Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Four

"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.

Thought for the week:
"Movies are terribly easy to make. It's much harder to put on a play. Oh yes.

What's hard to do is to make a very good movie. Even a good movie is easier to make, because if you have a good camera man, if you have the cast that happens to be right, if you have a story that happens to be vaguely interesting - that is the art form that works in our day and age.

It would be very hard to write a great play in blank verse today, but I think it was pretty easy in Elizabethian days to write a good verse play. Not a great one, but a good one. It's damn near impossible now because it has nothing to do with our culture. But somehow, a good movie gets itself made even by a lot of second rate people."
 - Orson Welles, 1974

December 20, 1968 - The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit

As America exited the war years of the 1940s and began to navigate the rocky terrain of the 1950s, a new and creeping social unease began to spread. Many men returning from combat found it difficult or impossible to re-acclimate to civilian life, and even worse: while they were gone, everything changed. Women had entered the workforce and were hesitant to return to submissive roles as housekeepers. Russia's threat began to loom large, and the massive strides in mechanization and industrialization which had made the manufacture of war machines possible had created a new kind of job where conformity was key: the corporate office.

While we look back at the 1950s as a romantic era of rock n' roll, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, on the ground it was not so pretty. Part of the price of waging war and then simply being able to carry on was conformity: everyone was expected to put on a happy face. In this environment, stories of the day to day struggles of small men in big companies became new myths. The most important of these was The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, released in 1955.

Gray Flannel Suit was such a big success that it sparked a cycle of "Flannel Suit" movies: Executive Suite, Desk Set, and The Power and the Prize followed suit. By the end of the decade the genre was well enough established to inspire outright parodies (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) and cynical deconstructions (The Apartment). Madison Avenue and advertising agencies were a popular setting in the post-war corporate boom culture, a setting lately re-invigorated by Mad Men. The trope even crops up in North by Northwest.

What does this have to do with Disney's The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit? Well... nothing. It's about an advertising man who buys a horse to get a promotion. At no point does the ad man (Dean Jones....... again) become a horse to be a horse in a gray flannel suit, nor does the horse itself ever get near a grey flannel suit except the ones Dean Jones wears. Heck, the advertising angle practically vanishes from the movie after a certain point. The horse is gray, however.

About ten minutes into this movie I paused it and jotted down some guesses about where it would be going. Dean Jones is a single dad to an under confident young girl who, it is dramatically revealed, perceives herself to be...


....and so Dean has to find some way to get her a riding horse and save his advertising career at the same time. In my estimate, I guessed that Dean Jones would come across an enchanted artifact that would turn him into the Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, allowing his daughter to go on to fame and fortune while resulting in high-larious office hijinx. In the end, the curse is lifted and everyone learns the true meaning of family.

Instead I got a rather straightforward, if pleasantly shot, equestrian show drama. Geared at young girls, the film spends long stretches focusing on the riding and training, care, and feeding of horses, courtesy of riding pro "S. J." Clemens, played by Diane Baker. S. J. becomes a surrogate Mom to young Helen Bolton and beau to her father Fred (Jones), all while the three steadily rise up the ranks of the horse shows. Young Kurt Russell is in sight as a hunky but wholesome prospective boyfriend (with a sports car!), and just about the most exciting thing that happens is that Helen's horse Aspercel (named for a stomach acid reducer) gets loose and Dean Jones ends up in jail for riding him back home in his underwear.

Pleasingly full of autumnal tones in a convincingly rendered New England setting, Horse has an abundant case of the cutes. There isn't even anything unintentionally awful - in the last third a Chinese Gardener materializes out of nowhere to provide "comedy" for about a minute. Probably the most unfortunate thing in the whole show is the Boltons' nickname for their horse Aspercel: Aspie! As you probably know, Aspie is a term used inside the community for those with Asperger syndrome. Even the entertainment value of seeing Dean Jones repeatedly shout "Aspie!" at a horse, regrettably, soon wears off.

This movie isn't half bad but I can't see too many people remembering it fondly. It goes down easy and smooth and ends before you know it. Two hours after watching it, I had to think carefully about whether or not I had seen it yet. Aspercel may as well be a sedative.

December 24, 1968 - The Love Bug

You've probably heard this one before, via
"Two of those big huge 18-wheelers were involved in a collision at very high speeds; one tail-ended the other one really really hard, so hard that the two trucks were basically fused together. The proper authorities dragged the trucks (still connected) to wherever it is they take them, I guess a junkyard, and then just left them there until someone could figure out what to do with them. After a few days, a stench started to emanate from the wreckage, and no one knew what it was. It got worse each day. When they finally pulled the two trucks apart, they found that a VW Bug, its passengers still inside, had gotten smashed between the trucks during the accident."
There's something about the Volkswagen Beetle. It's cheap - mass produced, yet distinctive. It's one of the few cars you can positively identify on profile alone. It inspires legends to be created about it. Almost everybody has a family member who is purported to have done something ill-advised in a Beetle - my family's story is that my cousin drove one over a mountain in a blizzard with only a candle on the dash board for heat to get home for Christmas. Or the story about all the people who fit into your uncle's Beetle that one time. Or the old story that they float on water.

In many ways this is the most inspired thing about The Love Bug - I mean, if any one car would come to life, it would have to be a VW Beetle. It's just taken for granted today. The vehicle already has such a patina of mythos about it that taking it one step further into actual anthropomorphisism is only natural. Who would want to see a movie about a Studebaker with a big heart?

The Love Bug is unusually well-built considering how inevitable its central conceit is. In the first reel we already have reaction shots of Herbie as he attempts to unite with driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones... again) and a gag where Herbie "pees" on the leg of the villainous Peter Thorndyke. We all saw the ads: we all know the car is alive. But the amount of time it takes Dean Jones to realize that is the interesting point. It's an entire hour before he and Herbie are reconciled on the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the meantime we have some intriguingly evocative philosophizing from Buddy Hackett as Tennessee Steinmetz, a hanger-on to Jones who spent time meditating in Tibet and gained some kind of rapport with machines. A crane game would feed him prizes that he could sell for money to survive, an idea that could figure into something like Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive were this not a Disney film. Every character in the film seems to sense Herbie's sentience without needing to explain it.

All of this is good because the film simply doesn't have too much atmosphere in its first half. This time Robert Stevenson isn't even given interesting sets or locations to place his camera in. The Love Bug must've been an especially cheap movie for Disney - the entire thing is shot in a few okay interiors on Burbank sound stages, an alley on the lot, and the rest is done entirely in front of optical screens filling in for a variety of locations. Peter Ellenshaw works overtime here to make the zany firehouse Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett live in look real. The second unit must've loved working on Love Bug - their shots are literally the entire show. The film begins with an endless montage of second unit destruction derby car crashes, perhaps to prepare us for the extravaganza to follow.

In this stretch it's all up to the actors and editors to make something out of this extended demonstration of rear-projection, and the film does alright. The script is a cut above most Disney scripts of the time. When Michelle Lee is trapped inside Herbie at a drive-in with Dean Jones, she shouts at two nearby hippies: "Help me, I'm a prisoner!". One hippie solemnly waxes poetic: "We all prisoners, chickie baby!" Dean Jones is far less expressive here than he was in Blackbeard's Ghost and Grey Flannel Suit, allowing most of the showy material to go to Buddy Hackett and David Tomlinson. Tomlinson is especially funny as the villain Thorndike, managing to be credibly funny and menacing at once, something most Disney villains can't hack. Buddy Hackett is extremely weird - at first we think he's Jones' mechanic, but later reveals he doesn't know the first thing about fixing cars!

With most of the cast making their typical funny faces and Stevenson marooned on the optical stage, I think the bulwark of the film's success can be attributed to Bill Walsh. A former Edgar Bergen staff writer, Walsh is responsible for either writing or producing (or both) the bulk of Disney's best remembered live action films, starting with The Absent-Minded Professor in 1959. Walsh's clever character dialogue and eye for clever construction and a quick tempo is all over both this and most of Stevenson's other Disney projects. Love Bug works through sheer force of will alone.

Eventually the film begins to get somewhere when Ellenshaw and Stevenson conspire to spring an atmospheric San-Fransisco-under-heavy-fog pursuit, leading to a final race sequence that takes up most of the rest of the movie. This is the material the movie was built around, and it's worth the wait. Crazy gags and stunts pile up one on top of another - unexpected Chinese guys carry Herbie like a ricksaw, the car skids across the surface of a lake, and Thorndike sabotages their tires, leading to a terrific Keaton-like escalating series of gags. Tomlinson gets the biggest laugh in the picture here by giving his stiff Thorndyke an out-of-nowhere epic wild take.

In the end, of course, Herbie wins both first and third place by splitting in two and it's a happy ending for Jones and Lee. In 1968, The Love Bug was a gigantic success for Disney - the third-highest grossing film of the year. To put this in perspective, Love Bug grossed three times the average Disney product of the 60s, behind only Mary Poppins and Jungle Book in their stable of hits. And unlike Jungle Book, it didn't require years of painstaking hand-drawn animation. Herbie was huge. Disneyland immediately began inviting car enthusiasts to parade their VWs in "Herbie Days". A bug with the number 53 on its hood became an overnight Disney icon. You still see them at car shows.

Why did Herbie click in 1968/9? What did audiences find in this film that inspired them to reward it so handsomely? I honestly am not sure. It's justifiably well remembered, but looking at it here in context it's easier to say that Love Bug isn't all that much better than the average Disney product. Instead of looking for some kind of internal answer, I elect that it was one of those moments where the right material hit the right audience at the right time. You can't pack that sort of guaranteed response into any film, no matter what today's movie producers may say.

One thing about timing intrigues me. In 1969, plans for the Magic Kingdom in Florida were firming up as foundations began to be laid. On early early blueprints and models for the park, we can see that Tomorrowland was slated to receive a copy of Disneyland's Tomorrowland Autopia - complete with the tell-tale clover leaf pattern. Then, in fits and starts, it's replaced with the Grand Prix Raceway that opened there in 1971 - patterned after a high-speed race track. I've always wondered why they bothered to re-theme the car ride at all - after all, racetracks are even less "Tomorrowlandy" than freeways, and the resulting product is far inferior to the wooded, charming Disneyland ride. Herbie may be the culprit here - the timing of the change lines up more or less perfectly with the height of The Love Bug's success. Yet it remains a mystery - there's no explicit Love Bug call-out in the attraction except for the painful Buddy Hackett section of The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World TV special. Funny to think that one of the most unfortunate things in the Magic Kingdom may be indirectly attributable to such a cute movie.
Is this the highway that Herbie killed?
March 21, 1969 - Smith! [Unavailable]

"Smith!" "Johnnyboy!" "Brewster?" "Chief?!" "McCloud!?"

Okay, here it is, the first film we're going to skip.

I vacillated on this one for a while: Smith! can be purchased through the Disney Movie Club and/or Disney Store, but it's not yet available for rental in any form and I'll be darned if I'm going to make anyone buy a 1969 Disney Western just to keep up with a blog series.

Smith!, which I've never seen, stars Glenn Ford as a rancher who defends a Native American named "Johnnyboy". And yes, while Smith! remains unseen, celebrating it briefly here is an adequate excuse to walk around your house and bellow "Smith!" at the slightest provocation.

A side note: up until 1969, Walt Disney Productions had been managing a steady release of around six pictures a year, with one film each year slated as a "tentpole" and released around Christmas. That's not bad for a small studio. In 1969, they only managed three pictures, and none of them featured Dean Jones. Of course 1969 also saw the Haunted Mansion finally open at Disneyland plus the start of real steady construction in Florida so it's not like this is Disney resting on their laurels - an obscure Western, a raccoon movie, a classic attraction and Kurt Russell in one year is the sort of year I wish I'd see Disney pull off in 2014. Still, one wonders if the slackened pace indicates that the Studio was finally using up the last little bit of left over Walt Disney concepts.

June 11, 1969 - Rascal

"I've got to de-raccoonify him!"

This one really took me by surprise.

All I really knew about Rascal is that it featured a raccoon - I thought it would be another Winston Hibler Special, a weird little comedy/documentary along the lines of Charlie or Perri. What I was not expecting was a rather sweet little period piece, but that's what I got. And maybe that surprise completely disarmed me but I was entirely captivated and charmed by Rascal from beginning to end.

I admit, I'm a nostalgic at heart so this sort of thing hits home easily for me. Set in the Midwest in 1919, Rascal is the cliche "last summer of innocence" story. This time director Norman Tokar is given a new producer - True Life Adventures producer James Algar - and his output is significantly better here than in Grey Flannel Suit. Tokar seems to have really come to life when allowed to go outdoors in his movies - the only moments where Millionaire seems to have any life is daylight exteriors. In Rascal, out of nowhere pops great period atmosphere and really effective natural light photography. As awkward teenager Bill Mumy rides his bicycle with Rascal on the front the shots are both beautiful and appealingly casual, unfussy. It's a reminder that sometimes getting great photography amounts to nothing more than showing up at the right place.

Algar seems to have contributed a healthy love of period detail. Rascal is overstuffed with design detail that wouldn't be out of place on Main Street USA. Gaslights still flicker and a major plot point is an obnoxious local automobile enthusiast. A sequence in a small town market house is on board seemingly only to include yet more period detail. Rascal rides in a little basket that brings money up to a cashier located in an isolated loft, exactly like those inside the Disneyland Emporium. If the mechanics aren't vintage, they're darn close replicas.

Rascal may be the title character and is treated to extended scenery-chewing cute animal sequences, but the story here remains tightly focused on the core characters of the film: Bill Mumby's awkward teenager Sterling and his flaky absentee father, traveling salesman Williard, played by Steve Forrest. Sterling's mother has recently died, and Dad's devil-may-care attitude towards life leaves Sterling home alone for the summer with only Rascal and his dog to keep him company. Sterling slowly builds a canoe in the living room, and when Dad returns from his periodic and long term trips the two boys totally trash the house over the course of the summer. As Rascal grows from a raccoon kit to a yearling over the course of the summer, he becomes increasingly uncontrollable.

One thing I love about this film is that all of the drama has a completely understated edge. The neighbors squawk about the unconventional nature of life in the North household and we keep expecting one or another of the local villains to show up and snatch Rascal like Toto in The Wizard of Oz; this never happens. A schoolteacher and a local priest show up to intervene; Father arrives with a new jug of top-quality cider and the adults instead spend the night getting thoroughly drunk. Even the final dramatic sequence where sister Theo convinces Father of his need to settle down and raise his son we expect shouting but get instead a quietly dignified scene. This is a very well played movie and by Disney standards this alone is a marvel.

Typical of Rascal's easygoing grace is a scene where Steve Forrest must decide on a housekeeper. He sits at an upright piano, talking over the prospects to his dead wife's photograph. As each prospective housekeeper is mentioned, Father plays a few characterizing notes on the upright: crashing chords, a hymnal, an Irish jig. It's the sort of casual integration of character and content you'd expect to find in a John Ford film; the tunes tell us more about Father than they do about the housekeepers. The most gently moving moment in the film comes when Father rejects the authoritarian Mrs. Satterfield: "She'll break your son's heart."

Moved along by a gorgeous Buddy Baker score, Rascal delivers gentle lessons and emotional understatement where we have reason to expect ponderous sentiment, and it's not a minute too long either: there's no padding in its 85 minutes. As far as accomplishments go it may be a slight one, but Rascal turned out better than anyone had any reason to expect. It's the nearest the Disney studio got to another Summer Magic.

Rascal, by the way, is based on Sterling North's Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, a Newbery Honor-winning book. The real-life house the events took place in is preserved as the Sterling North Museum, and the various fences and guards Sterling put up to keep Rascal inside the house may still be seen. In a bizarre twist of fate, the same book was adapted into a 52-episode anime by Nippon Animation as part of their "World Masterpiece Theater" ongoing television show. "Rascal the Raccoon"'s wild popularity created demand for imported raccoon pets, and is thus credited with accidentally introducing the North American raccoon into Japan.

Not a bad peripheral legacy for a Disney obscurity.

For next week: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, King of the Grizzlies, and The Boatniks.