Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rob Roy

When Walt Disney turned to live-action film production in the early 1950s, he had a very good reason for focusing on costume dramas. He was an avid history buff but that was only part of it. Walt was a forward-thinking entrepreneur and knew that historical epics would have a longer shelf life than films set in contemporary times. Movies like Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood could be re-released again and again, just like his animated features.

On paper, the decision to make a film based on the legend of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor makes a lot of sense. But Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue turned out to be another disappointment and marked the end of Walt’s commitment to big-budget historical dramas.

Walt must have felt that the tale of Rob Roy MacGregor had the potential to be another Robin Hood. Both were outlaws fighting against a tyrannical oppressor. Even better, the Rob Roy story was much less familiar to American audiences, so there weren’t countless other versions to compare it to. There had only been one prior film version, a British silent picture from 1922 that most likely didn’t get much play in the US. Stateside, the Rob Roy cocktail was probably better known than MacGregor.

Producer Perce Pearce’s British production team remained mostly intact from The Story Of Robin Hood and The Sword And The Rose. Lawrence Edward Watkin again wrote the script. Guy Green, the director of photography on Robin Hood, returned to that role. The four stars of The Sword And The Rose, Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough, were cast in roughly equivalent roles here.

Pearce and Disney had hoped to get Ken Annakin back to direct. But Annakin was under contract to the Rank Organisation, who refused to lend him out for a third time. (He will eventually return to this column.) In his place, Disney hired Harold French. Both French and Annakin had directed segments in the popular anthology films Quartet and Trio, based on the work of W. Somerset Maugham.

The story begins with events already in motion. Rob Roy (Todd) leads an attack of freedom-fighting Highlanders against the Redcoat forces of King George. The specific reasons behind all this remain murky, so I’d recommend doing some independent research on the Jacobite uprising of 1715 if you’re interested. The important thing is that Rob is arrested and we discover that the King’s Secretary of State, the Duke of Argyll (James Robertson Justice) is related to Rob Roy and sympathetic to his cause. The scheming Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) is very much not.

Montrose wants Rob sent to London to stand trial. Argyll finally concedes to this arrangement but not before helping to hatch a plan to spring Rob on the road. Rob returns home to marry Helen Mary MacPherson (Glynis Johns), a bonnie lass who frankly has very little to do other than stand by her man and roll her eyes at her father’s rambling stories and bad bagpipe playing. The delightful Finlay Currie plays Hamish MacPherson and his presence lends some much-needed Scottish authenticity to the proceedings.

Rob and Helen are no sooner married than King George’s men show up, stripping Clan MacGregor of their very name and taking Rob back into custody. He escapes yet again, plummeting over a waterfall thanks to some visual effects that haven’t exactly withstood the test of time. Rob Roy leads his clansmen in an all-out revolt, taking over a fort and weakening George’s grip. This all ends with a bit of a whimper when Argyll intervenes on Rob Roy’s behalf, convincing him to lay down his arms and make peace with the King.

The best thing one could say about Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue is that it’s a lot more action-packed than an interminable slog like The Sword And The Rose. There are battles large and small, daring escapes and high-energy pursuits. But French isn’t quite as adept at filming the action sequences as Annakin or Byron Haskin. Rob Roy’s river escape is a prime example. It’s half thrilling and half silly, prompting at least a couple of unintentional laughs.

Rob Roy also suffers in comparison to Robin Hood. This may not be fair but Disney brought it on himself by casting Michael Todd in both roles. The Story Of Robin Hood is familiar enough that you can get away with glossing over some of the details. Everyone still knows the basic premise and why Robin does what he does. That isn’t the case with Rob Roy. It’s difficult to care about his fight when we don’t really understand what he’s fighting for, apart from his name. And why is that such a great loss? He’s an outlaw. He should have changed his name anyway.

Also, Robin Hood doesn’t have to carry his entire movie on his shoulders. He has his Merrie Men, colorful supporting characters like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. Rob Roy has a whole passel of anonymous and interchangeable MacGregors, most of whom are lucky to get a single line of dialogue. (One of those MacGregors is played by Ian MacNaughton, the future director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Richard Todd isn’t a bad actor but he’s better when he has someone to play against. He also doesn’t have a lot of range. About the only things distinguishing Rob Roy from Robin Hood are his dyed red hair and indifferently executed Scottish accent.

The movie does make a handful of interesting choices. The action temporarily shifts to London where we see how Rob Roy has already become a folk hero. Londoners eagerly snatch up copies of Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized pamphlet The Highland Rogue. A copy even ends up in the hands of King George, who’s impressed by his adversary’s exploits. All of this is rooted in fact and it’s unusual to see a film like this explore how myths are created.

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue had its gala premiere in London on October 26, 1953. It opened in the US the following February. Like The Sword And The Rose before it, Rob Roy was a box office disappointment. It had cost nearly two million dollars to produce but only did middling business. By this time, work was well underway on Disney’s first fully American-based live-action production, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. There was no longer a need to shoot films exclusively in the UK, so Walt decided it was time to give the costume dramas a rest.

No one was more affected by this decision than producer Perce Pearce. Pearce had joined the studio in 1935 as an inbetweener. Over the years, he distinguished himself with key contributions to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi. When the studio began to experiment with live-action on Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, Pearce moved up to associate producer. Walt had a lot of faith in Pearce, entrusting him to act as his surrogate on the British productions.

But after the failure of both The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, Pearce’s star faded. Consensus around the studio felt that Walt blamed Pearce for the films’ failures to catch on. So Pearce was taken off film production and became part of the team developing The Mickey Mouse Club for television. The new assignment was short-lived. Perce Pearce died of a massive heart attack in July of 1955. He was 55 years old.

This would also be the final Disney film for Richard Todd. Todd never quite became a major star, at least not in the US. He went on to star in Michael Anderson’s terrific World War II film The Dam Busters and reunited with director Ken Annakin as part of the massive ensemble in The Longest Day. His biggest brush with stardom came when Ian Fleming selected Todd as his first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. But a scheduling conflict came between Todd and 007, allowing Sean Connery, another former Disney star, to catapult to international fame.

Apart from Treasure Island, Disney’s British productions are today remembered as a footnote in the studio’s history. The studio has not treated them with much care. Two aren’t even available to watch on Disney+. But they’re interesting to look at as experiments, training grounds for the demands of live-action production. They cultivated relationships with people like matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and actors Glynis Johns and Finlay Currie, all of whom will be back in this column. But they generally aren’t up to the standards of the animation department. They had to learn to walk before they could run. And rest assured, the live-action division would be off and running very soon.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Living Desert

Original theatrical quad poster for Walt Disney's The Living Desert

The Living Desert may appear to be a minor entry in the Disney catalog. It isn’t a cartoon, although it does open with a few minutes of animation. It’s live-action but there isn’t a single human being to be seen. But this feature-length nature documentary represents a significant milestone for the studio. To see why, we’ll eventually have to go all the way back to Disney’s very first films. But first, let’s rewind just a decade or so.

Walt Disney first got into documentary filmmaking during the war years, producing the feature-length Victory Through Air Power and assorted short subjects to help with the war effort. This opened up a little side business producing educational shorts for corporate clients like General Motors and Johnson & Johnson. These projects kept the studio afloat during the lean years of the 1940s.

An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Walt made his first trip to Alaska in 1947. He fell in love with the area and was eager to see more. A friend suggested he check out the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife team of nature photographers. Walt was impressed with their work and commissioned them to return to Alaska and film whatever they wanted. He didn’t particularly know what he was going to do with the footage. He just wanted to see what they’d get.

The Milottes shot thousands of feet of film. Out of all this, Walt was most interested in footage they’d captured of seals cavorting on the Pribilof Islands. He assigned James Algar, an animator who had directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia and Victory Through Air Power, the job of building a narrative around the footage. The resulting half-hour short, Seal Island, was presented as the first in a series of films called True-Life Adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Seal Island

Both Walt and Roy Disney felt that Seal Island was a winner. But RKO, their distributor for over a decade, didn’t want anything to do with it. Only after Seal Island won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject did they agree to put it in theatres.

Over the next few years, Disney, Algar, the Milottes, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and producer Ben Sharpsteen made half a dozen more True-Life Adventures. Four of them, In Beaver Valley, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and Bear Country, won Academy Awards. The series was an unqualified success. As far as the Disneys were concerned, a full-length feature seemed like the next logical step.

The Living Desert was inspired by the work of photographers N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert Crandall. Kenworthy was a graduate student working on a short film for his thesis project. He’d made some amateur 8mm films of insects and had read about Pepsis wasps, a large desert insect that preys on tarantulas. Nobody had ever filmed a wasp/tarantula battle before, so Kenworthy contacted Crandall, an entomologist based out of Arizona. Crandall’s scientific knowledge and Kenworthy’s skill with the camera allowed them to capture the entire event on film.

Kenworthy brought his footage to Disney, thinking it might make for a good True-Life Adventure. Walt loved it, bought the footage immediately and hired Kenworthy and Crandall to head back to the desert to get more. This also meant that Kenworthy had to start over on his thesis project, since he’d sold the rights to his film, but it seemed to work out all right for him.

The Living Desert was ready for release in 1953. But this time, RKO flat-out refused to distribute it. They had begrudgingly released the other True-Life Adventures shorts but a feature-length documentary was not what they wanted from Disney. This would be the last straw in the long-simmering feud between Disney and RKO.

Walt and Roy had struggled with their distributors from the very beginning. Their relationship with their first distributor, Margaret Winkler, fell apart when she stepped away from the busines and put her husband, Charles Mintz, in charge. Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz. When the character became popular and Walt pressed for a better deal, Mintz went behind his back and hired virtually his entire staff away from him. Mintz also kept the rights to Oswald, inspiring Walt and Ub Iwerks, the only animator who remained loyal to him, to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.

Walt didn’t have much better luck with his next distributor, Pat Powers. Disney had originally signed with Powers to use his Cinephone recording system while making Steamboat Willie. But the terms of the arrangement were heavily in Powers’ favor. Once again, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal only to have Powers poach his key men. This time, he even lost Ub Iwerks, as well as composer Carl Stalling. As a result of the strain, Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931.

Once he was able to extricate himself from the Powers deal, Walt signed up with Columbia to distribute the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons. That relationship soured in 1932 when Walt moved over to United Artists. By 1937, UA was pressuring Walt to sign over the television rights to his cartoons. TV was still very much in its infancy and Walt, having been burned repeatedly in the past, wasn’t about to commit to a long-term contract for something that wasn’t yet fully understood. So Walt left the studio and signed up with RKO.

The relationship between RKO and Disney had its ups and downs. RKO had been reluctant to release some of Disney’s earlier films, including Dumbo (too short), Fantasia (too arty) and Victory Through Air Power (which they also turned down entirely, leading Walt to release it through UA). For their part, Roy and Walt had been unhappy with RKO’s lackluster promotional efforts.

In 1948, multimillionaire and movie dabbler Howard Hughes took control of RKO. Hughes proceeded to run the studio into the ground, releasing a mix of expensive flops and low-budget B-movies. During these years, Disney provided some of the few hits RKO had. At one point, Hughes even offered to sell RKO to Disney. Walt passed, supposedly saying something like, “I already have a movie studio. What would I want with another?” I can honestly not imagine any of Disney’s current executives expressing this sentiment.

By 1953, Disney was doing more for RKO than RKO was doing for Disney. After giving the studio a string of huge hits like Treasure Island and Peter Pan, Walt and Roy felt they’d earned the right to release whatever they saw fit. When RKO passed on The Living Desert, they decided they’d had enough of outside distributors. Roy proposed creating their own distribution arm. Walt liked the idea but didn’t want to be too involved, busy as he was with plans for Disneyland and his TV show. So Roy ran point on the new venture and established the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street where the studio stood.

Original theatrical release poster for The Living Desert

The Living Desert was the first Buena Vista release and it was an immediate success. It raked in millions at the box office, both domestically and internationally, and had only cost about $300,000 to make. Buena Vista was off to a very profitable start.

Watching The Living Desert (or indeed any of the True-Life Adventures) today, it’s immediately apparent that this is the work of animators, not seasoned documentarians. Winston Hibler, who cowrote the scripts with James Algar and provided the narration, had been a story man. Beginning with the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time, he contributed to The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Peter Pan and several other animated features. Algar had been with Disney since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

Algar and Hibler imbue the animals in The Living Desert with distinct personalities, giving them names like Skinny and Mugsy. That isn’t too difficult when you’re showing a bobcat get chased up a cactus by a pack of wild boars. But it’s quite another thing to anthropomorphize more alien-looking creatures like wasps and scorpions.

The biggest weapon in their arsenal is the omnipresent use of Paul L. Smith’s music. Disney pioneered the use of music in animation and that influence extended over into live-action films. So much so that the technique of exactly synchronizing music to the action on-screen is referred to as “Mickey Mousing”. In general, that term is not considered complimentary.

The Living Desert is guiltier of Mickey Mousing than most actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. When a couple of cute baby coatis (kind of a desert cousin to the raccoon) fall asleep in their nest, you can be sure that Smith will cue up “Home Sweet Home”. The most extreme example is the mating dance of the scorpions, which Smith and Hibler turn into a full-on country jambaroo complete with square dancing calls and manipulated footage to make it look like a nearby owl is also getting down.

Critics and naturalists cried fowl at obviously staged sequences like this but audiences at the time certainly didn’t mind. They also shouldn’t have been surprised. Walt had already proven that he wasn’t above creating an entirely fictional narrative to get across some broad facts in the studio tour feature The Reluctant Dragon. At least he didn’t try to make it look like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on a desert safari.

Despite the somewhat dubious educational value of such tricks, The Living Desert went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was a big night for Disney. Even though none of his animated or live-action features were even nominated that year, Walt cleaned up in other categories. Bear Country won Best Live-Action Short Subject (Two-Reel). The Alaskan Eskimo, the first entry in a sister series to True-Life Adventures called People & Places, won Best Documentary Short Subject. And the great Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won Best Short Subject (Cartoons). The four Oscars Walt won set a record for the most taken home by an individual in a single night.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Living Desert and Bear Country double feature

The Living Desert has had a much longer shelf life than most documentaries from the 1950s. It was re-released theatrically a few times over the years. I remember watching it and other True-Life Adventures in school, a good 25 years after its original release. Today, it’s available on Disney+ and I can vouch for the fact that kids are still watching these vintage True-Life Adventures. Just this past July, we went to visit my girlfriend’s family. Her young nephews cycled through at least three of them one afternoon and, near as I could tell, that was all their idea.

By treating nature like a cartoon, Walt found a way to give documentaries a timeless appeal. The studio continues the tradition today with the Disneynature films. Celebrity narrators have replaced the friendly, folksy voice of Winston Hibler and sometimes they get an IMAX upgrade. But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures lives on. We will see more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: This is one of the few films I’ve ever watched that completely captivated my cat. Any movie that can hold a cat’s attention for over an hour has to be considered a Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sword And The Rose

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sword And The Rose

By 1953, Walt Disney British Films, Ltd was proving to be a success. Under the supervision of producer Perce Pearce, the division had made two hits: Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men. Walt would periodically visit the sets, so perhaps some of the atmosphere even rubbed off on Anglo-centric cartoons like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. As ambitious as ever, Walt decided to swing for the fences with his next live-action British feature. The Sword And The Rose was pure 1950s Oscar bait, a grand, big-budget romantic costume drama. But the Academy did not bite and audiences were largely unimpressed.

Pearce reunited most of his Robin Hood team, including director Ken Annakin, screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin, composer Clifton Parker, and stars Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice. The script was based on Charles Major’s massively popular novel When Knighthood Was In Flower, which had been filmed twice before during the silent era. New to the Disney team was an up-and-coming cinematographer named Geoffrey Unsworth who went on to such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret and Superman.

Todd stars as Charles Brandon, recently returned to England from the “foreign wars”. Brandon arrives as King Henry VIII (Justice) is holding a wrestling match pitting England against France. Brandon volunteers his talents but Henry, unwilling to let a commoner represent the court, has the Duke of Buckingham (Michael Gough, the man who would be Alfred to various Batmen) step into the ring instead. After Buckingham wins, Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor (Glynis Johns) suggests that Brandon take him on. Brandon wins, Mary is smitten and Buckingham and Brandon become rivals for her affection.

At Mary’s behest, Henry appoints Brandon captain of the guards. A clandestine courtship follows. Mary loves Brandon because he’s not afraid to tell her what he really thinks. Brandon loves her because…well, she’s a rich, flirty, attractive princess. Buckingham seethes with jealousy. But the triangle is complicated by Henry’s plan to marry his sister off to the elderly King Louis XII of France.

Knowing there’s not much he can do to prevent the wedding, Brandon resigns his post and makes plans to sail for the new world. Mary runs away to join him, “disguising” herself as a boy to pose as his page. I use the term loosely because it’s the least convincing get-up in the history of cross-dressing. The ship’s crew sees through the ruse (though not as quickly as they should, considering she’s still wearing lipstick and mascara) and send the pair back to shore, where they’re picked up by Henry’s men.

Brandon is locked up in the Tower of London while Mary is shipped off to France after securing Henry’s promise that she be allowed to choose her second husband after Louis’ death. The treacherous Buckingham tells Brandon that Mary has abandoned him to his fate and arranges an “escape”, during which Brandon is apparently killed. In France, Mary does whatever she can to hasten Louis’ death, first getting him drunk, then challenging him to a horse race.

Louis succumbs to whatever illness he’s suffering from and Mary discovers that the new king is eager for her to stick around. Buckingham arrives with news of Brandon’s death and offers to marry her immediately. Just when all seems lost, Brandon returns to challenge Buckingham and win Mary’s hand. The age of chivalry lives on. Or something like that.

Ordinarily, I don’t bother with detailed plot recaps like this because I assume most people are intimately familiar with the majority of the movies we’ve discussed in this column. But it seems useful in this case, partly because the film is relatively obscure but also to help convey just how boring it is. This is not a swashbuckling adventure filled with bold knights and acts of derring-do. It’s the kind of historical romance that your grandmother may have read or watched. It’s the sort of movie that isn’t content with a five-minute ball scene showing elaborately costumed couples dancing in unison. It also needs a lengthy sequence with our leads learning the dances they’ll soon be performing. Yawn.

Cover art for the comic book adaptation of The Sword And The Rose in Four-Color Comics #505

Richard Todd, who had been perfectly adequate as Robin Hood, turns in an identical performance as Brandon. He’s a fine square-jawed, twinkly-eyed leading man but he doesn’t have the presence necessary to elevate inferior material. Glynis Johns is fun and spunky enough to sort of gloss over the fact that she essentially kills the King of France. But she and Todd don’t exactly have the kind of chemistry that ignites the screen.

To be fair, this may be more Disney’s fault than the actors. On the face of it, The Sword And The Rose feels like an attempt to branch out into more adult-oriented fare. There’s nothing in the movie that would be particularly appealing to younger audiences. The action and adventure scenes are perfunctory and rare. But Disney’s idea of romance remains remarkably chaste. The result is a movie that seems explicitly designed to satisfy nobody.

There are a few things about the picture that work. James Robertson Justice, Little John to Todd’s Robin Hood, appears to be having a grand old time playing Henry VIII. And Michael Gough is effectively smarmy as Buckingham. His performance is reminiscent of Vincent Price, who was playing a lot of slimy characters in period pieces himself around this time. We’ll see all four of The Sword And The Rose’s lead actors again in this column.

This is also a nice-looking movie thanks to Unsworth’s cinematography, the lavish costumes designed by Valles, and the matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw. Annakin used Ellenshaw’s work sparingly in The Story Of Robin Hood but he makes up for it here. Ellenshaw reportedly painted more than 60 backgrounds for The Sword And The Rose, giving the film an epic scope.

Perhaps I should say that I assume this is a nice-looking movie because the version that’s most readily available looks pretty terrible. Disney hasn’t yet made the film available on Disney+, much less Blu-ray. The only DVD release to date has been a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. You can buy or rent it online but it looks like a digitized VHS. I’m sure The Sword And The Rose doesn’t exactly have a fervent fanbase but come on, Disney. You can do better than this.

The Sword And The Rose was released in August of 1953 and landed with a resounding thud. Walt’s hoped-for Academy Award nominations failed to materialize (although he dominated the ceremony elsewhere, something we’ll get into next time). And for the first time since the war, box office returns were significantly less overseas than expected.

One theory for the UK’s lack of interest in The Sword And The Rose holds that British audiences couldn’t get past the film’s historical inaccuracies. This is absolutely the kind of “historical” drama that makes actual historians tear their hair out in frustration. Charles Brandon wasn’t some commoner that Henry chanced to meet at a wrestling match. He was one of the King’s oldest friends, having been brought up in the court of Henry VII. Brandon and Mary never attempted to escape by sailing to the new world. The English wouldn’t start colonizing America at all for another fifty years or so. Any student trying to use this movie in lieu of reading a textbook would get an immediate “F – SEE ME” in red ink slapped on their test paper.

But audiences forgive the most egregious factual errors if they’re in service of telling a ripping good yarn. The Sword And The Rose is not that. It’s a stodgy, plodding drama that doesn’t know what audience it’s trying to please. Too boring for kids and too juvenile for adults, it’s a misstep in Walt Disney’s journey into live-action filmmaking.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Peter Pan

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Peter Pan

As with Alice In Wonderland before it, Walt Disney spent a long, long time bringing Peter Pan to the screen. It had been seriously considered as the follow-up to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as far back as 1935. But Walt wasn’t able to secure the rights until 1939, as part of his Snow White-financed spending spree. It would take fourteen years, many discarded drafts, and countless artists, animators and composers before Peter Pan finally premiered in February of 1953. But this time, unlike Alice, Walt seemed to think the finished picture was worth the effort.

It’s easy to understand why Walt would have been interested in J.M. Barrie’s play about the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Read any biography or watch any documentary about Walt and time how long it takes before someone refers to him as “a big kid” or something like that. He had seen the play as a child in Marceline, Missouri, and even played the title role in a school production. But despite his personal affinity for the material, it obviously took him awhile to decide how he wanted to adapt it to animation.

Some of the earliest concept art for Peter Pan was provided by artist David Hall. His work was considerably darker than what eventually ended up on screen. Walt continued trying to crack the story until the outbreak of World War II ground everything to a halt. The war years brought Disney’s studio to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing Walt to take out a massive loan from the Bank of America to stay afloat.

One of the stipulations of that loan was that the studio wasn’t allowed to put any new projects into production. They were only allowed to continue working on films that were already in progress. Even at that early date, Disney had put so much work into Peter Pan that the bank okayed the studio to keep going with it. But by the time the studio began to get back on its feet, Walt still wasn’t entirely satisfied with Peter Pan and started focusing on Cinderella instead.

By mid-1949, Walt felt the story was in good enough shape to finally give it an official greenlight. As was becoming standard practice, Walt insisted on shooting extensive live-action reference footage for the animators. Kathryn Beaumont went straight from working on Alice In Wonderland to voicing and modeling the role of Wendy. The great Hans Conried spent a few days providing the voices of both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling but was called back repeatedly over the course of over two years for additional live-action filming.

For the title role, Disney broke with the tradition of casting somewhat androgynous young women. Instead, contract player Bobby Driscoll was given the part, although he split the live-action duties with dancer and choreographer Roland Dupree, who handled the flying and action sequences. Driscoll had been 9 years old when he made his Disney debut in Song Of The South. By the time he worked on Peter Pan, he would have been around 14 and he definitely sounds like a teenager.

Bobby Driscoll and Walt Disney during the live-action filming of Peter Pan.
Bobby and Walt behind the scenes on Peter Pan.

Unfortunately, adolescence was not kind to Bobby Driscoll. For years, he had been Walt’s favorite juvenile lead. Through such films as So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island, Walt had referred to Bobby as “the living embodiment of his own youth”. But that all changed after Bobby hit puberty. Suddenly, Walt didn’t see him as the boy next door anymore. Bobby’s changing voice and a severe outbreak of acne now made Walt see him more as the neighborhood bully. In 1953, weeks after the premiere of Peter Pan, an extension on Bobby’s Disney contract was abruptly cancelled.

The next years were difficult ones. Bobby’s parents enrolled him in a public high school where his movie career made him a target. His grades dropped and eventually he began using drugs, leading to his first arrest in 1956 for possession. He started going by the name Robert Driscoll and landed a handful of roles, primarily on TV, but by the end of the 1950s, his acting career was essentially over.

In 1961, he was arrested once again and sentenced to a stint in rehab. Finding it impossible to get acting work, Bobby moved to New York where he fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. While at the Factory, he displayed a talent for art and appeared in at least one last film, underground filmmaker Piero Heliczer’s experimental Dirt, alongside the likes of Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Edie Sedgwick.

But Bobby eventually ran out of money and disappeared from the Factory. His whereabouts remained unknown until 1968 when two boys came upon his body in an abandoned tenement building. The cause of death was determined to be heart failure brought about by his heavy drug use. On the day his body was discovered, Bobby Driscoll would have been 31.

Because he carried no identification and no one locally stepped forward to claim him, he was buried in Potter’s Field in an unmarked, pauper’s grave. His fate wasn’t discovered until 1969, when his mother contacted someone at Disney for help tracking him down. A fingerprint match allowed the NYPD to confirm that the body buried on Hart Island belonged to Bobby Driscoll. It was a tragic conclusion to the former child star’s story.

Peter Pan marked the end of an era in other ways, too. It would be the last animated feature distributed by Disney’s longtime partner RKO. We’ll get into the reasons behind Disney’s split with RKO soon. It was one of the last films whose origins could be traced all the way back to the 1930s. Development on Lady And The Tramp also began around that time but by the time it hit screens in 1955, it had changed considerably from those preliminary discussions.

It was also the last feature to utilize the animation talents of all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. Les Clark was the longest tenured member of the team, having joined the studio back in 1927. All nine would continue to work for the studio in various capacities. But this would be the final film to tap into the unique alchemy that resulted from all nine working together.

If nothing else, Peter Pan is a terrific looking movie. It features some outstanding character animation and thrilling setpieces. “You Can Fly!”, featuring Peter and the kids soaring effortlessly over a beautifully detailed London skyline, is an undeniable high point. Conried, who would go on to voice some of my personal favorite animated characters including Snidely Whiplash and the MathemaGician in Chuck Jones’ The Phantom Tollbooth, is an ideal Captain Hook. He’s amusingly paired with Bill Thompson as Smee, once again doing a slight variation on his Wallace Wimple/Droopy/White Rabbit/Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore voice.

Tinker Bell is also a fine addition to the pantheon of Disney characters. Taking a character that was literally just a speck of light flitting around the stage and giving her personality and depth couldn’t have been an easy task. Doing it all without the benefit of dialogue makes the achievement even more impressive. Marc Davis animated Tinker Bell and he imbues her with a unique, contemporary style and attitude. Tink became the breakout star of Peter Pan, going on to essentially become the animated hostess of Disney’s long-running TV anthology.

In 2005, the studio finally decided to do something with Tink’s continued popularity by launching the Disney Fairies line. Unless you have kids of your own, you might not realize how massive this franchise has become. It encompasses books for a wide range of reading levels, comics, video games, and a long-running series of direct-to-video movies beginning with 2008’s Tinker Bell that finally gave her a voice (provided by Mae Whitman). DTV features are mercifully outside the purview of this column. This project is going to take long enough as it is, thanks very much. But it’s interesting to note that the Tinker Bell series has proven to be one of the studio’s most successful ventures in that realm.

Cover art for the direct-to-video Peter Pan spin-off Tinker Bell

Peter Pan did quite well during its original release. Most critics liked it and Walt himself was pleased with how it had turned out. But I’ve personally never quite connected with Peter Pan. I find the Lost Boys to be an aggressively annoying pack of urchins, not the playful scamps that Disney presumably intended. The Darling children aren’t as actively irritating but they aren’t particularly sympathetic, either. They’re just sort of blank, generic children.

Then there’s Peter Pan himself. He’s completely self-absorbed and remains that way throughout. He’s a hard hero to root for. It’s even harder to understand why every female character is obsessed with him. Tinker Bell’s jealousy over Wendy’s interest makes a little bit of sense since their relationship goes back decades or even centuries. It’s impossible to say how old a pixie and a boy who never grows up actually are. But the mermaids also fawn all over him and try to humiliate Wendy. Then it’s Wendy’s turn to get jealous when Tiger Lily makes her play. Every female character seems to possess just two emotions: blind devotion and petty jealousy.

We should also take a second to talk about Tiger Lily and the Indians. Disney indulges in pretty much every offensive Native American stereotype in the book, from the broken English to literally coloring them red. To be fair, this problem was not unique to Disney or even animation at the time. Nuanced, culturally appropriate depictions of indigenous peoples were few and far between in 1953. Still, a song like “What Made The Red Man Red?” isn’t great no matter what the context of the time.

Considering that Disney has essentially tried to erase Song Of The South from its history altogether, it’s a bit surprising that the latest Blu-ray of Peter Pan (released in 2018) doesn’t even warrant an outdated cultural depictions disclaimer (the version available on Disney+ carries one). Song Of The South is mostly offensive by omission, leaving out specific details that would have helped make the picture more palatable to modern audiences. Peter Pan is actively insulting. You can argue that the Indians aren’t meant to represent actual Native Americans any more than the Pirates are meant to realistically depict life at sea. That’s true enough, as far as that goes. But decades of being represented as literal and figurative cartoon characters is a big reason why racism against native people isn’t taken seriously.

For me, the only thing about Peter Pan that really works is the business with the Pirates, especially the cat-and-mouse game between Hook and the Crocodile. These sequences come alive with a slapstick energy that’s more akin to Looney Tunes than Disney. During one of Peter’s confrontations with Hook, they even indulge in the old cartoon standby of a fight continuing off the edge of a precipice. Hook doesn’t start to fall until Peter points down and Hook remembers that gravity is a thing. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner made their debut in 1949’s Fast And Furry-ous. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Frank Thomas and Wolfgang Reitherman, who were largely responsible for animating Hook and the Crocodile, cribbed some inspiration from their rivals at Warner Bros.

1989 theatrical re-release poster for Peter Pan

By the time Peter Pan was released in 1953, things were changing rapidly at Disney. Up until now, this column has focused primarily on animated features. That’s about to change. From this point forward, the live-action division of the Disney studio will become a lot more active.

Walt had built his reputation on animation, both short subjects and features. But production on the shorts had already begun to slow down. By the end of the decade, the studio all but abandoned the format. Every animated feature had taken years to develop and produce. Now with the backlog of unfinished projects beginning to run dry, the wait between full-length animated features became even longer.

While he’d never abandon the artform, Walt’s interest in animation had diminished considerably. Instead, he had thrown his energy into a new project: a massive amusement park that seemed so impossibly ambitious that even his wife, Lillian, thought he was nuts to attempt it. To help pay for and promote the park, Walt embraced the new medium of television, creating and hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC. Between Disneyland, the park, and Disneyland, the TV show, Walt now had bigger fish to fry. The movies that bore his name would now have a lot less direct input from Walt Disney.

VERDICT: This is going to be an unpopular opinion but for me, this is a Disney Minus. Nothing personal if you’re one of the millions who love it.

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