Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Mary Poppins

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

When Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles on August 27, 1964, Walt Disney was riding high on some of the most enthusiastic reactions of his career. The only trouble was they weren’t for his films. On April 22, the New York World’s Fair opened and four Disney exhibits quickly became must-sees for every visitor: Carousel Of Progress, Ford’s Magic Skyway, it’s a small world, and Walt’s passion project and personal favorite, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. These were groundbreaking feats of engineering and entertainment. The Audio-Animatronics developed by WED Enterprises’ team of “Imagineers” were the toast of the fair. As the first fair season came to a close in October, almost five million guests had visited the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion to get the song “It’s A Small World (After All)” stuck in their heads.

But back in Hollywood, the name “Walt Disney” had lost a little bit of its magic. Sure, people were still buying merchandise, watching the TV show and visiting Disneyland. But the studio barely made cartoons anymore. Their last animated feature, The Sword In The Stone, was noticeably different from earlier classics in both style and tone and the response to it had been lukewarm. And while the studio was still capable of putting out a sizable hit, they weren’t exactly the kinds of movies that brought invitations to the Academy Awards. Walt certainly wasn’t embarrassed by movies like Son Of Flubber or The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones. But even though audiences ate them up, they weren’t quite what Walt had in mind when he branched out into live-action.

The one movie that he had wanted to make for years was an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. It had been a particular favorite of Walt’s daughters. He first tried to obtain the rights back in 1938 as part of his post-Snow White shopping spree, only to be turned down flat by Mrs. Travers. But Walt Disney was nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After years of flattery and cajoling (and presumably an increased need for cash on Mrs. Travers’ side), he finally got her to say yes.

The behind-the-scenes drama between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is legendary, so much so that the studio made a whole self-mythologizing movie about it that will eventually appear in this column. Suffice it to say for now that Travers disagreed with almost every choice Walt and his team made, from the cast to the music to the animation. Especially the animation. P.L. Travers lived to be 96 years old, dying in 1996, and while she had come to terms with some parts of the film, she still hated cartoons.

Travers’ disapproval had to sting a little bit since Walt really had assigned his best people to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Co-producer and co-writer Bill Walsh had been responsible for some of the studio’s biggest recent hits, including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Co-writer Don DaGradi came from the animation side. He’d been a background and layout artist, an art director and a story man on a long list of Disney projects from Dumbo to Sleeping Beauty. He crossed over to live-action in 1959, first consulting on special sequences for films like Darby O’Gill And The Little People and The Parent Trap before moving on to cowrite Son Of Flubber with Walsh. They made a good team with DaGradi’s visual sense complimenting Walsh’s way with words.

Robert Stevenson had become one of Walt’s most reliable directors since joining the studio on Johnny Tremain. He’d been responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Old Yeller and the Flubber pictures. He was also adept with visual effects, as evidenced by his work on Darby O’Gill And The Little People. He’d never directed a musical before. But Walt hired the then-married choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to handle the dance sequences and had the Sherman Brothers in charge of the songs, so the music was in good hands.

Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, had been on the Disney payroll since around 1960. Walt met them through their association with Annette Funicello, whom they’d written several songs for. Since then, they’d written plenty of tunes, mostly title songs and incidental tracks designed to bridge scenes in movies like The Parent Trap or In Search Of The Castaways. But so far, their best public showcase had been the World’s Fair. Songs like “It’s A Small World (After All)” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” were simple, catchy earworms that have had a global reach that boggles the mind. Even so, they hadn’t had much of a chance to show what they could do on a bigger canvas.

The closest the Shermans had come to writing full-on musicals had been Summer Magic and The Sword In The Stone, neither of which really captured them at their best. None of the songs in Summer Magic were staged as production numbers. They were just songs to sing around a piano or on the porch between dialogue scenes. The Sword In The Stone came a bit closer but these were mostly tuneless, rhythm-based character songs. An audience couldn’t really sing along to them very well, much less hum or whistle them. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for its music. But that went to George Bruns’ score, not to the Sherman Brothers’ songs.

But the Shermans had been working on Mary Poppins pretty much from the beginning of their association with the studio. Walt finally secured the rights to the book right around the same time he met Robert and Richard. They were two of the first people he brought on board and they were very important in shaping the finished film. The Sherman Brothers knew this was a huge opportunity and they made the most of it.

Theatrical poster art for Mary Poppins

The cast was a good blend of Disney newcomers and returning veterans. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber may have been a bit young to be considered “veterans”. But their performances in The Three Lives Of Thomasina impressed Walt enough to cast them in the key roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Glynis Johns, who had co-starred in two of Disney’s early British productions, The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, returned to the studio as Banks matriarch and suffragette Winifred Banks. And Disney stalwart Ed Wynn was given the role he was born to play, Uncle Albert, an eccentric kook whose uncontrollable fits of laughter sends him floating to the ceiling.

Walt couldn’t have found an actor more ideally suited to the role of the repressed, emotionally withholding George Banks than David Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a consummate professional who’d been acting in British films and on stage since the early 1940s, interrupted only by his RAF service during World War II. He was the very image of a British gentleman and he’d toy with that stereotype throughout his career.

Dick Van Dyke was a somewhat more unconventional choice to play Bert, the cockney jack-of-all-trades. Van Dyke was a newly minted TV star thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show but was relatively untested in films. The fact that the Missouri-born entertainer was distinctly not British did not seem to be a concern. Despite what Van Dyke himself would later refer to as “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”, the movie serves as a terrific showcase for his talents as a song-and-dance man and a physical comedian. Those skills are underlined with Van Dyke’s virtually unrecognizable second role as the elderly Mr. Dawes. Revealing the gag in the end credits by unscrambling the name “Navckid Keyd” is a nice touch.

Of course, the most iconic bit of casting in the film is Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins herself. Andrews had been a sensation on London’s West End and Broadway in such shows as The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Jack Warner had bought the film rights to My Fair Lady and a lot of folks, including Andrews herself, were hoping she’d make her film debut as Eliza Doolittle. Warner had other ideas. He wanted a bankable star in the picture, so he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. Andrews was pregnant when Walt first offered her the part of Mary Poppins. She turned him down but Walt promised to hold off on production until she was ready.

He was right to wait. Julie Andrews delivers a performance for the ages that seems effortless but is very much not. On paper, the character seems impossible to play. She’s magical but prim and proper. She’s warm and loving but not outwardly demonstrative. I don’t think she even gives anyone so much as a hug once in the entire picture. She’s also a world-champion gaslighter, constantly telling the children she has no idea about the magical adventure she just made happen.

Mary Poppins’ magic all comes from the inside out. It’s seen in the twinkle of Andrews’ eyes, the playful smile that only occasionally breaks into a dazzling display of teeth, and her matter-of-fact body language even as she’s literally walking on air. This performance defines Mary Poppins in the popular imagination. Other actresses have played the role on stage and Emily Blunt starred in the belated sequel that I suppose we’ll have to talk about in this column eventually. But they’re all filtering their performance through Andrews’ work here. Not only does the work defy anyone else’s attempt to put their own spin on it, most audiences don’t want to see another spin on it. The measure of success is how closely you can come to replicating the original.

Theatrical poster art for the 30th anniversary re-release of Mary Poppins

In supporting roles, Walt recruited a parade of venerable character actors. Former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester pops in briefly as the last in the Banks’ long line of ex-nannies. Reginald Owen, who had played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Ebenezer Scrooge, is great fun as the Banks’ neighbor, Admiral Boom. Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, makes what would be her final film appearance as The Bird Woman. And if you know where to look, you can spot several Disney voice actors in the cast, including Don Barclay (as Admiral Boom’s first mate, Mr. Binnacle), Marjorie Bennett (as the owner of Andrew the dog) and Cruella de Vil herself, Betty Lou Gerson (as the creepy old lady who scares the hell out of the kids after they run away from the bank).

I was never a big fan of Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was a pleasant surprise to revisit it and find that I had severely underrated it. The Sherman Brothers are clearly the MVPs here. As a musical, Mary Poppins holds its own with anything that was on Broadway at the time, including My Fair Lady. The Shermans won Oscars for both Best Substantially Original Score (beating out Henry Mancini’s equally iconic The Pink Panther) and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. It’s interesting the Academy chose to honor that one since nearly every song has gone on to become a classic. The titles alone will get the songs playing in your head: “A Spoonful Of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (and yes, I copied and pasted that title).

In addition, Mary Poppins looks and feels like a big-screen movie. So many of Walt’s live-action films, especially from the 60s, look right at home on TV. In the 50s, Walt could get away with releasing made-for-TV productions theatrically because his production values were higher than normal for television. But as other studios made their movies bigger to compete with TV, Disney’s mostly stayed where they were. Mary Poppins was the exception. The sets, the costumes, the gorgeous matte paintings and other visual tricks were all state-of-the-art.

As enchanting as it is, Mary Poppins is not practically perfect in every way. P.L. Travers’ complaint about the animation isn’t wholly off-base. This was certainly Walt’s most ambitious blend of live-action and animation since Song Of The South. Technically, it’s extremely impressive and often lovely. It also goes on forever. They could have lost about half of it and no one would have been the wiser.

The “Jolly Holiday” song that takes up the first half of the sequence is one of the few times the narrative loses sight of the Banks family. Jane and Michael run off to explore the cartoon world while Bert serenades Mary Poppins and dances with some penguin waiters. A little goes a long way, especially since this doesn’t do anything to advance the story. Whatever weird past and/or present relationship Bert and Mary may or may not have had remains just as much a mystery. By the end of it, we haven’t learned a single new thing about either of these characters.

Overlength is probably the single biggest problem that plagues the film in general. Almost every scene, no matter how enjoyable, could probably be trimmed. “Step In Time” is an awesome production number but it feels like it’s never going to stop. I love the song “Stay Awake”, but the movie probably didn’t need two lullabies. And since “Feed The Birds” is a richer, more resonant song, “Stay Awake” feels like filler in comparison.

Mary Poppins single art

If critics or audiences shared these concerns back in 1964, they didn’t seem to care all that much. The press went nuts over Mary Poppins, praising it as Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Audiences adored it. Walt may have suspected he had a hit but even he had to be surprised at how big a hit it became. Not only did Mary Poppins become the highest-grossing film of 1964, it became the Disney studio’s biggest moneymaker ever.

When Academy Award nominations were announced on February 23, 1964, Mary Poppins led the pack with 13 including Best Picture, a first for any Walt Disney feature. The ceremony pitted Mary Poppins against My Fair Lady and, in many ways, Jack Warner’s film came out on top. In most categories where the two films went head-to-head, My Fair Lady won (one exception being Best Adapted Screenplay, which both lost to Becket). But Mary Poppins still took home five trophies including two for the Sherman Brothers’ music, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing (the one category where Mary Poppins triumphed over My Fair Lady).

The sweetest victory had to have been Julie Andrews’ win for Best Actress. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady, leaving Andrews to take home an Oscar for her very first film. A few weeks earlier, Andrews had been in direct competition with Hepburn and won at the Golden Globes. Accepting her award, Andrews cheekily thanked Jack Warner “for making all this possible”.

Mary Poppins must have been a pleasant experience for everyone involved, since nearly everyone in front of or behind the camera will be back in this column sooner or later. That includes Julie Andrews, although it’ll be quite some time before she returns. She’d go on to additional Oscar nominations (for The Sound Of Music and Victor/Victoria), a storied career on film, TV and stage, and a long marriage to filmmaker Blake Edwards. In 1981, she parodied her Disney image with a role in Edwards’ hilarious and tragically underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B. The next time we see Julie Andrews in this column, she’ll be Dame Julie Andrews, DBE.

Decades later, Mary Poppins has emerged as an enduring classic and one of Disney’s crown jewels. After its release, Walt would focus his attention on other projects, notably the ongoing work of his Imagineers and what would eventually become Walt Disney World. He’d be less hands-on with film, animation and TV production, with only a few projects capturing his imagination. And perhaps that’s understandable. Mary Poppins was the culmination of his life’s work, a magically entertaining synthesis of everything he’d learned about animation, storytelling and live-action filmmaking. After this, Walt Disney had nothing left to prove.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bon Voyage!

Original theatrical release poster for Bon Voyage!

If it had come from any other producer or studio, Bon Voyage! would be just another innocuous, overlong, not entirely successful comedy. In fact, it bears some surface resemblance to another innocuous family comedy from 1962, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation starring James Stewart. (Jimmy Stewart, somewhat surprisingly, will not be appearing in this column.) But coming from Walt Disney, Bon Voyage! is a bit of an odd duck, a movie that doesn’t seem to know exactly who its audience is meant to be. Quite simply, it doesn’t feel like a Disney movie.

Oh, it looks like a Disney movie. It reunites Fred MacMurray, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, again playing father and sons after The Shaggy Dog. Kirk had also appeared with MacMurray in The Absent-Minded Professor and Kirk and Corcoran had played brothers so often that they probably had false memories of holidays spent together. TV director James Neilson, who had just made his Disney feature debut with Moon Pilot, provides that signature live-action Disney visual style (which is to say essentially none). And the Sherman Brothers churned out another title song that falls somewhere between catchy and grating (this one is weighed heavily toward the latter end of that scale).

The Bon Voyage! project had actually been kicking around Hollywood for a few years before Disney became involved. It was based on a novel written by Joseph Hayes (the author of The Desperate Hours) and his wife, Marrijane, after they’d returned from a European cruise. The film rights were immediately picked up by Universal, who planned to make it with James Cagney. Later on, Bing Crosby became attached to the role. Eventually Universal let its option lapse and Disney picked it up.

Walt gave the property to Bill Walsh, the go-to live-action writer-producer who’d had a couple of big hits with The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. The other credited producer on the project was Ron Miller, who had also recently worked on Moon Pilot. Miller was married to Walt’s daughter, Diane. He played professional football for the Los Angeles Rams for a little while before Walt, concerned that he’d get seriously hurt, offered him a job. He started out in TV before moving into features with Moon Pilot. Miller would eventually become President of Walt Disney Productions, so he’ll continue to be a big presence in this column.

Our story follows the Willard family of Terre Haute, Indiana: father Harry (MacMurray), mother Katie (Jane Wyman, last seen as Aunt Polly in Pollyanna), daughter Amy (Deborah Walley, hot off her film debut in Gidget Goes Hawaiian), and sons Elliott and Skipper (Kirk and Corcoran). We first meet the Willards in New York City, rushing to catch the ship that will carry them to France for a long-planned European vacation. They haven’t even boarded the ship before Amy has caught the eye of Nick O’Mara (played by Walley’s Gidget costar Michael Callan), a budding architect traveling to visit his mother in Paris.

Meanwhile, broody teen Elliott is peeved at being dragged along on this trip at all. He’d just as soon board the next train back to Terre Haute. Young Skipper, as personified by Moochie Corcoran on another of his signature permanent sugar-highs, tears around the dock looking for mischief. For his part, Harry is just looking forward to some peace and quiet, hopes that are immediately dashed when he discovers that Katie has invited their entire extended family on board for a bon voyage party.

Things don’t calm down much at sea. Amy and Nick continue their courtship, much to Harry’s consternation. Elliott pursues a romance with an Indian girl, their every move watched by her mysterious chaperone. I kept expecting something more to come of this but nothing does. The girl simply dumps Elliott the second they put into port and they’re never referred to again. With the rest of the family pursuing their own agendas, Harry decides to spend some quality time with Skipper, who predictably runs him ragged from dawn to dusk.

Once they arrive in Paris, things more or less continue along this episodic trajectory. Harry and Skipper take a tour of the city’s historic sewer system, resulting in Harry getting hopelessly lost beneath the streets. Elliott bounces from one girl to the next, attempting to appear more continental by outfitting himself with ascots and a pipe. And Skipper essentially runs loose, unsupervised and carefree. I’m no fan of helicopter parenting but allowing your 12-year-old son to come and go as he pleases in a foreign country almost borders on neglect.

Something resembling a plot finally kicks in when Nick invites Harry and Katie to meet his mother, La Contessa DuFresne (Jessie Royce Landis), at a fancy party. Here, Katie catches the eye of Rudolph Hunschak (Ivan Desny), a notorious gigolo well-known for seducing married women. Seething with jealousy, Harry knocks back glass after glass of absinthe. Meanwhile, Amy’s hot-and-cold running romance with Nick hits another rough patch when he starts whining about his overbearing mother. Both Katie and Amy ask Harry to take them back to the hotel but he’s too busy getting petulantly drunk on absinthe. Eventually he passes out, leaving his daughter to drag him back to the hotel.

Not knowing what’s become of her drunken husband, Katie ends up spending the night bar-hopping with Rudolph trying to track him down. Rudolph’s advances are firmly rebuffed but Katie’s still mad that Harry abandoned her at the party. Harry indulges in some classic victim-blaming. He actually says, “It’s very difficult to kiss a girl when she doesn’t want to be kissed.” Katie understandably kicks him out, ending the Paris leg of their trip on a sour note.

Finally, it’s off to the French Riviera. Amy arrives at the beach decked out in a skimpy (not really but, by Disney standards, sure) bikini. All the guys on the beach turn into Tex Avery cartoon wolves at the sight of her, sending Nick (still dogging her every move, for some reason) into a jealous fit. Amy swims out into the ocean to get away from this jerk but Nick can’t take a hint. He steals a boat, goes after her and physically drags her out of the water. To her credit, Amy tells Nick to take a hike before taking some paternal comfort in Harry.

Harry is still trying to smooth things over with Katie. On their last night in France, he arranges for a big night of dinner, dancing and casino gaming in Monaco. But who should they find sleazing up the casino but Rudolph Hunschak? Harry immediately hauls off and decks him, setting off a chain reaction that practically destroys the entire casino with one punch. Harry gets kicked out of the joint, hustled back across the border to France where Nick is waiting to have a heart-to-heart. Nick apologizes, while Harry empathizes with the fact that love can make you do some crazy things. They don’t quite get to the point of Nick asking Harry’s permission to marry his daughter but the door’s left open. Reunited at last, the family celebrates their last night in Europe with an outdoor Bastille Day celebration.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned two of the weirdest sequences in the movie, both involving Tommy Kirk’s Elliott. In the first, Harry orders breakfast at a café where he catches the eye of a young French girl (Françoise Prévost) on the make for rich American tourists. Harry assures the unnamed girl that he’s flattered but completely devoted to his wife and kids. The girl seems moved by this and hopes he enjoys the rest of his trip. A little later, Harry’s on his way to the Louvre when he sees Elliott being charmed by this same girl. Harry seems amused by the fact that she’s trying to con his kid, rather than upset or angry or anything resembling a normal parental response. He bids the sexy con artist a fond farewell and drags an embarrassed Elliott back to the hotel.

Later on at the Riviera, Harry and Elliott are paid a call by Elliott’s latest paramour and her mother. It seems Elliott is responsible for taking the young lady’s “virtue” and mother demands compensation from the rich Americans. Harry gets rid of them by immediately agreeing that the two lovebirds should get married. He paints a horrific picture of rural life in Indiana, up at dawn to milk the cows and what-not, and insists they celebrate the union by smashing a bottle of champagne against the wall. The two Frenchwomen beat a hasty retreat and Elliott presumably gets a stern lecture about premarital sex that we mercifully don’t hear.

If it seems like the Disney folks were working way too hard to present Tommy Kirk as a womanizing horndog, that’s because they probably were. By this point, Tommy Kirk knew he was gay and had known for several years. Back in 1962, this was not exactly a subject that was discussed openly, especially at a conservative studio like Disney. Still, there were undoubtedly those at the studio who either knew or suspected. According to Kirk, one of those people was Jane Wyman. Kirk apparently had a miserable time filming Bon Voyage!, butting heads with both Wyman and MacMurray (although in MacMurray’s case, Tommy admits he was at least partially to blame for causing friction between them). Undoubtedly the strain of pretending to be someone he wasn’t played a part in his unhappiness. Tommy Kirk will make a few more appearances in this column but eventually, his hidden homosexuality will unfortunately result in his dismissal.

At any rate, in addition to being a family romp through Europe, Bon Voyage! turns out to be Disney’s first sex comedy and it’s every bit as awkward and uncomfortable as that description makes it sound. Given the cast and Disney’s recent successes with gimmick comedies, I kept expecting the Willards to run into spies or jewel thieves or a wacky inventor with a talking car or a chimpanzee or some combination of these. But no, Neilson and Walsh try to keep things relatively grounded.

That would be great if they also gave us characters we could care about or funnier situations for them to stumble into. But the Willards are, by and large, not a particularly likable family. Harry earns some dad points here and there but he’s not a great husband. Katie remains a blank slate through most of the film, disappearing for long stretches. Her primary function is to be calm about things that worry Harry and worry about things Harry’s calm about. The relationship between Amy and Nick is on-again off-again so frequently that you quickly decide it’s not worth the emotional investment. There’s the germ of a funny idea in Elliott’s transformation into a suave sophisticate but it remains underdeveloped and Elliott himself doesn’t appear to learn anything from the experience. As for Skipper…please stop.

Despite its confused tone, lack of momentum and overall sleepiness, Bon Voyage! did reasonably well, becoming the 9th highest-grossing film of the year in the U.S., tied with the hospital drama The Interns. Interestingly enough, The Interns also starred Michael Callan. It was directed by David Swift, who had previously directed Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, and costarred former Disney contract players James MacArthur and Buddy Ebsen. Box office records round both films to $5 million but given the number of Disney connections in The Interns, I’ll bet you Walt knew exactly which one made more to the penny.

Bon Voyage! even managed to snag a couple Oscar nominations. Robert O. Cook received a nod for Best Sound, his second nomination after The Parent Trap (the award went to Lawrence Of Arabia instead). In addition, Bill Thomas was nominated for his costume design, his second Disney nomination after Babes In Toyland and not his last (he had already won an Oscar for his work on Spartacus). Thomas lost to Mary Wills for the George Pal production The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm, a lavish fantasy that in some ways out-Disneys anything Disney himself was producing at the time.

After its initial release, Bon Voyage! faded away pretty quickly. The film has never been released on Blu-ray and, as of this writing, isn’t available to stream on Disney+. I wouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. This is unquestionably one of the studio’s weaker efforts, too grown-up for the kids (I believe this is the first Disney film to use profanity, even if it is just a couple of mild “damnations”) and too juvenile for the grown-ups. Some vacations are better left forgotten. And as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, the next time the studio tries its hand at comedy, it’ll quite literally go back to a tried-and-true formula.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Babes In Toyland

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Babes In Toyland

Music played an integral role at the Disney studio practically from its inception. From “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?” to “Someday My Prince Will Come” to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, Disney films made (and continue to make) invaluable contributions to the Great American Songbook. But by 1961, even though the studio had been producing live-action features for over a decade, they still had not attempted a full-on, big-budget live-action musical. With Babes In Toyland, Walt made his first attempt at rectifying that oversight.

Not that there weren’t still plenty of original tunes flowing out of the Disney recording studio. Everything from Ten Who Dared to The Parent Trap had managed to shoehorn an original song or two. But these songs weren’t as seamlessly integrated into their productions as the songs in Disney’s animated classics. It’s impossible to imagine Snow White or Pinocchio without the songs. The only people who would miss “A Whale Of A Tale” if it had been cut from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea would be the theatre owners who probably enjoyed a boost in concession sales during the scene.

For a while, it appeared that Walt’s first live-action musical would be an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. The rights to The Wizard Of Oz were tightly controlled by MGM. But in 1954, Walt was able to secure the rights to the other thirteen books in the series. He began developing a project called The Rainbow Road To Oz as a showcase for the Mickey Mouse Club’s Mouseketeers. Darlene Gillespie was to play Dorothy. Annette Funicello was Ozma. Walt originally thought of it as a television production but as work went on, he began to think it might work as a feature.

Eventually, Walt decided to abandon the Oz project. No one’s exactly sure why, although one can assume that the MGM movie cast a huge shadow. There’s no way that Walt would have gone ahead with Rainbow Road To Oz unless he was absolutely sure that it could live up to or surpass the gold standard set by Judy Garland and friends. Judging by the segments that aired on Disneyland’s fourth-anniversary show, Rainbow Road To Oz did not. Check it out for yourself. It’s pretty weird.

(The Disney studio did eventually return to Oz with Return To Oz in 1985, a genuinely bizarre film that proved deeply upsetting for an entire generation of young people. I love it with all of me and can’t wait to include it in this column.)

At around the same time that The Rainbow Road To Oz was falling apart, Walt announced his intentions to make an animated feature based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes In Toyland. Herbert’s show had also been filmed previously, most notably as a 1934 feature starring Laurel and Hardy. Walt put animator Ward Kimball in charge of the project and Kimball worked on the script with storyman Joe Rinaldi. Kimball and Rinaldi had a hard time cracking the project. They streamlined the complicated storyline as much as they could, turning it into a romantic triangle between fairytale lovebirds Tom Piper and Mary Contrary and the evil Barnaby, who wants to marry Mary for her inheritance.

By late 1959, Walt had reconceived Babes In Toyland as a live-action musical. Lowell S. Hawley, who had written for Zorro and Swiss Family Robinson, was brought on board to rewrite Kimball and Rinaldi’s script for live-action. Jack Donohue, a Broadway choreographer and TV director responsible for several variety shows featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton, was hired to direct. Kimball, who’d had several disagreements with Walt over the scripts and casting, was sent back to the animation department.

Although she wouldn’t get a chance to rule Oz as Ozma, Annette Funicello still got her biggest movie showcase to date as Mary. Annette was a huge star on TV and had even had a few hit records. But so far, her only big-screen appearance had been a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog. Walt believed she was ready for bigger things. At the time of Babes In Toyland, Annette was so famous that she didn’t even need to be credited under her full name. She’s simply “Annette”. Everybody already knew who she was.

The same probably couldn’t be said about her costar, teen idol Tommy Sands. Sands made a big splash right out of the gate, starring as an Elvis-like singing sensation in an episode of Kraft Television Theatre called, appropriately enough, The Singin’ Idol. His signature number on that show, “Teen-Age Crush”, made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart. 20th Century Fox produced a feature-film remake of The Singin’ Idol called Sing, Boy, Sing but while Sands received some praise for his performance, the movie was a flop.

Nevertheless, Sands continued plugging away at both his acting and recording careers (he also married Nancy Sinatra in 1960). It makes perfect sense why Walt would cast him in Babes In Toyland. He was popular enough to make it seem like the studio wasn’t completely out of touch with the kids but not so popular that he’d be too cool for a Disney movie. Walt certainly made the most of Sands’ short time on the lot, recruiting him to sing the title song to The Parent Trap with Annette.

The Oz connections continue with the casting of Ray Bolger as Barnaby. The former Scarecrow had kept busy on stage (winning a Tony Award for his performance in Where’s Charley?) and television, where his sitcom Where’s Raymond? was eventually retitled The Ray Bolger Show. His only Disney appearance offers him a rare chance to play the bad guy and he has fun with it, playing to the cheap seats with his stovepipe hat and purple-lined cape.

Most of the rest of the cast was filled out with members of the Disney Stock Players. Ed Wynn does his Ed Wynn thing as the zany Toymaker. Tommy Kirk, still stuck in the “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-kid” phase of his Disney career, appears as Wynn’s apprentice. Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, fresh off appearances in Zorro and Toby Tyler, are again teamed up as the bumbling crooks Gonzorgo and Roderigo. Kevin Corcoran shows up as Little Boy Blue. Perhaps hedging his bets against Moochie eventually hitting puberty, Walt also recruited Kevin’s brother, Brian Corcoran (who had appeared in a few episodes of Daniel Boone and Texas John Slaughter on TV), to add some additional precociousness as Willie Winkie.

The newest member of the Disney family was young Ann Jillian, who appears as Bo Peep. Jillian’s Disney tenure was relatively brief. She’d go on to appear in the TV production Sammy, The Way-Out Seal. But Jillian was one of the rare child stars who became much more famous as an adult, starring on the sitcom It’s A Living, as Mae West in a popular TV-movie, and as herself in the made-for-TV biopic The Ann Jillian Story. She’s still out there on the lecture circuit discussing her experiences as a breast cancer survivor, proof that not every child star’s career ends in tragedy.

Theatrical release poster for Babes In Toyland

Walt spared no expense on Babes In Toyland. He spent years developing the script. The production cost in excess of $3 million. George Bruns and Mel Leven, who had recently made a splash with their music for One Hundred And One Dalmatians, were brought on board to update Victor Herbert’s music for the swinging sixties. Cast and crew alike were stocked with top professionals from both inside and outside the studio.

So why is the movie itself so terrible?

The trouble starts right away as an inexpertly performed goose puppet named Sylvester is thrust through a velvet curtain to address the audience. This is no Jim Henson creation. It’s a cheap looking puppet whose beak movements don’t even sync up with the dialogue. Sylvester is held throughout by Mother Goose (played by musical theatre performer Mary McCarty). Mother Goose and Sylvester bring us up to speed, welcoming us to Mother Goose Village and inviting us to the wedding of Tom and Mary. The whole thing feels a bit like a play performed by an amateur children’s theatre group and the movie never manages to rise above that level.

The opening number foreshadows the table-setting theatrics of “Belle” from Beauty And The Beast, introducing all the characters and showing us around the elaborate but somehow still chintzy-looking sets. But “Mother Goose Village and Lemonade” has none of the charm and sweep of “Belle”. The fact that it morphs into an inexplicable tribute to lemonade for some reason should tell you all you need to know.

Babes In Toyland soundtrack album cover

Bruns and Leven were both responsible for some terrific songs but virtually none of them are in Babes In Toyland. Annette’s big number, “I Can’t Do The Sum”, is essentially all about how bad she is at math because she’s just a girl. It’s livened up by some neat visuals, including Annette dividing into four multicolored doppelgangers, but it’s still in service of a truly lousy song. Most of the other songs are just forgettable.

There is one good song in the batch, Ray Bolger’s “Castle In Spain”. I first encountered the song on the great Hal Willner-produced album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films where it was performed by Buster Poindexter. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Babes In Toyland and had no idea what movie the song was from. I still prefer the Buster Poindexter cover but Ray Bolger’s version is fun, too.

(If you’re unfamiliar with Stay Awake, I highly recommend tracking it down. Other highlights include Tom Waits’ take on “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)”, Los Lobos on “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” and The Replacements tearing through “Cruella De Vil”. Oddly enough, Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen) will not be back in this column, despite the fact that his voice is ideally suited to animation. He did appear on an episode of The Magical World Of Disney, performing at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening, but that’s the extent of his involvement with the studio.)

Babes In Toyland has a lot of problems: the mediocre music, the non-existent character development, the off-putting production design and visual effects. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that for the first time, a Walt Disney production feels like it’s talking down to its intended audience. Walt Disney was in the business of making family entertainment. At his best, he made films that are universal in their appeal. Babes In Toyland is specifically directed toward young children. Very young. Ann Jillian would have been around 10 or 11 at the time she appeared in this and she would have already aged out of the target audience. The whole movie feels forced and condescending in a way we don’t typically associate with Disney.

Released in time for Christmas 1961 (although I wouldn’t really call this a Christmas movie, it’s more Christmas-adjacent), Babes In Toyland wasn’t exactly a bomb but it certainly didn’t do as well as anyone had hoped. The movie did manage to snag a couple of Oscar nominations, for Bill Thomas’s costumes and Bruns’s score, but it lost both to a far more successful musical, West Side Story. Both Thomas and Bruns will be back in this column and both will again be Oscar nominees for their work on Disney films.

Even today, the Laurel and Hardy version is still the best film adaptation of Babes In Toyland. The source material continues to confound those brave enough to attempt to film it, resulting in some truly weird spectacles. In 1986, Drew Barrymore starred in a TV remake alongside Richard Mulligan as Barnaby, Pat Morita as the Toymaker and Keanu Frickin’ Reeves as Jack-Be-Nimble. It’s…um…it’s something, alright.

Never one to live in the past, Walt certainly didn’t linger on the failure of Babes In Toyland. As usual, he had already moved on to his next musical project. Earlier in 1961, he had finally been able to persuade author P.L. Travers to let him have the film rights to her Mary Poppins books. Walt would take a more hands-on approach with this one and the results would be a whole lot better.

VERDICT: You have to ask? Oh, it’s a big-time Disney Minus.

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An Honor To Be Nominated: Nine

THE CONTENDER: Nine (2009)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Actress in a Supporting Role (Penélope Cruz); Costume Design (Colleen Atwood); Art Direction (John Myhre, Gordon Sim); Original Song (“Take It All”, music & lyrics by Maury Yeston)

Number of Wins: 0

Hollywood and Broadway used to enjoy a much more symbiotic relationship than they do today. The Broadway stage was a reliable source of material for moviemakers. In return, Hollywood made Broadway look like the highest peak a young up-and-coming actor, singer or dancer could aspire to. Hell, the second movie (and the first sound picture) to win Best Picture was The Broadway Melody, about a pair of sisters fresh off the vaudeville circuit trying to make it big on the Great White Way.

Some of the most beloved movies of all time are based on Broadway musicals: My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, the list goes on and on. One thing these movies all have in common: they all appeared in theatres not too long after their stage debuts. My Fair Lady won the 1957 Tony for Best Musical. The movie came out in 1964. The Sound Of Music came out five years after winning its Tony.

But the movie-going public’s appetite for big, splashy musicals all but died in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Broadway adaptations continued to pop up now and then (The Wiz, Annie, A Chorus Line) but they rarely returned on their investment (Grease being one of the few exceptions).

So pretty much any popular, Tony-winning musical that had the misfortune to debut in the 1980s was resigned to sit on the sidelines. Evita had to wait 16 years before it was made into a film. The Phantom Of The Opera took 18. And Cats…well, we all know what happened to Cats.

Nine premiered on Broadway in 1982 and it was kind of a big deal. It helped launch Raul Julia (already a big Broadway star) into a film career, won multiple Tony Awards and was nominated for a Grammy. 21 years later, a revival of the show also won a bunch of Tonys. But it wasn’t until six years after that when the movie version was finally released to an indifferent public who had most likely forgotten all about the show. It probably didn’t help matters that just a few months earlier, a completely unrelated animated film called 9 had been released (and that one had come out just a few months after District 9…nines were everywhere in 2009).

Based on the classic by Federico Fellini (who was reportedly cool with giving over the stage rights to his film as long as his name and the movie’s actual title were kept far, far away from it), Nine follows cinema maestro Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he preps for his latest film, Italia. Principal photography is scheduled to begin in just 10 days but Guido doesn’t have a script. Panicked, Guido flees a press conference and attempts to hole up in a spa away from Rome, summoning his mistress (Penélope Cruz) and stashing her in a much seedier hotel close to the train station…just in case.

Naturally, “just in case” becomes a reality as the entire film crew follows Guido in an effort to get him to focus on the project. But the script remains elusive as Guido’s mind slides into a fantasia of all the women in his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer/confidante (Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his childhood (Fergie) and his late mother (Sophia Loren).

The impressive lineup of talent doesn’t stop in front of the camera. The screenplay was written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (this ended up being his last film credit). The director was Rob Marshall, who had made an impressive transition from Broadway to film with the Oscar-winning Chicago just a few years earlier. On paper, everything about this movie seems like a home run. So why is it so totally inert?

A big part of the problem here is the character of Guido, both as written and as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Guido is a brooding, narcissistic, control freak who gets away with his bad behavior because he’s a genius. Day-Lewis has the brooding control freak side of the character down pat but we don’t get to see even a glimpse of the genius or any other redeeming quality to suggest why we should care about this guy.

He also never seems particularly comfortable with the singing and dancing that comes along with starring in a musical. He only has a couple of numbers and he’s a fine singer. But songs in musicals are all about taking what a character is feeling inside and making it physical through music and movement. Day-Lewis is such an internal actor anyway, you feel him bristling at being made to externalize his emotions. It isn’t his strong suit.

Fortunately, the ladies do most of the heavy lifting in the music department while Day-Lewis looks on, usually bathed in a spotlight and smoking a cigarette. They’re all perfectly fine, although I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly inspired. Marion Cotillard has the most to do as Guido’s ignored wife and gets two numbers, including one of the three new songs written for the film. “My Husband Makes Movies” is sort of an insipid introduction to the character but she fares better with the new song, “Take It All”. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren are barely in the movie long enough to register, while Kate Hudson pops in for an energetic but stupid new tune, “Cinema Italiano”. As for Judi Dench…she’d go on to appear in Cats, so we’ll cut her some slack for this one.

But when you have a cast like this, somebody’s bound to get an Oscar nomination and this time, Penélope Cruz’s name was pulled out of the hat. Her performance is…fine. No better or worse than anyone else in the cast. She gives 100% to her sexy performance of “A Call From The Vatican” and her role allows for a bit more range than Cotillard’s did, so I assume that’s why she got the nod. But honestly, this is one of those nominations that feels like the Academy selected just by throwing a dart at a poster of the movie.

The best song in the movie and the one sequence that feels authentically Fellini-esque belongs to Fergie, the only person here who has never been nominated for an Oscar. “Be Italian” is clearly the show-stopper, so thank God they gave it to somebody who could sing the hell out of it. But during the black-and-white flashback sequences, Fergie is the one person in the cast who looks like she belongs in a Fellini film. She’s sexy, earthy, uninhibited and playful in a way nobody else pulls off. It’s the one sequence in the film that really comes to life.

It’s hard to argue against Nine‘s art direction and costume design nominations. If nothing else, the movie looks spectacular. It lost in both categories (to Avatar and The Young Victoria, respectively) but production designer John Myhre, set decorator Gordon Sim, and costume designer Colleen Atwood have all won Oscars before (and since, in the Atwood’s case), so don’t feel too badly for them.

2009 was the first year the Academy upped the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. You’d think that with more slots available, a movie with Nine‘s pedigree would be a shoo-in for the big prize. But Nine was unable to muscle past the likes of The Blind Side and A Serious Man, much less eventual winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Nine tied with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for the most number of nominations without getting a Best Picture nod. Difference is that Star Trek actually won one (that’d be Best Makeup).

Today, Nine is a footnote in the careers of those involved with the movie. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the play is that it was one of the first big Broadway shows based on a movie. These days, when everything from The Lion King to Beetlejuice to Evil Dead to Monty Python And The Holy Grail has been adapted for the musical theatre, it feels almost risky to base a show on a 1960s Italian art film. And who knows…maybe if Nine had made the transition back to cinema back in the 80s, maybe it would have been something fresh instead of the reheated pasta it became.

Nine is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Twelve Monkeys

THE CONTENDER: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt); Costume Design (Julie Weiss)

Number of Wins: 0

Not too long ago, I sat down to finally watch Terry Gilliam’s long, long delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As I did, I was confronted with the sad but very real possibility that I was watching his last film. Gilliam has rarely had an easy time getting his movies made but the road to Don Quixote had been especially arduous. It had been preceded by the barely-released The Zero Theorem; The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be completely rethought after star Heath Ledger died in the middle of production; and the even-more-barely-released Tideland, which found the former Python making the publicity rounds while toting a cardboard sign reading, “Studio-less film maker. Family to support. Will direct for food.” How much does he have to put up with before he finally says enough is enough?

It wasn’t always this way. Gilliam’s 1981 breakthrough, Time Bandits, was a bona fide smash hit. It was the 10th highest-grossing movie of the year in America and remains a delightful, endlessly rewatchable classic. His troubles began with his next film, Brazil, which became embroiled in a notorious struggle for final cut between Gilliam and Universal Pictures (specifically then-chairman Sid Sheinberg). Gilliam won that battle and the film is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t exactly demolish box office records.

Then came The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy epic that went wildly over-budget and completely tanked at the box office. Most directors never recover from a debacle like that (see also: Cimino, Michael). But Gilliam was determined to shake his reputation as an irresponsible, out-of-control auteur. He rebounded and back-to-back made the two biggest hits of his career: The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys.

An Academy Award-winning film in its own right, The Fisher King will be a subject for another day. So let’s contemplate the unlikely success of Twelve Monkeys. First off, it’s a remake of (or, as the credits have it, “inspired by”) a 28-minute French art film told almost entirely in still images, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a dystopian science fiction nightmare about a violent criminal (Bruce Willis as James Cole) who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996. His job isn’t to prevent the virus from being released. We’re told repeatedly that ship has sailed. The world is dead. The best Cole can do is assist the scientists in their search for a cure.

Cole’s first journey to the past sends him back too far, arriving in 1990 where he finds himself committed to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He’s befriended by fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who rants and raves about corporate America and consumer culture. Cole is snatched back to his own time, then accidentally sent to a battlefield in World War I before finally ending up in 1996, just before the virus is due to be released. The scientists believe a group of radical environmentalists called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible and it turns out that Jeffrey Goines is the leader of the group. But all this back and forth is taking a heavy toll on Cole. He’s doubting his own sanity and is plagued by a recurring childhood memory of seeing a man shot by police in an airport.

In a nutshell, Twelve Monkeys is a dark, dark film. It’s all about madness and death, it takes place in run-down sanatoriums and on the decaying streets of Philadelphia in the grayest of winters, and ends by promising a future that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Nevertheless, it was a sizable hit and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations.

One of those nominations went to costume designer Julie Weiss (she’d be nominated again a few years later for her work on Julie Taymor’s Frida). As far as I’m concerned, Gilliam’s films should routinely be nominated for both production and costume design. There simply aren’t any other movies that look like his. Weiss’ work here is fantastic and not just the futuristic containment suits. Even the contemporary scenes bear a mark of individuality. The various mental patients and homeless people Cole encounters all look weathered and beaten down by life. Of course, these aren’t exactly the kind of fashion statements that win Oscars.

The film’s other nomination went to young up-and-comer Brad Pitt. It was his first nomination and he’d go on to win in the same category just this year for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s not quite fair to say that this was the first time Pitt had shown he was more than just a pretty face. He’d been proving himself as an actor for awhile by now in movies like A River Runs Through It and Legends Of The Fall. He’d also grunged himself up for movies like Kalifornia and True Romance. So we already knew he wasn’t exactly vain. We also knew that he was willing to go into some pretty dark territory. His other big hit of 1995 was Se7en. Brad Pitt was not spending the year spreading sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

But up until now, Pitt’s screen persona had been very laconic, almost bordering on sleepy from time to time. He was charming and extremely good-looking but his energy was very low-key. Twelve Monkeys was the opposite of all that. For the first time, here was Brad Pitt literally bouncing off the walls, firing off dialogue like a machine gun and grinning like a lunatic. We’d never seen this Brad Pitt before and, honestly, we haven’t seen too much of him since. His performance is absolutely over-the-top but in the best way. Personally, I’d love to see Crazy Brad show up again someday.

Bruce Willis (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Did he deserve one here? Possibly. Willis certainly doesn’t disappear into the part of James Cole. He’s not that kind of actor. But he anchors this film in some important ways. The consistency of the character’s through-line is what prevents all the time travel mind games from becoming confusing, even as Cole thinks he’s going insane himself. And Willis has at least one genuinely lovely, touching moment when Cole hears music again for the first time in lord knows how long. Willis really sells that scene. The expression of pure happiness on his face speaks volumes about what he’s endured.

You would think that after the back-to-back success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys that Terry Gilliam would have had an easier time of it. You would be wrong. His next film, the appropriately gonzo Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, divided critics and struggled at the box office. After that, Gilliam spent a lot of time on movies that never got made, including a go at adapting Watchmen and the first of several attempts at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam was even J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before cooler heads prevailed, Gilliam deciding he didn’t want the headaches of a big tentpole film and Warner Bros. deciding they didn’t want the headaches of dealing with Gilliam.

If Terry Gilliam’s directorial career is indeed winding down, Twelve Monkeys will stand as his last big hit. In 2015, SyFy launched a 12 Monkeys TV series that credits Chris Marker and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples but pointedly not Terry Gilliam. People now seem to believe that the movies Gilliam made that were successful succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. If so, that’s a real shame. Terry Gilliam remains a singularly talented filmmaker with a vision all his own. His legacy will outlast any virus.

Twelve Monkeys is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Carol

THE CONTENDER: Carol (2015)

Number of Nominations: 6 – Actress (Cate Blanchett); Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara); Adapted Screenplay (Phyllis Nagy); Cinematography (Edward Lachman); Costume Design (Sandy Powell); Original Score (Carter Burwell)

Number of Wins: 0

Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers On A Train, was published in 1950. Just one year later, before she’d even published her second book, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation premiered. Pretty impressive for a first-timer. Over the next forty-plus years, Highsmith would publish 22 novels and 9 collections of short stories, many of which would subsequently be adapted for film and television. Her work has attracted a diverse, international line-up of filmmakers, including Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella, Claude Chabrol, and Liliana Cavani, and will likely continue to do so for as long as people make movies based on books. But despite her enduring popularity among filmmakers, it would be decades before anyone would even consider making a movie based on that second book. Indeed for many years, no one even realized she had written it.

In 1951, Highsmith published the novel The Price Of Salt under the name “Claire Morgan”. It had been rejected by her first publisher and strongly discouraged by her agent, who warned against following up a best-selling suspense novel with a novel about a lesbian relationship. For her part, Highsmith kind of agreed with that assessment. The Price Of Salt was highly personal and even a bit autobiographical. She knew she had more thrillers in her but she wasn’t entirely certain that she’d ever write another novel quite like this one. So it was published pseudonymously and went in and out of print over the years, despite being well-regarded, especially among the gay and lesbian community for its then-groundbreaking depiction of a same-sex relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy. It wasn’t until 1990 that Highsmith finally allowed the book, now retitled Carol, to be published under her own name.

It took a number of years for the movie version of Carol to make it to theatres, which is probably just as well. The extra development time allowed the project to attract the ideal creative team. Playwright Phyllis Nagy, a friend of Highsmith’s, wrote her first draft of the screenplay all the way back in 1997. The project then went through multiple stars, directors and financers, before finally attracting the attention of Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was the perfect choice to play Carol Aird, the sophisticated older woman who enters into an affair with young shopgirl Therese Belivet. Very few actresses are as effortlessly alluring as she. From the second Therese spots Carol across the crowded sales floor, you can completely understand why she caught her eye.

Scheduling conflicts continued to pose a problem for the production as various directors came and went. Finally, the script landed in front of Todd Haynes, which is really where it should have been in the first place. Haynes had already hit a home run with the 1950s-set Far From Heaven, a modern updating of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas. Carol, while certainly more grounded in realism than the earlier film, is still very much a spiritual cousin to the themes and ideas explored in Far From Heaven.

As Therese, Haynes cast Rooney Mara, stepping into the role after Mia Wasikowska had to bow out. Mara tends to bring a studied theater major intensity to everything she does and, depending on the role, I find that to be a little off-putting. But she’s great in this part, striking just the right balance of hunger for new experiences, naivete, strength, and passion. Carol isn’t exactly a coming-of-age movie but it’s definitely a story about Therese coming into her own, realizing who she is and what she wants out of life, and embracing it. Every step of that journey is reflected in Mara’s large, expressive eyes and her body language.

It’s also reflected in the subtle, meticulously detailed costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Despite going through a bitter divorce and custody battle, Carol already knows who she is. Her clothes are the elegant, luxurious dresses and furs you’d expect from a woman of means. But Therese’s look changes incrementally over the course of the film, going from plain, sensible, almost childlike outfits early on to more fashion-forward designs that are perhaps influenced by Carol’s tastes but are clearly Therese’s own. By film’s end, she takes ownership of her life, her identity and her look.

The attention to period detail shines in both Powell’s costumes and in the production design and set decoration by Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler. Becker and Loeffler weren’t nominated for their work but they certainly should have been. All of this is captured lovingly by Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography. Lachman had previously been nominated for his work on Far From Heaven. While that film was all bright autumnal colors, Carol has a much grayer palette, highly suggestive of the dirty, cold winter months. But Lachman also makes great use of close-ups, resulting in remarkably tactile imagery. It truly feels as though you could reach into the screen and touch the cars, the fabrics, even the curls of Blanchett’s hair. It’s an extremely sensuous film and the desire between Carol and Therese radiates off the screen.

Carter Burwell’s lush score also contributes a great deal to the film’s sense of longing. Remarkably, this was Burwell’s first Oscar nomination, despite longtime collaborations with Oscar favorites like the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze. His work here ranks among his finest scores, with swirling, haunting strings that linger in the memory long after the film ends.

Carol racked up six Academy Award nominations, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it was almost certainly never going to win any. It’s unusual for a movie to score that many nominations, including two acting nods, and not be nominated for Best Picture. Carol‘s absence in the big category was a bit of a mystery. The Academy recognized 8 films that year. That’s two shy of the 10 allowable under current rules. Carol could have (and, I’d argue, should have) easily been included without knocking any of the other titles out of the race.

As great as she is in the film, Blanchett was not likely to win Best Actress. She’d already won twice, most recently just two years prior to Carol, so the Academy would want to give someone else a turn. It also wouldn’t be Rooney Mara’s year. This was her second nomination and she’d been pegged as someone who’d likely have plenty of other chances in the future. And so, with the movie squeezed out of the biggest categories and unlikely to win anything for its marquee names, Carol was relegated to also-ran status.

Fortunately, I think Carol will have a longer shelf-life than some of the other movies it was up against that year. Films like Spotlight and The Big Short seem very “of the moment”, movies that if you haven’t watched within about a year, you’re probably never going to. By expertly evoking a very specific time and place in the not-too-distant past, Todd Haynes was able to create a film that seems timeless. The boldest thing about it is how unassuming and matter-of-fact it is. Carol presents a relationship between two women that’s as universal and recognizable as any love story ever told. Afterward, the very idea that someone could find such a relationship controversial seems absurd. In its own way, I suppose that is a quietly revolutionary concept.

Carol is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: West Side Story

THE CONTENDER: West Side Story (1961)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Best Picture (Robert Wise); Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins); Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Lehman); Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fapp); Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin); Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon E. Sawyer); Scoring of a Musical Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff)

Number of Wins: 10 – Everything except Adapted Screenplay (sorry, Ernie)

Before I expanded the parameters of this column to encompass all Oscar-nominated films in all categories, the rules were very simple. To be included, a movie simply had to have been nominated for Best Picture and lost. Using those guidelines, I never, ever would have included West Side Story.

West Side Story is by far the winningest movie we’ve covered here to date. It came very close to a clean sweep, with only Abby Mann’s screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg standing in the way of 11 for 11. Its soundtrack went on to become the best-selling album of the 1960s. Not just a year, the entire decade. It has been referenced and/or parodied in everything from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Anchorman. And somehow, the closest I had ever come to seeing it before now was in seconds-long clips in award show montages.  

The Academy’s attitude toward musicals seemed to be changing in the early 1960s. The genre had been part of the Oscars pretty much since synchronized sound became the norm. Most years found at least one musical nominated for Best Picture. But only a handful had actually won, starting with The Broadway Melody all the way back at the second ceremony. But that changed in the 1960s, as musicals came to dominate the Best Picture category, winning more frequently than they ever had before or would since. It would be their last hurrah.

As Hollywood fought the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, the movies got bigger. Fancy new processes were created to help embiggen the public’s love of movies, with fun futuristic-sounding names like CinemaScope, Cinerama, VistaVision and Todd-AO. The Academy embraced the Age of the Epic with open arms, handing out trophies to movies like Around The World In 80 Days and Ben-Hur as if they couldn’t sculpt the statuettes fast enough. It was an age when even a small movie, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, looked huge.

It didn’t take long for musicals to embrace the possibilities of widescreen cinematography. Movies like White Christmas, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, and many more pushed the boundaries of the screen. Of course, all this extra space meant filmmakers needed more stuff to fill it with. So sets got bigger, costumes got more elaborate, and the number of dancers on screen at any given moment multiplied like rabbits. It was just as well that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were aging out of the genre. By 1961, the idea of paying to see just two people dance elegantly on screen was hopelessly outdated and quaint.

In many ways, West Side Story was the culmination of all this change. The play had debuted on Broadway in 1957, the brainchild of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins recruited playwright Arthur Laurents to tackle the book and composer Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Eventually, Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent.

When it came time to bring the show to the big screen, the director’s reins were handed to Robert Wise. Robbins had wanted to direct himself but the money folks at The Mirisch Company balked at his total lack of experience with filmmaking. At the time, Wise must have seemed an odd choice. He had started his career as an editor, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Citizen Kane and was notoriously put in charge of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons after RKO fired Welles.

As a director, Wise had bopped from horror (The Curse Of The Cat People) to noir (The Set-Up) to westerns (Two Flags West) to sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to pretty much any other kind of movie you can think of but he’d never made a musical. So it was agreed that Jerome Robbins would stay on as co-director to handle the musical and dance sequences. But Robbins’ insistence on multiple takes led to the production going over-budget and, eventually, his firing. He never directed another feature which, as near as I can tell, makes him the only one-and-done Best Director Oscar winner in history.

What Wise, Robbins, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, and all the other filmmakers were able to accomplish with West Side Story was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the movie, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that this material could ever be contained on stage. The sets are too big, the movement too expressive, the colors too vivid. It’s dynamic and exciting in a way that’s unique to film. And unlike too many other bloated epics of the period, West Side Story moves. It’s a long film, clocking in at around two-and-a-half hours, but there isn’t a wasted second in it.

It’s a little hard to judge the actual performances in West Side Story. Certainly the dancing and physicality is remarkable across the board. But this was a time when movie stars didn’t really have to sing in musicals if the producers didn’t want ’em to, so we end up with these odd Frankenstein performances with lip-synched vocals. The movie’s big name is Natalie Wood, who had already been a star for over a decade. She was still a teenager when she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for Rebel Without A Cause a few years earlier. 1961 ended up being a very good year for her. In addition to West Side Story, she’d garner her second Oscar nod for her other movie that year, Splendor In The Grass.

Even though Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon and even though she’s no more Puerto Rican than I am, her performance as Maria is delicate and lovely. She hits just the right blend of sweetness and sensuality, really selling the emotion and pathos of the character. Richard Beymer as Tony isn’t quite as successful. He’s handsome and charming enough but his inexperience comes through occasionally. He just doesn’t yet have the depth as an actor to really connect with the songs he’s not singing (Jimmy Bryant dubbed his voice). He’d find it by the time he played Ben Horne on Twin Peaks (and as a Twin Peaks fan coming to West Side Story late, I should add that seeing Beymer and future Dr. Jakoby Russ Tamblyn together in this does result in a moment or two of cognitive dissonance) but back then, he seems a little out of his depth.

That is definitely not the case with Oscar-winning supporting actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Both stars had an intensive dance background and both were sort of struggling to find their place in Hollywood when West Side Story came along. They made the most of the opportunity, especially Moreno who practically explodes off the screen. Moreno got to do most of her own singing and Chakiris did all of his, possibly just because he doesn’t get any big solo numbers. Their Oscar victories are even more impressive when you consider who they were up against. Chakiris’ competition included Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, while Moreno was in her category opposite no less than Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with either Moreno or Chakiris. Rita Moreno found herself unemployed for seven years afterwards, not making another movie until The Night Of The Following Day in 1968. Eventually of course, she’d go on to be one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and an all-around national treasure. As for Chakiris (who, again, not a Puerto Rican, but certainly believable and acceptable as one), he made some pretty forgettable movies throughout the 60s before becoming a prolific TV actor in the 70s.

The only nominee who went home empty-handed that night was screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman was one of the great Hollywood script writers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in film history would be secured by his screenplay for North By Northwest, essentially the platonic ideal for the contemporary mystery thriller. Lehman would be nominated for six Oscars over his career, winning none. Perhaps he was overlooked this time because the Academy figured the movie was so faithful to the play that Lehman hadn’t really done much. In any event, he would go on to become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 2001, by which time he had long since retired.

It’s hard to make a case against any of West Side Story‘s Oscar triumphs. At the time, the technical awards were still split into two categories, color and black-and-white. Odds are this arrangement benefited the black-and-white movies more than West Side Story, which probably would have dominated no matter what it was up against. In the Best Picture category, its only real competition was the star-studded but somber Judgment At Nuremberg. Of the other nominees, The Hustler was likely too small to make much of a dent and The Guns Of Navarone was probably dismissed as just a popcorn epic. As for Joshua Logan’s Fanny, another movie based on a stage musical that perversely decided to eliminate all the songs…nobody remembers Fanny.

As they are wont to do, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from West Side Story. Musicals continued to get bigger and busier, eventually becoming so expensive to produce that they priced themselves out of existence. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing rapidly in the 60s, turning big Broadway-style productions into dinosaurs. But West Side Story captured the form at its best, with a perfect storm of talent working together to bring a timeless story to life. The Romeo & Juliet template is essentially foolproof. It’s a classic, endlessly malleable story that everyone relates to on some level. When you apply this level of craftsmanship to a story this universal, the results will almost always be timeless.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.