Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Three

 "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.

February 8 1968 - Blackbeard's Ghost

"I, Captain Teach, affectionately known as Blackbeard, was not... all bad."

I've been singing the praises of director Robert Stevenson time and again these past few weeks, and I'm afraid we're in for more of the same now.  While The Happiest Millionaire was playing out its troubled run around the country in a perplexing variety of forms with a high ticket price, first-run promotion strategy (one pointedly not undertaken for Mary Poppins), Disney released a film much more worthy of Walt Disney's legacy: Blackbeard's Ghost. It is another one of Stevenson's  memorably atmospheric creations for Disney.

This is the first live action Disney film we've seen here which I can honestly, conscientiously, and with no qualifications or excuses recommend to anyone. It's an exciting, fast paced comedy adventure with imagination. Amazingly enough, in the first four minutes there's a real laugh - not a strained, cute, sort-of-amusing gag the likes of which you'll find in other Disney films but a genuine funny thing occurs, and this chemistry keeps occurring throughout this film.

Blackbeard is held together almost entirely by  Peter Ustinov. At once a wildly imaginative and appealingly casual creation, Ustinov's Blackbeard is probably the saddest sack of a pirate to ever appear in a film. Lazy, drunk, and petty, Blackbeard steals everything impulsively and unglamourously as possible. His immediate response to any problem is to gamble or cheat. Although this is definitely a cutesier, more childlike interpretation of piracy than that found in Disney's recent Pirates of the Caribbean films, to me Ustinov here is more on the mark with his portrayal of Blackbeard as an amoral stooge than the more embroidered and romantic versions created by Johnny Depp or Geoffrey Rush. His moral lapses have real - if absurd - consequences.

His straight man here is Dean Jones who, with a good director and a decent script, suddenly shows  promise as a sort of kiddie James Stewart. In this case he's stuck training a hilariously hopeless track team, assisted by Blackbeard who pulls some truly mean tricks to ensure the team will win. Jones spend the entire film fuming as Blackbeard doggedly follows him around, leading to the usual assortment of jokes where Jones is accused of being either crazy and/or drunk. Since he's the only one who can see Blackbeard, he even shouts Ustinov down, nearly losing the big game for his track team by refusing to cheat in a sequence seems to be an attempt to recreate the spirit of the famous football match in Son of Flubber. Throughout the film, Blackbeard causes inversions of characters' moral values: Jones accepts Blackbeard's trickery if it wins the game for his clueless team, and his girlfriend Suzanne Pleshette unexpectedly develops a mania for gambling at the worst possible moment.

The macguffin that drives this plot is a land grab by local villain Silky Seymour, but the real star here is a spooky, moonlit, fog-shrouded coastal atmosphere and the stunning, imaginative Inn at stake on the land built by Blackbeard out of pieces of ships. Some sort of predecessor to the Columbia Harbour House, the film gets by for two full reels on spooky atmosphere alone until Ustinov shows up. An atmospheric beach scene ends the film on a high note as Blackbeard rows off into the mist and rejoins his ship and crew glimpsed as silhouettes in a fog bank, an idea which may have influenced the ending of The Goonies. Blackbeard's Ghost may count objectively as only mediocre entertainment, but unlike so many other live action Disney films of its era it is remembered fondly for good reason.

It's here, I feel, where we can assess what a good director on the Disney lot could do within the constraints of the Disney story department system. Make no mistake - in the Walt era on films like Mary Poppins or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea every casting choice and visual detail was devised with input from Walt. Mary Poppins was begun with songs and paintings, then storyboarded in its entirety, then a script was written to  bridge the sequences in a pre determined order, and then all of that was given to the director and actors to execute on set.

Mary Poppins storyboards

Compare the sense of tone and pace conveyed in even a mediocre Stevenson film like Gnome-Mobile to the total washed-out drudgery of Happiest Millionaire. On Millionaire, Norman Tokar painted by numbers in exactly the way described in the storyboards and ended up with a paint by numbers movie. Blackbeard is a less controlled film than Millionaire - probably only the effects sequences were heavily boarded - but the whole film moves and flows and maintains a consistent tone and energy. Actors and technicians can't spin dross into gold just on their own - there needs to be a mediating creative force that holds the whole thing together inside the constraints. That's the sort of thing an engaged director can bring, pushing quality films along even in an era after Walt Disney.

March 21, 1968 - The One and Only, Genuine, Original, Family Band

"It just didn't seem like the type of song that would appreciate a Republican convention."

Well, here it is, and there's no reason to be shy about it. This is it. This is the first Disney movie I've ever seen that angered - not bored, but angered me enough to strongly consider throwing the DVD out a window and then running it over with a car.

Talking to older Disney fans, or my parents, I was well aware that there was an era when liking Disney was just about the most socially inadvisable thing possible. I knew, intellectually, that there was an era when Disney was run entirely by middlebrow white men in mediocre suits who decided to build Space Mountain between liquid lunches at the Glendale country club and hob-nobbing with guys in Richard Nixon's inner circle. Or, to put it another way, that Disney was in that day - intellectually, aesthetically, and politically - the squarest of the squares.

I knew all this conceptually, and then I collided into Family Band. In 1968, despite better than average production values and a run in prestigious theaters around the country, this film deservedly burned and sunk at the box office. Released on the eve of when American politics were about to get truly ugly, this film shows Disney with their eyes shut, ears plugged - squatting on the dynamite keg. It's an appalling sight.

Why? Why drag politics into this seemingly perfectly nice family musical, those who have not seen this film may ask? Well, because that's exactly what Disney did. They started it. And if that's what this film is about, then there is no reason to jump around it sheepishly. Family Band must qualify as one of the most misguided, boneheaded allegories I've ever seen.

This is one of those movies that doesn't go remotely the way you want it to. After a very unusual cold opening, we find our Family Band cavorting about a barn to the tune of yet another song by the overworked Shermans. For about thirty minutes this appears to be a very different movie than what it is, ie, a fun, lighthearted musical. Excitingly enough, they are headed to the 1888 Democratic National Convention to perform a campaign song written by grandfather Walter Brennan for Grover Cleveland, despite the Republican convictions of their father, played by Buddy Ebsen. To top that off, daughter Alice (Lesley Ann Warren, again) has just met suitor Joe (John Davidson, again). This is conveyed in no less than four Sherman songs in under twenty minutes, the principal campaign song "Let's Put It Over With Grover" feeling like the better part of the run time of Happiest Millionaire alone.

Okay, now pause. Can you guess where this film is going? Perhaps there will be a wacky train ride to the convention. The Bower children will march up and down the aisles and Warren and Davidson will have a duet on the caboose. At the Convention, things will heat up. There will be a complication in the staging of the song, but the family will triumph and somebody will knock Grover Cleveland into the punch bowl. Just a fun, simple family comedy in an intriguing historical setting.

Well you're wrong.

Instead, newly arrived Joe Carder convinces the family to move with him to - Dakota? And once in Dakota, the family will - zanily be swept up in the politics of the 1888 presidential election and become politically and emotionally divided? By the 45 minute mark they're whimsically causing a political riot by playing "Let's Put It Over For Grover" in staunchly Republican, pro-Benjamin Harrison Dakota and you will be searching for your belly button to confirm that you have not accidentally branched off into an alternate reality.

I mean, with a date like 1888, there's no way this could possibly be a topical commentary on the election of 1968, could it?? Well, it is.

Before too long, there's dramatic confrontations. Brennan is dispatched to close a schoolhouse, and ends up teaching all the schoolchildren that they have the right to stand up for their beliefs - just like the hippie kids of today! This causes the townsfolk to publicly and humiliatingly harangue Lesley Ann Warren for allowing her grandfather to "poison their minds". How could this possibly be resolved? Perhaps Dean Jones will appear with four monkeys dressed as ghosts who will drop some hay on the assembly? Nope, another ill-conceived dramatic speech. Fun!

It's hard to fully convey the insulting banality of this film. While the anti-Americanism sentiment in Monkeys, Go Home! at least stays in the background and is treated casually enough by the film to come across as a tasteless joke of no great consequence, in Family Band the political struggle between Dakotans is the point of the whole darn thing. Every scene in the second half of the film is directly caused by splintering politics. It's like drunkenly flipping between Turner Classic Movies and CNN at four in the morning and reassembling the result into a composite film in your head.

The political struggle is that Dakotans want Statehood, but they want to be admitted into the Union as two states, allowing them to send twice as many Republicans to Congress. Of course, we all know that Dakota is indeed two states, and if there's any fact generally known about Benjamin Harrison at all, it's that he narrowly won the presidency against Cleveland. This makes the entire enterprise feel weirdly futile - why invest in the political persuasions of anyone when we know they're barreling towards an inevitable outcome? And who wants to invest in a family only to see their ugliest moments? Who wants to pay to see a family musical comedy that's short of warmth and humor and long on moralizing and discomfort?

The Shermans only manage one truly great song here, and it's "Dakota" - which is, truthfully, probably amongst the best of their obscurities. But if "Let's Put It Over With Grover" amuses with it's pure audacity than with real quality, then the late-film musical theme "Benjamin Harrison Is Far Beyond Comparison" makes Grover look like an inspired masterpiece. I wish I were making this up. Practically all of the other musical numbers aren't even as good as the less inspired ones in Millionaire. This is a problem for a "comedy" short on actual humor in its back half.

The basic problem with Family Band is that it offers nothing to anyone who doesn't want to deal with the political side, but insults anyone (of any political persuasion) who does bother to invest in it by offering a non-resolution. Cleveland, not Harrison, extends statehood to the Dakotas - as two states. Just when the Republicans exult in victory, news comes down that Cleveland has also ratified two more states - who vote Democratic. After over an hour of unpleasantness, what does the film say to codify this into a moral?

"That's politics!"

Now back up a moment. Let's pull out of 1888 and look at 1968, the actual political era this film in intended to be received as a parody of for a moment. Yes, complex political issues are dividing families and friends into opposing camps. But unlike in 1888, a relatively peaceful era in American politics, in 1968 riots and demonstrations are taking place in every major American city. In less than a month, Dr. King will be murdered. Three months later, Robert Kennedy will be murdered as well. Lyndon B. Johnson has painted his party into a corner where they cannot oppose the war in Vietnam or appear to be backing down on party policy, and the nation in general is moving towards electing Richard Nixon as president and shattering the "solid South" forever. Nixon would leave his office under a cloud of disgrace, but not after extending the Vietnam war to secure re-election. This is not "just politics", this is a pivotal year in American political history. People are dying.

In the end, Disney's "ya win some, ya lose some!" resolution is far more offensive in retrospect. But worse than that: why is this film even about politics at all? It's entirely unjustifiable, and after putting its audience through the emotional wringer has nothing to say, to boot. The Dakotans are given a feel-good reconciliation that would never come to 60s America. The social upheaval forever shattered the post-war fantasy of national consensus.

Back in our film, Walter Brennan looks even more bored here than he did in Gnome-Mobile but, professional to the end, is always engaging when the camera is rolling. Leslie Warren is given more fun things to do than in Happiest Millionaire but has less overall screen time. She's pared with John Davidson and he's much better this time around, giving his boyfriend some real charm and shading. Stuck playing leader to a pack of moppets who appear to have been cast according to height, Kurt Russell shows real acting chops despite being given nothing to do, and all but vanishes in the second half of the film.

Technically the film is both better and worse than Happiest Millionaire. TV director Michael O'Herlihy manages consistently good angles and cinematographer Frank Phillips actually knows what to do with a light, giving each scene the visual variety and pleasure so badly missing from Millionaire. Just like Millionaire, every song is looped, but unlike Millionaire everything is badly out of sync. There's sections where the family band stops playing their instruments while the soundtrack plays on. Thankfully, the film is fairly tightly paced - no sloppy half-done editing here. It's a handsome film, it's just lousy.

1968 may have been a good year for vague political manifestos. Later in 1968, long after Family Band had been fully forgotten, John Lennon would be roundly pillaged in the Liberal press for writing the song "Revolution", which cattily suggests that social upheaval isn't all it's cracked up to be.That's politics!

As for The One and Only, Genuine, Original, Family Band? You tell me it's the institution - well, you know, you'd be better to free your mind instead.

June 26, 1968 - Never A Dull Moment

"I've fallen over a hot dog!"

Titles like these are catnip for snarky critics, so, no, I'm not going to go for it. Besides, Never A Dull Moment doesn't deserve it - it isn't half bad. It has at least two things going for it - Dick Van Dyke and Edward G. Robinson. That said, it's not half good, either.

Robinson was one of the most gifted screen performers of the early sound era. His Rico in Little Caesar was a groundbreaking achievement in screen acting, a detestable little creep who rises from nothing to be one of the top mafia bosses in Chicago only to die squawking in a ditch with a stomach full of machine gun lead. It wouldn't be until James Cagney in The Public Enemy and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein that the early sound motion picture would result in performances more dynamic, and Robinson was made into a star overnight.

What isn't talked about much is that Robinson hit the same wall that Cagney would in a year's time and Humphrey Bogart would much later - the performances that made them famous were the sort of performances that top box office attractions didn't give. Movie stars did not play pitiless sociopaths. It would not be until the post-War period when, led by Bogart's brilliant performance of Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that Cagney and Robinson would once again play outright villains. Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat and Robinson as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo are truly frightening monsters.

In between came a lot of "tough guy makes right" and "gangster with a heart of gold" roles for Robinson and Cagney, and it is in this period that Edward G. Robinson proved himself as a surprising, if gifted, comic performer. Never A Dull Moment is, in spirit at least, the last of these films.

Throughout the 1930s Warner Brothers kept Robinson in sight in a series of tough guy roles and straight up gangland faces, starting in 1932 with The Little Giant (get it?) and proceeding through Larceny, Inc in 1942. The best of these is probably A Slight Case of Murder in 1936, and in places Never A Dull Moment seems to revive the spirit of these vintage comedies, including the fact that they aren't very good.

Dick Van Dyke is an actor who is mistaken for an assassin and brought to the house of Prohibition-era gangster Joe Smooth, introduced in the midst of an art lesson. Longtime film fans will immediately think of Robinson in Scarlet Street as the tragic artist who becomes the fall guy of his own conscience. Robinson always had an air about him that allowed him to play kindly doctors (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse) and heroic lawmen (The Stranger) as easily as he slipped into the role of a mafioso.

In the first third of the film, Robinson takes over the film and absolutely steamrolls over Van Dyke as Joe Smooth plans to heist a gigantic painting, "Field of Sunflowers", from the Manhattan Museum of Art then return it to the museum upon his death. His pack of hoodlums includes Slim Pickens, wasted in his role but still very funny, and Jack Elam appears briefly as the real hired killer.

Van Dyke isn't given much to do here, and when the film's balance shifts back to him the movie finally begins to drag. He shifts between an amusing tough guy act and a drunk performance for one long sequence, but the best jokes remain conceptual or visual: required to dispatch two museum guards, Van Dyke merely touches each guard and they pass out immediately. The final slapstick sequence finds Van Dyke hiding amongst a pop art exhibit in the museum, making this the only Disney film in history where a huge hot dog plays into the denouement.

Shooting mostly on a recycled Happiest Millionaire set, director Jerry Paris, who directed and acted in Van Dyke's television show, manages some nice shots and uses some interesting colors, but he's no Frank Tashlin for sure. During one long chase we mostly spend time admiring how the Millionaire set looks when somebody's actually trying to light it dramatically. Appropriate for being a gentle send up of the crime genre, the film has some nice atmosphere, especially in the opening reel as Van Dyke slips down New York streets provided by some gorgeous matte paintings.

Still, pretty much the main reason to see the film remains Eddie G, who carries all the best laughs. Just as in A Slight Case of Murder, he labors over his hoodlums, no more able to pronounce "hors d'oeuvre" than they are ("or-doo-ver"). He slaps a lackey repeatedly, drawing blood, then snaps: "Stop that bleeding, will ya? It's stupid." At the end of the film, we're sad to see him arrested. Dick Van Dyke's character runs off the Hollywood to star in the very film we've been watching!


Innervated by a recent Disney Cruise vacation and having just finished J. B. Kaufman's excellent book The Fairest One of All, following Never A Dull Moment I was feeling rather down on Disney and this project in general and found myself poking through not only my DVDs of Snow White but also Pinocchio and Fantasia - Walt's "Holy Trinity", if such a thing is open to election.

It's sometimes hard to put all of the pieces of this company together. There are definite phases where everything seems to be "of a piece", as they say - there's a clear line of progression from the New York World's Fair projects and Mary Poppins on to New Orleans Square, Pirates and Haunted Mansion and then onto Magic Kingdom. Slot the products into the right order, and an aesthetic narrative emerges.

But then we come across stuff like Cinderella, a bare bones basic fairy tale produced at the tail end of a period of imaginative experimentation throughout the 1940s. Compared to something crazy like Three Caballeros, to me Cinderella is manifestly a step down in ambition. But those first three animated features, the Trinity, are even tougher to pull into any narrative. They exist out on their own, remote and unapproachable.

How do we get from the ruthless economy and textural complexity, the emotional fever pitch of Snow White to the vaguely amusing humdrum of Never A Dull Moment? What weird alchemy allows us to place Happiest Millionaire and Family Band in remotely the same aesthetic universe as the nearly perfect Mary Poppins? Is film art really all that open to chance?

In the 1950s as Walt diversified his interests into live action, television, and theme parks, the company finally had something it had never before enjoyed: stability. But Walt was always willing to hedge it all. Having created the most beloved film on the face of the planet in 1938, he spent all those earnings and more on Pinocchio and Fantasia. Yet as the empire expanded, Walt suddenly had a luxury that was not afforded him in those heady days between 1934 and 1941: he could put out a mediocre product. Not everything needed to be an A-list effort.

The films we're looking at in this series often seem to be the creative leftovers of a remarkable legacy. Even today it's remarkable how challenging and rewarding something like Fantasia is - it's still way out on the conceptual horizon of animation, sitting snugly alongside artists like Stan Brakhage and Walther Ruttmann. Were Walt's attentions too divided in his final years? Or was he planning yet another bold new direction that would only make sense in retrospect - his EPCOT city perhaps? Had he lived only ten years longer, I suspect only then would posterity know for sure.

That's politics!

No, that's leadership.

For next week: The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Love Bug, and Rascal