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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Age of Not Believing, Week Seven

 "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 22, 1971 - Scandalous John

To cop a Roy E. Disney-friendly nautical allusion here, if up until now this series has ridden smoothly over various waves and bumps and mediocre movies, with Scandalous John I officially hit the doldrums. Too pleasant, amiable, and decently crafted to dislike, but too sedate to get too excited over, I have nearly nothing to say about this movie. It's a reviewer's nightmare - a professional bore of a programmer.

Scandalous John is the molasses-in-winter paced story of an 80 year old cattle rancher who is forced to go on a "cattle drive" (he intermittently rides the single cow, a bull) to show down with a businessman who's trying to foreclose on his ranch land. Straining for a Don Quixote allusion, he brings along his "ranch hand" Pedro, in absurd traditional Mexican garb, who rides a donkey and gawks at the "scandalous" weirdness that ensues. Although all of the marketing materials for John heavily flog this Quixote-like part of the film, it seems to me at best a minor distraction. For one, Don Quixote was a tragic lunatic in a bitter satire of chivalry, and John McCanless is essentially a noble old timer in the modern world. He's given away nearly all of his ranch to impoverished families, he throws money to Mexican children, and lives in a decaying fort.

What Scandalous John is really about is the vanished world of the West. Pedro is thrown out of his friend's truck at the doorstep of the McCanless ranch; it's the last car we'll see for 30 minutes. McCanless goes through the solemn military rituals of yesteryear - loading his gun, saddling his horse, raising his ranch's flag - before galloping out and hogtying Pedro. Later, he rides his horse into town and rides direct into several modern department stores, allowing several bit actors scenes where they sputter and protest in traditional Disney fashion. In the movie's best scene, McCanless corners his adversary in a train car. One by one he insults his business partners and throws them off the caboose, except an entire Mariachi band whom he pays before throwing off.

The elegiac tone is conveyed from the opening scenes and greatly helps to justify the funeral pace of the proceedings. Director Robert Butler has grown in leaps and bounds since The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; in John, allowed a more leisurely pace and possibly a freer hand by producer Bill Walsh, he uses Leone-like wide landscape shots and long takes at golden hour to establish the end-of-an-era mood. Extended scenes take place in single shots as Butler lingers and lingers on John and Pedro playing guitar together or reminiscing. Aided by Rob McKuen's sedate, whispery score, the film feels like a lost battle on a lonely field even before the narrative begins.

Weirdly, Scandalous John contains more than a whiff of Once Upon a Time in the West - the themes of modernity vs. wilderness, illegal vs. legal behavior, even a villain on a train are all present in Leone's film. The end of the era theme can be extended by being set in the modern world - men on horseback contrasted with mid-60s menswear stores, pistols with contracts. At one point, John and Pedro end up being mistaken for paid performers at a Ghost Town amusement park; in another they have to "save" a woman from a circling group of deadbeat youth. Two native Americans sit on a nearby couch, drinking beer and watching impassively. That can be a metaphor for the whole film, really: a good idea that doesn't always make a good scene.

June 30, 1971 - The Million Dollar Duck

Is it possible to find something funny without really thinking it's all that funny? Despite never once earning my genuine laughter, I was highly entertained by the infectious weirdness of Million Dollar Duck's comedy. For example: while being pursued by the Treasury Department, Dean Jones is escaping on the back of a telephone utility vehicle's extended maintenance basket. As the chase veers into the long Griffith Park tunnel that would become famous in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future Part II, Jones rides the platform like a surf board and careens it into the wall of the tunnel, sending a shower of sparks onto the windshield of the pursuing government employees. They register only minor annoyance.

That isn't funny, but the combination of things onscreen does, indeed, produce humor - both from forces inside the film but also ones outside the film. The lack of comedy creates a sort of anti-comedy which itself becomes funny, exploited in such modernist anti-comedy best personified by David Wain. I laughed, but I also marveled at the superior weirdness of the moment objectively.

I mean really.

The film doesn't start off weird. An uncreative, poorly animated title sequence credited to Ward Kimball sets zero expectations for fun ahead. The film's dour opening reel establishing the depths of Dean Jones' poverty moves at a snail's pace, not enlivened by Sandy Duncan's borderline-offensive airhead wife (she makes applesauce with garlic!). Jones, in his new 20% longer "Seventies" hair, stares dourly at his college diploma and looks worried when his son keeps demanding a puppy. Yet his fortunes turn around when he brings home an irradiated duck who lays - surprise! - eggs with golden yolks. This leads to Dean to unimagined riches until he - blah blah blah - discovers that what really matters is family. Can you believe Disney's been making this same basic movie for a half century?

Where Million Dollar Duck really takes off is when the film begins to imagine what having a gold-producing duck would actually be like in the 1970s. For Aesop, of course, the metaphorical goose that laid the golden egg was a shortcut to riches - gold was money. But in 1970, in a wealth-obsessed country that's been off the gold standard for nearly four decades, actual pure gold is almost worthless. It has to be refined and traded into the government for cash, and then you need to be able to show where you got it. That's why crooks find it easier to print money than try to manufacture gold. This nearly trips up Jones and his equally cash-strapped friend Lee Montgomery until they discover - haha - that Jones' airhead wife can tell the truth, and nobody will believe her (take that, stupid women!)!

Million Dollar Duck is famous as one of only three films Gene Siskel walked out on during his career, which really makes me wonder if he was assigned Monkeys, Go Home! or The Boatniks, because as far as dumb Disney comedies go this one rates as "almost okay". Unlike in his last two Disney movies, Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit and Love Bug, Dean is actually required to be funny here, and he pulls off some pretty good bits. Still, one wonders if there's ever been a leading man so thoroughly committed to being upstaged by a host of animals and objects than Dean Jones. Had these Disney films continued on would he eventually played second banana to a toaster, or a sea monkey?

The film is most amusing in its sometimes truly bizarre visual gags. The Million Dollar Duck stands on the positive and negative terminals of a car battery and lights up like a lightbulb, which inexplicably impresses two teenage slackers: "Hey, he likes it!". They then go on to use the duck to power a variety of car parts, you know, in the way that teenagers would. In another gag, news of the gold-laying duck causes a worldwide financial panic (for reasons never explained), prompting a call to the treasury department from - gulp - President Richard Nixon?? On cue, a framed Nixon portrait in the office appears to have a stern expression. The juxtaposition of Richard Nixon with such a trite, tired piece of comedy business immediately makes something that isn't funny, funny.

A Nixon impersonator shows up again later during a second flurry of global panic, following a tactless joke where an excited Chinese diplomat announces, again for no reason, that China will be able to make cheap golden eggs made out of plastic (???). I was hoping for a third cameo, but then again when an appearance by Richard Nixon is the comedy highlight of your movie, than maybe your movie has bigger problems than that.


This brings us to late 1971. In September, the last touches were being applied to the Magic Kingdom theme park which was the centerpiece of the most ambitious Disney project up until that time: Walt Disney World in Florida. Disney had been heavily promoting Walt Disney World for over two years. All of their 1971 theatrical release posters included reminders of the vacation destination along their bottom, and in early 1971 they had prepared a special promotional film - Project Florida - which was inserted into the middle of a television airing of The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin earlier in the year.

From its earliest days onward, Walt Disney World was a huge success, just as Disneyland had been and would continue to be. Yet October 1, 1971 marks an important moment in the history of the Disney company, in the sense that now, with two outdoor entertainment operations on either side of the United States, Disney's role would increasingly be recreation-oriented. When it was just Disneyland and the Burbank studio, Disney was a movie studio with a remarkable, one of a kind attraction. From October 1971 on, they would be a theme park conglomerate that also made movies. The long shadow that Disneyland and Walt Disney World cast in American popular culture would ensure that more adults and children would be admitted into the world of Disney through Main Street, USA and under a train station than ever again through, say, the white gilded book opening at the start of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The theme park product began to overshadow the film product in influence and longevity.

Yet, despite the name on the place, who really deserves the lion's share of the credit for Walt Disney World is Roy O. Disney, who persisted in his brother's dream when most other companies - emphatically including the Disney of today - would have cut their losses. Roy rode every ride, kept the show going, imported talent and resources into a desolate swamp, and then stood next to Mickey Mouse and dedicated the Magic Kingdom not just to his brother, but to the entire company that had kept the ball rolling in the years since his death. Then he died, two months later.

The company Roy Disney left behind was a company that finally was assured a steady stream of income from Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but also now a split identity, in competition with its own legacy for dominance. 1971 is the year Disney stopped being a little movie studio and began to head towards being a corporation, a vast thing of many faces. And it shed both of the Disney brothers, its founders, along the way.

December 13, 1971 - Bedknobs and Broomsticks

"We live in a world of fakery and false images."

There's something about movies that are almost great, or especially weird, that gets me fired up. While I have absolutely no motivation to go out and defend a nearly flawless film like, to keep our conversation relevant to Disney, Mary Poppins, I have in the past mounted a huge defense in favor of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In our modern lexicon we call these cult movies - films lacking in some basic DNA that makes them fully accepted by wide audiences, but fervently admired by a niche crowd. Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the only true "cult" film of the Age of Not Believing era we're covering here, and the reason why the series takes its name from this film. Bedknobs is no classic, and its frankly all the better for it.

Bedknobs is often knocked as a sub par Mary Poppins, but I think there's more to it than that. It's true and often repeated that Walt licensed the rights to the rights to the Mary Norton books to use as a possible replacement should Poppins fall through. What isn't much discussed is that Walt didn't have a lot to do with Bedknobs in the end, and I suspect had he been forced to use it he would've ended up pushing the material into the shape destined for Poppins, which itself doesn't have much to do with the P. L. Travers books that were their ostensible source. Walt Disney was one of American cinema's greatest adapters of material, and he used source texts as springboards into his own fascinations. This is why Poppins is stuffed to the gills with turn-of-the-20th-century flavor. Had Bedknobs been made in 1965 instead of 1971, we likely wouldn't even recognize it.

In many ways Bedknobs is a dark reflection of Poppins. While Poppins is relentlessly cheery even in the sooty skies of London, Bedknobs is dim and dangerous. Poppins is episodic, while Bedknobs is a continuous line of action. Poppins pulls together all of those components in the final two reels in an emotional climax that feels miraculous, while the chief threat of Bedknobs - the Nazi invasion - is drearily anticipated from the opening credits onwards. Where Poppins ends with a note of reconciliation, Bedknobs features of collection of war-torn families who tentatively come together. And while Mr. Banks in Poppins exclaims in the opening reel:
"It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward's on the throne; it's the age of men!"
..his counterpart in Bedknobs, Emelius Browne, feels his best friend in the world is an unexploded bomb. The social and economic structure Mr. Banks feels such mastery of in Poppins will of course turn against him and chew him up, but he emerges in better family and social standing than ever. The England of Bedknobs teeters on the brink of oblivion. London is being blitzed by the Nazis and the sort of beautiful house we see in Poppins is abandoned, a family very much like the Banks hauntingly absent. Poppins is a film of middle class values affirmed; Bedknobs redeems those low on life's social ladder.

This accounts, I think, for the intense attraction some Disney fans have to Bedknobs. When Disney put out Poppins, it was the astonishing highpoint of the studio's art in the Age of Walt. Deprived of their leader and under assault, Disney was in a similar place as the England of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. A studio in decline made a film about an empire in decline.

To make one last comparison without hopefully over laboring the ways in which Bedknobs is actually a departure from Poppins, it's the treatment of magic. Mary Poppins herself is essentially an enigma, the ways she works largely mysterious. She controls events which only make sense in retrospect, and her emotions are volatile and unpredictable. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, magic is entirely down to technicals, including equipment, intonation, and word choice. Instead of the beneficent but still opaque Mary Poppins, we have Eglantine Price, who basically amounts to Disney's first female nerd. Her lack of experience and steep learning curve keeps the film emotionally centered on her quest to find the spell of Substutiary Locomotion.

You can tell that many talented people at the Disney Studio worked on and enjoyed Bedknobs enough to campaign for its resuscitation, and the Sherman Brothers stand at the front of that pack. While it's true that their Poppins score benefited immeasurably from the constant rewriting process Walt insisted on that's largely absent from Bedknobs, it's easily their best work this side of that perfect songbook. Songs build over and over on twisty, obscenely clever lyrics in classic Sherman style, usually employing music and song to push the film along steadily unlike the more typical "stop and sing" style songs that populate Poppins.

Actually, if there's a major problem with Bedknobs it's that the Sherman songs aren't quite fully allowed to build and flow in the way they should. Songs with a pleasantly pokey patter like With A Flair are constantly interrupted by dialogue and visual gags in a way that suggests an attempt to "modernize" the otherwise classical material, as if somebody went to see Company a few nights before Bedknobs began production and decided to shoehorn a Sondheim-esque approach into the Sherman songbook. thankfully these songs play uninterrupted on the essential 1971 LP release.

Another change here is the three orphans taken in by Miss Price. Compared to the Poppins kids, obviously cast on their ability to look cute and gape on cue, the Bedknobs kids are refreshingly unsentimental. Charlie, the eldest, is an incorrigible swindler, barely held in check by Carrie. Paul, the youngest, believes in Miss Price's magic, but in the matter of fact way that real children believe in everything. At no point is the illusion of magic dependent on a carefully timed cutaway to the kids gaping, and they play an active role in the movement of the story and the discovery of the spell for Substutiary Locomotion - no passive recipients of magic, them.

Also refreshingly unsentimental is the adventure on the Isle of Naboombu. While the "Jolly Holiday" interval in Mary Poppins - simultaneously the most famous and least essential element of that film - was a pastoral, pastel reverie of cafes and carousels, the Isle of Naboombu is genuinely dangerous. From the alarming and entirely unanticipated introduction of fishing hooks into The Beautiful Briny Sea to the ludicrous soccer match, nothing is there just to be cute - these animals are dangerous, both to the humans and to each other. The animals talk and act like dimwitted thugs and delight in causing physical harm. While supervising director Ward Kimball, well into his "what do we do with you now" career at Disney, can perhaps be attributed to this tonal shift, the animation overall has a tougher edge that we're used to seeing at Disney. In the climax of the sequence, as the Star of Astorath is stolen and King Leonidas lights out after the Brits, there's a tension rarely achieved in Disney films of the era.

A sequence at the center of the film encapsulates everything I find fascinating about this film. Looking for the other half of the Spells of Astoroth, the band of travelers is picked up by a cheap hood in Portobello Road and led to the underground lair of Bookman, played by Sam Jaffe in a one-off scene. Bookman at first seems to be a confused kindly old professor - until the door is locked and the knives come out, at which point he pivots dramatically into a sort of nerd Don Corleone. Bookman opens up whole worlds hidden inside Bedknobs, and is a twisted mirror image of Eglantine Price in his self-interest and obsession with Astoroth. Bookman gives Price and Browne the information they need, but plainly intends the cost to be great. It's a weird little scene in the middle of the movie, but the implications and echoes travel deep. Without Bookman, the effects of Substutiary Locomotion wouldn't be as fascinating as they are - so weird, so feared, yet wonderful to see.

Which brings us to David Tomlinson, the actor on whom the emotional effect of Mary Poppins is most dependent, and as Emelius Browne he's in rare form. A pathetic man on society's lowest rung, Tomlinson brings genuine depth and sadness to Browne's quiet sense of defeat and self-regret. While his big spell-casting scene where he finally has to believe in something doesn't have the same impact as Mr. Banks' big scenes, his journey from charlatan street performer to solider is believable and moving despite being only a small component of the climax.

That extended climax, where the Nazis finally make landfall in the dead of night, doesn't have much of a sense of dramatic weight but it's carried entirely by the deployment of themes recurring throughout the entire film - the characters' perception of themselves as failures, the strength of belief vs skepticism, and the clash of ancient and modern finally comes down to a microcosm of the war as all of British history rallies to attack the German soldiers. The ghost army that descends in the night manages to be rather eerie despite remaining firmly kiddie-friendly, and if the big showdown leans a bit too heavily on the comic blackout gags (it does), the retreat of the Germans brings the film to a satisfying close.

Which brings us to the postscript, where newly motivated Emelius Browne ships off to war to fight for England while the orphans-no-more and Price, a family in the making, will wait at home. This brings back the Old Home Guard, unseen since the start of the film, for a fully earned march off the glory set to Sherman's invigorating military march.

I think this final scene and the Old Home Guard song is especially effective for Disney fans because of the sad underlying awareness that the "Old Home Guard" is as much the old guard of Disney as it is of Pepperidge Eye. 1971 is the official end of line for the "cursory Walt involvement" projects that Disney had been working on since 1968, and the start of a new era: Disney without Walt, without Roy.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was the most expensive film ever made by Disney at that point and earned back only a slim 17 million at the box office - a far cry from the 75 million that greeted the fairly inexpensive Love Bug. Robert Stevenson would not make another film for Disney for three years, and never another film of this level of charm, ingenuity, and coherence. Bill Walsh, the man responsible for so many of the best live action Disney films, was similarly set back by the financial failure of Bedknobs, and the Shermans would not return to Disney in a regular role until the early 1980s to write songs for EPCOT Center.

When the Old Home Guard marches away at the end of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, what we're really seeing marching away from us is the last of Old Disney, Walt Disney's most trusted collaborators out on one last sunset patrol. Bedknobs and Broomsticks isn't just an overachieving cult film, it's the end of an era. And now Walt Disney Productions, adrift after the death of both Disney brothers, would have to believe very hard, much like Charlie, that there was something wonderful in them, too.

"Who wrote the stories of the old brigade?
Who knows the glories of yesterday's parade?
Who's standing firm in your own front yard?
The soldiers of the Old Home Guard, that's who!
The soldiers of the Old Home Guard..."

For next week: The Biscuit Eater, Now You See Him Now You Don't, and Napoleon and Samantha

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Age of Not Believing, Week Six

"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 15, 1970 - The Wild Country

What is a "Disney" movie anyway?

We can't pretend this isn't a problem the studio itself was never without - not when something like Victory Thru Air Power sits cheek-to-jowl with Pinocchio. I ran into this a few weeks ago when I ran headlong into two friends and eventually the conversation drifted into favorite/least favorite Disney movies. I kept bringing up the sort of films I love that also happen to be Disney movies - Three Caballeros, Melody Time, Mary Poppins, Parent Trap, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantasia - while I could not get either of them to see past the Lion King, Frozen, Mulan, Toy Story and so forth. For them, a Disney movie was an animated adventure-comedy made relatively recently that was fun without being especially demanding of its audience. Similarly thy could not see their way towards accepting my view of a Disney movie as being a very diverse thing.

I suspect that whatever Disney has mutated into by 2044 will have its fans too, and they will look back with equal befuddlement at our own era's inexplicable cycle of gruesome, dark, long Disney action-blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean. What Disney is, then, is in open negotiation with the audience - perhaps tonight you'd like an overlong sentimental musical comedy with an animated sequence? Or a sassy talking animal movie starring Cheech?

The Disney of Walt's era faced similar problems. Yes, he made lighthearted comedies and nature films, but he also put out some pretty darn good serious dramas and adventures like Third Man on the Mountain and Those Calloways. Audiences today are likely to look askance at a family adventure-drama produced by Walt Disney, but it was once part of the Disney canon.

That's the case with The Wild Country. It's one of "those" Disney movies you have to join their movie club to own on DVD. Even the streaming version is presented in a rather ugly full-frame aspect ratio, direct from the VHS. The print they used is just okay, full of buckles and flecks. This film looks exactly like the odd-fit-in-the-box it is. I suspect Disney profits the least from these midcentury wilderness dramas of all their backstock, because The Wild Country isn't so much released as it is available.

It's a shame because this is a good movie, and not in a vacillating "good-for-Disney" way. What looks to be an uninteresting setup and weird cast actually works very well. Even the direction can't be faulted: The Wild Country wears its 100 minutes easily, moving from scene to scene rapidly, sometimes audaciously. Director Robert Totten worked primarily in television, in shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Kung Fu, but unlike The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes' Robert Butler, The Wild Country doesn't feel like an episode in some ongoing serial, it feels vast and wide - which makes its existence only in a full frame version even sadder. While I can't speak to Totten's other credits, this is easily the best directed film released by Disney since Walt died. Wide, gentle framings are well composed without quite recalling the painterly effect of John Ford - instead, favoring a wide angle lens and understated but terrifically effective tilts and pans, The Wild Country periodically echoes mid-period Sergio Leone, especially Once Upon A Time in the West.

Totten's direction isn't the whole show here but Jack Elam's wild-eyed coot both recalls Leone and nearly steals the rest. Introduced with his pants down, literally, Elam's charm gets a full workout here as the fearsome looking but cuddly neighbor. This was an odd period in Elam's career - he was already showing up as a kind of signifier of Western films in movies like Once Upon A Time in the West and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid but was still in the process of shedding his tough guy persona and moving into over comedy roles - compare Elam here with his one-scene role in Never a Dull Moment. Ultimately it's Elam who provides the sense of warmth and home that The Wild Country so restlessly seeks. He ends his role by giving cooking tips on bear fat.

The core family itself does decent work. Steve Forrest is given another shot at a "Dad" role and although he's never quite as good as in the charmed Rascal he's convincingly strained holding the family together. Your desire to see things turn out well for Forrest is what drives the entire last half of the film, and he doesn't let his director down. Forrest is even given an astonishingly drawn out fight with the chief baddie Woodward, giving Totten a chance to show off some evocative camera work. It goes on so long that The Wild Country may qualify as something of a Disney equivalent of They Live.

Ron Howard is okay as the main kiddie identification point. Howard isn't quite able to pull off the conflicted emotions of his older brother Virgil - he comes off as a sullen whiner for a lot of the run time, but then again most kids his age are that way in real life anyway. Still, his big heroic scene at the end comes off as a fully earned shock - I'm surprised Disney actually went for such a level of violence. His real-life brother Clint Howard, instantly identifiable even as a tyke, is a one-note character constantly obsessed with replacing his dog Ralph. That this running "joke" does not detract from the engaging drama elsewhere is a sign of good film craft.

The film builds to a big climax during a tornado, and unlike other tedious effects-driven climaxes in Disney films this one works like gangbusters because the audience is by now fully invested in the safety of this family and the obvious effects matter less. Totten gets away with a truly audacious moment: as the family hides in their root cellar, the door is closed and the screen goes entirely dark for what feels like a long time until Ron Howard manages to strike a match. The dislouge scene continues for the duration that the match burns, and when it goes out, the screen is again plunged into darkness. I have no idea if this was inspired by the similar "blackout" sequence in Wait Until Dark, but it has a similarly striking effect.

Coming after so much medicore comedy, The Wild Country is a breath of fresh air. It's a quietly commendable movie that doesn't pull back from the rough stuff and quality filmmaking when it has no reason to aspire to anything better than the standard Disney product. I expected the lazily plotted animated films, the tedious nature documentaries and the leaden-whimsical comedies, but I didn't expect to get a solid, exciting wilderness drama out of Disney in his era. I'll probably never watch it again, but The Wild Country was an welcome surprise and fully recommended.

December 24, 1970 - The AristoCats

"Saul Steinberg once drew a bedraggled cube with a trail of bubbles overhead. In the largest bubble was a perfect cube, its sides impeccably straight. The cartoon was dreaming about its platonic ideal. If Saturday morning TV cartoons dreamed, the feature in the top bubble would be The Aristocats." - Time Magazine, 1971

There's something vaguely, indefinably wrong about the AristoCats. I say this as a admirer of Wolfgang Reitherman's other "Lazy Sunday in the Park with Woolie" movies - Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and Jungle Book. This movie is broken and I'm not sure why. It feels like a lackluster sequel to a movie we never saw.

On second thought, maybe that's it - The Aristocats is a sequel to every Disney movie of the 60s, but nothing is assembled with any care - Sterling Halloway, a horse left over from Mary Poppins, Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, cute animals who are CATS instead of dogs, Sherman brothers... instant classic, right? If anything, ArtistoCats proved that Walt Disney was more than an assembly of random parts, no more than pushing a bunch of furniture together in an open space immediately qualifies as a house.

Even so, AristoCats is somewhat better than its dire reputation suggests - where the animation department can never thrill us, it can charm us, and the AristoCats spits out charming gags quicker than Michael Eisner printing Bette Midler contracts.

The film's most typical gag is Pat Buttram's hilariously precise hound dog - he's funny when he gets around to his jokes but he takes forever to get there. Each scene in the film is practically its own seven-minute short film, each punctuated with leisurely fades to black. These short chunks vary in quality from absolutely tedious to pretty good, but none of them are based on anything other than a one idea joke, for example "old people dancing!" or "crazy chase!". Unfortunately they never go out on top form, generally peaking in comedy a minute or two before they end and trailing off into some sort of variation on characters standing around reflecting on how crazy all of those preceding jokes were. AristoCats' staunch refusal to end any sequence on anything resembling a "topper" gag eventually reduced this reviewer to impotent limb flailing.

Following the rules of this tired assembly of material from better movies, midway through the film we get a jazz number because I Wanna Be Like You was so successful. Never mind the Paris 1910 setting, suddenly we get an English mop-haired hippie cat with love beads and psychedelic colors. Bless the film, Everybody Wants To Be A Cat tries and tries, but Scat Cat's band never end up getting anywhere near a good time. Their "midnight howl" keeps switching styles and genres until they literally bring the house down with zero of the sense of escalating chaos that destroyed King Louie's temple. Just to prove that white guys still run the studio, the sequence also has some racism seasoned over it, care of the Chinese Siamese with plays his piano with chopsticks because what will those crazy Chinks go and do next? Despite all of this, Everybody Wants To Be A Cat is the most boring part of the film - it creates so much noise and racket yet never raises more than a minor stir.

Actual lyrics: "Shanghai Hong Kong Egg Foo Young / Fortune Cookie Always Wrong"
The best sequence, by contrast, involves a charmingly animated duo of geese from Ollie Johnston. Most of the characters in Aristocats move just like people in animal suits - an effect sadly only enhanced by the endless parade of medium shots -  but this fact slips past us until these geese show up, imaginatively blending avian and human movements in a way that puts the rest of the show to shame. That this sequence climaxes with a drunk goose - and I don't care who you are, a drunk goose is always funny - is just a cherry on top.

Perhaps what's missing is any sense of stakes or dramatic action. Depending on your perspective, the chief dramatic action of the film - where Edgar the butler drugs and abandons the cats in the countryside because seriously who leaves their inheritance to animals - is either dramatically mediocre or entirely justified. Yet there's no stakes - he doesn't seem to be intent on, say, drowning the cats, merely losing them, and there's no particularly salient reason why he chooses to act when he does besides moving the first act along. Madame Bonfamille isn't, for example, deathly sick, giving Edgar good reason to move his inheritance along. The only dramatic stakes is that Madame will - gasp! - miss her cats, but since she's already bequeathed millions of francs to them, we don't put much faith in her emotional state at any given moment. Even the cats don't seem too much worried. This zero-stakes adventure creates the feeling that Reitherman is repeatedly bellowing "Hurry up, take your time!"

There's also some weirdness about voice nationality that's carried over from Jungle Book. At least Jungle Book is set in British India so the mix of British and American voice actors feels, at best, somewhat possible - certainly no less objectionable than the all-American cast of, say, Lubtisch's To Be Or Not To Be portraying resistance Poles. It's a long-standing convention of Hollywood films that Americans can stand in for nearly any ethnic group. But The Aristocats' summer of 1910 in Paris is epically bizarre. Dutchess' three kittens speak a blend of American and British-accented English, and Duchess herself is a French kitty with a Hungarian accent. Their mouse friend Roquefort has a French name but has Sterling Halloway's distinct midwestern nasal weeze. By the time we reach Pat Buttram as a farm dog who's clearly just wandered in off Green Acres, there's no reason to even try to reconcile any of this. The animation staff clearly just didn't care; if you were funny, you got to be in the movie.

Imagine a version of Aristocats with just a few tweaks. Imagine a version where the butler's plan is to kill the cats is better thought out and nearly successful. Or a version where there's an urgent reason to return to the Bonfamille villa. Watching the film, I conversely began entertaining the idea of the same casual wobble of a story -- set in 1917, and when the cats leave Paris there's more than a suggestion of the Great War raging out somewhere in the distance. This would justify the multi-national cast and set off the pleasantly banal, low-stakes story of monied cats with the real-world Fin de siècle. At least this approach would add an extra layer of resonance to the otherwise remarkably lightweight trifle. Although Disney seems to have gone out of their way to avoid the issue, circa 1910 the world of moneyed priviledge was being pulled down around the AristoCats anyway.

The vanished world of the Aristocats.

AristoCats has quite a toxic reputation, and frankly a worse one than perhaps the film deserves. Taken on its own and isolated from the glories of, say, Lady and the Tramp - another low stakes animal story that still manages some real emotional resonance - AristoCats is good enough. Not great, but good enough. The bones of a better film are in there, but it just fails to deliver the full package.

Traditional wisdom says that this gaping hole was Walt Disney, but I'm personally not satisfied with that explanation. Yes, had Walt been alive, AristoCats would not have been made in the way it was if it was made at all. But simply saying that the animation department was helpless without their leader is a lazy excuse. For one, the animation department was capable of good solo work before Walt's passing and will be capable of good work later. And other divisions of the company were doing well too. Yet somehow the animation unit was getting so lazy that The AristoCats makes Blackbeard's Ghost look like a Hitchcock thriller. No, this is the one where it's too easy to try to lay the blame on somebody else up and dying to save the "Old Men" from the brunt of the blame. If the AristoCats is a mess, it's the animation department's mess, and maybe it's time to stop exonerating a group of great artists when they try too little and dream too small.

March 17, 1971 - The Barefoot Executive

Time for a confession: I'm not a monkey movie person. I'm not even sure if that's a fully sanctified film subgenre, but monkey movies are made often enough to suggest that they make enough money and that there are people out there who are, in fact, monkey movie people. I simply don't really enjoy the illusion of seeing chimps and orangutangs do their stuff onscreen, treated as if they're fully functioning actors: they bare their teeth, and the movie reacts as if that's a smile instead of an unnerving grimace. The whole thing feels undignified.

Still, The Barefoot Executive, while no King Kong or Monkey Shines, comes close to a monkey movie ideal I didn't know I was harboring, at least as far as comedies go. Raffles the chimp is introduced as an irritable grouch obsessed with lousy television; he won't even let poor Kurt Russell watch Star Journey (circa 1970 that counts as a major nerd offense). Russell's slow realization that this chimp can pick the top performing television shows would be, if it were just a bit nastier, the sort of joke that Mad Magazine would've run with in their golden era. As it is it's got a bit more bite than the typical Disney feature, although this is no Network.

In 1970 television was in the era of Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the various spin-offs of the Andy Griffith Show (direct or conceptual). Those are the readily recognizable ones to modern eyes; most of the rest of the top 20 rated programs were things like The Dean Martin Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, ie nothing that anybody of today would probably willingly watch if they were curious. Yet by 1970 demographics were shifting, and nobody quite knew why. 1970 is also the year when shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Odd Couple appear, shows dominated by good writing and character, instead of situation, driven comedy. Just a few months after the premiere of Barefoot Executive, the infamous "Rural Purge" was underway at CBS and the era of the cornpone comedy was forcibly retired.

Director Robert Butler got his start on television, and so did cinematographer Charles Wheeler. Of the four credited writers, two-thirds of those credited with "story" were staff writers on Bewitched. The people behind this film had good reason to write it the way they did, and occasionally the banal surface of the film ruptures and something venomous spills out. Despite the inter office politics and self importance of the TV industry, the average person on the street in Executive thinks TV is as idiotic as the film makes it look. The network's breakout hit is something called DEVIL DAN, and it's chosen  by an animal and put on the air by a teenager after a shortcut to the top. When the executives find out, they have to get rid of the chimp more as a matter of internal pride than any scandal to cover.

Somebody had a lot of fun on Barefoot Executive raiding the entire Disney film vault to find the clips that populate this world's airwaves; depicted as an incoherent Gilliam-esque swirl of abstract images and idiotic highlight clips, we believe Kurt Russell's disillusioned teen when he all but states that television is crappy.

Director Butler delivers a much more cinematic film than Tennis Shoes this time around, adding some satisfying scope even if the pacing is much more pedestrian than before. This is a visually dark movie, especially compared to Tennis Shoes.... practically the whole thing seems to be capturing the glitz and glamor of Downtown Burbank. Is the visual style intended to set us up for the moral ambiguity the film flirts with? So much of the cast and crew of Tennis Shoes returned that we can easily imagine Roy Disney announcing "Round up the usual suspects!"

Although he's ably supported by the Disney infastructure and given a decent director with a good script, Barefoot Executive demonstrates just how good Kurt Russell is. Quick: name another movie almost totally supported by a nineteen-year-old (really!). Russell is one of the few actors to work in genre fare to give their characters a genuine emotional interior, and although Executive demands only a fraction of his talent, his remarkable range would be best demonstrated in his unsurpassed trilogy of thriller for John Carpenter in the 80s: Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. He's easily the best actor "launched" by the Disney studio - and unlike, say, Julie Andrews, Russell was able to escape his typecasting in these films. While it's impossible to see Andrews in anything else and not think "Mary Poppins", it's almost weird to see these early Russell Disney movies when today we might think of him in Tombstone, or Death Proof, or Tango & Cash.

Underneath the whole thing is a "youth empowerment" subplot that was not improved by my having watched A Hard Day's Night in the same week. Russell's night school grad badgers the uniformly white, old men in power about Alexander the Great but still has to have a rigged system to get ahead. Because it's another Kurt Russell Disney movie, he has another idiotic theme song, this time breathlessly sung by an offscreen chorus. A sample:

"He's gonna make it, he's gonna make it!
He's gonna take this cock-eyed world and shake it!"

Compared to the Beatles' casual flaunting of authority in the anarchic Hard Day's Night, this whole thing just comes off as embarrassingly dated and labored, as if those 1971 kids were supposed to be sitting around watching this in a Soho theater, passing a joint, and nodding righteously. "He's right, man - it's the system!" And that song doesn't help at all - it's no Can't Buy Me Love, for sure.

Where Barefoot Executive falls short is that it never quite lives up to the scathing promise of its premise. This is a film that treats a room full of executives very much like the generals in the War Room of Doctor Strangelove and expects us to applaud when they're all ejected from an airplane over a remote jungle region by a monkey. And while a director like Kubrick, Lester or Edwards may have been content to let Russell ride away on his motorbike with the chimp, the girl, and the million dollars in the end, Disney has Russell clear his conscience and we are told that a rescue operation is underway. No room for moral ambiguity in a Disney movie; the kids are Good, the execs are Comedy Relief Oldies, and the film is a firm G, no questions asked. With a bit more venom in its bite and a tighter pace, Barefoot Executive could have been a minor classic..... as far as monkey movies go, at least.

For next week: Scandalous John, The Million Dollar Duck, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks