Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

When Walt Disney first started producing live action features, his favored genre was the historical adventure. This was mostly out of necessity. Since the studio was obligated to film in the United Kingdom, movies like The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue took advantage of the local scenery and talent. But swashbucklers had fallen out of favor, both at the studio and at the box office. Disney still occasionally filmed overseas but the studio hadn’t made an adventure picture since Kidnapped back in 1960.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released on October 1, 1966, but it’s virtually indistinguishable from those other adventure movies released over a decade earlier. Robert Westerby, the screenwriter of Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives Of Thomasina, based his script on the novel Red Hugh: Prince Of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly. Hugh O’Donnell was a real Irish nobleman who fought the British in the sixteenth century, making this very much an Irish cousin to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue.

Making his Disney debut was director Michael O’Herlihy, brother of the actor Dan O’Herlihy whom you should recognize from such films as RoboCop and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Michael O’Herlihy ended up working mostly in television, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-O, The A-Team and many others. If you watched TV at all during the 60s, 70s and 80s, you’ve seen his work. But The Fighting Prince Of Donegal kicked off a brief stint at Disney working on both television and feature productions. O’Herlihy will be back in this column.

As the movie opens, Red Hugh (Peter McEnery) receives word that his father has died, making him head of Clan O’Donnell. An old prophecy says that when Hugh succeeds Hugh, the Clans of Ireland will unite to stand against the British. This seems like a weirdly specific prophecy to me. I can imagine that the elder Hugh felt like he didn’t need to do much since the prophecy just has him waiting to die. Anyway, Red Hugh takes this all very seriously and immediately gets to work on this whole uniting the Clans business.

He first pays a visit to Lord McSweeney (Andrew Keir), a boisterous, hard-drinking man who pledges the aid of Clan McSweeney. Hugh also has his eye on McSweeney’s daughter, Kathleen (Susan Hampshire, last seen as the so-called “witch” in The Three Lives Of Thomasina). This annoys another would-be suitor, Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams), who decides to drag his feet before pledging the loyalty of Clan O’Neill. But after Hugh defeats him in an impromptu wrestling match, the two men become best of frenemies.

Before they can meet with more Clansmen, McSweeney and Hugh accept the invitation of a British merchant anchored just offshore. Once they’re on board the ship, they fall into a trap to arrest Hugh. It seems the British had heard about that prophecy too and managed to crack the code to figure out who the troublemaker was. Hugh is sent to a Dublin prison where he makes a powerful enemy in Captain Leeds (Gordon Jackson) after Leeds needlessly picks a quarterstaff fight with him and suffers a humiliating defeat in front of the other prisoners.

Sentenced to solitary confinement, Hugh escapes with the help of fellow prisoner Sean O’Toole (Donal McCann). He doesn’t get far before Leeds’ men pick him up and toss him back in. McSweeney and O’Neill attempt to buy his freedom with a treaty but Leeds rejects it and arrests O’Neill. With Hugh about to be transferred to the Tower of London, they enlist the help of a sympathetic waterboy to attempt a second escape, this time through the storm drains beneath the castle.

Leeds has had enough and decides to attack the O’Donnell castle and hold Kathleen and O’Donnell’s mother hostage. As John Belushi once pointed out, you should never mess with an Irishman’s mother. Hugh organizes the various Clans and attacks his own castle, soundly defeating the British and taking Leeds prisoner until a treaty can be ratified. The Clans are united and everyone celebrates in traditional Irish fashion, drinking a lot and fighting among themselves.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal isn’t terrible but I definitely had a feeling of déjà vu while watching it. All of those British historical dramas started to blend together after awhile and this is very much cut from the same cloth. The fight sequences are active without ever feeling too dangerous or exciting. Everyone looks like they’re costumed for a renaissance fair and all the castles are Peter Ellenshaw matte paintings. If you’ve seen one of these swashbucklers, you really kind of have seen them all.

Maybe it would have been better if the fighting prince himself had been more inspiring. Peter McEnery made his Disney debut as Hayley Mills’ leading man in The Moon-Spinners. He was perfectly fine as a fired banker suspected of being a jewel thief. He has an everyman quality that lends itself to the light Hitchcockian thrills of The Moon-Spinners but doesn’t exactly make him a leader of men. With his shock of messy red hair, it’s kind of like trying to picture Ron Weasley in Braveheart.

Comic book adaptation of The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

This would end up being the final Disney roles for both McEnery and Susan Hampshire. Peter McEnery went on to a very distinguished career on the London stage, as well as roles in such films as Negatives and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Susan Hampshire found her greatest success on television, winning three Emmy Awards for her roles in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Vanity Fair. They’re both still with us, so there’s always a chance they could pop up in another Disney project.

The most entertaining performances come from Andrew Keir as McSweeney, Gordon Jackson as the villainous Captain Leeds, and Tom Adams as Henry O’Neill. Around the same time The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released, Adams starred as superspy Charles Vine in a trilogy of 007 knockoffs. Here, he’s saddled with an atrocious Prince Valiant wig but enough charm comes through that you can see why he’d be cast as an imitation James Bond. Tom Adams will not be back in this column. He died in 2014.

This’ll also be the last time we see Gordon Jackson, who last turned up as the farmer in Greyfriars Bobby. Like Susan Hampshire, Jackson also became a prominent TV actor. He won an Emmy for his role on Upstairs, Downstairs (which was as big as Downton Abbey in its day) and starred in the cult crime series The Professionals. Gordon Jackson passed away in 1990.

Andrew Keir also had a small role in Greyfriars Bobby. Between Disney gigs, he appeared in a number of Hammer Films. In 1967, he landed his most prominent role as Professor Bernard Quatermass in Quatermass And The Pit. He returned to the role shortly before his death on the BBC radio drama The Quatermass Memoirs. Around that same time, he also appeared in the non-Disney Rob Roy with Liam Neeson. Andrew Keir died in 1997.

The middling box office returns for The Fighting Prince Of Donegal confirmed that audiences weren’t all that interested in movies like this from Disney. So in some ways, this marks the end of an era but it’s difficult to feel too nostalgic for it. When people think of Disney movies from the 1950s and 60s, a very specific type of film comes to mind. Silly, perhaps even goofy movies with a song or three and maybe a fantasy element to it. Movies like this don’t fit that mold. It’s interesting that the studio directed so many of its resources toward serious-minded adventures rooted in history. If only they had done more to distinguish them from one another.

VERDICT: The movie’s overall been-there-done-that feeling prevents it from being a Disney Plus. Let’s put it on the high end of the Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Ugly Dachshund

When Walt Disney decided to hire Dean Jones, he really went all in. The Ugly Dachshund, Jones’ second film for the studio, opened February 16, 1966, just two months after his first, That Darn Cat! I guess having shown he could work with cats, Walt wanted to make sure Jones could handle dogs as well.

The Ugly Dachshund was based on a book by G.B. Stern, an extremely prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, biographies, literary criticism and even the occasional screenplay. Not this one, though. Disney assigned the project to Albert Aley, a radio and TV writer who’d written a few animal-oriented shorts for the studio like The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon. The Ugly Dachshund would be Aley’s only feature credit and his last Disney credit. He continued to work in television, writing and producing such shows as Ironside and The Paper Chase before retiring and eventually passing away in 1986.

By now, co-producer Winston Hibler and director Norman Tokar were old hands at making dog pictures. They’d made such adventure dramas as Big Red and Savage Sam. Their last film had been the heartfelt Those Calloways. But they hadn’t really taken a crack at comedy before now. This kind of wacky slapstick was usually the work of folks like Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh. But with comedies rapidly becoming Disney’s most popular and profitable commodity, everybody would have to learn how to stage a pratfall.

Dean Jones stars as Mark Garrison, a commercial artist who lives with his wife, Fran (Suzanne Pleshette), and her prized, pregnant dachshund, Danke. Danke births a litter of three puppies that Fran hopes to train into prize-winning show dogs. But when Mark goes to pick the dogs up from kindly veterinarian Dr. Pruitt (Charlie Ruggles, last seen as the judge in Son Of Flubber), he gets a surprise. Turns out that a Great Dane also gave birth to a big litter of puppies. Too big, as a matter of fact. The mother has rejected the littlest one because she doesn’t have enough milk. Danke, on the other hand, has too much since her litter was too small. Do you think, maybe…?

Well, Mark doesn’t need too much convincing, especially since he’s always wanted a big male dog instead of all these little females. At first, Fran thinks the pup is just an ugly dachshund born after the others and Mark does nothing to dissuade her of this idea. But as the weeks go by, Fran figures out something’s amiss. She’s no dummy. Maybe it’s the fact that the puppy, now named Brutus, is twice as large as the others and looks nothing like a dachshund. Or maybe it’s that Mark is obsessively drawing pictures of Great Danes everywhere. Who can say what subtle clues she picked up on?

The rest of the movie follows a fairly strict pattern. Every so often, Tokar stops everything to stage an elaborate slapstick sequence wherein the three dachshunds are the primary agents of chaos while poor Brutus is an innocent bystander or victim who ends up shouldering the blame. Fran will get fed up, sometimes with good reason and sometimes not, and insist they return Brutus to Doc Pruitt. But a change of heart inevitably brings the big dog back into their lives.

Admittedly, Tokar’s three big setpieces are pretty funny. The first has the dachshunds tearing around the living room with multiple balls of yarn and creating an elaborate maze. The second is even more impressive as the animals completely destroy Mark’s studio, creating a slick, multicolored slide out of one of his commissions and a can of paint thinner. They’re not unlike live-action versions of the animated showdowns between Pluto and Chip and Dale.

The biggest one is also the weakest. Fran decides to throw an elaborate house party for their friends and neighbors because that’s what you did in 1966. The party has an “Oriental” theme and is catered by Mr. Toyama (Robert Kino) and his assistant Kenji (Mako, soon to be Oscar nominated for The Sand Pebbles), two very broad Asian stereotypes. Whenever Brutus appears, they shriek “Rion!” (‘cause, y’know, they think it’s a lion) and Mr. Toyama plays dead, lying flat on the ground and becoming stiff as a board. Sigh. I guess it could be worse. At least they cast actual Japanese actors instead of Mickey Rooney but that’s a super-low bar to cross.

Anyway, things go sideways when Chloe, Fran’s best hope for a show dog, steals a bone from Brutus. He chases after her and wackiness ensues. Kenji gets hit in the face with several cakes and takes a ride on a trolley. Everyone crowds on to a small bridge over a pond and ends up in the drink, including Fran. It’s your garden-variety big dog gets loose at a fancy event sequence you’ve seen a zillion times.

At the party, Doc Pruitt convinces Mark to secretly enter Brutus into the dog show. Mark’s always been somewhat contemptuous of Fran’s interest in dog shows but agrees partly to train the dog but mostly out of spite. As they work with Brutus, Mark realizes that the Great Dane actually believes he’s a dachshund. Whenever he sees one, he’ll try to mimic it by stretching out and walking low to the ground.

This delusion almost costs Brutus a championship when he starts walking like a dachshund in front of the judge. Fortunately, Brutus catches the eye of a female Great Dane. Wanting to impress her, he stands tall and proud, ultimately winning the blue ribbon. Mark hurries off to rub this victory in Fran’s face but has a change of heart when he sees that Chloe only managed to come in second. But Fran’s not jealous. She’s proud and happy that they now have multiple prize-winning show dogs in the family. But the Garrisons agree it’s time to put all this competition behind them. They decide to quit the dog show circuit so Mark can concentrate on his work and Fran can focus on keeping house and being a good wife. Seriously. That’s the compromise they arrive at. Ugh.

There’s one other sort-of subplot worth mentioning, if only because it never amounts to anything. In the opening scene, Mark has a run-in with Officer Carmody (Kelly Thordsen, who appeared in The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and will be back in this column several times, usually as a cop). Carmody tries to escort the Garrisons to the hospital but ends up citing Mark on a number of traffic violations when he finds out that it was the dog who was pregnant and not Fran.

Carmody shows up again later warning Mark that a cat burglar has been spotted in the neighborhood. Now if you’re thinking that this sounds like an opportunity for Brutus to prove himself by scaring off the cat burglar, you’re half right. What actually happens is Mark gets locked out of the house later that night just as Carmody drives past. Carmody thinks Mark might be the cat burglar, so he gets out to investigate. Then Brutus shows up and scares Carmody off, chasing him up a tree where he spends the night. The actual cat burglar never shows up and Carmody disappears entirely from the story after this. As with most things in The Ugly Dachshund, the stakes couldn’t be lower.

Putting aside the movie’s regressive gender and racial stereotypes (which, I understand, can be a big ask), The Ugly Dachshund’s biggest flaw is simply that it’s uninspired. Which is not to say that it can’t be watchable. Dean Jones continues to demonstrate a knack for physical comedy. But he isn’t quite charming enough to pull off everything required of him. In the birthday scene where Fran surprises him with a dachshund-centric evening at home, he just comes across as petulant, even though he has a right to be pissed off.

Part of the problem is that he’s being mean to Suzanne Pleshette, who has Dean Jones beat in the charm department. Stunningly beautiful and gifted with a smooth bourbon voice, Pleshette had been a theatre actress who made a big impression in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. While The Ugly Dachshund was her first actual Disney project, she’d earlier costarred with Tony Curtis in the 1962 comedy 40 Pounds Of Trouble, the first film to shoot on location in Disneyland. This was such a big deal at the time that Universal advertised the fact on the poster, like Disneyland was a featured actor.

Theatrical release poster for 40 Pounds Of Trouble

The Ugly Dachshund doesn’t provide Pleshette with one of her best roles. Fran alternates between acting selfish and frivolous or turning into a complete doormat who’ll put up with any indignity or inconvenience. The fact that the audience likes her at all is entirely thanks to Pleshette’s winning personality. Suzanne Pleshette, I’m happy to report, will be back in this column several times.

Critics were not enthusiastic about The Ugly Dachshund but audiences ate it up. The movie brought in over $6 million at the box office. Give them credit for this much, Disney knew how to put movies like this together. Cute dogs plus attractive costars plus colorful slapstick comedy equals money in the bank.

Of course, there might have been another reason for the movie’s success. In 1966, Disney was still in the habit of attaching short subjects to their feature presentations and The Ugly Dachshund was no exception. On its original release, moviegoers were treated to an all-new animated short: Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree.

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree

This quickly became one of Disney’s most popular cartoons, re-released several times over the next few years. Eventually, Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree would be edited into the feature-length film The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh. This column will have a lot more to say about Pooh and his many friends when we get there. For now, let’s just acknowledge that The Ugly Dachshund wasn’t alone when audiences were flocking to see it back in ’66.

Even on its own modest terms, The Ugly Dachshund isn’t much of a movie. At its best, it’s an undemanding sitcom-level comedy that might raise a chuckle or two from kids. At worst, it’s a rambling mess with some stuff that has aged so poorly you’ll get yanked right out of the picture. You might have some fun with it but I guarantee you won’t have enough fun to make it worth your while.    

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sword In The Stone

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sword In The Stone

When The Sword In The Stone premiered on Christmas Day of 1963, it had been nearly three years since Disney had released an animated feature. That movie, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, had been a huge hit, a much-needed success after the costly failure of Sleeping Beauty. But it wasn’t enough to single-handedly keep the animation division off the chopping block. Roy O. Disney was still trying to convince Walt to get out of the cartoon business. And while Walt’s interests were now primarily with Disneyland and the commissioned exhibits that were scheduled to debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he still had a soft spot for animation.

Cartoon production had slowed to a crawl in the wake of the Sleeping Beauty layoffs. By 1960, there were only two projects in active development. Both had been in the works for years. One of them was Chanticleer, based partly on the play by Edmond Rostand with elements of the Reynard the Fox tales. This had already been shelved once before in the 1940s. After the success of Dalmatians, animators Marc Davis and Ken Anderson tried to revive the project as a Broadway-style musical. Walt gave them his blessing provided they start fresh, without relying on any of the old concept art or story work.

In the meantime, Bill Peet was dusting off another long dormant story. Walt bought the rights to T.H. White’s The Sword In The Stone all the way back in 1939. But the project kept getting placed on the back-burner. First World War II sidetracked all feature development. By the time the studio was ready to make cartoons again, other properties like Peter Pan and Cinderella had taken priority. But Peet had an advantage over those earlier attempts. By now, there had already been a phenomenally successful adaptation of White’s work: the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot. It was a good time to be making another King Arthur movie.

While animators Davis, Anderson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Milt Kahl and songwriters George Bruns and Mel Leven all worked on Chanticleer, Bill Peet cracked The Sword In The Stone on his own. This was practically unheard of at Disney. Since the very beginning, the story department worked in teams, crafting stories visually in marathon gag sessions. This time, Peet decided to write a screenplay before drawing the storyboards.

Ultimately, Walt worked out a compromise with Roy. He couldn’t bring himself to completely axe the animation division but he agreed to kill one of the two competing projects. At this point, Peet’s project probably didn’t appear to have much chance of surviving.

Concept art by Marc Davis for Walt Disney's Chanticleer

The Chanticleer team made their elaborate pitch, complete with brand new concept art (like the image above) and songs. It went over like a lead balloon. Walt had never thought a rooster made for an attractive, sympathetic hero and the new material didn’t change his mind. The jokes were flat and the music was uninspiring. The rest of the animators (and Roy) preferred Peet’s idea if, for no other reason, than because it’d be easier (and cheaper) to animate people instead of farm animals. And so, Chanticleer was dead. Again.

(Years later, ex-Disney animator Don Bluth would attempt to put his own spin on the Chanticleer idea with Rock-A-Doodle. Its reception, both from critics and at the box office, suggest that the Disney folks were right to stick it on the shelf.)

Needless to say, Bill Peet was not the most popular guy on the Disney campus after Chanticleer was killed. The team switched their focus to The Sword In The Stone, although not everyone was happy about that. In another departure from Disney’s standard operating procedure, Wolfgang Reitherman became the sole director of the film with Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery credited as directing animators. Peet and Kahl were in charge of character design and even though Kahl had been one of the pro-Chanticleer animators who initially nursed a bit of a grudge toward Peet, he eventually grew to enjoy the new project.

Peet tried to stay relatively faithful to White’s original 1938 novel (the author later revised the book to retroactively serve as the first volume of The Once And Future King). Unfortunately, Roy and Walt demanded the project be brought in on a much, much lower budget than usual. This meant Peet couldn’t have too many characters. Large pieces of White’s book were cut, leaving Peet and Reitherman to focus on a small ensemble cast.

In theory, this shouldn’t be a big deal. The story focuses on young Arthur (or, as he’s none-too-affectionately known, Wart), ward of Sir Ector and aspiring squire to Sir Kay (played by Norman Alden, later the voice of Aquaman on Super Friends). They live more or less alone in a rundown castle until Wart drops in on Merlin the great wizard. Merlin has foreseen Arthur’s future and moves into the castle, along with his owl Archimedes, as his tutor. Merlin’s lessons consist almost entirely of transforming Wart into different animals (a fish, a squirrel, a bird) to see the world from their perspective.

The main problem with all this is that virtually nothing happens. Whatever lessons Wart is meant to learn take a back seat to gags about lovesick squirrels and dishes that wash themselves. Most movies would tie these incidents together at the climax with Arthur using these lessons to overcome some obstacle. That doesn’t happen. If he learns anything at all from being turned into a fish or a bird, it remains safely hidden.

The movie briefly comes to life when Wart runs afoul of Madam Mim. As Merlin’s archenemy, Mim decides to kill the boy out of spite. But Merlin arrives in the nick of time to challenge her to a wizard’s duel. This sequence at least has some spark and imagination in the animation. But again, Arthur is sidelined. The fight is between Merlin and Mim and doesn’t really serve a greater purpose. At least Martha Wentworth (previously heard as Nanny in One Hundred And One Dalmatians) is a delight as Mad Madam Mim.

If only Mim arrived in the story sooner. By the time she shows up, the movie is barreling toward its conclusion. Kay is summoned to London for a tournament that will decide the next King of England. Wart forgets Kay’s sword back at the inn and hurries back to collect it. Finding the inn locked up, he grabs the first sword he sees, which is, of course, the sword in the stone.

At first, no one believes his story, so they put the sword back and everyone tries to pull it out again. When Arthur demonstrates that he alone can remove the sword from the stone, the prophecy is fulfilled and he becomes King. Merlin comes back and assures him that he’ll be great. Someday, they’ll even make a motion picture about him! Sigh.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Sword In The Stone

Look, The Sword In The Stone has its champions but I think it’s safe to say that this is nobody’s favorite Disney cartoon. It’s the studio’s first animated feature (as opposed to earlier package films) that can accurately be described as boring. The story is non-existent. The animation is cut-rate, recycling not only its own footage but bits from earlier films. And the hit-to-miss ratio on the gags leans heavily toward the latter.

Character actor Karl Swenson (probably best known to TV viewers of my generation as Lars Hanson on Little House On The Prairie) provides the voice of Merlin. His anything-goes spirit and use of anachronistic references makes him a bit of a precursor to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. But whatever his strengths as an actor, Karl Swenson was no Robin Williams. Merlin ends up feeling half-formed, neither particularly wise or imposing but also not as wacky and fun as he could have been. At least Madam Mim has a distinct personality.

Sebastian Cabot is a bit more successful as Sir Ector. The character design seems…let’s say, heavily influenced by the King in Cinderella. But Cabot’s booming voice suits the character well. Cabot had already appeared in a couple of Disney’s live-action features, Johnny Tremain and Westward Ho The Wagons! This was his first voice-over performance for the studio but we’ll be hearing from him again. We’ll also be hearing from Junius Matthews, the voice of Archimedes and another returning voice from One Hundred And One Dalmatians.

Originally, Wart’s voice was provided by Rickie Sorensen, a child star who could also be heard as one of the puppies in Dalmatians. But when Sorensen’s voice started to change midway through production, Wolfgang Reitherman recruited his son, Richard, to finish the job. Then Richard’s voice broke and younger brother, Robert, was put behind the mic. But instead of re-recording any of the dialogue, the finished performance is a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of all three boys. It’s a peculiar, distracting choice. You can clearly hear the differences between the three voices. It’s a rare example of Disney underestimating his audience. Obviously everyone involved just assumed nobody would notice or care.

The Sword In The Stone also provided Richard and Robert Sherman with their first opportunity to write original songs for an animated film. Unfortunately, the songs are merely OK. For the most part, they’re catchy without being particularly tuneful or memorable. “The Marvelous Mad Madam Mim” and “A Most Befuddling Thing” are good examples. They kind of get stuck in your head but you can’t really hum them or sing along. If nothing else, they’re better than the ponderous title song.

“Higitus Figitus” is the film’s best-remembered song and I’m sure that’s by design. Merlin sings it while magically packing all his worldly belongings into a single valise. If the Shermans were not explicitly told to write another “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” for this sequence, I’m sure the storyboards left little doubt as to what was expected of them. The sequence and the song are emblematic of the film as a whole: we’ve seen better versions of this before.

Critics and audiences tended to agree with that assessment. Reviews were mixed and even the most enthusiastic notices tended to be a bit lukewarm. It earned less than $5 million at the box office, enough to turn a small profit but a fraction of what One Hundred And One Dalmatians (or even Son Of Flubber) had pulled in.

The Sword In The Stone has its moments and for some, those high points may be enough. But overall, the film is a colossal disappointment. An animated Disney telling of Arthurian lore sounds like the sort of movie that should be an event. Instead, it’s a missed opportunity and a sign the once-mighty studio that had once been at the forefront of animated storytelling had begun to lose its touch.

VERDICT: It’s not terrible but compared to what had come before? It’s a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Son Of Flubber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flubber - the Toy

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Babes In Toyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for Babes In Toyland

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

So why is the movie itself so terrible?

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

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

Babes In Toyland soundtrack album cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

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

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

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

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

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

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 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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