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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

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

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

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Indians (and as soon as you heard that bit of news, you could probably figure out why Disney+ slapped its standard “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on this).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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Son Of Flubber

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Son Of Flubber

Son Of Flubber was Walt Disney’s first sequel, with an asterisk. Nearly twenty years earlier, he released The Three Caballeros in response to the tremendous response to Saludos Amigos. Caballeros is every inch a follow-up to Amigos but since neither of those movies follow a narrative framework, they don’t entirely count. The same could be said of Melody Time, a spiritual sequel to Make Mine Music. Then there’s Davy Crockett And The River Pirates. It’s obviously a sequel (well, prequel) to Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. But they were originally produced for TV, not the big screen. So sure, if you take all of those sequels-but-not-really out of the equation, Son Of Flubber was first.

That’s certainly a distinction Walt himself would have made. He had explicitly stated in interviews that he didn’t like sequels. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about going back to the same well and trying to make something the same but different. But sequels, especially in those days, weren’t supposed to offer anything but more of the same. If that’s what Walt Disney’s definition of a sequel was, he absolutely delivered on it with Son Of Flubber.

The gang’s all here from The Absent-Minded Professor. Everyone from director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh on down to Fred MacMurray and Charlie the dog returned for part two. The movie picks up almost exactly where the first one left off. Professor Brainard (MacMurray) and his new assistant, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), are flying the Model T down to Washington hoping to collect some of that sweet, sweet government money they’ve been promised. Unfortunately, that’s going to take some time. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) explains the labyrinth of red tape that must be navigated in order to maximize their eventual pay-out. Why settle for less when you could get more? So Brainard and Biff are forced to return to Medfield College empty-handed, except for vague promises that it’ll all be worth it someday.

As always, the financially strapped Medfield needs the money now. The college has made plans for an elaborate new science center, Flubber Hall. When Biff’s father, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), discovers that Brainard didn’t get the money, he gleefully announces plans to bulldoze the entire campus on the first of the month unless his loan is repaid.

Meanwhile, Brainerd is having some domestic troubles with his new bride, Betsy (Nancy Olson). She’s being courted by some Madison Avenue types (led by comedian Ken Murray) who want to buy the rights to Flubber. They dazzle her with the promise of furs, pearls and a million dollar check and come armed with sample commercials for such products as Flubberoleum, a revolutionary bouncy floor guaranteed to change the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America. But once Brainard admits that his government contract prevents him from selling Flubber to anyone else, the ad men pack up and leave.

As they walk out, a man from the government (Bob Sweeney, last seen in Moon Pilot) walks in. However, the agency this government man represents is the IRS, not the Defense Department. He’s here to collect the tax on the prospective earnings reported by Brainard based on the millions he’s been promised. The fact that he hasn’t actually received any of that money yet doesn’t matter. When Brainerd tells the heartless taxman that he’d probably put his own mother in jail, Mr. Harker assures him that he already has for unreported income on her homemade jams and jellies.

In desperate need of money (and refusing to let Betsy go back to work as a secretary for his once-and-future rival, English professor Shelby Aston, again played by Elliott Reid), Brainerd gets back to work on his latest invention. Flubbergas appears to have several interesting properties but Brainerd hopes it will allow mankind to control the weather. A successful experiment made it rain inside from the steam off a boiling tea kettle. But when he tries to go bigger by aiming it at a distant cloud, it doesn’t appear to work. It does, however, shatter every last piece of glass within its reach, unbeknownst to Brainerd.

Biff, in the meantime, is working on an alternative use for Flubbergas. With his pal Humphrey (Leon Tyler, one of the basketball players from the first film) acting as guinea pig, Biff tries to create an inflatable football uniform that allows the player himself to be thrown into the end zone. His experiments aren’t entirely successful, unless his goal was to repeatedly destroy the chicken coop owned by Brainerd’s neighbor, milkman Mr. Hummel (played by Preston Sturges regular William Demarest, a couple of years before he joined the cast of MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons as Uncle Charley).

MEANWHILE meanwhile, Shelby Aston is up to his old tricks, trying to steal Betsy away from Brainard, and this time he’s brought a secret weapon. He invites Brainard’s old girlfriend, sexpot Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore), over to dinner at the Brainards. Betsy eventually becomes convinced that Desiree and Brainard have rekindled their old affair, so she leaves him, temporarily moving in with her old boss, Medfield College President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames) and his wife (Harriet MacGibbon).

As for all that broken glass, Alonzo Hawk’s insurance company has been left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in claims. He figures out that the whole thing started at Brainard’s house and proposes another crooked deal, using the Flubbergas in service of an elaborate insurance scam. Brainard refuses, of course, and Hawk threatens to bring the full force of the law down on him.

Despondent over all these setbacks, Brainard agrees to help Biff out with his project. This time, the inflatable football uniform works and Medfield trounces rival Rutland College in essentially a replay of the first film’s basketball game. Brainard has no time to savor the victory, however. Hawk makes good on his threat and the police arrive to haul Brainard off to jail.

Brainard looks to be in a tight spot until Buzz turns up at his trial with a surprise witness. It’s none other than Ed Wynn, one of the only actors from the original Absent-Minded Professor who does not reprise the same role here. Now he’s the Chief Agricultural Officer and he presents evidence that Brainard’s invention does work, just not in the way he intended. The Flubbergas has somehow supercharged the atmosphere, turning Medfield’s formerly barren farmland lush and verdant, producing giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Wynn dubs the phenomenon “dry rain”. Brainard is once again a hero and the case is dismissed, despite overwhelming evidence that he was clearly guilty of the charges he faced.

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

Believe it or not, I did not have high expectations going into Son Of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor is a fun little movie but there’s nothing about it that left me saying, “More of these characters, please.” But here’s the thing. Son Of Flubber is actually a surprisingly good, funny sequel. That is, right up to the point where, all of a sudden, it isn’t.

The first several scenes are terrific. Walsh’s screenplay takes aim at government inefficiency and absurd tax laws and lands quite a few hits. Disney had previously lobbed some softballs at Uncle Sam in Moon Pilot but the jokes here are funnier and fresher. The sequence with the ad men pitching their ludicrous products is even better. The sight of a typical suburban dad bouncing his baby off a Flubberized floor will never not be funny. This is all good stuff suggesting we’re about to get a smarter, more satirical movie than is actually coming.

The trouble starts when Walsh and Stevenson decide to refocus on Brainard’s latest experiment. From here, they seem content to simply deliver a rehash of the first film. The football game apes the rhythms and gags of the basketball game down to the second. Even Paul Lynde, making his film debut as the game’s color commentator, can’t liven things up. Once again, Brainard flies his Model T over Shelby’s car and once again, Shelby crashes into James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis, the cops from The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. This time, Brainard floods Shelby’s car with rain, which is admittedly kind of a cool effect. But the punchline to the gag is the same.

The movie’s biggest problem is its focus on Brainard and Betsy’s marital problems. Try to set aside the fact that they’re completely rooted in retrograde stereotypes. Brainard’s “no wife of mine is going to work” attitude will have modern women rolling their eyes, while modern men will (hopefully) be equally insulted by Brainard’s total inability to even feed himself without his wife. No one ever accused Disney of having progressive views on marriage.

The bigger issue is that we’ve seen all this before. The triangle between Brainard, Betsy and Shelby was already one of the weakest elements in the first film. Bringing Desiree into the mix does nothing to change that. We already know that Betsy’s willing to put up with a lot from her husband. The guy left her standing at the altar three times, for crying out loud. She ought to be smart enough to see through Shelby’s transparent attempt to wreck her marriage.

The Brainards’ marital woes are endemic of the film’s tendency to repeat itself. A love triangle was part of the first movie, so it needs to be part of the new one whether or not it makes any sense for the story or the characters. It’s also one subplot too many in a movie that’s already overstuffed with dangling plot threads. The business with the taxman is smart and funny but it’s forgotten the second Bob Sweeney leaves the picture. The same goes for the ad men and the brass down in Washington.

None of that seemed to matter much to critics and audiences in 1963. Most critics agreed that even though Son Of Flubber wasn’t as fresh and original as The Absent-Minded Professor, it still breezed by on its light, buoyant tone. Audiences turned out in droves. The movie premiered in January of 1963 and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year, behind much bigger movies like Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tom Jones and Irma la Douce. It was a bright spot in an otherwise so-so year for the studio.

I can’t end this entry without discussing the Great Flubber Fiasco of 1962-63. In the autumn of 1962, Disney teamed up with toy company Hassenfield Brothers (who would shorten their name to Hasbro by the end of the decade) to mass produce Flubber, a bouncy, stretchy glob that was more or less the same as Silly Putty.

Flubber - the Toy

Kids loved Flubber but shortly after the release of the film it was meant to promote, reports started to surface of an outbreak of skin rashes in schools nationwide. Flubber appeared to be the cause and, while nobody at Hassenfield Brothers or Disney ever stepped up to claim responsibility, the bad press was enough to doom the product. By May, Hassenfield decided to yank Flubber off the market.

This is where it gets really fun. Hassenfield Brothers now had a whole lot of potentially toxic Flubber and no idea how to get rid of it. Landfills flat out refused to accept it. Burning it produced a thick, greasy black smoke that stank up the vicinity for miles. They tried to sink it in a lake but the Flubber balls just floated right back up to the surface.

Finally, Hassenfield Bros. just did as Atari would do years later with their unwanted E.T. video game cartridges. They dug a big pit, buried the Flubber and built an employee parking lot on top of it. And supposedly, that’s where Flubber is to this day, buried beneath Delta Drive in Pawtucket, RI. Some say that on hot days, the Flubber bubbles up through cracks in the asphalt. That, along with some of the other details of the story, might be a bit of an exaggeration. But this is the kind of story where it’s more fun to print the legend.

For the time being anyway, Walt Disney was through with Flubber. The studio wouldn’t touch the stuff again until the 1988 TV remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. But we have not seen the last of Medfield College, Alonzo P. Hawk, or most of the film’s cast and crew. Almost everybody will be back in this column sooner or later. Those Disney contracts must have been written on Flubber. People keep bouncing back for more.

VERDICT: The first half is a Disney Plus but the second is a Disney Neutral at best.

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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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor

Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.

When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.

The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.

Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.

Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.

Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.

Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.

To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.

Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.

MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.

The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.

There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.

Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote “The Flubber Song”, a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn’t show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.

The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.

The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

Original 1951 theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.

Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.

Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.

By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.

After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.

When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.

Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.

Alice In Wonderland concept art by Mary Blair
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)

The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.

A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.

Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.

Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.

But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.

But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.

In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.

None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.

The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.

Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.

Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.

For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.

Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.

When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.

It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.

But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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