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