screeched to a halt. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an unprecedented artistic and commercial success that literally saved the company, but while Pinocchio, Bambi, and especially Fantasia were artistic masterpieces, they underwhelmed at the box office. Once the war ended and resources could be employed for creative consolidation, Disney exploded back onto the scene with a vengeance. If Disney was a Hollywood fixture during the Thirties, it became a bona fide cultural icon in the Fifties. The company resumed full-length animated features and expanded to live-action features, nature and cultural documentaries, television, and theme parks. 

Disney's cultural reach during the Fifties raises the question of whether the man and the company just happened to fit so well with the post-war milieu, or if it actually had a hand in shaping it. To what extent was Walt feeding a renewed sense of optimism expressing itself in the Space Race and the Baby Boom, or to what extent was he helping create it? His films, his TV shows, his park, were more than just good, clean entertainment or artistic ventures. When I stack Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp against Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, they are still incredibly good but don't quite measure up as pure artistic masterpieces. What they made up in was cultural relevance. Those films of the Fifties said something more than the ones of the Thirties and early Forties, as did Disney's live-action films. There is more going on in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than a submarine. Then add in Walt Disney's Disneyland on the small screen and in an Anaheim orange grove, when it's making cultural thesis statements like Man in Space and Tomorrowland, or Davy Crockett and Frontierland. Uncle Walt offered reassurance of Western liberal democracy's primacy, nostalgia for the best of the good old days whose dreams we were now living out, and hope for an ever brighter and more peaceful future. Disney hit the perfect inspirational, aspirational note.

The second, and greatest, "golden age" faltered in 1959-60, with a financial loss that I don't think the company ever truly recovered from. Disney's films from the Sixties, particularly the early Sixties, could be quite good from an entertainment standpoint, but they seemed to lose their grasp of the changing culture around them. Promises made in the Fifties didn't seem to be panning out by the mid-Sixties, and everyone was taking notice. At certain high points Disney really grab hold of something, but those instances are rare. For the most part they seemed to be spiraling into irrelevance that eventually began reflecting in the quality of the films themselves.

Longstanding convention holds that the company turned to mediocrity after Walt's untimely passing. Without the hand of this creative genius, this grand populist, to guide them, the company simply could not adapt and forgot how to tell a good story. That's not what I saw unfold before me, however. Disney's decline began well before his death. 1966 was interminable, 1965 barely better, and 1964 would have been mostly a wash if not for Mary Poppins. The highlights are really good - Mary Poppins, Absent-Minded Professor, One Hundred and One Dalmatians - but exempting them, the films are fairly average or less. As I said, entertaining enough in their own right, but missing the vitality on display in the previous decades.

Had Walt not been taken from the Earth by the scourge of cancer, I'm not confident that the company would have done any better through the late Sixties and Seventies. The Mousetro would himself have been in his late Sixties and Seventies, which is well after the "best before" date of cultural relevance. Even in the Fifties, we see in the company's work the clear signs of people who came of age in the Twenties and Thirties (the "Two Decades Behind" problem). Circumstance might have forced him to carefully select heirs who could speak to their age, or his overwhelming influence might have even further stunted the company's relevance, or he might have just been too preoccupied with building his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow to care much about movies. 

Ironically, it was not the people who were closest to Walt who were best able to cement his legacy. It was almost twenty years later that a fresh, outside executive with his own strong vision for the company was able to pull it out of the slump that began in the Sixties. Reflective of the era of Reagan and Thatcher, celebrity moguls like Donald Trump, and the excess of the Eighties, Michael Eisner was once again able to suit the company to the age it lived in. It's easy to be negative about Eisner from the controversial final years of his tenure as Disney's CEO, but sober reflection on Disney's track record before Eisner's ascent and after shows that he was exactly what the company required if it was to have a future.

Let's give credit where it is due: without Eisner, there would have been no Disney Renaissance, no Disney Cruise Lines, no Disney Store, no expansion of Walt Disney World or Disneyland, no Disneyland Paris, no Disney on Broadway, no Disney Afternoon, none of that. The collapse of Disney towards the end of his leadership is mostly a function of its success at the beginning... One often gets setbacks when striving ahead, especially at so rapid a pace. If Eisner had any real fault it was overstaying his welcome, persisting in his office well past the expiration of his vision. Ironically, the soullessness attributed to Eisner is something I see far more in Bob Iger's transformation of the company into a deluxe IP management firm, akin to the former Classic Media. Even Eisner's love affair with Michael Graves' postmodern architecture demonstrates a certain creative vision lacking today, a certain refinement of taste beyond merely making money. Without Eisner there would be no Disney as we know it today. Some might consider that a good thing, but by the Eighties, the choice was not between the small, folksy company with its homey little theme parks or the entertainment megacorporation we presently have. It was more likely a choice between that megacorporation and not having Disney at all. 

That often seems to be the way it goes though, isn't it? There are at least two distinctive ideas about how to maintain the legacy of a company like Disney. One is to simply keep copying what the original innovator did, the other is to bring in someone new to introduce fresh innovations. Studio Ghibli is a good example of the pitfalls of the former approach. The overwhelming influence of Hayao Miyazaki prevented Ghibli from really fostering new creative talent or daring to bring in anybody new from outside who could lead the company after Miyazaki's retirement. Disney in the Seventies is another good example. Trying merely to copy the original innovator petrifies the product in those original forms and styles, which was already happening by the time Walt himself was hitting his Sixties. Fess Parker observed that it was rare for Walt to bring in especially competent outside directors. Walt's desire for control may have led him to cutting out anyone who had a strong vision of their own. It would take his company twenty more years and a crisis that threatened its future to finally get that out of their system. Present day Disney is back there again, merely purchasing creative content producers instead of working hard to make really exceptional content themselves.

Watching all the films of Walt's era against the backdrop of the current company's goings on has further solidified what I already knew in the back of my mind about myself. As we watched these films, I also stopped reading any official Disney blogs and things, on account of them only ever seeming to push Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar productions. Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar muscled their way into the theme parks. Pirates of the Caribbean underwent another round of vandalism. The things I got most excited for were Season Four of Paul Rudish's Mickey Mouse cartoons and the new Ducktales. At the risk of being petrified, I am really and truly a classic Disney fan. I hate change and Disneyland should be a museum! Of course there are newer things that I love, but what I love best really is this period of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and even the Sixties God help me, or anything recalling those halcyon days of Walt's era. 

Top Five Animated Feature Films
  1. Fantasia - I don't know if there is more I could say about Fantasia than I already have. Watching all of Walt's films in order has left me more convinced than ever that this is indeed Walt's greatest film and one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest (depending on your criteria). Fantasia is a stunning, beautiful, sublime work of pure, genuine art driven by visionary genius.   
  2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - Prior to this project, Snow White might have been on this list, but towards the bottom, maybe an honourable mention. I recognized its historical significance and do enjoy it quite a bit. But now, having sat down and thought critically about why it works so well, using it as the measuring stick against which all other Disney animated films are judged, I legitimately love it. It really is a great, enduring film in the best traditions of Hollywood's Golden Age.   
  3. The Three Caballeros - If anyone is under the mistaken impression that Disney's films are formulaic and artistically safe, show them this madness. Fantasia was Walt being daring and inventive in a highbrow artistic format, The Three Caballeros was just throwing caution to the wind in marvellous insanity.  
  4. Sleeping Beauty - I have a better appreciation now for what doesn't work about Sleeping Beauty than I did before this project. It was an experimental film, but not every experiment can be a complete success. I still can't quite wrap my mind around the choice to have Sleeping Beauty sleep for only about 20 minutes or so. Nevertheless, there is still a lot about this rendition of my favourite traditional fairy tale to love. This one may be here for purely sentimental reasons, though Disney was hardly above appealing to sentiment.
  5. One Hundred and One Dalmatians - I hadn't seen One Hundred and One Dalmatians for something like 30 years before this project. Now it rounds out the top five of my favourite animated films from Walt's Era. It really is good enough, and charming enough, and simple enough, and original enough to surpass more likely candidates like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland which might have otherwise occupied this spot. Watching it like this gave me a much better appreciation for what it was doing than if I had just seen it at random at any time in the last three decades.  
Honourable Mention: Melody Time - If I chose Sleeping Beauty for sentimental reasons, I'm choosing Melody Time for funsies. One of Fantasia's pop-music heirs, it's just a darn fun little movie. Each of the segments has a delight in their own way, whether it's Once Upon a Wintertime's charm and beautiful Mary Blair stylings, or Blame it on the Samba's reunion with two of the Caballeros, or Bumble Boogie's beat, or the hilarious cowboy poetry of The Legend of Pecos Bill. I could watch this movie again and again and again.

Top Five Live-Action Feature Films
  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Sadly undervalued today, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was just as significant in Disney's company history as Disneyland was, and originated around the same time. But beyond that, it's a seriously good film. The acting in on point, the drama is gripping, and the Nautilus is a thing of beauty. I love the literature of Jules Verne and despite being well aware of the differences between the original novel and the movie, I cannot shake the movie's imagery from my head. Nor would I want to!
  2. Man in Space/Davy Crockett and the River Pirates - I had to pick one of the Davy Crockett films for this spot, but after this project I opted for the sequel rather than the original biographical movie. That's because watching Davy Crockett and the River Pirates in tandem with Man in Space sparked my nostalgia for what Disneyland once was, what Disney once was, and all the warm and delighted feelings that come with it. And unlike "The Compleat Life and Times of David S. Crockett", Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is just a fun, simple story.  
  3. The Absent-Minded Professor - I'll go off on a limb here (though probably not very far out on one) and argue that The Absent-Minded Professor is Disney's funniest film. It's a great screwball comedy with a great cast that doesn't get too bogged down or outstay it's welcome. It pokes at the zeitgeist in an amusing way, which is fun and nostalgic now, but it's still enduringly funny on its own.  
  4. Mary Poppins - Here is another case of a film that might have gotten an honourable mention before that is now finding its way into the proper top five. Seeing it in context and trying to understand why it's a classic has raised its esteem considerably in my eyes. Mary Poppins is well-rounded Disney entertainment in the vein of Snow White all those years before... Perhaps even the last really classic film of Walt`s era.
  5. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin - If I had to pick a runner-up for funniest Disney film, which I guess is exactly what I'm doing now, it would be this hidden gem. Like my choice of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates above, it easily recalls the Frontierland and exemplifies Ward Kimball's loving eye for Victorian aesthetics. It's a feast for the eyes of any costume lover, and delightful comedy echoing the slapstick days of the silent cinema. And no, it isn't lost on me that almost all my picks here have involved a Victorian-Edwardian setting. It's as though I liked that kind of thing
Honourable Mention:  The Vanishing Prairie - I understand now that this isn't the best True-Life Adventure feature film (that would be The African Lion), but this is the one I enjoy the most. That might simply be my own attachment to the region it's about... I am a born and raised prairie boy, after all. Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. A home on the range, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play. 

Top Five Short Films
  1. Paul Bunyan - I didn't wax poetic about it in my original review for Walt's Era. In fact, based on the brevity of that review, one would be excused for thinking I didn't like it. Yet when I pull together the list of shorts that I've seen across this project, I have to acknowledge that I do like it a lot. Now's my time to make up for a lax review! Storywise, Paul Bunyan is in the form of any great Disney fairytale film or tall tale. There are strong echoes of The Legend of Pecos Bill, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and even Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Its "cartoon modern" art style is what really sets it apart, however. A familiar sort of story told in a familiar sort of way becomes an act of vivid artistic exploration.  
  2. Grand Canyon - The Grand Canyon is a place of unparalleled beauty and mystery. Had it not been for certain turns in America's political landscape, we were planning on taking an extended trip there next year or the year after. Ferde Grof√©'s Grand Canyon Suite is an equally stunning musical reverie capturing that essence. Disney's short feature Grand Canyon melds the two together, for the first time on screen, to tremendous effect. 
  3. Mars and Beyond - Of the three "Man in Space" episodes/shorts, Mars and Beyond is the most feverishly imaginative. Since there was so little known about the Red Planet to work with, Ward Kimball just let his imagination fly with strange alien life forms and an adorable pastiche of pulp Sci-Fi. The Martian warlord is actually one of my favourite, most obscure, Disney characters.  
  4. Disneyland After Dark
  5. The Golden Horseshoe Revue - Disneyland After Dark and The Golden Horseshoe Revue share billing here because I like them for largely the same reasons, being invaluable documents of Disneyland's past and connections to the real life history that Disneyland was itself trying to nostalgically recapture. Some might argue that, in some senses, these are also documents of Disney's better days. I think it would be hard to say that Disneyland from this period was objectively better (there was yet no Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion) but these certainly portray things that Disneyland isn't really into doing anymore that had their own value. These are also great fun to watch, because of the subject matter but also because of the delivery. These aren't as dry a portrait of Disneyland as the People and Places documentary was. They give as much of an experiential feel for how much fun Disneyland must have been, in addition to what it looked like.
Honourable Mention: True-Life Adventures - It's difficult to pick any one of the True-Life Adventure shorts as a best, but it would be an egregious omission to leave them all out. They were such a significant part of Disney's fabric in the Fifties, inspiring two whole lands in Disneyland (Adventureland and Frontierland) as well as inventing the modern wildlife documentary. So, I'm going to include all of them, as an honourable mention!

Top Five "Years"
  1. 1954-1955 - I said it during that review and I'll say it again: 1954/55 was the greatest year in Disney company history. It was the year of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, The Vanishing Prairie, The African Lion, and The Lady and the Tramp in theatres, Walt Disney's Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club on TV, and the year Disneyland opened. For innovation, creative output, and cultural impact, Disney's never matched it.   
  2. 1940-1942 - It's undoubtedly stretching the concept of "year" even beyond Disney's lose definition of the term to include the three-year span of 1940-42, but this entry in the series is my second favourite. Here was Disney's first "golden age", in the wake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which included Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, and that charming oddball, The Reluctant Dragon.     
  3. 1942-1946 - Can I stretch credulity even further? Now up to a four-year period, most wouldn't think of the war years as a great time for Disney, caught up in declining markets and declining fortunes. But lemons, lemonade, and so forth. This period saw Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, and Song of the South, which makes for a pretty good slate of moving pictures.  
  4. 1959 - It was a gala year for Disney and, some might argue, Disney's last really good one. Besides the opening of the Submarine Voyage, Monorail, and Matterhorn Bobsleds, this year saw the release of Sleeping Beauty, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, and The Shaggy Dog as feature films (as well as Third Man on the Mountain and Jungle Cat, the last True-Life Adventures feature). It was also a pretty good year for shorts, including Grand Canyon, Donald in Mathmagic Land, Eyes in Outer Space, and two pseudo-True-Life Adventures.  
  5. 1947-1950 - This period of post-war recovery is an archetypal entry for a Top Five "Year". The only first tier Disney classic it produced was Cinderella, but consider the consistent entertainment value of the rest: Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free, So Dear to My Heart, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The period, taken as a whole, is quite decent. Now taking this list as a whole, it seems that my favourite period in Disney history is an unbroken stretch from 1937 to 1950, exceeded only by the year 1954/55. Yes, yes, I truly am a classic Disney fan. Maybe Disney can brand that. Classic Disneytm
Honourable Mention: 1961 - In the interests of fairness then, let me pick an outlier as an honourable mention. The early part of 1961 saw the release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Saga of Windwagon Smith, and Donald and the Wheel, all enjoyable films. The latter half had The Parent Trap, Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, and Greyfriars Bobby, which are all decent films as well. The only film that year I didn't particularly care for was Babes in Toyland

It's not quite over yet. Join us in a few days for what comes after Walt's Era! 

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