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


K. Martinez said...

My heaviest consumption of Disney film product in the theater occurred from about 1963 to 1975. After that I stopped watching Disney films all together as they just seemed lackluster and out of touch. I started watching again in 1985 about when Eisner took over.

I'm curious to hear your take on the three films you mention here, as two of them I saw in a theater on initial release and one (Bull Whip Griffin) I saw on "The Wonderful World of Disney" tv show back in the early 70's. Perhaps I'll revisit some of these. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on them.

Unknown said...

I had just started wondering about the movies from this period myself. We recently picked up the "witch mountain" movies and were confounded by the amount of difference between them. I also watched a lot of the live-action films while on vacation in WDW in the 70s. They used to play stuff like "Shaggy DA" and "Island at the Top of the World" at the nighty campfires. Looking forward to your insights!

Rook Wilder said...

Okay, you are scaring me, but that's okay because I think this is important work you are doing. It would be neat if you could get a grant for it.I have not seen any of the films you mentioned at the bottom of the post, but I intend to follow your experiment as my curiosity is piqued and I have enjoyed your posts for some time now as insightful, educational and entertaining. Good luck on this venture; may your sanity survive it.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen most of the films from this time period, and specifically the ones you're about to watch. As always, I look forward to hearing your insight.

Nice new site header, btw.

Anonymous said...

The Disney movies from this time period -- most likely because of their less-than-classic status -- were among the first to be distributed on VHS. (No Disney Vault for these flicks!) Because of this, there was a two-year period during my childhood in which these films were pretty much all I watched. So I'm absurdly excited that you're going to be doing this, and can't wait to go along for the ride.

Cory Gross said...

I've been seeing more and more of these as I progressively work my way up to a complete collection of every film made while Walt was alive (DVD is not totally dead... it's moved to the Disney Movie Club). There is some leak into the post-Walt period, which then starts to pick up with some genuinely good films... The Love Bug, Blackbeard's Ghost, The Happiest Millionaire and so on. There's some (surprisingly?) good stuff in there...

Unknown said...

I just wanted to add that if anyone's local library subscribes to the Hoopla movie streaming service, they can follow along at home. They added a ton of odd Disney movies, I think all the ones covered in this series are there.