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