Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Moon-Spinners

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Moon-Spinners

On April 18, 1964, Hayley Mills turned 18. This might have caused a bit of a problem. Walt Disney did not have a great track record when it came to transitioning his child stars to young adulthood. Former contract players like Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten and even Tommy Kirk found themselves cut loose from the studio as they aged out of their original roles. But Hayley Mills was by far the biggest star Walt had ever discovered and he wanted to keep her in the family. He took some baby steps toward a more mature Hayley Mills by introducing some innocent romance to her last Disney film, Summer Magic. But with The Moon-Spinners, Hayley got her first (almost) grown-up role.

The Moon-Spinners reunites Hayley with her Summer Magic director, James Neilson. Michael Dyne, a former actor turned prolific television writer, adapted his script from a novel by Mary Stewart. In the 1970s, Stewart switched to the fantasy genre, writing a series of books called The Merlin Chronicles and a handful of books for younger readers. Her book The Little Broomstick provided the basis for the Japanese animated feature Mary And The Witch’s Flower. But in 1964, Stewart was “the Queen of Suspense”, a popular author of romantic thrillers with plucky and resourceful young heroines. In other words, young women a lot like Hayley Mills.

Hayley wasn’t quite old enough to play Nicola Ferris, a secretary at the British Embassy on the Greek island of Crete. So Dyne’s script turns Nicola into Nikky Ferris, a young tourist traveling with her Aunt Frances (Joan Greenwood in her only Disney appearance). They arrive at an inn called The Moon-Spinners run by Sophia (legendary Greek actress Irene Papas, another one-and-done Disney star). The inn is hosting a massive wedding and, at first, Sophia refuses to rent rooms to the newcomers. But her young son, Alexis (Michael Davis), soon talks her in to giving them a place to stay.

This is not good news to Alexis’ uncle, Stratos (Eli Wallach, another unlikely Disney star). Stratos doesn’t want anybody staying at the inn and is highly suspicious of any new guests. This includes a young man named Mark Camford (Peter McEnery, who will actually be back in this column) who spends a great deal of time out on the Bay of Dolphins. Nikky quickly develops a crush on Mark, so when he invites her out for a swim the next morning, she’s only too happy to agree.

Unfortunately, Mark isn’t able to make that date. When Stratos goes out for a little night fishing on the Bay of Dolphins, Mark follows him on shore, just as Stratos hoped he would. Mark ends up getting shot by Stratos’ henchman, Lambis (Paul Stassino, soon to appear as one of the bad guys in Thunderball). Mark vanishes underwater and Stratos and Lambis leave him for dead.

The next day, Nikky is told that Mark caught an early bus and checked out, so she goes exploring on her own. While visiting an old church, she finds a trail of blood that leads her to Mark, weak but alive. Nikky naturally has a lot of questions but Mark refuses to answer any of them, ostensibly for her own safety. Mark sends her back to the inn in search of supplies, including a first aid kit and a bottle of brandy.

A bit later, Aunt Frances discovers her first aid kit and other things are missing. She accuses Stratos of stealing them, which makes sense since he’s been nothing but antagonistic and shifty this whole time. Stratos finds Nikky and figures out where Mark’s been hiding. But Mark has already fled the church, so Stratos kidnaps Nikky for insurance and ties her up in a windmill. Don’t forget, at this point we still have no real idea what any of these people are doing or why they’re doing it.

Alexis hears Nikky’s calls for help and rescues her by grabbing ahold of the wooden sails, riding it around and climbing up into the single window. Once he gets Nikky down the same way, she and Mark take refuge in the ruins of an old temple overrun with cats. Here, he finally explains what all this is about. Turns out that Mark was a bank employee in London who was fired after he failed to follow security protocol and allowed some priceless jewels to be stolen on his watch. The bank and police suspected he was in on the job but Mark knows he’s innocent. He suspects Stratos is the thief and followed him to Crete to gather some proof and clear his name.

After spending the night in the ruins, Nikky and Mark are awakened by Anthony Gamble (John Le Mesurier), the British Consul. Gamble promises to help and takes them back to his house where his wife, Cynthia (Sheila Hancock), looks after Mark’s injuries. Everything seems fine until Cynthia gets drunk and raises suspicions with some very undiplomatic dinner conversation. As it happens, Gamble is actually Stratos’ partner. They plan on selling the stolen jewels to Madame Habib (legendary silent film star Pola Negri), an eccentric millionaire who travels the world on her yacht with her pet cheetah because why not.

To get him out of the way, the Gambles drug Mark and arrange to send them all back to Athens. In a hearse. During a massive street festival. Because again, why not. Nikky manages to separate herself from the others, steals a boat and heads out to Madame Habib’s yacht. She tells Madame Habib the whole story and begs her not to buy the stolen jewels from Stratos. Eventually, everybody converges on the yacht, including the police who arrest Stratos and the other bad guys. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a satisfying ending but at least it’s an ending.

Theatrical release poster for The Moon-Spinners

If last week’s film, A Tiger Walks, played out like Preston Sturges Lite, The Moon-Spinners is 100% Hitchcock Lite. The exotic location, the breathless chases and the quirky characters all feel ripped directly from the Master’s playbook. But James Neilson is no Hitchcock. The biggest problem is pacing. There’s more to building a mystery than just having everyone give each other side-eye and withholding information. We’re practically an hour into the movie before we learn what any of this is about. It’s difficult to care about a mystery when you don’t have the first clue why people are behaving mysteriously. It’s like trying to solve a Mad Libs riddle. When the mystery could be literally anything, it’s easy to assume it’ll turn out to be nothing.

On the plus side, Neilson does stage some very impressive setpieces, especially that windmill escape. It’s a whirl of vertiginous camera angles and movement, cut together quickly enough to mostly mask the dodgy process shots and obvious use of stunt doubles. It’s one of the coolest pure action sequences I’ve yet seen in a live-action Disney feature. It also helps that Neilson leans into the absurdity of all this and keeps ramping it up as the movie goes along. By the time we arrive at Madame Habib’s yacht, it somehow feels inevitable that this would all culminate with a cheetah roaming around an ornate stateroom on a boat.

As usual, Hayley Mills acquits herself nicely, bringing her trademark effervescence to a more mature role. This time around, she’s allowed to behave flirtatiously with McEnery and even gets in a kiss or two. In her funniest scene, Madame Habib makes her drink some brandy to warm up and Hayley quickly overdoes it. The sight of a drunk Hayley Mills trying to rattle off the convoluted plot of this movie is almost worth the price of admission on its own.

Walt gave Hayley a big vote of confidence this time around by surrounding her with distinguished character actors instead of his usual company of stock players. Eli Wallach was already a respected founding member of the Actors Studio who had appeared in such adult fare as Baby Doll and The Misfits. He may have considered The Moon-Spinners to be below his pay grade, as he seems faintly bored throughout. Still, his presence lends some gravitas to the proceedings.

Joan Greenwood and John Le Mesurier were both prolific on the British stage and screen. Greenwood had appeared in several classic Ealing comedies, including Kind Hearts And Coronets. Le Mesurier had appearances in some Peter Sellers movies like Waltz Of The Toreadors and The Pink Panther. These consummate professionals fulfill their roles admirably, adding a light touch to the danger and suspense.

But Walt’s biggest get for the film was easily Pola Negri. In 1922, she made headlines becoming the first European film star to sign a Hollywood contract. By the end of the decade, she had become one of the most popular and wealthiest actresses in the industry. She’d had a remarkable career but retired in 1943. Billy Wilder had attempted to coax her back to the screen, offering her the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but she turned him down. Walt, who was always an amazing salesman, succeeded where Wilder failed.

The casting is quite a coup for the movie. Even if you have no idea who Pola Negri is, you know she’s someone of great importance the second she appears on screen. Her regal bearing and exotic looks had not noticeably diminished since she’d last appeared on screen. Supposedly the cheetah was her idea. The Moon-Spinners turned out to be Pola Negri’s final film. After its release, she re-retired, turning down offers of roles from Vincente Minnelli and (again) Billy Wilder. She died of pneumonia in 1987.

The Moon-Spinners premiered July 2, 1964. It was not met with enthusiasm. Critics were lukewarm at best, noting that it was essentially a watered-down Hitchcock thriller, too juvenile for grownups and too grownup for kids. Audiences also preferred seeing Hayley Mills in more traditional Disney fare. The movie only grossed about $3.5 million, not enough to cover its budget. Hayley was nearing the end of her Disney contract anyway but it was becoming increasingly clear that if she wanted to develop as an actress, Disney wasn’t going to be the place to do it.  

VERDICT: Overall it’s a Disney Minus but the scattered Disney Plus moments make it a worthwhile watch.

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