Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Shaggy Dog

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Since the release of Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney’s live-action division had dabbled in a variety of different but fundamentally similar genres. The boys’ adventure of Treasure Island led to historical adventure dramas like The Story Of Robin Hood and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, westerns like Davy Crockett and Westward Ho The Wagons!, family dramas like Old Yeller, and even one big budget sci-fi/fantasy in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The one thing they had not attempted was comedy. But with The Shaggy Dog, Walt hit upon a formula that would, for better or worse, come to define the studio style for the next twenty or so years.

The Shaggy Dog is based on the novel The Hound Of Florence by Felix Salten, although “based on” seems a little strong. Walt’s first adaptation of a Salten novel, Bambi, was released back in 1942. It had done poorly but was an important film to Walt. Shortly before its release, Walt picked up the movie rights to five more Salten books. Part of the reason was that Salten lived in Switzerland and Disney had money tied up overseas that, due to World War II spending restrictions, had to be spent overseas. But it was also because he didn’t want anyone else to come along and make a movie based on Salten’s sequel, Bambi’s Children.

At this point, it doesn’t seem like Walt had any real intention of filming any of these books, although he claimed to be developing at least a couple of them as cartoons. (Salten himself died shortly afterward in 1945). But then Winston Hibler had the idea to adapt Perri into a quasi-True-Life Adventure entry. Now I can’t say for certain that the experience of making Perri jogged Walt’s memory and sent him back into the Disney library to see what else he’d picked up. But it does seem an odd coincidence that suddenly Felix Salten’s name was attached to two very different movies more than 15 years after Walt originally acquired the rights.

Beyond the central idea of a boy who magically transforms into a dog, The Shaggy Dog has very little in common with Salten’s original book. The story goes that Walt originally pitched the idea to ABC as a television show. When the network passed, an insulted Walt decided to prove them wrong by turning it into a feature. Bill Walsh, the former comic strip writer who had been promoted to running Disney’s TV operations, produced and co-wrote the script with Lillie Hayward, another TV writer who had recently cowritten the screenplay for Tonka.

To direct, Walsh recruited Charles Barton from the TV side, where he’d directed episodes of Spin And Marty and Zorro (not to mention The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, an episode of Walt Disney Presents that was sort of half a mini-biopic of the composer and half a commercial for Sleeping Beauty). But it wasn’t Barton’s TV credits that made him the right man for the job. He had also directed several of Abbott and Costello’s best features, including Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Africa Screams. If there was a director in Hollywood who knew about combining fantasy and comedy, it was Barton.

Barton shot the film on a low budget using a young cast of familiar TV faces. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, the brothers from Old Yeller, starred as brothers Wilby and Moochie Daniels. This was at least the third similar-but-unrelated “Moochie” character for Corcoran, following turns as Moochie O’Hara on Spin And Marty and Moochie Morgan in Moochie Of The Little League. Tommy Kirk was cementing his position as Walt’s new favorite juvenile lead, a status that would come to an unhappy end just a few years later. We’ll get to that story in due course.

Wilby’s best frenemy, Buzz Miller, was played by Tim Considine. This would be Considine’s only appearance in a Disney feature, although he’d been a big star on TV on Spin And Marty, opposite Tommy Kirk as the Hardy Boys, and elsewhere. He’d eventually retire from acting to become a sports writer and photographer but not before starring for several seasons on the sitcom My Three Sons alongside someone we’ll get to here momentarily.

The two young female leads were Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Annettte was by far the most popular of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. She appeared in sketches, sang songs, acted in Spin And Marty and even received her own eponymous serial, Walt Disney Presents: Annette. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of her in this column.

Despite Annette’s popularity, she has a relatively small role compared to Roberta Shore. Shore had played Annette’s friend and sometime rival, Laura, on the Annette serial. Her role as the exotic new neighbor, Francesca, would be her first and last appearance in a Disney movie. Her biggest role came a few years later in a recurring part on the long-running TV western The Virginian. She also would retire from acting by the end of the 1960s, moving to Utah and devoting herself to her family and Mormon faith.

But by far Walt’s biggest get for The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. MacMurray had been a musician and singer who turned to acting in the mid-1930s. He became a star appearing in comedies like Swing High, Swing Low and The Egg And I. Occasionally, directors like Billy Wilder would cast him against his nice guy image, tapping into a darker side in movies like the film noir classic Double Indemnity. But after appearing in a string of mediocre western programmers, MacMurray’s star was on the wane by the end of the 50s.

Walt personally approached MacMurray about returning to his comedic roots. Apparently his second choice for the role was Gregory Peck, which is bizarre to think about. In any event, MacMurray agreed to star as Wilson Daniels, the retired mailman with the severe dog allergy. The role kickstarted the last and most profitable phase of his long career. Between the Disney films (he’ll make frequent appearances in this column going forward) and his role as the family patriarch on My Three Sons, MacMurray would become known as America’s Dad long before Tom Hanks could claim the title.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Shaggy Dog

The story that Walsh and Hayward concocted from Salten’s book is very much a shaggy dog story, a cluttered series of incidents and random tangents that somehow manages to amuse despite itself. Wilby Daniels is an offbeat kid who spends his spare time in his basement coming up with kooky inventions. After a homemade rocket almost destroys the house, his dad lays down the law and orders him to get rid of all his equipment.

While he’s doing this, he spots his friend Buzz picking up Allison, the neighbor girl both boys have a crush on. But pretty soon, the arrival of a new neighbor turns Allison into yesterday’s news. Francesca and her adoptive father, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby), move into the neighborhood along with Francesca’s beloved sheepdog, Chiffon. Chiffon takes an immediate liking to Wilby and the boys use the dog as an excuse to introduce themselves to Francesca.

They accompany her on an errand to the local museum, where Wilby gets separated from the group. He runs into Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who’s putting together an exhibit of artifacts from the Borgia family. Wilby accidentally knocks over a tray and ends up with a Borgia ring stuck in the cuff of his jeans. The ring bears an inscription, “In canis corpore transmute,” that Wilby reads aloud, triggering a curse that transforms him into Chiffon.

Trapped in dog form, Wilby reveals himself to his younger brother, Moochie, who is delighted at the prospect of finally getting a dog. However, the curse isn’t permanent or predictable. Wilby starts switching back and forth between boy and dog at random, inopportune times, including at a dance where Buzz tries to pull off dating both Allison and Francesca simultaneously.

Back in dog form, Wilby finds himself trapped inside Francesca’s house, where he discovers that Dr. Andrassy is part of a spy ring preparing to smuggle some highly classified something-or-other called “Section 32” out of the country. Wilby escapes and goes to his father for help. Wilson faints when he hears Wilby’s voice coming from Chiffon, so Wilby tries to go it alone. After Wilson recovers, Moochie convinces him that the stories are true, Wilby is a dog and the new neighbor’s a spy. But when Wilson goes to the police, they understandably think he’s nuts and send him to the police psychiatrist (played by prolific voice actor Paul Frees in an uncredited cameo). All this nonsense winds up in a wacky chase with Chiffon behind the wheel of Buzz’s car and Wilson, Moochie, Buzz and some disbelieving cops in pursuit.

It’s absolutely pointless to complain that a movie called The Shaggy Dog has a lot of loose ends. Of course it does. But some of the loose ends here seem like they would have been a lot of fun to explore. That whole subplot about Wilby being a boy inventor? Doesn’t really factor into the movie. The bit with Buzz trying to mack on both Allison and Francesca and ending up getting both girls vying for Wilby instead? Funny stuff that’s forgotten about pretty quickly.

What we’re left to focus on is all the Cold War spy stuff. It’s left purposely vague, which is fine. There’s no point in getting into the finer points of international espionage in a movie like this. But it’s also not as character-based as the movie’s best moments. MacMurray does a great job selling peeved, frustrated, befuddled and eventually, harmlessly hypocritical as he allows the papers to sell his image as a dog-loving hero.

Jean Hagen, the Oscar-nominated co-star of Singin’ In The Rain, has a thankless role as Wilson’s long-suffering wife, Freeda. Despite having virtually nothing to do, Hagen makes the most of it, deadpanning her way through her boys’ ridiculous antics and misadventures. She and MacMurray pair off well together. It’s too bad she’s sidelined for the movie’s second half.

The movie’s most pleasant surprise has to be the relaxed, engaging performances delivered by the kids. In Old Yeller, Kirk’s teenage petulance and Corcoran’s hyperactivity grated on my nerves. But with The Shaggy Dog, they’re in their element. Despite his character’s awkwardness, Kirk really is the all-American teenager. And Barton dials back Corcoran’s enthusiasm without losing his sense of mischief and fun. Best of all, their familiarity with each other sells the idea that they’re brothers in a way that seems a bit less forced than in Old Yeller.

Familiarity also drives home the friendship between Kirk and Considine. They have an easy, natural rapport. You buy the idea that they’d remain friends even though Buzz really takes advantage of Wilby at every turn. There’s an art to playing an arrogant showboat like Buzz without alienating your audience. Tim Considine figures it out. Even at his worst, Buzz still seems like he’d be fun to have around.

Annette doesn’t have much of a chance to shine here. She’s the ideal girl next door but that’s about it. Later films would give her more opportunities to showcase the talents that made her such a draw as a Mouseketeer. Roberta Shore is fun as the exotic Francesca, although her vaguely “foreign” accent is forgotten at the first available opportunity.

Nobody had high expectations for The Shaggy Dog. According to Walt, most people around the studio barely even noticed they were making it. The movie was released on March 19, 1959, and became a surprise blockbuster. It became the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Ben-Hur, outperforming now-classics like Some Like It Hot, North By Northwest and Pillow Talk. It was the Disney studio’s most successful film of the decade.

Success breeds imitation, so Walt wasted little time codifying the Shaggy Dog formula. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Walt would corner the market on what Leonard Maltin has described as “gimmick comedies”. The heroes are usually young and/or somewhat eccentric. Something comes along, either an invention or a discovery or a monkey or some other magical McGuffin, to cause chaos and wacky misadventures ensue. We’ll be seeing plenty of gimmick comedies in the weeks and months ahead.

We’ll also be seeing Wilby Daniels again, although not as soon as you might think. Despite the film’s popularity, Disney didn’t produce a sequel until The Shaggy D.A. some 17 years later. In 1987, the studio released a TV sequel called The Return Of The Shaggy Dog, starring Saturday Night Live’s Gary Kroeger and co-written by Paul Haggis. At the time, Haggis was known as a TV writer on sitcoms like The Facts Of Life, still many years away from Oscar-bait movies like Million Dollar Baby and Crash.

After the sequels came the remakes. In 1994, ABC debuted their version of The Shaggy Dog starring Scott Weinger (the voice of Aladdin) as Wilby Daniels and Ed Begley, Jr. as his dad. Finally (at least so far), Tim Allen starred in a 2006 remake that combined elements from both The Shaggy Dog and The Shaggy D.A. to create a movie that seemingly no one likes although it made a lot of money. Today, if it’s remembered at all, it’s as a low point for Robert Downey Jr. before his Iron Man renaissance.

(Iron Man, which predates Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, will not be appearing in this column. Neither will either of the made-for-TV Shaggy Dogs. Tim Allen’s The Shaggy Dog, God help us all, will.)

So the gimmick comedies are here to stay. Some will be good and some will be real clunkers. Eventually, they’ll start to dominate everything else at the Disney studio and be partly responsible for some of the studio’s darkest days. But with the original Shaggy Dog, you can see the genre’s appeal, both creatively and financially. It’s a genuinely amusing comedy that earned a boat-load of cash. No wonder they went back to the well again and again…and again…and again…

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Sleeping Beauty

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an era for Walt Disney. The man who invented the animated feature was just about ready to be done with them. Sleeping Beauty was a make-or-break proposition intended to capture Walt’s animators working at the very top of their game. It was supposed to cement their reputation as the absolute best in the business. Instead, it very nearly spelled the end of Disney animation entirely.

Walt began developing Sleeping Beauty back in 1950. It would take him most of the decade to complete it. By Disney standards, story development went relatively quickly. This is a little surprising since Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale, the primary source for the adaptation, is only about 15 pages long, not counting illustrations. If Disney’s team was going to make a meal out of this meatless bone, they’d have to add a lot more ingredients.

Walt put Wilfred Jackson in charge of the film. The first order of business was fleshing out the villain. In Perrault’s original, she’s an unnamed wicked fairy who shows up just long enough to place a curse on the princess and is never seen or heard from again. Given an essentially blank slate to create a character from scratch, the Disney team came up with Maleficent, one of their most iconic villains.

The movie doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information about Maleficent. Unlike past villainesses like Snow White’s Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, Maleficent doesn’t seem particularly threatened by or jealous of Princess Aurora. She’s just mad that King Stefan didn’t invite her to the christening. But no one ever questions why Maleficent does what she does. The character design and animation by Marc Davis and vocal performance by Eleanor Audley (also the voice of Cinderella’s nemesis, Lady Tremaine) are so singular that we don’t need any backstory.

Jackson and his story team also embellished the three Good Fairies, cut down from Perrault’s original seven, probably to downplay any comparisons to Snow White’s dwarfs. Weirdly, Walt wanted the thee Fairies to be virtually identical. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talked him out of that idea, thank goodness. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are ostensibly supporting characters but in a lot of ways, the movie’s really about them. They’re the ones who have to raise and protect Aurora. They’re the ones who end up defeating Maleficent (Prince Phillip may throw the sword but who knows what would have happened without their enchantment). Robbing them of their distinct personalities would have been a serious mistake.

When Jackson turned in his first pass at Sleeping Beauty, Walt was unimpressed and ordered him, Ted Sears and the rest of the story crew back to the drawing board. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that this seems to have been the extent of Walt’s concerns with the story. On Snow White, Walt had been involved with every last detail. There wasn’t a line of dialogue or a plot point in the entire picture that didn’t have Walt’s stamp of approval. But by Sleeping Beauty, Walt had checked out. Story meetings became a thing of the past. Walt’s mind was on Disneyland, television, and live-action features. By the middle of 1953, the script for Sleeping Beauty was considered good enough.

Theatrical poster for the 1970 re-release of Sleeping Beauty

To the extent Walt did care about Sleeping Beauty, it was all about the movie’s look. Eyvind Earle had joined the studio in 1951 as a background painter. In 1953, he worked on the short subject Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. This was a radical departure from the typical Disney house style, influenced by the modernist, angular style of the independent animation house UPA (United Productions of America). UPA had been formed in 1943 by a number of ex-Disney animators in the wake of the strike that bitterly divided the studio. The UPA style was unique, widely praised by critics, and a direct reaction against the rounded, formal Disney style.

For years, Walt resisted any change to his signature animation style. But the Oscar-winning success of Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom started to change that. Walt put Earle in charge of defining the look of Sleeping Beauty. He’d been using concept artists (or “inspirational sketch artists”) to help establish tone from the early days. Artists like Albert Hurter and Tyrus Wong had been hugely important in setting the right visual palette on films like Pinocchio and Bambi. But Walt had begun to feel that the elements that made, for example, the concept art of Mary Blair special was being lost in the finished animation on films like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. Walt vowed to change that with Sleeping Beauty. Earle’s vision would be represented on screen no matter how long it took.

As it turned out, it took a very long time indeed. The animators struggled to reconcile the realistic figure movement Walt had been demanding for years with the hyper-stylized character designs. They disagreed with Earle’s color choices and fought against his overly detailed backgrounds. When they took their issues to Walt, he would take Earle’s side every time. Toward the end of 1953, Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack and was replaced as supervising director by Eric Larson. At the time, Sleeping Beauty was scheduled for release in February 1957.

Larson struggled mightily with the massive workload but Walt’s insistence on perfection in every frame kept progress to a snail’s pace. According to Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, the animators took such meticulous care drawing Aurora that at one point, they were only producing a single cleaned-up image a day. The release date was pushed back to Christmas 1957. When it became clear they wouldn’t make that date either, Larson was taken off the project, replaced by Clyde Geronimi. Larson would later refer to Sleeping Beauty as his “downfall”.

With the help of Wolfgang Reitherman, Geronimi was able to get Sleeping Beauty over the finish line and into theaters by the end of January 1959, not Christmas 1958 as they’d hoped. What was meant to be Walt Disney’s crowning animated achievement landed with a bit of a thud. Reviews compared it unfavorably to earlier films like Snow White and Cinderella, exactly the reactions Walt had wanted to avoid. With a few exceptions, most critics disliked the animation style everyone had worked so hard to perfect. People seemed to enjoy the music (George Bruns’ score, adapting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, received the film’s sole Oscar nomination) but that was about it. Since the movie had taken so long to produce, its budget had skyrocketed and its original theatrical released failed to earn it back.

Even today, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite as beloved as some of Disney’s animated classics, although it has certainly undergone a critical re-evaluation. For instance, time has been very kind to Eyvind Earle’s singular design scheme. It bridges several gaps, from the Industrial Gothic Renaissance art that inspired Earle to his own modernist style. But it also connects the traditional Disney style of animation to the sleek, vertical style of UPA. The movie shows us not only where animation has been but where it’s headed.

Make no mistake, the animation in Sleeping Beauty is nothing short of breathtaking. Shot in Technirama, this is some of the most spectacular animation Disney ever produced. The animators learned quite a bit about shooting in widescreen thanks to Lady And The Tramp. They put those lessons to good use here. Every frame is perfectly staged, filling the eye with color and movement.

But while Walt was obsessing over the visual aspect, he really ought to have worried a bit more about the story. With a running time of only about 75 minutes, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t seem all that interested in letting us get to know its main characters. The opening sequence packs in a lot, establishing the baby Princess Aurora, her future betrothal to Prince Phillip, the three Good Fairies, Maleficent and her curse that Aurora will die on her 16th birthday, and the Fairies’ promise to raise Aurora under the name Briar Rose deep in the woods without using magic. That isn’t a story. That’s the set-up for the story.

However, the very next thing we know, it’s already Briar Rose’s sweet 16 and the Fairies are getting ready to say goodbye. We’ve been given no chance to get to know this girl. We don’t even get to see Flora, Fauna and Merryweather try to live a magic-free existence. Virtually the entire burden of getting the audience to care about Aurora is placed on the forest sequence where she meets Prince Phillip. It’s a nicely animated sequence and the song “Once Upon A Dream” is pretty good. But that’s a lot to ask of a single scene and song.

The movie doesn’t let up once Aurora falls into her sleep and Maleficent captures Phillip. Perrault’s original has our heroine cursed to sleep for one hundred years before she’s rescued. The story team was smart to realize that’s too long for a movie but they go too far in the opposite direction. Unable to face telling King Stefan that they’ve failed, the Fairies decide to put the whole kingdom to sleep until they can fix all this, then go straight to Phillip. Aurora’s plight doesn’t mean a whole lot if nobody even knows about it.

Freeing Phillip, the Fairies warn him that he’ll have to face the rest of these challenges on his own. This turns out to be a lie. They do nothing but help him, zapping Maleficent’s Goons and enchanting his sword for the death blow against Maleficent herself. This is not to take anything away from the power and beauty of this incredibly animated sequence. The arrival of Maleficent in dragon-form is legitimately awe-inspiring. None of it makes a lot of sense logically but that’s OK. The only problem is that it seems to take no time at all. By the time the curse is lifted and everyone wakes up, it feels more like Aurora was cursed to an afternoon nap.

Sleeping Beauty has a great big hole in its center where it heart should be. It’s just too difficult to become invested in the romance between Aurora and Phillip. We don’t spend enough time with either of them to care. But it’s easy to overlook that potentially fatal flaw because everything surrounding that hole is so great, beginning with Maleficent.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Visually, Disney has never created a more compelling villain (unless you want to count the demon Chernabog in Fantasia). The fact that we don’t know much about her apart from her commitment to pure evil makes her one of Disney’s most mysterious and sinister villains. It was also enough to justify expanding the character into the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent, automatically one of Disney’s more interesting live-action adaptations of an animated property simply by virtue of not being a shot-for-shot remake.

(Maleficent will presumably appear in this column eventually, assuming people are still reading this by the time we make it to the 2010s.)

Eleanor Audley, voicing her second and final Disney villainess, is absolutely perfect in the role. Apart from a couple episodes of The Swamp Fox miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, this would be Audley’s last Disney role. She went on to a prolific television career with recurring roles in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and My Three Sons (alongside Fred MacMurray, someone we’ll soon start seeing a lot of in this column).

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are equally well-cast, completely disproving Walt’s theory that they should have had identical personalities. Verna Felton was an old pro by now, having voiced characters in Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. She also provided the voice of Aunt Sarah in Lady And The Tramp, with Barbara Luddy (Merryweather) as Lady. Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), a new voice at the studio, was better known as Vera Vague, a radio character she’d played that became so popular that she temporarily adopted it as her professional name. This column will hear from all three of these women again.

Felton, Allen and Luddy are so perfect as the Fairies that it’s hard to imagine other actresses in the roles. But other actresses did play the parts for the live-action reference footage that was shot. Frances Bavier (The Andy Griffith Show’s Aunt Bee), Madge Blake (Batman’s Aunt Harriet) and Spring Byington (an Academy Award nominee and presumably somebody’s aunt) were performance models, as was Hans Conried for King Stefan. The use of live-action reference footage was common at the Disney studio but there was usually more overlap between the vocal and live-action actors. This time, only Eleanor Audley performed both halves of her character.

I can’t find any explanation for why they chose to separate the voices from the live-action models this time around. Conried had provided both the voice and live-action reference for Hook in Peter Pan. Not to take anything away from Taylor Holmes but Conried would have made an excellent King Stefan. It may have simply boiled down to the film’s lengthy production schedule.

The long production had one very immediate effect at the studio: Walt would no longer commit the same kind of money and resources to animation. Following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty, Walt was forced to institute wide-sweeping layoffs that hit the animation division especially hard. While they still produced occasional short films, they no longer had a separate department dedicated to their production. Animators would be forced to find cheaper, more efficient ways of making the features. Walt himself would only oversee three more animated features before his death in 1966 and they would be much different from those that came before.

The disappointment of Sleeping Beauty also scared the studio away from an entire genre. It would be years before Disney dared to tackle another fairy tale. That movie, The Little Mermaid, would come to represent the beginning of an era just as Sleeping Beauty marked the end of another. But that’s a tale for another column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty didn’t receive its first theatrical re-release until 1970. Subsequent re-releases would restore the film to its 70mm Technirama glory. Those screenings would be a revelation for those of us who had never seen a Disney film of this size and scope before. For awhile in the 1980s, I would have considered Sleeping Beauty to be my favorite Disney movie. There simply wasn’t anything else quite like it.

Today, I’m a bit more reserved in my appreciation of the film. Its technical qualities are beyond reproach. The movie still has the ability to dazzle and amaze audiences. But its story flaws prevent it from being the masterpiece Walt wanted it to be. In his pursuit of technical perfection, he lost sight of the heart and soul that made his best movies truly special. Disney animation would never be the same again.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Tonka

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Tonka

By the end of 1958, Disney’s live-action division was stuck in a bit of a rut. They’d enjoyed some huge hits like Treasure Island, Davy Crockett and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. But those were exceptions, not rules. They were known more for historical adventure pictures mixing fictional characters with real-life events. From UK productions like The Sword And The Rose to the Revolutionary War exploits of Johnny Tremain to the Civil War adventure The Great Locomotive Chase, the studio had applied the same basic formula no matter what the historical setting. That didn’t quite come to an end with Tonka, the 1958 western directed by Lewis R. Foster, but it became a much less frequent occurrence.

Academy Award nominee and noted non-Native American actor Sal Mineo stars as White Bull, a headstrong Sioux brave. After spotting a spirited colt running with a band of wild horses, White Bull “borrows” a coveted rope from his cousin, Yellow Bull (equally non-Native H.M. Wynant). White Bull loses both the rope and his bow and arrows in his attempt to capture the horse, leading Chief Sitting Bull (actual Sioux John War Eagle) to forbid him from participating in future hunts.

White Bull goes out to find his lost bow and finds the horse, who he’s already named Tonka Wakan (the Great One), completely tangled up in his cousin’s rope. He constructs a makeshift enclosure, frees the horse and slowly and patiently begins training Tonka. After some time, he triumphantly returns to his tribe with Tonka. But Yellow Bull isn’t satisfied with just getting his rope back. He pulls rank and claims Tonka for his own.

The horse refuses to cooperate, responding only to White Bull’s more gentle hand. Knowing he can’t reclaim the horse from his older cousin but unable to bear watching him suffer, White Bull does the only thing he can: he sets the horse free.

Tonka rejoins his band but his freedom is short-lived as they’re caught in a round-up (led by Slim Pickens, making his second Disney appearance). The cowboys sell the horses to a cavalry outfit where Tonka catches the eye of Captain Myles Keogh (Philip Carey). Keogh sees that Tonka has been well-trained and responds to gentle, patient instruction. Renaming the horse Comanche, Keogh claims him for his own and grows to love him almost as much as White Bull.

With reports of Sioux converging on the area, Keogh reports to General Alfred Terry (Sydney Smith) and General George Armstrong Custer (Britt Lomond). While the cavalry troops formulate a plan of attack, White Bull volunteers for a reconnaissance mission. He sneaks into the fort and while reuniting with Tonka is caught by Keogh. The two enemies bond over their shared horse. Keogh turns White Bull in for questioning but promises he won’t allow anyone to hurt him. The next morning, Keogh lets White Bull go, hoping they’ll never meet on the battlefield.

The cavalry forces split up with strict orders not to attack until they’re together again. But Custer, who is depicted as nothing short of genocidal when it comes to the Indians, hears a report of an isolated group in the valley of Little Bighorn. Custer decides they’d be stupid not to attack and we all know how that turned out.

Miraculously, both White Bull and Tonka survive the battle. Tonka/Comanche becomes an honored war hero, the only survivor of the attack on the cavalry side. He’s retired from active military service and White Bull is made his official caretaker, the only one allowed to ride Tonka from now on. In the wonderful world of Disney, even Custer’s Last Stand somehow has a happy ending.

Now you might be thinking that Walt Disney is an odd choice to make a movie based on one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the annals of the American West. You would be correct. It’s based on the novel Comanche by David Appel. Comanche was a real horse who did survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Like Black Beauty, Appel’s book is told from the horse’s point-of-view. The movie can’t quite replicate that narrative trick, opting instead to tell the story primarily from White Bull’s perspective.

The title change from Comanche to Tonka is indicative of the film’s new focus but the actual reasoning behind it is more mundane. Another unrelated western called Comanche had just been released a couple years earlier, so screenwriters Lewis R. Foster and Lillie Hayward changed their title to avoid confusion.

The idea of telling the story of Little Bighorn from the Sioux’s point of view is a good one, as would be demonstrated years later in the novel and film Little Big Man. In some ways, Tonka is a bit ahead of its time, especially in its depiction of Custer as the villain. Custer was frequently seen as a tragic hero in those days. That was the image presented by Errol Flynn in the wildly inaccurate biopic They Died With Their Boots On. Lomond plays him as a vain, half-crazed racist. Carey is frequently seen casting some skeptical side-eye at his fellow officer.

None of this lands with much force, partly because Britt Lomond is sort of bland in what should be a role that lends itself to showboating. Lomond had already appeared as a Disney villain on TV, playing the ruthless Captain Monasterio on Zorro (Zorro will eventually appear in this column). Television seemed to be his natural element as he never did quite break into film as an actor. Eventually he started working behind the camera as a production manager and assistant director on such features as Somewhere In Time and Purple Rain.

It would be one thing if Lomond’s uninspired performance was an isolated misstep in casting. Unfortunately, it’s fairly typical of the film in general. Philip Carey brings something of a Troy McClure vibe to the role of Captain Keogh. This was presumably the role Fess Parker refused to play and it’s easy to see how his laid-back, sympathetic nature would have lent itself to the part. But it also would have been one more ever-so-slight variation on his Davy Crockett persona, so it’s hardly surprising Parker walked away from it. Carey is more broad-shouldered and square-jawed but you never feel like he believes in what he’s doing the way Parker did. Fess Parker may have been somewhat limited as an actor but at least he oozed sincerity. Carey is just another handsome actor playing dress-up.

Carey never made another Disney movie but he went on to an eclectic career in film and television. He went back to Little Bighorn, this time as Custer, in the 1965 western The Great Sioux Massacre. In a classic episode of All In The Family, he appeared as Archie Bunker’s ex-football player buddy who shocks Archie by revealing that he’s gay. And in 1980, he joined the cast of the long-running soap opera One Life To Live, a role he’d continue to play for nearly 30 years.

Jerome Courtland played Keogh’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Henry Nowlan. Courtland has already appeared in this column, although I didn’t realize it at the time. He sang the title song for Old Yeller. On TV, Courtland played the title role in The Saga Of Andy Burnett, another of Walt’s Davy Crockett wannabes. By the end of the 1960s, Courtland had moved behind the camera. He’ll be back in this column as a producer and director.

Sal Mineo was already a major star when he made Tonka and it’s a little hard to imagine what brought him to the Disney lot. Walt wasn’t a fan of working with established movie stars, preferring to cultivate his own talent. And it isn’t as though he didn’t already have plenty of young men in that age range under contract, especially if casting an actual Native American actor wasn’t a priority.

Mineo had been nominated for an Oscar for his work in Rebel Without A Cause and reteamed with James Dean in his final film, Giant. So Sal Mineo was very much wrapped up in the Dean Mythos that began to appear immediately after his death. In the years since, he had cornered the troubled teen market in movies like The Young Don’t Cry. For Mineo, Tonka was a chance to break out of that box and show audiences he could do more than just brood.

To some extent, he’s successful in his attempt. He smiles a lot more in Tonka than in any other film I’ve seen him in. It’s a very physical role and he seems confident and comfortable with his equine costar. He’s not equally at home with all the action. His handling of a bow and arrow is particularly awkward. And in 1958, even the most sensitive portrayals of Native Americans lapsed into the cartoonish and stiff broken English of Tonto.

Tonka represents some baby steps in the right direction toward more positive depictions of Native Americans on screen. But it still relies on slathering up primarily white actors with bronzer, sticking black wigs and feathers on their heads and calling it good. Foster may have had good intentions but he lacks authenticity. Without authenticity, it’s easy to doubt his sincerity.

Ultimately it’s a lack of clear focus that sinks Tonka. Is it an inspiring story about a young man and his horse? Or is it a violent western retelling a dark chapter in American history? Foster isn’t really equipped to turn in more than a fun adventure story but the Battle of the Little Bighorn could hardly be described as “fun”. In the end, Tonka doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish beyond showcasing all these magnificent horses.

Tonka was released on Christmas Day 1958. It was no blockbuster but it did a respectable amount of business. But Walt’s next live-action feature would be a blockbuster and its success meant that he’d be spending a lot less time and money on historical adventures. They wouldn’t disappear entirely but after Tonka, they would no longer be the studio’s primary live-action focus.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: White Wilderness

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's White Wilderness

In 1957, Walt Disney tried mixing up the tried-and-true True-Life Adventures formula with Perri. Labeled a True-Life Fantasy, Perri was the first explicitly fictional entry in the popular series. But Disney had been playing fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking from the beginning. Even Oscar winners like The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie made no distinction between footage caught in the wild and scenes staged in the controlled environment of the soundstage. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the difference. But to most audiences, the movies were so entertaining that nobody seemed to notice or care.

White Wilderness would be the third and last True-Life Adventure to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Purportedly shot in the Arctic over the course of three years, the movie won rave reviews. More than one contemporary critic singled it out as Walt’s best nature film to date. And on the surface, it is indeed a beautifully shot, highly entertaining picture. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were more than a little overzealous in their use of movie trickery this time. They crossed a line that ends up tainting the entire project.

Things start promisingly enough with Winston Hibler’s narration and our old pal, the Animated Paintbrush, whisking us back to the Ice Age. Hibler gives a little backstory about some of the animals we won’t be seeing in this film, like woolly mammoths and mastodons. We next tour the Arctic landscape, accompanied by majestic images of glaciers, avalanches and frozen seas. It’s some of the most stunning nature photography in the entire series.

Then we start to meet the animals and they’re frankly delightful. Walruses, beluga whales, seals, they’re all here and they’re all fantastic. Best of all are the polar bears, especially Mama Bear and her cubs. Cute baby animal footage is the stock-in-trade of the entire True-Life Adventures series. But of all the adorable baby animals we’ve seen so far, there are none cuter than polar bear cubs and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. We don’t really learn much about them but who cares? Just look at those little goofballs!

Later on, more baby animals turn up in an attempt to give the polar bears a run for their money. There are the goldeneye ducklings who are hatched in trees. They leave the nest before they’re able to fly, so they tumble out of the tree and bounce when they hit the ground. There are some cute little wolf cubs taught how to howl by Papa Wolf. They’re all fun but bouncing ducks and playful wolves are still no match for polar bear cubs in the cuteness department.

By the end of the movie, we’ve been introduced to a wide cross-section of animal life. Majestic birds like the osprey. Great herd animals like the caribou. Cute but fierce predators like the ermine. Less cute and even fiercer predators like the wolverine. The footage is top-notch. The animals are varied and interesting. Even the Oscar-nominated music by Oliver Wallace is less overbearing than some of the other True-Life Adventures. All signs point to this being a high point of the entire series.

But then, right smack in the middle of all this, there’s the lemmings.

Hibler informs us that the little hamster-like lemming breeds even faster than the rabbit. Mama Lemming can welcome two or three big litters each season. Once they’re old enough to fend for themselves, the lemmings emerge from their underground burrows to forage for food. Sure enough, there are lemmings as far as the eye can see, getting underfoot and gobbling up every bit of vegetation in sight.

Once the lemming population becomes unsustainable, Hibler tells us they follow a primal instinct to migrate to the sea. Off they go, swarming the countryside on their little lemming feet, until they reach the inevitable end of the line. Confronted with the frigid Arctic Sea, the lemmings march on, plummeting over the edge of the cliff and into the waters below. They swim until their little lemming bodies can swim no more. And so, the lemming population ebbs back, the result of an instinctual kind of mass suicide. The ways of nature are mysterious indeed.

As it turns out, almost everything we’ve seen and heard in this sequence is complete crap. It’s probably worth pointing out again that screenwriter and narrator Winston Hibler and director James Algar were not men of science. They were men of cartoons. They knew how to tell a story and the myth of lemmings committing suicide is a good one. Not true, though. The idea is so widespread that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game felt compelled to address it on their website.

But worse than the misinformation is the way the sequence was filmed. In 1982, a Canadian news show called The Fifth Estate ran an episode called Cruel Camera. Journalist Bob McKeown investigated reports of animal cruelty in Hollywood. He sat down with Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who had worked on several True-Life Adventures, to discuss staged sequences in the series and in particular, White Wilderness.

The lemming sequence was not shot on location in the Arctic. It was filmed in Calgary with lemmings bought from local Inuit kids for about a quarter a pop. These particular lemmings weren’t even migratory. To make it look like they were migrating, the filmmakers built a set, stuck the lemmings on a turntable and just cut it together over and over. And when it came time for them to jump into the “ocean” (actually the Bow River), they just pushed ‘em in.

In Cruel Camera, Roy admits they went too far that time. However, he is also careful to make clear that he personally didn’t work on White Wilderness and that he doesn’t believe Walt knew anything about what the crew was up to. Strictly speaking, the crew didn’t break any laws or even guidelines. Oversight of animals in film and television was a whole lot looser in the 1950s than it is now. Even if it wasn’t, the film’s status as a “documentary” probably would have allowed them to sidestep any pesky regulations. Still, it’s a black mark on the film that leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.

The entire Cruel Camera documentary is available on YouTube and it’s worth checking out. In addition to Roy’s interview, you get to see Ronnie Hawkins talk about some of the insanity he witnessed on the set of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Marlin Perkins from Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom get super-defensive when asked about staged sequences on his show.

The lemming business is truly unfortunate because it mars what is otherwise a terrific film. I suspect that lingering concern about the lemming issue was behind the studio’s decision to yank White Wilderness off of Disney+ shortly after its launch. I can’t imagine they had pre-existing contracts with other streamers for the True-Life Adventures and all of the other features are available. Better to just ward off any potential controversy before it starts.

I think it’s important to try and watch movies within the context of their times and not judge them based on contemporary values and ideals. But a film like White Wilderness makes that hard. Audiences in 1958 didn’t know that a lot of this stuff was staged. Even if they did figure it out, they certainly didn’t know the extent to which the filmmakers went. White Wilderness has a lot going for it and if you can somehow overlook its dark history, it’s well worth watching. But once you know the behind-the-scenes story, it’s almost impossible to look at it the same way.

VERDICT: Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the story behind the making of the film turns an easy Disney Plus into an unfortunate Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Light In The Forest

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Light In The Forest

The films of Walt Disney are some of the most recognizable and familiar titles of the last century. The studio has done a commendable job keeping most of them in the public eye, so odds are good that you’ve seen quite a few of them. Even if you haven’t, Walt’s taste in source material ran toward popular classics like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. You don’t need to have seen Davy Crockett to know what it’s about. But I have to admit I had no idea what to expect from The Light In The Forest.

The movie is based on a 1953 novel by Conrad Richter. If you’re anything like me, you don’t know who that is, either, even though he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s probably best known for his trilogy The Awakening Land. Those books were turned into an NBC mini-series in 1978 that I vaguely remember my grandmother watching at the time.  

Lawrence Edward Watkin, Walt’s go-to writer of historical adventures, wrote the screenplay. Watkin’s previous script, The Great Locomotive Chase, failed to find much excitement in a real-life Civil War incident. While The Light In The Forest is fiction, Richter did incorporate a number of real historical figures and events into his book, including Henry Bouquet, a colonel in the British Army who is today notorious for coming up with the idea to give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox.

The movie doesn’t mention that incident and picks up some time later, with Colonel Bouquet (Stephen Bekassy) negotiating a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians. As part of the terms, the Delaware are required to hand over all their white captives. But these “captives” are mostly women and children who have been fully assimilated into the tribe. One of them, True Son (James MacArthur) has been raised by the Chief himself. True Son has no memory of his birth family and hates all whites. But Chief Cuyloga (Joseph Calleia, previously seen as the Padre in The Littlest Outlaw) displays no favoritism and delivers True Son along with the rest.

On the trail, True Son shows he’d rather die than return to his white family by attempting to eat some poisonous mandrake. Hoping to avoid further trouble, Bouquet asks his trusted guide and translator, Del Hardy (Fess Parker), to escort True Son to his parents and help him get settled. Del becomes something of a surrogate father to True Son, teaching him the ways of the white man and helping reconcile them with his Indian beliefs.

Now this is an interesting, provocative set-up for a story. And as you might imagine, a live-action Disney movie from 1958 is not equipped to handle all the complexities and rough edges of a story like this. However, it comes closer than you might think. The Delaware are treated respectfully, for the most part. The scene where they turn over their so-called “captives” to the British Army is uncomfortable, especially in 2020 when stories of immigrant children separated from their families are still very much in the news. It’s not quite clear whose side the filmmakers are on here but they deserve some credit for at least acknowledging the fact that these people did not want to leave the tribe.

Things get even more complicated when True Son meets his birth parents. At first, his mother (Jessica Tandy, already playing a frail old woman at the age of 48) appears like she’s going to be small-minded and racist. She makes him put on new clothes and refuses to let him leave the room until he says his “real” name, John Butler. But later when she’s teaching him English, we realize she’s not trying to make him forget his Indian language. She thinks he should learn as much as he can about everything and asks him to teach her the language of the Delaware.

The town’s real racist is Wilse Owens (Wendell Corey), a member of the Paxton Boys, a real-life vigilante mob notorious for slaughtering Indians in the Conestoga Massacre. Wilse goes out of his way to antagonize Johnny/True Son, even building a scarecrow out of his Indian clothes to use as target practice. Wilse also has a pretty 17-year-old indentured servant named Shenandoe (Carol Lynley in her film debut). And even though this is a Disney film, it’s very clear that Wilse’s intentions are less than honorable.

The movie’s ideology gets particularly jumbled in its final act. After Wilse kills one of Johnny’s Delaware friends, he returns to the tribe. The murdered boy’s father wants revenge but Cuyloga cautions against breaking the treaty. When the council outvotes him, he reluctantly agrees to join them on the warpath, attacking a group of white settlers, including women and children.

True Son is forced to prove his loyalty to the tribe by luring in another group but warns them away from the ambush at the last second. He’s appalled that his Indian brothers are ready to kill innocents. The tribe turns on True Son, painting his face black-and-white to symbolize his two-faced nature and planning to burn him at the stake. Cuyloga intervenes and spares his life but exiles him, declaring he no longer has any Indian blood in him.

Del finds True Son/Johnny and promises to take him back home, hoping that Johnny’s experiences have taught him that there’s good and bad in everyone. Except for maybe Wilse Owens, who seems to be pure evil. Johnny wants to kill him but Del warns he can’t exactly do that. Instead, Johnny challenges Wilse to a fist fight, “like a white man”. After Johnny kicks Wilse’s ass, they come to some kind of reconciliation with Wilse begrudgingly and somewhat admiringly admitting, “He’s white, alright.” Wow.

That ending is really the biggest flaw in The Light In The Forest and it’s a doozy. Wilse is an unrepentant racist, a murderer, and presumably a rapist. And yet he receives no punishment and learns nothing from all this. His comeuppance only serves to reinforce his racist beliefs. This is like Disney saying there are some very fine people on both sides. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because the rest of the movie at least attempts to grapple with the complex issues it raises. Shenandoe is an interesting character and an effective way to hint at the shadow of slavery without throwing another racial dynamic into the film’s already confused politics. The lyrics of the title song inform us that the light in the forest is love (it is not one of Disney’s greatest hits) because Johnny and Shenandoe end up together. A better, braver movie would have cast a Black actress as Shenandoe and dealt with slavery head-on. But considering Disney’s track record with racial issues, it’s probably just as well they went with Carol Lynley instead.

Both Lynley and James MacArthur made their Disney debuts with this film. Of the two of them, Lynley was the real find. She’s beautiful, charismatic and soulful. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. So naturally she was smart enough to avoid signing a long-term Disney contract. She went on to a long, eclectic career that included appearances in Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Poseidon Adventure but she never returned to Disney. Ironically, one of her last roles was in a completely unrelated 2003 family movie called A Light In The Forest.

MacArthur came from a show business family. His parents were the great screenwriter Charles MacArthur and legendary actress Helen Hayes. James was attending Harvard when he was cast in The Light In The Forest and one of the stipulations in his contract specified he could only work during his summer break. His performance is more than a little stiff but that could just be the unfortunate way actors were directed to play Native Americans in 1958. We’ll soon find out. MacArthur did sign a contract with Disney. He’ll be back in this column soon.

But this would be Fess Parker’s last rodeo for Disney. No one would deny that he had a hell of a ride, catapulting from obscurity to overnight international stardom on the strength of Davy Crockett. But Walt didn’t want Parker to do anything but play Davy Crockett. Parker had already lost out on plum roles in The Searchers and Bus Stop after Walt refused to lend him out to other studios. And he was getting increasingly bored with playing the same type of role again and again.

After The Light In The Forest, Walt cast Parker in a relatively small role in his next western, Tonka. Parker flat-out refused the part, which was not something actors did to Walt Disney. Walt placed him on suspension and Parker, fed up with the way he was being treated, quit. Afterwards, Parker bounced around movies and TV shows for a few years before landing his second iconic role, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone ran for six seasons between 1964 and 1970, not quite reaching Davy Crockett levels of popularity but certainly good enough. Parker pretty much retired from acting after Daniel Boone, turning to real estate ventures and winemaking. Fess Parker died in 2010 but the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard is still open for business in Los Olivos, California.

Herschel Daugherty directed The Light In The Forest. Not only was this his only work for Disney, it was one of the few theatrical films he ever directed. He went on to become an extremely prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O (which co-starred none other than James MacArthur as Danny “Book ‘em, Danno” Williams) and many, many others. Daugherty had a good eye and his camerawork is more active than we’ve seen in some of Disney’s other live-action features. It’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t bring him back for more.

The Light In The Forest is almost certainly the most obscure Disney movie this column has covered so far. The studio has not made it available on Disney+ or any other digital platform. They’ve never even released it on DVD, much less Blu-ray. It has flown entirely under the radar since its initial VHS and laserdisc release.

(UPDATE: A reader informs me that Disney has released this on DVD once. The Disney Movie Club once had an exclusive Educators Resource collection. I don’t think they do anymore and these Classroom Editions can be difficult to find but they do exist.)

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the studio fears a Song Of The South-style backlash against the movie’s well-meaning but muddled racial politics. That could be but, to be honest, Hollywood studios generally don’t demonstrate that much sensitivity when it comes to Native Americans. Offensive, caricatured portrayals of Indians are shrugged off as just the way things were. If Disney was really worried about their past portrayals of Native Americans, there are a lot of places to start other than this.

To me, the more likely reason is simply that nobody at Disney has given that much thought to the movie. It got some decent reviews at the time and did okay at the box office but it was never a huge hit. Even the novel it’s based on has fallen into obscurity. Nobody in 2020 is clamoring for a big revival of The Light In The Forest.

The truth is it’s not a bad little movie. It’s certainly more interesting than something like Westward Ho The Wagons! But it is a movie that could benefit a lot from a remake. The dark, difficult story it’s trying to tell is directly at odds with Walt Disney’s rose-colored view of the past.

VERDICT: I appreciate the attempt at doing something a little different, so a very minor Disney Plus with reservations.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Old Yeller

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Old Yeller

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Spoiler alert: the dog dies. You probably already knew that. Even if you’ve never seen Old Yeller, you probably knew that the dog dies. Bill Murray uses it to rally the troops in Stripes. An entire episode of Friends is built around Phoebe’s discovery of how the movie really ends. It’s one of those pop culture moments that transcends itself and enters into our collective subconscious.

Old Yeller started life as a novel by Fred Gipson published in 1956. It received a Newbery Honor, the runner-up prize to the award won by Johnny Tremain. Walt Disney must have snapped up the movie rights to the book almost immediately to get it into theaters for Christmas 1957. Gipson is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with William Tunberg and as near as I can tell, the film remains extremely faithful to the book.

This makes sense because the story doesn’t exactly have a lot of twists and turns. The Coates family are homesteaders trying to make ends meet in 1860s Texas. Patriarch Jim Coates (Fess Parker) is embarking on a cattle drive that’ll take him out of state for a few months, so oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is appointed Man of the House. Pa’s gone less than 24 hours when a big yellow dog (Spike) comes tearing through the Coates’ cornfield, destroying crops, scaring the plow-mule and ripping up a couple lengths of fence.

That old yeller dog keeps showing up, stealing food and making himself comfortable. Travis is ready to shoot him on sight but his precocious younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) immediately lays claim to the mutt. The boys’ extraordinarily patient mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), thinks this is a fine idea for some reason and lets Arliss keep Yeller, sticking with literally the first name they could think of.

It isn’t long before Yeller stops stealing food and starts earning his keep. He saves Arliss from an angry mother bear (justifiably angry, since Arliss was messing around with her cub). He turns out to be a good herding dog. Even Travis warms up to him, eventually spending more time with him than Arliss does.

A hint of conflict seems to appear when Yeller’s original owner, cowboy Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up to claim his dog. But Burn turns out to have a heart of gold. After he sees how the family has bonded with Yeller, he agrees to let them keep the dog (in exchange for a horny toad and a “woman-cooked meal” in an arrangement worked out with Arliss). Before he leaves, Burn takes Travis aside and warns him of a spread of hydrophobia that’s going through the area. This information will come in handy very soon.

Travis and Yeller’s bond is cemented when Yeller is seriously injured saving Travis from a pack of wild hogs. Travis is also badly hurt but makes it back home and brings his mother out to rescue Yeller. They escape the threat of hydrophobia this time but it soon descends on the Coates home. First, Travis has to put a rabid cow out of her misery. Then Yeller saves Katie from a rabid wolf attack. While at first it seems that Yeller might be OK, he eventually starts exhibiting symptoms. And so, Travis has to man up and shoot the best friend he’s ever had.

Re-release poster for Old Yeller

Old Yeller was an enormous hit when it was released in 1957. It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and it became a touchstone for multiple generations. It’s one of those movies that people either love or hate for the exact same reason: it’s so incredibly sad. If the death of Bambi’s mother makes kids cry, the death of Old Yeller seems to make men, women, boys and girls of all ages weep.

And yet, this is a film that has never done anything for me. It is not difficult to make me tear up during a movie. But I am resistant to the saccharine manipulation of Old Yeller. Look, nobody likes to see a beloved pet get put down and Yeller seems to be a very good boy indeed. But I just don’t get invested in the relationship between this particular boy and his dog.

Part of the problem is that all of the young performers grate on my nerves to some extent. This worries me because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of both Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in this column. It isn’t that I think the kids are giving bad performances or are miscast. I believe they’re doing exactly what Walt and director Robert Stevenson asked them to do. I just don’t care for it.

Arliss is particularly hard to take. He’s an exploding little dynamo of energy, splashing around in mud puddles, climbing over the furniture and swinging from the rafters. Corcoran shouts most of his dialogue at the top of his lungs. He’s the kind of kid that makes you grit your teeth in frustration if you saw him at the grocery store or a restaurant, hoping against hope that his mother will actually step in and do something about the little hellion.

Travis is a bit more complicated and Kirk does a good job shading him in. He’s a decent kid, doing his best with probably too much responsibility. He warms up to Yeller slowly and believably, at least at first. But when he does decide he likes the dog, it’s like a switch has been flipped. All of a sudden, it’s his dog, not Arliss’. When neighbor Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) tries consoling Travis by gifting him a puppy sired by Yeller (and not just any puppy, the pick of the litter), Travis petulantly rejects it, saying he already has a dog. When Lisbeth gives the pup to Arliss instead, I expected him to shout, “Hooray! Now I have two dogs!” I have a hard time feeling bad for Travis at the end since he essentially stole his brother’s dog. And I can’t feel sad for Arliss because he’s Arliss and everything seems to work out for him anyway.

Both Kirk and Corcoran went on to long careers at Disney. Tommy sort of stumbled into acting when he was cast in a bit part in a production of Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse (also in the cast of that production was troubled former Disney star Bobby Driscoll). Afterward, he became a go-to child guest star on TV shows like Matinee Theatre and The Loretta Young Show.

In 1956, Disney secured the rights to Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, intending to make it their next Mickey Mouse Club serial. Tommy was cast as Joe, opposite Tim Considine from Spin And Marty as Frank. The Hardy Boys was a big hit, so Walt kept Tommy busy hosting remote segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. There was even talk of Tommy appearing as young Davy Crockett before Old Yeller came along. Old Yeller was huge but his next movie for the studio would be even bigger and secure Tommy’s reputation as Disney’s All-American Teenager.

As for Corcoran, he also started out on The Mickey Mouse Club, frequently playing different-but-similar characters called Moochie on serials like Spin And Marty and Moochie Of The Little League. After Old Yeller, he appeared as Tommy’s younger brother a couple more times and eventually moved up to starring roles. After graduating college, Corcoran went back to Disney as an assistant director and producer on movies like Pete’s Dragon and Herbie Goes Bananas. So he’ll continue to be a presence in this column for some time.

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker both receive above-the-title billing, although Parker probably filmed the entirety of his role over the course of a day and a half. He sports a mustache this time but apart from that, it’s Parker as usual. He was getting very close to the end of his association with Disney by this point, so it’s hardly surprising that his role isn’t much more than a cameo.

McGuire had been Oscar-nominated for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 but her career had hit a bit of a rough patch. Now in her 40s, she had begun to transition into “Mom Parts” with William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sizable hit in 1956. Old Yeller cemented the matriarchal image of her career’s second act. She’ll be back in this column before long.

One actor who will not be returning to this column is Chuck Connors. Connors had been working steadily in movies and TV throughout the 50s but hadn’t become a huge star yet. Old Yeller would be his only work for Disney but it proved significant. Shortly after the film came out, Connors was cast as the lead in the television series The Rifleman. He turned the role down, telling the producers they weren’t paying enough. They were ready to move on to another actor when they went to a screening of Old Yeller. Impressed by Connors’ chemistry with Kirk, they agreed to his salary demands and Chuck Connors got the most iconic role of his career.

Old Yeller was a bona fide blockbuster but, perhaps because of the subject matter, Disney showed a fair amount of restraint when it came to tie-in merchandise. It was mostly limited to tie-in books and adaptations for comics and younger readers. There was one bizarre lapse in judgment. In 2005, Disney licensed the name to Kroger for Disney’s Old Yeller dog food. DogFoodAdvisor.com gave the product a one-star rating and it appears to have been bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. It doesn’t look like they make it anymore, which is probably just as well.

Disney's Old Yeller Dog Food

Walt was very proud of Old Yeller and re-released it to theatres a couple of times. The film was so popular that optioning Fred Gipson’s sequel was a no-brainer. So even though Old Yeller himself won’t be back in this column, the Coates family will.

Over the years, Old Yeller has remained critic-proof (except for dog food critics, that is). It’s easy to understand why. You simply cannot argue against the visceral, gut-punch reaction most people have to this movie. Believe me, it is no fun to be the odd man out at the party. Especially when that party’s more like a wake and everybody around you is bawling their eyes out. So if you are one of those people who hold Old Yeller near and dear to your heart, I understand, even if I can’t entirely relate.

VERDICT: Disney Minus. Sorry, it’s just not for me.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

Branching into television production worked out extremely well for Walt Disney. In an era when TV was still broadcast in black-and-white, Walt was forward-thinking enough to insist on filming in color. This enabled him to repackage the enormously popular Davy Crockett serials and release them theatrically. Those two features proved that the quality of Walt’s TV productions could hold their own on the big screen.

Johnny Tremain was intended to premiere on the Disneyland TV series, just like Davy Crockett. Walt would continue to make historical adventures a key element of the show for years with serials like The Saga Of Andy Burnett and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca. But after screening Johnny Tremain, Walt decided it was good enough to skip television and premiere theatrically instead.

If he was going for longevity, Walt couldn’t have picked better source material. Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1943. It’s been a fixture of middle school curriculums ever since. The book has never gone out of print and in 2000, Publishers Weekly placed it at #16 on their list of all-time best-selling children’s books. If you’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without being exposed to Johnny Tremain, you must have gone to a school that didn’t have books.

Tom Blackburn, Disney’s go-to writer for historical adventure projects, adapted the book. He and composer George Bruns also tried to recapture their “Ballad of Davy Crockett” magic with a couple of original songs, although “The Liberty Tree” didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Blackburn’s script betrays the movie’s TV origins, splitting the story into two distinct episodes.

In the first, we meet our young hero. Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is an apprentice silversmith in Boston working under Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright). Wealthy merchant Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot) wants to commission a replacement piece but Lapham refuses, concerned that his skills are no longer up to the task. Johnny insists that he’s up to the challenge and accepts the work under a tight deadline.

While working on the piece, Johnny reveals a secret to Lapham’s daughter, Priscilla (played by former Disney child star Luana Patten, considerably grown up from her appearances in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart): Johnny is in fact related to Lyte. Before she died, his mother gave him her christening cup engraved with the Lyte family crest. But Johnny wants to make his own way in the world and has decided not to confront Lyte with his story unless he absolutely must.

For advice on Lyte’s commission, Johnny goes to visit Boston’s other prominent silversmith, Paul Revere (Walter Sande). Revere, of course, is a member of the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary organization formed by Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane). Printer’s apprentice Rab Silsbee (future West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Richard Beymer) encourages Johnny to get involved but Johnny prefers to stay out of it.

Taking Revere’s advice, Johnny breaks the Sabbath to finish Lyte’s commission. But an accident badly burns his hand, rendering it useless. The Laphams are forced to let him go. Unable to find work anywhere else, Johnny appeals to Lyte, showing him the cup his mother left him. Rather than taking him in, Lyte accuses Johnny of burglary and has him arrested. Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell) defends Johnny in court, calling Priscilla as a witness and clearing his name. Grateful for all their help, Johnny takes a job delivering newspapers and acting as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty.

From this point on, Johnny has a front-row seat for all the key events of the American Revolution. He and Rab take part in the Boston Tea Party. He’s there for Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to Lexington. He’s on the front lines of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. If he’d been carrying a gun, he probably would have been responsible for the shot heard round the world.

There’s nothing about Johnny Tremain that I would describe as actively bad. It’s a well-made film with high production values and a capable cast. But it is an extremely old-fashioned movie, a little bit stiff and stagy. At times, it feels more like a professionally made Independence Day pageant than a film, especially when the entire cast marches through the streets of Boston singing “The Liberty Tree”. Hamilton, this isn’t.

The biggest problem is that Forbes’ novel has had every last trace of grit and toughness scrubbed out of it by the Disney Sterilization Crew. The book treats the Battles of Lexington and Concord with some degree of realism. Rab is wounded and dies painfully (spoiler alert for a novel you really should have read by now, I guess). The movie treats it like an exciting romp through the woods with high spirits and laughter all around. I don’t expect Johnny Tremain to turn into Saving Private Ryan but any anti-war message from Forbes’ book has been completely jettisoned.

Much of the pleasure of Johnny Tremain comes from watching the cavalcade of character actors as real-life historical figures. Walter Sande is a particular treat as Paul Revere, giving the silversmith a down-to-earth decency that goes beyond the usual thumbnail sketch of kids’ Intro to American History books. Sebastian Cabot is smugness personified as Lyte. And Jeff York (Mike Fink, King of the River!) is virtually unrecognizable as James Otis, a founding member of the Sons of Liberty whose behavior has become increasingly erratic after a head injury.

Considering the presence of Luana Patten, you might expect Walt to cast her former co-star Bobby Driscoll as Johnny. But Driscoll had already been arrested once for marijuana possession by this point, so Walt cast newcomer Hal Stalmaster in the lead role. He isn’t a natural actor but he certainly sells Johnny’s earnestness.

If you’ve paid attention to the credits of virtually any movie or TV show from the second half of the 20th century, you’ve seen the name of Hal’s older brother, the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Lynn was already in casting when Hal got the part in Johnny Tremain and was evidently surprised to find out that his younger brother had any interest in acting. As it turned out, Lynn was right. Hal’s interests did end up lying elsewhere. Walt cast him in another Revolutionary War TV serial, The Swamp Fox starring Leslie Nielsen. But apart from a few small TV roles, Hal retired from acting entirely before the end of the 1960s. He ended up following in his brother’s footsteps, working in Disney’s casting department for a time before becoming a talent agent.

But Johnny Tremain’s most significant addition to the Disney roster was director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson was a British director who emigrated to the US in the early 1940s. He was under contract to David O. Selznick, for whom he made the 1943 version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles, and made a few films at RKO before moving into television. He was a prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke.

When Walt hired Stevenson to direct Johnny Tremain, it was just another TV gig. It became a life-changing experience. Over the course of the next twenty-plus years, Stevenson would direct another 18 features for the studio, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his work on Mary Poppins. In 1977, Variety named him the most commercially successful director of all time with 16 films on their list of all-time highest-grossing films. Needless to say, we’ll be seeing a lot more Robert Stevenson movies in this column.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt’s theatrical gamble paid off for Johnny Tremain. Box office numbers weren’t widely reported back in 1957. But Walt certainly acted like he expected another Davy Crockett-size hit. He flooded stores with Johnny Tremain toys, comics, and other tchotchkes. There were even official Johnny Tremain tri-cornered hats to try and convince kids that coonskin caps were so 1955.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Crayons and Stencils
Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Tri-Cornered Hat

The movie also inspired Walt to propose a new addition to Disneyland called Liberty Street recreating Revolutionary-era Boston. Liberty Street eventually morphed into Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The Johnny Tremain connections might not be quite as overt as Walt had once planned but the Liberty Tree, an enormous 100-year-old southern live oak, still dominates the area.

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

Johnny Tremain also stayed alive through screenings on TV and schools. That original TV format lent itself to editing, so in addition to returning to its original berth on Disneyland, Disney edited it down further to focus on sequences like Paul Revere’s ride. For years, even if you hadn’t seen Johnny Tremain in its entirety, you’d probably seen some of it on a day when your history teacher needed a break.

Today, Johnny Tremain isn’t impossible to find but Disney certainly isn’t treating it like one of their crown jewels. They haven’t released it on Blu-ray or made it available on Disney+ but you can rent or buy an HD version digitally on Vudu or iTunes. It isn’t a terrible movie but I think it’s destined to remain stuck in the past. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy revisiting it. But if you’re new to the world of Johnny Tremain, I don’t think you’ll be inspired to buy your own tri-cornered hat.

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Secrets Of Life

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Secrets Of Life

Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure features were not in the business of playing coy. When you sit down to watch The Living Desert or The Vanishing Prairie or The African Lion, the title alone gives you a pretty good idea what to expect. If anything, Disney was criticized for simplifying things too much, reducing complex behaviors to cute, anthropomorphized routines. But Secrets Of Life is a grand, mysterious title that tells you almost nothing. The poster is even less helpful. This movie could be about anything.

As usual, Walt knew what he was doing. The True-Life Adventure movies had been surprisingly popular but they mostly focused on easily recognizable animals. Secrets Of Life takes a different approach that borders on the experimental. This time, director James Algar sets his cameras on plant life, insects (primarily bees), and fish.

If you think that sounds like kind of a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects, you’re not wrong. Algar does his best to transition smoothly from one topic to the next, relying on the Animated Paintbrush that has traditionally been used to open each feature. We see a lot more of the A.P. this time and with good reason. It’s a quick and easy way to segue from one thing to the next.

But Algar also expands his cinematic toolbox this time out, utilizing time-lapse photography, macro photography and underwater cameras more than ever. He even switches to CinemaScope for the grand finale (more on that in a second). As a result, this is one of the most visually spectacular True-Life Adventures. The time-lapse sequences of plant growth and blooming flowers are beautiful and genuinely interesting. Algar lets these images speak for themselves, reducing the role of Winston Hibler’s folksy narrator. Honestly, Algar may have overestimated how compelling that footage actually is. By the end of the sequence, even the most hardcore gardener may find their attention starting to wander.

We next get up close and personal with bees and ants, thanks in part to the macro-photography of Robert H. Crandall. Crandall had previously worked on the memorable spider-vs-wasp sequence in The Living Desert. There isn’t anything quite that dramatic in Secrets Of Life but the footage is still remarkably intimate. Even with modern advances in camera technology, Crandall’s work still holds up today.

The underwater sequences probably could have provided the basis for an entire True-Life Adventure of their own. Both the short subjects and the features covered creatures of the land and sky extensively but rarely went aquatic. Even when the series did go to the ocean for the Oscar-winning short subject Water Birds, the cameras were pointed up, not down. But Algar finds plenty of fascinating subjects in the water, including the alien-looking anglerfish and the diving bell spider.

There are plenty of possible reasons why Disney never gave sea creatures their own True-Life Adventure spotlight. Maybe shooting an entire feature underwater would have been too expensive or technically challenging. Maybe Walt didn’t think fish were relatable enough to attract general audiences. It’s even possible that Walt didn’t think he could compete with the groundbreaking work of Jacques Cousteau, whose 1956 documentary The Silent World won the Oscar. Whatever the reason, the lack of an underwater True-Life Adventure feature feels like a missed opportunity.

Having covered plants, insects and sea creatures, Secrets Of Life wraps things up with…volcanoes. Why? I guess because when you’ve got breathtaking, CinemaScope footage of active, erupting volcanoes, you’ve gotta use it somewhere. And don’t get me wrong, this stuff does indeed look fantastic. Hibler tries his best to tie the footage to the rest of the picture, intoning about the earth’s cycle of life, reinventing itself in fire and so on and so forth. But really this is just a big fireworks show included for the sole purpose of making the audience go, “Ooh!”

Despite the movie’s lack of cohesion, Secrets Of Life is one of the better True-Life Adventures. The photography is top-notch and the variety of plant and animal life we’re introduced to is genuinely interesting. Algar picked his subjects wisely, providing unusual facts and information. Of all the True-Life Adventure features covered in this column so far, Secrets Of Life is probably the most educational. I think most viewers would learn at least a little something new from this.

But it’s also the entry in the series that feels the most like school. Hibler’s narration is a little drier than usual and the moments of comic relief are less frequent. As long as you’re interested in the subject at hand, the movie remains compelling. But if your interest starts to flag, and at some point, it certainly will, the movie becomes a bit of a slog.

Still, with a running time of only 70 minutes, it never turns into an interminable slog. If you find yourself getting bored with a segment, just wait for a few minutes. It’ll soon be over and you’ll be on to something new. Secrets Of Life can feel a bit like a clip show made up from leftover scraps of footage that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. If that is indeed the secret of Secrets Of Life, Algar and Disney made the right call. The footage was too good to waste.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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