Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Age of Not Believing, Week Six

"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.

December 15, 1970 - The Wild Country

What is a "Disney" movie anyway?

We can't pretend this isn't a problem the studio itself was never without - not when something like Victory Thru Air Power sits cheek-to-jowl with Pinocchio. I ran into this a few weeks ago when I ran headlong into two friends and eventually the conversation drifted into favorite/least favorite Disney movies. I kept bringing up the sort of films I love that also happen to be Disney movies - Three Caballeros, Melody Time, Mary Poppins, Parent Trap, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantasia - while I could not get either of them to see past the Lion King, Frozen, Mulan, Toy Story and so forth. For them, a Disney movie was an animated adventure-comedy made relatively recently that was fun without being especially demanding of its audience. Similarly thy could not see their way towards accepting my view of a Disney movie as being a very diverse thing.

I suspect that whatever Disney has mutated into by 2044 will have its fans too, and they will look back with equal befuddlement at our own era's inexplicable cycle of gruesome, dark, long Disney action-blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean. What Disney is, then, is in open negotiation with the audience - perhaps tonight you'd like an overlong sentimental musical comedy with an animated sequence? Or a sassy talking animal movie starring Cheech?

The Disney of Walt's era faced similar problems. Yes, he made lighthearted comedies and nature films, but he also put out some pretty darn good serious dramas and adventures like Third Man on the Mountain and Those Calloways. Audiences today are likely to look askance at a family adventure-drama produced by Walt Disney, but it was once part of the Disney canon.

That's the case with The Wild Country. It's one of "those" Disney movies you have to join their movie club to own on DVD. Even the streaming version is presented in a rather ugly full-frame aspect ratio, direct from the VHS. The print they used is just okay, full of buckles and flecks. This film looks exactly like the odd-fit-in-the-box it is. I suspect Disney profits the least from these midcentury wilderness dramas of all their backstock, because The Wild Country isn't so much released as it is available.

It's a shame because this is a good movie, and not in a vacillating "good-for-Disney" way. What looks to be an uninteresting setup and weird cast actually works very well. Even the direction can't be faulted: The Wild Country wears its 100 minutes easily, moving from scene to scene rapidly, sometimes audaciously. Director Robert Totten worked primarily in television, in shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Kung Fu, but unlike The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes' Robert Butler, The Wild Country doesn't feel like an episode in some ongoing serial, it feels vast and wide - which makes its existence only in a full frame version even sadder. While I can't speak to Totten's other credits, this is easily the best directed film released by Disney since Walt died. Wide, gentle framings are well composed without quite recalling the painterly effect of John Ford - instead, favoring a wide angle lens and understated but terrifically effective tilts and pans, The Wild Country periodically echoes mid-period Sergio Leone, especially Once Upon A Time in the West.

Totten's direction isn't the whole show here but Jack Elam's wild-eyed coot both recalls Leone and nearly steals the rest. Introduced with his pants down, literally, Elam's charm gets a full workout here as the fearsome looking but cuddly neighbor. This was an odd period in Elam's career - he was already showing up as a kind of signifier of Western films in movies like Once Upon A Time in the West and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid but was still in the process of shedding his tough guy persona and moving into over comedy roles - compare Elam here with his one-scene role in Never a Dull Moment. Ultimately it's Elam who provides the sense of warmth and home that The Wild Country so restlessly seeks. He ends his role by giving cooking tips on bear fat.

The core family itself does decent work. Steve Forrest is given another shot at a "Dad" role and although he's never quite as good as in the charmed Rascal he's convincingly strained holding the family together. Your desire to see things turn out well for Forrest is what drives the entire last half of the film, and he doesn't let his director down. Forrest is even given an astonishingly drawn out fight with the chief baddie Woodward, giving Totten a chance to show off some evocative camera work. It goes on so long that The Wild Country may qualify as something of a Disney equivalent of They Live.

Ron Howard is okay as the main kiddie identification point. Howard isn't quite able to pull off the conflicted emotions of his older brother Virgil - he comes off as a sullen whiner for a lot of the run time, but then again most kids his age are that way in real life anyway. Still, his big heroic scene at the end comes off as a fully earned shock - I'm surprised Disney actually went for such a level of violence. His real-life brother Clint Howard, instantly identifiable even as a tyke, is a one-note character constantly obsessed with replacing his dog Ralph. That this running "joke" does not detract from the engaging drama elsewhere is a sign of good film craft.

The film builds to a big climax during a tornado, and unlike other tedious effects-driven climaxes in Disney films this one works like gangbusters because the audience is by now fully invested in the safety of this family and the obvious effects matter less. Totten gets away with a truly audacious moment: as the family hides in their root cellar, the door is closed and the screen goes entirely dark for what feels like a long time until Ron Howard manages to strike a match. The dislouge scene continues for the duration that the match burns, and when it goes out, the screen is again plunged into darkness. I have no idea if this was inspired by the similar "blackout" sequence in Wait Until Dark, but it has a similarly striking effect.

Coming after so much medicore comedy, The Wild Country is a breath of fresh air. It's a quietly commendable movie that doesn't pull back from the rough stuff and quality filmmaking when it has no reason to aspire to anything better than the standard Disney product. I expected the lazily plotted animated films, the tedious nature documentaries and the leaden-whimsical comedies, but I didn't expect to get a solid, exciting wilderness drama out of Disney in his era. I'll probably never watch it again, but The Wild Country was an welcome surprise and fully recommended.

December 24, 1970 - The AristoCats

"Saul Steinberg once drew a bedraggled cube with a trail of bubbles overhead. In the largest bubble was a perfect cube, its sides impeccably straight. The cartoon was dreaming about its platonic ideal. If Saturday morning TV cartoons dreamed, the feature in the top bubble would be The Aristocats." - Time Magazine, 1971

There's something vaguely, indefinably wrong about the AristoCats. I say this as a admirer of Wolfgang Reitherman's other "Lazy Sunday in the Park with Woolie" movies - Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and Jungle Book. This movie is broken and I'm not sure why. It feels like a lackluster sequel to a movie we never saw.

On second thought, maybe that's it - The Aristocats is a sequel to every Disney movie of the 60s, but nothing is assembled with any care - Sterling Halloway, a horse left over from Mary Poppins, Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, cute animals who are CATS instead of dogs, Sherman brothers... instant classic, right? If anything, ArtistoCats proved that Walt Disney was more than an assembly of random parts, no more than pushing a bunch of furniture together in an open space immediately qualifies as a house.

Even so, AristoCats is somewhat better than its dire reputation suggests - where the animation department can never thrill us, it can charm us, and the AristoCats spits out charming gags quicker than Michael Eisner printing Bette Midler contracts.

The film's most typical gag is Pat Buttram's hilariously precise hound dog - he's funny when he gets around to his jokes but he takes forever to get there. Each scene in the film is practically its own seven-minute short film, each punctuated with leisurely fades to black. These short chunks vary in quality from absolutely tedious to pretty good, but none of them are based on anything other than a one idea joke, for example "old people dancing!" or "crazy chase!". Unfortunately they never go out on top form, generally peaking in comedy a minute or two before they end and trailing off into some sort of variation on characters standing around reflecting on how crazy all of those preceding jokes were. AristoCats' staunch refusal to end any sequence on anything resembling a "topper" gag eventually reduced this reviewer to impotent limb flailing.

Following the rules of this tired assembly of material from better movies, midway through the film we get a jazz number because I Wanna Be Like You was so successful. Never mind the Paris 1910 setting, suddenly we get an English mop-haired hippie cat with love beads and psychedelic colors. Bless the film, Everybody Wants To Be A Cat tries and tries, but Scat Cat's band never end up getting anywhere near a good time. Their "midnight howl" keeps switching styles and genres until they literally bring the house down with zero of the sense of escalating chaos that destroyed King Louie's temple. Just to prove that white guys still run the studio, the sequence also has some racism seasoned over it, care of the Chinese Siamese with plays his piano with chopsticks because what will those crazy Chinks go and do next? Despite all of this, Everybody Wants To Be A Cat is the most boring part of the film - it creates so much noise and racket yet never raises more than a minor stir.

Actual lyrics: "Shanghai Hong Kong Egg Foo Young / Fortune Cookie Always Wrong"
The best sequence, by contrast, involves a charmingly animated duo of geese from Ollie Johnston. Most of the characters in Aristocats move just like people in animal suits - an effect sadly only enhanced by the endless parade of medium shots -  but this fact slips past us until these geese show up, imaginatively blending avian and human movements in a way that puts the rest of the show to shame. That this sequence climaxes with a drunk goose - and I don't care who you are, a drunk goose is always funny - is just a cherry on top.

Perhaps what's missing is any sense of stakes or dramatic action. Depending on your perspective, the chief dramatic action of the film - where Edgar the butler drugs and abandons the cats in the countryside because seriously who leaves their inheritance to animals - is either dramatically mediocre or entirely justified. Yet there's no stakes - he doesn't seem to be intent on, say, drowning the cats, merely losing them, and there's no particularly salient reason why he chooses to act when he does besides moving the first act along. Madame Bonfamille isn't, for example, deathly sick, giving Edgar good reason to move his inheritance along. The only dramatic stakes is that Madame will - gasp! - miss her cats, but since she's already bequeathed millions of francs to them, we don't put much faith in her emotional state at any given moment. Even the cats don't seem too much worried. This zero-stakes adventure creates the feeling that Reitherman is repeatedly bellowing "Hurry up, take your time!"

There's also some weirdness about voice nationality that's carried over from Jungle Book. At least Jungle Book is set in British India so the mix of British and American voice actors feels, at best, somewhat possible - certainly no less objectionable than the all-American cast of, say, Lubtisch's To Be Or Not To Be portraying resistance Poles. It's a long-standing convention of Hollywood films that Americans can stand in for nearly any ethnic group. But The Aristocats' summer of 1910 in Paris is epically bizarre. Dutchess' three kittens speak a blend of American and British-accented English, and Duchess herself is a French kitty with a Hungarian accent. Their mouse friend Roquefort has a French name but has Sterling Halloway's distinct midwestern nasal weeze. By the time we reach Pat Buttram as a farm dog who's clearly just wandered in off Green Acres, there's no reason to even try to reconcile any of this. The animation staff clearly just didn't care; if you were funny, you got to be in the movie.

Imagine a version of Aristocats with just a few tweaks. Imagine a version where the butler's plan is to kill the cats is better thought out and nearly successful. Or a version where there's an urgent reason to return to the Bonfamille villa. Watching the film, I conversely began entertaining the idea of the same casual wobble of a story -- set in 1917, and when the cats leave Paris there's more than a suggestion of the Great War raging out somewhere in the distance. This would justify the multi-national cast and set off the pleasantly banal, low-stakes story of monied cats with the real-world Fin de siècle. At least this approach would add an extra layer of resonance to the otherwise remarkably lightweight trifle. Although Disney seems to have gone out of their way to avoid the issue, circa 1910 the world of moneyed priviledge was being pulled down around the AristoCats anyway.

The vanished world of the Aristocats.

AristoCats has quite a toxic reputation, and frankly a worse one than perhaps the film deserves. Taken on its own and isolated from the glories of, say, Lady and the Tramp - another low stakes animal story that still manages some real emotional resonance - AristoCats is good enough. Not great, but good enough. The bones of a better film are in there, but it just fails to deliver the full package.

Traditional wisdom says that this gaping hole was Walt Disney, but I'm personally not satisfied with that explanation. Yes, had Walt been alive, AristoCats would not have been made in the way it was if it was made at all. But simply saying that the animation department was helpless without their leader is a lazy excuse. For one, the animation department was capable of good solo work before Walt's passing and will be capable of good work later. And other divisions of the company were doing well too. Yet somehow the animation unit was getting so lazy that The AristoCats makes Blackbeard's Ghost look like a Hitchcock thriller. No, this is the one where it's too easy to try to lay the blame on somebody else up and dying to save the "Old Men" from the brunt of the blame. If the AristoCats is a mess, it's the animation department's mess, and maybe it's time to stop exonerating a group of great artists when they try too little and dream too small.

March 17, 1971 - The Barefoot Executive

Time for a confession: I'm not a monkey movie person. I'm not even sure if that's a fully sanctified film subgenre, but monkey movies are made often enough to suggest that they make enough money and that there are people out there who are, in fact, monkey movie people. I simply don't really enjoy the illusion of seeing chimps and orangutangs do their stuff onscreen, treated as if they're fully functioning actors: they bare their teeth, and the movie reacts as if that's a smile instead of an unnerving grimace. The whole thing feels undignified.

Still, The Barefoot Executive, while no King Kong or Monkey Shines, comes close to a monkey movie ideal I didn't know I was harboring, at least as far as comedies go. Raffles the chimp is introduced as an irritable grouch obsessed with lousy television; he won't even let poor Kurt Russell watch Star Journey (circa 1970 that counts as a major nerd offense). Russell's slow realization that this chimp can pick the top performing television shows would be, if it were just a bit nastier, the sort of joke that Mad Magazine would've run with in their golden era. As it is it's got a bit more bite than the typical Disney feature, although this is no Network.

In 1970 television was in the era of Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the various spin-offs of the Andy Griffith Show (direct or conceptual). Those are the readily recognizable ones to modern eyes; most of the rest of the top 20 rated programs were things like The Dean Martin Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, ie nothing that anybody of today would probably willingly watch if they were curious. Yet by 1970 demographics were shifting, and nobody quite knew why. 1970 is also the year when shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Odd Couple appear, shows dominated by good writing and character, instead of situation, driven comedy. Just a few months after the premiere of Barefoot Executive, the infamous "Rural Purge" was underway at CBS and the era of the cornpone comedy was forcibly retired.

Director Robert Butler got his start on television, and so did cinematographer Charles Wheeler. Of the four credited writers, two-thirds of those credited with "story" were staff writers on Bewitched. The people behind this film had good reason to write it the way they did, and occasionally the banal surface of the film ruptures and something venomous spills out. Despite the inter office politics and self importance of the TV industry, the average person on the street in Executive thinks TV is as idiotic as the film makes it look. The network's breakout hit is something called DEVIL DAN, and it's chosen  by an animal and put on the air by a teenager after a shortcut to the top. When the executives find out, they have to get rid of the chimp more as a matter of internal pride than any scandal to cover.

Somebody had a lot of fun on Barefoot Executive raiding the entire Disney film vault to find the clips that populate this world's airwaves; depicted as an incoherent Gilliam-esque swirl of abstract images and idiotic highlight clips, we believe Kurt Russell's disillusioned teen when he all but states that television is crappy.

Director Butler delivers a much more cinematic film than Tennis Shoes this time around, adding some satisfying scope even if the pacing is much more pedestrian than before. This is a visually dark movie, especially compared to Tennis Shoes.... practically the whole thing seems to be capturing the glitz and glamor of Downtown Burbank. Is the visual style intended to set us up for the moral ambiguity the film flirts with? So much of the cast and crew of Tennis Shoes returned that we can easily imagine Roy Disney announcing "Round up the usual suspects!"

Although he's ably supported by the Disney infastructure and given a decent director with a good script, Barefoot Executive demonstrates just how good Kurt Russell is. Quick: name another movie almost totally supported by a nineteen-year-old (really!). Russell is one of the few actors to work in genre fare to give their characters a genuine emotional interior, and although Executive demands only a fraction of his talent, his remarkable range would be best demonstrated in his unsurpassed trilogy of thriller for John Carpenter in the 80s: Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. He's easily the best actor "launched" by the Disney studio - and unlike, say, Julie Andrews, Russell was able to escape his typecasting in these films. While it's impossible to see Andrews in anything else and not think "Mary Poppins", it's almost weird to see these early Russell Disney movies when today we might think of him in Tombstone, or Death Proof, or Tango & Cash.

Underneath the whole thing is a "youth empowerment" subplot that was not improved by my having watched A Hard Day's Night in the same week. Russell's night school grad badgers the uniformly white, old men in power about Alexander the Great but still has to have a rigged system to get ahead. Because it's another Kurt Russell Disney movie, he has another idiotic theme song, this time breathlessly sung by an offscreen chorus. A sample:

"He's gonna make it, he's gonna make it!
He's gonna take this cock-eyed world and shake it!"

Compared to the Beatles' casual flaunting of authority in the anarchic Hard Day's Night, this whole thing just comes off as embarrassingly dated and labored, as if those 1971 kids were supposed to be sitting around watching this in a Soho theater, passing a joint, and nodding righteously. "He's right, man - it's the system!" And that song doesn't help at all - it's no Can't Buy Me Love, for sure.

Where Barefoot Executive falls short is that it never quite lives up to the scathing promise of its premise. This is a film that treats a room full of executives very much like the generals in the War Room of Doctor Strangelove and expects us to applaud when they're all ejected from an airplane over a remote jungle region by a monkey. And while a director like Kubrick, Lester or Edwards may have been content to let Russell ride away on his motorbike with the chimp, the girl, and the million dollars in the end, Disney has Russell clear his conscience and we are told that a rescue operation is underway. No room for moral ambiguity in a Disney movie; the kids are Good, the execs are Comedy Relief Oldies, and the film is a firm G, no questions asked. With a bit more venom in its bite and a tighter pace, Barefoot Executive could have been a minor classic..... as far as monkey movies go, at least.

For next week: Scandalous John, The Million Dollar Duck, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks