Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Moon Pilot

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Moon Pilot

For all his rose-tinted nostalgia and love of trains and history, Walt Disney was a genuine futurist. He had ambitious plans for his theme park’s Tomorrowland and would soon begin to formulate an even bigger dream called EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Disneyland TV show produced several acclaimed episodes on the space race, including Man In Space, Man And The Moon and Mars And Beyond. A feature film centered around man’s attempts to reach the stars was all but inevitable. But for whatever reason, Walt’s first movie on the subject was a bizarre comedy clunker.

Moon Pilot was based on an obscure sci-fi novel called Starfire by Robert Buckner, the screenwriter of such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy. (Give the Disney story department credit for this much, they were adept at finding deep cut books and short stories to base their films on.) Maurice Tombragel was assigned screenwriting duties. Tombragel came from the TV side, where he’d written a ton of Disneyland episodes including Texas John Slaughter and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca.

Director James Neilson also came from television, having helmed episodes of Zorro and Texas John Slaughter. Moon Pilot would be his first theatrical credit for Disney but not his last. He’d also continue to work on the TV end and several of those projects would be released theatrically overseas, including the pirate adventure The Mooncussers with Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran and Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. Neilson will be back in this column very soon.

Our story opens in medias res, as cigar-chomping Air Force Major General John Vanneman (Brian Keith in his third Disney outing) monitors an astronaut named Charlie as he attempts the first manned orbit of the moon. It’s a picture-perfect mission and as the crew recovers the capsule, we discover that Charlie is a chimpanzee, proudly carrying on the lineage of Disney Primates from such films as Toby Tyler.

Everyone is so pleased by the mission’s success that they decide to move up their timetable and launch a human astronaut within the week. For some reason, this seems to be the first time anyone has considered sending a man into space and Vanneman asks for a volunteer. Despite the fact that all these men work for the space program, nobody wants the dangerous honor of being the first man to orbit the moon. The Right Stuff, this ain’t.

Charlie takes matters into his own hands by sticking his klutzy trainer, Captain Richmond Talbot (Tom Tryon), in the butt with a fork. Talbot leaps to his feet and Vanneman mistakes him for an enthusiastic volunteer. Talbot reluctantly agrees but first asks for a few days leave to go home and visit his family. Vanneman signs off on this plan and why not? It’s not like that time could be better spent on details like training and test flights.

On the plane home, Talbot meets a sexy, mysterious young woman named Lyrae (Dany Saval). Lyrae knows all about Talbot’s top-secret mission and when she continues to unexpectedly pop up with warnings that his spacecraft isn’t safe, Talbot reports that he’s being followed by a foreign spy. Vanneman orders him back to the base and a “National Security” agent named McClosky (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned to make sure he does.

Lyrae follows Talbot to San Francisco where she reveals that she’s an alien from the planet Beta Lyrae. Why she has the same name as her home planet remains a mystery. She provides a secret formula to protect Talbot’s spacecraft from the dangerous photon rays that have made Charlie more aggressive and unpredictable. As they explore the city, Talbot falls in love with the space girl.

Vanneman and McClosky arrive and interrogate Talbot at the police station. Unable to find Lyrae, McClosky orders a round-up of young beatnik women in hopes that a witness will be able to pick her out of a lineup. One of these poetry-reciting girls, clad in a baggy sweater and glasses, is played by a young Sally Field making her film debut. Field will eventually make her way back to this column, providing the voice of Sassy the cat in the 1993 remake Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and its sequel, but that’s quite a way down the road.

At any rate, Vanneman gets Talbot back to base and even agrees to coat his spacecraft in Lyrae’s mystery compound if it makes him feel better. The launch proceeds without a hitch until, all of a sudden, Lyrae shows up out of nowhere in the seat next to Talbot. Why are there two seats in a capsule designed for a single astronaut? I don’t know but if that’s the only thing that bugs you about this story, you’re not paying close enough attention. Lyrae and Talbot are in love and she invites him to return with her to Beta Lyrae. Talbot changes course and off they go, blissfully singing the space anthem “The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae” (one of three original tunes composed by the Sherman Brothers, not exactly bringing their A-game) as a thoroughly confused Vanneman listens over the radio and a thoroughly confused audience rushes for the exits.

So where do we start with Moon Pilot? This is meant to be a wacky comedy and that’s fine. I can certainly appreciate a good wacky comedy. Every so often a gag will land, maybe not as forcefully as it should but enough to provoke a smile or two. Bob Sweeney, last seen as the smarmy concession salesman in Toby Tyler, is fun as a smarmy, glad-handing Senator. The beatnik lineup is kind of cute, although it’s basically the same joke repeated over and over as one group of weirdos and oddballs gets replaced by another.

The biggest problem is leading man Tom Tryon. This was Tryon’s first and only movie for Disney after landing the title role in Texas John Slaughter. Tryon looks like he was well-suited to playing the lead in a western but comedy is not his forte. He just isn’t funny. Talbot is a naïve, bumbling guy who gets in way over his head. The part calls for someone like Jerry Lewis. Tryon is stiff and uncomfortable throughout.

Tryon went on to have a pretty interesting post-Disney career. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and worked steadily in films and TV through the end of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, he’d become fed up with acting and became a successful horror novelist, writing books like The Other and Harvest Home. He died in 1991 at the age of 65, ostensibly of stomach cancer although it was later revealed that he’d been keeping his HIV-positive diagnosis a secret.

Dany Saval was also one-and-done with Disney. She was a rising star in France when she made her American film debut in Moon Pilot. Saval went right back to France after Moon Pilot’s failure to launch, making a brief return to Hollywood for the Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis comedy Boeing, Boeing in 1965. She retired from show business in the late 1980s.

In addition to Brian Keith, there is one other familiar Disney face in Moon Pilot. Our old buddy Tommy Kirk, billed as a “special guest star”, turns up as Tryon’s younger brother. It’s a superfluous cameo with Kirk picking Tryon up at the airport and giving him a ride home. I half suspect that Kirk really was just picking Tryon up at the airport and they decided to roll cameras on the spot. Honestly, Kirk would have been a better choice to play the lead here. Granted, he was a little too young to believably pull off being an Air Force captain. But believability did not seem to be of utmost concern anywhere else in this movie, so why should that matter here?

Moon Pilot came and went without making much of a dent in April 1962. It made a little bit of money but not enough to promote it into the big leagues. While many contemporary critics found good things to say about the movie, the FBI was less than enthusiastic. They complained about Edmond O’Brien’s portrayal of a bumbling, incompetent agent, even though they’d already forced Disney to change the name of the agency he works for. The Bureau was clearly being oversensitive, probably because they were still nursing hurt feelings over a Disney/FBI collaboration that had fallen apart a few years earlier.

The FBI’s declassified file on Walt shows that they’d had a somewhat cozy relationship. Walt admired their work and the Bureau believed that Walt could be a very friendly asset if necessary. In the late 50s, Walt plotted out a short series for The Mickey Mouse Club that would follow young cub reporter Dirk Metzger’s journey to Washington. Segments were planned on the treasury, the White House and the Congress and a big chunk would be spent on the FBI. The Bureau became heavily involved with those scripts, demanding a whole laundry list of changes even after seeing the rough cuts. As far as Walt was concerned, nobody had final cut approval on his work except for Walt Disney, not even the FBI. So he canned the whole project. Moon Pilot isn’t exactly Swiftian in its satire of the Bureau but it certainly isn’t the piece of rah-rah propaganda he’d been planning before, either.

While Walt would continue to dabble with science fiction, primarily through his gimmick comedies, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t return to outer space in his lifetime. It’ll be quite some time before we see another rocket or spaceship in this column. That’s kind of a shame. The Disneyland episodes suggest that Walt could have made a very good, serious movie on the subject. Although to be honest, I’d be happy if he’d simply made a more successful comedy.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Parent Trap

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Parent Trap

Hayley Mills has battled typecasting her entire career. This is to be expected when you are so closely identified with a particular brand. But quite honestly, it could have been worse. After Pollyanna became a runaway success, it would have been very easy for Walt to continue using her solely in period pieces celebrating Americana. He’d done it before with Fess Parker. Parker’s dissatisfaction with the roles he was assigned led to his leaving the studio. Walt seemed determined not to make the same mistake with his newest star. Her second Disney vehicle, The Parent Trap, was about as far away from Pollyanna as the studio could get.

David Swift, who had written and directed Pollyanna, based his screenplay for The Parent Trap on the novel Lottie And Lisa by Erich Kästner, a German writer perhaps best known for Emil And The Detectives (that book will turn up in a later column). The premise is simple but strange. Bostonian Sharon McKendrick (Hayley Mills) is sent to summer camp, where she meets her doppelganger, Susan Evers (also Hayley Mills). The two girls take an immediate dislike to one another, engaging in a series of Meatballs-style pranks culminating in an all-out brawl at a co-ed dance. Camp counselor Miss Inch (Ruth McDevitt) punishes the girls by forcing them to spend the rest of the summer together, sharing a separate cabin and taking their meals at an “isolation table”.

Eventually Sharon and Susan begin to tolerate each other and piece together the fact that they’re actually twin sisters. Sharon has been living with her mother Maggie (Maureen O’Hara) while Susan has been in California with her rancher dad, Mitch (Brian Keith). Curious to see how the other half lives, the girls switch places with the goal of ultimately reuniting the family. But Sharon discovers an unexpected complication upon her arrival in California. Mitch has become engaged to Vicky Robinson (Joanna Barnes), a gold-digging younger woman with zero interest in becoming a doting stepmother.

The Parent Trap raises far more questions than it’s prepared to answer. First and foremost, what the hell happened between Mitch and Maggie that they decided their best plan of action was to split up and literally never speak of each other again? Were they ever planning on telling their daughters that they had a sister? Who on earth would think it’s a good idea to get these two people back together? Sure, neither of them had remarried yet but you’d think the whole pretending their marriage never existed thing would trump that. And why would Mitch choose to send Susan to a camp all the way across the country? Surely they have some very lovely summer camps in California.

But the magic of The Parent Trap lies in the fact that, for the most part, you don’t really concern yourself with these very obvious questions while you’re watching the movie. Most of the credit for that goes to Hayley Mills. Before rewatching the movie, I had a false memory that Susan spoke with an American accent. That isn’t true. Mills makes no effort whatsoever to mask her Britishness, which is another weird question you might ask yourself. Both kids were born and raised in the States and there isn’t a single British person in the family, so why do they talk that way? But Mills is so appealing in both roles that you just kind of go with it.

What Mills accomplishes is pretty extraordinary, especially for a young actor just beginning her career. Sharon and Susan are both unique, distinct characters with their own physicality and mannerisms. But then Swift levels up the difficulty by having the girls trade places and pretend to be the other one. But somehow Mills is able to make it absolutely clear to the audience that Sharon-As-Susan is still Sharon and vice versa. In a sense, she’s actually playing four characters, not just two.

Mills is basically the whole show for the movie’s first third (although reliable character actors Ruth McDevitt, Nancy Kulp and Frank De Vol are certainly welcome presences as camp counselors). Swift successfully builds the twinning illusion through the use of split-screen effects, Mills’ photo double Susan Henning, and very precise editing which earned the film one of its two Academy Award nominations. (The other was for Best Sound. It lost both to West Side Story, which dominated the ceremony.)

Swift wanted to use fewer effects shots but Walt insisted on including as many as possible. For the most part, the effects still hold up today. In fact, the worst shot in the film doesn’t even include the twins. It’s a very obvious process shot with Hayley Mills and Maureen O’Hara strolling through a park. It doesn’t even seem like you’d need an effect to pull it off, so it’s odd that a perfectionist like Walt would leave it in.

Theatrical release poster for The Parent Trap

The movie’s two other secret weapons are Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara. The Parent Trap gives Keith a much better showcase for his talents than the misbegotten adventure Ten Who Dared. He coasts through the movie on his laid-back charm and some adept physical comedy. And he and O’Hara have some real chemistry, which sells the unlikely idea that Mitch and Maggie would even consider getting back together.

The role was a game-changer for Brian Keith’s career. After years of action pictures and westerns, Keith found himself offered more comedies and romantic leads. A few years after The Parent Trap was released, Keith followed fellow Disney star Fred MacMurray to television, headlining the sitcom Family Affair. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Brian Keith in this column.

Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing Maureen O’Hara again. O’Hara was in her early 40s when she made The Parent Trap, the age when Hollywood typically flips the switch on actresses from “leading lady” to “mom”. This is what happened to Dorothy McGuire, who was about the same age when she made Old Yeller. But O’Hara manages to retain her sexuality. In Old Yeller, it’s difficult to imagine McGuire and Fess Parker sharing more than a hearty handshake. Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara, on the other hand…they’ve got something going on.

By all accounts, O’Hara enjoyed making The Parent Trap and thought it turned out well. But in her memoir, she reveals that a contract dispute led to her walking away from the studio. According to the terms of her contract, O’Hara was to receive top billing. But when the movie came out, Hayley Mills’ name was above the title (twice, actually). O’Hara was not amused and swore she’d never work for the studio again. Don’t cross Maureen O’Hara, folks. She carries a grudge.

The Parent Trap was also the first major project for Walt’s newest songwriters. Richard and Robert Sherman had previously contributed the “Medfield Fight Song” to The Absent-Minded Professor but I’m fairly certain nobody left the theatre humming that tune. That would not be a problem for the earworms in The Parent Trap. The title song was performed by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, a teen idol in the Elvis/Ricky Nelson mold. Tommy and Annette were busy shooting Babes In Toyland, a major musical that will soon appear in this column, on the lot. The song accompanies the cute stop-motion title sequence. The animation is fun. The song, not so much. It’s undeniably catchy but it’s more annoying than irresistible.

Annette also recorded a version of “Let’s Get Together” that can be heard during the dance sequence. But it was Hayley Mills’ duet with herself that became a top ten hit. So naturally Walt hustled her back into the recording studio to cut a full album. Her follow-up single, “Johnny Jingo”, made it up to #21 but this was not the start of a long career as a recording artist. But “Let’s Get Together” is a legitimately fun song and Mills’ energetic performance of it is a high point.

Let's Get Together with Hayley Mills album cover

My only real beef with The Parent Trap is that it goes on a little too long. There’s no reason for a movie this slight to clock in at over two hours. We probably didn’t need a third original song, Maureen O’Hara’s pretty but sleepy “For Now, For Always”. The camping trip that proves to be too much for Vicky is fun and gives Joanna Barnes a chance to shine but Swift probably could have made the same point more economically. By the time Keith and O’Hara get together over bowls of stew in the kitchen, you’re ready for Swift to start wrapping things up.

Still, it’s easy to understand why audiences responded to The Parent Trap’s winning combination of teenage hijinks and sophisticated (by Disney standards, anyway) romantic comedy. The movie was released in June of 1961. By year’s end, it had raked in over $11 million, surpassing The Absent-Minded Professor to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year (behind El Cid, The Guns Of Navarone and the juggernaut of West Side Story). Hayley Mills was now a bona fide movie star. She’ll be back in this column.

The Parent Trap proved so popular that in 1986, the studio brought Hayley Mills back for a Disney Channel sequel. The Parent Trap II catches up with Sharon 25 years later, a divorced single parent in Florida. She’s planning to move to New York, much to the dismay of her daughter, Nikki. So Nikki plots with her best friend, Mary, to hook Sharon up with Mary’s widowed father (played by Tom Skerritt). This isn’t easy and Nikki calls her Aunt Susan to fly out and pretend to be Sharon in an attempt to move things along. Seems like a weird plan to me but hey, whatever works.

The Parent Trap II was a ratings smash. It became the first part of a latter-day Parent Trap trilogy. Parent Trap III came out in 1989, introducing triplets played by real-life triplets Leanna, Monica and Joy Creel into the mix. That movie was followed less than a year later by Parent Trap: Hawaiian Honeymoon. In 1998, Lindsay Lohan took on the double roles in a theatrical remake that this column will get around to eventually. Currently, Disney+ is working on yet another reboot.

The Parent Trap also went on to have a surprising second life in Bollywood. The first Indian version of the story, Kuzhandaiyum Deivamum, came out in 1965. It was a Bollywood blockbuster, leading to four different remakes in other languages. The Indian film industry has a long, proud history of unofficial remakes and knock-offs, so there may very well be others for all I know.

With The Parent Trap, Hayley Mills secured her position as the brightest star in the Disney galaxy. Pollyanna had shown she could do drama and pathos. The Parent Trap demonstrated she was equally adept at comedy and could even sing a little. The movie still holds up as a breezy, entertaining romp. But it should probably come with a warning to other children of divorce not to try this at home. Real-life parent traps don’t usually have as happy an ending as the one Mitch and Maggie get.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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