Our last look at the world of live action Disney movies looked at the early 60s, which was kind of an ideal time to be making corny family films. It was that era that all those movies you thought were set in the 50s like American Graffiti took place in. But for this next installment will look at a period in which Disney struggled a bit more to find relevance: the late 60s and early 70s. In this era Disney’s usual M.O. would start to look incredibly square, but even if they tried it’s not like Disney was ever going to be the go-to for this big generation of newly adult baby boomers. This was an issue for Disney’s animation branch as well: in the 70s there simply weren’t as many children to advertise to as there were in the 50s and 60s, the boomers just hadn’t reproduced enough yet. I will be starting in the late sixties while the company was trying and failing to make the old magic work and then start working my way through the Gen X favorites of the 70s right up to when they began taking more of a corporate turn as they went into the 80s.
The Happiest Millionaire (1967)
The Happiest Millionaire is possibly the most consequential movie to Disney history which most people haven’t heard of. It, in its current form, is notable for being by some measures the longest movie that Disney ever put out. It’s shorter than Pearl Harbor (which was put out by their Touchstone imprint) and Avengers: Endgame (which also doesn’t officially bear the Disney logo) but at 172 minutes this director’s cut of The Happiest Millionaire does run longer than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which would be the second longest movie to open with that castle logo. Of course counting that 172 minute cut (the one currently streaming on Disney+) is a bit dubious as this thing actually went out at a number of different running times: it was 164 minutes long when it premiered in Los Angeles, 144 minutes when it was brought to New York. It’s not entirely clear whether it ever got its intended roadshow release but by the time it was put into general release it had been cut down to 118 minutes and that wasn’t because anyone had any confidence in it. The film came out during something of a turning point for American cinema and the big flashy musicals that had earned so much money in the early 60s (including Disney’s Mary Poppins) had really outstayed their welcome and were starting to bomb. This movie doesn’t get talked about as much as Doctor Doolittle or Hello, Dolly when discussing the death of the roadshow musical, but it was definitely part of the trend. In fact one could in some ways view this as more of a failure than those movies, which at least managed to impress out of touch Academy members, whereas this movie seemed to impress no one.
The film doesn’t really have much of a strong high concept to rest on like most Disney movies. It’s set in the 1910s (an era that Walt Disney was kind of infatuated with) and looks at a mildly eccentric rich guy (who only strikes me as being moderately happy as millionaires go) played by Fred MacMurray and his family. I say “mildly eccentric” because the only particularly notable things about this guy are that he runs a bible study/boxing class, has some kind of obsession with the marine corps leading into the first world war, and also that he owns a bunch of pet alligators he apparently captured in the everglades. All of this could have been used as a satirical portrait of a bourgeois chickenhawk in a more interesting movie but here these are just seen as endearing quirks in an otherwise goodhearted man and his patriotic support of the bloodbath that was World War I likely seemed rather insensitive in a time when Vietnam was becoming increasingly controversial. Then in the film’s second half it increasingly becomes about a very bland romance and engagement between his daughter and another bland as fuck rich white guy and some father-of-the-bride antics from the MacMurray character.
It’s a very bland and indistinct story set in a not overly interesting setting and with characters who are not overly fascinating. It also isn’t really that much of a spectacle as these things go. The aforementioned Doctor Doolittle and Hello Dolly at least had elaborate sets and the like to make them noteworthy and this really doesn’t outside of that odd sub-plot with the alligators. Those other moves cost seventeen and twenty-five million to make while this thing only had five million pumped into it, which was probably good for Disney’s bottom line but it really left this thing feeling particularly anemic as a result; it has the runningtime and presentation of an epic but it isn’t one. Clearly the people involved seemed to think that all you needed to sell a musical was good music because they didn’t have much to rely on… and they didn’t even really have that. The film actually isn’t based on a Broadway musical, it’s based on a straight play and The Sherman Brothers were brought in to do the music and I wouldn’t say it’s their best work. The English actor Tom Steele, who plays an Irish butler that is kind of on the margins of the film’s actual plot has most of the mildly memorable numbers. I’m told his opening number “Fortuosity” was popular but I didn’t care for it nor did I like supposed standout “Let’s Have a Drink on It.” Basically the only song that stood out to me as even slightly memorable is the song “I’ll Always Be Irish,” which captures the dual identity of being an immigrant in interesting ways. Aside from that it’s rough sailing and so is the rest of this dull-ass goofy-ass waste of time movie.
* out of Five
The Love Bug (1968)
On October 17th 1968 one of the all time most iconic car movies came out: the Steve McQueen starring vehicle Bullitt, a gritty cop thriller set in San Francisco famous for a its standout car chase sequence. A little over two months later Walt Disney pictures gave us another San Francisco-set car movie of a much different kind: The Love Bug, which was sometimes marketed as Herbie the Love Bug, a movie about a Volkswagen Beetle that can drive itself. I’d like to say that Steve McQueen’s film was the more popular of two, and it did come close, but Disney’s movie edged it out by about two million dollars. In fact The Love Bug was a pretty big hit, it was the second highest grossing movie of 1969 (it was released very late in December in 1968), and that made it something of an exception among a lot of the other Disney movies I’m going to be looking at in this era. The general narrative was going to be that Disney was a bit too buttoned down and square to compete during the New Hollywood era (and the fact that Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were numbers three and four that year is telling) but this seems to have been a bit of an exception and it ended up spawning a slew of sequels through the coming decade. Why was that? Well, part of it is just that people seemed to be absolutely obsessed with automobiles and movies about them in the post-war years and especially the late sixties and there seemed to even be something in the zeitgeist about small cars doing big things if The Italian Job is any indication. But man this thing is dopey.
The film’s poster and opening credits font suggest that this would be something of an attempt at outreach to the hippie audience of the time, but there’s not much of it in the actual movie. It is about a Volkswagen Beetle (a favorite auto of the counter-culture) and is set in San Francesco so hippies do show up as periphery extras in a couple of jokes, and there is one joke where a police officer tells another officer about some outlandish thing he saw only to be rebuked with “you’ve been working too many shifts in the haight ashbury,” which I’m just going to assume was the first (albeit highly oblique) marijuana reference in a Disney movie (I haven’t fact checked that), but otherwise this is a very establishment friendly movie about a discount Steve McQueen type racing cars like a real man should. I’ve long known that this was about a semi-sentient car but Herbie turns out to have a much less distinct personality than I expected. “He” can’t talk like KITT and there’s nothing about it that resembles human motor functions or facial features. It’s basically just a car that can drive itself when it so chooses and can also lock its doors and whatnot and at random points seems to be super durable when off-roading and has super speed. I don’t think there’s ever any explanation for why this automobile is alive, it’s basically just magic and little of what “he” does is as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.
The movie is not without its charms. Buddy Hackett has a prominent supporting role, who I feel like I should dislike given my usual tastes but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him. David Tomlinson is also quite fun as the film’s villain, an aristocratic Brit who personally drives the antagonistic automobile against Herbie despite being decidedly middle aged. In fact I would say that the film’s finale, a long distance race overseen by uniquely incompetent referees which is filled with slapstick hijinx, is pretty fun in general as a comic set piece. So the movie ends on a strong note but it can be a slog getting there. The leading man and leading lady just are not very strong characters and they kind of take forever to figure out what’s going on with the car and the ruminating about whether a car or driver matters more in a race ultimately amounts to very little. Beyond that I simply didn’t find much in the film to be funny or interesting, but clearly audiences of the time saw things differently and the film was something of a last hurrah for a certain style of Disney comedy like The Absent Minded Professor.
** out of Five
Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
The early 70s were a pretty dark time for Disney for all the reasons I’ve gone into both in terms of animation and live action. They were making movies the whole time but the highlights were few and far between; Robin Hood was alright, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was something of a minor hit, and if you look at a list of pure live action films they made between 1969 and 1975 you see a whole lot of shit you’ve never heard of. Roger Ebert himself called this “a period of overwhelming banality in the studio’s history” so I don’t I’m getting too much of an incorrect impression of this. But in 1975 things started to look up for them a bit. The Gen Xers were finally growing into film watching age in great enough numbers to support Disney movies and we start to get into movies that were nostalgic favorites of that generational cohort (who were disproportionally influential on my personal cinematic upbringing and I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about some of the movies they hold in high regard). It was early in 1975 that they made one of their first films in a while that people have pretty positive memories of: the science fiction adaptation Escape to Witch Mountain, which was a bit too early for the post-Star Wars sci-fi gold rush but which was nonetheless fairly successful and well-remembered.
The film is based on a book of the same title by Alexander H. Key and focuses in on a pair of orphaned siblings who have now been doubly orphaned as their foster parents have died before the start of the film, but no one really knows who their parents are as they were found as toddlers, but unbeknownst to the adults these kids have telekinetic powers that allow them to move objects with their minds and speak to each other through thoughts and get premonitions about the future. Eventually they blab about their powers to someone played by Donald Pleasence (usually a mistake) who is aparantly employed by some sort of evil society of evil, and the next thing you know they’re forging documents to adopt the kids so they can study them and use their powers for evil… which will eventually inspire the kids to escape… in the direction of Witch Mountain, eventually accompanied by a random old man played by Eddie Albert. So, if you’re a modern watcher that whole plot synopsis will sound awfully familiar as it’s a setup that’s been done time and again. Stephen King’s “Firestarter” comes to mind as a similar “bad guys chase kid with special powers across the country” story, the movie D.A.R.Y.L. is a similarly family friendly take on it, more recently there’s Midnight Special, the video game “Beyond: Two Souls,” and of course there’s “Stranger Things.” But this does predate all of that. I don’t know if this originated this setup itself but I can’t really think of a clear predecessor off the top of my head so I do think this gets clear points for originality and influence but I’m not sure this is the definitive take on the idea in terms of execution.
Watching the movie I noticed a pretty radical shift in the overall “feel” of the movie from what the other live action Disney movies felt like. Those other movies had their differences to be sure but (with a couple of exceptions) there was a clearly identifiable “house style” to them that I wasn’t really picking up on here. This may be a sign of Walt Disney no longer being around to drive things or it may simply be the natural result in changes to the overall Hollywood film aesthetic over time but the world of this film felt more grounded and less “cute.” There’s also a clearer sense of danger here, it’s not a comedy and you do get a sense that the villains here are willing to kill to get their way (even though they mostly don’t). That’s not to say that this is some kind of work of gritty realism because it’s not, it’s still very much a G-rated movie that was made by this studio because it has two cute kids at its center, but if you had told me some other studio had made it I wouldn’t have had too much reason to doubt it. Ultimately I think the movie could have used a little more pathos, the kids in it feel a bit too durable through the whole thing and the film is a bit too scared to really make this experience feel a bit more damaging to them and the characters feel a bit too broadly drawn (that Eddie Alpert character might as well be straight up saying “I’m a grumpy old man who whose heart must be warmed” when he’s first introduced). Those other movies that this seemingly inspired would probably serve as more thoughtful science fiction and more thrilling thrillers, but this was a pretty good start and a pretty good sign for Disney going into the era of the blockbuster.
*** out of Five
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)
As I’ve gone through this installment about Disney’s I’ve been building a somewhat simplistic narrative that Disney was hopelessly uncool in the 70s and that this would eventually force them to change, and I argued that the last movie I watched (Escape to Witch Mountain) was an example of them evolving with the times. But their other big movie of 1975, The Apple Dumpling Gang, is a pretty good argument that that argument is kind of bullshit and that Disney could also succeed in the 70s without changing much at all. The box office was indeed cooler and more adult in 1975, the four highest grossing movies were Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo, and Dog Day Afternoon, but sitting at number ten (higher than Escape to Witch Mountain) was this dopey Disney movie that seems to have been directly targeted at the people who were mad as hell that “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” had been cancelled four years earlier. And yet it’s not exactly a forgotten film, people of a certain age do still reference it, not always lovingly, but they certainly remember it.
The film is something of a comedy western. It’s not really a spoof or parody of the genre given that its conventions aren’t really questioned, rather it’s more like a traditional B-western but with a much heavier emphasis on comedy and family values. It’s primarily remembered for the antics of Don Knotts and Tim Conway as a pair of extremely dim and mostly harmless outlaws, but they’re only really half of the movie. The other half is this very dopey story about Bill Bixby (yes, the “The Incredible Hulk” guy) being forced to act as a guardian to three precocious children through some plot contrivances. That story is boilerplate family movie cutesy nonsense and the less said about it the better. As for the Knotts and Conway material… it’s not the worst stuff I’ve ever seen. The two are kind of like precursors to The Sticky Bandits from Home Alone but even more incompetent and even less villainous and there are some cute bits with them and their extraordinary stupidity. The two would end up becoming something of a comedy duo in the late 70s and Knotts would show up in several other Disney movies through the remainder of the decade (including a sequel to this one), so the success of this one would have some long lasting implications. As these things go there are worse movies out there, I can see why this would appeal to people in the 70s looking for some really, really, really unchallenging fare to pass their time but I think it’s time this thing was moved past.
** out of Five
Freaky Friday (1976)
Though it was hardly their largest or most ambitious project of the era, Disney’s most enduring live action project of the 1970s was likely their modestly budgeted 1976 effort Freaky Friday, in which a thirteen year old Jodie Foster switches bodies with her mother played by Barbara Harris. I’m not sure how well remembered that original film is but it’s certainly left a trail of imitators both in the form of official remakes like Disney’s 2003 version with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan and less official riffs like the recent horror film Freaky but it’s even bigger legacy comes from various sitcoms and cartoons which will frequently have their own “Freaky Friday” episodes in order to give their actors something fun to do. Freaky Friday was by no means the first piece of fiction to do the “body swap” thing but it certainly popularized it and if you look at a list of media that use the trope there ware way more after this film than before it.
Early on in the film you notice that this does feel notably more modern in sensibility than a lot of the Disney movies that came before. The movies that Disney made in the 50s and 60s were very into the valorization of the nuclear family and traditional gender norms and were generally populated with families that felt like they were straight out of “Leave it to Beaver.” This isn’t a radical departure from that exactly, it’s still ultimately about an upper middle class family in the suburbs, but Jodie Foster’s character is notably tomboyish and has a bit of an attitude and her parents have definite foibles that made her less than respectful to her elders as a result. Of course some of that is just inherent to the nature of film (in which mother and daughter come to realize the other doesn’t have it so easy after all) but she never really comes around on her dad, who she (correctly) calls a “male chauvinist pig” multiple times which is not exactly something Pollyanna would have done. I don’t want to oversell how progressive this is because it only really seems like progress compared to midcentury Disney movies and would be much less apparent to people who haven’t been marathoning those, but I certainly noticed it.
Obviously what the film ultimately rests on are the body swapping gags in which the two actors don’t act like themselves and while few of them are revelatory they do mostly work. The mother character seems to be particularly high strung, which gives Jodie Foster a lot to work with when imitating her while that character “possesses” her body. I actually may have enjoyed Barbara Harris more though as she really actively seems like a younger person while the daughter character is in her head through sheer mannerisms. There is a bit of a missed opportunity here in that a lot of the problems the two characters encounter have less to do with either really not being able to “last” in the other’s shoes and are more specific to the peculiarities of this high concept, like the mother not knowing which locker is her daughter’s or where she keeps her bus fare. I also thought the film lost its way in its third act a bit as it seems to feel obligated to give the audience a climax filled with broad physical comedy involving water skiing and car chases. Still I was mostly impressed by the ways Disney was able to loosen up and delivery on this movie and can see why it left such an impression on audiences. Fun little movie.
***1/2 out of Five
The Black Hole (1979)
Among all the Disney movies I’ve been planning to watch for this retrospective 1979’s The Black Hole was one of the ones I was most looking forward to. This was an example of Disney trying to break out of their usual patterns and make a big blockbuster that would be directed more at general audiences than their usual families and kids audience. It would have a bigger budget than usual and would also be the first PG rated movie that the company produced and would be released in 70mm prints complete with an overture (one of the last Hollywood movies to feature one). It’s also not clear how much it can even be called a Disney movie at all, the opening logo is just “Buena Vista Pictures” and you would need to look pretty closely at the film’s poster to find the words “Walt Disney,” though it is there. In fact the film is a big part of why they would shortly create the Touchstone Pictures label in order to distinguish their more adult skewing material from their family friendly brand.
So what is this Disney space epic? Well it’s a science fiction film released in 1979, the year of Alien, Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so it’s not too hard to see it as one in a string of movies Hollywood quickly greenlit in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars two years earlier. And in some ways it is, but this was actually originally envisioned to be less of a Star Wars ripoff and more of a ripoff of 70s disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno: an Irwin Allen film in space if you will. But the movie was heavily re-written since then and by the time the film came to the screen it actually more closely resembled another Disney live action film: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both films involve protagonists being taken in by malevolent eccentrics, hanging out with them kind of peacefully before coming to learn their evil plans, and then eventually breaking out and Maximilian Schell is definitely giving off clear Captain Nemo vibes. But whatever the script’s origins it certainly was greenlit after Star Wars had come out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a post-Star Wars sci-fi movie. The sets and crew composition look a lot more like “Star Trek” or perhaps even a 50s or 60s space movie like Forbidden Planet or Planet of the Vampires. The film does have some really large and impressive looking sets, but they seem to be partially accomplished through some sort of not fully formed green screen technology and you can see clear outlines around actors’ faces as a result of it.
So what makes this film more “adult” than their previous movies? Well, on a basic concept level it mostly seems to have earned its PG rating for one death scene where a robot seems to kind of drill into a guy, which wouldn’t have been terribly noteworthy had it happened in a movie from another studio. Beyond that there aren’t any child characters in the movie and it basically looks like a regular studio science fiction movie from 1968 but there is one conspicuous bit added to the movie to appeal to kids and that is the robot V.I.N.CENT. (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”) which is a floating rice cooker looking thing with googly eyes… not really much more to say about it, it just kind of looks stupid and makes the movie kind of a tonal mess that doesn’t know what audience it’s going for. Otherwise the movie is just kind of a misfire. None of the protagonists are all that interesting and the film doesn’t really explore the implications of the titular hole very compellingly. I really wanted to like this thing but I don’t think anyone making it was terribly passionate about what they were doing. It’s certainly more ambitious and progressive than your average Disney movie but that still means it’s about a decade behind what everyone else was doing but if vintage sci-fi is your thing that might not necessarily be a bad thing. I admired some of the film’s production elements and with a better script it might have had potential but the film we actually have is kind of dull.
**1/2 out of Five
Collecting Some Thoughts
And that concluded a decade that Disney was probably happy to see put behind them. The studio was clearly out of their element in an era where they had to compete with “The New Hollywood” but there were plenty of signs for them to make a comeback. The 70s also gave us the start of the era of the summer blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, and while Disney wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of this with The Black Hole it’s obviously something that would signal a renewed demand for movies for kids and families which they would be the natural beneficiaries of and we all know they dominate that form today, though there would still be a long road to that point and in our next and final installment we’ll look at how they grew into that over the course of the 80s and early 90s.