Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Age of Not Believing, Week Seven

 "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.

June 22, 1971 - Scandalous John

To cop a Roy E. Disney-friendly nautical allusion here, if up until now this series has ridden smoothly over various waves and bumps and mediocre movies, with Scandalous John I officially hit the doldrums. Too pleasant, amiable, and decently crafted to dislike, but too sedate to get too excited over, I have nearly nothing to say about this movie. It's a reviewer's nightmare - a professional bore of a programmer.

Scandalous John is the molasses-in-winter paced story of an 80 year old cattle rancher who is forced to go on a "cattle drive" (he intermittently rides the single cow, a bull) to show down with a businessman who's trying to foreclose on his ranch land. Straining for a Don Quixote allusion, he brings along his "ranch hand" Pedro, in absurd traditional Mexican garb, who rides a donkey and gawks at the "scandalous" weirdness that ensues. Although all of the marketing materials for John heavily flog this Quixote-like part of the film, it seems to me at best a minor distraction. For one, Don Quixote was a tragic lunatic in a bitter satire of chivalry, and John McCanless is essentially a noble old timer in the modern world. He's given away nearly all of his ranch to impoverished families, he throws money to Mexican children, and lives in a decaying fort.

What Scandalous John is really about is the vanished world of the West. Pedro is thrown out of his friend's truck at the doorstep of the McCanless ranch; it's the last car we'll see for 30 minutes. McCanless goes through the solemn military rituals of yesteryear - loading his gun, saddling his horse, raising his ranch's flag - before galloping out and hogtying Pedro. Later, he rides his horse into town and rides direct into several modern department stores, allowing several bit actors scenes where they sputter and protest in traditional Disney fashion. In the movie's best scene, McCanless corners his adversary in a train car. One by one he insults his business partners and throws them off the caboose, except an entire Mariachi band whom he pays before throwing off.

The elegiac tone is conveyed from the opening scenes and greatly helps to justify the funeral pace of the proceedings. Director Robert Butler has grown in leaps and bounds since The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; in John, allowed a more leisurely pace and possibly a freer hand by producer Bill Walsh, he uses Leone-like wide landscape shots and long takes at golden hour to establish the end-of-an-era mood. Extended scenes take place in single shots as Butler lingers and lingers on John and Pedro playing guitar together or reminiscing. Aided by Rob McKuen's sedate, whispery score, the film feels like a lost battle on a lonely field even before the narrative begins.

Weirdly, Scandalous John contains more than a whiff of Once Upon a Time in the West - the themes of modernity vs. wilderness, illegal vs. legal behavior, even a villain on a train are all present in Leone's film. The end of the era theme can be extended by being set in the modern world - men on horseback contrasted with mid-60s menswear stores, pistols with contracts. At one point, John and Pedro end up being mistaken for paid performers at a Ghost Town amusement park; in another they have to "save" a woman from a circling group of deadbeat youth. Two native Americans sit on a nearby couch, drinking beer and watching impassively. That can be a metaphor for the whole film, really: a good idea that doesn't always make a good scene.

June 30, 1971 - The Million Dollar Duck

Is it possible to find something funny without really thinking it's all that funny? Despite never once earning my genuine laughter, I was highly entertained by the infectious weirdness of Million Dollar Duck's comedy. For example: while being pursued by the Treasury Department, Dean Jones is escaping on the back of a telephone utility vehicle's extended maintenance basket. As the chase veers into the long Griffith Park tunnel that would become famous in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future Part II, Jones rides the platform like a surf board and careens it into the wall of the tunnel, sending a shower of sparks onto the windshield of the pursuing government employees. They register only minor annoyance.

That isn't funny, but the combination of things onscreen does, indeed, produce humor - both from forces inside the film but also ones outside the film. The lack of comedy creates a sort of anti-comedy which itself becomes funny, exploited in such modernist anti-comedy best personified by David Wain. I laughed, but I also marveled at the superior weirdness of the moment objectively.

I mean really.

The film doesn't start off weird. An uncreative, poorly animated title sequence credited to Ward Kimball sets zero expectations for fun ahead. The film's dour opening reel establishing the depths of Dean Jones' poverty moves at a snail's pace, not enlivened by Sandy Duncan's borderline-offensive airhead wife (she makes applesauce with garlic!). Jones, in his new 20% longer "Seventies" hair, stares dourly at his college diploma and looks worried when his son keeps demanding a puppy. Yet his fortunes turn around when he brings home an irradiated duck who lays - surprise! - eggs with golden yolks. This leads to Dean to unimagined riches until he - blah blah blah - discovers that what really matters is family. Can you believe Disney's been making this same basic movie for a half century?

Where Million Dollar Duck really takes off is when the film begins to imagine what having a gold-producing duck would actually be like in the 1970s. For Aesop, of course, the metaphorical goose that laid the golden egg was a shortcut to riches - gold was money. But in 1970, in a wealth-obsessed country that's been off the gold standard for nearly four decades, actual pure gold is almost worthless. It has to be refined and traded into the government for cash, and then you need to be able to show where you got it. That's why crooks find it easier to print money than try to manufacture gold. This nearly trips up Jones and his equally cash-strapped friend Lee Montgomery until they discover - haha - that Jones' airhead wife can tell the truth, and nobody will believe her (take that, stupid women!)!

Million Dollar Duck is famous as one of only three films Gene Siskel walked out on during his career, which really makes me wonder if he was assigned Monkeys, Go Home! or The Boatniks, because as far as dumb Disney comedies go this one rates as "almost okay". Unlike in his last two Disney movies, Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit and Love Bug, Dean is actually required to be funny here, and he pulls off some pretty good bits. Still, one wonders if there's ever been a leading man so thoroughly committed to being upstaged by a host of animals and objects than Dean Jones. Had these Disney films continued on would he eventually played second banana to a toaster, or a sea monkey?

The film is most amusing in its sometimes truly bizarre visual gags. The Million Dollar Duck stands on the positive and negative terminals of a car battery and lights up like a lightbulb, which inexplicably impresses two teenage slackers: "Hey, he likes it!". They then go on to use the duck to power a variety of car parts, you know, in the way that teenagers would. In another gag, news of the gold-laying duck causes a worldwide financial panic (for reasons never explained), prompting a call to the treasury department from - gulp - President Richard Nixon?? On cue, a framed Nixon portrait in the office appears to have a stern expression. The juxtaposition of Richard Nixon with such a trite, tired piece of comedy business immediately makes something that isn't funny, funny.

A Nixon impersonator shows up again later during a second flurry of global panic, following a tactless joke where an excited Chinese diplomat announces, again for no reason, that China will be able to make cheap golden eggs made out of plastic (???). I was hoping for a third cameo, but then again when an appearance by Richard Nixon is the comedy highlight of your movie, than maybe your movie has bigger problems than that.


This brings us to late 1971. In September, the last touches were being applied to the Magic Kingdom theme park which was the centerpiece of the most ambitious Disney project up until that time: Walt Disney World in Florida. Disney had been heavily promoting Walt Disney World for over two years. All of their 1971 theatrical release posters included reminders of the vacation destination along their bottom, and in early 1971 they had prepared a special promotional film - Project Florida - which was inserted into the middle of a television airing of The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin earlier in the year.

From its earliest days onward, Walt Disney World was a huge success, just as Disneyland had been and would continue to be. Yet October 1, 1971 marks an important moment in the history of the Disney company, in the sense that now, with two outdoor entertainment operations on either side of the United States, Disney's role would increasingly be recreation-oriented. When it was just Disneyland and the Burbank studio, Disney was a movie studio with a remarkable, one of a kind attraction. From October 1971 on, they would be a theme park conglomerate that also made movies. The long shadow that Disneyland and Walt Disney World cast in American popular culture would ensure that more adults and children would be admitted into the world of Disney through Main Street, USA and under a train station than ever again through, say, the white gilded book opening at the start of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The theme park product began to overshadow the film product in influence and longevity.

Yet, despite the name on the place, who really deserves the lion's share of the credit for Walt Disney World is Roy O. Disney, who persisted in his brother's dream when most other companies - emphatically including the Disney of today - would have cut their losses. Roy rode every ride, kept the show going, imported talent and resources into a desolate swamp, and then stood next to Mickey Mouse and dedicated the Magic Kingdom not just to his brother, but to the entire company that had kept the ball rolling in the years since his death. Then he died, two months later.

The company Roy Disney left behind was a company that finally was assured a steady stream of income from Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but also now a split identity, in competition with its own legacy for dominance. 1971 is the year Disney stopped being a little movie studio and began to head towards being a corporation, a vast thing of many faces. And it shed both of the Disney brothers, its founders, along the way.

December 13, 1971 - Bedknobs and Broomsticks

"We live in a world of fakery and false images."

There's something about movies that are almost great, or especially weird, that gets me fired up. While I have absolutely no motivation to go out and defend a nearly flawless film like, to keep our conversation relevant to Disney, Mary Poppins, I have in the past mounted a huge defense in favor of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In our modern lexicon we call these cult movies - films lacking in some basic DNA that makes them fully accepted by wide audiences, but fervently admired by a niche crowd. Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the only true "cult" film of the Age of Not Believing era we're covering here, and the reason why the series takes its name from this film. Bedknobs is no classic, and its frankly all the better for it.

Bedknobs is often knocked as a sub par Mary Poppins, but I think there's more to it than that. It's true and often repeated that Walt licensed the rights to the rights to the Mary Norton books to use as a possible replacement should Poppins fall through. What isn't much discussed is that Walt didn't have a lot to do with Bedknobs in the end, and I suspect had he been forced to use it he would've ended up pushing the material into the shape destined for Poppins, which itself doesn't have much to do with the P. L. Travers books that were their ostensible source. Walt Disney was one of American cinema's greatest adapters of material, and he used source texts as springboards into his own fascinations. This is why Poppins is stuffed to the gills with turn-of-the-20th-century flavor. Had Bedknobs been made in 1965 instead of 1971, we likely wouldn't even recognize it.

In many ways Bedknobs is a dark reflection of Poppins. While Poppins is relentlessly cheery even in the sooty skies of London, Bedknobs is dim and dangerous. Poppins is episodic, while Bedknobs is a continuous line of action. Poppins pulls together all of those components in the final two reels in an emotional climax that feels miraculous, while the chief threat of Bedknobs - the Nazi invasion - is drearily anticipated from the opening credits onwards. Where Poppins ends with a note of reconciliation, Bedknobs features of collection of war-torn families who tentatively come together. And while Mr. Banks in Poppins exclaims in the opening reel:
"It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward's on the throne; it's the age of men!"
..his counterpart in Bedknobs, Emelius Browne, feels his best friend in the world is an unexploded bomb. The social and economic structure Mr. Banks feels such mastery of in Poppins will of course turn against him and chew him up, but he emerges in better family and social standing than ever. The England of Bedknobs teeters on the brink of oblivion. London is being blitzed by the Nazis and the sort of beautiful house we see in Poppins is abandoned, a family very much like the Banks hauntingly absent. Poppins is a film of middle class values affirmed; Bedknobs redeems those low on life's social ladder.

This accounts, I think, for the intense attraction some Disney fans have to Bedknobs. When Disney put out Poppins, it was the astonishing highpoint of the studio's art in the Age of Walt. Deprived of their leader and under assault, Disney was in a similar place as the England of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. A studio in decline made a film about an empire in decline.

To make one last comparison without hopefully over laboring the ways in which Bedknobs is actually a departure from Poppins, it's the treatment of magic. Mary Poppins herself is essentially an enigma, the ways she works largely mysterious. She controls events which only make sense in retrospect, and her emotions are volatile and unpredictable. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, magic is entirely down to technicals, including equipment, intonation, and word choice. Instead of the beneficent but still opaque Mary Poppins, we have Eglantine Price, who basically amounts to Disney's first female nerd. Her lack of experience and steep learning curve keeps the film emotionally centered on her quest to find the spell of Substutiary Locomotion.

You can tell that many talented people at the Disney Studio worked on and enjoyed Bedknobs enough to campaign for its resuscitation, and the Sherman Brothers stand at the front of that pack. While it's true that their Poppins score benefited immeasurably from the constant rewriting process Walt insisted on that's largely absent from Bedknobs, it's easily their best work this side of that perfect songbook. Songs build over and over on twisty, obscenely clever lyrics in classic Sherman style, usually employing music and song to push the film along steadily unlike the more typical "stop and sing" style songs that populate Poppins.

Actually, if there's a major problem with Bedknobs it's that the Sherman songs aren't quite fully allowed to build and flow in the way they should. Songs with a pleasantly pokey patter like With A Flair are constantly interrupted by dialogue and visual gags in a way that suggests an attempt to "modernize" the otherwise classical material, as if somebody went to see Company a few nights before Bedknobs began production and decided to shoehorn a Sondheim-esque approach into the Sherman songbook. thankfully these songs play uninterrupted on the essential 1971 LP release.

Another change here is the three orphans taken in by Miss Price. Compared to the Poppins kids, obviously cast on their ability to look cute and gape on cue, the Bedknobs kids are refreshingly unsentimental. Charlie, the eldest, is an incorrigible swindler, barely held in check by Carrie. Paul, the youngest, believes in Miss Price's magic, but in the matter of fact way that real children believe in everything. At no point is the illusion of magic dependent on a carefully timed cutaway to the kids gaping, and they play an active role in the movement of the story and the discovery of the spell for Substutiary Locomotion - no passive recipients of magic, them.

Also refreshingly unsentimental is the adventure on the Isle of Naboombu. While the "Jolly Holiday" interval in Mary Poppins - simultaneously the most famous and least essential element of that film - was a pastoral, pastel reverie of cafes and carousels, the Isle of Naboombu is genuinely dangerous. From the alarming and entirely unanticipated introduction of fishing hooks into The Beautiful Briny Sea to the ludicrous soccer match, nothing is there just to be cute - these animals are dangerous, both to the humans and to each other. The animals talk and act like dimwitted thugs and delight in causing physical harm. While supervising director Ward Kimball, well into his "what do we do with you now" career at Disney, can perhaps be attributed to this tonal shift, the animation overall has a tougher edge that we're used to seeing at Disney. In the climax of the sequence, as the Star of Astorath is stolen and King Leonidas lights out after the Brits, there's a tension rarely achieved in Disney films of the era.

A sequence at the center of the film encapsulates everything I find fascinating about this film. Looking for the other half of the Spells of Astoroth, the band of travelers is picked up by a cheap hood in Portobello Road and led to the underground lair of Bookman, played by Sam Jaffe in a one-off scene. Bookman at first seems to be a confused kindly old professor - until the door is locked and the knives come out, at which point he pivots dramatically into a sort of nerd Don Corleone. Bookman opens up whole worlds hidden inside Bedknobs, and is a twisted mirror image of Eglantine Price in his self-interest and obsession with Astoroth. Bookman gives Price and Browne the information they need, but plainly intends the cost to be great. It's a weird little scene in the middle of the movie, but the implications and echoes travel deep. Without Bookman, the effects of Substutiary Locomotion wouldn't be as fascinating as they are - so weird, so feared, yet wonderful to see.

Which brings us to David Tomlinson, the actor on whom the emotional effect of Mary Poppins is most dependent, and as Emelius Browne he's in rare form. A pathetic man on society's lowest rung, Tomlinson brings genuine depth and sadness to Browne's quiet sense of defeat and self-regret. While his big spell-casting scene where he finally has to believe in something doesn't have the same impact as Mr. Banks' big scenes, his journey from charlatan street performer to solider is believable and moving despite being only a small component of the climax.

That extended climax, where the Nazis finally make landfall in the dead of night, doesn't have much of a sense of dramatic weight but it's carried entirely by the deployment of themes recurring throughout the entire film - the characters' perception of themselves as failures, the strength of belief vs skepticism, and the clash of ancient and modern finally comes down to a microcosm of the war as all of British history rallies to attack the German soldiers. The ghost army that descends in the night manages to be rather eerie despite remaining firmly kiddie-friendly, and if the big showdown leans a bit too heavily on the comic blackout gags (it does), the retreat of the Germans brings the film to a satisfying close.

Which brings us to the postscript, where newly motivated Emelius Browne ships off to war to fight for England while the orphans-no-more and Price, a family in the making, will wait at home. This brings back the Old Home Guard, unseen since the start of the film, for a fully earned march off the glory set to Sherman's invigorating military march.

I think this final scene and the Old Home Guard song is especially effective for Disney fans because of the sad underlying awareness that the "Old Home Guard" is as much the old guard of Disney as it is of Pepperidge Eye. 1971 is the official end of line for the "cursory Walt involvement" projects that Disney had been working on since 1968, and the start of a new era: Disney without Walt, without Roy.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was the most expensive film ever made by Disney at that point and earned back only a slim 17 million at the box office - a far cry from the 75 million that greeted the fairly inexpensive Love Bug. Robert Stevenson would not make another film for Disney for three years, and never another film of this level of charm, ingenuity, and coherence. Bill Walsh, the man responsible for so many of the best live action Disney films, was similarly set back by the financial failure of Bedknobs, and the Shermans would not return to Disney in a regular role until the early 1980s to write songs for EPCOT Center.

When the Old Home Guard marches away at the end of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, what we're really seeing marching away from us is the last of Old Disney, Walt Disney's most trusted collaborators out on one last sunset patrol. Bedknobs and Broomsticks isn't just an overachieving cult film, it's the end of an era. And now Walt Disney Productions, adrift after the death of both Disney brothers, would have to believe very hard, much like Charlie, that there was something wonderful in them, too.

"Who wrote the stories of the old brigade?
Who knows the glories of yesterday's parade?
Who's standing firm in your own front yard?
The soldiers of the Old Home Guard, that's who!
The soldiers of the Old Home Guard..."

For next week: The Biscuit Eater, Now You See Him Now You Don't, and Napoleon and Samantha