Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

In the pantheon of Disney stars, Roddy McDowall’s name does not loom as large as Fred MacMurray or Dean Jones. Beginning with That Darn Cat!, McDowall appeared in four Disney pictures and lent his voice to a couple more. But unlike MacMurray or Jones, Roddy McDowall was always more of a character actor than a leading man. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin suggests that maybe the studio should have given him more starring roles.

Roddy McDowall was nine years old when he received his first screen credit on the 1938 British mystery Murder In The Family (Glynis Johns, another future Disney star, played his sister). His family came to America in the early days of World War II. He was cast almost immediately upon his arrival in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. That Oscar-winning film turned McDowall from a child actor into a child star. Throughout the 1940s, he starred in such films as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home.

As McDowall grew older, he evaded the pitfalls of most child stars by taking control of his career. By 1948, he began producing some of his own films including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, another future Disney project. He moved to New York to take acting classes and focus on the stage. His performances in shows like Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, erased the child star image.

By the time Disney cast him in That Darn Cat!, McDowall had gone back to Hollywood. In addition to regular TV appearances, he joined the ensembles of such big-budget epics as Cleopatra and The Longest Day. In 1967 alone, the year The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was released, he also starred in the films The Cool Ones and It!, had a supporting role in a TV production of the play Saint Joan, guest starred on an episode of The Invaders, and voiced the cricket in the Rankin/Bass holiday cartoon Cricket On The Hearth. And that was pretty much the pace he kept up for the rest of his life. Nobody ever accused Roddy McDowall of resting on his laurels.

Like a lot of these lesser-known live-action entries, there’s not a whole lot out there about the making of The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. I can’t say if the project was developed specifically with McDowall in mind or if he was cast later. Either way, the role suits the actor perfectly. It isn’t exactly a challenging role and no doubt other actors could have done well with it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else having as much fun as McDowall appears to be having here.

Lowell S. Hawley, whose last Disney film had been the odd but still kind of enjoyable A Tiger Walks, based his screenplay on the excellently titled book By The Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman. Fleischman was a former journalist who started out writing novels inspired by his own experiences in the Navy stationed in the Pacific. One of those books provided the basis for the John Wayne movie Blood Alley, with a script by Fleischman himself. In 1962, he turned his attention to children’s books, many of which incorporate stage magic, a childhood passion of his. Fleischman went on to write countless books for young readers, including the Bloodhound Gang adventures from the PBS series 3-2-1 Contact.

This would be the last Disney feature for director James Neilson. Neilson’s time at the studio showed him to be a pretty schizophrenic director. He was capable of terrific work, like the TV production Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. But he was also responsible for two of the studio’s worst, the sci-fi misfire Moon Pilot and the strained European shenanigans of Bon Voyage! Based on those two duds, I was prepared to say that comedy just wasn’t his forte. But The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is genuinely funny, so either he was keeping this talent a secret or even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Our story opens in 1848 Boston as Arabella Flagg (Suzanne Pleshette) and her younger brother, Jack (Bryan Russell, last seen in Emil And The Detectives), discover that their late father has left them flat broke. Determined to rebuild the family fortune, Jack stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco. The family butler, Griffin (McDowall), tries to bring him home but the ship departs before they can get back ashore.

En route to San Francisco, Griffin and Jack meet Quentin Bartlett (Richard Haydn, the voice of the Caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland). Bartlett has a map to a gold mine and agrees to partner up with the two newcomers. But before they even make it to port, the map is stolen by wily crook Judge Higgins (Karl Malden, light years away from his role as the kindly Reverend Ford in Pollyanna).

The west proves to be as wild wild as promised and the gold hunters soon run afoul of a burly thug named Mountain Ox (perennial Hollywood tough guy Mike Mazurki, not seen in this column since Davy Crockett). Griffin knocks him out with a slug from a glove filled with gold nuggets, earning him the nickname “Bullwhip”. Sam Trimble (Harry Guardino), the owner of the local saloon, offers Griffin a big payday to go head-to-head with the Ox in the boxing ring. Not wanting to risk a rematch, the team hits the road to pursue Judge Higgins.

What follows is not a plot so much as an extremely episodic and convoluted series of events. Our heroes find the map, then lose the map, then find the map’s been damaged. They find gold, then lose it all to Judge Higgins, who then loses it himself. Higgins dons an array of disguises and almost ends up getting hung but manages to escape. Transitions between scenes are accomplished through charming, old-timey animations by Ward Kimball. It all feels pretty random but it’s never less than amusing.

Bullwhip and Jack eventually make their way back to San Francisco, where they find Arabella has taken a job dancing (and singing some mildly saucy Sherman Brothers songs) at Sam Trimble’s saloon. Sam reminds Griffin that his offer to fight Mountain Ox still stands. Broke and wanting to protect Arabella’s virtue, Griffin agrees. While Bullwhip and Ox essentially turn into live-action cartoons for the fight, Judge Higgins disguises himself yet again to rob the saloon. Bullwhip manages to eke out a victory but a fire breaks out when someone tries to apprehend Higgins. The money is recovered, Griffin and Arabella fall in love and all is right with the world.

Needless to say, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is absolutely, 100%, top-to-bottom ridiculous. If you’re looking for a compelling, historically accurate look at the California Gold Rush, keep on moving. If you want a movie that’s completely devoid of racial stereotypes, it ain’t this one. Its portrayal of Mexicans and especially Chinese is indefensible. The version currently available on Disney+ notes that it has been edited for content, so apparently this is the less offensive version. But the tone is so light and James Neilson does such a good job keeping the story bouncing along, none of that really matters.

This is the kind of movie that lives or dies on the strength of its cast. Neilson assembled a top-notch group more than capable of putting this over. Roddy McDowall is first-rate. He’s very funny as the straightlaced, exceedingly proper English butler. Somehow, he manages to keep that reserve throughout the movie. Even when he’s literally bouncing around the boxing ring, he never seems to be overacting or mugging for the camera. He strikes just the right balance.

Karl Malden appears to be having a real hoot as the villainous Judge Higgins. Growing up, I always had this image of Malden as a very serious actor known for playing working-class stiffs and making American Express sound like the only thing standing between you and chaos. It’s always a pleasure to see him let loose and have some fun. Unfortunately, this will be his last appearance in this column. Karl Malden was a terrific actor but his two Disney performances tend to be dismissed as silly trifles. They were but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. They show different sides of his personality than he was usually asked to deliver and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the rest of his impressive body of work.

My biggest complaint with The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is that it could have used more Suzanne Pleshette. Arabella gives her a bit more to do than her role in The Ugly Dachschund. She gets to sing and dance and assert her independence a little (not a lot, this is still 1967 Disney we’re talking about). But she’s basically absent for the movie’s long middle stretch. Bullwhip’s adventures would have been a lot more fun if Arabella had been part of them. Not to worry, though. We’ll be seeing Pleshette back in this column again real soon.

Neilson fills out his cast with plenty of familiar, reliable Disney faces including Hermione Baddeley (Mary Poppins), Cecil Kellaway (The Shaggy Dog), Alan Carney (Monkeys, Go Home!), Parley Baer (Follow Me, Boys!), and Arthur Hunnicutt (A Tiger Walks). Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Bryan Russell. He isn’t bad or actively annoying like some Disney child stars. He just doesn’t pop on screen the way somebody like Kurt Russell (no relation) might have. Half the time, I forgot he was even there.

Evidently, Bryan Russell’s heart wasn’t really in show business anyway. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was his last film, not just for Disney but for anyone. I’m not sure what exactly became of him after that. I know he got married, had a couple kids, and passed away in 2016 but that’s about it. If anybody has more information, I’d love to hear it.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is on Disney+ even in what I’m guessing is a mildly censored form. Critics weren’t crazy about it, although a few liked it, including a young Roger Ebert who had just started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. It wasn’t a hit at the box office, either. But it does seem to have a little bit of a cult following, which I suppose I would now consider myself a part of. This is a fun, goofy movie that’s hard to dislike. It should have made Roddy McDowall as big a Disney star as Dean Jones.    

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

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

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: A Tiger Walks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: In Search Of The Castaways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's In Search Of The Castaways

In 1962, Hayley Mills was on top of the world. Her first two Disney films, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, had been huge hits. The latter movie even netted her a hit single, “Let’s Get Together” by the Sherman Brothers. After The Parent Trap, Disney allowed her to return to England to make Whistle Down The Wind, based on a novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell. Whistle Down The Wind was another hit and Mills scored a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress. Stanley Kubrick offered her the title role in Lolita but her father, John Mills, nixed that idea. Walt himself probably also played a part in keeping Hayley out of Kubrick’s film. After all, his contract players were typically kept on a very short leash.

Hayley Mills was by far the most bankable box office star Walt had ever had under contract. Up to this point, his biggest live-action hit had been his 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. So it isn’t difficult to piece together how In Search Of The Castaways came about. The combination of Hayley Mills with the spectacle of another Jules Verne fantasy adventure must have seemed like a license to print money.

Robert Stevenson, who had proven himself equally adept with drama (Old Yeller), adventure (Kidnapped) and comedy (The Absent-Minded Professor), was assigned to direct. Lowell Hawley, the screenwriter of Swiss Family Robinson and Babes In Toyland, adapted Verne’s novel, originally titled Captain Grant’s Children.

Associate producer Hugh Attwooll had a somewhat unusual arrangement with Disney. He’d been working in the British film industry since he was a teenager, steadily working his way up through the ranks. His career was briefly interrupted by World War II and he spent a little while in Hollywood, working mostly for RKO, before heading back to England and Pinewood Studios. In 1959, Disney hired him to work on Kidnapped, beginning a long association with the studio. But unlike most other Disney crew members, Attwooll was never under contract. The studio simply liked his work and continued to hire him to as a producer for nearly everything they shot in England. His final credit was 1981’s Condorman, so we’ll be seeing a lot more from Hugh Attwooll.

Walt ran into a couple of small hiccups when it came to casting the film. He wanted Hayley Mills’ younger brother, Jonathan, to play her on-screen brother. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the time off school and wasn’t able to follow in his sister’s footsteps. The role instead went to Keith Hamshere, who was then appearing on the West End in the musical Oliver!

In Search Of The Castaways ended up being Hamshere’s only big movie role but it was still a formative experience for him. At the time, he was interested in photography as a hobby and spent much of his downtime hanging out with the film’s stills photographer, John Jay. Jay encouraged Hamshere’s passion and gave him lessons. A few years later, Jay hired Hamshere to work as his assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (a surprising number of Kubrick connections to this movie). After that, Hamshere had a new career. He went on to become a much-celebrated stills photographer in his own right, working behind-the-scenes on such films as Barry Lyndon, Superman II, and a whole bunch of James Bond movies. He makes a cameo in License To Kill as, what else, a wedding photographer.

Walt also cast Charles Laughton as Lord Glenarvan, the shipping magnate who leads the titular search. But Laughton was forced to drop out of the picture after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on December 15, 1962, just a few days before In Search Of The Castaways had its American premiere. Laughton was replaced by Wilfrid Hyde-White, the delightful British character actor.

The other two marquee names in the cast were Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders. Chevalier started his career in Parisian music halls before coming to America in the 1920s. He was a huge star in Hollywood throughout the 30s before a contract dispute sent him back to France. He had only recently begun making American films again with a role in Billy Wilder’s Love In The Afternoon in 1957. He followed that up with Gigi, an enormous hit and winner of multiple Oscars including Best Picture. In Search Of The Castaways would be his first collaboration with Disney but not his last. He’ll be back.

So will George Sanders, the great Oscar-winning star of All About Eve. Sanders was one of those rare actors who moved effortlessly between leading roles and supporting character parts. Sanders’ career (and life) had some tumultuous ups and downs but in 1962, he was still doing reasonably well. Two years earlier, he’d played the lead in Village Of The Damned, a low-budget horror movie that seemed to surprise everyone by becoming a sleeper hit. Between Village and Castaways, Sanders appeared in four more films and a few TV episodes, so he was certainly busy.

Alternate poster design for In Search Of The Castaways

Our story opens in 1858 Glasgow as Mary and Robert Grant (Mills and Hamshere) along with eccentric Professor Paganel (Chevalier) attempt to crash a bon voyage party hosted by Lord Glenarvan. Mary and Robert’s father vanished without a trace when his ship, one of Glenarvan’s fleet, went down. But Paganel recently found a bottle with a note in it that appears to have been written by Captain Grant. It isn’t entirely legible but Paganel and the kids believe it contains enough clues to be track Grant’s location.

At first, Glenarvan refuses to believe any of it. But his son, John (played by Michael Anderson Jr., the son of director Michael Anderson, who had himself filmed a Jules Verne adaptation, Around The World In 80 Days), started crushing on Mary the second he laid eyes on her. He persuades his father to mount an expedition. After some deliberation, Paganel decides that Grant’s most likely location is South America.

Up to this point, director Robert Stevenson has been setting us up for a relatively straight-forward adventure like Swiss Family Robinson. But once the searchers arrive in South America, Stevenson changes course and steers his ship toward Wackytown. The adventurers spend the night high up on a mountain in an area prone to earthquakes. When the quake hits, their rock shelf splits off, sending them careening down the mountainside and through a spectacular ice cavern on a stone toboggan. At the end of the ride, a giant condor appears and plucks Robert out of the snow, carrying him off to his aerie. Things look grim for Robert until a well-placed shot from a passing Indian, Chief Thalcave (Antonio Cifariello, continuing the tradition of Italians passing for Indians), rescues the lad.

Thalcave says he knows where the castaways are being held prisoner and agrees to lead the group. But before they get there, they decide to camp for the night by an enormous tree in a flood plain (these folks don’t use the best judgment when selecting campsites). Sure enough, a tidal wave floods the area, stranding the adventurers in the tree. Thalcave goes for help. While they’re awaiting rescue, a jaguar arrives to menace the group and a lightning storm threatens to burn down the tree.

They are eventually rescued by Thalcave but when they arrive at the village, it turns out that these aren’t the men they’re looking for. Paganel finally admits he was wrong about South America. They should be looking in Australia, which was where Lord Glenarvan wanted to go in the first place. So this entire trip (and basically the whole first half of the movie) has been a complete waste of time.

Off they go to Australia, where they encounter Thomas Ayerton (Sanders), who also claims to know where Grant’s ship went down off the coast of New Zealand. Turns out that Ayerton is actually a gunrunner. He and his men took over Grant’s ship, setting him adrift, and now intends to do the same thing to Glenarvan and his crew.

Glenarvan and company reach shore where they’re promptly taken prisoner by a tribe of Maori cannibals. They’re thrown into a hut with Bill Gaye (Wilfrid Brambell, best known, depending on where you’re from, as either Steptoe on the long-running British sitcom Steptoe And Son or as Paul McCartney’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night). Bill Gaye was a shipmate of Captain Grant and has been planning to escape and rejoin him. But his plan depends on squeezing through a small window, just big enough for a boy Robert’s size.

They manage to escape the Maori, losing them by hotfooting it across an active volcano. Finally, they find Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim, who will always be Poseidon from Clash Of The Titans to me) dealing with the treacherous Ayerton. With Glenarvan’s ship left relatively unguarded, they recapture the vessel and rescue Captain Grant. All’s well that ends well.

In Search Of The Castaways soundtrack album

If Walt’s goal was to recapture the magic of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he didn’t quite succeed. This is an unrepentantly goofy and amiable film. It doesn’t have a strong presence like James Mason at its center. The action sequences are treated with all the gravity and realism of a Donald Duck cartoon. The songs by the Sherman Brothers are silly little tunes with little to no bearing on what’s actually happening on screen. But if you can get on the movie’s wavelength, it offers some minor pleasures.

The cast certainly appears to be having a good time. Chevalier and Hyde-White are both a lot of fun, reacting to various life-or-death perils as if they’re minor inconveniences. Hayley Mills continues to be a charming screen presence. If she fails to generate many sparks with her romantic lead, that can probably be forgiven considering she was all of 15 or 16 years old at the time. And Keith Hamshere manages to avoid the Kevin Corcoran trap of overly precocious child actors.

The movie’s light touch works against it in some ways. It’s hard to become too invested in the search when every character sings a jaunty song in the face of mortal danger. And the midway revelation that they’ve been looking in the wrong place elicits groans more than anything else. It’s easy for the audience to check out at this point. If nothing we’ve seen so far has actually mattered, why should we expect that to change in the second half?

The film also borrows liberally from other Disney films. The search for castaways feels like it could be the flip side to Swiss Family Robinson. The oversized bird that captures Robert feels like an attempt to outdo some of the giant creatures from 20,000 Leagues. And the third act appearance of Bill Gaye brings to mind Treasure Island’s Ben Gunn, another long-haired, half-crazed sailor. They even have the same initials. But despite the film’s many flaws, it’s a hard movie to dislike. It coasts by on charm and spectacle, even as you find yourself rolling your eyes at some of its more unbelievable aspects.

In Search Of The Castaways was Disney’s big Christmas release for 1962. Critics weren’t exactly rapturous in their praise but most admitted that it was harmless fun, if nothing else. Audiences, on the other hand, seemed to love it. It became one of the highest-grossing films of the year in both the US and the UK. Hayley Mills’ winning streak wasn’t over yet. Neither was Robert Stevenson’s. He’ll be back in this column almost immediately.  

VERDICT: I had enough fun with it to make it a minor Disney Plus.

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

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.

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

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Swiss Family Robinson

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson

Swiss Family Robinson is a difficult movie to evaluate from a modern perspective. This is only surprising in that most of Disney’s biggest hits have aged extremely well. Walt’s animated classics have remained timeless. The most popular live-action films may require a bit more effort but you can still see what audiences responded to, even if the effect is now somewhat diminished. But Swiss Family Robinson, the fourth highest-grossing film of 1960 behind Spartacus, Psycho and Exodus, is a textbook case of “maybe you had to be there”. Maybe it’s the wave of remakes and copycats that washed up in its wake. Or maybe it’s just that the novelty of finding yourself isolated with your entire family doesn’t seem like such a fantasy in 2021.

Walt and producer Bill Anderson had been kicking around the idea of adapting Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel for a while. They’d both seen RKO’s 1940 version starring Thomas Mitchell and thought it was ripe for the Disney treatment. They considered producing it for television, which makes sense given the episodic nature of the story. Eventually Anderson figured out how to turn it into a movie by introducing the ever-present threat of pirates, an enemy that doesn’t factor into Wyss’s book at all.

Perhaps inspired by the Swiss air, Disney and Anderson revisited the idea while on location in Switzerland for Third Man On The Mountain. They approached that film’s director, Ken Annakin, about Swiss Family Robinson. Annakin picked up a copy of the book and couldn’t for the life of him figure out why they were so gung-ho about this particular story. Still, he agreed to take it on and reportedly used the 1940 movie as a template of “what not to do”.

(Walt would eventually buy the rights to the 1940 movie with the sole purpose of keeping the film out of circulation. Ironically, it’s now available on Disney+ and pops up as a recommendation alongside the Disney version, exactly the kind of comparison Walt was trying to avoid.)

It wasn’t difficult for Annakin to differentiate his movie from the earlier version. Instead of a black-and-white, studio-bound picture, the Disney version would be shot on location in Technicolor and Panavision. Where the 1940 film remained relatively faithful to the book, Annakin and screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley (a Zorro writer making the leap to features) essentially tossed Wyss’s novel aside. Survival is almost beside the point in the Disney version. At the very least, it’s simply assumed. There’s never any question whether or not the family is going to make it. Here, the Robinsons’ primary concerns are comfort and entertainment.

Swiss Family Robinson book-and-record set

The cast was made up almost entirely of familiar Disney faces. James MacArthur, who had made his Disney debut with 1958’s The Light In The Forest and was most recently seen in Kidnapped, starred as Fritz, the eldest son. This will be MacArthur’s final appearance in this column. He’d return to the studio once more in 1967 to star in the three-part Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders) for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. The next year, he was cast as Danny “Dan-O” Williams on Hawaii Five-O, a role that would make him a TV icon and extremely rich. He’d essentially retire after leaving Hawaii Five-O in 1979, working whenever he felt like it on stage or in guest spots on TV shows like The Love Boat. James MacArthur passed away in 2010 at the age of 72.

Fritz’s younger siblings, Ernst and Francis, were played by Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, once again playing on-screen brothers after Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. Swiss Family Robinson actually marked a homecoming for Kirk, who had been temporarily let go from the studio after The Shaggy Dog. He was developing into an awkward, gangly teenager and the studio couldn’t figure out what to do with him. But after The Shaggy Dog turned into a surprise hit, Disney decided they wanted to keep him in the family. This column still hasn’t seen the last of either Kirk or Corcoran.

Janet Munro was reunited with MacArthur, her Third Man On The Mountain costar, as Roberta, another shipwrecked victim of the pirates rescued by Fritz and Ernst. Munro was also nearing the end of her Disney contract. She and MacArthur were to be teamed again on the comedy Bon Voyage!, but when production was delayed she was reassigned to The Horsemasters, another TV production given an overseas theatrical release.

The Horsemasters brought Munro back home to England, where she stayed and starred in such films as The Day The Earth Caught Fire and Life For Ruth. Life For Ruth netted her a BAFTA Award nomination but the movie was a flop. In 1963, she married actor Ian Hendry. They had two daughters but it was not a happy relationship. Between her tempestuous marriage and floundering career, Munro began drinking heavily. Munro and Hendry divorced in 1971 but irreparable damage had already been done to both her career and her health. Janet Munro died of a heart attack in 1972. She was just 38 years old.

Mother Robinson (neither parent is given an actual name) was played by Dorothy McGuire. McGuire had already appeared as Kirk and Corcoran’s on-screen mom in Old Yeller. She has quite a bit less to do here than in her previous Disney outing. In Old Yeller, she was essentially a single parent while Fess Parker went off to tend to man’s business. Here, she’s in a more passive maternal role, worrying about her kids’ safety and tending to the cooking and the sewing while Father and the boys take care of everything else.

Even though John Mills had never appeared in a Disney project before, this wasn’t his first time on a Disney set. He’d played chaperone to daughter Hayley while she filmed Pollyanna. Father Mills never became as ubiquitous a Disney presence as Daughter Mills. He’s terrific here but as the 1960s went on, Disney’s focus became increasingly American. I’m sure if there had been a need for British father figures, Mills might have become as familiar to Disney fans as Fred MacMurray.

The Robinsons are emigrating to New Guinea when they’re hit by a trifecta of disasters. Pirates attack, forcing the ship to flee into a storm that the Robinsons’ cowardly crew can’t handle, causing them to abandon ship. All of this happens before the movie even starts with the storm playing out under the opening credits. The next day, they discover they’re marooned off the shore of a tropical paradise that is miraculously free of people but teeming with the kind of exotic wildlife typically only found in zoos or roaming the grounds of an eccentric millionaire. These animals are in addition to the two Great Danes and assorted livestock they manage to rescue from the ship.

Once the Robinsons make it to shore, shelter understandably becomes their first priority. Rescue is a distant second. Father raises a quarantine flag on the wreck of their ship. This succeeds in scaring off the pirates, who believe it to be a plague ship, but it would presumably also scare off any would-be rescuers. Father opts to build an elaborate treehouse, ostensibly to protect the family from tigers and such. But it’s also far enough away from the beach that no passing ships would spot them. Again, pirates. But you also start to get the idea that Father isn’t really all that interested in leaving.

For her part, Mother is primarily concerned with young Francis’s safety around animals and the treehouse. Fortunately, the boys are such skilled scavengers (and Ernst is a gifted engineer) that those fears are quickly allayed. Father and Fritz even manage to rescue the ship’s pipe organ and Ernst constructs a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom complete with running water and icebox. All that’s left for Mother to do is pick out the curtains.

Eventually Fritz and Ernst persuade their parents to allow them to circumnavigate the island in order to get some idea of where they’ve ended up. Along the way, they again encounter the pirates, who have captured a British sea captain (Cecil Parker) and his cabin boy. The Robinsons rescue the lad and come to find out that “he” is actually the captain’s granddaughter, disguised to protect her from the pirates’ unwholesome intent. This is really the only hint we get that the pirates are capable of doing much more than pillage.

Swiss Family Robinson comic book adaptation published by Gold Key Comics

Legendary Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, a recent Oscar nominee for The Bridge On The River Kwai, was cast as Kuala, the pirate chief. Hayakawa had been one of the biggest icons of the silent era and the first American movie star of Asian descent. His fame had diminished considerably since then due to a number of factors. His accent became a liability with the introduction of sound. The restrictive (and racist) Hays Code explicitly banned miscegenation, limiting his viability as a romantic lead. And as the country became gripped in anti-Japanese fervor in the years leading up to World War II, Hayakawa increasingly found work abroad. He was filming in France when the Germans occupied the country, trapping him there for the duration of the war. He wouldn’t appear in another Hollywood film until Tokyo Joe in 1949. Swiss Family Robinson would be one of only a handful of film and TV appearances by Hayakawa after the late-career high point of Bridge On The River Kwai.

The depiction of the pirates is really too abstract to be considered offensive. They represent an ill-defined “other”, clearly not Anglo-European but otherwise difficult to pin down. The presence of Hayakawa and the design of their ship marks them as more-or-less Asian but that’s about as specific as it gets. Compared to some of the other Asian stereotypes and caricatures Disney has unfortunately indulged in, the depiction of the pirates is practically enlightened.

Fritz, Ernst and Roberta manage to lose the pirates and make their way back to the treehouse just in time for a Christmas polka party. Concerned that the pirates might come looking for Bertie, Father decides to fortify his stronghold. The entire family gets in on the act, building coconut grenades and log rolls. Francis even manages to capture his tiger in a pit. When the pirates do show up (interrupting a spirited animal race), the Robinsons swing into action, transforming into the most skilled primitive warriors this side of the Ewoks. They’re able to hold the pirates at bay long enough for Bertie’s grandfather to show up and save the day. Despite the rescue, most of the family decides to stick around, as does Bertie. Only Ernst sails back to civilization to further his education.

While there’s nothing about Swiss Family Robinson that strikes me as actively bad, it also doesn’t seem special enough to have become a pop culture touchstone. The cast is agreeable enough. Mills and McGuire make for a warm, believable couple. MacArthur gives his best, most relaxed Disney performance and he’s a good foil for Tommy Kirk. Kevin Corcoran, who had been a bit more restrained lately in movies like Toby Tyler, is unfortunately back to his irritating old hyperactive ways, running around the island on a constant sugar high.

But for an adventure movie, there are only a handful of scenes that generate real excitement. The opening storm is kind of cool. Fritz and Ernst run into some trouble while they’re outrunning the pirates. But most of the action here ranges from silly to goofy. The finale with the pirates is a nonstop barrage of slapstick mayhem with all the lasting consequences of a Road Runner cartoon. And then there’s that whole animal race sequence, in which poor Tommy Kirk learns that it’s impossible to keep your dignity while riding an ostrich.

Swiss Family Robinson theatrical re-release poster

But as I said, maybe you had to be there. Swiss Family Robinson struck a chord as an ideal family adventure (and maybe the perfect fantasy of colonialism), raking in over $8 million in its initial release. In 1962, the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction opened in Disneyland, allowing visitors to climb into a replica of the Robinsons’ home. Although the original ride was refurbished into Tarzan’s Treehouse in 1999, you can still visit Swiss Family Treehouses in Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

The copycats and ripoffs started arriving fairly quickly. In 1962, Gold Key Comics (who had inherited the Disney license from its predecessor, Dell Comics) began publishing Space Family Robinson. A few years later, Irwin Allen’s very similar Lost In Space premiered on CBS. (Gold Key was already publishing another Irwin Allen comic, so rather than risk antagonizing him with a lawsuit, they decided to just add Lost In Space to their title.) 1975 brought us The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family, about another family named Robinson leaving on their own in the wild. That movie spawned its own franchise, culminating in Mountain Family Robinson in 1979.

There have been several subsequent TV adaptations of Wyss’ book, both live-action and animated. In 1987, Disney Television produced Beverly Hills Family Robinson starring Dyan Cannon, Martin Mull and a young Sarah Michelle Gellar. That appears to be the studio’s most recent attempt at a reboot but they certainly haven’t stopped trying. Over the years, everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Bill Paxton to Will Smith and the entire Smith family have been rumored to be involved in a new version. Back in 2014, Steve Carell was reportedly attached to Brooklyn Family Robinson. It’s been nearly seven years since that news broke, so odds are the project is dead in the water.

Rest assured that sooner or later, Disney will have another go at this property. Swiss Family Robinson is too iconic to leave dormant for long. And honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. Walt’s version is fine for what it was but it isn’t an untouchable classic. Sure, it would be very easy to make an updated version that’s a lot worse. But the template is so universal and basic that all the elements are in place to make it even better. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the Robinsons.

VERDICT: I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for this one but it isn’t terrible, so I guess it’s a very mild Disney Plus.

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