Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Eight

"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.

The folly of attempting this series really began to sink in early. Around Week Three, it began to feel like I'd never escape awful dramas like Family Band or lousy comedies like Never a Dull Moment. By Week Five, with King of the Grizzlies and The Boatniks in immediate succession, I was ready to throw in the towel. It seems like most of the people I knew "following along at home" gave up well before then. I don't blame them. Life is too short to watch three Disney movies that you know will be mediocre a week.

It's not like Disney was incapable of surprising me. I was entirely dreading The Wild Country, which turned out to be one of the better products of its era. Generally when writing these reviews you expect to see a good one, a bad one, and an okay one. If I see two good ones and a bad one then it's way above average.

This week was way below average. Way way below. So let's make this one mercifully short and plow right on through.

March 22, 1972 - The Biscuit Eater

If there's a cinematic equivalent of a long, drawn out, groan of exhaustion, then The Biscuit Eater is it.

Some time ago on this blog I went into some detail on my "bad movie" criteria. Ever since the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space has more or less been the "official" worst movie, despite recent competition from such worthy contenders as Manos: Hands of Fate and Troll 2. Despite this, there's one thing these movies tend to have which in some way invalidates their claim of worse-ness: entertainment value, intentional or not. Plan 9 is just plain fun to watch. That doesn't make it good, but it does make it tolerable. I don't fear the lousy B movie, the cut-out birds of Birdemic, or the offensively stupid; I fear the competent, professional, bore.

The Biscuit Eater is set in what may be the 1930s, in rural Georgia, a landscape dominated by fields, nasty neighbors, folksy black folks, and a gas station that doesn't sell gas. It follows the attempts of two friends to train a cast off dog that's rather inexplicably proclaimed to be Just No Good by nearly everyone in the movie, given the dog's penchant for eating eggs. No biscuits are eaten by the dog at any time, although "biscuit eater" is frequently used as an insult, and in a climactic third-act scene, the main characters themselves do make and eat biscuits.

I can't point to a single thing wrong with this movie that makes it so depressingly mediocre. The cast is fine, it moves quickly, it's even got some okay outdoor photography, but at no point does the film ever seem to have a good reason to exist. Director Vincent McEveety, whom we previously saw at work in Million Dollar Duck, shoots everything in what the French called the plan américain or 3/4 shot. It's the sort of movie that saps you of your will to live.

Biscuit Eater is the sort of film that somebody like John Ford could've made something of in the 1930s - a total movie studio sausage, films with this little going on need some atmosphere to tie everything together, and this film has none of that. Never charming enough to rally our sympathy but not bad enough to entertain or frustrate, Biscuit Eater is 90 minutes you could've spent doing anything else with your life.

July 12, 1972 - Now You See Him, Now You Don't

Since starting this series, I suppose I've become something of an expert on Disney comedies. Not a connoisseur - I don't think you can be a connoisseur of something you don't enjoy. But I've seen enough of them now to pick out their tricks, know their beats, and find some comfort in their redundant tics. Down on their luck heroes? Yep. Absurd plot contrivance? Yes. Zany animal comedy? Sure. Borderline offensive yet remarkably dull stereotypes? Yep. Seen 'em all, multiple times a week.

So it is no small thing when I say that Now You See Him, Now You Don't is one of the Disney studio's funnier comedies. In a style where the humor "highlight" can be something like monkeys wearing wedding dresses or pictures of Richard Nixon, Now You See Him has that rarest of elements - a good script that pays off what we came to see and doesn't waste our time.

Now You See Him plays on our familiarity with the source material, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. In this case it's not so much a sequel as it is remake where some of the principal elements are retained, yet shifted, while others are totally inverted. It's like playing the same basic material upside down and backwards.

Now You See Him begins exactly the way Tennis Shoes did: an adorably scruffy group of teenagers tune in on the board meeting of their deadbeat Dean Higgins while he rants, cuts funds, and complains about money. Suddenly, something goes wrong, and Higgins suspects he's being spied on - the kids must jump into action to steal away the flower arrangement that conceals the walkie-talkie, which goes undetected because apparently Dean Higgins didn't see the first movie. Later in the film they use the same trick on A.J. Arno; apparently Cesar Romero didn't either.

This opening sequence sets us up to expect old tricks in new ways, and the film cherry-picks through Tennis Shoes to find the possibilities left open in that first film. The main plot contrivance, involving the invenion of invisibility paint, occurs at only ten minutes into the film, through a truly Goldbergian series of accidents; one suspects that even if Medfield manages to win the science award, the circumstances leading to the creation of the invisibility paint will be impossible to reproduce. But it's really just one in a succession of appealingly random callbacks, thrown in just because, well, the first movie had that too. Even A.J. Arno returns with a hilariously flimsy explanation: "Weren't you arrested?" "Oh that - that was just a mistake."

I must admit, perhaps it's pure desperation that's affecting my judgement. According to my notes, it's been since the last Dexter Riley film that a Disney comedy got a genuine laugh out of me, and that was over a month ago. Perhaps pure comedy starvation caused me to find more to enjoy in Now You See Him than is really there.

What makes these things funny, anyway? The Disney house style is pretty consistent, especially as far as these comedies go: stay pretty wide, make sure the set is lit, make sure the image is in focus, then let Kurt Russell/Dean Jones/Joe Flynn show up and do their stuff. Very often the films are shot in the same places, the same stock sets, and the same furniture pieces show up over and over again. Where variables like the director and cinematographer change, chances are very good that other variables are consistent. Eventually, the simple act of watching these things becomes a secret game between the production team and the audience: which situations will they recycle? Fans of the Roger Corman / Vincent Price "Poe" cycle of films will know the game well: where will Roger put those  twisty red candles he bought in 1959 this time? Is the rubber spider still in one piece?

Walt Disney Productions was pitched on a scale of a family operation, and very often the same few people did the same job for every Disney movie. This means that the same cooks in the same pot tended to come up with a product that was fairly homogeneous. The same editors cuts pretty much everything, the same group of old white guys approved each production. Whomever poor Evelyn Kennedy was, she did the music editing on every single Disney movie I've seen in this series so far. Can you imagine a movie studio with one technician who does the same job for every movie?

The result is that there's not even much of an aesthetic difference between an adventure-drama like Scandalous John and something transparently silly like Million Dollar Duck. They're all just Disney Movies, and Disney Movies circa 1972 are chipper, sluggish, and guileless in an amazingly consistent way.

Now You See Him sometimes feels like the victory lap of the invisibility effects devised for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The vapor-screen process was nothing new, although the Bedknobs effects are startling, they're just one component of a remarkable climax. The same special effects in Now You See Him are fascinatingly arbitrary, employed for entirely goofy if frankly more amusing ends. Robert Stevenson, Bill Walsh, and the Shermans staged a beautiful parade in Bedknobs; Now You See Him is the baggy pants clown at the tail of the parade. The invisibility effects in Now You See Him are cleverly devised enough to impress while not being good enough to actually dazzle. You spend the film watching these effects in amusement but never once saying "how did they do that??"

However the script really goes to town on the invisibility gag. While Tennis Shoes really just came up with a few excuses to have Dexter use his new human computer abilities, every other scene in Now You See Him is some sort of silly concept of a special effect. The film ends the way every Disney film has ended since The Love Bug: with a car chase, except this time it's Arno and Cookie in an invisible car.

These Disney comedies live or die on making their audience crack a smile. That doesn't make them ambitious or old fashioned or good or bad or anything but frighteningly similar. It may not be noble, but Now You See Him, Now You Don't is one of the most successful of these movies, and if you're in the mood for it, it's exactly what you want.

I wish I could say the same of many other of these.

July 19, 1972 - Napoleon & Samantha

Napoleon & Samantha offers and object lesson in what's missing from the otherwise somewhat similar The Biscuit Eater - both films are set in a vague time period which could be contemporary but seems far away from modernity. Both include (but are not "about") a bond between two children, in this case between a young boy and young girl (Samantha isn't written to be a tomboy but because she's played by Jodie Foster the character does have that edge) and an animal that bonds them. They both feature Johnny Whitaker as the boy.

Let's begin with direction. Biscuit Eater was shot in a deadening succession of medium shots. Absolutely nothing was framed in any way to suggest the feeling of a place - just actors existing in whatever vague environment wasn't blocked out by the contours of their head.

Director Bernard McEveety - father of The Biscuit Eater's  Vincent McEveety - has at least some inclination of what a tripod is for, using a variety of high and low angles, wide shots, and some effective zooms to convey the feeling of the small pacific northwest town the film is set in. The intense traditionalism and isolation  of the community becomes important in the third act, when the town turns against Michael Douglas' (yes, THAT Michael Douglas) youth character Danny.

The first third of this film is terrific. Anchored entirely by Will Geer as Whitaker's Grandpa, the two lead an idyllic life, even accumulating a lion, until Grandpa's health fails him. Geer's death bed scenes are terrific, humane and understanding without being patronizing. Whitaker's empathy with Geer allows him to play several scenes well outside his range and age as Napoleon first processes grief. Napoleon hires Danny from a line at an employment agency because Danny needs $4.50 to buy a textbook, and the adventure begins.

Sadly once Geer exits the film much of the spark leaves as well. Whitaker and Foster end up alone in the wilderness with their pet lion, Major, to help them fend off predator attacks recycled from The Incredible Journey. This film was produced by Winston Hibler and this is Hibler territory for sure, complete with a comedic appearance by stock-footage squirrels.

Once the two kids and one cat crest the mountain to Danny's farm, the film shifts once again, to become the all-Michael Douglas show. At the very least this sequence has the considerable charm of Douglas as the "hippie" kid Danny, and even Buddy Baker's score pulses with sixties rock grooves as Danny is arrested and then escapes from the Cops in a motorcycle-vs-car chase that's appealingly extended.

In the end Napoleon and Samantha rates as "just okay" as far as Disney features go. Films like this put reviewers in a fix: everybody in front of the camera is either young or inexperienced, so it's hard to justify being too hard on them, yet the format of a review demands some sort of appraisal. Johnny Whitaker is memorable but simply isn't a very good actor. Compared especially to the two Disney "stars" he most resembles, Bobby Discoll and Kevin Corcoran, Whitaker simply lacks technique. In the "exciting" bear attack scene he basically ends up shouting and gesturing while the trained lion and trainers do all the dramatic work. Jodie Foster in her first theatrical film brings an interesting edge to Samantha despite being required to trudge around in an appallingly short skirt. Foster would shortly emerge as a remarkable actor, but she's a long way off here even from her teenage roles for Disney in Freaky Friday or Candleshoe. Still, it's alarming to consider that the little girl we see here in Napoleon & Samantha will be playing a child prostitute in Taxi Driver just four years later.

That leaves Michael Douglas, who isn't required to do much and does what he can with a nothing part. Danny is supposed to come off as enlightened and intelligent - in one scene he's introduced reading a book on a tree stump in the middle of a goat pasture - and his crazy chase with the cops is both well-intentioned and fun. This is sub-pre-career Douglas, before even his start as a producer, so we should not judge him too harshly. Napoleon & Samantha may be entirely disposable but for as bad as these Disney movies can get, it isn't too bad.

October 18, 1972 - Run, Cougar, Run (Unavailable)

November 26, 1972 - Chandar the Black Leopard of Ceylon (Unavailable)

Here's another batch of two that we'll not be reviewing because they are, officially, unavailable. Run, Cougar Run appears to be an amiable James Algar animal movie - this time, with no jovial narration, about a mountain lion and her three cubs attempting to escape from a group of hunters. Alfonso Arau, who played Paco in Scandalous John, returns with his formidable guitar to provide the human interest.

This one appears to be a great deal better than the average studio animal adventure, and can be viewed in total on YouTube.

 Chandar, in comparison, has totally vanished.

This is one of those movies that IMDb says exists. Wikipedia mirrors the IMDb information, but aside from those two source-points, this film is totally nonexistent. We know it's another Winston Hibler film and that's about it. The secondary source I've used on this project - Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley's remarkably through The Disney Studio Story - doesn't even mention it despite including every Walt Disney Educational title and every theme park or souvenir movie.

Intrigued, I backtracked to the 1971 and 1972 Walt Disney Productions annual reports, where no mention of Chandar could be found either. Does this film exist?

While we can't say with any confidence than anything titled Chandar, the Black Leopard of Ceylon and produced by Winston Hibler is entirely promising, at the very least the film offers the promise of Sri Lankian landscapes and an escape from the American Southwest/Pacific Northwest where all of these Disney animal adventures are set. More than anything, in an era when information about nearly everything in instantly available and can probably be downloaded, there are corners of film history that the bright light of the digital age has still not illuminated.

Next Week: The Magic of Walt Disney World, Snowball Express, The World's Greatest Athlete, and Charley & the Angel