Friday, August 15, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Ten

 "The Age of Not Believing" is a movie review series tracing the history of Disney in the years following the death of Walt Disney. It covers three films a week in an effort to see all theatrical Disney films released between January 1967 and December 1973. The entire series can be found here.

June 20, 1973 - One Little Indian

That kid's face on the poster pretty well summarizes how appealing this movie is.

On February 27, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in a bid to raise awareness of their cause and protest the ineffectual American government. It was, in a larger sense, the start of a new era in the United States for an awareness of ongoing discrimination against native peoples.

The Western, the traditional carrier of the Americans vs. Natives dramatic conflict, was dying out, and even if it hadn't been, the general perception of the Wounded Knee protests as a turning point would have made the form totally untenable, except in revisionist westerns.

As it is, Hollywood wouldn't even touch the subject until the early 90s wave of "enlightened" Westerns which either featured exclusively white on white violence (Tombstone) or extended the treacly branch of peace (Dances With Wolves). Disney themselves fanned the flames by producing Pocahontas in 1995, a star-crossed lovers fantasy which just so happened to be set against the backdrop of the European colonization of North America. This time the general American population protested loudly, while some Native groups gave the film a tentative thumbs up for its message of cross-racial cooperation.

Back in 1973, while all this was just beginning, Disney was producing a low budget Western called One Little Indian. Do you think they were using these political events to tap into the zeitgeist and produce a film of lasting meaning? Nope. This is a movie where a guy gets dragged by a camel crotch-first into a cactus.

Starting in medias res, One Little Indian is a well-shot and fast paced adventure that never colors outside the lines. The film is structured as a chase, with military defector James Garner being pursued by a villain who's so poorly sketched we're not even sure why the guy goes to such great lengths to catch his prey. But this is a Western and the driven, obsessive villain has been around since the earliest days of these "oaters".

The One Little Indian of the title, incidentally, isn't so much an Indian as a kid on the lam effecting a handy disguise. There's some vaguely defined objective to his quest - he has to get to a reservation where his mother awaits - but the film blows past this so quickly it never registers as a real end goal. Meanwhile, James Garner is set to be court-martialed for refusing to destroy an Indian village; he's captured and hung but the not-Indian boy manages to destroy the gibbet and save his life. Perhaps seeing an opportunity to cut twenty minutes out of the film, the commanding Army officer decides he's already been hung once and spares his life.

This, incidentally, did happen in real life often enough, but never to my knowledge with this result. Usually they'd go back and keep trying to hang the convicted until it worked.

The real star of the movie is Rosie the Camel, the tempestuous steed Garner chooses to escape with. In what appears to be an awkward attempt to append a Disney cute-crazy animal story to a mediocre Western, Rosie gets the bulk of the better scenes and even dies in the final reel. Although One Little Indian is fast moving and never unpleasant, this conceit just plain doesn't work. We don't care for the camel half as much as the
film thinks we do. Even the poster has the camel as the star, as if the idea of a camel in a Western is inherently hilarious. These are the sort of conceptually mediocre touches that consistently drag Disney product down. "Oh ho ho, look, a camel in a Western!" "Oh oh boy, Tim Allen has a spider on his head!"

Bernard McEveety is back in his final film, and to be fair he acquits himself much better than he did in Napoleon & Samantha. Many shots in One Little Indian have a pleasantly Fordian quality, and Jerry Goldsmith (!!!) turns out a decent score which classes the whole enterprise up a good deal.

About halfway through the picture, Garner runs across an isolated farm where Vera Miles and her daughter Jodie Foster are packing up to leave on the next stagecoach following the death of Miles' husband. For an extended sequence at the dinner table, the rest of the film melts away... the not-charming kid, Rosie the camel, the deserter subplot, the need to watch this Disney movie and the entire Age of Not Believing blog series vanishes and we see Garner and Miles, two good actors playing a scene with humanity and warmth. It's old-fashioned film values that work as well today as it did in 1973. It's the sort of simple pleasures that more Disney films could stand to have.

November 8, 1973 - Robin Hood

The early passages of this review concerning the context and development of Robin Hood is indebted to Andreas Deja on his blog Deja View, which is a treasure trove of animation history and theory. I'm honored to be able to present some of his observations and material in this new context.

Robin Hood is very much the inverse of The Aristocats. Aristocats is full of good material that never coalesces into a satisfying whole. Robin Hood is a mixed bag of the inspired and the mediocre which somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

I really like Robin Hood, but I'm not really sure why. It's wildly inconsistent. The story is an absolute mess. Of all the Disney feature films, this one feels the most like a Saturday morning cartoon.

Yet posterity has largely reflected my inflated opinion of it. It's the only of the Disney 70s films to be still widely watched. If you asked people to start listing Disney movies they'd eventually hit Robin Hood, well behind the major 90s hits but still ahead of something like The Fox & the Hound or The Rescuers. It's well remembered and it's one of those Disney movies that gets a new video release every few years without having to be retired to the "Vault" to artificially inflate demand.

What's more, in speaking to others about this film, I got fairly near-unanimous agreement: it was generally well liked and mostly acknowledged for not being very good. So, we must ask: what is it about this particular film that manages to overcome its limitations - and the toxic reputation of Disney in the 70s - to work, generation after generation?

We'll get there, but first, I'd like to go back in time to discuss what made this movie what it is. To say Robin Hood was a troubled production may be a mild understatement: it was a mess.

In his episode of the early 80s Disney television show "Disney Family Album", Ken Anderson describes the genesis of the idea this way:
"I thought I'd put everything together. What did the animators most enjoy doing? They most enjoyed working in the manner we did on Song of the South. Where could I get animal creatures that were somewhat like Song of the South and in what kind of a picture? Sort of a charade - a burlesque of some well known fantasy story - like a Robin Hood - ah ha!"

A great deal of Anderson's early development work on Robin Hood is very interesting. Ken worked hard on getting a variety of shapes and forms into his characters - Robin is a small, scruffy fox who is virtually loomed over by the villainous Prince John. The Sheriff of Nottingham is fat but forward-heavy and tall whereas Lady Cluck is short and bottom-heavy wide. Nearly all of the Robin Hood characters have brilliantly iconic silhouettes - shapes that define and sell their personalities.

Ken's early design for Robin has a youthful appearance: a hat too large for his head, thin neck, and long nose (he also wears pants, which the final Robin does not, because what's better than a pantsless criminal?). This early model sheet has the cavalier attitude down pat - I especially like Robin shooting arrows with his feet. In a 1973 interview Milt Kahl casually revealed that they went through eight different models for Robin Hood in the film, and three different voices - Tommy Steele, Brian Cox, and the final choice of Brian Bedford. This early version is clearly the Tommy Steele version.

Now, as cute as these Robins are, to me the champion in the film Robin Hood is Milt Kahl, who animated Robin and Marian and had his fingers in a lot of other character designs and actions as well. Milt's early passes on Robin retained Ken's youthful fox, with an effect that reminds me a bit more of a character we'd see in An American Tail than in a Disney film from 1973. To his credit, Milt fought to push Robin in an older, more handsome direction - with a thicker neck, less pointed nose, and more mature body language. Milt also went to great lengths to retain the sense of an anatomy of a real fox, which he was relatively alone in the production for insisting on. Robin Hood carries the picture on his confident shoulders, which I'm not sure the jangly Tommy Steele version could have. Milt's perfectionism saved the picture.

Equally brilliant although less frequently seen onscreen is Kahl's Maid Marian. A worthy companion of Kahl's other great leading lady - Lady of Lady and the Tramp - Marian manages to be vivacious and romantic despite remaining 80% covered in a ludicrous outfit the entire run time (if you think it's easy to draw over-dressed characters, try it sometime). Kahl improved Anderson's interesting design - which fluctuated radically between a two-eared headdress and a typical princess cone hat - by adding a virginal veil framing her entire upper body, suggesting flowing feminine hair and simultaneously handing himself a nightmare technical job of having to animate loose material flowing and shifting weight. Despite being a floating face and hands inside a dress, Marian has the screen presence of a star. Robin's festive reds and greens contrast and compliment Marian's oranges, pinks and purples. The two have real screen chemistry and are the two most accomplished and interesting character designs to hail from the animation unit in the 70s.

 As a production, Robin Hood is just plain unfinished. In the opening sequence, the animation unit hearkens back to past glories of the Walt era with the traditional "storybook" open; but this turns out to be a ruse. The book that opens is the classic story of Robin Hood - not the story that will be told - and we zoom in, past the text, towards the ornamental rooster at the top of the page. The zoom ends with an abrupt cut to an animated image, strongly suggesting that a planned transitional effect where Allan-a-Dale would've come to life on the page during the zoom was budgeted out for time or money. That's in the first minute of the film, and it's a fairly accurate summary of what's coming.

Past Disney animated films had cut corners. In 1959, Walt wanted to shutter animation production entirely in the wake of the failure of Sleeping Beauty, and the 60s films are full of small scales and smaller ambitions. But Robin Hood has an unprecedented amount of stuff that's recycled, reused, or just plain old jettisoned. The most infamous of these is in the "Phony King of England" number, which has new animation here and there but is mostly made up of action reused from The Aristocats and Jungle Book. There's a small cottage industry made up just of YouTube videos showing splitscreens of these recycled shots, so there's no reason for me to go over them again here.

(Milt Kahl)
What's interesting to me isn't that these shots are retraced animation, it's the suggestion they supply that this sequence was not intended to appear in Robin Hood at all. Written by Johnny Mercer, an enormously talented songwriter with no Disney credits until this one, it's written in a way that suggests an imitation of Roger Miller's three effective folk songs fused with a hoedown sensibility that comes out of nowhere.

"Phony King of England" is funny and effective and it peps up the end of the second act very nicely, but the actual production of the number remains suspicious, especially in light of a discarded expanded (and greatly superior) ending presented on the Robin Hood DVD and Blu-Ray. Not presented on the discs but shown in episodes of Disney Family Album are snippets of animation for this sequence, so we know it at least entered production. At some point it was then removed for a streamlined ending which reprises the exact same "is he dead or isn't he" gag from the end of The Jungle Book and jumps directly to the wedding. To me, "Phony King" looks suspiciously like a late addition to bring the running time back up from this deletion and add a song for Phil Harris. Or, a less conventionally "Disney" film was pushed into a more conventionally successful shape with a low-stakes finale and crazy song.

Maybe one of the most intriguing things about Robin Hood is its complete refusal to play by the traditional beats of the Robin Hood legend. Robin doesn't even have a band of Merry Men in this one; he spends all of his time bumming around in the forest with Little John. There is no traditional quarter-staff fight over the stream; Robin and Little John begin as friends. Instead of a disguised criminal, Friar Tuck is an actual Friar with an actual church and congregation. Will Scarlet is nowhere to seen, having been cut with the rest of the merry men. The geography doesn't even make much sense: we see Prince John, presumably a fixture in London, traveling into Nottingham to collect taxes. Then a castle in Nottingham, housing Maid Marian, suddenly seems to belong to John, as if he's based out of Nottingham. Most versions make it clear that the Sheriff of Nottingham is the local governing official and so the castle presented in the film belongs to him; the Disney version treats the Sheriff as more of a police captain, ie the Sheriff in the traditional American old west style. The film plays less like a standard Robin Hood telling and more like somebody's half-remembered, half made up version of the story.

In a way, however, Disney's alterations go far in making the Robin Hood story less of a specific historical fantasy and much more of a fairy tale, their traditional genre. Nearly every previous screen version of Robin Hood eventually becomes a story of politics; Anglos versus Saxons, rural areas versus city areas, and noble born versus low born. The Disney version dispenses with all that and basically turns the story into a Western. Robin is the good, disguised avenger, like the Lone Ranger. Prince John could easily be a corrupt governor or a congressman. Allan-A-Dale is basically just Roger Miller, voice of the people and wandering folk singer, Bob Dylan surrogate. There's even a stage coach heist. Supposedly Woolie Reitherman disposed of the Merry Men because he wanted Robin Hood and Little John to be like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the process of making this alteration, the film was successfully deformed into an entirely different generic convention. This is why nobody balks at a hoedown in the middle of the movie: it's the same old trope in an unfamiliar setting.

Pretty much the one thing that was carried over intact from the traditional Robin Hood tales is the archery tournament, and in his one case Disney's Robin Hood is very, very close to the scene in the 1939 film, close enough to suggest that somebody remembered it well or had seen it recently. The procession of archers, the disguise, Lady Marian in the box, the splitting of the arrows, and Robin's capture and escape are represented faithfully, even if Errol Flynn did not have a chicken who can double as a line tackle against rhinoceros.

Even so, the Disney Robin Hood gets up to some pretty strange capers. Remembered from the 1939 film was Robin's disguise at the tournament; the fox Robin is practically a master of disguise. Making good use of the potential for crazy outfits and weird accents, the Disney animators turn him into a veritable Professor Moriarty of Sherwood. Ken Andersen's concept art for Robin's disguise as a stork is a visually wonderful contrast between a short Marian and absurdly tall stork; the final animated form simplifies this greatly. Elsewhere, the Disney animators introduce the traditional vaudeville comedy convention of the drag act to the myth. Robin Hood seems to appear in absurd disguises and with crazy voices more often than not. Singular to the Disney version, this hasn't caught on in any other telling of the outlaw myth.

Given all of the above, why does the darn thing work at all? What makes Robin Hood more easily digestible and more popular than any other Disney film of its decade?

That simplicity has drawbacks, but it has benefits too. With the situations entirely stock, the film narrows in on the animated performances like a laser beam. Despite the myriad charms of the film, I think the performances in Aristocats are pretty weak. It's hard to remember a single unique thing
about O'Malley, for example. Robin Hood has terrific heroes and three great, unique villains in a story and setting that's just so-so. Roger Miller's opening "Whistle Stop" tune sets just the right lazy mood: Robin Hood is, as ever, just an excuse to hang out with Robin in the forest. There's no danger because there's no stakes and the arrows always miss.

There's the fact that Robin Hood is easily the most approachable of the Disney films for very very young children. It's the first Disney film I can remember in complete detail. There's nothing really scary and the storytelling is easily comprehensible. Most other Disney films put kids through the emotional wringer, but Robin Hood is lazily companionable.

In the process of extracting a narrative skeleton from Robin Hood, Disney created something new: the idea of Robin Hood as a stock fantasy situation. Largely presented as a historical epic since the pioneering 1922 Doug Fairbanks movie, Disney's version paved the way for a million generic Robin Hood stories since. Muppet Babies Robin Hood. Backyardigans Robin Hood. Veggie Tales Robin Hood. Take your pick. This is why Disney's film feels like a Saturday Morning cartoon to us today; we grew up in the wake of this vastly simplified version of the tale.

Yet really the remarkable accomplishment here is that Disney made a film where talking animal characters have as much on-screen gravity as human characters. Marian is severely underused but she has the charm and magnetic screen image of a beautiful woman. Robin Hood himself was the first animated crush of many young women. This is a real accomplishment on the part of Milt Kahl, suggesting that animation had moved beyond requiring human characters to create audience sympathy. These animated animals are thoroughly human, and thus attractive. They're the first non-human animated characters to have..... sex appeal.

And once we hit on that, we come to the reason why, in the Age of Not Believing, Robin Hood must come last: in a sea of tepid comedies, unadventurous adventures, and tedious formula, Robin Hood is, against all odds, the one film to have a genuine artistic legacy: modern anthropomorphic art.


At this point I have to break the article with a bit of a warning. I'm going to venture down a path that a lot of Disney fans try their best to ignore: the real links connecting the Disney film Robin Hood to the modern-day Furry community. Indeed, just talking about the Furry community is unreasonably difficult, given the various ways in which salacious bad press has gathered around what's more or less just another nerd subset. For several years that was one of my social scenes, and although I did not then nor do I now easily identity as such, I still have many friends who are self-professed Furries. They're not deviants, they are warm, intelligent, interesting people.

The Reputation.
I'm going to try to do this as even-handedly and fearlessly as possible. If you've come this far with this blog series without giving up, you've faced much tougher challenges. This is only about 70% as tough as sitting through Boatniks, for example. Still, this is a crucial part of Disney history that most fans try to rush past, lest the beatific reputation of their company be tarnished. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a complex and interesting story.

It's worth pointing out, to begin with, that in 1973 there was still no truly commonly understood genre as "furry characters". Indeed, it's very hard to draw a firm line in the sand between Robin Hood and, say, Lady and the Tramp to say "this is where the idea originated". Robin Hood is still very much in the traditional "funny animal" style of Brer Rabbit or Donald Duck - human-like animal critters who could talk and wear clothes. Bugs Bunny is another early "funny animal" who is alarmingly close to the modern understanding of "furry", but then again even Bugs' early design and attitude is a rather obvious lift from another Disney film - the 1935 Tortoise and the Hare.

What can be said about Robin Hood is that its characters mostly do not resemble the strongly humanoid body types of modern "furry" characters, putting them more firmly in the "funny animal" category. Kahl fought to keep Robin's shape expressively foxlike: he has cute short legs and a long, gangling midsection that bounces expressively when he moves. Allan-a-Dale and Lady Cluck are extravagantly avian, and look and move nothing like people in animal suits. Just about the most
humanoid morphic element of any character in the film is its visual treatment of female characters: Robin and Little John don wigs in their gypsy disguises (nowhere else to we see any indication that female characters in this animal world have long hair in the human fashion). Little John also dons fake breasts. Later on we see Lady Cluck, who has an ample bosom, despite being a chicken. Putting boobs on birds may be an unlikely first, but this film went there.

It's interesting to visually compare the designs of Robin Hood with those of their nearest precedent, Song of the South. The animated character designs for Song of the South were done by Marc Davis, who had just come off several years working on Bambi trying to find the appropriate middle ground between animals and people. He went in a super cartoony direction with Song of the South, focusing on contrasting sizes and body types to create three comedy characters in a parable setting. His Brer Fox is basically a lanky guy in a funny hat with a fox head. Fast forward to the 1970s, and Davis is still more adept at anyone at using funny animals in unique ways, although this time it's in theme parks - at Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings. Of course, perhaps the link between Davis' approach and Robin Hood can be attributed to Ken Andersen who worked with Davis on Chanticleer, an aborted "first pass" at an animal-only fantasy at Disney.

Davis sketch - note "real" bear up top.
So it's fair to say that Robin Hood isn't really a "furry" movie in the strictest sense - it's still a funny animal movie, a tradition that runs through the 19th and 20th centuries very strongly. But it's absolutely a turning point, and not just because Lady Cluck had boobs or because Maid Marian was attractive. It's the first time that humanistic animal characters were used in a dramatic situation without undermining its effect.

Now, yes, I know, I've already characterized this film as low stakes and companionable, but at the very least we can say that we are concerned that Robin may not survive his leap into the moat in a way that we are not when, say, Goofy falls off a building. The animals of Robin Hood are both identifiably human and identifiably mortal. And they did set precedents. When Don Bluth left Disney in the late 70s he took the tricks developed in Robin Hood along with him. For Disney, Robin Hood was a one-off fluke and they went back to animating funny but anatomically correct animals in The Rescuers and Fox and the Hound, films much nearer the style of Bambi or Lady and the Tramp. Bluth, conversely, took the confident waggle and body shape Milt Kahl gave Robin and used it for the heroic Justin in The Secret of NIMH.

At that time Disney was still pretty much the only game in town and Robin Hood the only real example of a certain type of funny animal. In discussing their upcoming film An American Tail, Steven Spielberg told Bluth that he wanted it to be a film of humanoid animals, and the example he used was Robin Hood. Bluth begged the contrary - he wanted it to be a film like The Rescuers. Spielberg had to go see The Rescuers first, and then he agreed. It's a little known but telling anecdote from an era when Spielberg was trying very hard to position himself as "The Next Walt Disney".

Back to our main story here, The Secret of NIMH was a seminal event in the nascent furry community, as was the release of Animalympics in 1980. Hopelessly counter cultural to the end, it's hard to even find a timeline of events about the development of the Furry community, but a quick look at this useful article on the Furry Wiki shows that the community was still calling itself the "Funny Animal Fandom" in the mid 70s and wouldn't even develop the word "Furry" until the late 80s. This places it evenly paced with the development of other early nerd groups like Trekkers and comic fans in the mid-70s, and there's always been a lot of messy overlap between Furries, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, D&D, and, yes, Disney fans. We're all part of the same cultural stew.

How did furries organize enough to start developing 'zines by the late 70s and conventions by the early 80s? In the pre internet world how did enough people find each other with an interest that's always been sort of an awkward secret? Well, we can thank Disney for that too.

In the process of researching Walt Disney World I've spoken to enough people who were there and seen enough old photos of Funny Animal Fans at Disney to have gotten an idea of how this happened. First, some context. Back in the early seventies, what we now know as the Entertainment department wasn't as carefully monitored or controlled as it is now: practically anyone who could fit into one of those character suits was pressed into service at one time or another. The daily "parade", known as the Walt Disney Character Cavalcade, was presented throughout the 70s and basically consisted of whomever they could find to throw in an animal suit piling into various Main Street vehicles and heading down the street just doing whatever.  I've spoken to a woman who worked in the Tomorrowland Terrace who left twice a day to be Peter Pan in the parade; she'd run around the parade route, run into shops, whatever.

This means that anyone who was young, clean shaven, and enthusiastic could get a job at Disneyland or Walt Disney World and if if your particular dream was to wear an animal costume, then Disney needed you even more. It was a mecca for young men with a certain set of interests, literally the only place you could be paid to dress up as characters like...... Robin Hood. Furries are famous today for hand-making elaborate mascot outfits and this is the root of this part of the fan community. After all, getting a Starfleet Insignia shirt and Spock ears was no huge feat in the 70s, but where else could you actually be Goofy?

The Furry community coalesced from there, out of these pockets of like-minded individuals who found themselves doing the same thing for the same reason at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.  It's no big secret in Orlando that the city is a prominent Furry Community hub, and one of those reasons is because, them as now, people move across the country for an opportunity to get paid for wearing a Pluto suit.

(The other big component, lest I be accused of dispersing incomplete information, was Sci-Fi conventions. The mid-70s Star Trek cartoon prominently featured Lieutenant M'Ress, a shapely woman with a cat head and tail. The first "Funny Animal Fandom" APA, Vootie, showed on its cover a furry Mister Spock. Themed room parties held at Sci-Fi conventions developed into full-scale specialist events.)

This history is also Disney's history. Although Funny Animal Fans and, later, Furries, are a bigger thing than just Disney, it's rare for a corporate entity to be so heavily involved in the creation of a massive fan group. And Robin Hood is just the middle act of the evolving history of Disney's impact on Furries starting with the Silly Symphonies, on to Song of the South, then Jungle Book and Robin Hood, then The Disney Afternoon and The Lion King, to whatever the next touchstone will be. It's just one word and facet for a part of a basic art genre - anthropomorphic art - that's been around for millennia.

Looking on from the Disney community side of things, I will say this. One thing the Disney community often craves is validation. After all, Disney is often synonymous with "dumbed down", and cartoons with "juvenile". That's why you see Disney people drawing connections to fine art, or urban design - subjects which already have polite company's "seal of approval". To this way of thinking, insisting on the links between Disney fans and the Furry community is counter productive, given the reputation Furries have not just in the wider world, but in other nerd groups. But just like the views that see only infantile simplicity in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or lowbrow carnivals in Disneyland, these views are reductionist and wrongheaded. Even years after the company's ascent to successful corporate conglomerate and cultural touchstone thanks to a wave of Disney films in the 90s, Disney's still kinda an embarrassing thing to like.

I suggest that it's time the early history of the furry community and the influence of Walt Disney Productions on the notion of what a "funny animal" was and what they could be in the 20th century be folded back into the Disney historical narrative. Once we accept that not all furries are crazed sexual deviants the links between Disney and Furry become less creepy and more fascinating. Could John Hench have foreseen the world of the "fursuiting" community his character costumes for Disneyland would help create when he first sat down at the drawing board in the sixties? Could Walt?

Robin Hood and Maid Marian and the film and world they inhabit still stand tall in the Furry pantheon for good reason - they're wonderfully realized characters. The links between the film and the Furry subculture flatter the film, not demean it. The Disney Animation staff made such compelling people out of those animals that even today they can stir interest and recognition in people who otherwise have no interest in anthropomorphic animals.

Hey, it's okay, you can admit it. We're all a little Furry for Robin Hood.

This concludes the main series of posts in The Age of Not Believing. The next post on this blog will be a look back at the entire series, with rankings of best and worst films. There will also be a bonus film review - Superdad. See you then!

Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and Robin.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Nine

"The Age of Not Believing" is a movie review series tracing the history of Disney in the years following the death of Walt Disney. It covers three films a week in an effort to see all theatrical Disney films released between January 1967 and December 1973. The entire series can be found here.

December 22, 1972 - The Magic of Walt Disney World

This film was released bundled with Snowball Express, for those who want to recreate the experience at home.

Promoting the theme parks with documentaries is an old idea, going back to at least 1954, but the two Disney theme park theatrical films are really in a class of their own. Relatively widely known today is the terrific 1956 Disneyland USA, thanks to a pristine transfer for DVD in 2008. The 1956 film is great and invaluable, but the one I'd do unspeakable things for a perfect copy of is the 1972 Magic of Walt Disney World. It's the Citizen Kane of theme park promotional films.

For longtime fans of the Florida property, the opening of the film is almost unbearably poignant. Narrated by Steve Forrest in what is bizarrely enough his final Disney gig, as Buddy Baker's melancholy "Walt Disney World" theme rises and the camera soars over a brand new Cinderella Castle, it's impossible to not get a little choked up.

Compared directly to the Disneyland we see in Disneyland USA, which is often unrecognizable, The Magic Kingdom has changed comparatively little since 1972. Things are missing all around - no Tomorrowland, no Pirates, no mountain range - but even a casual visitor would readily identify the bulk of the park. As a result, Magic of WDW has something Disneyland USA doesn't quite rise to, which is nostalgia. It may be because the early years of Disneyland today seem so alien and remote, a park a bit closer in tone and execution to something like Pacific Ocean Park than the space-age wonderland it became. Disneyland USA is consistently mind boggling and through, but it doesn't quite make the leap to lived experience that you get in Magic of WDW.

If you watch enough theme park promotional film of the era, eventually you get to where you've seen all of the same shots over and over. The same basic footage found in From The Pirates of the Caribbean To The World of Tomorrow or Disneyland Showtime ended up being used over and over until well into the late 80s. If you're a fan of theme parks this means you spend a lot of time seeing the same stuff. The film which this is ostensibly the companion piece to is The Magic of Disneyland, a 1968 16mm compilation of all of the best shots of Disneyland in the Disney film library. The Magic of Disneyland is terrific, but for seasoned fans, it's also all literally been seen before.

The Magic of WDW greatly benefits from being entirely new footage and also benefits from  being obligated to cover a wider scope of material in a limited amount of time. The attractions which receive the most luxurious coverage are The Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey Mouse Revue, and Jungle Cruise, where not a single reused shot from Disneyland may be found. By leapfrogging over something like Haunted Mansion, the film is able to spend its time highlighting the recreation and lagoons which have always been Walt Disney World's secret weapons - the shots of the sunlight sinking below Fort Wilderness or a sidewheeler steaming across a dusky Bay Lake are extremely powerful evocations.

The distinctions between what's a great sell and merely a good one are hard to delineate. Perhaps ultimately the most marvelous thing about The Magic of WDW is what's not there as much as what is. With wide, circling shots of the park, the barren Tomorrowland, the empty Frontierland, the dead-end Adventureland are all on full display. The park we see here is similar enough to be affecting but different enough to be novel.

Disney made other terrific promotional films - there's A Dream Called Walt Disney World, from 1981, and A Day at Disneyland, the early 90s in-park souvenir video. A personal favorite of mine is Disneyland Fun, a Sing-Along VHS that has enough of a following to have attracted a DVD release. But for my money none of them quite touch The Magic of Walt Disney World for the indefinable quality that brings viewers there. And it does it all without a single appearance by a Disney character squawking into the camera.

December 22, 1972 - Snowball Express

We've reached a milestone here with Snowball Express: this is the final Dean Jones film in our series, and with the conclusion of this entry we have watched the bulk of his career at Disney.

There's two films he made for Disney before the death of Walt - That Darn Cat and The Ugly Dachshund - and he'll return in a few more years for two more dips into the well, with The Shaggy D.A. and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. In both of those films, Dean is a sort of second banana to another Disney star - a fairly convincing older Kirk Cameron in D.A. and yet another spin as the third ring in a circus dominated by a crazy mechanic and prop vehicle. As a result, it's fair to say that we've seen the section of Jones' career which fixed him in memory as a representative of the era at Disney. With Snowball Express, he passes that honor onto Don Knotts.

Yet looking at the world of performances in Disney films, it's both a better and more diverse field than you may suspect. Take Steve Forrest, who for a few years seems to have been groomed to be a Disney star in the vein of Fred MacMurray - the Classic Dad. He's excellent in Rascal and fine in The Wild Country, But that's where the trail ends before Forrest goes back to TV work. Then there's David Tomlinson, the "secret weapon" packed into Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Other actors did similarly excellent work in less distinguished movies - Brian Keith is terrific in Scandalous John, but that film was a flop and is rarely seen today. And of course Kurt Russell is terrific in everything he's in but we think of Russell's career as a bigger thing than just Disney whereas Dean Jones is thought of exclusively for his time at the Mouse House.

Make no mistake: if this blog series had a mascot, it would be Dean Jones. So what makes him the definitive Disney actor of the era?

Well, for one, I've found that these Disney films tend to rise or fall on a strong leading actor and a sense of some kind of atmosphere. Jones was, strictly speaking, reliable. I feel that calling him "reliable" is almost an insult in light of the work he did in impossible situations: how many other actors could realistically have a reconciliation with a car? Watch the other Herbie movies: plenty of other actors failed where Jones succeeded.

So we can also say that Dean was reliable in ways that were complimentary to the kind of movies Disney made but probably seemed an unmarketable skill set in other studios.

And, Jones had some range. Not a lot, but the movies he starred in didn't require much. He could be dramatic on cue, evoke sentiment, and quietly carry the story with dignity. The actor Jones most often reminds me of is Jimmy Stewart, especially in his younger years. Not a performer of incredible range, with the right material and director Stewart could be incredibly effective, even scary. Jones has a similar physical build, a similar common-guy persona, and a similar skill set.

In that vein, Snowball Express may be the best use of his talents of them all. With no talking dogs, cars, or invisible pirates to distract, Jones carries the entire film, and he does it very well. Paired again with the master of lackadaisical wide shots Norman Tokar and producer Ron Miller, who inexplicably were allowed to continue making films after the abominable Boatniks, Snowball Express is fondly remembered for good reason - it's the most watchable and enjoyable Disney comedy of its era.

A ten minute prologue which begins with a defeated Dean Jones as another Man in the Grey Flannel Suit surrogate and ends with Jones stalking towards the camera shouting "Silver Hill, Colorado!" shows Jones receiving an inheritance and saying goodbye to his hated desk job in a way most of us dream we could. His "Grand imperial Hotel" turns out to be a rambling dump, but he's determined to turn it into a ski resort - against all odds.

That almost everything in Snowball Express works is a surprise. Perhaps enervated by the unusual climate and location, Tokar and cinematographer Frank Phillips create an endless winter, the snowdrifts visually offset by the decaying Hotel Imperial in a way which, bizarrely, puts me in mind of Doctor Zhivago. The art department really went to town on the decaying Hotel Imperial, and that hotel has more atmosphere than the last three Disney movies put together. Johnny Whitaker, who spent most of last week proving that he cannot carry a film alone, provides a perfect comic foil for Jones and his wife Nancy Olson. Harry Morgan is nearly unrecognizable as a washed out drunk living in the barn behind the house. Even the resolution is somewhat surprising - the film allows Jones to lose, over and over, even when we're positive he's about to succeed, only to demonstrate that he's already won.

Snowball Express is a difficult film to write about. It works well, but it's hard to describe any comedy with little on its mind besides good natured jokes without stepping on the jokes by describing them. What can be said is that Snowball is literally the product of plugging together every component that ever worked in another Disney movie into one film. There's an unexpected windfall (Million Dollar Duck) of a property inheritance (Monkeys Go Home), computer antics a'la Dexter Riley, a beleaguered but determined father (Absent Minded Professor), a sassy son (take your pick), a climatic race (The Love Bug), and the grizzled sidekick who saves the day (Blackbeard's Ghost). It shouldn't work at all, it should feel like desperate tire spinning like Million Dollar Duck does, but the unusual location, snappy editing, a funny script, and Dean Jones all conspire to pull it off.

If anything the comparative excellence of Snowball demonstrates that Disney already had all of the elements of a successful version of that one movie they kept making laid out in front of them and for one reason or another failed to capitalize on the constituent parts. Snowball Express makes it all look easy. Along with Now You See Him, Now You Don't it's the most successful and purely enjoyable "Disney Live Action Comedy" of its era.

February 14, 1973 - The World's Greatest Athlete

Comedy is a fickle thing. For every W.C. Fields, Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, or Jerry Lewis, there's a whole herd of comedians waiting in the wings to whom time has not been as kind to. Some are forgotten but still talented, but a great deal have simply been rendered obsolete by social change and taste. A relic like The General may be one of the few silent films of its era to command audience attention, admiration, and money today, but in 1927 it was a bomb. The comedy that beat it at the box office? Hands Up!, a forgotten (and lost) western, roundly praised in tones much more glowing than those afforded Keaton's masterpiece.

I'm saying all of this in the earnest hope that at one point in time, The World's Greatest Athlete was at least... funny. That may be needlessly optimistic. The New York Times wrote of it in 1973 as it inexplicably played at the Radio City Music Hall: "It should be stressed, however, that this ribbing of the Tarzan myth runs a good, clean course that should grab all red-blooded sports fans up to and including the 14-year-old group. It might be added that everyone from coach Amos to Jan-Michael Vincent, in the title role, athletically tries without much success to make all this good-natured nonsense funny."

The World's Greatrst Athelete stars John Amos as a beleaguered college coach on the ropes with his employers who discovers a (white) Tarzan surrogate during a safari to Africa which mostly involves Amos and his irritating henchman Tim Conway standing in front of process screens. If nothing else, it's momentarily heartening to see Amos as the comedy star of a Disney film. Black actors in Disney films prior to this moment appeared in roles ranging from invisible to demeaning, with the exception of James Baskett in Song of the South, and the years between the release of that film and our own time has made appreciating his performance very difficult. Amos' race isn't even a peripheral concern in Greatest Athelete - it only seems to be there to get Amos to Africa where he can discover Nanu, the athletic jungle boy who runs faster than a cheetah. Whatever good will is generated by Amos, however, quickly dissipates as the film introduces an African Witch Doctor, played by Roscoe Browne, in full cartoon mode.

Athlete unspools for a soul-deadening 93 minutes through every expected stock plot situation. The only surprise comes at the one hour point when the Witch Doctor Gazenga shrinks Tim Conway, for no reason whatever, to three inches tall. Conway stumbles around through unfunny situations in impressive "giant size" sets, in a complication that seems to have been invented to get an extra ten minutes into the run time. I laughed at all of this exactly once - in a gag where Conway tries to "muscle into" the frame during a TV interview with Amos, and even that joke was repeated again - and again - and again - grinding what was the only funny, spontaneous moment of the film into submission.

About halfway through this most supremely unfunny of comedies I began to get an alarming feeling that all of this was starting to feel familiar - the endless panning shots, the endless zoom shots, and the endless panning shots that end as zoom shots were too much like something I had seen before.

A quick check on IMDb proved me to be correct - Robert Scheerer also directed the inane, endless Grand Opening of Walt Disney World TV special, a 90 minute extravaganza that reportedly sent Roy O. Disney into a rage. Badly, quickly shot in a Magic Kingdom still under construction and punctuated with lousy wide shots and crash zooms, The World's Greatest Athlete is just what you're looking for if you want more of the comedy stylings from the team behind this:

"Life is a kumquat!" "What?" "As somebody said?"
And this:

"Come on , Herbie!"
World's Greatest Athlete wears out it welcome at about minute 40 but it keeps on trucking like the titular character. It quickly becomes a sour experience. The tenacity of coach Amos and Conway quickly becomes exploitative and unsympathetic, and we end up wanting to see Nanu return to Africa, which he ultimately does. Amos quits his job at Merrivale and travels to get away - this time to China, which we know because he sits right by the Great Wall, because this film trades almost entirely in generalizations. There, he sees a young Chinese boy who runs faster than a horse, and the see-it-coming-a-mile-away joke complete the cycle as he takes off after the boy to bring him back to America.

I'd like to point out in 1966, Disney changed their plans to feature Louis Armstrong as King Louie in Jungle Book for fear of causing offense by casting a black man as a monkey. This same company made a movie in 1973 where an African Witch Doctor stops a photo shoot to place a bone in his nose. Progress?????

Comedy may be hard, but watching The World's Greatest Athlete is even harder. It features not one funny joke, one amusing scene, or one likable character. It's embarrassing to see Disney trading on the goodwill generated by their name to be passing stuff like this off on the general public.

March 23, 1973 - Charley and the Angel

One of my favorite movie stories: in the early 80s, a young director named Robert Zemeckis had a script for a lighthearted fantasy comedy script he was shopping around town. Every studio turned him down; in the early 80s in the wake of Animal House, the only comedies studios were interested in making were raunchy sex comedies. "Take it to Disney!", every studio suggested. Out of options, Zemeckis took the movie to Disney. Card Walker flipped out. "Are you crazy? You've got this scene with the guy and his mother in the car -- this is incest! We can't make this movie!"

That script was called Back to the Future.

At a certain point from the 60s onward, as movie studios raced to stay ahead of social trends, Disney was the only studio in town for a certain kind of movie. The early 70s was the era of disaster movies, The Godfather, and The Sting. The Exorcist was causing what can be mildly described as mass hysteria in theaters. The highest grossing comedy around was Blazing Saddles. Nothing the rest of the motion picture industry was doing was remotely compatible with Disney's simple comedies.

So for a script like Charley and the Angel to have a shot at getting made it really had to be a Disney movie. As far as Disney movies from the early seventies go, it's a good one, and it dominated the box office throughout Easter 1973. Still, being a Disney film comes with come conditions and Disney sometimes giveth as much as it taketh away. Charley & the Angel compactly demonstrates the upsides and downsides of being Disney in 1973.

Set in the Great Depression at the tail end of Prohibition, Charley features an alarmingly hoarse sounding Fred MacMurray as an uptight hardware store owner who's visited by an angel played by Harry Morgan sent from heaven to deliver his final judgement. Heaven, however, can't quite make up its mind how and when it will do Charley in, and in true Hollywood tradition the imminent end of his life gets Charley to thinking about all the things he wishes he'd done....

You've probably seen one of these movies before, but what you probably don't know is that they have an official name: film blanc, derived from the better known film noir. Both styles emerged from the golden age of Hollywood and both styles deal with folly and mortality, but while film noir is all deceit and annihilation, film blanc is about transcendence, ennobling the human spirit in its darkest moments.

The most famous film blanc of all, and the film Charley & the Angel most resembles, is It's a Wonderful Life, but there are many others. There's the well-remembered Topper and Topper Returns, as well as Blithe Spirit, representing one common variation on the theme that protecting angels are ghosts. Others play on a Faust variation, such as the charming but non-PC Cabin in the Sky, while others such as Peter Ibbetson play on darker themes. Morality is a common thread: Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait beautifully redeems a kind-hearted playboy but makes no judgement on his sexual profligacy.

One reoccurring theme in Film Blanc is heaven-as-bureaucracy. In Fritz Lang's film Liliom from 1934, Charles Boyer ascends to heaven past mechanical-looking angels after committing suicide and finds himself in a celestial duplicate of the Paris police stations he'd haunted in life - down to the same old guy behind the desk with the same defective stamp. Maybe the grand daddy of all films blanc is Powell and Pressburger's over-the-top A Matter of Life and Death, where heaven is some weird black and white stentorian Tomorrowland observatory looking out over a Technicolor world.

There's a bit of this left over in Charley. Charley's angel reports secondhand confusion in heaven as Charley continually avoids heaven's fatal blows, the official decision on his doom, is, as they say, mired in delays. This is exactly the sort of uncertainty films blanc often play with - as the creepy, Nosferatu-like angels in Liliom say, it would be too easy if death were the end of everything.

Not to detract from MacMurray, but Harry Morgan as the angel is nearly the whole show here. Morgan delivers his lines in an amusing clipped dialect that I suppose is intended to recall the era he hails from - the turn of the 20th century. He occasionally offers insight into the afterlife of an angel - he only vaguely recalls his life on earth - and gets into some amusing hi jinx with roller skates. Occasionally only his iconic hat, cane and gloves materialize, briefly turning the film into an Invisible Man movie.

The film gets into murky water the Disney studio is ill-suited to traverse in the final third, when Charley's young boys are encouraged to get jobs and end up running liquor to a speakeasy. The operation is overseen by Richard Bakalyn, who by now has become Disney shorthand for "=gangster". Then the Big Boss unexpectedly arrives to take over the operation and a harebrained car chase ensues, introducing a horrible Vito Corleone impersonation and deflating the easygoing mood.

This is what I mean when I say that Charley & the Angel represents the benefits and drawbacks of Disney in 1973. No other studio would touch a film like this, but Disney is repeatedly stuffing things into Charley just because, well, it's what they do. There's a gangster because, um, it's a Disney movie. There's a lame car chase because, um, it's a Disney movie. One reason why films blanc have found and retained a loyal fan base is because the supernatural subject and heavy atmosphere often bring out the best in film art. The movies aren't just uplifting and lighthearted; the subject matter nearly demands cinematic audacity.

Compared to even a studio sausages like Cabin in the Sky or Peter Ibbetson, Charley is remarkably tamped-down. While it never affects the film badly from the perspective of a Disney film, as a film fan I was disappointed to see promising material end up so predictable. As it stands it's a rare dramatically successful film from this studio in this era, but with a bit more dramatic weight and a director unburdened from the need to make a film of a certain look and house style, Charley could have been exceptional.

The film is based on a book called The Golden Evenings of Summer, which I've looked for details about online, and the book seems to be a Dandelion Wine-style nostalgic reverie with no angels of any kind. If this is true, then Disney deserves credit for building a film up around it that plays well to their strengths just as quickly as we point out their weaknesses. Charley's main pleasures may be atmosphere instead of incident, but it's a fairly pleasant way to spend your evening.

  The Final Week of The Age of Not Believing will be coming soon. The films are One Little Indian and Robin Hood.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Eight

"The Age of Not Believing" is a movie review series tracing the history of Disney in the years following the death of Walt Disney. It covers three films a week in an effort to see all theatrical Disney films released between January 1967 and December 1973. The entire series can be found here.

The folly of attempting this series really began to sink in early. Around Week Three, it began to feel like I'd never escape awful dramas like Family Band or lousy comedies like Never a Dull Moment. By Week Five, with King of the Grizzlies and The Boatniks in immediate succession, I was ready to throw in the towel. It seems like most of the people I knew "following along at home" gave up well before then. I don't blame them. Life is too short to watch three Disney movies that you know will be mediocre a week.

It's not like Disney was incapable of surprising me. I was entirely dreading The Wild Country, which turned out to be one of the better products of its era. Generally when writing these reviews you expect to see a good one, a bad one, and an okay one. If I see two good ones and a bad one then it's way above average.

This week was way below average. Way way below. So let's make this one mercifully short and plow right on through.

March 22, 1972 - The Biscuit Eater

If there's a cinematic equivalent of a long, drawn out, groan of exhaustion, then The Biscuit Eater is it.

Some time ago on this blog I went into some detail on my "bad movie" criteria. Ever since the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space has more or less been the "official" worst movie, despite recent competition from such worthy contenders as Manos: Hands of Fate and Troll 2. Despite this, there's one thing these movies tend to have which in some way invalidates their claim of worse-ness: entertainment value, intentional or not. Plan 9 is just plain fun to watch. That doesn't make it good, but it does make it tolerable. I don't fear the lousy B movie, the cut-out birds of Birdemic, or the offensively stupid; I fear the competent, professional, bore.

The Biscuit Eater is set in what may be the 1930s, in rural Georgia, a landscape dominated by fields, nasty neighbors, folksy black folks, and a gas station that doesn't sell gas. It follows the attempts of two friends to train a cast off dog that's rather inexplicably proclaimed to be Just No Good by nearly everyone in the movie, given the dog's penchant for eating eggs. No biscuits are eaten by the dog at any time, although "biscuit eater" is frequently used as an insult, and in a climactic third-act scene, the main characters themselves do make and eat biscuits.

I can't point to a single thing wrong with this movie that makes it so depressingly mediocre. The cast is fine, it moves quickly, it's even got some okay outdoor photography, but at no point does the film ever seem to have a good reason to exist. Director Vincent McEveety, whom we previously saw at work in Million Dollar Duck, shoots everything in what the French called the plan américain or 3/4 shot. It's the sort of movie that saps you of your will to live.

Biscuit Eater is the sort of film that somebody like John Ford could've made something of in the 1930s - a total movie studio sausage, films with this little going on need some atmosphere to tie everything together, and this film has none of that. Never charming enough to rally our sympathy but not bad enough to entertain or frustrate, Biscuit Eater is 90 minutes you could've spent doing anything else with your life.

July 12, 1972 - Now You See Him, Now You Don't

Since starting this series, I suppose I've become something of an expert on Disney comedies. Not a connoisseur - I don't think you can be a connoisseur of something you don't enjoy. But I've seen enough of them now to pick out their tricks, know their beats, and find some comfort in their redundant tics. Down on their luck heroes? Yep. Absurd plot contrivance? Yes. Zany animal comedy? Sure. Borderline offensive yet remarkably dull stereotypes? Yep. Seen 'em all, multiple times a week.

So it is no small thing when I say that Now You See Him, Now You Don't is one of the Disney studio's funnier comedies. In a style where the humor "highlight" can be something like monkeys wearing wedding dresses or pictures of Richard Nixon, Now You See Him has that rarest of elements - a good script that pays off what we came to see and doesn't waste our time.

Now You See Him plays on our familiarity with the source material, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. In this case it's not so much a sequel as it is remake where some of the principal elements are retained, yet shifted, while others are totally inverted. It's like playing the same basic material upside down and backwards.

Now You See Him begins exactly the way Tennis Shoes did: an adorably scruffy group of teenagers tune in on the board meeting of their deadbeat Dean Higgins while he rants, cuts funds, and complains about money. Suddenly, something goes wrong, and Higgins suspects he's being spied on - the kids must jump into action to steal away the flower arrangement that conceals the walkie-talkie, which goes undetected because apparently Dean Higgins didn't see the first movie. Later in the film they use the same trick on A.J. Arno; apparently Cesar Romero didn't either.

This opening sequence sets us up to expect old tricks in new ways, and the film cherry-picks through Tennis Shoes to find the possibilities left open in that first film. The main plot contrivance, involving the invenion of invisibility paint, occurs at only ten minutes into the film, through a truly Goldbergian series of accidents; one suspects that even if Medfield manages to win the science award, the circumstances leading to the creation of the invisibility paint will be impossible to reproduce. But it's really just one in a succession of appealingly random callbacks, thrown in just because, well, the first movie had that too. Even A.J. Arno returns with a hilariously flimsy explanation: "Weren't you arrested?" "Oh that - that was just a mistake."

I must admit, perhaps it's pure desperation that's affecting my judgement. According to my notes, it's been since the last Dexter Riley film that a Disney comedy got a genuine laugh out of me, and that was over a month ago. Perhaps pure comedy starvation caused me to find more to enjoy in Now You See Him than is really there.

What makes these things funny, anyway? The Disney house style is pretty consistent, especially as far as these comedies go: stay pretty wide, make sure the set is lit, make sure the image is in focus, then let Kurt Russell/Dean Jones/Joe Flynn show up and do their stuff. Very often the films are shot in the same places, the same stock sets, and the same furniture pieces show up over and over again. Where variables like the director and cinematographer change, chances are very good that other variables are consistent. Eventually, the simple act of watching these things becomes a secret game between the production team and the audience: which situations will they recycle? Fans of the Roger Corman / Vincent Price "Poe" cycle of films will know the game well: where will Roger put those  twisty red candles he bought in 1959 this time? Is the rubber spider still in one piece?

Walt Disney Productions was pitched on a scale of a family operation, and very often the same few people did the same job for every Disney movie. This means that the same cooks in the same pot tended to come up with a product that was fairly homogeneous. The same editors cuts pretty much everything, the same group of old white guys approved each production. Whomever poor Evelyn Kennedy was, she did the music editing on every single Disney movie I've seen in this series so far. Can you imagine a movie studio with one technician who does the same job for every movie?

The result is that there's not even much of an aesthetic difference between an adventure-drama like Scandalous John and something transparently silly like Million Dollar Duck. They're all just Disney Movies, and Disney Movies circa 1972 are chipper, sluggish, and guileless in an amazingly consistent way.

Now You See Him sometimes feels like the victory lap of the invisibility effects devised for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The vapor-screen process was nothing new, although the Bedknobs effects are startling, they're just one component of a remarkable climax. The same special effects in Now You See Him are fascinatingly arbitrary, employed for entirely goofy if frankly more amusing ends. Robert Stevenson, Bill Walsh, and the Shermans staged a beautiful parade in Bedknobs; Now You See Him is the baggy pants clown at the tail of the parade. The invisibility effects in Now You See Him are cleverly devised enough to impress while not being good enough to actually dazzle. You spend the film watching these effects in amusement but never once saying "how did they do that??"

However the script really goes to town on the invisibility gag. While Tennis Shoes really just came up with a few excuses to have Dexter use his new human computer abilities, every other scene in Now You See Him is some sort of silly concept of a special effect. The film ends the way every Disney film has ended since The Love Bug: with a car chase, except this time it's Arno and Cookie in an invisible car.

These Disney comedies live or die on making their audience crack a smile. That doesn't make them ambitious or old fashioned or good or bad or anything but frighteningly similar. It may not be noble, but Now You See Him, Now You Don't is one of the most successful of these movies, and if you're in the mood for it, it's exactly what you want.

I wish I could say the same of many other of these.

July 19, 1972 - Napoleon & Samantha

Napoleon & Samantha offers and object lesson in what's missing from the otherwise somewhat similar The Biscuit Eater - both films are set in a vague time period which could be contemporary but seems far away from modernity. Both include (but are not "about") a bond between two children, in this case between a young boy and young girl (Samantha isn't written to be a tomboy but because she's played by Jodie Foster the character does have that edge) and an animal that bonds them. They both feature Johnny Whitaker as the boy.

Let's begin with direction. Biscuit Eater was shot in a deadening succession of medium shots. Absolutely nothing was framed in any way to suggest the feeling of a place - just actors existing in whatever vague environment wasn't blocked out by the contours of their head.

Director Bernard McEveety - father of The Biscuit Eater's  Vincent McEveety - has at least some inclination of what a tripod is for, using a variety of high and low angles, wide shots, and some effective zooms to convey the feeling of the small pacific northwest town the film is set in. The intense traditionalism and isolation  of the community becomes important in the third act, when the town turns against Michael Douglas' (yes, THAT Michael Douglas) youth character Danny.

The first third of this film is terrific. Anchored entirely by Will Geer as Whitaker's Grandpa, the two lead an idyllic life, even accumulating a lion, until Grandpa's health fails him. Geer's death bed scenes are terrific, humane and understanding without being patronizing. Whitaker's empathy with Geer allows him to play several scenes well outside his range and age as Napoleon first processes grief. Napoleon hires Danny from a line at an employment agency because Danny needs $4.50 to buy a textbook, and the adventure begins.

Sadly once Geer exits the film much of the spark leaves as well. Whitaker and Foster end up alone in the wilderness with their pet lion, Major, to help them fend off predator attacks recycled from The Incredible Journey. This film was produced by Winston Hibler and this is Hibler territory for sure, complete with a comedic appearance by stock-footage squirrels.

Once the two kids and one cat crest the mountain to Danny's farm, the film shifts once again, to become the all-Michael Douglas show. At the very least this sequence has the considerable charm of Douglas as the "hippie" kid Danny, and even Buddy Baker's score pulses with sixties rock grooves as Danny is arrested and then escapes from the Cops in a motorcycle-vs-car chase that's appealingly extended.

In the end Napoleon and Samantha rates as "just okay" as far as Disney features go. Films like this put reviewers in a fix: everybody in front of the camera is either young or inexperienced, so it's hard to justify being too hard on them, yet the format of a review demands some sort of appraisal. Johnny Whitaker is memorable but simply isn't a very good actor. Compared especially to the two Disney "stars" he most resembles, Bobby Discoll and Kevin Corcoran, Whitaker simply lacks technique. In the "exciting" bear attack scene he basically ends up shouting and gesturing while the trained lion and trainers do all the dramatic work. Jodie Foster in her first theatrical film brings an interesting edge to Samantha despite being required to trudge around in an appallingly short skirt. Foster would shortly emerge as a remarkable actor, but she's a long way off here even from her teenage roles for Disney in Freaky Friday or Candleshoe. Still, it's alarming to consider that the little girl we see here in Napoleon & Samantha will be playing a child prostitute in Taxi Driver just four years later.

That leaves Michael Douglas, who isn't required to do much and does what he can with a nothing part. Danny is supposed to come off as enlightened and intelligent - in one scene he's introduced reading a book on a tree stump in the middle of a goat pasture - and his crazy chase with the cops is both well-intentioned and fun. This is sub-pre-career Douglas, before even his start as a producer, so we should not judge him too harshly. Napoleon & Samantha may be entirely disposable but for as bad as these Disney movies can get, it isn't too bad.

October 18, 1972 - Run, Cougar, Run (Unavailable)

November 26, 1972 - Chandar the Black Leopard of Ceylon (Unavailable)

Here's another batch of two that we'll not be reviewing because they are, officially, unavailable. Run, Cougar Run appears to be an amiable James Algar animal movie - this time, with no jovial narration, about a mountain lion and her three cubs attempting to escape from a group of hunters. Alfonso Arau, who played Paco in Scandalous John, returns with his formidable guitar to provide the human interest.

This one appears to be a great deal better than the average studio animal adventure, and can be viewed in total on YouTube.

 Chandar, in comparison, has totally vanished.

This is one of those movies that IMDb says exists. Wikipedia mirrors the IMDb information, but aside from those two source-points, this film is totally nonexistent. We know it's another Winston Hibler film and that's about it. The secondary source I've used on this project - Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley's remarkably through The Disney Studio Story - doesn't even mention it despite including every Walt Disney Educational title and every theme park or souvenir movie.

Intrigued, I backtracked to the 1971 and 1972 Walt Disney Productions annual reports, where no mention of Chandar could be found either. Does this film exist?

While we can't say with any confidence than anything titled Chandar, the Black Leopard of Ceylon and produced by Winston Hibler is entirely promising, at the very least the film offers the promise of Sri Lankian landscapes and an escape from the American Southwest/Pacific Northwest where all of these Disney animal adventures are set. More than anything, in an era when information about nearly everything in instantly available and can probably be downloaded, there are corners of film history that the bright light of the digital age has still not illuminated.

Next Week: The Magic of Walt Disney World, Snowball Express, The World's Greatest Athlete, and Charley & the Angel