Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Five

"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.

Week Five of the "Age of Not Believing" is now upon us, so it's time to collect some thoughts before the midterm break.

I began thinking about the idea for this series after seeing The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band for the first time. It was included in a set of 4 DVDs with two Disney movies I genuinely wanted - Darby O'Gill and Happiest Millionaire - and if readers thought I was rough on that film in my review here they should've been there upon my first screening. But something happened in those two hours that had never before happened to me in a Disney film: I was mad.

I had been bored before, I had been disappointed before, but I'd never seen a Disney film that made me actually mad. Mad enough to write.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that there was a whole swath of Disney that I had next to no contact with. My childhood had a Disney bias - I caught a lot of vintage material on the Disney Channel in the 1990s, back when they actually showed the back cataloge, and I was especially impressed with Darby O'Gill and Blackbeard's Ghost, but unlike the many Disney 50s live action comedies I rented or watched I realized that I had no experience with the 60s material and, as such, no nostalgia. I was coming to the bulk of these films totally fresh and, realizing this, I also realized I could leverage this fact against my otherwise fairly decently developed film knowledge to maybe create some interesting writing.

What I mean to say about all this is that I don't come to these films necessarily to praise them. There's a lot of writing about, say, Charlie the Lonesome Cougar online that's more about the age the author was when she or he first saw it and very little about what's on screen. Nor am I out to grind an axe or prove some larger cultural thesis, which is the other dominant mode of a lot of serious Disney writing, and a critique is not always an attack.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Disney films are built on nostalgia, and once we see them, then they become nostalgic memories of our own. This is why Main Street, USA still works - there's nobody left to actually be first-hand nostalgic for what it depicts, but it is designed to evoke nostalgia and then becomes nostalgic, so the emotional affect works in two directions simultaneously. We respond to an idea then the idea becomes an ideal, a self-actualization. Everyone who enters Disneyland is doomed to be nostalgic for Main Street.

This is why Disney markets the diverse material we're covering here under banners like "Movies We Remember" or "Relive the Magic". It's not so much about the film as it is about the viewer. Are the Disney films of the era we're looking at in this series, except for maybe a few exceptions, museum pieces or heirlooms? Would a ten year old of today respond to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes? Would they even recognize the titular computer?

December 24 1969 - The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

If there's such a thing as a unified Disney Theory, than Medfield College is the nexus of everything. Yes, it is also the setting for The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, but then don't forget that The Shaggy D.A. is set in the town of Medfield, and thereby probably The Shaggy Dog is too. Then there's the Merlin Jones series, set in the possible alternate-universe Medfield of Midvale College. And then there's the Merrivale College of The World's Greatest Athlete. Then don't forget the Medfield College of the 1997 remake Flubber, which itself also draws in the Imagination Institute chronology at Epcot, by which time the town of Medfield has effectively annexed the entire Honey, I Shrunk the Audience franchise as well as Dreamfinder, Figment, and a former Python.

There's a lot of stuff in there, and my my mind the original Walt Disney "Professor Brainnerd" films are nothing to sneeze at, but the Dexter Riley trilogy - The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him Now You Don't, and The Strongest Man in the World are most fondly remembered. For better or worse, they truly capture an era.

By 1969, the times they weren't changing, they had changed - and left Disney in the dust. The top three grossing movies of 1969 were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, and Disney wasn't even in the top 25 box office draws anymore. American Film was in the midst of what some call the "second golden age", an era when intellectual and artistic potboilers like The Godfather and Chinatown were becoming the big hits. Disney couldn't do anything remotely approaching that - they made movies about talking mice. Still, some tentative efforts were being made to meet their audience halfway, as seen in The Love Bug. Despite its ga-roovy title and hippie extras, there isn't too much about Love Bug that screams "late 60s" - this despite being set in San Fransisco, whose Haight-Ashbury district was then sitting under a permanent cloud of pot smoke. At least, I don't think that's a pot cloud Dean Jones runs into after Herbie.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes does that one better by bringing a pack of likable kids into the center of the film. Introduced eavesdropping on the absurd contingent of old fuddies who run their constantly broke private college, instead of the fatherly Fred MacMurray of the Walt-era Medfield films having all the fun, Tennis Shoes is powered by this group of teens.

Okay, so they're not exactly 60s-style rebels. About the only political persuasion these kids seem to express is that Dean Higgins is a rube and they make some mildly topical jokes. A telephone is answered as if a boarding house is a pizza service - that joke was cutting edge in 1935. Still, to Disney's credit, the kids drive the whole narrative and even once mention Playboy.

When it comes to plot contrivances, Tennis Shoes exists firmly in the "lightning can do anything" genre, although the nearest cousin to its basic plot as far as I can tell from Disney is the Baby Weems segment of The Reluctant Dragon: average schlub gets an amazing ability, turns the world upside down, then loses it at an inopportune moment. In this case Dexter Riley gets electrocuted by a giant 60's mainframe computer after being out in the rain and somehow transfers the computer into his brain.

As visually creative as Disney is, the way they show the school's realization of this is weird and lazy. Doctors examine his eye as see a montage of the computer's blinking lights; when they look into his ear they see, well:

I'm pretty sure young boys in 1969 or now don't have fantasies about women riding around in bathtubs on wheels but who am I to judge.

Once he becomes The Computer, Kurt Russell packs Dexter Riley with lots of interesting performance touches, from eerily precise head movements to the strangely credible way Riley is shown memorizing entire encyclopedia. In the third act after getting dropped on his head, the computer part of his brain starts malfunctioning, and Russell here delivers an extended, scenery chewing performance modeled on HAL-9000's death rattle in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He's convincing enough that we wonder how the computer's memory death doesn't adversely affect Riley physically.

Cesar Romero's villain A.J. Arno isn't given much to do. If the Dexter Riley subplot is recycled from Baby Weems then A.J. is nothing but Silky from Blackbeard's Ghost given yet another spin around the block. Just about the most menacing activity Disney can come up with for a small town empire of crime is running illegal back-room gambling dens; were these super common in the late 1960s or something? Arno is nearly undone when The Computer starts listing the earnings of his gambling dens on television after being prompted by the password...

...APPLEJACK! Sorry, I had to. Arno and his cheap thugs get their comeuppance in a bale of hay and then later by driving onto a poorly disguised Disney Studio lot from Buena Vista Drive and being stopped in front of the sound stages. This is mostly interesting for providing views of the vacant lot of land which would one day house the Burbank St. Joseph Medical Center.

In my notes I wrote down that Tennis Shoes "feels like a TV episode", and that's because that was the medium of director Robert Butler. He keeps Tennis Shoes humming along at a good pace - nearly every scene has a "flip" optical transition familiar from 60s television comedies and they keep the film feeling lively, similar to George Lucas' use of the wipe to keep Star Wars moving at a quick pace. The film begins in media res and ends there, too.

Personally I'm relieved that these Disney movies are starting to move faster. There's really no justification of something like Monkeys, Go Home! to fill up more than 90 minutes of your life. Actually, there was, and it was that all of these movies were destined to be recycled on The Wonderful World of Disney in a year or two, and the longer they were, the more they could be broken up into chunks for television airings. I wonder if the gradual increase in the length of televised commercial breaks accounts for the overall shortening of the Disney movies.

And with that, folks, Disney exited the tumultuous sixties and went blazing into the 1970s with that renowned classic leading the pack...

February 11, 1970 - King of the Grizzlies

"It was time for an introduction to the wonderful world of solid food."

What was the deal with Winston Hibler?

Here's a guy who came up in the story department at Disney and is credited with work on some genuine classics but is mostly remembered for those nature movies where a genial narrator blathers over footage of romping animals. He made a seemingly bottomless well of these for Disney, most of which sound like the sort of thing that you'd honestly think I made up if they weren't corroborated by online documentation. A quick search on IMDB brings up such titles as:

Little Dog Lost
Chico, the Misunderstood Coyote
Lefty, the Dingaling Lynx (srsly)

The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon
Ida, the Offbeat Eagle (stop)
Sammy, the Way-Out Seal
The Pidgeon That Worked a Miracle

And oh yeah, King of the Grizzlies. This one is bad. This is the sort of thing you'd be punished with in middle school if your teacher was out sick a whole week. Watching it I began to feel like I was in middle school. All that was missing was the whir of a 16mm projector.

King of the Grizzlies defines "television filler". The unengaging saga of a baby grizzly bear who grows up to be King of the Grizzlies (who knew that post was open to election?) and the mystic connection he has with a native American working as a cattle rancher, I had had enough of this one after about ten minutes but stuck around for the full 85 out of loyalty to this series.

To be fair, this film was made by two units: an animal unit and an actor unit. The actor unit is fine, occasionally managing some evocative shots and interesting scenes. The actors here are much better than in Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar, although they're working from a script that could've been written on a post-it note. You don't even have to watch the movie half the time; Hibler's droning narration spells out every plot point for you. Wahb the bear isn't nearly as fun as Good-Time Charlie anyway.

While waiting for this film's run time to expire we are treated to such riveting sequences as the "Wahb uses a tree as a toboggan" scene ("That trip made Wahb feel a little wobbly", Hibler helpfully intones on the soundtrack), and of course the seminal "Burying Shorty" scene. Twenty minutes into the movie Wahb's entire family is killed by a rancher and we are so bored we hardly even register alarm.

Grizzlies is full of weird editing to make the basic illusion work; bears are evidently less trainable than cougars. But in reality the basic problem is that the concept and style of Charlie worked to dramatically push the film along but King of the Grizzlies doesn't. Charlie was just a big cat, not a mystical king of the wilderness. The main human actor was some random schlub instead of a human protector. The disarming effect of the documentary style of Charlie hinged on the fact that Charlie could turn into a real danger at any moment as he got older, Wahb is a total fantasy creation embodied by an inarticulate animal. King of the Grizzlies needed to be something like an animated movie to work. As a live-action Hibler Special, it's dead on arrival.

July 1, 1970 - The Boatniks

"This chicken is indestructible."

There isn't much that can be said about Ron Miller that has not been said before. Publicly humiliated and forced out of the Walt Disney Company in 1984 in what basically amounted to a family feud inside a corporate takeover, Miller is today a controversial figure - a close associate of Walt's associated with a string of visible failures but also with Diane Disney Miller and the Walt Disney Family Museum. Many of the projects Miller began during his brief presidency of Disney became Michael Eisner's earliest successes. But just looking at his filmography, it doesn't seem like Miller every really wanted to work for Disney.

Of the three producers for Disney we've been examining in depth here since 1967, Bill Walsh was the most accomplished, Winston Hibler was the most conservative, and Ron Miller was all over the place. Miller was most willing to mash up things with Disney that most people would try to keep separate, producing such out-of-the-box movies as Freaky Friday, Candleshoe, and Escape to Witch Mountain. As his career progressed Miller got bolder and bolder in his choices, eventually leading to a series of "dark" adventure-dramas that remain something of a black eye on the company: Watcher in the Woods, TRON, The Devil and Max Devlin, and finally the one that cost him his job: Something Wicked This Way Comes. He didn't even last long enough to suffer the repercussions of The Black Cauldron.

Miller produced The Boatniks and I think it's supposed to be a kind of Disney version of the kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of comedy popularized by Blake Edwards in the 1960s, something like a family-friendlier version of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or Casino Royale or The Party. Of course, to have a comedy like that you have to be willing to break some rules and offend some sensibilities, which makes the idea of a Disney version even more absurd - but really, is it any more absurd than a Disney film that's also a horror movie? Boatniks may not be funny, per se, but it does do something nearly no other Disney film of its era is willing to do: try anything for a laugh.

Ostensibly about the tribulations of a tedious Coast Guard Ensign Robert Morse - a very long way from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying - the center of the whole film is yet another pack of Disneyized criminals on the run. In this case instead of Silky's gamblers, Joe Smooth's reformed mobsters or A.J. Arno's..... gamblers, we have jewel thieves whose grand plans to conceal their jewels inside food inside a picnic basket and yacht to Mexico goes non-dramatically pear shaped.

Boatniks has a huge array of gags in it, and about one in sixteen actually works. If you sat in your living room with a tape recorder and tried to cue the "sad trombone" music every time a joke misfired, the tape recorder would probably explode around minute 45. I nearly gave myself a neck cramp from shaking my head for 100 minutes.

To be fair, some jokes do land, and they're actually funny. But the entire film is such a soul-deadening chore to watch that it isn't worth the few clever laughs and weird moments. The film goes nowhere - it's a succession of random blackout sketches of varying length. Imagine Monty Python and the Holy Grail except almost nothing is funny. And nothing is played for even minor irony. Typical of this film's jokes is a sequence where the jewel thieves, having lost the picnic basket of jewels at the bottom of the sea, think to call in a favor from a Japanese friend to get an authentic pearl diver. The Diver arrives in Los Angeles - a geisha straight out of a sixteenth-century wood print. Those backwards Japanese! Of course then she strips down to a bikini as Morse salivates on the other end of a pair of binoculars. Later, she puts the hoodlums in their place - it's revealed she learned perfect English by watching TV last night. Joke? Joke??

If that wasn't racist enough the film then goes on to top that by having Phil Silvers put in a call to Trans-Mexican Airlines, which is run by two sleepy stereotypes sitting in a desolate shack with a sign reading "Sancho Panza Airport" on the roof. When their aqua-plane is rented, the pilot chases his giant family of Mexican children out of the plane - which they've been using as a house.

All of this comes to a climax with what may be the most boring chase scene ever filmed, where a dramatic escape to scored the leisurely Hawaiian music and the jewel thieves make use of a yellow submarine (get it?? LIKE THE SONG) to slowly effect an even more boring escape. As they board their Mexican flight, they're offered coffee, tea, or tequila. After the jewels are thrown out of the airplane in a joke we can see coming half the film away, Silvers quips: "Maybe the movie will be good" and pulls down an in-flight movie screen the side of a small window shade.

It wasn't.

The Boatniks concludes week five of our series and next week I will be taking a break. The Age of Not Believing will continue the following week, with the new post going on on the long July 4 weekend. Blogging on the Fourth of July? That's politics!

For July 5: The Wild Country, The Aristocats, and The Barefoot Executive