Between 1948 and 1960, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures shorts and features reinvented the nature documentary. The combination of breathtaking nature photography with clever direction, editing, music and narration proved to be irresistible. Director James Algar, producer Ben Sharpsteen, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and composer Oliver Wallace took the skills they honed in animation and seamlessly transferred them to nonfiction. The series won eight Oscars and proved surprisingly popular at the box office, both at home and overseas. Jungle Cat would be the final True-Life Adventure. Happily, the series goes out on a high note.
This time, the Animated Paintbrush whisks us away to South America where the jaguar prowls the Amazon rainforest. The jaguar, we’re told, has a great deal in common with our domesticated housecats. To demonstrate this, Algar shows us some footage of kitties roaming around the Disney lot. If nothing else, this proves that even in 1960, everybody was a sucker for a cat video.
After some stunning footage of the Amazon, still looking to be in pretty good shape back then, Hibler introduces our leading lady, a spotted jaguar. Because the True-Life Adventure team was always looking to graft a little romance onto the harsh realities of nature, it isn’t long before the female jaguar finds a mate: a black jaguar. Personally, I never knew the difference between a jaguar, a panther and a leopard. Now I do. I hope Walt would be happy to know that his educational films are continuing to educate all these years later.
The two cats eventually get together and have kittens. They are, of course, the most adorable little screwballs this series has seen since the baby polar bears in White Wilderness. The proud parents teach their babies to swim, to fish and to hunt. They’re too young and uncoordinated to have much luck hunting but they certainly look cute trying.
Unlike prior films like White Wilderness and The Living Desert, Jungle Cat doesn’t suffer from obviously staged sequences, charges of animal cruelty or goofy camera and editing tricks. The series has left the days of the square-dancing scorpions behind it. The film’s only potential downside is one of expectations. The series was always better off when the titles were kept somewhat vague and generalized. Jungle Cat has the same problem as The African Lion: it could use more cat.
Not that the other animals we’re introduced to aren’t interesting in their own right. There are tapirs and anteaters and monkeys and marmosets galore. As usual for this series, we’re treated to a lengthy montage of seemingly every bird the crew was able to capture on film. But by the time Algar turns the spotlight on the sloth, I was only too happy to see the jaguar come back and chase it up a tree.
In another typical move, Algar saves some of the most intense footage for last. This time it’s a battle of the apex predators as an enormous boa constrictor comes along to pick up some baby jaguar for dinner. Mom and Dad get the kittens to safety, then take the snake on themselves. Even though this is a Disney movie, the fight has a definitive conclusion and it isn’t a happy ending for one of the combatants. Indeed, there are several moments where the fight looks like it could go either way.
Jungle Cat was released to theatres in August of 1960. It did reasonably well at the box office, earning over $2 million. Nevertheless, Walt decided it was time to close shop on the True-Life Adventures. He had already begun directing his documentary resources toward television. Going forward, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color (and its various retitled successors) would be the studio’s home for educational projects, often with animated framing sequences starring a new character, Ludwig Von Drake.
But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures would live on at the studio for many years. Perri had demonstrated that it was possible to tell a completely fictional story using only animals and narration. The studio would now head in that direction. Don’t worry, animal lovers. We’ll still see a lot more dogs, cats, wolves, cougars, horses, raccoons, bears and monkeys in this column in the weeks ahead.
We also haven’t seen the last of the regular True-Life Adventure team. James Algar, Winston Hibler and Oliver Wallace will all be back, more often than not on those aforementioned animal pictures. But this is the last we’ll be hearing from producer Ben Sharpsteen. Sharpsteen had been with Walt since 1929, working as an animator, a director, a production supervisor, and establishing the studio’s in-house animation training program.
After the True-Life Adventure series ended, Sharpsteen worked for a couple more years on the TV end. In 1962, after more than thirty years with the studio, he retired and moved to Calistoga, California. In 1978, he founded the Sharpsteen Museum, dedicated not only to his career at Disney but local Calistoga history in general. He passed away December 20, 1980, and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1998.
The True-Life Adventures series was certainly not without its share of controversy. Even before allegations of animal cruelty were leveled at some of the films, critics questioned the techniques used and information imparted. But on balance, the work done by Algar, Hibler, Sharpsteen and their many cinematographers was groundbreaking and undeniably entertaining. These films paved the way for later, more humane nature documentaries.
Disney itself would eventually get back into the documentary business with IMAX movies like Sacred Planet and the creation of Disneynature, essentially True-Life Adventures for the 21st century. Because of the True-Life Adventures, nature films became an integral part of the Disney identity. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re a big reason why Disney+ has an entire section devoted to National Geographic programming. Even today, the True-Life Adventure legacy lives on.
As I mentioned when I started this project, the purpose of this column is to examine all of the Disney studio’s theatrical output in order of its American release. This means that TV productions like The Horsemasters and Hans Brinker that screened theatrically overseas won’t be appearing here. The Sign Of Zorro, a compilation of TV episodes originally broadcast back in 1957, first premiered overseas in late 1958. By the time it hit American theatres in June of 1960, Zorro was essentially over.
Zorro first appeared in the 1919 novel The Curse Of Capistrano by prolific pulp writer Johnston McCulley. A year later, the character made his movie debut with Douglas Fairbanks starring in The Mark Of Zorro. Both the book and the film were incredibly popular, leading McCulley to write dozens more Zorro stories, more movies (notably the 1940 version starring Tyrone Power), serials, comics and assorted rip-offs. Somewhere along the way, a little kid named Bruce Wayne saw a version of it just moments before his parents were senselessly murdered in front of him. But that’s another story.
Walt acquired the TV rights to Zorro in 1952, hoping to attract a network that would help finance the construction of Disneyland. Nobody was willing to give Zorro a greenlight without a pilot, a prospect Walt found somewhat insulting given his track record. However, Walt did reach a deal with ABC to produce the anthology series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, which premiered in 1954. After Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club both proved popular, ABC agreed to take a chance on Zorro.
To play the title character, Walt cast Guy Williams, a former fashion model who had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years, appearing mostly in smaller supporting parts. Williams was presumably cast solely on the basis of his good looks and the fact that he knew how to wield a sword. Certainly there was nothing in his professional background to suggest that he could anchor a series, much less pull off a dual role.
As it turned out, Walt’s instincts were correct. Guy Williams is a terrific, swashbuckling Zorro. He looks like he’s genuinely having fun, which is something of a prerequisite for this character. You can understand why kids everywhere tried emulating his Zorro, resulting in a schoolyard epidemic of slashed and graffitied Z’s.
Pantomime artist Gene Sheldon won the role of Zorro’s devoted, mute manservant, Bernardo. Broadway actor Henry Calvin was cast as the bumbling Sergeant Garcia. Both actors would appear in the Kevin Corcoran circus vehicle Toby Tyler, a movie we’ve already covered in this column but was filmed after Zorro had completed its second season. Sheldon and Calvin will be teamed up again soon.
The impulse behind The Sign Of Zorro was the same one that led to the two Davy Crockett features. Overseas audiences didn’t have access to Disney’s TV productions unless they were given a theatrical release. Once international audiences proved that the TV stuff played just as well on the big screen, why not release them in the States?
But there’s an important difference between Davy Crockett and Zorro. The Crockett programs were both miniseries. Each one of the films simply assembled all three episodes of its respective series. But Zorro was an ongoing, weekly series with story arcs that tended to run for about 13 weeks. The Sign Of Zorro was compiled from the first arc, following Don Diego de la Vega’s arrival in Los Angeles, the creation of the Zorro persona, and his defeat of greedy tyrant Captain Monastario (Britt Lomond, previously seen as General Custer in Tonka). That’s a whole lot of story to whittle down from 8 half-hour episodes to a brisk 90 minutes.
Given those limitations, it’s a little surprising that The Sign Of Zorro is as coherent and enjoyable as it is. I haven’t seen the TV series, so I’m not entirely sure what material was left on the cutting room floor. That’s a good thing. If at any moment the audience starts to suspect they’re missing something, the project would have to be considered a failure.
I suspect the TV version makes more use of George J. Lewis as Zorro’s father, Don Alejandro de la Vega. Lewis was a veteran character actor who had earlier starred in the Zorro-In-Name-Only serial Zorro’s Black Whip. He’s mostly stuck on the sidelines in the feature version but he stayed with the series to the end.
More than anything, The Sign Of Zorro reminds me of a greatest-hits album. You get a little taste of everything that made the TV show fun. There’s the catchy theme song by Norman Foster and George Bruns, performed by the Mellomen. (The Chordettes, the girl group best known for “Lollipop” and “Mr. Sandman”, got as high as #17 on the pop chart with their version in 1958.) You get a little flavor of the comedic touch Sheldon and Calvin brought to their roles. Williams and Lomond are well-matched and get in some exciting swordplay. It’s all just enough to leave you wanting to see more Zorro adventures.
Overseas, they got more. Zorro The Avenger, released in 1959, pits Zorro against “The Eagle” (Charles Korvin) in another first-season storyline. But in the US, Zorro hit a major stumbling block. After the second season, ABC got into a dispute with Disney over ownership of Zorro. While that worked its way through the courts, Walt stopped production on the series, despite the fact that the ratings were as high as ever.
Assuming everything would be ironed out eventually, the entire cast was kept on contract. Guy Williams was kept busy doing personal appearances, often in character as Zorro. Sheldon and Calvin went off to film Toby Tyler. To keep the character in the public eye, Disney released The Sign Of Zorro domestically and produced four hour-long specials that began airing in October of 1960. But, like Davy Crockett before him, Zorro’s time in the spotlight was intense but short-lived. The series petered out but the studio retained the rights to the character for awhile, not letting them go until 1967.
Guy Williams was kept under contract for a short time, appearing in the 1962 Wonderful World Of Color adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper (another overseas theatrical release). After leaving Disney, he became the patriarch of the Robinson family on Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space. That would end up being his final role before retiring to Argentina, where his performance as Zorro was revered.
Weirdly enough, that was not quite the end of the story for Disney and Zorro. The character never entirely went out of style and the early 1980s brought a mini-resurgence of interest. George Hamilton starred in the parody Zorro, The Gay Blade and Filmation produced an animated series where Zorro shared top billing with Tarzan and The Lone Ranger. Disney wasn’t about to miss out on this action, so in 1983, the comedy Zorro And Son premiered on CBS.
Zorro And Son was intended to be a direct continuation of the original series. But half-hour dramas were out of style by 1983, so CBS made Disney switch to a sitcom format. It was even rumored that Guy Williams would be coming out of retirement to reprise his role but left the project when he got a look at the scripts. Instead, Henry Darrow, who provided the voice of Zorro for the Filmation show, starred as Zorro Sr. and Paul Regina played Zorro Jr. The show utilized some of the same sets and recycled the classic theme song. Former Disney imp Kevin Corcoran, who moved behind the camera after his years as a child star, even served as producer. The series was not well-loved and was mercy killed after just five episodes. You can find episodes on YouTube if you’re morbidly curious but I don’t recommend it.
Despite this, Disney’s Zorro remains popular to this day. Repeats, both colorized and in their original black-and-white, would soon become staples on the Disney Channel. In 2009, the studio would release complete season sets as part of their Walt Disney Treasures line of limited edition DVDs. Those collections are now some of the most highly prized discs in the Disney library, selling for megabucks online.
Even if Disney is no longer in the Zorro business, the character is very much alive. He has continued to appear in books, comics, plays, TV shows and, of course, a pair of movies starring Antonio Banderas. Robert Rodriguez, who was originally attached to direct the first Banderas Zorro, is currently developing a female-led Zorro TV project. Given the character’s enduring popularity, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another Disney Zorro someday. And as long as it somehow incorporates that killer theme song, I bet it’ll be a big hit.
By 1960, the original members of the Disney Repertory Players had all left the studio. Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten had grown up and moved on, albeit to very different ends. Fess Parker had hung up his coonskin cap and, in a few years, would be putting on…well, a different coonskin cap for another studio. Richard Todd, who was still getting top billing in the UK, was about to lose out on the role of a lifetime to another former Disney star, Sean Connery.
At the same time, Disney was assembling a new team of contract stars. James MacArthur and Janet Munro were the go-to young adults. Fred MacMurray had already starred in one feature and would soon sign on as a recurring father figure. Kid stars were recruited from TV, mostly The Mickey Mouse Club. Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Annette Funicello and Tim Considine had all become popular favorites. But of all Disney’s recurring stars of the 1960s, perhaps none would become more synonymous with the studio than Hayley Mills. When she made her Disney debut in 1960’s Pollyanna, all the pieces clicked into place.
The novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter was first published in 1913. It was an immediate bestseller, producing a string of sequels (only one of which was written by Porter), Broadway adaptations (including one starring James MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes) and even The Glad Game, a popular board game from Parker Brothers.
In 1920, Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, produced and starred in a film adaptation that was also a big hit. She was 27 years old at the time playing a 12-year-old. Mary Pickford had a weird career.
Because of the character’s consistent popularity over the years, the news that Walt Disney would be spearheading a remake was greeted as a kind of inevitability. Pollyanna was already known as a tearjerker of the highest magnitude. The word itself had become part of the vernacular, describing an excessively cheerful or optimistic person. This was exactly the kind of nostalgic, sentimental hogwash Walt had become known for. Anticipation was not high.
Nevertheless, Walt took the project extremely seriously. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Pickford version, Walt assembled one of the most distinguished casts he’d yet worked with. Jane Wyman, Karl Malden and Donald Crisp were all Oscar winners. Nancy Olson, Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou were prior nominees. These were not the usual Disney actors.
At first, this lineup of heavy-hitters intimidated first-time feature director David Swift. Swift had started his career at Disney in the 30s, working his way up from office boy to assistant to animator on such features as Fantasia and The Reluctant Dragon. He left the studio to serve in the Air Force during World War II. When he returned home, he became a TV writer, creating the Wally Cox comedy Mister Peepers and honing his directing skills on anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and Climax! Walt approached his old employee about writing the screenplay for Pollyanna. Swift’s detailed treatment impressed him enough to offer him the directing gig as well.
Of course, the whole project would have been pointless if they couldn’t find the right girl to play Pollyanna. After an exhaustive talent search led nowhere, Walt was ready to call the whole thing off. But while in London, Walt’s wife, Lillian, and producer Bill Anderson’s wife, Virginia, decided to go to the movies. The picture they went to see, the 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, starred distinguished stage-and-screen actor John Mills and, in her film debut, his daughter, Hayley. Lillian and Virginia thought Hayley Mills would be perfect as Pollyanna, so they dragged their husbands to the cinema. Although they didn’t know it yet, by the end of that screening a new Disney star had been born. (Two of them, actually. John Mills will be appearing in this column himself before too long.)
Within its opening minutes, Pollyanna announces itself as a spiritual successor to such rose-colored glimpses into the past as So Dear To My Heart. Opening on a shot of a boy’s bare butt as he swings into the local swimmin’ hole for some innocent skinny-dipping, the movie immediately hearkens back to a time when skinny-dipping was actually considered innocent. From there, we follow young orphan Jimmy Bean (Disney regular Kevin Corcoran) as he navigates the streets of Harrington with his hoop and stick. The only thing missing is sepia tone to confirm that we’re back in the Good Ole Days.
When the orphaned Pollyanna arrives to live with her wealthy Aunt Polly (Wyman), Harrington seems like a picture-perfect little town but resentment and hostility simmers everywhere just beneath the surface. Polly opposes the town’s demands, led by Mayor Warren (Crisp), to raze the dilapidated old orphanage on the grounds that her father donated the landmark to the community. Reverend Ford (Malden) has allowed Polly to dictate the tenor of his weekly sermons, alternately boring and frightening his congregation with fire-and-brimstone ranting. Polly’s maid, Nancy (Olson), is in love with George Dodds (James Drury, recently seen shooting poor Mr. Stubbs in Toby Tyler) but has to sneak around to see him.
Pollyanna’s arrival coincides with the return of Polly’s old paramour, Dr. Edmond Chilton (Richard Egan). Chilton entertained hopes of rekindling his old romance but having found Polly changed considerably, he sides with the townsfolk in organizing a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage.
Like everyone else in town except Aunt Polly, Chilton is immediately charmed by Pollyanna and her sunny outlook on life. Pollyanna touches Reverend Ford’s heart by sharing a locket given to her by her father inscribed with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.” (Lincoln never said that, by the way. The Disney marketing department had to stop selling keepsake replica lockets after Swift told them he’d made it up himself.) She even wins over the town’s most feared residents: hypochondriac shut-in Mrs. Snow (Moorehead) and old recluse Mr. Pendergast (Menjou).
Pollyanna sneaks out of her aunt’s house to enjoy the bazaar, which is a rousing success. But as she’s trying to sneak back in, she slips and falls from a tree, breaking her back and, worst of all, her spirit. Dr. Chilton tells Polly that her niece will never walk again without love…and a major operation but mostly love. Aunt Polly learns the error of her ways and the entire town gathers at the house to see Pollyanna off to the hospital and show her how important she’s become to everyone in the extremely short time she’s been in town.
On paper, this all sounds insufferably corny. But under Swift’s capable direction, Pollyanna manages to walk a tightrope between sweet and saccharine. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. Nobody is more surprised by this than me. I had managed to avoid exposure to Pollyanna before watching it for this column. This wasn’t difficult. It simply didn’t look as though it would hold any appeal for me whatsoever. But even a cynic like me can appreciate good schmaltz when it’s put together well and the ingredients here all work.
The cast is certainly the biggest factor in the film’s success. These are all old pros but there’s no sense that anyone is slumming it by appearing in a children’s film. Everything is played with absolute sincerity with no winking at the camera. Jane Wyman could easily have tilted her performance into Wicked Stepmother territory but she remains grounded and believable. Her imperiousness comes across as a natural defense mechanism against a world that doesn’t look favorably upon strong, independent women. When she finally softens her heart a little, you don’t get the idea that her personality is now radically different. It’s just deepened a bit.
Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou, on the other hand, do undergo radical personality shifts thanks to Pollyanna. Old Mr. Pendergast even agrees to adopt Jimmy Bean, even though they didn’t seem all that close. But if you’re going to include such broadly drawn characters, it’s smart to get actors like Moorehead and Menjou who can commit to them and have fun.
This would turn out to be Adolphe Menjou’s last film before his death in 1963. Moorehead would remain busy for the next decade and a half, including her iconic run on the sitcom Bewitched, but this would be her only appearance in a Disney feature. In 1971, she’d appear in The Strange Monster Of Strawberry Cove, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney, but TV releases fall outside the purview of this column.
Karl Malden was a Very Serious Actor, known for his work with Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. He’d won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire and had been nominated for On The Waterfront. If anyone was going to look down their not insubstantial nose at a Disney picture, it was him. But Malden goes all in. He has a lot of fun ranting about God’s wrath but his most effective moment on the pulpit comes after he’s met with Pollyanna and decides to focus on “happy texts”. As he realizes that he was wrong, we see him struggling with shame and self-doubt. It’s a tender moment that helps elevate the material.
Of course, Hayley Mills is the golden thread that keeps the movie together and she’s delightful. Like Bobby Driscoll before her, she won the Academy Juvenile Award for her performance, the last time that honorary trophy was given out. The movie wouldn’t be the same without her guileless presence. She and Disney were made for each other. We’ll see a lot more of her in this column. We’ll also have return visits from Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Nancy Olson, Donald Crisp and, of course, the inescapable Kevin Corcoran.
Walt had given Pollyanna a relatively lavish budget by his live-action standards and was expecting it to be a blockbuster. It wasn’t. It earned a tidy profit, which is certainly more than could be said for some of the studio’s other recent releases. But Walt was disappointed. The picture connected with girls and women but Walt felt more boys would have gone to see it if it’d had a different title.
The Disney studio wasn’t quite through with Eleanor Porter’s creation. In 1982, the Walt Disney anthology series aired The Adventures Of Pollyanna, a pilot for a potential series starring a young Patsy Kensit as the Glad Girl and Shirley Jones as Aunt Polly. They’d have better luck a few years later with Polly, a musical remake directed by Debbie Allen.
The mostly Black cast included Keshia Knight Pulliam, Phylicia Rashad, Dorian Harewood, Brock Peters, Celeste Holm, Ken Page (the future voice of Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas) and, in her final role, Butterfly McQueen. Polly was a ratings smash and a sequel, Polly Comin’ Home!, followed the very next year. The Polly movies have a fanbase, especially in the African-American community, so I’m surprised Disney hasn’t done more with them.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at a movie as earnest and sweet as Pollyanna, especially in this day and age. It almost requires an act of will to switch off your inner cynic and allow yourself to be won over by something this innocent. Honestly, I’m not sure I was able to completely do that myself. But if nothing else, I can appreciate the skill behind the movie and understand why its fans love it.
VERDICT: Disney Plus…I know, I’m surprised myself.
Walt Disney’s Treasure Island launched the studio’s live-action division with a bang back in 1950. The movie raked in a small fortune, both domestically and overseas. So it was only a matter of time before Walt decided to return to his library’s Robert Louis Stevenson shelves to see what else might be worth adapting.
Stevenson was a popular and prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays and nonfiction. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, his entire life’s work can pretty much be boiled down to Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped. Of those, Kidnapped is the most “obscure”. There have only been about a dozen different movie and TV versions of the novel over the years, compared to the countless official and unofficial adaptations of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll.
Director Robert Stevenson (no relation to the author, although the Disney publicity department certainly wished he had been) was in production on Darby O’Gill And The Little People when Walt suggested Kidnapped as a follow-up. Stevenson thought that was a fine idea and wrote the screenplay himself. Stevenson had started his film career as a scriptwriter in England, gradually directing more and more and writing less and less. He hadn’t received a screenwriting credit since Jane Eyre in 1943. This would be the first and only time he’d be credited as a writer for Disney, despite his long and profitable association with the studio.
Stevenson had been obliged to shoot Darby O’Gill in California but Kidnapped would be filmed on location in Scotland, with studio work done in London at Pinewood Studios. The entire cast and crew hailed from the United Kingdom, with one notable exception. All-American contract player James MacArthur, star of The Light In The Forest and Third Man On The Mountain, starred as David Balfour, rightful heir to the dilapidated House of Shaws. MacArthur had definitely improved as an actor since his Disney debut but attempting a Scottish accent was punching above his weight.
David’s parents have recently died and, armed with a letter of introduction, he makes his way to his ancestral home and Uncle Ebenezer (John Laurie, who had appeared as Blind Pew in Treasure Island). When the eccentric and miserly Ebenezer discovers that the House of Shaws rightfully belongs to David, he tries to arrange a little accident for him. When that doesn’t work, he pays off an old sailing associate, Captain Hoseason, to shanghai the young man and sell him into indentured servitude. The great character actor Bernard Lee makes his one and only Disney appearance as Hoseason. He would soon begin a lengthy association with Darby O’Gill’s Sean Connery as M to Connery’s 007.
Hoseason’s ship has barely made it out to sea when it collides with a boat in the fog. The sole survivor of the accident turns out to be Alan Breck Stewart, the real-life Jacobite rebel played here by Peter Finch. Finch’s performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Disney’s The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men had given his career a nice little boost. Kidnapped would be Finch’s only other Disney project before moving on to such acclaimed films as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Network.
After David discovers that Hoseason is planning to rob and murder Stewart, the two men fight their way off the ship and are separated as they make their way back to shore. David makes his way to the town of Appin where he encounters Colin Campbell (Andrew Cruickshank), known far and wide as the Red Fox, an emissary sent to deal with the Jacobites. While the Red Fox is interrogating David, he’s shot dead by a hidden assassin. Pursued by Redcoats, David runs into Alan, who denies that he’s the killer.
Once again, the Appin Murder is an historical incident that is presumably fleshed out a lot more in R.L. Stevenson’s book. In R. Stevenson’s 97-minute movie, this entire middle section is more than a little tedious and confusing. There’s a lot of talk about politics, loyalty and taxation which will likely make your eyes glaze over unless you’re extremely well-versed in 18th century British history.
The highlight of this section is the first screen appearance of Peter O’Toole. Peter Finch had worked with O’Toole at the Old Vic and recommended him to Stevenson. O’Toole plays Robin MacGregor, son of Rob Roy MacGregor whose own struggles against the Redcoats had been indifferently dramatized in Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. The second O’Toole enters the scene, you forget that poor James MacArthur is even there. You can’t take your eyes off him and he has an electricity with Finch that MacArthur can’t hope to replicate. Even the fact that the scene culminates in a bagpipe duel, a spectacle that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds, can’t dim O’Toole’s undeniable star quality.
O’Toole and Finch would remain good friends until Finch’s untimely death in 1977. There’s a great story that the two Peters were out drinking late one night in Ireland. When the landlord refused to serve them another drink, they bought the pub. The check bounced but hey, it’s the drunken impulse that counts. Unfortunately, Peter O’Toole will not be back in this column, unless I’ve decided to include Pixar movies by the time we get to Ratatouille. Just a couple years after Kidnapped, O’Toole would hang up his bagpipes for good as Lawrence Of Arabia catapulted him to a whole new level of stardom.
Eventually, David and Alan make their way back to the House of Shaws where they confront Ebenezer and get him to confess to his misdeeds within earshot of a lawyer. David gets his inheritance, Alan heads off presumably to further adventures and all’s well that ends well. Or something. At least it ends.
For its first twenty or so minutes, Kidnapped holds some promise. The Scottish countryside is lovely, the old ruins of the House of Shaws are creepy, John Laurie is an engagingly sinister presence and James MacArthur…well…he fulfills the terms and obligations of his contract. But the actual kidnapping part of Kidnapped is over much too quickly. Scotland is not a huge country, so it feels like David is really only on board that ship for less than a day before he and Alan escape. It seems about as perilous as missing your stop on a bus.
The rest of the film gets bogged down in endless dialogue scenes. Robert Stevenson the director gave too much control over to Robert Stevenson the screenwriter. You can tell that he wanted to remain as faithful to the book as possible but he does so by concentrating on incident and plot over character and emotion. And since the story is circular, ending up right back at the House of Shaws, everything in the middle feels a bit pointless.
Finch delivers an entertaining performance but Alan’s story remains vague and confusing for anyone not familiar with the novel or history. The emotional crux of the story should hinge on the developing bond between Alan and David but that never materializes. By the time they part ways, they still seem like relative strangers to each other.
Contemporary critics and audiences agreed that Kidnapped was no Treasure Island. Robert Stevenson recovered quickly, however. He’d continue to work for Disney into the 1970s, directing some of the most profitable and beloved movies in the studio’s history. He’ll be back in this column again. So will Robert Louis Stevenson for that matter, although not for a very long time.
It was the dawn of a new decade but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll around the Disney lot. Granted, the aesthetic of the 1950s would remain firmly entrenched around most of the country for at least the first few years of the 60s. But as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it would linger around the conservative, family-friendly Disney studio even longer. But Walt wasn’t just trying to stop time. He was trying to turn it back. Once again, he was trying to recapture his boyhood in Marceline and another of his youthful obsessions: the circus.
Toby Tyler was originally a serial by prolific kid-lit author James Otis that ran in the pages of Harper’s Young People in 1877. It was collected as a book in 1881 and followed by a pair of sequels. Otis’s book falls squarely in the tradition of mischievous youth novels like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy. It was a childhood favorite of several future literary giants, including William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and Carl Sandburg.
The book had been filmed once before as the 1923 Jackie Coogan vehicle Circus Days. (Good luck tracking that one down. The film had been considered lost until recently and it still hasn’t been made available to the general public.) Whether Walt had read the book or seen the movie or both, it’s hardly surprising that it ended up on his radar. The 1880s setting and depiction of small-town Americana puts it right in his wheelhouse.
Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward, who had previously collaborated on The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s biggest hit of 1959, reunited to adapt the book. They lightened the tone considerably, softening Toby’s character and making him more sympathetic. They also got rid of the book’s bleak ending in favor of something a lot happier. To direct, producer Walsh brought back another Shaggy Dog alum, Charles Barton.
As usual, casting was a relatively simple matter of assigning roles to the usual batch of contract players. For Kevin Corcoran, this was finally a chance at the spotlight after being teamed up with Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. In those previous outings, Corcoran wasn’t required to do much other than act precocious. But he’s in almost every scene as Toby and he’s surprisingly up to the challenge. He even gets to do some impressive trick horse riding. Sure, you can see the safety wire but so what? When I was his age, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do those stunts, even with a wire.
Walt also cast a pair of actors from the Zorro TV series that were sitting idle while a contract dispute between Disney and ABC played out. Henry Calvin, Zorro’s bumbling Sergeant Garcia, appeared as circus strongman and Toby’s reluctant protector Ben Cotter. Mime Gene Sheldon, who played Zorro’s mute companion Bernardo, had a rare speaking role as clown Sam Treat. Since this column is following the American theatrical release order, we haven’t quite made it up to Zorro but we will very soon. Here, both Calvin and Sheldon have an easy, natural rapport with Corcoran, imbuing their characters with real humanity that goes beyond mere caricature.
The cast included another longtime Disney employee. Composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the pre-Snow White days, makes his acting debut as the bandleader. In a nice touch, the then-72-year-old gets the on-screen credit, “and introducing Ollie Wallace”. Oddly enough, Wallace did not do the score for Toby Tyler. That job went to a relatively new hire, Buddy Baker. Baker had been hired by another staff composer, George Bruns, to work on TV projects like Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club. Toby Tyler was his first feature credit but far from his last. Baker would stay with the studio until the early 1980s. He’ll be back in this column and if you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve heard plenty of his work.
The movie hits most of the book’s major points, albeit through Disneyfied glasses. Toby is a poor orphan sent to live with his child-hating aunt and uncle (played by veteran character actors Edith Evanson and Tom Fadden) on their hardscrabble dirt farm. In the book, Toby lives in an orphanage and runs off to join the circus to escape the constant abuse. Here, Toby’s relations are far from loving but that isn’t why he leaves. Instead, Toby feels guilty that his indolent ways have made him such a burden, so he joins the circus temporarily with plans to return home once he’s earned enough money.
Toby’s new career path puts him in the employ of shifty concessionaire Harry Tupper (the very funny Bob Sweeney, who will be back in this column). Harry apparently has a reputation around the circus for mistreating his assistants, so Ben warns that he’ll be keeping an eye on him. The specifics of that reputation go unsaid, so you can feel free to read as much or as little into that as you’re comfortable with.
Toby has a little trouble fitting in at first but soon begins making friends like the warm and friendly Sam, gruff but lovable Ben, child equestrian Mademoiselle Jeanette (Barbara Beaird) and mischievous chimpanzee Mr. Stubbs. On one of their parades through town, Ben’s wagon capsizes and Mr. Stubbs gets loose, making his way into local sheriff’s office where he gets his paws on a loaded gun. As Mr. Stubbs fires wildly and the lawmen dive for cover, Toby bravely enters the jail and disarms the chimp. This causes a sensation and the circus owner (Richard Eastham) immediately tries to capitalize on Toby and Mr. Stubbs’ new fame.
Toby’s star continues to rise when Jeanette’s partner, Monsieur Ajax (Dennis Olivieri, then credited as Dennis Joel) hurts himself while trying to show off practicing without a safety line. Toby had told Jeanette about his old horse back on the farm, so she suggests he take Ajax’s place. But Toby failed to mention that he had never actually ridden that horse, so Ben and Sam team up to give him a crash course in trick riding.
Just as he’s about to make his big debut, Mr. Stubbs shows Toby a bunch of letters he’s received from his aunt and uncle. Turns out they’ve been writing him all along and Harry’s been hiding them from him. Uncle Daniel’s doing poorly and they desperately want Toby to come home.
Toby sets out for home, followed by Mr. Stubbs. They’re making their way through the woods when a hunter (James Drury, who we’ll see again in this column and went on to star on the long-running TV western The Virginian) accidentally shoots Mr. Stubbs out of a tree. Things don’t look good for the little guy as Harry shows up and drags Toby back to the circus where Toby’s family is waiting.
Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are overjoyed to see Toby again. They promise things will be better if he comes home. Just when things can’t seem much rosier, Jim the hunter shows up with Mr. Stubbs, who has made a miraculous recovery. Everyone gathers under the big top to watch Toby and Jeanette triumphantly perform their trick riding act, now with a grand finale appearance by Mr. Stubbs! Even Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are impressed and it’s unclear at the end of the movie if Toby goes back to his drab homelife or if he stays and becomes a big-time circus star. One would assume the latter but Uncle Daniel seems prone to wild mood swings, so who knows.
It’s been a long time since the days of “everybody loves the circus”. These days we’re more likely to see clowns in horror movies and circuses in news reports about either alleged animal cruelty or businesses you didn’t realize were still a thing. At this point, I’d wager that most people have never even been to a circus, at least not one without the words “du soleil” in its name. That’s too bad because a heaping dose of nostalgia for (or at least interest in) the golden age of the circus is needed to truly enjoy Toby Tyler.
I have a passing interest in circus culture, so I can appreciate both the atmosphere and the genuine circus performers whose acts are immortalized on film. It’s fun to see actual Ringling Brothers clowns, the Flying Viennas trapeze artists and the Marquis Family Chimps (especially Mr. Stubbs, who is awesome). Walt even acquired and restored some authentic period circus wagons, which are now on display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Like all of Walt’s period pieces, Toby Tyler succeeds at capturing an idealized time that never really existed except in memory.
But if you’re not into circuses and clowns, I don’t think Toby Tyler is going to change your mind. Toby’s ten weeks on the road certainly look more appealing than what he had going on back home but compared to other boy’s adventures, they’re kind of low-key. For some, that’ll be part of the movie’s charm and appeal. Others may be left rolling their eyes.
If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in luck because you’re not very likely to stumble across it accidentally. It’s not currently streaming on Disney+, presumably because of all the scenes involving chimps and guns. The fact that there actually are multiple scenes that can be described this way should tell you something. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to pick it up on DVD or digitally, where there is a nice HD print.
On the other hand, if this flavor of cotton candy appeals to you, Toby Tyler is worth seeking out. Kevin Corcoran finally demonstrates some of the charm that Walt presumably saw in him from the get-go. The supporting cast is a lot of fun. And you’ve got a chimp shooting up a jail! What more could you ask for?
It’s a little bit hard to imagine that Walt Disney was ever an avid mountain climber. Apart from a brief phase as a polo player that came to an end after he injured his back in 1938, Walt wasn’t much of an outdoorsman. But even if he wasn’t a climber himself, he had a lot of respect for people who were. More importantly, he absolutely loved Switzerland. He and his family had taken several holidays in the Alps. In 1955, he produced Switzerland, an entry in the People And Places series of documentary shorts, sort of a travelogue cousin to the True-Life Adventures. It was nominated for an Oscar but Walt felt he still hadn’t quite tapped the country’s cinematic potential. Or perhaps he just wanted an excuse to take more working vacations in Switzerland. In any event, the country and its landscape are the real stars of the 1959 feature Third Man On The Mountain.
Producer Bill Anderson found James Ramsey Ullman’s book Banner In The Sky, based on the story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Anderson brought the book to Walt, who probably gave the project a greenlight as soon as he heard the word “Matterhorn”. Eleanore Griffin was hired to write the screenplay. This was her first and only assignment for Disney but she had been a veteran screenwriter since the 1920s, winning an Oscar for the 1938 Spencer Tracy drama Boys Town.
David Niven was to play gentleman climber Captain John Winter but ended up being replaced by Michael Rennie, the star of The Day The Earth Stood Still and the 1952 version of Les Miserables. This would be Rennie’s only appearance in a Disney film, while Niven had merely postponed his Date with Disney Destiny. He’ll eventually show up in this column.
Walt assembled a first-rate cast and crew for Third Man On The Mountain but the location itself was always the number one priority. Unlike Darby O’Gill, which had substituted sunny California for its Ireland setting, Third Man would be shot on location in the shadow of the Matterhorn itself. More than that, Annakin wanted the climbing sequences to look as authentic as possible. Both the cast and the crew were given an intensive two-week training course, after which Alpine guides decided if the stars were capable of doing the stunt work themselves.
The physical shoot took its toll on the cast and crew, though no one seems to have been hurt too seriously. Both MacArthur and Munro ended up doing a lot of their own stunts, although Munro’s actual climbing time was a lot more limited. She ends up dangling at the end of a rope, hoisted up the mountain like “a bundle of firewood”. Needless to say, sisters weren’t exactly doing it for themselves in little Swiss villages in 1865 or most Hollywood movies in 1959, for that matter.
The stunt work is fairly impressive, especially for its time. Annakin does a terrific job staging these sequences, making it difficult at times to tell the difference between actual location footage and special effects. No movie is seamless, of course, but in general, it’s pretty convincing. You definitely get the sense that this was not an easy movie to shoot. Walt wanted to make sure that 1959 audiences knew exactly how difficult the shoot had been. He promoted the movie with a behind-the-scenes episode of Walt Disney Presents called Perilous Assignment.
The story is pretty much exactly what you might expect, even if you know absolutely nothing about this film other than it’s a Disney movie about mountaineering. MacArthur’s Rudi Matt works for his uncle (James Donald) as a dishwasher but dreams of being an Alpine guide like his late father. He sneaks out regularly to climb the foothills around the Citadel (the fictional name given to the Matterhorn), the mountain that cost his father his life.
On one of these trips, he rescues Captain Winter (Rennie). Winter knew Rudi’s father and intends to be the first man to conquer the Citadel. Against his uncle’s wishes, Rudi goes along as an apprentice but his recklessness almost causes an accident. Winter goes off to hire a more experienced guide (the great Herbert Lom as the sinister Emil Saxo) while Rudi trains and learns about teamwork. Lessons are learned, the mountain is conquered and dreams are fulfilled.
Dramatically, Third Man On The Mountain is pretty inert. But nobody’s watching this for the gripping plot. You watch it for the scenery and the mountain-climbing and on those points, Annakin delivers. Cinematographer Harry Waxman (who would later shoot such disparate films as Wonderwall and The Wicker Man) captures every inch of the breathtaking Swiss landscape. It’s easy to see why Walt fell in love with the place.
It’s also easy to understand why people decided to just drop by the set for a visit. One such visitor was MacArthur’s mom, the legendary Helen Hayes. She thought the movie looked like fun, so Walt and Ken Annakin gave cameos to her and MacArthur’s then-wife, Joyce Bulifant. They can be spotted as a couple of American tourists leaving the hotel. Both Hayes and Bulifant will be back in this column in considerably more substantial roles. James Ramsey Ullman, the author of the original book, also popped by to see how things were going and ended up in front of the camera.
Apart from the scenery and the stunts, Third Man From The Mountain isn’t bad so much as it is bland. MacArthur is better here than he was in The Light In The Forest but he’s just not in the upper echelon of charismatic Disney stars. Munro is pretty and energetic but she doesn’t have much spark with MacArthur. That’s not a knock on him. Munro’s previous costar was Sean Connery, after all. Almost anybody would pale in comparison.
Third Man On The Mountain was released in November 1959 and most critics found good things to say about it. But it was a failure at the box office, another disappointment in a year where only The Shaggy Dog had been a hit for the studio. Today, it’s considered one of Disney’s most obscure live-action features. They’ve never released it on Blu-ray and it isn’t currently available on Disney+, although you can rent or buy a decent-looking digital version in HD.
And yet, Third Man On The Mountain has had more of a lasting cultural impact than some better-known Disney films, thanks to a consistently popular ride at Disneyland. The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at the park in June, just a few months prior to the film. Walt had been struggling with a concept for a toboggan ride for a couple of years. While on location for Third Man On The Mountain, Walt grabbed a postcard of the Matterhorn and sent it to Imagineer Vic Greene with a simple message: “Vic. Build this. Walt.”
Greene did exactly that, modeling his roller coaster on the Matterhorn itself. Over the years, the ride has been updated in ways that make its connection to Third Man On The Mountain more tenuous. The Abominable Snowman, for example, does not make an appearance in the film. But it has remained popular for decades, the Matterhorn becoming almost as visually associated with the park as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Considering its connection to the ride, I’m surprised that Disney has ignored Third Man On The Mountain for so long. It’s no masterpiece but it’s a well-made little adventure movie that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Walt himself was happy with the way it came out, so you’d think that should count for something. It deserves better than to languish in obscurity.
As a rule, Walt Disney did not spend nearly as much time developing his live-action features as he did his animations. He’d settle on a subject, assign it to a writer, assemble a cast, shoot the thing and get it out to theatres in a relatively short period of time. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea posed some technical challenges that lengthened the production period but Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer still put the script together quickly. The project that evolved into Darby O’Gill And The Little People was an exception, with over a decade elapsing between Walt’s original concept and its eventual release in June 1959.
Walt made his first trip to Ireland in 1947. While there, he got in touch with his family’s Irish roots (tenuous and distant as they may have been) and decided he wanted to make a movie about leprechauns. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s UK productions of the early 50s, produced a script called Three Wishes which would have combined live-action and animation. By 1956, it had turned into The Three Wishes Of Darby O’Gill, based on the stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. Walt and Watkin returned to Ireland, soaking up the atmosphere and researching Irish folklore. By early 1958, casting was underway on the newly retitled Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
Originally, Walt wanted Barry Fitzgerald, the Oscar-winning Irish star of Going My Way, to play both Darby O’Gill and Brian, King of the Leprechauns. But Fitzgerald felt he was getting too old to take on such a challenging workload and passed. In his place, Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby. He’d seen Sharpe perform in the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow and kept him in mind as a backup in case Fitzgerald turned him down. But Sharpe had essentially retired by the time Walt got around to making the movie and had to be talked into doing the role. He’d appear in one more film, the 1960 caper movie The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, before retiring for good.
For King Brian, Walt abandoned the dual-role gimmick and cast Jimmy O’Dea, a popular star of Irish stage and radio. O’Dea was most famous for his character Mrs. Biddy Mulligan, a working-class street vendor, who he performed on stage and a series of records. After Darby O’Gill, O’Dea had the opportunity to immortalize the Biddy Mulligan character on camera for his sketch comedy TV special, The Life And Times Of Jimmy O’Dea, before his death in 1965.
Amusingly, Walt tried to sell audiences on the idea that he had cast actual leprechauns in the film. The movie opens with a personal note that reads, “My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.” He’d take the gag a step further with I Captured The King Of The Leprechauns, an episode of Walt Disney Presents promoting the movie. In the episode, Walt travels to Ireland to personally meet with O’Dea (as King Brian) and persuade him to appear in the picture. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Walt credit for finding fun and novel ways to sell his empire.
Although the film would be shot in southern California, casting took place in London. It was there that Walt spotted Janet Munro, an ingenue in her early 20s. Munro had appeared in a couple of films, including the B-horror movie The Trollenberg Terror (better known in the States as The Crawling Eye), but had mostly worked in television. Walt saw her on an episode of ITV Television Playhouse and called her in for a screen-test. Munro has a wide, infectious smile and a no-nonsense attitude that makes her perfect for the role of Darby’s daughter, Katie O’Gill. Walt liked her so much that he made her part of the Disney Repertory Players, signing her to a five-year contract. She’ll be back in this column.
Walt did not offer a contract to Munro’s leading man, a tall Scotsman named Sean Connery. Connery had been trying to break into the movies for a few years, landing mostly bit parts in forgettable thrillers like No Road Back and Action Of The Tiger. His biggest role to date had been in the 1958 melodrama Another Time, Another Place opposite Lana Turner. That movie made him the target of Turner’s jealous gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, but didn’t do much for his career. When the Darby O’Gill offer came along, Connery was in no position to pass it up, even though it required him to sing, which he was not excited about, and attempt to transform his Scottish accent into an Irish brogue.
There are rumors that Connery’s and Munro’s singing voices were dubbed by others. That’s certainly possible. That practice was commonplace back in the 50s and 60s. But Connery also sings a little bit in Dr. No and his voice sounds identical in that movie as it does here, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His Irish brogue, however, is less convincing. The next time he played an Irishman, in his Oscar-winning role in The Untouchables, he wisely didn’t even bother trying.
Connery was not the breakout star of Darby O’Gill. That honor went to Janet Munro, who won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer. Connery was described as “merely tall, dark and handsome” by The New York Times and the film’s “weakest link” by Variety. But his performance did catch the eye of producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had recently acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Broccoli liked Connery and brought his wife, Dana, to another screening of Darby O’Gill to get her opinion. Dana wholeheartedly believed that Connery had the right stuff to be Bond and the rest is history. So even though Connery didn’t land a Disney contract, things seemed to work out all right for him.
The director was Robert Stevenson, making the third of his many Disney features following Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller. Darby O’Gill required a lighter touch than had his previous films for the studio and Stevenson acquits himself well. The pub sequences with Darby regaling the townsfolk with tales of his adventures with King Brian are full of character and warmth. Stevenson doesn’t bother with a lot of traditional exposition. Rather, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks and get to know the characters and their relationships to one another in our own time.
This was also the most technically challenging film Stevenson had attempted to date. Convincingly bringing the leprechauns to life required a combination of practical effects and visual trickery courtesy of the great Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw and cinematographer Winton Hoch employed forced perspective to create the illusion that Darby was interacting with the 22-inch-tall King Brian. Disney’s Imagineers had been using similar tricks with forced perspective throughout Disneyland. It’s the technique that makes Sleeping Beauty’s Castle appear to be a whole lot bigger than it really is.
The Disney studio only had one soundstage big enough to accommodate the oversized sets and enormous lights the work required. But Stage 2 was in constant use by the TV division, so Disney constructed a massive new soundstage, Stage 4. (Stage 3 and its water tank had been built a few years earlier for 20,000 Leagues.) In 1988, it would be divided in two, Stage 4 and Stage 5, where it would become the home of various TV shows like Home Improvement.
All the new construction and work paid off. The illusion of the leprechauns is completely convincing to this day. Even when you know how it was done, there are shots of Darby sharing the screen with the leprechauns that have you blinking your eyes in disbelief. That’s the difference between special effects and optical illusions. You can dissect a special effects shot and see how it was built. Optical illusions are seamless no matter how many times you’ve seen them.
The leprechauns aren’t the only characters from Irish folklore brought to life by special effects. Darby’s horse transforms into a púca. Later on, the banshee appears and summons the death coach to claim Katie. These optical effects haven’t aged as well but they work beautifully within the context of the film. When I was a kid, the banshee scared the bejeezus out of me. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the banshee.
Stevenson allows the story to unfold at the leisurely, rambling pace of a good yarn spun in a warm and inviting Irish pub. The heart of the story is the relationship between Darby and King Brian. It’s an equally matched battle of wits. They’re both clever, a little conniving and fond of a nip from the jug now and again. In a lot of ways, it’s Disney’s first buddy comedy.
The love story between Munro and Connery isn’t quite as convincing. Munro does her part, lighting up the screen with her smile and gradually warming to the young man in line to take her father’s job as caretaker. But Connery doesn’t seem all that interested in her. He does a great job early on as he wonders what exactly he’s gotten himself into by accepting this gig. But his attraction to Munro happens in an instant, like a switch has been pulled.
The supporting characters are a lot of fun, especially Estelle Winwood as the Widow Sugrue and Kieron Moore as her son, Pony. The widow aims to install Pony in Darby’s old job and as Katie’s husband. Winwood’s great juggling her two-faced nature. One moment she’s too sweet and too helpful. The next, she’s hustling into town to give Pony his marching orders. This would be Winwood’s only Disney film in a long career that reached back to the 1930s. She’d later have memorable appearances in The Producers and Murder By Death before her death in 1984 at the age of 101.
The bullying, somewhat dense Pony always does exactly what his sainted mother tells him to do, even though he doesn’t fully believe that things are going to work out the way she thinks. Moore is kind of like a flesh-and-blood version of Gaston in Beauty And The Beast. He’d go on to appear in such films as The Day Of The Triffids and Son Of A Gunfighter before becoming a documentarian and social rights activist in the early 1970s.
Darby O’Gill And The Little People did reasonably when it came out but it wasn’t a huge hit. Compared to the millions raked in by the low-budget The Shaggy Dog, the lavish Darby O’Gill was considered a disappointment. But in the years since, it has become something of a cult movie. Its ingenious special effects and the winning performances of Sharpe, O’Dea, Munro, Moore and the early star-making turn by the legendary Sean Connery have all kept it alive in the memories of its fans. It’s just a little bit darker and a little bit more grown-up than some of Disney’s other live-action productions but not so much that people don’t feel comfortable sharing it with their kids.
So far, Disney has resisted the urge to produce a sequel or a remake of Darby O’Gill. Good. This is by no means a perfect movie but it is a perfectly charming one. Replicating the unique magic that makes it special would require a very careful hand. Disney’s current filmmaking-by-committee approach to most of its reboots does not suggest they’d be capable of such a task. Better to leave Darby O’Gill And The Little People in Walt’s imagined SoCal Ireland.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.