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: One Hundred And One Dalmatians

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's One Hundred And One Dalmatians

By 1961, Walt Disney Animation Studios was a shadow of its former self. Their last feature, Sleeping Beauty, had been a costly failure at the box office. As a result, a wave of layoffs swept the organization. The short films, which had once been the studio’s bread and butter, had all but been eliminated. The shorts division had been shut down in 1956 and its work folded into the feature division. At its peak, the studio had been releasing more than a dozen shorts a year. Now they were lucky to release two or three. What little animation Disney was producing was mostly for TV.

Walt couldn’t have mounted another ambitious production like Sleeping Beauty even if he’d wanted to. Sadly, it was becoming increasingly evident that he really didn’t want to. The failure of Sleeping Beauty left him within a hair’s breadth of shutting the animation division down completely. Only a sense of loyalty to the medium he’d helped shape kept it afloat. That same sense of tradition would continue to keep animation alive at the studio in lean times to come. A Disney studio without cartoons would be like a McDonald’s without hamburgers.

For feature animation to continue to have a place at Disney, changes had to be made. The labor-intensive, impeccably detailed house style needed to be streamlined. Walt had seen more than a few animated features lose money, so the process had to be made more cost-effective. Even the sensibility that relied on fairy tales and timeless classics needed to be updated for the second half of the twentieth century. What the studio needed turned out to be puppies.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

British author and playwright Dodie Smith published her novel The Hundred And One Dalmatians in 1956. Walt read it not long after and fell in love with it. He bought the rights (much to the delight of Ms. Smith, who had kind of hoped Disney might make it into a movie) and immediately made it a priority. This decisiveness was somewhat unusual for Walt. It wasn’t unheard of for him to take years waffling back and forth on which project to tackle next. It was the first of many changes to come.

Previous animated features had employed teams of storymen, who would hash out every plot point and gag in minute detail. For Dalmatians, Walt assigned the writing job to just one man. Bill Peet had joined the studio in 1937 as an in-betweener, working on Donald Duck shorts and Snow White. He worked his way up to the story department, where he quickly earned a reputation as the best of the bunch. If anyone was capable of doing the job solo, it was Bill Peet.

Peet turned in his draft just two months later, making some significant changes to streamline Smith’s book. He eliminated the character of Cruella De Vil’s husband. He also combined two of the dogs, Missis and Perdita, into one. In the book, Missis is Pongo’s mate and the mother of the puppies. Perdita is a stray that the family adopts and acts as a nurse.

Walt thought Peet’s script was terrific and set him to work storyboarding the film. Again, this would be the first time that a single artist was responsible for storyboarding an entire feature by himself. But at the same time, they still had to solve the problem of animating all those unique, spotted dogs without spending a fortune.

Walt’s old partner Ub Iwerks, who had rejoined the studio in the visual effects department, came up with the solution. He had been experimenting with a Xerox camera to develop a way to transfer animators’ drawings directly onto cels, eliminating the need for hand inking. The process had been used successfully on the climactic sequence of Sleeping Beauty and on the short film Goliath II, also written by Bill Peet. Art director Ken Anderson proposed using Xerography on Dalmatians to Walt. Walt, who had lost interest in the nuts and bolts of animation by now, replied with a shruggy, “Yeah, you can fool around all you want to.”

The process worked, saving a fortune in production costs, but it had its limitations. By eliminating the inking stage, the finished animation looks rough and scratchy compared to the typical Disney style. Walt wasn’t a fan. He missed the smooth, perfect look of his previous films. The animators, on the other hand, loved it. They had long complained that the ink-and-paint department used a heavy hand on their work. For the first time, they were seeing exactly what they drew on the screen.

Bill Peet made another clever change to the book that would help cement One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ place in the Disney canon. In the book, Pongo’s pet (named Mr. Dearly) is basically a glorified accountant. He’s referred to as a “financial wizard” but his job doesn’t have much bearing on the story. In the film, Mr. Dearly becomes Roger Radcliffe, a struggling songwriter. This allows for some natural, unobtrusive ways to incorporate a few original songs by Mel Leven.

Leven was new to the studio but he’d already proven himself as a songwriter for Peggy Lee, the Andrews Sisters and other popular acts. He’d done some work at rival animation house UPA before landing at Disney. There are only three songs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians. Two of them, “Dalmatian Plantation” and the great “Kanine Krunchies Kommercial”, are so short that they barely register as musical numbers. But the third, “Cruella De Vil”, belongs on any shortlist of Disney’s all-time great original songs. It’s so good that you even buy the fact that it becomes a hit song in the movie itself, even though Roger would surely be opening himself up to a lawsuit. Cruella definitely seems like she would be litigious.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

The vocal cast was a mixed bag of newcomers and Disney veterans. Rod Taylor, who scored a big hit with George Pal’s The Time Machine in 1960, provided the voice of Pongo. Cate Bauer, a stage actress who made very few appearances in film or television, was cast as Perdita. The voices of their human pets, Roger and Anita, were provided by Ben Wright and Lisa Davis. There are really two love stories at the heart of the film and if either one of them didn’t work, the entire movie would suffer. But the vocal performances sell us on these relationships and they align beautifully with the naturalistic, easygoing animation. Of the four, only Ben Wright will be back in this column.

Betty Lou Gerson had been the narrator of Cinderella but she found her place in Disney history as Cruella De Vil. It’s a magnificent, flamboyant vocal performance, perfectly in sync with the marvelous character animation of Marc Davis. Davis had found a niche animating women, including Snow White, Cinderella, Tinker Bell, Aurora and Maleficent. Cruella would be Davis’s last major animation work for the studio. Afterwards, he transitioned into the Imagineering division where he worked on pretty much every iconic Disneyland attraction, including Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and It’s A Small World. He retired in 1978, was named a Disney Legend in 1989 and passed away in 2000 at the age of 86.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about One Hundred And One Dalmatians is the seeming ease and simplicity of the film. This is one of Disney’s most relaxed animated feature, unfolding at a leisurely but never boring pace. I’ve seen it countless times (this is my girlfriend’s favorite movie, so it’s on heavy rotation here) and it never fails to surprise me how quickly it all breezes past.

It’s a busy movie, making room for all manner of delightful supporting characters including Jasper and Horace, Nanny, the barnyard militia of The Colonel, Sgt. Tibbs and Captain the horse, Old Towser, and the individual puppies, particularly Lucky, Patch and Rolly. The character design is exceptional, down to the smallest walk-on part (including some quick cameos from our old friends from Lady And The Tramp). It even finds time for the genuinely funny TV spoofs What’s My Crime? and The Adventures Of Thunderbolt. And yet for all that, it never feels overstuffed. There is not a wasted moment in the film and not a single scene that overstays its welcome.

The film’s tone is best exemplified by the extraordinary sequence of the puppies being born. As Nanny provides a running tally, Roger and Pongo go through a hilarious mix of emotions, from pride to completely overwhelmed. Then comes the news that one of the puppies didn’t make it. The tone immediately changes. Roger has one idea, gently taking the puppy and massaging its chest. Pongo looks on hopefully, placing a tentative paw on Roger’s knee as the storm rages outside. The music drops out entirely and the action plays out in a single long-shot. It’s magical.

Critics and audiences agreed that Walt had tapped into something special with One Hundred And One Dalmatians. It premiered on January 25, 1961, and raked in over $6 million on its initial release, making it the 8th highest-grossing film of the year. 1961 would be a very good year for Walt Disney. Two of his live-action films did even better. We’ll see the first of those next time.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

One Hundred And One Dalmatians also become one of those rare films that did even better with each subsequent re-release. In 1969, it made $15 million. The numbers went up again in 1979 and 1985. During its 1991 release, it earned an extraordinary $60 million, making it the 17th highest-grossing film of the year, right behind Kindergarten Cop. By comparison, Beauty And The Beast only made about $7 million more than that.

The dalmatians will, of course, be back in this column. In 1996, Glenn Close helped pioneer the trend of live-action remakes of animated classics with her take on Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. That film was popular enough to warrant a truly dire sequel, 102 Dalmatians, a short-lived animated series, and a direct-to-video animated sequel to the original, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure. Waiting in the wings is Cruella, presumably a prequel of sorts with Emma Stone taking on the furs and cigarette holder. That film’s release is currently pending thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Hundred And One Dalmatians didn’t exactly represent a return to form for Disney animation. It’s too dissimilar from earlier films to be considered a return to anything. And there have unfortunately not been too many movies like it since. Dalmatians is an anomaly, a one-off experiment in loosening the rules that had governed Disney animation for years. The experiment worked. One Hundred And One Dalmatians remains an unqualified success and one of the studio’s very best animated features. But it wasn’t enough to prevent animation from sliding into decline. It’ll be a long time before this column sees another animated feature of this caliber.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sign Of Zorro

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sign Of Zorro

As I mentioned when I started this project, the purpose of this column is to examine all of the Disney studio’s theatrical output in order of its American release. This means that TV productions like The Horsemasters and Hans Brinker that screened theatrically overseas won’t be appearing here. The Sign Of Zorro, a compilation of TV episodes originally broadcast back in 1957, first premiered overseas in late 1958. By the time it hit American theatres in June of 1960, Zorro was essentially over.

Zorro first appeared in the 1919 novel The Curse Of Capistrano by prolific pulp writer Johnston McCulley. A year later, the character made his movie debut with Douglas Fairbanks starring in The Mark Of Zorro. Both the book and the film were incredibly popular, leading McCulley to write dozens more Zorro stories, more movies (notably the 1940 version starring Tyrone Power), serials, comics and assorted rip-offs. Somewhere along the way, a little kid named Bruce Wayne saw a version of it just moments before his parents were senselessly murdered in front of him. But that’s another story.

Walt acquired the TV rights to Zorro in 1952, hoping to attract a network that would help finance the construction of Disneyland. Nobody was willing to give Zorro a greenlight without a pilot, a prospect Walt found somewhat insulting given his track record. However, Walt did reach a deal with ABC to produce the anthology series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, which premiered in 1954. After Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club both proved popular, ABC agreed to take a chance on Zorro.

To play the title character, Walt cast Guy Williams, a former fashion model who had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years, appearing mostly in smaller supporting parts. Williams was presumably cast solely on the basis of his good looks and the fact that he knew how to wield a sword. Certainly there was nothing in his professional background to suggest that he could anchor a series, much less pull off a dual role.

As it turned out, Walt’s instincts were correct. Guy Williams is a terrific, swashbuckling Zorro. He looks like he’s genuinely having fun, which is something of a prerequisite for this character. You can understand why kids everywhere tried emulating his Zorro, resulting in a schoolyard epidemic of slashed and graffitied Z’s.

Pantomime artist Gene Sheldon won the role of Zorro’s devoted, mute manservant, Bernardo. Broadway actor Henry Calvin was cast as the bumbling Sergeant Garcia. Both actors would appear in the Kevin Corcoran circus vehicle Toby Tyler, a movie we’ve already covered in this column but was filmed after Zorro had completed its second season. Sheldon and Calvin will be teamed up again soon.

The impulse behind The Sign Of Zorro was the same one that led to the two Davy Crockett features. Overseas audiences didn’t have access to Disney’s TV productions unless they were given a theatrical release. Once international audiences proved that the TV stuff played just as well on the big screen, why not release them in the States?

But there’s an important difference between Davy Crockett and Zorro. The Crockett programs were both miniseries. Each one of the films simply assembled all three episodes of its respective series. But Zorro was an ongoing, weekly series with story arcs that tended to run for about 13 weeks. The Sign Of Zorro was compiled from the first arc, following Don Diego de la Vega’s arrival in Los Angeles, the creation of the Zorro persona, and his defeat of greedy tyrant Captain Monastario (Britt Lomond, previously seen as General Custer in Tonka). That’s a whole lot of story to whittle down from 8 half-hour episodes to a brisk 90 minutes.

Given those limitations, it’s a little surprising that The Sign Of Zorro is as coherent and enjoyable as it is. I haven’t seen the TV series, so I’m not entirely sure what material was left on the cutting room floor. That’s a good thing. If at any moment the audience starts to suspect they’re missing something, the project would have to be considered a failure.

I suspect the TV version makes more use of George J. Lewis as Zorro’s father, Don Alejandro de la Vega. Lewis was a veteran character actor who had earlier starred in the Zorro-In-Name-Only serial Zorro’s Black Whip. He’s mostly stuck on the sidelines in the feature version but he stayed with the series to the end.

More than anything, The Sign Of Zorro reminds me of a greatest-hits album. You get a little taste of everything that made the TV show fun. There’s the catchy theme song by Norman Foster and George Bruns, performed by the Mellomen. (The Chordettes, the girl group best known for “Lollipop” and “Mr. Sandman”, got as high as #17 on the pop chart with their version in 1958.) You get a little flavor of the comedic touch Sheldon and Calvin brought to their roles. Williams and Lomond are well-matched and get in some exciting swordplay. It’s all just enough to leave you wanting to see more Zorro adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Zorro The Avenger

Overseas, they got more. Zorro The Avenger, released in 1959, pits Zorro against “The Eagle” (Charles Korvin) in another first-season storyline. But in the US, Zorro hit a major stumbling block. After the second season, ABC got into a dispute with Disney over ownership of Zorro. While that worked its way through the courts, Walt stopped production on the series, despite the fact that the ratings were as high as ever.

Assuming everything would be ironed out eventually, the entire cast was kept on contract. Guy Williams was kept busy doing personal appearances, often in character as Zorro. Sheldon and Calvin went off to film Toby Tyler. To keep the character in the public eye, Disney released The Sign Of Zorro domestically and produced four hour-long specials that began airing in October of 1960. But, like Davy Crockett before him, Zorro’s time in the spotlight was intense but short-lived. The series petered out but the studio retained the rights to the character for awhile, not letting them go until 1967.

Guy Williams was kept under contract for a short time, appearing in the 1962 Wonderful World Of Color adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper (another overseas theatrical release). After leaving Disney, he became the patriarch of the Robinson family on Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space. That would end up being his final role before retiring to Argentina, where his performance as Zorro was revered.

Weirdly enough, that was not quite the end of the story for Disney and Zorro. The character never entirely went out of style and the early 1980s brought a mini-resurgence of interest. George Hamilton starred in the parody Zorro, The Gay Blade and Filmation produced an animated series where Zorro shared top billing with Tarzan and The Lone Ranger. Disney wasn’t about to miss out on this action, so in 1983, the comedy Zorro And Son premiered on CBS.

Print ad for Zorro And Son (1983)

Zorro And Son was intended to be a direct continuation of the original series. But half-hour dramas were out of style by 1983, so CBS made Disney switch to a sitcom format. It was even rumored that Guy Williams would be coming out of retirement to reprise his role but left the project when he got a look at the scripts. Instead, Henry Darrow, who provided the voice of Zorro for the Filmation show, starred as Zorro Sr. and Paul Regina played Zorro Jr. The show utilized some of the same sets and recycled the classic theme song. Former Disney imp Kevin Corcoran, who moved behind the camera after his years as a child star, even served as producer. The series was not well-loved and was mercy killed after just five episodes. You can find episodes on YouTube if you’re morbidly curious but I don’t recommend it.

Despite this, Disney’s Zorro remains popular to this day. Repeats, both colorized and in their original black-and-white, would soon become staples on the Disney Channel. In 2009, the studio would release complete season sets as part of their Walt Disney Treasures line of limited edition DVDs. Those collections are now some of the most highly prized discs in the Disney library, selling for megabucks online.

Even if Disney is no longer in the Zorro business, the character is very much alive. He has continued to appear in books, comics, plays, TV shows and, of course, a pair of movies starring Antonio Banderas. Robert Rodriguez, who was originally attached to direct the first Banderas Zorro, is currently developing a female-led Zorro TV project. Given the character’s enduring popularity, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another Disney Zorro someday. And as long as it somehow incorporates that killer theme song, I bet it’ll be a big hit.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Sleeping Beauty

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty marks the end of an era for Walt Disney. The man who invented the animated feature was just about ready to be done with them. Sleeping Beauty was a make-or-break proposition intended to capture Walt’s animators working at the very top of their game. It was supposed to cement their reputation as the absolute best in the business. Instead, it very nearly spelled the end of Disney animation entirely.

Walt began developing Sleeping Beauty back in 1950. It would take him most of the decade to complete it. By Disney standards, story development went relatively quickly. This is a little surprising since Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale, the primary source for the adaptation, is only about 15 pages long, not counting illustrations. If Disney’s team was going to make a meal out of this meatless bone, they’d have to add a lot more ingredients.

Walt put Wilfred Jackson in charge of the film. The first order of business was fleshing out the villain. In Perrault’s original, she’s an unnamed wicked fairy who shows up just long enough to place a curse on the princess and is never seen or heard from again. Given an essentially blank slate to create a character from scratch, the Disney team came up with Maleficent, one of their most iconic villains.

The movie doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information about Maleficent. Unlike past villainesses like Snow White’s Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, Maleficent doesn’t seem particularly threatened by or jealous of Princess Aurora. She’s just mad that King Stefan didn’t invite her to the christening. But no one ever questions why Maleficent does what she does. The character design and animation by Marc Davis and vocal performance by Eleanor Audley (also the voice of Cinderella’s nemesis, Lady Tremaine) are so singular that we don’t need any backstory.

Jackson and his story team also embellished the three Good Fairies, cut down from Perrault’s original seven, probably to downplay any comparisons to Snow White’s dwarfs. Weirdly, Walt wanted the thee Fairies to be virtually identical. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talked him out of that idea, thank goodness. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are ostensibly supporting characters but in a lot of ways, the movie’s really about them. They’re the ones who have to raise and protect Aurora. They’re the ones who end up defeating Maleficent (Prince Phillip may throw the sword but who knows what would have happened without their enchantment). Robbing them of their distinct personalities would have been a serious mistake.

When Jackson turned in his first pass at Sleeping Beauty, Walt was unimpressed and ordered him, Ted Sears and the rest of the story crew back to the drawing board. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that this seems to have been the extent of Walt’s concerns with the story. On Snow White, Walt had been involved with every last detail. There wasn’t a line of dialogue or a plot point in the entire picture that didn’t have Walt’s stamp of approval. But by Sleeping Beauty, Walt had checked out. Story meetings became a thing of the past. Walt’s mind was on Disneyland, television, and live-action features. By the middle of 1953, the script for Sleeping Beauty was considered good enough.

Theatrical poster for the 1970 re-release of Sleeping Beauty

To the extent Walt did care about Sleeping Beauty, it was all about the movie’s look. Eyvind Earle had joined the studio in 1951 as a background painter. In 1953, he worked on the short subject Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. This was a radical departure from the typical Disney house style, influenced by the modernist, angular style of the independent animation house UPA (United Productions of America). UPA had been formed in 1943 by a number of ex-Disney animators in the wake of the strike that bitterly divided the studio. The UPA style was unique, widely praised by critics, and a direct reaction against the rounded, formal Disney style.

For years, Walt resisted any change to his signature animation style. But the Oscar-winning success of Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom started to change that. Walt put Earle in charge of defining the look of Sleeping Beauty. He’d been using concept artists (or “inspirational sketch artists”) to help establish tone from the early days. Artists like Albert Hurter and Tyrus Wong had been hugely important in setting the right visual palette on films like Pinocchio and Bambi. But Walt had begun to feel that the elements that made, for example, the concept art of Mary Blair special was being lost in the finished animation on films like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. Walt vowed to change that with Sleeping Beauty. Earle’s vision would be represented on screen no matter how long it took.

As it turned out, it took a very long time indeed. The animators struggled to reconcile the realistic figure movement Walt had been demanding for years with the hyper-stylized character designs. They disagreed with Earle’s color choices and fought against his overly detailed backgrounds. When they took their issues to Walt, he would take Earle’s side every time. Toward the end of 1953, Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack and was replaced as supervising director by Eric Larson. At the time, Sleeping Beauty was scheduled for release in February 1957.

Larson struggled mightily with the massive workload but Walt’s insistence on perfection in every frame kept progress to a snail’s pace. According to Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, the animators took such meticulous care drawing Aurora that at one point, they were only producing a single cleaned-up image a day. The release date was pushed back to Christmas 1957. When it became clear they wouldn’t make that date either, Larson was taken off the project, replaced by Clyde Geronimi. Larson would later refer to Sleeping Beauty as his “downfall”.

With the help of Wolfgang Reitherman, Geronimi was able to get Sleeping Beauty over the finish line and into theaters by the end of January 1959, not Christmas 1958 as they’d hoped. What was meant to be Walt Disney’s crowning animated achievement landed with a bit of a thud. Reviews compared it unfavorably to earlier films like Snow White and Cinderella, exactly the reactions Walt had wanted to avoid. With a few exceptions, most critics disliked the animation style everyone had worked so hard to perfect. People seemed to enjoy the music (George Bruns’ score, adapting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, received the film’s sole Oscar nomination) but that was about it. Since the movie had taken so long to produce, its budget had skyrocketed and its original theatrical released failed to earn it back.

Even today, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite as beloved as some of Disney’s animated classics, although it has certainly undergone a critical re-evaluation. For instance, time has been very kind to Eyvind Earle’s singular design scheme. It bridges several gaps, from the Industrial Gothic Renaissance art that inspired Earle to his own modernist style. But it also connects the traditional Disney style of animation to the sleek, vertical style of UPA. The movie shows us not only where animation has been but where it’s headed.

Make no mistake, the animation in Sleeping Beauty is nothing short of breathtaking. Shot in Technirama, this is some of the most spectacular animation Disney ever produced. The animators learned quite a bit about shooting in widescreen thanks to Lady And The Tramp. They put those lessons to good use here. Every frame is perfectly staged, filling the eye with color and movement.

But while Walt was obsessing over the visual aspect, he really ought to have worried a bit more about the story. With a running time of only about 75 minutes, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t seem all that interested in letting us get to know its main characters. The opening sequence packs in a lot, establishing the baby Princess Aurora, her future betrothal to Prince Phillip, the three Good Fairies, Maleficent and her curse that Aurora will die on her 16th birthday, and the Fairies’ promise to raise Aurora under the name Briar Rose deep in the woods without using magic. That isn’t a story. That’s the set-up for the story.

However, the very next thing we know, it’s already Briar Rose’s sweet 16 and the Fairies are getting ready to say goodbye. We’ve been given no chance to get to know this girl. We don’t even get to see Flora, Fauna and Merryweather try to live a magic-free existence. Virtually the entire burden of getting the audience to care about Aurora is placed on the forest sequence where she meets Prince Phillip. It’s a nicely animated sequence and the song “Once Upon A Dream” is pretty good. But that’s a lot to ask of a single scene and song.

The movie doesn’t let up once Aurora falls into her sleep and Maleficent captures Phillip. Perrault’s original has our heroine cursed to sleep for one hundred years before she’s rescued. The story team was smart to realize that’s too long for a movie but they go too far in the opposite direction. Unable to face telling King Stefan that they’ve failed, the Fairies decide to put the whole kingdom to sleep until they can fix all this, then go straight to Phillip. Aurora’s plight doesn’t mean a whole lot if nobody even knows about it.

Freeing Phillip, the Fairies warn him that he’ll have to face the rest of these challenges on his own. This turns out to be a lie. They do nothing but help him, zapping Maleficent’s Goons and enchanting his sword for the death blow against Maleficent herself. This is not to take anything away from the power and beauty of this incredibly animated sequence. The arrival of Maleficent in dragon-form is legitimately awe-inspiring. None of it makes a lot of sense logically but that’s OK. The only problem is that it seems to take no time at all. By the time the curse is lifted and everyone wakes up, it feels more like Aurora was cursed to an afternoon nap.

Sleeping Beauty has a great big hole in its center where it heart should be. It’s just too difficult to become invested in the romance between Aurora and Phillip. We don’t spend enough time with either of them to care. But it’s easy to overlook that potentially fatal flaw because everything surrounding that hole is so great, beginning with Maleficent.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Visually, Disney has never created a more compelling villain (unless you want to count the demon Chernabog in Fantasia). The fact that we don’t know much about her apart from her commitment to pure evil makes her one of Disney’s most mysterious and sinister villains. It was also enough to justify expanding the character into the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent, automatically one of Disney’s more interesting live-action adaptations of an animated property simply by virtue of not being a shot-for-shot remake.

(Maleficent will presumably appear in this column eventually, assuming people are still reading this by the time we make it to the 2010s.)

Eleanor Audley, voicing her second and final Disney villainess, is absolutely perfect in the role. Apart from a couple episodes of The Swamp Fox miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, this would be Audley’s last Disney role. She went on to a prolific television career with recurring roles in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and My Three Sons (alongside Fred MacMurray, someone we’ll soon start seeing a lot of in this column).

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are equally well-cast, completely disproving Walt’s theory that they should have had identical personalities. Verna Felton was an old pro by now, having voiced characters in Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. She also provided the voice of Aunt Sarah in Lady And The Tramp, with Barbara Luddy (Merryweather) as Lady. Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), a new voice at the studio, was better known as Vera Vague, a radio character she’d played that became so popular that she temporarily adopted it as her professional name. This column will hear from all three of these women again.

Felton, Allen and Luddy are so perfect as the Fairies that it’s hard to imagine other actresses in the roles. But other actresses did play the parts for the live-action reference footage that was shot. Frances Bavier (The Andy Griffith Show’s Aunt Bee), Madge Blake (Batman’s Aunt Harriet) and Spring Byington (an Academy Award nominee and presumably somebody’s aunt) were performance models, as was Hans Conried for King Stefan. The use of live-action reference footage was common at the Disney studio but there was usually more overlap between the vocal and live-action actors. This time, only Eleanor Audley performed both halves of her character.

I can’t find any explanation for why they chose to separate the voices from the live-action models this time around. Conried had provided both the voice and live-action reference for Hook in Peter Pan. Not to take anything away from Taylor Holmes but Conried would have made an excellent King Stefan. It may have simply boiled down to the film’s lengthy production schedule.

The long production had one very immediate effect at the studio: Walt would no longer commit the same kind of money and resources to animation. Following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty, Walt was forced to institute wide-sweeping layoffs that hit the animation division especially hard. While they still produced occasional short films, they no longer had a separate department dedicated to their production. Animators would be forced to find cheaper, more efficient ways of making the features. Walt himself would only oversee three more animated features before his death in 1966 and they would be much different from those that came before.

The disappointment of Sleeping Beauty also scared the studio away from an entire genre. It would be years before Disney dared to tackle another fairy tale. That movie, The Little Mermaid, would come to represent the beginning of an era just as Sleeping Beauty marked the end of another. But that’s a tale for another column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty didn’t receive its first theatrical re-release until 1970. Subsequent re-releases would restore the film to its 70mm Technirama glory. Those screenings would be a revelation for those of us who had never seen a Disney film of this size and scope before. For awhile in the 1980s, I would have considered Sleeping Beauty to be my favorite Disney movie. There simply wasn’t anything else quite like it.

Today, I’m a bit more reserved in my appreciation of the film. Its technical qualities are beyond reproach. The movie still has the ability to dazzle and amaze audiences. But its story flaws prevent it from being the masterpiece Walt wanted it to be. In his pursuit of technical perfection, he lost sight of the heart and soul that made his best movies truly special. Disney animation would never be the same again.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

Branching into television production worked out extremely well for Walt Disney. In an era when TV was still broadcast in black-and-white, Walt was forward-thinking enough to insist on filming in color. This enabled him to repackage the enormously popular Davy Crockett serials and release them theatrically. Those two features proved that the quality of Walt’s TV productions could hold their own on the big screen.

Johnny Tremain was intended to premiere on the Disneyland TV series, just like Davy Crockett. Walt would continue to make historical adventures a key element of the show for years with serials like The Saga Of Andy Burnett and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca. But after screening Johnny Tremain, Walt decided it was good enough to skip television and premiere theatrically instead.

If he was going for longevity, Walt couldn’t have picked better source material. Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1943. It’s been a fixture of middle school curriculums ever since. The book has never gone out of print and in 2000, Publishers Weekly placed it at #16 on their list of all-time best-selling children’s books. If you’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without being exposed to Johnny Tremain, you must have gone to a school that didn’t have books.

Tom Blackburn, Disney’s go-to writer for historical adventure projects, adapted the book. He and composer George Bruns also tried to recapture their “Ballad of Davy Crockett” magic with a couple of original songs, although “The Liberty Tree” didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Blackburn’s script betrays the movie’s TV origins, splitting the story into two distinct episodes.

In the first, we meet our young hero. Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is an apprentice silversmith in Boston working under Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright). Wealthy merchant Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot) wants to commission a replacement piece but Lapham refuses, concerned that his skills are no longer up to the task. Johnny insists that he’s up to the challenge and accepts the work under a tight deadline.

While working on the piece, Johnny reveals a secret to Lapham’s daughter, Priscilla (played by former Disney child star Luana Patten, considerably grown up from her appearances in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart): Johnny is in fact related to Lyte. Before she died, his mother gave him her christening cup engraved with the Lyte family crest. But Johnny wants to make his own way in the world and has decided not to confront Lyte with his story unless he absolutely must.

For advice on Lyte’s commission, Johnny goes to visit Boston’s other prominent silversmith, Paul Revere (Walter Sande). Revere, of course, is a member of the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary organization formed by Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane). Printer’s apprentice Rab Silsbee (future West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Richard Beymer) encourages Johnny to get involved but Johnny prefers to stay out of it.

Taking Revere’s advice, Johnny breaks the Sabbath to finish Lyte’s commission. But an accident badly burns his hand, rendering it useless. The Laphams are forced to let him go. Unable to find work anywhere else, Johnny appeals to Lyte, showing him the cup his mother left him. Rather than taking him in, Lyte accuses Johnny of burglary and has him arrested. Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell) defends Johnny in court, calling Priscilla as a witness and clearing his name. Grateful for all their help, Johnny takes a job delivering newspapers and acting as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty.

From this point on, Johnny has a front-row seat for all the key events of the American Revolution. He and Rab take part in the Boston Tea Party. He’s there for Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to Lexington. He’s on the front lines of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. If he’d been carrying a gun, he probably would have been responsible for the shot heard round the world.

There’s nothing about Johnny Tremain that I would describe as actively bad. It’s a well-made film with high production values and a capable cast. But it is an extremely old-fashioned movie, a little bit stiff and stagy. At times, it feels more like a professionally made Independence Day pageant than a film, especially when the entire cast marches through the streets of Boston singing “The Liberty Tree”. Hamilton, this isn’t.

The biggest problem is that Forbes’ novel has had every last trace of grit and toughness scrubbed out of it by the Disney Sterilization Crew. The book treats the Battles of Lexington and Concord with some degree of realism. Rab is wounded and dies painfully (spoiler alert for a novel you really should have read by now, I guess). The movie treats it like an exciting romp through the woods with high spirits and laughter all around. I don’t expect Johnny Tremain to turn into Saving Private Ryan but any anti-war message from Forbes’ book has been completely jettisoned.

Much of the pleasure of Johnny Tremain comes from watching the cavalcade of character actors as real-life historical figures. Walter Sande is a particular treat as Paul Revere, giving the silversmith a down-to-earth decency that goes beyond the usual thumbnail sketch of kids’ Intro to American History books. Sebastian Cabot is smugness personified as Lyte. And Jeff York (Mike Fink, King of the River!) is virtually unrecognizable as James Otis, a founding member of the Sons of Liberty whose behavior has become increasingly erratic after a head injury.

Considering the presence of Luana Patten, you might expect Walt to cast her former co-star Bobby Driscoll as Johnny. But Driscoll had already been arrested once for marijuana possession by this point, so Walt cast newcomer Hal Stalmaster in the lead role. He isn’t a natural actor but he certainly sells Johnny’s earnestness.

If you’ve paid attention to the credits of virtually any movie or TV show from the second half of the 20th century, you’ve seen the name of Hal’s older brother, the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Lynn was already in casting when Hal got the part in Johnny Tremain and was evidently surprised to find out that his younger brother had any interest in acting. As it turned out, Lynn was right. Hal’s interests did end up lying elsewhere. Walt cast him in another Revolutionary War TV serial, The Swamp Fox starring Leslie Nielsen. But apart from a few small TV roles, Hal retired from acting entirely before the end of the 1960s. He ended up following in his brother’s footsteps, working in Disney’s casting department for a time before becoming a talent agent.

But Johnny Tremain’s most significant addition to the Disney roster was director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson was a British director who emigrated to the US in the early 1940s. He was under contract to David O. Selznick, for whom he made the 1943 version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles, and made a few films at RKO before moving into television. He was a prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke.

When Walt hired Stevenson to direct Johnny Tremain, it was just another TV gig. It became a life-changing experience. Over the course of the next twenty-plus years, Stevenson would direct another 18 features for the studio, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his work on Mary Poppins. In 1977, Variety named him the most commercially successful director of all time with 16 films on their list of all-time highest-grossing films. Needless to say, we’ll be seeing a lot more Robert Stevenson movies in this column.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt’s theatrical gamble paid off for Johnny Tremain. Box office numbers weren’t widely reported back in 1957. But Walt certainly acted like he expected another Davy Crockett-size hit. He flooded stores with Johnny Tremain toys, comics, and other tchotchkes. There were even official Johnny Tremain tri-cornered hats to try and convince kids that coonskin caps were so 1955.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Crayons and Stencils
Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Tri-Cornered Hat

The movie also inspired Walt to propose a new addition to Disneyland called Liberty Street recreating Revolutionary-era Boston. Liberty Street eventually morphed into Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The Johnny Tremain connections might not be quite as overt as Walt had once planned but the Liberty Tree, an enormous 100-year-old southern live oak, still dominates the area.

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

Johnny Tremain also stayed alive through screenings on TV and schools. That original TV format lent itself to editing, so in addition to returning to its original berth on Disneyland, Disney edited it down further to focus on sequences like Paul Revere’s ride. For years, even if you hadn’t seen Johnny Tremain in its entirety, you’d probably seen some of it on a day when your history teacher needed a break.

Today, Johnny Tremain isn’t impossible to find but Disney certainly isn’t treating it like one of their crown jewels. They haven’t released it on Blu-ray or made it available on Disney+ but you can rent or buy an HD version digitally on Vudu or iTunes. It isn’t a terrible movie but I think it’s destined to remain stuck in the past. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy revisiting it. But if you’re new to the world of Johnny Tremain, I don’t think you’ll be inspired to buy your own tri-cornered hat.

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Even if you’ve never seen a single second of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier, you know it. “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Greenest state in the land of the free / Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree / Kilt him a bar when he was only three.” This earworm, written by George Bruns and Tom Blackburn, has been getting stuck in people’s heads since the mid-50s. Thanks, guys. And now that you’ve read those lyrics, it’s probably stuck in yours. You’re welcome.

Davy Crockett did not start out as a feature film. In the early 1950s, Walt Disney once again needed money. The studio was hemorrhaging cash as a result of budget overruns on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and a pet project of Walt’s, an insane idea for an amusement park. Walt had discovered the power of television with a pair of early specials promoting Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. He realized that a weekly TV series could not only bring in some much-needed income, it could also promote the park.

He shopped it around but nobody seemed all that keen on the idea. Nobody, that is, except ABC, who was struggling to get a foothold against competitors NBC and CBS. Walt signed a deal with ABC and on October 27, 1954, Walt Disney’s Disneyland (named after his insane idea for a park) debuted coast-to-coast. I suppose there is some irony in the fact that Disney now owns ABC, but Disney has now acquired so many studios and subsidiaries that irony feels irrelevant.

Walt Disney on the cover of a 1954 issue of TV Guide.

At any rate, a weekly television series demands content. The Disney Vault already had quite a bit of content and the first seven episodes made judicious use of it. Alice In Wonderland and So Dear To My Heart made their TV debuts. Other episodes were assembled from True-Life Adventure shorts and Donald Duck and Pluto cartoons. There was also plenty of good old-fashioned hucksterism as Walt sold the public on Disneyland (which would open in July of 1955), 20,000 Leagues and Lady And The Tramp.

But Walt also wanted the series to feature all-new original programming. In particular, he wanted to produce a number of historical dramatizations based on American folk heroes. Walt had earlier considered doing an animated treatment of Davy Crockett, perhaps during the brainstorming sessions that produced the Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill segments in Melody Time. When Crockett was pitched for the TV show, Walt wasn’t completely sold on the idea. But the risk was relatively low, so the three episodes were given the go-ahead.

The project was given to two newcomers to the Disney lot. Writer Tom Blackburn started his career writing pulp western stories for dime magazines. He entered the movie business in the late 40s, still focused mainly on westerns like Colt .45 and Cattle Queen Of Montana. Director Norman Foster was a former actor who had found success helming a number of entries in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series. They divided the Crockett story into three distinct episodes: the Creek Wars of 1813-14, Davy’s tenure in Congress, and his last stand at the Alamo.

Walt now began his search for an actor to play Crockett. James Arness was recommended for the part, so Walt screened his latest picture, the monster movie Them! But instead of Arness, Walt’s eye was drawn to Fess Parker, who had a small role as a pilot sent off to the crazy house after nobody believes his story about giant ants attacking his plane.

Parker was pretty close to calling it quits when he landed the role that changed his life. He’d kicked around Hollywood as a contract player for a few years, appearing in small, frequently uncredited roles. To describe Davy Crockett as a big break for the struggling actor would be an understatement.

Another actor who had been considered to play Crockett was Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen knew a thing or two about missed opportunities. He’d been in show business since the 1920s, winning acclaim as a dancer in movies like Born To Dance. He had been cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz but was forced to drop out when the aluminum dust in the makeup made him sick. After that, MGM more or less benched him. Between his contract disputes with the studio and the outbreak of World War II, Ebsen’s career was sidelined for most of the 1940s.

Walt first hired Buddy in 1951 on something called Project Little Man. Ebsen was brought into the studio and filmed performing his signature dance moves in front of a large white grid. This reference footage was then studied by the team that soon became known as Imagineers. Their goal was to create a realistic miniature mechanical man who could move and speak. Eventually, they decided it would be easier to create full-size figures. The project was renamed Audio-Animatronics. So when you see Lincoln in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, you can thank Buddy Ebsen for his part in inspiring it.

After Fess Parker was cast as Davy Crockett, Ebsen was offered the role of Davy’s sidekick, George Russel. It was an inspired pairing. Parker and Ebsen share a natural, easy chemistry that makes it easy to believe that these two men are lifelong friends.

The guest stars include a number of solid character actors. William Bakewell appears as Tobias Norton. Basil Ruysdael plays General (later President) Andrew Jackson. Mike Mazurki, one of the most recognizable heavies of the period, is the land-grabbing Bigfoot Mason. Kenneth Tobey has a relatively small part as James Bowie. Best of all is Hans Conried, bringing some Captain Hook flavor to the role of riverboat gambler Thimblerig.

Davy also encounters a number of Native Americans on his adventures, making peace with Chief Red Stick (Pat Hogan, who actually was Native), coming to the aid of neighbor Charlie Two Shirts (Jeff Thompson, who I can’t find much information about) and defending the Alamo alongside Busted Luck (Nick Cravat, who definitely was not). Compared to a lot of other frontier westerns of the period, Davy Crockett treats the Indians with a fair amount of respect. They’re treated as equals, deserving of the same respect and fairness as anyone else. Even the warlike Red Stick is shown to be a smart, passionate leader. When he tells Davy that it’s not him, it’s the government he doesn’t trust, he’s not wrong. Davy’s more than a little naïve to think he can single-handedly guarantee their fair treatment but bless his idealistic heart for trying.

By feature standards, Davy Crockett was relatively low-budget. But for television in 1954, it looked very impressive. Walt insisted that every episode of Disneyland be shot in color, even though virtually everything was still being broadcast in black-and-white. The production has scale and scope, with big, exciting battle scenes, beautiful locations, and feature-quality matte effects by Peter Ellenshaw recreating Washington, D.C. circa 1830.

Davy was also able to encounter a wide range of wildlife, thanks in part to the True-Life Adventures series. When Davy wrestles an alligator, he’s fighting footage from the two-reel Prowlers Of The Everglades. Davy and George run across the buffalo stampede from The Vanishing Prairie, as well as a prairie dog. The footage doesn’t exactly fit together seamlessly. The gator fight in particular is a little dodgy. But it’s a cost-effective means of adding production value.

The first episode of Davy Crockett aired December 15, 1954. It was an overnight, runaway success, taking everyone involved completely by surprise. Suddenly it seemed you couldn’t step outside without hearing somebody singing “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It’s estimated that more than 40 million people watched the final episode in February. Walt and Roy Disney responded by rushing a wide range of Davy Crockett merchandise into stores. Within months, the coonskin cap became the must-have accessory of kids across America.

Walt Disney's Official Davy Crockett Indian Fighter Hat (Coonskin Cap)
Print Ad for line of Daisy Official Walt Disney Davy Crockett Products
Hey Kids! It's a real Davy Crockett Gym Set!

The show’s success did not go unnoticed by movie exhibitors. Theater owners urged Disney to release a feature version. Since the show had been filmed in color, Walt thought that sounded like a good idea. On May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier hit theaters. I’m not 100% certain whether or not this was the first time something made for TV was repurposed for theatrical exhibition but it seems likely.

The success of Davy Crockett left Disney with one problem. The series ended with Davy’s death at the Alamo, so a sequel would be a bit tricky. But a prequel was certainly a viable option, so later in 1955, the country was treated to a fourth and fifth episode of Davy Crockett. This column will get to those adventures very soon. We’ll also see a lot more of Fess Parker, who became a Disney contract player after the success of Davy Crockett. Buddy Ebsen will be back, too.

Davy Crockett made Disney a force to be reckoned with on television. The Disneyland anthology series continued to air for decades, moving back and forth between ABC, NBC and CBS. The title would change, first becoming Walt Disney Presents, then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, The Wonderful World Of Disney and so on, but the format rarely did.

In addition to airing classic films and shorts, the series continued to produce original programs. These included documentaries on science and space exploration and more Frontierland dramas with characters like Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox. The Wonderful World Of Disney banner returned as recently as this past May, with ABC’s primetime debut of Moana. If you treat all the various incarnations of the series as one show, as most do, it’s the second longest-running primetime show in America.

As successful as the series continued to be, nothing would ever match the once-in-a-lifetime popularity of Davy Crockett. It was a genuine phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of audiences of all ages. It’s hard to say why it clicked as completely and effectively as it did but the combination of Disney’s storytelling savvy with the new medium of television proved irresistible. For a little while in the 1950s, Davy Crockett was king of a whole new frontier.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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