Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

By 1965, Walt Disney had perfected the art of making two very specific types of live-action pictures. His True-Life Adventures team, including writer, producer and narrator Winston Hibler, found their documentary skills transferred well to dramatic animal movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. At the same time, Walt continued to indulge his love of Americana with nostalgic period pieces like Pollyanna set in his favorite era, the early 1900s. Those Calloways gave him an opportunity to combine the two. The results are surprisingly effective.

Those Calloways is based on the novel Swiftwater by Paul Annixter, a prolific writer of young adult fiction primarily about nature and animals. Louis Pelletier, who had recently written Big Red, wrote the screenplay, reteaming him with Big Red’s director, Norman Tokar. Hibler produced the film, bringing along several True-Life Adventure veterans. Dick Borden, who had shot some of The Vanishing Prairie, captured the wild geese footage in the film. The other animal unit was run by Lloyd Beebe and William R. Koehler, fresh off their work on The Incredible Journey.

The animals are important to Those Calloways but they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, this is a slice-of-life drama depicting a year in the life of the title family, husband Cam (Disney regular Brian Keith), wife Liddy (Vera Miles, last seen as Keith’s wife in A Tiger Walks) and son Bucky (Brandon De Wilde). They live up in the mountains outside the little New England town of Swiftwater, where they’re viewed as local eccentrics. Cam was raised by the Mi’kmaq Indians (and as soon as you heard that bit of news, you could probably figure out why Disney+ slapped its standard “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on this). His upbringing has given him a deep affinity for nature, especially the wild geese considered to be a totem of the Mi’kmaq. This marks Cam as a bit of an outsider in a town where most everyone else hunts geese for food and/or sport.

Now before you get all excited and retroactively nominate Those Calloways for a PETA Award, be aware that Cam earns his living as a fur-trapper. And if you watch the movie through 2021 goggles, that dichotomy is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for you. Just keep in mind that conservationism was not an all-or-nothing proposition back in the 1910s. Living off the land very much included hunting, fishing and trapping in order to survive. You can do all that and still be against hunting for sport without being considered a hypocrite.

Cam has big plans for this trapping season, heading out to untapped land that the Mi’kmaq believe holds bad energy. They seem to have a point about that. Cam and Bucky are only on their first preliminary scouting expedition when Cam falls and breaks his leg. With his dad out of commission, Bucky heads out on his own. After the first day, he discovers a wolverine is killing all the game along his trapping line. Bucky and his faithful dog, Sounder, track the wolverine back to its den underneath an enormous treefall. After some intense close-quarters combat, Bucky manages to kill the wolverine with a hatchet, salvaging the season.

Despite a record haul of furs (including enough to make Liddy an ermine wrap as a surprise Christmas present), the market bottoms out. The furs go for less than five hundred bucks, which Liddy assumes will go toward paying off their mortgage. But Cam can’t let go of his dream of building a sanctuary for the geese and spends the entire sum on a down payment for a piece of land with a lake. Liddy is understandably upset but when push comes to shove and the Calloways are evicted from their home, she stands by her man, encouraging him to build a bigger, better cabin by the lake.

A lack of money means that work on the new house and sanctuary proceeds slowly at first (there’s even some shades of Swiss Family Robinson in the Calloways’ makeshift shelter by the lake). But soon traveling salesman Dell Fraser (Philip Abbott of Miracle Of The White Stallions) turns up, claiming to be a fellow nature-lover. He offers Cam some literal seed money to plant the corn Cam believes will bring the geese down to the lake. In reality, Dell represents an investor who plans on turning Swiftwater into a sportsman’s paradise, providing Cam’s plan guarantees that the geese will stop every year.

Not everyone in town has ulterior motives. The other villagers band together and volunteer for a community roof-raising, complete with a couple original songs by the Sherman Brothers! With the Calloways’ new home finished, everything looks on track for a happy ending. But then the geese come back, along with Dell and his entourage of wealthy hunters. When Cam gets wise to what’s happening, he burns down the corn and confronts the hunters, accidentally ending up with a bellyful of buckshot. A town meeting is arranged and while Cam recovers from his wounds, the townsfolk vote to reject Dell and his slick, out-of-town friends. Now you can have your happy ending.

I’ll be honest with you. I had very little expectation of enjoying Those Calloways. And for a while, it looked as though I wouldn’t. With a run time of over two hours, the film is leisurely to a fault and crams in a whole lot of extraneous business. I haven’t even mentioned the burgeoning romance between Bucky and shopkeeper’s daughter, Bridie Mellott (future Dynasty star Linda Evans, making her only Disney appearance). Or the rivalry between Bucky and mechanic Whit Turner (future Nostromo captain Tom Skerritt, who would later romance Hayley Mills in the made-for-TV The Parent Trap II). Or the semi-domesticated bear who hibernates in the Calloways’ root cellar. Or Cam’s occasional struggles with alcohol. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in Those Calloways.

But this is a movie that sneaks up on you and before I knew it, I was invested in these characters. It’s an uneven movie but its high points cover up a lot of sins. For instance, Tokar does a great job staging the wolverine sequence. The claustrophobic cinematography by Edward Colman and tight editing by Grant K. Smith creates a sense of real danger. It’s so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s preceded by several banal minutes of Sounder just scampering through the snow, chasing after weasels and other woodland critters.

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

The film’s stars work overtime bringing the audience into the story. Brian Keith and Vera Miles make for a compelling, believable couple. There’s a lot that goes unsaid between them but the way they look at each other speaks volumes. In their first scene together, Keith seems to be apologizing for an earlier fight. We never learn the details of what happened between them but it’s enough to tell us that things aren’t always easy between these two.

Those Calloways offers Vera Miles a much better showcase than her largely unnecessary role in A Tiger Walks. She has several terrific moments but the Christmas scene is by far the most moving. Even before she opens her gift, she takes her time admiring the wrapping and speculating what might be inside. When Cam and Bucky try to hurry her up, she refuses to be rushed. She’s not getting another present until next year, so she wants to savor the moment. When she sees the ermine wrap, she breaks down sobbing, overcome with emotion. Is this all a little bit corny? You bet. Does it work anyway? Absolutely. Miles sells it for all she’s worth. She’ll be back in this column before too long.

Brandon De Wilde was a somewhat unusual choice for a Disney star in that he was already famous by the time Walt signed him. He’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the movie Shane when he was just 11 years old, making him one of the youngest nominees in a competitive category ever. Since then he’d worked steadily in film and television. Walt hired him to star opposite Brian Keith in The Tenderfoot, a Wonderful World Of Color three-parter released theatrically overseas.

De Wilde’s a good actor and a natural Disney star. He’s good-looking, earnest and capable of handling the physical stuff, even when the just-barely-adequate fight choreography lets him down. But he never made another Disney film after Those Calloways. He stayed busy on stage and television but struggled to establish himself in movies, in part because he looked young for his age even by Disney standards. He harbored aspirations to break into music, becoming close friends with Gram Parsons. But in 1972, Brandon De Wilde was killed in a car accident in Colorado. He was just 30 years old.

De Wilde had also worked with costar Walter Brennan before. Brennan was a three-time Academy Award winner now in the autumn years of his career. Those Calloways marked his first Disney project but it won’t be his last. We’ll also see Ed Wynn again, whose performance as the slightly deaf Ed Parker is downright restrained by Ed Wynn standards.  

One name we won’t be seeing in this column again is composer Max Steiner. Steiner was a Hollywood legend having composed the scores to such classics as King Kong, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and countless others. He had never worked for Disney before but in a way, his rendezvous with Walt seems inevitable. Critics of Steiner’s old-fashioned style of film music consistently accuse him of “Mickey Mousing”, the overly-precise synchronization of on-screen movement to music. Like a glissando to accompany throwing an object or a descending scale when a character walks down a flight of stairs. Steiner’s Those Calloways score largely avoids those pitfalls. And if it doesn’t rank among his best work, it’s still a fine score. Unfortunately, it would end up being his last before his death in 1971.

Those Calloways struggled to find an audience in 1965 and critics were split. Quite honestly, I don’t blame them one bit. This is a long, imperfect movie that squeezes all of its best stuff into the middle. It takes a little too long to get going and then a lot longer than necessary to wrap things up. But it’s a rewarding picture for those who can meet it halfway with some beautiful cinematography, excellent performances and real heart. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you and I get it. But if you’re on the fence, give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

VERDICT: Despite its flaws, this is a Disney Plus.  

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