The more I’ve learned about the Walt Disney Company the more it’s become clear to me that you can’t truly understand their history just by looking at their animated movies. Starting in the 1950s they began investing heavily into making live action films that also fit into their overall brand and would continue to make them simultaneously with their animated productions right up to this day. Disney’s live action work (and here I’m talking about the official Disney stuff with the castle logo, not their recent run of movies based on Marvel and Star Wars) has often been a sort of parallel Hollywood universe that existed alongside the other studios but which would generally use homegrown actors and directors rather than the stars that would be traded liberally between the other studios. The films in question generally don’t cross my path and tend not to stream and air from my usual classic movie sources and my hope is that looking into them will generally give me a richer idea of what the movie going landscape was like during various eras. Now, Disney made a TON of these movies and no one but the most devoted fanboys will watch all of them so my goal is to just look into their work during the 50s, 60s, and 70s and pick out some of their most notable films. I’m not planning to dig too deep into what they were doing during my own lifetime, and I’m probably not going to track down much of anything that’s not easily accessible on Disney+.
Treasure Island (1950)
The effects of World War II on Disney have been pretty well documented and they were largely wound up in the effect it had on the European markets that had made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one of the biggest hits in cinema history up to that point. Weirdly enough these headaches persisted after the war ended and played a big role in pushing Disney into making its first live action films. Apparently after the war the UK was in some kind of complicated economic bind and had passed laws which imposed a gigantic tariff on films imported into the country and this essentially froze up a bunch of Disney’s funds in the country in such a way that required them to spend the money on films made in the country. Since their animation studio was in Los Angeles and there was no practical way to set up a new one elsewhere, the solution was to produce a series of live action films in the UK so they could be exporters rather than importers in the country and use those assets rather than having them sit there indefinitely. They chose as their first project an adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s youth adventure classic “Treasure Island” and also used it as another vehicle for their Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart star Bobby Driscoll, who they cast as Jim Hawkins.
The film pretty closely follows the plot outline of the original novel; this wasn’t the first adaptation and certainly wouldn’t be the last. For that matter it wouldn’t even be the last Disney adaptation as they did some versions for TV and would eventually bring it to space for Treasure Planet. It is, however, I think one of the more notable adaptations and solidified a lot of the pirate archetypes. Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver. Newton was a hard drinking man’s man who had a long resume of playing tough guys in British film and in this performance he used an exaggerated West Country accent which almost certainly played a major role in establishing what we now consider “pirate speak” of the “Avast ye mateys” variety. The rest of the cast was also decent, even Bobby Driscoll has grown a bit as an actor and is less annoying than in his other two big films. The film doesn’t exactly have epic production values but it doesn’t look cheap and I was also interested to see that the film didn’t feel as sanitized as they might in some of Disney’s animated films. The movie is not any more violent than the average western of the era but there was no hesitation here to have characters get shot and killed over the course of the adventure. In general I wouldn’t say that the movie is a major accomplishment or anything but as an old school adventure matinee it mostly holds up as good fun.
***1/2 out of Five
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
After having made a handful of adventure movies in England with varying degrees of box office success Disney found itself making something that was a lot more ambitious than what they had been doing in the live action world with their Jules Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Of all the live action films that Disney made this in many ways feels the list like a “Disney movie” in part because of the presence of big stars from other studios like Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre and it was directed by Richard Fleischer, a journeyman filmmaker who made a pretty solid career making large scale is perhaps slightly bland films like Tora! Tora! Tora! for other studios. It’s one of the first movies of any kind to use the cinemascope format and it’s generally made on a much larger scale and with a much larger budget than most of Disney’s live action films. You get the impression that Disney would normally save a story with fantastical elements like this for their animation department, but for whatever reason they opted not to this time and instead tried to compete with the other studios on their own turf for once.
As a production there’s a lot to appreciate in the film. The Nautilus set looks pretty sharp, and does a good job of feeling both Victorian and modern at the same time. The underwater photography is also very impressive considering that this was made a full ten years before Thunderball, which is my usual standard for this sort of thing. The film’s famous fight with a giant squid has perhaps aged a bit less gracefully and now works more on the level of camp than spectacle, but it is charming in its own way. Also rather dated are the depictions of black tribal islanders during one section, which definitely feels like it’s of the same era as the “What Made the Red Man Red” song from Peter Pan. The cast is also a bit of a mixed bag. James Mason is pretty great as Nemo and Paul Lukas is good as his counterpart. Kirk Douglas on the other hand feels a tad miscast as he’s a bit too much of an action hero to be playing what is actually kind of an impulsive ass of a character and Peter Lorre just generally seems a bit out of place as a sidekick/non bad guy. It’s also generally a rather talky movie and doesn’t really have that pacing you might expect from a family action movie, but usually in interesting ways. Overall the movie is about what you’d expect from a big budget Hollywood adaptation of this book during this era but perhaps not a definitive and unmissable one.
***1/2 out of Five
Old Yeller (1957)
After the budget for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea went way over and the movie ended up just breaking even despite being a hit Disney clearly decided to scale back and make their live action films on more of a modest budget and targeted more specifically to kids and families. One of those films was Old Yeller an adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name by Fred Gipson which had only just been published a year before the film came out so clearly it built its reputation quickly. I never read that book (my elementary school’s dead redneck dog book of choice was Where the Red Fern Grows) but its reputation proceeded it… or at least the reputation of the film and book’s ending proceeded it. Basically every generation has their own little list of movies that traumatized them as children whether its Gen Xers scared that E.T. was going to die or Silent Generation kids being sad for Bambi’s mother or the kids today who got to see Thanos wipe half their favorite superheroes out of existence. For boomers a major cinematic trauma seems to have been the scene at the end of this when Travis has to shoot his now rabid dog to put it out of its misery and prevent it from biting and infecting anyone. This scene has so eclipsed the rest of the movie in the minds of the public that there are major parts of the movie (like the fact that it’s set in post-Civil War Texas) that I knew next to nothing about.
The movie essentially concerns an interesting twist on the western genre as it shows what goes on at a ranch while the family patriarch is away on a cattle drive and also sort of falls under the “the one summer that changed my life” genre of coming of age stories. If follows some of the usual beats of a “boy raises dog” story with the twist that the protagonist actively dislikes the dog for a while in the film for seemingly no reason before finally coming around. The production values here are, well they’re average. The frontier scenery is decent but hardly breathtaking and the film is pretty good at utilizing trained animals to get through its story. The performances aren’t terribly good and a lot of them employ questionable Southern accents but they’re not terrible either. If there’s any real sin here it’s just that the whole story is kind of uneventful beyond what now (and probably then) seemed like pretty standard coming of age clichés. The film’s ending certainly didn’t make me cry but it was less wildly manipulative than I expected it to be and the film’s epilogue with Travis’ father essentially debriefing him on his pooch assassination to be pretty respectable in its own traditionally corny kind of way. The whole movie is generally very much a product of the 1950s; the nuclear family is very much the default, parents are always right, and child rearing is heavily focused on instilling responsibility over personal development. Overall it’s not poorly made for what it is but it’s pretty far removed from my personal sensibilities.
**1/2 out of Five
The Shaggy Dog (1959)
More than any other golden age studio I associate Disney with “living color.” They did of course have a history of black and white shorts in their very early days like “Steamboat Willie” but even their earliest animated features were in color as were almost all of their live action films. Hell, they even had a T.V. show called “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” all about how awesome it is to broadcast things in color. There were, however, apparently some exceptions and their 1959 film The Shaggy Dog was one of them. This is not one of those Disney movies that people have heartfelt memories of; there might be some boomers who have some nostalgia for it but most people kind of view it as a bit of 50s kitsch that was one of Disney’s dumber efforts and I’d say it lives up to that. The film is set in the most suburban of suburbs and has the exact same aesthetic as the 50s family sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” that would become rather loaded in the years after for their rather plastic depiction of bland white Americana. Fred MacMurray stars as a slightly silly family patriarch, which is a bit different from the darker roles I was used to seeing him in in Billy Wilder movies, but I think this is more representative of the kind of stuff he did for most of his career. Old Yeller star Tommy Kirk plays the lead here. Kirk was another one of the kid stars that Disney scooped up and then abandoned, in this case because they found out he was gay and possibly a barbiturate addict, and he would spend the rest of his career making moribund beach blanket movies like the MST3K film Catalina Caper. Here he’s a pretty all-American wholesome teen character though.
The film’s rather dopey premise is that the Tommy Kirk character stumbles upon a magic ring which makes him randomly turn into a sheepdog owned by one of his neighbors (he doesn’t switch roles with the pooch, the real dog just disappears when this happens) and then deals with that while going through his mundane suburban issues. While in dog form the boy still has full consciousness and is able to speak English but needs to avoid giving himself away because his dad is allergic to canines and is generally hostile toward them. The effect of him talking while in dog form is done with some sort of animatronic puppet and I suspect the film was shot in black and white in order to make that visual effect look better. The whole thing pretty much goes how you’d expect it to… until the protagonist finds out that his neighbors are spies not unlike Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who are plotting to steal government secrets from a nearby rocket facility in order to sell them to the Russians… didn’t really see that coming. But even with this development the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead maintains its comedic tone… but it’s not very funny, or at least it’s not any more funny than those bad “Leave it to Beaver” sitcoms that it was modeled after and the whole transforming dog bit doesn’t really do enough to make this feel like actual cinema rather than a glorified TV show. Not recommended as anything other than a historical curiosity.
** out of Five
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
My knowledge about this movie consisted of exactly one piece of trivia: it was Sean Connery’s one big role before he became a superstar as James Bond. Saying it’s “his” movie is probably an exaggeration, he’s billed third here but it’s a factoid that comes up from time to time in discussions of the actor’s career and were it not for that there’s a pretty good chance I never would have selected this movie for this marathon through Disney’s live action films of the 50s. The film was based on short stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, a late 19th/early 20th century woman of Irish descent who lived in America for most of her life. The film is set in Ireland and is meant to be a big celebration of that country that would appeal to Irish Americans who felt warmth for “the homeland” but perhaps not much of a desire to actually go there. The movie depicts the country in the most stereotypical Disneyfied way imaginable. Half the cast is speaking in an exaggerated “oirish” accents and everything’s green and filled with shamrocks and all the rest of the touristy shit that actual Irish people hate and make fun of. Most prominently the “little people” in the title are full on leprechauns.
Much of the plot concerns Darby O’Gill, an old groundskeeper at a local mansion owned by some local lord, who spends most of the movie trying to capture the king of the local leprechauns who continually fucks with the old man. Darby is a strange choice of protagonist for a family movie given that he is a septuagenarian that kids are unlikely to relate to, which is something that could be made to work in theory but doesn’t here. Sean Connery plays a young Dubliner who has recently moved to the town and has been hired as Darby’s replacement. He’s fine. I doubt the locals were much impressed by his accent but that’s the least of what they’ll be offended by here. He eventually becomes a love interest for Darby’s daughter, which is a little odd given his future star persona as a sleazy womanizer and some of his real life statements about domestic violence, but I’m sure it would seem like a reasonably sweet romance to people in 1959. Really the movie is just overwhelmingly lame and kind of pointless. They seemingly had no real goal here except to make the most Irish movie to ever Irish and give them something to play on TV every St. Patrick’s Day.
*1/2 out of Five
“Pollyanna” was a novel written by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913 and became a pretty famous work and sort of sits with books like “Little Women” and “Heidi” as books that are traditionally given to preteen girls. The book has kind of gained a reputation for being cringingly saccharine, not just from cynical shits like me but from normal people to. In fact the very name “Pollyanna” has become something of a byword for a sort of unproductive naiveté with people routinely being accused of being “Pollyannaish” which the dictionary defines as a person or idea that is “unreasonably or illogically optimistic.” Still, it’s considered a classic of American wholesomeness so it was probably not too much of a surprise that Walt Disney would get his mits on it and in 1960 the Walt Disney Company released what was the second major adaptation of the book after a popular 1920 adaptation with Mary Pickford. To make it they brought in a guy named David Swift, who had been an office boy at Disney in the 1930s but left during World War II and after the war began working in television during the 1950s and was brought back to Disney for this project which he really made it his baby; he wrote the script, co-produced it, and directed the film and got to work with some decently famous actors from outside the Disney stable like Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, and Agnes Moorehead. For the title character they brought in thirteen year old Hayley Mills, the daughter of the veteran British character actor John Mills, who generally seems to have had a healthier career and life than most of the other child stars that went through this studio.
The plot here is that the titular girl is an orphan who arrives in a small town called Harrington to live at an orphanage owned by her aunt, who is a part of a fairly prominent family in the town. The film essentially depicts here attempts to establish herself in this town and how the town affects her and how she affects the town. Given the book’s reputation for sickly sweetness attempts were made to adjust the material to be a little more grounded. In fact Swift was quoted as saying “in the book Pollyanna was so filled with happiness and light that I wanted to kick her… Now she is shy.” In theory this is exactly what I’d want to hear from someone making a version of this book and Hayley Mills does make the character a bit more believable. However, there’s really only so much you can do to make this story non-saccharine and “Pollyanna” even at a 50% dosage is still too much for my tastes, and there’s a good chance that the people who actually like that shit might find it a bit light on the corniness. I almost wonder if they would have been better off just going all in and making the most sickening movie possible, I still wouldn’t have liked it but I might have at least found it memorable. Instead what we get feels like a pretty standard period drama/literary adaptation and one that comes to really wear out its welcome at two hours and fifteen minutes. Not a movie to be hated, but not one I’ll be thinking about much in a week.
** out of Five
Collecting Some Thoughts
Well, that started pretty promising but sort of went downhill from there. Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were both pretty cool adventure stories that were made on impressive budgets and were generally a lot of fun but then things got a lot more modest and a lot less distinctive. Old Yeller at least had a certain gravitas but The Shaggy Dog and Darby O’Gill and the Little People were just dumb and Pollyanna was forgettable. Still, most of these movies had reference points that were worth knowing about and I don’t regret checking them out while they were freely available to me.