Disney Plus-Or-Minus: That Darn Cat!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's That Darn Cat!

Over the years, Walt Disney signed plenty of actors to multi-picture contracts. But he wasn’t always great at maintaining relationships with his talent. Bobby Driscoll, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk all left the studio under less than cordial circumstances. That wasn’t the case with his number one star, Hayley Mills. Over the course of six pictures, Walt and Hayley enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Walt made Hayley a huge star, showcasing her talents for comedy, music and drama. In return, Hayley made Walt a whole lot of money.

That Darn Cat! would be Hayley Mills’ final Disney feature and, like most of her other movies for the studio, it was a big hit. It was the 6th highest-grossing film of 1965, behind The Sound Of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Great Race, on a budget that was a fraction of those epics. The role is comfortably within Hayley’s wheelhouse, stirring up trouble and innocently deflecting responsibility when it threatens to come back on her. After a couple of underwhelming efforts like The Moon-Spinners and Summer Magic, it’s nice that Hayley was able to leave Disney on a high note.

The movie is based on the novel Undercover Cat by the Gordons. Gordon and Mildred Gordon were a husband-and-wife writing team who specialized in crime fiction like FBI Story. They’d already enjoyed some success adapting their work for movies and TV, notably with the 1962 thriller Experiment In Terror directed by Blake Edwards. Undercover Cat was a bit lighter than the Gordons’ usual work, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Disney optioned the rights. However, the studio did necessitate changing the cat’s name, D.C., from “Damn Cat” to “Darn Cat”.

Bill Walsh, still flying high after Mary Poppins’ runaway success, co-produced with Ron Miller and took a pass at the Gordons’ script, probably adding more slapstick gags. Prolific director Robert Stevenson had taken an unfortunate detour back to Midvale College with The Monkey’s Uncle but shows a steadier hand guiding That Darn Cat! Old Yeller demonstrated that Stevenson could get convincing performances from his animal actors. But it’s one thing to make a sentimental drama about a dog. It’s quite another to turn a Siamese cat into a comedic lead.

D.C. was played by multiple feline actors, including an established Disney star. Syn Cat had appeared a couple years earlier in The Incredible Journey. The cat (or cats, as the case may be) is very much the star of the show, appearing in most scenes and even getting a smooth Sherman Brothers theme song crooned by Bobby Darin. While some of D.C.’s performance is attributable to the skillful editing of Cotton Warburton (who had just won an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins), there’s also no denying that these are some remarkably well-trained cats.

Theatrical release poster for That Darn Cat

As the movie opens, we follow D.C. as he makes his nightly rounds through the Anytown U.S.A. section of the Disney backlot, stealing food from neighborhood dogs and begging for handouts. At the local deli, he catches the scent of salmon as its bought by Iggy (Frank Gorshin, about a year away from scoring his iconic role as the Riddler on TV’s Batman). D.C. follows Iggy back to his flophouse apartment where he’s hiding out with Dan (Neville Brand) after the pair robbed a bank and kidnapped a teller (Grayson Hall, about two years away from her most famous role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on TV’s Dark Shadows). The hostage sees an opportunity and replaces D.C.’s collar with her wristwatch, scratching an incomplete “HELP” on the back and sending the cat on his way.

D.C. heads home where he finds Patti Randall (Hayley) just getting in from a date with pipe-smoking surfer Canoe (Tom Lowell in the first of his three Disney features). A little later, Patti’s older sister, Ingrid (Dorothy Provine…we’ll see her again, too), arrives with their fussbudget neighbor, Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall…you’d better believe we’ll be seeing a lot more of him). Greg and Ingrid share a carpool but Greg’s trying to take their relationship to the next level by inviting her over for a duck dinner with his mother. As soon as D.C. hears about the duck, he hightails it over to the Benson house and steals the bird off their front porch.

While trying to pry the duck out of D.C.’s paws, Patti finally notices the watch around his neck. She leaps to the conclusion that it must belong to the kidnapped bank teller in the news. The next morning, she brings her suspicions to FBI Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones…we’ll get to him in a moment). Both Kelso and his supervisor (Richard Eastham, last seen here as the circus owner in Toby Tyler) agree it’s a longshot but that Patti might be on to something. So Kelso is assigned surveillance duty on D.C. (now dubbed Informant X-14), despite having an allergy so severe he can’t even say the word “cat” without sneezing.

Now if the rest of the movie was nothing more than the slapstick shenanigans of a team of FBI agents attempting to tail a cat, it’d probably be fine. But Walsh and the Gordons pile on all manner of other complications. The Randall sisters live next door to a nosy neighbor (Elsa Lanchester, last seen fleeing the Banks house in Mary Poppins) whose suspicions are raised every time a man sets foot on the premises. Kelso asks to keep the FBI’s presence on the down-low, so both Gregory and Canoe start snooping around trying to figure out what’s what. When the FBI threatens to pull Kelso off the cat detail, Patti convinces local jeweler Mr. Hofstedder (Ed Wynn) to backup a phony tip that confirms the watch belonged to the bank teller.

Eventually D.C. does lead Kelso and Patti to the bank robbers, just as they’re about to get rid of their hostage. Part of what makes That Darn Cat! stand out from other Disney comedies is the scenes with the bad guys. Gorshin, Brand and particularly Grayson Hall play these scenes straight. Gorshin’s a funny guy, so he can’t help but score a few laughs, especially opposite a scene-stealer like Iris Adrian as the gossipy landlady. But Brand is a menacing heavy and he brings a sense of legitimate danger when Kelso and Patti turn up. As for Grayson Hall, she apparently didn’t get the memo that she was appearing in a slapstick comedy for Walt Disney. She projects legitimate fear and proves herself to be braver and more resourceful than your typical damsel in distress, even without many lines. Hall sells the idea that this really is a life-and-death situation.

The really broad comedy is wisely kept separate from the hostage situation. Stevenson stages a funny and elaborate sequence in a drive-in movie theatre, with Richard Deacon of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame as the beleaguered manager. This was the first of many Disney features for Deacon, although he had already appeared as Uncle Archie on the Mickey Mouse Club serial Annette. The drive-in sequence also allows Walt to take a few jabs at the surfing movies Canoe is such a big fan of (and that Annette Funicello herself was now churning out by the score over at AIP).

That Darn Cat! finds everyone involved firing on all cylinders, from outgoing marquee star Hayley Mills, delightful as usual, to incoming marquee star Dean Jones. Jones had been working his way up through small parts on stage, in movies and on TV for a few years. In 1962, he got a big break starring as the title character on the military sitcom Ensign O’Toole. Ensign O’Toole aired Sunday nights at 7 on NBC, right before Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. Naturally, Walt wanted to know who the network had leading in to his show. Walt checked out Ensign O’Toole and Jones’ latest feature, Under The Yum Yum Tree, and liked what he saw. We’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of Dean Jones in this column.

That Darn Cat paper dolls featuring Hayley Mills and D.C.

Unfortunately, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Hayley Mills. For a number of years, Hayley had a hard time shaking her Disney image. She appeared as a rebellious teen in a Catholic girls’ school in The Trouble With Angels and made a number of films back home in England, often with her father, John Mills. Hayley and John costarred with another former Disney star, James MacArthur, in The Truth About Spring. John directed Hayley (opposite future Deadwood star Ian McShane!) in Sky West And Crooked, from a story written by Hayley’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell.

In 1966, Hayley took her most adult role to date as a young newlywed opposite Hywell Bennett in The Family Way. The movie got a lot of press, partly because it featured an original score by Paul McCartney but mostly because Hayley Mills did a tasteful nude scene and became romantically involved with and eventually married the film’s director, Roy Boulting. Boulting and Mills made a couple more movies together, including Twisted Nerve (which is probably more famous since Quentin Tarantino appropriated its Bernard Herrmann music for Kill Bill), before divorcing in 1977.

After that, Hayley Mills took a few years off to raise her kids. When she returned to acting, it was mostly on television. In 1986, she finally returned to the Disney studio with The Parent Trap II for the Disney Channel. That movie was popular enough to earn two more sequels in 1989. Between Parent Traps, she also starred in her own Disney Channel sitcom, Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Hayley starred as a junior high school teacher in charge of such students as Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Lisa (Lark Voorhies) and Screech (Dustin Diamond).

The Disney Channel pulled the plug on Good Morning, Miss Bliss after 13 episodes and Mills walked away from the show. NBC then decided to give it one more chance, giving it a complete makeover and renaming it Saved By The Bell. That version did pretty well for itself. Hayley Mills has also continued to do pretty well for herself, appearing mostly on stage and TV, being inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998 and winning a battle with breast cancer back in 2012. She’s currently 75 years old and her memoir, Forever Young, will be published on September 7 of this year. She seems to be going strong, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she may yet make another appearance in this column.

Hayley Mills was unquestionably one of Disney’s most significant stars. She excelled in period melodramas like Pollyanna, contemporary comedies like The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat!, and adventures and thrillers like In Search Of The Castaways and The Moon-Spinners. As much as anyone, her winning screen presence helped set the tone for the studio in the 1960s. We’ll see a lot of other young stars in this column in the weeks and months ahead. In some ways, all of them will be aspiring to be the next Hayley Mills.

The audiences who flocked to see That Darn Cat! at Christmas of 1965 probably didn’t realize they were watching Hayley’s last Disney movie. Back then, the specifics of actors’ contracts with studios weren’t front-page news the way they can be today. As far as they were concerned, this was just a return to form for Hayley Mills and Disney. The movie became a huge hit and, in 1997, the studio took a shot at a remake that I suppose we’ll have to deal with in this column eventually. But let’s not worry about that for now. Today, let’s just take a moment and bask in the sunshine of Hayley Mills. This column would have been a lot less fun without her.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: A Tiger Walks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's A Tiger Walks

When you see the words “Walt Disney Presents” at the beginning of a film, you probably have certain expectations about what you’re going to get. If there is comedy, it will be broad. If there is danger, it won’t be particularly threatening. The virtues of small-town American life will be extolled and a warm feeling of sentimental nostalgia will cover everything like a down comforter. Almost every single one of those expectations goes unmet in the deeply odd 1964 film A Tiger Walks.

Director Norman Tokar, who joined the studio with Big Red and Savage Sam, moves from dogs to cats with this one. Lowell S. Hawley, who most recently had written In Search Of The Castaways, based his screenplay on a novel by Scottish author Ian Niall. Hawley transports the action from Wales to the US but apart from that change, I don’t know how closely the film follows Niall’s book. But Niall isn’t really known as a children’s or young adult writer, so I’m guessing A Tiger Walks wasn’t necessarily intended for young readers.

Our story takes place in the remote little town of Scotia located in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest, although the state itself goes unnamed. A traveling circus passes through and the truck carrying the tigers gets a flat tire. The local service station doesn’t stock tires that size, so while they’re waiting, the two tiger handlers Josef Pietz (Theodore Marcuse) and Ram Singh (Sabu in what ended up being his final role before his unexpected death at the age of 39) head over to the hotel bar for an early happy hour.

Pietz ends up getting good and drunk, so when he returns to find a crowd of children hanging around clamoring for a peek at the tigers, he’s only too happy to oblige. He jabs the big cats with a stick, riling them up. When he foolishly opens the cage a crack, Raja, the male tiger, makes a break for it. The kids scatter and Raja corners two of them, the sheriff’s daughter Julie (Pamela Franklin) and her friend Tom (Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran), in a dead-end alley. But rather than attacking, Raja leaps a fence and makes for the hills with Pietz and Mr. Singh in hot pursuit.

Sheriff Pete Williams (Disney regular Brian Keith) returns to organize a search party before dense fog moves into the area. They haven’t gone far before one of the men literally stumbles over the mutilated body of Josef Pietz. This is too much for most of the posse and they head for the safety of their homes.

Meanwhile, a local aspiring journalist (Doodles Weaver) has contacted the editor of the area’s biggest newspaper. By the time Sheriff Pete makes it back to town, a media circus has descended on the hotel determined to milk the story for all its worth. While the sheriff tries to prevent a panic, the hotel’s owner (Una Merkel) is charging reporters and other curiosity seekers double her normal rates. She even rents her office to the sheriff as a temporary headquarters. No wonder she glides around the place singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” while everybody else is barricading their doors and windows.

Temporarily stymied by the fog, the reporters decide to capture some human interest shots of Julie and Tom feeding the baby tigers. During her interview, Julie speaks out of turn and says her father has promised to capture Raja alive. Word gets back to the governor (Edward Andrews, one of Disney’s favorite avatars of ineffectual authority), who happens to be up for reelection. One of his advisers (Jack Albertson) convinces him that the sheriff is bungling the job, so the governor orders the National Guard to take over.

The sheriff asks the guardsmen to wait until the fog has lifted but the trigger-happy soldiers are eager to start their tiger hunt. Sure enough, it isn’t long before one of them accidentally shoots an old man (Arthur Hunnicutt). He had spotted Raja by his place, ran off the road in the fog and was coming down the mountain on foot to bring the news. Not wanting to risk another accident, the soldiers retreat to wait out the fog.

By this point, Julie’s impromptu press conference has become a children’s crusade thanks to a TV host named Uncle Harry (Harold Peary) who bears a slight resemblance to one Walter Elias Disney. Kids across the country are staging “Save That Tiger” demonstrations and sending in cash donations to purchase the tigers from the circus. Neither Sheriff Pete or the governor are pleased by this turn of events but the sheriff swears he’ll do his best, borrowing a tranquilizer gun from a nearby school.

Eventually the fog lifts and the soldiers spot the tiger from a helicopter. While the soldiers move in from the front, Mr. Singh figures that the noise will drive Raja further up the hill so they move to outflank him with nets. Julie and Tom arrive at the last minute with the tranquilizer rifle. Raja leaps and mauls Pete’s shoulder but not before the sheriff gets a dart in him. The soldiers arrive too late but the governor still wants them to pump a few bullets into the now harmless tiger. Pete intervenes, the tigers are donated to the zoo and the governor loses his bid for reelection, while Sheriff Pete is elected to another term.

There’s just a whole lot going on in this movie and none of it is your typical Disney fare. The cynical look at all the opportunists looking to exploit the situation comes across as Preston Sturges Lite. It’s not as clever or biting as Sturges would have been but it’s pretty sharp for Disney. This is one of Walt’s few films to depict smalltown America in anything less than glowing terms. Most of the folks who live in Scotia are quick to panic and only too happy to take advantage of out-of-towners.

This all plays out against the suspense of tracking down the loose tiger and those scenes are deadly serious. Tokar and cinematographer William E. Snyder make great use of shadows and fog. When Raja stalks the old farmer in his barn, the scene feels like something out of a horror movie. The juxtaposition works surprisingly well and A Tiger Walks could have been a minor classic if it had been produced by anybody other than Walt Disney. The Disney touch softens everything just enough to turn this into a curiosity piece.

Walt attracted an impressive cast of familiar faces and newcomers to this oddity. We’ve obviously seen Brian Keith in this column before and we’ll see him again. The great Vera Miles made her Disney debut as Keith’s wife. She’ll also be back soon. Pamela Franklin had only made a few film and TV appearances, including a role in the Wonderful World Of Color production The Horse Without A Head. A Tiger Walks was her only Disney feature. She’d go on to win acclaim in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and as a scream queen in such horror classics as And Soon The Darkness and The Legend Of Hell House.

This would be the last major film appearance for Kevin Corcoran, who has been a near constant presence and frequent source of irritation here since Old Yeller. And yet, he will be back in this column. After A Tiger Walks, he graduated high school and went to college, where he majored in theatre arts. After graduation, he went back to Disney to work behind the scenes. The next time Moochie appears in this column, it will be as an assistant director and producer in the 1970s. Later in life, he’d be a producer on the TV shows The Shield and Sons Of Anarchy, which is kind of wild to think about.

A Tiger Walks came out on March 12, 1964. Critics greeted it with confusion, trying to figure out who exactly this picture was aimed at. That question remained a mystery as audiences stayed away for the most part. The budget probably wasn’t high enough to make it an outright bomb but it certainly didn’t make much of a dent at the box office. Even today, A Tiger Walks is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s not available on Disney+ and the studio has never released it on Blu-ray. You can only get it on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. It isn’t a great movie but for the curious, it’s worth a look. It’s certainly unlike any other Disney movie from the era.

VERDICT: I’m glad I watched it, so let’s call it a minor Disney Plus.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Lives Of Thomasina

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Three Lives Of Thomasina

You don’t have to be a professional animal trainer to figure out why there are a lot more dog movies than cat movies. Dogs’ emotions are written all over their furry little faces. They’re known for being brave, loyal and friendly. They’re also a heck of a lot easier to train.

Cats, on the other hand, are independent and somewhat inscrutable unless they’re purring and rubbing against you. Even the most well-behaved, well-trained cats have an attitude like they’re only willing to go along with your plan as long as it suits them. It’s not an accident that the most popular cat videos are the ones capturing them doing something stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I love cats and consider myself a cat person. But it’s a lot of fun to see these self-satisfied little gremlins make fools of themselves.

When Walt Disney branched out into live-action animal pictures, he understandably focused on the canine set. It wasn’t until The Incredible Journey that a cat received a costarring role alongside two dogs. A few months after that film was released, The Three Lives Of Thomasina made a domestic house cat the center of attention for the first time.

The movie is based on the novel Thomasina, The Cat Who Thought She Was God (great title) by Paul Gallico. Gallico was a former sportswriter whose work had provided the basis of the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride Of The Yankees, earning him an Oscar nomination. He retired from the sports beat in 1938 and became a prolific fiction writer. His work for young people includes The Snow Goose and Manxmouse, a childhood favorite of J.K. Rowling. Grownups probably know him best for his novel The Poseidon Adventure, although I’d wager more people have seen the movie than read the book.

Gallico cowrote the screenplay with Robert Westerby, whose first work for Disney had been Greyfriars Bobby. Greyfriars Bobby and Thomasina have a fair amount in common. Both take place in Scotland around 1912 and both center around devoted pets who melt the hearts of cold, emotionally repressed men. So it makes sense that Walt also rehired Don Chaffey, the director of that film.

Don Chaffey had kept busy in the years between the dog movie and the cat movie. For Disney, he’d directed a pair of TV productions (The Prince And The Pauper and The Horse Without A Head) that received theatrical releases overseas. He’d also picked up a gig for producer Charles H. Schneer, directing the Ray Harryhausen classic Jason And The Argonauts. Chaffey will eventually be back in this column but not for awhile. He spent the better part of the 1960s back home in England, alternating between film and television. Some of his best work would be multiple episodes of the series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent in the US) and The Prisoner starring his Three Lives Of Thomasina leading man, Patrick McGoohan.

McGoohan had been poised to become a breakout star since the mid-1950s, but it hadn’t quite happened yet. He was an acclaimed stage actor but producers couldn’t seem to find the right movie roles for him. In 1960, he was cast in Danger Man, a half-hour spy show that ran a little over a year before it was canceled. He turned down some other spy roles, including James Bond and Simon Templar on The Saint, and instead signed on with Disney. After appearing in Thomasina and TV’s The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, Danger Man was revived as an hour-long series. This version caught on and McGoohan finally became a star. While he won’t be back in this column for quite some time, we will eventually hear from him again. McGoohan returned to Disney for his last film, voicing Billy Bones in the 2002 animated feature Treasure Planet.

In The Three Lives Of Thomasina, McGoohan stars as Dr. Andrew McDhui, a widowed veterinarian whose near-total lack of compassion isn’t exactly winning over the locals. If a beloved pet is beyond help, McDhui coldly informs the owner that old Rover needs to be put out of his misery.

McDhui lives with his daughter, Mary (Karen Dotrice), and her beloved cat, Thomasina (who narrates the film in the voice of Elspeth March). Mary enjoys dressing Thomasina up in doll clothes and pushing her around in a baby carriage (even here, the quickest way to humanize a cat is to humiliate her). One day, Thomasina is injured while making her rounds down at the market. Mary begs her father to save the cat but he’s otherwise occupied, trying to save the life of a blind man’s dog. He takes a quick glance at Thomasina, declares her beyond help and orders his assistant to have her destroyed.

Poor Mary is heartbroken and announces that her father is now as dead to her as Thomasina. She and some other children stage an elaborate funeral procession for Thomasina through the village. And it’s right around here that the movie takes a quick detour into the elaborately weird. It switches to Thomasina’s point of view as she tumbles through space and ends up in Cat Heaven. She ascends a stairway straight out of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death, makes her way through dozens of other cats to appear before a gigantic statue of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. You kind of have to see it to believe it. It’s sort of cool but it’s definitely odd.

Anyway, the kids’ funeral has attracted the attention of Lori MacGregor (Susan Hampshire), a beautiful young hermit rumored to be a witch. The kids run away at the sight of her and Lori discovers that Thomasina is still breathing. She takes the cat back to her cottage, where she nurses all sorts of different animals back to health. Thomasina slowly recovers but she has no memory of her previous life.

Meanwhile, the local kids have decided to run Dr. McDhui out of town by starting a whisper campaign focused on the fact that he didn’t even care enough to save his own daughter’s cat. The villagers’ faith in old-fashioned folk remedies returns as their distrust in science deepens (that sounds familiar). With word spreading about the beautiful witch with the miraculous healing powers, McDhui decides to pay Lori a visit. They work together to save an injured badger with Lori respecting McDhui’s knowledge and skill and McDhui admiring her compassion and gentle touch.

As Thomasina begins to remember her previous life, she finds herself drawn to Mary’s window on a stormy night. Mary catches a glimpse of the cat but Thomasina runs off before she can get to her. She chases after her pet and, because it’s raining and this is a Disney movie, immediately comes down with pneumonia. The doctor does everything he can but in the end, McDhui turns to Lori for help. Love conquers all.

The Three Lives Of Thomasina is a bit of a bumpy ride but it’s not a bad little movie. For such a low-key affair, the movie has a lot of different parts that don’t always fit together seamlessly. The Cat Heaven detour is just one extreme example. I didn’t even mention the ramshackle gypsy circus that’s brought up on charges of animal cruelty toward the end. McDhui and Lori team up to get them shut down and I suppose the sequence exists to further cement their bond and rehabilitate McGoohan’s callous character. But it comes just as McDhui is trying to save his daughter, so it’s like a climax in the middle of another climax.

It’s to Chaffey’s credit that the movie works as well as it does. He wisely stacks the supporting cast with wonderful character actors including many familiar Disney faces. Laurence Naismith and Alex Mackenzie were both previously seen in Greyfriars Bobby. Wilfrid Brambell was last seen alongside Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways. Finlay Currie has been in this column several times, most recently in Kidnapped. Even the kids are familiar. Vincent Winter and Denis Gilmore were choirboys in Almost Angels. And while we haven’t seen Karen Dotrice or Matthew Garber in this column previously, we’ll be seeing them again soon enough. Thomasina ended up being a sort of screen test for the kids before moving on to Mary Poppins.

The movie also works as a technical achievement. Cats are not easy to work with on film sets and cinematographer Paul Beeson captures some impressive, long tracking shots of Thomasina making her way through the village. The animals were provided by Jimmy Chipperfield, whose family had owned and operated Chipperfield’s Circus in England since the 1680s. Jimmy left the circus in the 1950s and began training animals for films and television. He definitely earned his keep on this film, providing cats, dogs, frogs, badgers, deer and other assorted critters.

His daughter, Mary Chipperfield, would later take up the family business, serving as a trainer on the live-action 101 Dalmatians remake. Unfortunately, Mary was also eventually found guilty on multiple charges of animal cruelty, mostly surrounding her performing chimpanzees. Hopefully the animals in Thomasina were treated well, although some of those shots of the cat flying through space look a little sketchy.

Preview screenings of The Three Lives Of Thomasina took place in December of 1963 but the film didn’t go into general release until June of ’64. It did just OK at the box office and critics were fairly unimpressed. Years later, film critic and Disney expert Leonard Maltin championed the picture in his book The Disney Films. I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as Maltin does but I agree with his claim that it deserves to be better known. At its best, this is a cute, charming little movie that carries a nice message about the importance of loving our pets. If my biggest criticism is that the movie packs in too many ideas, that’s actually a pretty good problem to have.

VERDICT: A low-key Disney Plus.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Incredible Journey

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Incredible Journey

Even though Walt Disney was no longer in the True-Life Adventures business, he’d continued working with the wildlife photography specialists at Cangary Ltd. Together, they’d made such films as Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North, Big Red and The Legend Of Lobo. But while the team at Cangary consistently brought their A-game, capturing some spectacular animal footage for each movie, the folks at Disney weren’t living up to their end of the bargain. The films looked great but the stories built around the footage left a lot to be desired.

With The Incredible Journey, Walt finally found a story that could live up to the work done at Cangary. Longtime True-Life Adventures steward James Algar produced and adapted the screenplay from the novel by Sheila Burnford. The premise can be boiled down to a single sentence. Three pets who think they’ve been abandoned make a cross-country journey back home. It’s the kind of simple, internationally relatable story that is guaranteed a spot on your local news whenever anything remotely like it happens in real life.

While most of the crew (including Algar and nature photographers Jack Couffer and Lloyd Beebe) were Disney veterans, director Fletcher Markle was new to the studio. Markle was a Canadian writer, director and occasional actor who started out in radio, creating the influential anthology series Studio One. When Studio One went to television, Markle went with it. Throughout the 1950s, he worked on some of the best shows from the golden age of television, including Studio One, the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller and Front Row Center.

There isn’t much in Markle’s career to suggest that he’d even be interested in The Incredible Journey, much less a good fit for the project. He only directed four features altogether, mostly crime dramas like Jigsaw. The Incredible Journey was his only Disney project and his last credit as director. Afterward, he stayed in Canada where he produced and hosted the long-running interview series Telescope. Telescope debuted in 1963, the same year The Incredible Journey was released. One of Markle’s first guests was none other than Walt Disney.

Our three heroes are Luath, a young Labrador Retriever, Bodger, an older Bull Terrier, and Tao, a Siamese cat. Although they belong to the Hunter family, we first meet them in the rustic bachelor home of John Longridge (Émile Genest, still making up for his mistreatment of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North). Longridge is an old friend of Professor John Hunter (John Drainie) and godfather to his daughter. When Hunter receives an offer to become a visiting fellow at Oxford, Longridge volunteers to look after the animals.

Longridge has plans to leave on a two-week hunting trip, so he leaves a two-page note with instructions for his housekeeper (Beth Amos). But the second page is accidentally destroyed, giving her the impression that he was bringing the animals with him. After Longridge leaves, Luath assumes they’ve been left to fend for themselves, so he decides to return home to the Hunters with Bodger and Tao following close behind.

As long as the focus remains on the three animals, The Incredible Journey is on solid ground. Either the animals were incredibly well-trained or the units assigned to cover them were incredibly patient. Most likely, it was some combination of the two. The bond between these animals feels genuine. When Tao and Luath defend the weak and exhausted Bodger from a mother bear, it’s genuinely stirring. When Tao is forced to leap across a beaver dam to cross a river, it actually feels like the dogs are cheering him on from the other side. The animals, the editing and the music all work together to sell these moments.

The animals also encounter a handful of people along the way. A friendly hermit (Tommy Tweed) seems like he’s going to be helpful, sharing his stew with the trio. But when they don’t sit at the table like proper houseguests, he goes around and eats their portions. Tao almost drowns and is nursed back to health by a young girl (Syme Jago) and her family. And when Luath gets a face full of porcupine quills, a passing hunter (Robert Christie) removes them and gives the dogs food and shelter for the night.

The Incredible Journey only stumbles in its second half, after Longridge returns home to discover the animals missing. Longridge is understandably worried and he makes an effort to track them down. But none of this is very interesting since we already know exactly where they are. And in the end, his search leads nowhere and has no impact. The animals find their way home on their own, just like we knew they would. It’s even harder to care when he breaks the news to the Hunters. At this point, we have nothing invested in the family and everything invested in their pets. Jumping back into their lives is just a waste of time.

Most of the human actors in The Incredible Journey are not household names, unless your household is particularly into the history of Canadian broadcasting. John Drainie, who appears as Professor Hunter, was once called “the greatest radio actor in the world” by no less an authority than Orson Welles. Tommy Tweed and Robert Christie were also radio fixtures on CBC. To Americans, the most famous performer would have been Rex Allen, returning to narrator duties after The Legend Of Lobo. Fortunately, the Sons of the Pioneers decided to sit this one out. No musical interludes to interrupt the narrative flow this time around.

Although there aren’t any original songs, The Incredible Journey did mark the end of a significant musical era. Longtime Disney composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the 1930s, died just two months prior to The Incredible Journey’s release. Over the years, he had composed music for countless short subjects, animated and live-action features and documentaries, winning an Oscar for his work on Dumbo. With Wallace’s passing, the torch was officially passed to the next generation of Disney composers.

When The Incredible Journey was released in November 1963, it made a respectable amount at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it outperformed other recent Disney animal movies like Savage Sam. It also never entirely faded from memory, thanks to re-releases and TV broadcasts. Twenty years later, the studio produced a remake. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey made some significant changes to the original, most obviously giving the animals the voices of Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche. They also changed their names and I can certainly understand why. Luath, Tao and Bodger are some of the most awkward pet names I’ve ever heard. Homeward Bound did very well, generating a sequel in 1996. This column will get to those movies in due course.

All these years later, The Incredible Journey remains one of Disney’s best animal adventures. It has the heart and emotion that was missing from the earlier adventures of Nikki and Lobo. It seems that to make a truly humane animal picture, all they had to do was get rid of most of the humans.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Jungle Cat

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Jungle Cat

Between 1948 and 1960, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures shorts and features reinvented the nature documentary. The combination of breathtaking nature photography with clever direction, editing, music and narration proved to be irresistible. Director James Algar, producer Ben Sharpsteen, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and composer Oliver Wallace took the skills they honed in animation and seamlessly transferred them to nonfiction. The series won eight Oscars and proved surprisingly popular at the box office, both at home and overseas. Jungle Cat would be the final True-Life Adventure. Happily, the series goes out on a high note.

This time, the Animated Paintbrush whisks us away to South America where the jaguar prowls the Amazon rainforest. The jaguar, we’re told, has a great deal in common with our domesticated housecats. To demonstrate this, Algar shows us some footage of kitties roaming around the Disney lot. If nothing else, this proves that even in 1960, everybody was a sucker for a cat video.

After some stunning footage of the Amazon, still looking to be in pretty good shape back then, Hibler introduces our leading lady, a spotted jaguar. Because the True-Life Adventure team was always looking to graft a little romance onto the harsh realities of nature, it isn’t long before the female jaguar finds a mate: a black jaguar. Personally, I never knew the difference between a jaguar, a panther and a leopard. Now I do. I hope Walt would be happy to know that his educational films are continuing to educate all these years later.

The two cats eventually get together and have kittens. They are, of course, the most adorable little screwballs this series has seen since the baby polar bears in White Wilderness. The proud parents teach their babies to swim, to fish and to hunt. They’re too young and uncoordinated to have much luck hunting but they certainly look cute trying.

Unlike prior films like White Wilderness and The Living Desert, Jungle Cat doesn’t suffer from obviously staged sequences, charges of animal cruelty or goofy camera and editing tricks. The series has left the days of the square-dancing scorpions behind it. The film’s only potential downside is one of expectations. The series was always better off when the titles were kept somewhat vague and generalized. Jungle Cat has the same problem as The African Lion: it could use more cat.

Not that the other animals we’re introduced to aren’t interesting in their own right. There are tapirs and anteaters and monkeys and marmosets galore. As usual for this series, we’re treated to a lengthy montage of seemingly every bird the crew was able to capture on film. But by the time Algar turns the spotlight on the sloth, I was only too happy to see the jaguar come back and chase it up a tree.

In another typical move, Algar saves some of the most intense footage for last. This time it’s a battle of the apex predators as an enormous boa constrictor comes along to pick up some baby jaguar for dinner. Mom and Dad get the kittens to safety, then take the snake on themselves. Even though this is a Disney movie, the fight has a definitive conclusion and it isn’t a happy ending for one of the combatants. Indeed, there are several moments where the fight looks like it could go either way.

Jungle Cat was released to theatres in August of 1960. It did reasonably well at the box office, earning over $2 million. Nevertheless, Walt decided it was time to close shop on the True-Life Adventures. He had already begun directing his documentary resources toward television. Going forward, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color (and its various retitled successors) would be the studio’s home for educational projects, often with animated framing sequences starring a new character, Ludwig Von Drake.

But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures would live on at the studio for many years. Perri had demonstrated that it was possible to tell a completely fictional story using only animals and narration. The studio would now head in that direction. Don’t worry, animal lovers. We’ll still see a lot more dogs, cats, wolves, cougars, horses, raccoons, bears and monkeys in this column in the weeks ahead.

We also haven’t seen the last of the regular True-Life Adventure team. James Algar, Winston Hibler and Oliver Wallace will all be back, more often than not on those aforementioned animal pictures. But this is the last we’ll be hearing from producer Ben Sharpsteen. Sharpsteen had been with Walt since 1929, working as an animator, a director, a production supervisor, and establishing the studio’s in-house animation training program.

After the True-Life Adventure series ended, Sharpsteen worked for a couple more years on the TV end. In 1962, after more than thirty years with the studio, he retired and moved to Calistoga, California. In 1978, he founded the Sharpsteen Museum, dedicated not only to his career at Disney but local Calistoga history in general. He passed away December 20, 1980, and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1998.

The True-Life Adventures series was certainly not without its share of controversy. Even before allegations of animal cruelty were leveled at some of the films, critics questioned the techniques used and information imparted. But on balance, the work done by Algar, Hibler, Sharpsteen and their many cinematographers was groundbreaking and undeniably entertaining. These films paved the way for later, more humane nature documentaries.

Disney itself would eventually get back into the documentary business with IMAX movies like Sacred Planet and the creation of Disneynature, essentially True-Life Adventures for the 21st century. Because of the True-Life Adventures, nature films became an integral part of the Disney identity. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re a big reason why Disney+ has an entire section devoted to National Geographic programming. Even today, the True-Life Adventure legacy lives on.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!