Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Two

"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.

October 16, 1967 - The Jungle Book

Have you ever seen Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler? And by that I mean the fuller, unexpurgated versions floating around online, not the dreadful dub n' hack version released by Disney.

It's a fascinating film, not least of which because Williams refused to storyboard the film. As a result, each shot in a sequence is as long as its' animator wished it to be. As a result, each shot has internal rhythms but the larger sequences do not, dictated as they are by such factors as speed, fatigue, and interest. It's an animator's dream but an editor's nightmare.

I think Thief and the Cobbler helps illustrate why the 60s and 70s Disney animated features are so pokily paced. Through the 50s, Walt and others insisted on keeping the pace up and the narrative tight, but as animators like Ollie Johnston and Ken Anderson were given more latitude to craft sequences, the whole pace of the enterprise slows down to a casual wobble. It's the pace of animation allowed to exist for its own sake.

The Jungle Book is the ultimate Disney clip show movie. It's the first Disney film I'd be comfortable calling a road movie - while an argument can be mounted for Pinocchio, it's Jungle Book that sticks pretty closely to the road movie formula. The frame story is a linear movement from point A to point B, and each "stop" along the way is a self-contained episode that can be split off from the other episodes with little lost. Within those episodes, the animation is astonishing, and with the slacker pace and structure in place it's the animated performances that totally drive the film. That's a good thing, because the road movie formula thrives on vivid characters and incidents, allowing us to project ourselves into these situations through central characters on a journey who are no more than ciphers.

a pivotal scene.
Honestly, if there's a problem with Jungle Book, it's Mowgli the man-cub. While he's cute enough, Mowgli is a big donut-hole in a film filled with remarkable personalities. He's voiced by director Reitherman's son Bruce, who does a serviceable job and provides some live-action reference that will be animated and recycled as Christopher Robin in The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. Disney's Mowgli is a far cry from the fierce and wise survivor of Ripling's book or the 1942 film. When he's about to be mauled by Shere Khan we express only minor alarm. When he's about to be devoured by Kaa we register amusement. This makes the Jungle Book a weirdly passive experience: even Baloo steals all of the big emotional moments. In the final reel, as Mowgli vanishes into the human village, we shrug in amusement the same way Bagheera does and the film returns, much more deservedly, to Baloo and Bagheera as they saunter off into the sunset.

What separates Jungle Book from atmospheric but dramatically inert rambles like Sword in the Stone or Robin Hood is probably what Walt brought, which is a fastidious attention to structure and rhythm. Each sequence has a big bit of slapstick action or a clever song or, often enough, both. There are two sets of two characters, with Mowgli standing between each: Bagheera and Baloo complement Kaa and Shere Khan. Each of these four characters have two big scenes, one in each half of the movie. The entire film is bisected by King Louie, who can only appear once for danger of stealing the whole show. Louie himself is a comic figure who becomes increasingly sinister as his sequence unfolds, paving the way for the sinister Shere Khan who is lightened by touches of comedy.

This is a really nicely set up film which requires the animators knock down the sequences, neatly and cleanly; in other words Walt constructed the only film which truly plays to the strengths of the animation unit in the Reitherman era.

The film slacks in the last few reels where it really should be getting tighter; the Beatle-vultures who sing "That's What Friends Are For" are funny enough but the scene wouldn't be harmed by removing them and proceeding directly to the confrontation with Khan. It's a shame that John, George, Paul and Ringo turned these roles down, for no other reason than it'd perk up a scene in need of perking. On the other hand, the roles seem to reflect the public image of the Beatles as ludicrous mop-topped good natured slackers, an image the Beatles themselves had been working to escape for the better part of two years at the time of Jungle Book's release. The disconnect between the sophistication of the actual Beatles act, which in October 1967 was between Srgt. Pepper and the "White Album", and this fun-house reflection by Disney, the squarest of the square studios, is deliciously inappropriate. Or is the casting of the bandleaders of the psychedelic movement as scavenging birds a subtle slam?

Watching Jungle Book I was reminded of a piquant passage in Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns where Kerr describes the poetic effect of the best silent performances. Silent films were shot in cameras cranked by hand and projected back at a pace rate somewhere around 20 fps, you see, and since the human hand is not a motor there is naturally a subtle, almost organic fluctuation in the rate at which the image is exposed. When you project this back at the right speed the result is a slight increase in the movement of the human onscreen. Turns become balletic, falls become spectacular, and the very best of the silent stars - Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin - could modulate their movements onscreen to look remarkably graceful on playback. It's not the way people move - it's better.

Great animation is a lot like that. These animals are more human than people can be. They move, think, react better, faster, funnier than people do. That's why when we see sped-up human actors bouncing around in, say, the Gnome-Mobile the effect is the opposite of what's intended... ghoulish and artificial, the opposite of being magical and effortless. It's just people moving twice as fast, not twice as well. You have to go to the Disney animated films to get the real deal.

Still, from the gorgeously painted backdrops to George Bruns' haunting score, I prefer Jungle Book to the roughly similar Lion King.  Walt's road movie may not express the full breadth of his brilliance, but it shows America's last great showman as the last great coordinator of the craft he helped create.

October 16, 1967 - Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar

Okay, who here has heard of Lev Kuleshov? If you have, then you know where this is going.

Kuleshov was an early film experimenter who devised a simple series of shots which wrote his name in history. The shots were images of a bowl of soup, a little girl in a coffin, and the woman reclining on a couch. Each shot was edited together with a repeated shot of an actor staring impassively into the camera. When this actor's blank face was contextualized by the soup, the dead girl, etc, audiences experienced through the actor the idea of hunger, grief, or love.

Kuleshov was not the first person to figure this out. In Hollywood, filmmakers had been experimenting for years with editing - in the service of storytelling. American directors found that they could cut together two strips of film to give the illusion of continuous action - a pioneer family trapped by Indians as the Calvary rides to their rescue, for example - to create dramatic effects. Editing could also be used for purely spatial effects - Charlie Chaplin walks off frame right and enters frame left in the next shot and we know he is in the next room over. As basic as all this is, there was a time when these were radical ideas.

The "Kuleshov Effect" is basically the big thing Charlie has going for it. As entertainment it's modest - unless you are a filmmaker or editor, in which case it becomes fairly interesting. Trained cougars flounce around nondescript shacks or cross logs and the magic of editing makes them into an endearing character: Good-Time Charlie, the cougar kitten of the pacific northwest.

"I'm acting!"
This film has a disarming gravitas because it appears to be what it manifestly is not: a documentary. Shot in grainy 16mm on what appears to be a wing and a prayer, Charlie inter cuts trained cougars, actors, non-actors, and documentary material into a surprising whole. Were the result a bit more demanding on the audience, it could qualify as avant-garde. As it is the film has the squirmy, uncomfortable sense of is-it-real-or-not captured in films like The Blair Witch Project or Boggy Creek II.

Casually narrated by Rex Allen, and with a uniquely terrible theme song, Charlie is a B movie release all the way, but it's not all that bad. Demanding only about an hour of your life, even the poky pace and mediocre actors give a sense of weight to the basic illusion of the film. Looking back at it from 2014, it's remarkable that this film even qualified for a theatrical release by a major studio - a lot of what can be found on YouTube looks more professional.

The film appears to have been shot mostly or entirely silent on location; actors are looped shouting dialogue while onscreen in Washington are seen gesturing wildly. Close ups and dialogue points that move the story forward were shot back in Burbank on the optical stage; these shots stand out because the actors are sharp and synchronized while the background is soft and grainy. One shot of actor Ron Brown did not have the background optically inserted so he momentarily appears to stand in a black void; this was left in the movie! One wonders if the whole thing was just made up as they went along. It's more of a fascinating byproduct of an unusual creative process than it is an honestly good movie.

Still, it's cute enough. I wonder if the kids ran around the theater the whole time Roger Ebert saw it.

November 30, 1967 - The Happiest Millionaire

 "I understand Mr. Biddle is going off to war."

"I'm glad to hear it. Maybe we'll finally have some peace around here."

Well, here it is, and at least it's out of the way early - the longest official Disney movie.

If we're talking about Disney movies as things Walt Disney personally oversaw, Happiest Millionaire is pretty much the end of the line. For Disney people, it's an item of particular fascination, because of what it is and also what it isn't. Walt's hand is felt very strongly in this one, but so is his absence.

What we really need to begin with here is addressing why this is a Disney movie at all. One of the most consistent claims for the true top tier classics is that Disney films are timeless - and whether that's true or not, what a "Disney Movie" is is a distinct enough sub genre that those films which fit pretty well into it and remain in the consciousness tend to keep getting watched. Despite being as of it's era (ie 1938) as something like Mr. Moto's Gamble, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also works well enough as a "Disney movie" that people are still watching it, 80 years later.

Happiest Millionaire isn't one of those. There's no fairy tale element, no magic, no scary villain. There isn't really even a neat moral like "love conquers all" or "families are magical" or whatever it is that Mary Poppins is about. In fact, looking back from today it may not even be obvious why Disney made it at all. Outside of the context of 1964, it's hard to see Mary Poppins as part of a string of high-budget color musicals which began officially with Gigi in 1958. Poppins itself was up against My Fair Lady for best picture of 1964, and the prestige musical cycle continued into the 1970s. In 1968, the year that the landmark 2001 was in theaters, the best picture winner was... Oliver. A fine film, sure, but best picture?

There was money and prestige to be had in this sort of thing, however, and so Happiest Millionaire went from a minor stage comedy to an expensive musical. Walt spared no expense: a talented cast, hugely elaborate sets furnished with real antiques, and a full overture, intermission, and exit music - Millionaire was an A-picture effort. Fans of 1960s musicals are more likely to get something out of it than other viewers.

It's doubly unfortunate, then, that Walt died shortly after the first cut (ie, a rough assembly) was made. In its full form, Millionaire is an absurdly, butt-numbingly long movie. The Shermans here contribute three great songs and a bunch of just okay ones, and their music all but vanishes from a long stretch of the second half.

Millionaire is a film that defines the concept of "bloated". An introductory number - which fades up out of a painting, the exact same gag used to start Bullwhip Griffin - is lots of fun but takes forever to get actor Tommy Steele to the actual mansion where the film will take place. There's at least five gags along the way that stop the momentum and once he gets there he dances up and down the front steps to sing his final refrain. This would be fine by itself but the entire film has this same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality. Once Steele gets into the mansion, two brothers who never re-appear sing a song to demonstrate the family affinity for boxing and knock out their sister's suitor, who also never re-appears. Later, sister Cordelia has her roommate teach her how to dance in the current fashionable way in a tedious musical sequence. When Cordelia gets to the dance she hardly even uses her new moves and is swept off her feet in yet another song about dancing.

Tommy Steele, as butler John Lawless, sings and grins up a storm and steals the show, although to be fair he doesn't have too much competition. Fred MacMurray is surprisingly good here, and demonstrates a nice singing voice from time to time. Greer Garson as his wife is mostly on view to stand around and scold him; their most effective scene comes at the very end of the film and was cut from all theatrical prints. Gladys Cooper is the only real competition for Steele; her dressing down of Geraldine Paige is the highlight of the second half. MacMurray keeps alligators in his conservatory because... well, that doesn't really go anywhere either, except to provide a slapstick sequence at the 90 minute mark which, typically, goes on about ten minutes too long. Near the end there's another slapstick sequence in a bar with a terrific Shermans song, Let's Have A Drink On It, that would play better if we hadn't been beaten down to the point of apathy by two and a half hours of go-nowhere material preceding it.

The real problem is that Millionaire has no real sense of how to condense all of this into something better than its constituent parts. Details aren't just redundant, they're absurdly redundant. Even the best musical numbers are too long. Characters drift in and out randomly without any reason to be there. Each plot point is treated with about the same dramatic emphasis as everything else, as if Cordelia going off to boarding school requires the same dramatic weight as her deciding to get married.

This is a shame because what works in the movie is really good. Even MacMurray, who comes off somewhat dry in other similar roles for Disney, is unexpectedly moving when he's finally faced with an empty nest. Then, of course, he ends up going off to World War I.

Oh yes, I haven't even mentioned that the film is set between 1914 and 1917. The period atmosphere is nicely handled, with a pleasing emphasis on vintage publications like the New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, Town and Country and Harper's Bazaar. MacMuray as Biddle has extended dealings with the Marines after being kicked out of every office in Washington. He knocks out their best boxer and so the corp tolerates his efforts to teach them "self defense".

These are more scenes that do very little to advance the plot, and sadly that's about where the period detail ends. Either director Norman Tokar or cinematographer Edward Colman decided to shoot everything bright, wide, and flat, like a TV movie. It looks like every set was lit exactly once and the power switch was thrown at the start of shooting each day with no extra emphasis. It's almost impossible to tell day scenes from night scenes. Outside of a few matte paintings, there's no sense of the Biddle house as a real place. MacMurray is supposed to have a converted garage out back that he
teaches his bible/boxing classes in, but you have to watch the film a few times to understand how this connects to and relates to the house; it's just another set. When you consider the atmosphere a director like Robert Stevenson brought to even the weakest Disney movies he was handed, this is another huge demerit to this film.

Then there's the central romance between Cordelia Biddle and Angier Duke. Probably the only onscreen romance between a boxing tomboy and a jiu jitsu-tossing car enthusiast (this plot point is exceptionally weird), actors Lesie Ann Warren and John Davidson do a perfectly straightforward good job. Davidson's big ballad about Detroit, where he longs to move and become an automobile magnate, isn't very good but Davidson sells his dream well. Weirdly, the actual sequence of Davidson singing his love song to Detroit is the only one staged in the countryside - the natural trees and open sky contrasted directly with his lyrics about "a land where golden chariots are molded out of dreams". When Cordelia agrees to move with him to Detroit, the heavens open up into a menacing rainstorm. The shot proceeding it is eerily like the roadside confession in Vertigo. Is this a premonition?

The last shot of the film is an unexpected downer - Cordelia and Angie's car rolling towards a hell scape city skyline belching smoke. It's like something out of a horror movie and ends the film on an uncomfortable note - are we supposed to find this as appalling as it looks? If so, then how are we supposed to feel about this romance?

I'm sounding really down on this movie, and I shouldn't, because despite all of its problems I do like it. But it's very much a film that appears as if it could have cohered into a minor classic had there been a mediating influence like Walt Disney to iron out the problems and insist on keeping the pace up. This is almost a film that demands its own fan edit, like others have done with Star Wars.

In many ways this film seems to have been orphaned by Disney.  The DVD release, in non-anamorphic widescreen, is bleary and pixellated. There are no extras to provide much needed background and context. In this form, even the visual and textual pleasure of the film are too blurred to really enjoy. As unlikely as it may be, this film would really benefit from a HD upgrade.

I didn't really expect to watch Millionaire all the way through again for this review, having seen it several times before, but once the film started unrolling I found myself watching it and enjoying it and it mostly held my attention, so despite the hundreds of words of misgivings I've typed up above, there is something to it that I find worthwhile. This one is recommended to interested parties who know what they're getting into. Ordinarily I'd say a product like this is a ruin of a great film, but that assumes that the film was ever built to completion to begin with, which it wasn't. The Happiest Millionaire is more like a pallet of lumber that's supposed to be a house. You supply the nails.

The final shot - weirdly, a mirror of the opening shot of The Magnificent Ambersons

For next week: Blackbeard's Ghost, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band, and Never A Dull Moment

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week One

"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.

Are Disney live-action films a genre? Do they have their own internal laws and rhythms and tacit audience contracts? After so many years away, how quickly familiarity with the old rhythms fall back into place: the pokey pace, the constant mugging, the jangling music. I'm reminded of a famous intertitle in a French print of Nosferatu as Hutter crosses into the Carpathian land of darkness:
"And when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him."
The phantom came to meet me. And the first phantom was Dean Jones.

February 8, 1967 - Monkeys Go Home!

"Don't you see? It's another scheme to stop my monkeys!"

Only Disney would have made a movie where the first-act dramatic tension is whether two nosey European communists will discover the existence of four monkeys.

Let's praise the best thing in the movie first, and that's the southern France atmosphere so beautifully conjured on the Burbank lot. It's the sort of casual, convincing slight of hand that Hollywood and especially Disney at their best could create. Carroll Clark and Emile Kuri effortlessly conjure a Provencal town square that instantly recalls the best work of WED Enterprises at Disneyland, and Peter Ellenshaw's matte painting complete the illusion.

The picture is directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a British director who specialized in Westerns and action pictures. His best known credit today is possibly Mitchell, famously featured on a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. McLaglen, before settling into the endless procession of pan and medium shots which characterize the Disney "house style", takes some time at the start of the film to establish atmosphere with some nicely framed, expressive imagery. If you snipped off the credits and dubbed it into Italian could could probably convince somebody that they're watching a Visconti or something.

That is, until Dean Jones starts looking longingly at pictures of monkeys.

"What will become of us when your monkey army takes over?"

 This is the sort of movie where one of three things happens every reel: somebody makes a crazy face, something falls over, or a monkey does a back flip. They don't happen often enough to generate a feeling of amusement, only mild distraction. The lazily-plotted story doesn't move through acts, but through obstacles. Once the two snoopy villainous Frenchmen are disposed of, another obstacle pops up: a drunk floozy posing as Jones' long-lost cousin. Of course she's been hired by our villainous butcher and realtor, and for a bit Monkeys, Go Home! lurches to life in a bit of black comedy where she confuses the room full of chimpanzee play equipment for torture devices. Again, it doesn't last long enough to go anywhere. Then the villains get their comeuppance in a staggeringly boring brawl in the town square.

Dean Jones plays a former air force officer, a bit of exposition entirely carried by his military jacket. His four chimpanzees are literally space chimps, making them representatives of America's pride circa 1966: the space program. Throughout the film, Jones' word and honor are repeatedly challenged by the slimy European villains; Jones only stages a pro-monkey rally in response to their anti-monkey graffiti, and so on. The guiless American only wants to be left alone and run his olive farm, the good old capitalist way.

Monkeys, Go Home! constantly labors to dredge up anti-Americanism from the depths of its ludicrous comedy; even the title is a joke on Yankee Go Home, the favored rallying cry of anti-American sentiment in Europe for generations. In 1966, the phrase would immediately recall the Berlin wall and the Cold War. But for all its posturing, this theme is by far  the worst thing in the film: a serious and complex political issue is referenced and mined for idiotic monkey comedy. Even the villains who stir up the sentiment don't believe in it any more than Walt Disney does: the butcher is after Jones because he stole his girlfriend, and the estate agent wants to buy Jones' farm.

Having worked overtime to raise the issue, Monkeys Go Home! does nothing with it. Not once does the film entertain the notion that the French may have very good, real reasons to not want an American buying a huge olive farm in their little town. The labor concerns are a mask for petty personal vendettas and the monkeys don't even end up picking the olives, having been sent into a back flipping sexual frenzy by the arrival of a leering male chimp. The Frenchmen band together to pick Jones' olives after all, ending the film on a note of possible reconciliation, but the note rings false because the conflict isn't even taken seriously enough to warrant investment. Is this the Disney Studio attitude towards foreign dissent?

This somewhat pandering attitude is by far the worst thing about Disney films from this period: going out of the way to address current world affairs but having nothing to say about them except hay falling out of haylofts and monkeys making faces. It's a problem we'll encounter again, but for now Monkeys Go Home! rates as a tolerable enough distraction.

March 8, 1967 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

Back in the Gold Rush days 
In wicked San Fransisco
He cut a figure dignified and prim
Although extremely frail
And, physically, doomed to fail
He had purity of heart in back of him

After slogging through Monkeys, Go Home!, Bullwhip Griffin right from the start is a welcome relief. Immediately enlivened by an excellent score by George Bruns and songs by the Sherman Brothers, and backed by a very amusing title sequence by Ward Kimball, Bullwhip is immediately obvious as a superior product.

Besides much cleverer comedy, Bullwhip has two considerable assets which put it way ahead. The first is Roddy McDowall, who is always excellent, no matter what he's in. As Mr. Griffin, a hapless Boston butler, McDowall should be a one note joke - an uptight square in a land of slobs - but his Bullwhip Griffin is the center of gravity that holds the whole thing together in a way that Dean Jones could not. His deference to civility and manners becomes an almost awe inspiring sense of integrity as he faces down banditos, roughians and robbers with unflappable poise and logic. It's a really nicely gauged comedy performance.

The picture's other ace in the hole is director James Neilson, who produced two of Disney's most atmospheric films: Dr. Syn and Summer Magic. The pace never slackens, nor does the film ever resemble a television drama. Every so often Neilson throws in a nicely framed wide shot or an improvised bit of business that brings the whole show to life again. The looping, rambling plot slightly resembles The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (a coincidence as it had not yet been released in the US) and stops in one extended sequence to pay homage to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Just to keep things moving, Bruns and the Shermans periodically pop up throughout the film with musical passages and often very silly animated vignettes from Kimball which keep us interested until the end.

It's Kimball's contribution to the film which ends up being its greatest liability in the final reel, a slapstick boxing match. Here, in the final stretch, Kimball's animated vignettes and the live action become intertwined, and the result is more bizarre than it is funny. At one point McDowall imagines his rival as a punching bag. Kimball visualizes this by having the villain literally superimposed over the bag; Griffin's entire face turns cartoon green, and he punches the bag into orbit in cartoonish step-frame motion.

More weird than funny
In these final stretches, as Griffin slips into legendary status, the action frequently begins to resemble silent comedy, complete with interrupting title cards and stop-frame motion. If the last reel doesn't completely work, McDowall and Neilson make sure our attention wasn't wasted. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin is better than we have any reason to expect it to be, and in the context of these types of films, that's a success.

Just one week after the release of Bullwhip Griffin, Pirates of the Caribbean would open at Disneyland, one of Walt Disney's finest achievements. On July 2, the New Tomorrowland would premiere, featuring the Carousel of Progress, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Peoplemover, and America the Beautiful. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Walt had been raiding his animation and film divisions for talent to work on Disneyland, and with the opening of new Tomorrowland, the last bit of direct Walt Disney involvement with Disneyland was officially out of the gate. Walt left WED Enterprises with a model of a city they no longer wanted to build and over 40 square miles of Florida swamp.

Just weeks after the release of Disney's little western comedy, The Velvet Underground & Nico becomes available. By late March, 10,000 "hippies" have gathered in New York for the Central Park Be-in, protesting the Vietnam war and police violence. On June 1, Srgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band becomes available, officially beginning the "Summer of Love". Disney will counter one month later with their own hallucinogen.

July 19, 1967 - The Gnome-Mobile

Walter Brennan was just over forty years old when he appeared in a 1935 potboiler melodrama directed by the young Howard Hawks called Barbary Coast. A bit player of no particular fame, Brennan was noticed by Hawks and together they crafted a character called "Old Atrocity", a grizzled loony Hawks fell in love with. Hawks called Brennan back, one year later, for Come and Get It, and he'd call him back, time and again, six times total, ending with Brennan's performance as "Stumpy" in the legendary western Rio Bravo in 1959. In the interim, Brennan became the Hollywood embodiment of the grizzled old-timer, toothless and wily, a joint fantasy creation of Hawks and Brennan.

The Gnome-Mobile, the middle entry in a trifecta of Disney appearances for Brennan, find him paired with Robert Stevenson, the Disney studio's most talented director, and Matthew Garber and Karen Dotice, better known as "the kids from Mary Poppins". The titles actually flat out tell us this:

Garber and Dotice do basically the same stuff they did in The Three Lives of Thomasina and Mary Poppins, with Garber once again proving himself to be the master of baffled faces and holding props for comedy, but it's Brennan who really shows some range in a double role as their Grandfather D. J. Mulrooney and Knobby the Gnome. As D.J., Brennan gives an appealingly naturalistic performance, directly contrasted with the crazy old coot Knobby, who he plays in full on "Brennan" mode. For fans of Walter Brennan, it's a fun opportunity to see two sides of an actor predominantly remembered for one stock character.

The Gnome-Mobile is the first film we've run into here that feels like it has any Walt Disney oversight at all. Based on a 1936 book by Upton Sinclair (I know), Gnome-Mobile feels like a big picture effort by Disney instead of fodder destined for TV. Sinclair's book, as can be gathered from what is written about it online, is a sort of proto-Lorax environmentalist fable where the son of a lumber baron who despises the way his family fortune was earned joins a young girl in uniting two gnomes with a larger gnome community in a protected national parks forest. Along the way they run into various obstacles, including a circus and the big city. The 60s Disney film roughly stays true to these events, but the changed emphasis is important.

Had Walt made The Gnomobile is the 1930s or 1940s he may have kept Sinclair's environmental fable pretty much the same, but the changes wrought by Walt near the end of his life show where his mind was, 30 years later. In the film, it's Brennan's character who replaces the wayward son of the industrialist, and it's now his responsibility that the gnome colony was wiped out in the first place - he owns the logging company that did the chopping. Introduced in a modern industrial high rise, amidst a huge office, when Brennan rejects a modern Cadillac in his private parking garage and orders that his pristine vintage Rolls-Royce be brought out, we're set up to expect Brennan to be a tycoon set in his ways and in need of reform. Instead, gradually it's revealed that the logging magnate has had a change of heart since long before the film began and now, like Walt, is a dedicated defender of the natural world.

This inverts Sinclair's premise in a fascinating way: now it's not D. J. Mulrooney, but Knobby the Gnome who needs reforming. Knobby is introduced in the process of fading away - literally dying in the gnomish way. Knobby's hatred of the big people and of loggers, although comic, is never dismissed as a joke, and Mulrooney wants to spare him the worst. D. J.'s guilt becomes the narrative engine that drives the plot, and drives him to re-unite the gnomes and establish a new gnomish colony in the heart of his redwood nature preserve.

This is a remarkable re-conception, and even more remarkable that it doesn't play out as a corporate expurgation of Sinclair's basic plea for preservation of natural resources. Nor does it remind us of something like Truax, a reverse-perspective take on a better known book. D. J. Mulroony is a responsible industrialist (hey, it's a movie about gnomes, relax) and the portrait is painted in a way that would be quite impossible today.

On a strictly technical level the film does not quite manage the rich fantasy or pure wonderment of the roughly similar Darby O'Gill and the Little People. This is an American story for an American wilderness: the pacific northwest, somewhere between Seattle and San Fransisco. Mulroony, an Irish immigrant, constantly references leprechauns to bridge the gap but the gnomes are more like miniature hillbillies who may have escaped from panels of Li'l Abner. Instead of fantasy and menace, we get good old American slapstick, with the back half of the film  culminating in three well-constructed gag sequences direct from the Disney Story Department.

The best of these is an inspired, Keaton-esque downhill chase as the villains' Cadillac literally tears itself apart in a high-speed pursuit, while Mulrooney's 1930s Rolls-Royce, the titular Gnome-Mobile, emerges without a scratch. Maybe there are value in some old things. The film climaxes with a "greased hog" chase as the maidens of the gnomish colony fight for the right to bed (and wed) Knobby's young cousin. Suddenly dozens of miniature she-Tarzans appear and the chase goes on and on, for the better part of a reel, while Ed Wyn turns in a decent last appearance and Brennan minces and winces.

This is a supremely weird film. It's not bad, it's not boring - at a slim 89 minutes it's the first film in this pack that doesn't require an extra helping of patience. But it never really coheres into anything stronger than its individual parts, and the inevitable comparisons to Darby, one of Walt's best live-action films, makes the whole thing seem a little flat. It's neither as bad as it could be or as weird as it should be. In the end Roger Ebert's 1967 review puts it about as well as it can be said:
"Last Saturday the kids let me know that "The Gnome-Mobile" has some good parts in it. They let me know this because when the good parts came on the screen they stopped still and watched them. The rest of the time they fought, laughed, popped bags, whistled and thundered in wild herds up and down the aisle."
I didn't pop bags or thunder up and down the aisles. I laughed a few times. Mostly I made dinner. If there's anything worth saying about Disney films as a genre, it may be that they are charitable companions: you can go make a sandwich and be sure you didn't miss much.

For next week: The Jungle Book, Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar, and The Happiest Millionaire

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Introduction

Walt was dead, to begin with.

That's the basic thing we'll be returning to time and again over the next few weeks. Walt Disney Productions, having lately come into prosperity in the 60s, in December 1966 lost the man who put his name on the door, and more than most Hollywood studios, the Walt Disney Studio was a one-man show.

There is a gap in nearly all official accounts of the Disney studio. It constitutes a roughly five year period between the death of Walt and the death of his brother Roy. There is very, very little public knowledge about what went on in that window. And while I cannot peel back the curtain of history entirely to reveal that moment, it is that window that we will be critically examining over the next several weeks. I've decided to call it the "Age of Not Believing".

As a theme park fan, what especially interests me about this period is that we think of it as constituting a huge chunk of the era of Disney's best output - from roughly 1964 to 1975 we get the New York World's Fair stuff, New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrowland '67, The Haunted Mansion, Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom, Country Bear Jamboree, The Hall of Presidents, then ending roughly in early 1975 with Space Mountain and the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. In certain areas of the company, it was an era of enourmous creative vibrancy.

In others... well, I don't rightly know. But I'd like to find out.

I realized some time ago that there is a huge chunk of my Disney knowledge missing, which is not the cartoons or the animated features or the theme parks but the run of the mill Disney product - the live action films that were the studio's daily bread and butter. We all know the big shows, but I'm willing to bet you haven't seen a lot of these more obscure ones, either. I've decided to close that gap in my personal knowledge base. You're invited too.

I'm going to chronologically watch three Disney theatrical releases a week. My first selections will begin in 1967, with the films released immediately after Walt's death which ostensibly still bear his signature. I'm going to continue up until the end of 1973, a roughly seven year stretch. Each week I'm going to look critically at what I've watched on this site, and hopefully not lose my sanity in the process.

What interests me is to see the company evolving - releasing the last products Walt had a hand in through 1967 and 1968, burning through those projects he placed on the back burner into 1971, then trying to turn over a new leaf in the early 70s. One reason I'm going all the way up to Robin Hood in late 1973 is because it's one of the first projects Walt had no hand in to be fully absorbed into the "canon" of Disney classics. There's a story there.

There's also a story here going on outside Disney. Walt lived and died in the last gasp of old-fashioned optimism left in his century. Ever the cultural vagabond, he rose from an animator of no special importance to the highest respectability in the 30s and 40s, then re-invented his image in the 50s to target both emerging technologies and the emerging generations. But those kids he had wearing mouseketeer ears and coon skin caps in 1955 would end up wearing flowers - and now Disney was "the establishment". And while there's no way I'll be able to fully account for one of the most volatile periods in American political history while writing about ludicrously lightweight Disney comedies, the context is fascinating and it'll be kept in mind.

If you'd like to follow along at home, I suggest foregoing physical rentals. The bottom dropped out of the DVD market years ago and so all these obscure movies are no longer kicking around as discs, in the Netflix system or elsewhere. They are, however, available as digital rentals on both and the iTunes store. At the bottom of each week's post I'll be including the list of titles to be watched for next week.

 I honestly don't know what to expect. Will it be exultation or exasperation? New insights or Walt's dirty laundry? And just how much of a movie company has Walt Disney Productions been since 1955, anyway? We'll find out next week when 1967 begins.....

Next Week: Monkeys Go Home!, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, and The Gnome-Mobile

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Jungle Cruise and AWOL Airwaves

Updated on July 4, 2020. Thanks to TheMellowPumpkin for helping pin some of these down.

Today's post lies a bit outside our usual focus on this blog on the very early Magic Kingdom music loops, but by now our subject is widely considered a classic of its kind and it's been around for about half of the lifetime of the park. It's also subject to some widely-repeated misinformation, so it's time to crack open the Jungle Cruise queue music, also known as the A.W.O.L. Airwaves loop.

Prior to the 1990s, the Magic Kingdom Jungle Cruise did not have anything even vaguely resembling a "themed" queue. Much like the two Disneyland queues which came before it, the Jungle Cruise boathouse dock offered the promise of not standing in the sun, and that was about it. Closely patterned on the 1955 boathouse from Disneyland in everything but scale, the Magic Kingdom boathouse was a long trek past bare walls with little but the sounds of the jungle, passing boats, and the echoed sounds from "Downtown Adventureland" to amuse.

In 1991, the first wave of props arrived, and with it came the A.W.O.L. Airwaves track, supported by a new show scene in the far corner of the queue, a messy dispatch office. The new music loop, a peppy collection of early 1930s jazz and swing tunes is interspersed with various puns, quips, and announcements by Albert AWOL, "The Voice of the Jungle", went a long way towards establishing the just-left-of-serious tone of the adventure to follow.

A great deal of these musical selections are now in what could be called the "grey market".  Those who enjoy vintage music will be very familiar with this market segment. Music which no longer has any formal copyright holder to honor eventually will be released by any number of companies whom specialize in digitally scrubbing the recordings and releasing them on low-cost CDs of varying quality.

This means that the "source" for a lot of these tracks is impossible to conclusively pin down. WDI could have purchased any number of CDs of, say, the Coon Sanders Nighthawks to use in compiling their loop. As a result I've listed not only the title, but the year, length, and whenever possible the  serial number of the original 78 RPM shellac disc the song came from.

As is obvious from the list below, not all of the recordings can yet be traced to a specific disc release. More on this below.

Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom
Adventureland - Jungle Cruise - Queue - 1991

01 "Here Comes My Ball and Chain" - The Coon Sanders Nighthawks - 1928 - 3:20 Victor 21812B 
02 "With Plenty of Money and You" - Dick Powell - 1937 - 2:30  
03 "Jeepers Creepers" - Louis Armstrong - 1939 - 2:39 Decca 2267
04 "Yes Yes" - Ambrose with Sam Brown and the Carlyle Cousins - 1931 - 2:48 Bluebird B-6818-B 
05 "Song of India" - Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra - 1926 - 2:53 Victor 18777-B 
06 "Its the Girl" - Boswell Sisters - 1931 - 3:10 Brunswick 6151 
07 "Rhythm King" - The Coon Sanders Orchestra - 1928 - 3:17 Victor 21891-B 
08 "Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You" - Ida Sue McCune - 1981 - 2:36 
09 "Harlem River Quiver" - Duke Ellington - 1927 - 2:46 Victor 21284-A 
10 "What A Girl, What A Night" - The Coon Sanders Nighthawks - 1928 - 2:59 Victor 21803-B
11 "Diga Diga Doo" - Duke Ellington - 1928 - 3:18 Okeh Electric 8602 
12 "Anything Goes Selections" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra / Ramona Healy & Hauser Laurence - 1934 - 4:18 Victor 36141-A 
14 "Let's Misbehave" - Irving Aaronson - 1928 - 2:56 Victor 21260-A
15 "Painting The Clouds With Sunshine" - Jack Hylton Orchestra - 1929 - 2:55 Victor 5722-B
16 "The Mooche" - Duke Ellington - 1928 - 3:13 Victor 24486-B
17 "The King's Horses and the King's Men" - Jack Hylton Orchestra - 1930 - 2:48 Victor 5875-B

The WDI-created loop is widely available and runs 47:30. In order to create the loop, WDI had to get very creative in editing the music. Certain songs had slow sections which had to be removed, while others had their vocal sections entirely omitted. The Cole Porter song "I Get A Kick Out Of You" had an entire verse dropped to exclude a reference to cocaine. As a result, the entire AWOL loop as it appears in park, with narration and breaks in the music for announcements every few minutes, has a shorter run time than all of the selected pieces of music played together. Certain songs were compressed, others extended. It's a very elaborate effort.

Since the "final WDI edit" is widely available, here are the songs as they appeared on the original 78 disc releases, unrestored. The "WDI mix" versions of these songs often includes a bit of ambient reverb, which changes the sound of the some of the songs considerably, and made identifying the Dick Powell track particularly challenging.

Now, let's get down to discussing some sources. I believe the following two LP releases form the "core sound" of the loop which WDI expanded out with further releases. Most of the selections seem informed by the sound of these vintage music collections:

"Pennies From Heaven", Dennis Potter's BBC series, and its American remake starring Steve Martin used Depression-era songs to counterpoint the down-and-out lives of its characters. The BBC original has gone on to become something of a classic while the American release was a boondoggle, so much so that I've never seen a single copy of the LP set without its' "Loaned for Promotion Only" foil stamp.

It's the American version which provides the heart of the loop, contributing "Yes, Yes!", "It's the Girl", and "Let's Misbehave". The British 3 LP set, which was released in 1990 and is now something of a collector's item, contributes the Jack Hylton "Painting The Clouds with Sunshine".

Ida Sue McCune on "Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You" I had previously believed to be a vintage recording, but I'm now convinced it was produced especially for the 1981 American film. It's one of only two tracks on the LP set that were not licensed from another studio, and both it and "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" were arranged by Billy May, who we know for sure worked on the film. Ida Sue McCune's IMDb page lists her in the chorus for a number of TV shows in the 70s and 80s, so she was definitely active at this time. I wonder if she knows her voice is heard every day at Disney World?

Nate Grigg on Flickr
As for the rest, WDI could have worked off this 1972 LP compilation to get the three Coon Sanders Nighthawks tracks and this 1969 LP compilation for the early Duke Ellington tracks. "The King's Horses and the King's Men" seems totally obscure outside of this loop.

"With Plenty of Money and You", from Gold Diggers of 1937, could have come from any number of Dick Powell compilations released since the 1960s. The DAHR lists a release as Decca 1067, as does the Library of Congress, but I can't find any evidence that anybody actually owns one of these discs as a 78.

What's interesting to consider is that this loop and the associated propping and detail constitutes, as far as I know, the very first claim that the Jungle Cruise is set in a specific time period. Certainly the design of the boats and costumes are sufficiently vague as to be timeless; khaki looks pretty much the same no matter when you are. Certainly there's no reason why it couldn't be contemporary except for possibly the red fezes worn by the safari company trapped up a pole and a general attitude of cheerful superiority. And although the flipped vehicle at the safari camp site is a fantasy model produced by WED for the scene, the first Jeeps were not manufactured until 1941.

Is Adventureland, in general, supposed to be vintage or contemporary (meaning 1971 contemporary)? The Jungle Cruise itself was always of a vague era and skippers have been inserting contemporary pop references into their spiel since the earliest days. And then there's the fact that Clyde and Claude toucan across the street in the Sunshine Pavilion express knowledge of the Jungle Cruise, and their friends inside the show provide impersonations of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Maurice Chevalier. And, yes, you could split hairs and claim that all three of those men were performing in the 1930s, but come on, they are digs at the circa-1963 personas of these performers.

Regardless, Jungle Cruise was clearly always a borderline case, and although the ride hasn't changed much, cultural attitudes have, so setting it "back" into an era of primitive adventures like King Kong makes scenes like black guys throwing spears at a boat slightly more palatable.

In 1993 and 1994, Disneyland also got the vintage treatment, plus a new boathouse and a specific date: June 1938, chosen to support the story of the nearby and complimentary Indiana Jones Adventure. Appropriate for the rougher and rambling queue and greater familiarity of the local audience with the tone of the ride, Disneyland's radio loop is much more contemplative and occasionally mysterious, with a stronger emphasis on swing instead of jazz.

Together, the two radio loops are two of the best placesetting pieces of music in any Disney park. And while the slow, leisurely Disneyland version is a masterpiece, it's the raucous Albert AWOL loop that I heard for years working the Jungle Cruise and it makes my heart sing. But then again, I'm sure some Disneyland skippers would disagree with me.

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.
Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.