As I’ve mentioned before, this column exists to take a look at every theatrical feature film released by Disney in chronological order. The list I’m working from comes from the official D23 website, so I’m not the one making the rules here (well, of course I am but you get the idea). For the most part, the distinctions between a theatrical film and a TV or direct-to-video release are pretty cut and dried. But as we move into the 1960s, those lines get a little blurry. (They’ll get even blurrier when we hit the modern, streaming era.)
Walt had always kept the production values on his television productions extremely high. Episodes of Davy Crockett and Zorro could be stitched together as feature films and they’d look every bit as good as anything else in theatres. As the Disneyland/Walt Disney Presents/Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color productions grew more ambitious, an overseas theatrical run was rolled in as part of the release strategy. Some of these movies, like Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow (a.k.a. The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh), were pretty terrific.
At first, second and third glance, Almost Angels seems like it ought to be one of those TV productions that fall outside of this column’s jurisdiction. It’s a film about the Vienna Boys’ Choir shot entirely on location in Austria. Eurocentric subject matter and locations were always a plus for overseas markets. The director and several cast members had already been involved in TV productions that went theatrical abroad. And even though the film is beautifully shot, its brief running time and focus on character dynamics make it feel right at home on the small screen.
But believe it or not, Almost Angels was released theatrically in the United States, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion. The film came out September 26, 1962, on the bottom-end of a double feature alongside a re-release of Lady And The Tramp. I’m not sure what accounts for this unusual release. This wasn’t the first (or last) time they’d bundle movies together like this. But usually, either both films would be a re-release or the co-feature was more of an extended short subject. Was this a TV project that got bumped up? Or was it a feature that Walt didn’t think could succeed on its own merits?
If it was the latter, Walt needn’t have worried. Almost Angels is no classic but it’s actually pretty darn good. Young Vincent Winter stars as Toni Fiala, a boy who longs to join the legendary choir. His father (Fritz Eckhardt) is a blue-collar railroad worker who wants his son to learn a trade. But his piano-playing mother (Bruni Löbel) believes in Toni’s talent and arranges an audition. When Toni wins one of the coveted spots, Papa reluctantly agrees to let him go under the condition that he keeps his grades up.
Once at the school, choir director Max Heller (Peter Weck) asks his star pupil, Peter (Sean Scully), to take Toni under his wing. Toni idolizes Peter but Peter, jealous of potentially losing his spot as top boy, makes life difficult for him. When Toni is given Peter’s usual solo during a performance at a children’s hospital, Peter locks him in a closet so he misses his cue. But the indomitable Toni escapes through a window, shimmying along the side of the building to make an even more dramatic entrance.
Eventually Peter and Toni become friends. Toni struggles with arithmetic and his grades begin to slip. But after he hears his son perform, Papa has a change of heart, even defending his son’s poor academic performance to the school director (Hans Holt). All systems are go for the choir’s next big international tour when disaster strikes for Peter. His voice begins to change at the worst possible moment.
Toni quickly puts together a scheme that he hopes will allow his despondent friend to come along on the tour. He arranges for another boy to sing Peter’s part from the wings while Peter lip-syncs on stage. Heller and the rest of the audience are suspicious of the half-baked performance from the start. Their suspicions are confirmed when Peter, thoroughly embarrassed, runs from the stage in tears.
Fortunately, Heller is sympathetic to Peter’s dilemma. Peter has also displayed an aptitude for composing and conducting, so Heller proposes bringing the boy along as assistant conductor. The board of directors think this is a swell idea. The movie concludes with Peter triumphantly conducting the Vienna Boys’ Choir as Toni takes the spotlight with a solo.
Let’s make one thing clear from the get-go. If you don’t enjoy listening to boys’ choirs, you’re not going to have a good time with Almost Angels. There are a lot of extended musical sequences in the film. The music, almost entirely German and Austrian pieces by such masters as Johann Strauss II and Schubert, is uniformly lovely if that kind of thing is your jam. But if it isn’t, you may end up watching this on fast forward.
Director Steve Previn and screenwriter Vernon Harris (later an Oscar nominee for the screenplay to Oliver!) base their film on an original story by Robert A. Stemmle, a prolific German screenwriter and director. Neither Stemmle nor Harris had any further association with Disney, so I’m not entirely sure how they became involved. As is the case with so many minor Disney live-action productions, the specific origins of the project remain elusive.
But Previn, who was also born in Germany (and was the brother of musician André Previn), directed a couple of other TV productions that were released theatrically overseas. Part one of the first, Escapade In Florence, aired in the US on September 30, just days after Almost Angels was released. Escapade In Florence starred Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk as students studying abroad who stumble onto an art forgery scam.
Previn’s third and final Disney project was more explicitly tied to Almost Angels. The Waltz King was a full-on Johann Strauss biopic, with Kerwin Mathews as the young composer and Brian Aherne as the father who casts a long shadow. Both Escapade In Florence and The Waltz King were well-received, so I’m at a loss to explain why neither of them received a domestic theatrical release but Almost Angels did.
It’s easy to imagine Walt assigning Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran to star in Almost Angels. It’s also easy to imagine what a bad idea that would have been. Both Sean Scully and Vincent Winter are ideally cast, bringing a natural, easy-going rapport to the screen. Winter had won a juvenile Academy Award for his film debut in The Little Kidnappers back in 1953. He made his Disney debut in a small role in Greyfriars Bobby and would next appear on TV in The Horse Without A Head (which would, of course, be released in overseas cinemas). He’ll be back in this column before too long.
Sean Scully was the real find of the movie, believably conveying teen angst, jealousy and loyalty without ever once becoming overbearing or unlikable. All of Scully’s Disney work falls into that gray area between TV and film. He’d played the title roles in an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper and would go on to appear in The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh. He’s still acting, primarily on television back in his native Australia. But it’s a shame Disney didn’t use him more extensively.
The adult cast members were Austrian and German actors with limited appearances in American films. Peter Weck certainly seems like he should have become a bigger star. As the sympathetic choir director, Weck develops a warm bond with the boys, casting a wry look at their pranks and mischief-making but never sacrificing his demand for excellence. His only other American film credit came in 1963 with a supporting role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (opposite Moon Pilot star Tom Tryon). Weck is a handsome, charming actor, so I’ve got to assume that it was his own choice not to pursue Hollywood stardom.
Almost Angels is definitely an obscure movie. It’s available on DVD only as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive and has never been released on Blu-ray. But it’s available to stream on Disney Plus, so the studio holds it in higher regard than some other curios like Toby Tyler or Bon Voyage! Maybe it’s just the fact that Almost Angels is completely inoffensive and doesn’t require a disclaimer to justify its inclusion. Regardless of their rationale, it’s a decent little movie that deserves to be remembered.
VERDICT: Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome kicking in after suffering through so many Disney Minuses in a row, but I’m calling this a Disney Plus.