Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Ten Who Dared

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Ten Who Dared

Part of the appeal of the Disney brand lies in its familiarity. These films are part of our cultural DNA. You don’t even need to have seen something like Pollyanna to have a pretty good idea what it’s about. But every so often, this column runs into a movie I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes these obscurities turn out to be hidden gems like Secrets Of Life. And sometimes, you get Ten Who Dared.

Based on the journal of geologist and former Union Army Major John Wesley Powell, Ten Who Dared recounts the picturesque story of the first exploration down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter behind a number of other live-action features including such historical pictures as The Great Locomotive Chase, wrote the screenplay. William Beaudine, who had come to the studio through the TV division, was given his second big-screen Disney assignment after Westward Ho, The Wagons!

Producer James Algar, who had recently wrapped up the long-running True-Life Adventures series, led a film crew to Arizona to shoot background footage. He was accompanied by legendary river runner Otis “Dock” Marston, who Walt hired as a technical advisor. They captured some terrific footage of the area, which is just about the only good thing one can say about the film.

John Beal stars as Major Powell, the one-handed leader of the expedition. In real life, Powell lost most of his right arm during the Civil War but unless I’m missing something, Movie Powell only appears to be short a hand. This wasn’t Beal’s first Disney gig. Years earlier, he had provided the narration for the live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart. It would, however, be his last. After Ten Who Dared, Beal worked primarily in television, including a stint on Dark Shadows and the acclaimed PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles.

Beal received second billing after an actor who will become a familiar face in this column. Brian Keith had been trying for years to breakthrough as a leading man and never quite making it. He’d starred in some low-budget westerns and action films like Chicago Confidential and Desert Hell. He’d also headlined a couple of TV shows, notably the short-lived cult favorite The Westerner created by Sam Peckinpah. His first assignment for Disney, a guest spot on the Elfego Baca miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, led to a lengthy association with the studio. We’ll be seeing a lot more from Brian Keith in this column.

Watkin and Beaudine introduce Powell and his nine other darers in one of the most ham-fisted ways imaginable. At the beginning of the film, a reporter approaches Powell as he prepares to launch his boats. Powell establishes his bona fides, the date and setting, and whatever other exposition necessary to understand the premise. As Powell begins to drift away, the reporter asks who the other members of his crew are. “Ask ‘em yourself,” Powell yells. So he does, going down the bank and shouting his questions to each man as they float past. This happens nine times. It’s one of the most awkward and unnecessarily prolonged introductory scenes in movie history.

For the record, Powell’s fellow adventurers include several other notable character actors. James Drury, most recently seen in Pollyanna, appears as Powell’s brother, Walter, who can’t seem to leave the Civil War behind him. David Stollery, Spin & Marty’s Marty, is Andy Hall, the youngest member of the expedition who smuggles an adorable puppy on board his boat. David Frankham, who will soon be back in this column as the voice of Sgt. Tibbs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians, is English adventurer Frank Goodman. Stan Jones, a songwriter and occasional actor who had appeared on Spin & Marty and in The Great Locomotive Chase, plays Seneca Howland. And beloved cowboy stars R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Dan Sheridan round out the cast.

It doesn’t take long for the men to start squabbling amongst themselves. After the crew discovers Andy’s puppy, they order him to pull an Old Yeller and shoot the poor thing. Only Major Powell’s last-minute change-of-heart spares the dog’s life. Frank Goodman pointlessly taunts alcoholic “Missouri” Hawkins (L.Q. Jones) into having a drink with him, immediately resulting in disaster when a fight breaks out and they lose one of their boats. And Walter Powell finds out that George Bradley (Ben Johnson) was a “Johnny Reb” and starts plotting to kill him. You’d think Major Powell would have done a better job prescreening the candidates for this job.

Whenever the men aren’t actively trying to kill each other, they find time to gather around the campfire for a singalong. This happens more often than you might think. There are no fewer than three original songs, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin and Stan Jones, sprinkled throughout the movie. Toby Tyler didn’t have that many songs and it takes place in a circus. Evidently explorers in the 1860s really loved to sing.

Eventually supplies run low and a mutiny begins to percolate. Bill Dunn convinces a handful of men to abandon the river and hike out of the canyon to the nearest settlement. Powell remains convinced that the river is their best option, despite the potential danger. The group splits up and Dunn’s party encounters some Indians who suspect them of being responsible for the murder of some of their own. Fortunately, Dunn is able to talk their way out of danger and the Indians allow them to continue on their way.

Meanwhile, Powell and his remaining daredevils run the river. Sure enough, they hit some treacherous rapids but they’re able to navigate them without too much difficulty. The river calms down and the remaining six who dared celebrate the end of their long journey.

At this point, a narrator chimes in to acknowledge this accomplishment over footage of the present-day historical marker commemorating the expedition. As for Bill Dunn, we find out that his fate remained a mystery until a few years later. Turns out those Indians weren’t as forgiving as they appeared. Dunn’s men met with a bad end, stalked across the desert and dying in a hail of arrows. In other words, there was a much more interesting story here that the filmmakers chose not to tell us for whatever reason. Thanks for nothing, Walt.

For much of its running time, Ten Who Dared resembles a glorified orientation film that you might see at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Algar and his second-unit team did a nice job capturing footage of the canyon itself. Unfortunately, most of it is relegated to background imagery in some spectacularly unconvincing blue-screen shots. When a movie about river running fails to deliver even one exciting river running sequence, you’ve got a problem.

Watkin and Beaudine are a lot more interested in geographic formations and mapmaking than in the men making the journey. When they do delve into their personalities, the conflicts are dealt with in such a perfunctory matter that it’s virtually impossible to care about their outcome. One second, Walter Powell is taking a shot at George Bradley. The next, it’s all water under the bridge.

These are all good actors, so it’s really Watkin’s script and Beaudine’s flat direction at fault. Brian Keith seems to be having fun. During one fight scene, he sits off to the sidelines muttering commentary like an Old West Popeye. But he’ll be much better utilized in future Disney projects. John Beal, on the other hand, is a bland and uninspiring leader. It’s hard to imagine why any of these guys would follow him on this trip. Even his own brother seems like he’s just barely tolerating him.

Ten Who Dared was pretty close to the end of the line for both William Beaudine and Lawrence Edward Watkin. The prolific Beaudine would continue to work in television for the next decade on such shows as The Green Hornet and Lassie but this would be his last feature for a major studio. Beaudine would ignominiously conclude his feature film career with the ultra-cheap double feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. Watkin, who had been with the studio since Treasure Island in 1950, would also move into TV. Later in the 1960s, he’d be commissioned by the studio to write a definitive biography of Walt Disney. The book was never published and he’d only write one more Disney feature, 1972’s The Biscuit Eater, before his death in 1981.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Ten Who Dared is not currently available to watch on Disney+. Nor is it available on Blu-ray. The Disney Movie Club has it as a DVD exclusive but you’d have to be a serious Disney completist to want it in your collection. The folks at Disney don’t always make the right call about what movies to bring to home video. There are certainly plenty of titles in the vault that deserve a higher profile. Ten Who Dared is not one of them. Some movies are just better off forgotten.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Jungle Cat

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Jungle Cat

Between 1948 and 1960, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures shorts and features reinvented the nature documentary. The combination of breathtaking nature photography with clever direction, editing, music and narration proved to be irresistible. Director James Algar, producer Ben Sharpsteen, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and composer Oliver Wallace took the skills they honed in animation and seamlessly transferred them to nonfiction. The series won eight Oscars and proved surprisingly popular at the box office, both at home and overseas. Jungle Cat would be the final True-Life Adventure. Happily, the series goes out on a high note.

This time, the Animated Paintbrush whisks us away to South America where the jaguar prowls the Amazon rainforest. The jaguar, we’re told, has a great deal in common with our domesticated housecats. To demonstrate this, Algar shows us some footage of kitties roaming around the Disney lot. If nothing else, this proves that even in 1960, everybody was a sucker for a cat video.

After some stunning footage of the Amazon, still looking to be in pretty good shape back then, Hibler introduces our leading lady, a spotted jaguar. Because the True-Life Adventure team was always looking to graft a little romance onto the harsh realities of nature, it isn’t long before the female jaguar finds a mate: a black jaguar. Personally, I never knew the difference between a jaguar, a panther and a leopard. Now I do. I hope Walt would be happy to know that his educational films are continuing to educate all these years later.

The two cats eventually get together and have kittens. They are, of course, the most adorable little screwballs this series has seen since the baby polar bears in White Wilderness. The proud parents teach their babies to swim, to fish and to hunt. They’re too young and uncoordinated to have much luck hunting but they certainly look cute trying.

Unlike prior films like White Wilderness and The Living Desert, Jungle Cat doesn’t suffer from obviously staged sequences, charges of animal cruelty or goofy camera and editing tricks. The series has left the days of the square-dancing scorpions behind it. The film’s only potential downside is one of expectations. The series was always better off when the titles were kept somewhat vague and generalized. Jungle Cat has the same problem as The African Lion: it could use more cat.

Not that the other animals we’re introduced to aren’t interesting in their own right. There are tapirs and anteaters and monkeys and marmosets galore. As usual for this series, we’re treated to a lengthy montage of seemingly every bird the crew was able to capture on film. But by the time Algar turns the spotlight on the sloth, I was only too happy to see the jaguar come back and chase it up a tree.

In another typical move, Algar saves some of the most intense footage for last. This time it’s a battle of the apex predators as an enormous boa constrictor comes along to pick up some baby jaguar for dinner. Mom and Dad get the kittens to safety, then take the snake on themselves. Even though this is a Disney movie, the fight has a definitive conclusion and it isn’t a happy ending for one of the combatants. Indeed, there are several moments where the fight looks like it could go either way.

Jungle Cat was released to theatres in August of 1960. It did reasonably well at the box office, earning over $2 million. Nevertheless, Walt decided it was time to close shop on the True-Life Adventures. He had already begun directing his documentary resources toward television. Going forward, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color (and its various retitled successors) would be the studio’s home for educational projects, often with animated framing sequences starring a new character, Ludwig Von Drake.

But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures would live on at the studio for many years. Perri had demonstrated that it was possible to tell a completely fictional story using only animals and narration. The studio would now head in that direction. Don’t worry, animal lovers. We’ll still see a lot more dogs, cats, wolves, cougars, horses, raccoons, bears and monkeys in this column in the weeks ahead.

We also haven’t seen the last of the regular True-Life Adventure team. James Algar, Winston Hibler and Oliver Wallace will all be back, more often than not on those aforementioned animal pictures. But this is the last we’ll be hearing from producer Ben Sharpsteen. Sharpsteen had been with Walt since 1929, working as an animator, a director, a production supervisor, and establishing the studio’s in-house animation training program.

After the True-Life Adventure series ended, Sharpsteen worked for a couple more years on the TV end. In 1962, after more than thirty years with the studio, he retired and moved to Calistoga, California. In 1978, he founded the Sharpsteen Museum, dedicated not only to his career at Disney but local Calistoga history in general. He passed away December 20, 1980, and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1998.

The True-Life Adventures series was certainly not without its share of controversy. Even before allegations of animal cruelty were leveled at some of the films, critics questioned the techniques used and information imparted. But on balance, the work done by Algar, Hibler, Sharpsteen and their many cinematographers was groundbreaking and undeniably entertaining. These films paved the way for later, more humane nature documentaries.

Disney itself would eventually get back into the documentary business with IMAX movies like Sacred Planet and the creation of Disneynature, essentially True-Life Adventures for the 21st century. Because of the True-Life Adventures, nature films became an integral part of the Disney identity. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re a big reason why Disney+ has an entire section devoted to National Geographic programming. Even today, the True-Life Adventure legacy lives on.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Toby Tyler

It was the dawn of a new decade but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll around the Disney lot. Granted, the aesthetic of the 1950s would remain firmly entrenched around most of the country for at least the first few years of the 60s. But as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it would linger around the conservative, family-friendly Disney studio even longer. But Walt wasn’t just trying to stop time. He was trying to turn it back. Once again, he was trying to recapture his boyhood in Marceline and another of his youthful obsessions: the circus.

Toby Tyler was originally a serial by prolific kid-lit author James Otis that ran in the pages of Harper’s Young People in 1877. It was collected as a book in 1881 and followed by a pair of sequels. Otis’s book falls squarely in the tradition of mischievous youth novels like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy. It was a childhood favorite of several future literary giants, including William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and Carl Sandburg.

The book had been filmed once before as the 1923 Jackie Coogan vehicle Circus Days. (Good luck tracking that one down. The film had been considered lost until recently and it still hasn’t been made available to the general public.) Whether Walt had read the book or seen the movie or both, it’s hardly surprising that it ended up on his radar. The 1880s setting and depiction of small-town Americana puts it right in his wheelhouse.

Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward, who had previously collaborated on The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s biggest hit of 1959, reunited to adapt the book. They lightened the tone considerably, softening Toby’s character and making him more sympathetic. They also got rid of the book’s bleak ending in favor of something a lot happier. To direct, producer Walsh brought back another Shaggy Dog alum, Charles Barton.

As usual, casting was a relatively simple matter of assigning roles to the usual batch of contract players. For Kevin Corcoran, this was finally a chance at the spotlight after being teamed up with Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. In those previous outings, Corcoran wasn’t required to do much other than act precocious. But he’s in almost every scene as Toby and he’s surprisingly up to the challenge. He even gets to do some impressive trick horse riding. Sure, you can see the safety wire but so what? When I was his age, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do those stunts, even with a wire.

Walt also cast a pair of actors from the Zorro TV series that were sitting idle while a contract dispute between Disney and ABC played out. Henry Calvin, Zorro’s bumbling Sergeant Garcia, appeared as circus strongman and Toby’s reluctant protector Ben Cotter. Mime Gene Sheldon, who played Zorro’s mute companion Bernardo, had a rare speaking role as clown Sam Treat. Since this column is following the American theatrical release order, we haven’t quite made it up to Zorro but we will very soon. Here, both Calvin and Sheldon have an easy, natural rapport with Corcoran, imbuing their characters with real humanity that goes beyond mere caricature.

The cast included another longtime Disney employee. Composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the pre-Snow White days, makes his acting debut as the bandleader. In a nice touch, the then-72-year-old gets the on-screen credit, “and introducing Ollie Wallace”. Oddly enough, Wallace did not do the score for Toby Tyler. That job went to a relatively new hire, Buddy Baker. Baker had been hired by another staff composer, George Bruns, to work on TV projects like Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club. Toby Tyler was his first feature credit but far from his last. Baker would stay with the studio until the early 1980s. He’ll be back in this column and if you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve heard plenty of his work.

The movie hits most of the book’s major points, albeit through Disneyfied glasses. Toby is a poor orphan sent to live with his child-hating aunt and uncle (played by veteran character actors Edith Evanson and Tom Fadden) on their hardscrabble dirt farm. In the book, Toby lives in an orphanage and runs off to join the circus to escape the constant abuse. Here, Toby’s relations are far from loving but that isn’t why he leaves. Instead, Toby feels guilty that his indolent ways have made him such a burden, so he joins the circus temporarily with plans to return home once he’s earned enough money.

Toby’s new career path puts him in the employ of shifty concessionaire Harry Tupper (the very funny Bob Sweeney, who will be back in this column). Harry apparently has a reputation around the circus for mistreating his assistants, so Ben warns that he’ll be keeping an eye on him. The specifics of that reputation go unsaid, so you can feel free to read as much or as little into that as you’re comfortable with.

Toby has a little trouble fitting in at first but soon begins making friends like the warm and friendly Sam, gruff but lovable Ben, child equestrian Mademoiselle Jeanette (Barbara Beaird) and mischievous chimpanzee Mr. Stubbs. On one of their parades through town, Ben’s wagon capsizes and Mr. Stubbs gets loose, making his way into local sheriff’s office where he gets his paws on a loaded gun. As Mr. Stubbs fires wildly and the lawmen dive for cover, Toby bravely enters the jail and disarms the chimp. This causes a sensation and the circus owner (Richard Eastham) immediately tries to capitalize on Toby and Mr. Stubbs’ new fame.

Toby’s star continues to rise when Jeanette’s partner, Monsieur Ajax (Dennis Olivieri, then credited as Dennis Joel) hurts himself while trying to show off practicing without a safety line. Toby had told Jeanette about his old horse back on the farm, so she suggests he take Ajax’s place. But Toby failed to mention that he had never actually ridden that horse, so Ben and Sam team up to give him a crash course in trick riding.

Just as he’s about to make his big debut, Mr. Stubbs shows Toby a bunch of letters he’s received from his aunt and uncle. Turns out they’ve been writing him all along and Harry’s been hiding them from him. Uncle Daniel’s doing poorly and they desperately want Toby to come home.

Toby sets out for home, followed by Mr. Stubbs. They’re making their way through the woods when a hunter (James Drury, who we’ll see again in this column and went on to star on the long-running TV western The Virginian) accidentally shoots Mr. Stubbs out of a tree. Things don’t look good for the little guy as Harry shows up and drags Toby back to the circus where Toby’s family is waiting.

Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are overjoyed to see Toby again. They promise things will be better if he comes home. Just when things can’t seem much rosier, Jim the hunter shows up with Mr. Stubbs, who has made a miraculous recovery. Everyone gathers under the big top to watch Toby and Jeanette triumphantly perform their trick riding act, now with a grand finale appearance by Mr. Stubbs! Even Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are impressed and it’s unclear at the end of the movie if Toby goes back to his drab homelife or if he stays and becomes a big-time circus star. One would assume the latter but Uncle Daniel seems prone to wild mood swings, so who knows.

It’s been a long time since the days of “everybody loves the circus”. These days we’re more likely to see clowns in horror movies and circuses in news reports about either alleged animal cruelty or businesses you didn’t realize were still a thing. At this point, I’d wager that most people have never even been to a circus, at least not one without the words “du soleil” in its name. That’s too bad because a heaping dose of nostalgia for (or at least interest in) the golden age of the circus is needed to truly enjoy Toby Tyler.

I have a passing interest in circus culture, so I can appreciate both the atmosphere and the genuine circus performers whose acts are immortalized on film. It’s fun to see actual Ringling Brothers clowns, the Flying Viennas trapeze artists and the Marquis Family Chimps (especially Mr. Stubbs, who is awesome). Walt even acquired and restored some authentic period circus wagons, which are now on display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Like all of Walt’s period pieces, Toby Tyler succeeds at capturing an idealized time that never really existed except in memory.

But if you’re not into circuses and clowns, I don’t think Toby Tyler is going to change your mind. Toby’s ten weeks on the road certainly look more appealing than what he had going on back home but compared to other boy’s adventures, they’re kind of low-key. For some, that’ll be part of the movie’s charm and appeal. Others may be left rolling their eyes.

If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in luck because you’re not very likely to stumble across it accidentally. It’s not currently streaming on Disney+, presumably because of all the scenes involving chimps and guns. The fact that there actually are multiple scenes that can be described this way should tell you something. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to pick it up on DVD or digitally, where there is a nice HD print.

On the other hand, if this flavor of cotton candy appeals to you, Toby Tyler is worth seeking out. Kevin Corcoran finally demonstrates some of the charm that Walt presumably saw in him from the get-go. The supporting cast is a lot of fun. And you’ve got a chimp shooting up a jail! What more could you ask for?

VERDICT: Disney Plus, if only for Mr. Stubbs.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Darby O’Gill And The Little People

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill And The Little People

As a rule, Walt Disney did not spend nearly as much time developing his live-action features as he did his animations. He’d settle on a subject, assign it to a writer, assemble a cast, shoot the thing and get it out to theatres in a relatively short period of time. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea posed some technical challenges that lengthened the production period but Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer still put the script together quickly. The project that evolved into Darby O’Gill And The Little People was an exception, with over a decade elapsing between Walt’s original concept and its eventual release in June 1959.

Walt made his first trip to Ireland in 1947. While there, he got in touch with his family’s Irish roots (tenuous and distant as they may have been) and decided he wanted to make a movie about leprechauns. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s UK productions of the early 50s, produced a script called Three Wishes which would have combined live-action and animation. By 1956, it had turned into The Three Wishes Of Darby O’Gill, based on the stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. Walt and Watkin returned to Ireland, soaking up the atmosphere and researching Irish folklore. By early 1958, casting was underway on the newly retitled Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

Originally, Walt wanted Barry Fitzgerald, the Oscar-winning Irish star of Going My Way, to play both Darby O’Gill and Brian, King of the Leprechauns. But Fitzgerald felt he was getting too old to take on such a challenging workload and passed. In his place, Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby. He’d seen Sharpe perform in the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow and kept him in mind as a backup in case Fitzgerald turned him down. But Sharpe had essentially retired by the time Walt got around to making the movie and had to be talked into doing the role. He’d appear in one more film, the 1960 caper movie The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, before retiring for good.

For King Brian, Walt abandoned the dual-role gimmick and cast Jimmy O’Dea, a popular star of Irish stage and radio. O’Dea was most famous for his character Mrs. Biddy Mulligan, a working-class street vendor, who he performed on stage and a series of records. After Darby O’Gill, O’Dea had the opportunity to immortalize the Biddy Mulligan character on camera for his sketch comedy TV special, The Life And Times Of Jimmy O’Dea, before his death in 1965.

Amusingly, Walt tried to sell audiences on the idea that he had cast actual leprechauns in the film. The movie opens with a personal note that reads, “My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.” He’d take the gag a step further with I Captured The King Of The Leprechauns, an episode of Walt Disney Presents promoting the movie. In the episode, Walt travels to Ireland to personally meet with O’Dea (as King Brian) and persuade him to appear in the picture. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Walt credit for finding fun and novel ways to sell his empire.

Although the film would be shot in southern California, casting took place in London. It was there that Walt spotted Janet Munro, an ingenue in her early 20s. Munro had appeared in a couple of films, including the B-horror movie The Trollenberg Terror (better known in the States as The Crawling Eye), but had mostly worked in television. Walt saw her on an episode of ITV Television Playhouse and called her in for a screen-test. Munro has a wide, infectious smile and a no-nonsense attitude that makes her perfect for the role of Darby’s daughter, Katie O’Gill. Walt liked her so much that he made her part of the Disney Repertory Players, signing her to a five-year contract. She’ll be back in this column.

Walt did not offer a contract to Munro’s leading man, a tall Scotsman named Sean Connery. Connery had been trying to break into the movies for a few years, landing mostly bit parts in forgettable thrillers like No Road Back and Action Of The Tiger. His biggest role to date had been in the 1958 melodrama Another Time, Another Place opposite Lana Turner. That movie made him the target of Turner’s jealous gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, but didn’t do much for his career. When the Darby O’Gill offer came along, Connery was in no position to pass it up, even though it required him to sing, which he was not excited about, and attempt to transform his Scottish accent into an Irish brogue.

There are rumors that Connery’s and Munro’s singing voices were dubbed by others. That’s certainly possible. That practice was commonplace back in the 50s and 60s. But Connery also sings a little bit in Dr. No and his voice sounds identical in that movie as it does here, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His Irish brogue, however, is less convincing. The next time he played an Irishman, in his Oscar-winning role in The Untouchables, he wisely didn’t even bother trying.

Connery was not the breakout star of Darby O’Gill. That honor went to Janet Munro, who won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer. Connery was described as “merely tall, dark and handsome” by The New York Times and the film’s “weakest link” by Variety. But his performance did catch the eye of producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had recently acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Broccoli liked Connery and brought his wife, Dana, to another screening of Darby O’Gill to get her opinion. Dana wholeheartedly believed that Connery had the right stuff to be Bond and the rest is history. So even though Connery didn’t land a Disney contract, things seemed to work out all right for him.

Rerelease poster for Darby O'Gill And The Little People

The director was Robert Stevenson, making the third of his many Disney features following Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller. Darby O’Gill required a lighter touch than had his previous films for the studio and Stevenson acquits himself well. The pub sequences with Darby regaling the townsfolk with tales of his adventures with King Brian are full of character and warmth. Stevenson doesn’t bother with a lot of traditional exposition. Rather, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks and get to know the characters and their relationships to one another in our own time.

This was also the most technically challenging film Stevenson had attempted to date. Convincingly bringing the leprechauns to life required a combination of practical effects and visual trickery courtesy of the great Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw and cinematographer Winton Hoch employed forced perspective to create the illusion that Darby was interacting with the 22-inch-tall King Brian. Disney’s Imagineers had been using similar tricks with forced perspective throughout Disneyland. It’s the technique that makes Sleeping Beauty’s Castle appear to be a whole lot bigger than it really is.

The Disney studio only had one soundstage big enough to accommodate the oversized sets and enormous lights the work required. But Stage 2 was in constant use by the TV division, so Disney constructed a massive new soundstage, Stage 4. (Stage 3 and its water tank had been built a few years earlier for 20,000 Leagues.) In 1988, it would be divided in two, Stage 4 and Stage 5, where it would become the home of various TV shows like Home Improvement.

All the new construction and work paid off. The illusion of the leprechauns is completely convincing to this day. Even when you know how it was done, there are shots of Darby sharing the screen with the leprechauns that have you blinking your eyes in disbelief. That’s the difference between special effects and optical illusions. You can dissect a special effects shot and see how it was built. Optical illusions are seamless no matter how many times you’ve seen them.

The leprechauns aren’t the only characters from Irish folklore brought to life by special effects. Darby’s horse transforms into a púca. Later on, the banshee appears and summons the death coach to claim Katie. These optical effects haven’t aged as well but they work beautifully within the context of the film. When I was a kid, the banshee scared the bejeezus out of me. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the banshee.

Stevenson allows the story to unfold at the leisurely, rambling pace of a good yarn spun in a warm and inviting Irish pub. The heart of the story is the relationship between Darby and King Brian. It’s an equally matched battle of wits. They’re both clever, a little conniving and fond of a nip from the jug now and again. In a lot of ways, it’s Disney’s first buddy comedy.

The love story between Munro and Connery isn’t quite as convincing. Munro does her part, lighting up the screen with her smile and gradually warming to the young man in line to take her father’s job as caretaker. But Connery doesn’t seem all that interested in her. He does a great job early on as he wonders what exactly he’s gotten himself into by accepting this gig. But his attraction to Munro happens in an instant, like a switch has been pulled.

The supporting characters are a lot of fun, especially Estelle Winwood as the Widow Sugrue and Kieron Moore as her son, Pony. The widow aims to install Pony in Darby’s old job and as Katie’s husband. Winwood’s great juggling her two-faced nature. One moment she’s too sweet and too helpful. The next, she’s hustling into town to give Pony his marching orders. This would be Winwood’s only Disney film in a long career that reached back to the 1930s. She’d later have memorable appearances in The Producers and Murder By Death before her death in 1984 at the age of 101.

The bullying, somewhat dense Pony always does exactly what his sainted mother tells him to do, even though he doesn’t fully believe that things are going to work out the way she thinks. Moore is kind of like a flesh-and-blood version of Gaston in Beauty And The Beast. He’d go on to appear in such films as The Day Of The Triffids and Son Of A Gunfighter before becoming a documentarian and social rights activist in the early 1970s.

Darby O’Gill And The Little People did reasonably when it came out but it wasn’t a huge hit. Compared to the millions raked in by the low-budget The Shaggy Dog, the lavish Darby O’Gill was considered a disappointment. But in the years since, it has become something of a cult movie. Its ingenious special effects and the winning performances of Sharpe, O’Dea, Munro, Moore and the early star-making turn by the legendary Sean Connery have all kept it alive in the memories of its fans. It’s just a little bit darker and a little bit more grown-up than some of Disney’s other live-action productions but not so much that people don’t feel comfortable sharing it with their kids.

So far, Disney has resisted the urge to produce a sequel or a remake of Darby O’Gill. Good. This is by no means a perfect movie but it is a perfectly charming one. Replicating the unique magic that makes it special would require a very careful hand. Disney’s current filmmaking-by-committee approach to most of its reboots does not suggest they’d be capable of such a task. Better to leave Darby O’Gill And The Little People in Walt’s imagined SoCal Ireland.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Dedicated to Sir Sean Connery

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Tonka

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Tonka

By the end of 1958, Disney’s live-action division was stuck in a bit of a rut. They’d enjoyed some huge hits like Treasure Island, Davy Crockett and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. But those were exceptions, not rules. They were known more for historical adventure pictures mixing fictional characters with real-life events. From UK productions like The Sword And The Rose to the Revolutionary War exploits of Johnny Tremain to the Civil War adventure The Great Locomotive Chase, the studio had applied the same basic formula no matter what the historical setting. That didn’t quite come to an end with Tonka, the 1958 western directed by Lewis R. Foster, but it became a much less frequent occurrence.

Academy Award nominee and noted non-Native American actor Sal Mineo stars as White Bull, a headstrong Sioux brave. After spotting a spirited colt running with a band of wild horses, White Bull “borrows” a coveted rope from his cousin, Yellow Bull (equally non-Native H.M. Wynant). White Bull loses both the rope and his bow and arrows in his attempt to capture the horse, leading Chief Sitting Bull (actual Sioux John War Eagle) to forbid him from participating in future hunts.

White Bull goes out to find his lost bow and finds the horse, who he’s already named Tonka Wakan (the Great One), completely tangled up in his cousin’s rope. He constructs a makeshift enclosure, frees the horse and slowly and patiently begins training Tonka. After some time, he triumphantly returns to his tribe with Tonka. But Yellow Bull isn’t satisfied with just getting his rope back. He pulls rank and claims Tonka for his own.

The horse refuses to cooperate, responding only to White Bull’s more gentle hand. Knowing he can’t reclaim the horse from his older cousin but unable to bear watching him suffer, White Bull does the only thing he can: he sets the horse free.

Tonka rejoins his band but his freedom is short-lived as they’re caught in a round-up (led by Slim Pickens, making his second Disney appearance). The cowboys sell the horses to a cavalry outfit where Tonka catches the eye of Captain Myles Keogh (Philip Carey). Keogh sees that Tonka has been well-trained and responds to gentle, patient instruction. Renaming the horse Comanche, Keogh claims him for his own and grows to love him almost as much as White Bull.

With reports of Sioux converging on the area, Keogh reports to General Alfred Terry (Sydney Smith) and General George Armstrong Custer (Britt Lomond). While the cavalry troops formulate a plan of attack, White Bull volunteers for a reconnaissance mission. He sneaks into the fort and while reuniting with Tonka is caught by Keogh. The two enemies bond over their shared horse. Keogh turns White Bull in for questioning but promises he won’t allow anyone to hurt him. The next morning, Keogh lets White Bull go, hoping they’ll never meet on the battlefield.

The cavalry forces split up with strict orders not to attack until they’re together again. But Custer, who is depicted as nothing short of genocidal when it comes to the Indians, hears a report of an isolated group in the valley of Little Bighorn. Custer decides they’d be stupid not to attack and we all know how that turned out.

Miraculously, both White Bull and Tonka survive the battle. Tonka/Comanche becomes an honored war hero, the only survivor of the attack on the cavalry side. He’s retired from active military service and White Bull is made his official caretaker, the only one allowed to ride Tonka from now on. In the wonderful world of Disney, even Custer’s Last Stand somehow has a happy ending.

Now you might be thinking that Walt Disney is an odd choice to make a movie based on one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the annals of the American West. You would be correct. It’s based on the novel Comanche by David Appel. Comanche was a real horse who did survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Like Black Beauty, Appel’s book is told from the horse’s point-of-view. The movie can’t quite replicate that narrative trick, opting instead to tell the story primarily from White Bull’s perspective.

The title change from Comanche to Tonka is indicative of the film’s new focus but the actual reasoning behind it is more mundane. Another unrelated western called Comanche had just been released a couple years earlier, so screenwriters Lewis R. Foster and Lillie Hayward changed their title to avoid confusion.

The idea of telling the story of Little Bighorn from the Sioux’s point of view is a good one, as would be demonstrated years later in the novel and film Little Big Man. In some ways, Tonka is a bit ahead of its time, especially in its depiction of Custer as the villain. Custer was frequently seen as a tragic hero in those days. That was the image presented by Errol Flynn in the wildly inaccurate biopic They Died With Their Boots On. Lomond plays him as a vain, half-crazed racist. Carey is frequently seen casting some skeptical side-eye at his fellow officer.

None of this lands with much force, partly because Britt Lomond is sort of bland in what should be a role that lends itself to showboating. Lomond had already appeared as a Disney villain on TV, playing the ruthless Captain Monasterio on Zorro (Zorro will eventually appear in this column). Television seemed to be his natural element as he never did quite break into film as an actor. Eventually he started working behind the camera as a production manager and assistant director on such features as Somewhere In Time and Purple Rain.

It would be one thing if Lomond’s uninspired performance was an isolated misstep in casting. Unfortunately, it’s fairly typical of the film in general. Philip Carey brings something of a Troy McClure vibe to the role of Captain Keogh. This was presumably the role Fess Parker refused to play and it’s easy to see how his laid-back, sympathetic nature would have lent itself to the part. But it also would have been one more ever-so-slight variation on his Davy Crockett persona, so it’s hardly surprising Parker walked away from it. Carey is more broad-shouldered and square-jawed but you never feel like he believes in what he’s doing the way Parker did. Fess Parker may have been somewhat limited as an actor but at least he oozed sincerity. Carey is just another handsome actor playing dress-up.

Carey never made another Disney movie but he went on to an eclectic career in film and television. He went back to Little Bighorn, this time as Custer, in the 1965 western The Great Sioux Massacre. In a classic episode of All In The Family, he appeared as Archie Bunker’s ex-football player buddy who shocks Archie by revealing that he’s gay. And in 1980, he joined the cast of the long-running soap opera One Life To Live, a role he’d continue to play for nearly 30 years.

Jerome Courtland played Keogh’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Henry Nowlan. Courtland has already appeared in this column, although I didn’t realize it at the time. He sang the title song for Old Yeller. On TV, Courtland played the title role in The Saga Of Andy Burnett, another of Walt’s Davy Crockett wannabes. By the end of the 1960s, Courtland had moved behind the camera. He’ll be back in this column as a producer and director.

Sal Mineo was already a major star when he made Tonka and it’s a little hard to imagine what brought him to the Disney lot. Walt wasn’t a fan of working with established movie stars, preferring to cultivate his own talent. And it isn’t as though he didn’t already have plenty of young men in that age range under contract, especially if casting an actual Native American actor wasn’t a priority.

Mineo had been nominated for an Oscar for his work in Rebel Without A Cause and reteamed with James Dean in his final film, Giant. So Sal Mineo was very much wrapped up in the Dean Mythos that began to appear immediately after his death. In the years since, he had cornered the troubled teen market in movies like The Young Don’t Cry. For Mineo, Tonka was a chance to break out of that box and show audiences he could do more than just brood.

To some extent, he’s successful in his attempt. He smiles a lot more in Tonka than in any other film I’ve seen him in. It’s a very physical role and he seems confident and comfortable with his equine costar. He’s not equally at home with all the action. His handling of a bow and arrow is particularly awkward. And in 1958, even the most sensitive portrayals of Native Americans lapsed into the cartoonish and stiff broken English of Tonto.

Tonka represents some baby steps in the right direction toward more positive depictions of Native Americans on screen. But it still relies on slathering up primarily white actors with bronzer, sticking black wigs and feathers on their heads and calling it good. Foster may have had good intentions but he lacks authenticity. Without authenticity, it’s easy to doubt his sincerity.

Ultimately it’s a lack of clear focus that sinks Tonka. Is it an inspiring story about a young man and his horse? Or is it a violent western retelling a dark chapter in American history? Foster isn’t really equipped to turn in more than a fun adventure story but the Battle of the Little Bighorn could hardly be described as “fun”. In the end, Tonka doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish beyond showcasing all these magnificent horses.

Tonka was released on Christmas Day 1958. It was no blockbuster but it did a respectable amount of business. But Walt’s next live-action feature would be a blockbuster and its success meant that he’d be spending a lot less time and money on historical adventures. They wouldn’t disappear entirely but after Tonka, they would no longer be the studio’s primary live-action focus.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: White Wilderness

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's White Wilderness

In 1957, Walt Disney tried mixing up the tried-and-true True-Life Adventures formula with Perri. Labeled a True-Life Fantasy, Perri was the first explicitly fictional entry in the popular series. But Disney had been playing fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking from the beginning. Even Oscar winners like The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie made no distinction between footage caught in the wild and scenes staged in the controlled environment of the soundstage. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the difference. But to most audiences, the movies were so entertaining that nobody seemed to notice or care.

White Wilderness would be the third and last True-Life Adventure to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Purportedly shot in the Arctic over the course of three years, the movie won rave reviews. More than one contemporary critic singled it out as Walt’s best nature film to date. And on the surface, it is indeed a beautifully shot, highly entertaining picture. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were more than a little overzealous in their use of movie trickery this time. They crossed a line that ends up tainting the entire project.

Things start promisingly enough with Winston Hibler’s narration and our old pal, the Animated Paintbrush, whisking us back to the Ice Age. Hibler gives a little backstory about some of the animals we won’t be seeing in this film, like woolly mammoths and mastodons. We next tour the Arctic landscape, accompanied by majestic images of glaciers, avalanches and frozen seas. It’s some of the most stunning nature photography in the entire series.

Then we start to meet the animals and they’re frankly delightful. Walruses, beluga whales, seals, they’re all here and they’re all fantastic. Best of all are the polar bears, especially Mama Bear and her cubs. Cute baby animal footage is the stock-in-trade of the entire True-Life Adventures series. But of all the adorable baby animals we’ve seen so far, there are none cuter than polar bear cubs and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. We don’t really learn much about them but who cares? Just look at those little goofballs!

Later on, more baby animals turn up in an attempt to give the polar bears a run for their money. There are the goldeneye ducklings who are hatched in trees. They leave the nest before they’re able to fly, so they tumble out of the tree and bounce when they hit the ground. There are some cute little wolf cubs taught how to howl by Papa Wolf. They’re all fun but bouncing ducks and playful wolves are still no match for polar bear cubs in the cuteness department.

By the end of the movie, we’ve been introduced to a wide cross-section of animal life. Majestic birds like the osprey. Great herd animals like the caribou. Cute but fierce predators like the ermine. Less cute and even fiercer predators like the wolverine. The footage is top-notch. The animals are varied and interesting. Even the Oscar-nominated music by Oliver Wallace is less overbearing than some of the other True-Life Adventures. All signs point to this being a high point of the entire series.

But then, right smack in the middle of all this, there’s the lemmings.

Hibler informs us that the little hamster-like lemming breeds even faster than the rabbit. Mama Lemming can welcome two or three big litters each season. Once they’re old enough to fend for themselves, the lemmings emerge from their underground burrows to forage for food. Sure enough, there are lemmings as far as the eye can see, getting underfoot and gobbling up every bit of vegetation in sight.

Once the lemming population becomes unsustainable, Hibler tells us they follow a primal instinct to migrate to the sea. Off they go, swarming the countryside on their little lemming feet, until they reach the inevitable end of the line. Confronted with the frigid Arctic Sea, the lemmings march on, plummeting over the edge of the cliff and into the waters below. They swim until their little lemming bodies can swim no more. And so, the lemming population ebbs back, the result of an instinctual kind of mass suicide. The ways of nature are mysterious indeed.

As it turns out, almost everything we’ve seen and heard in this sequence is complete crap. It’s probably worth pointing out again that screenwriter and narrator Winston Hibler and director James Algar were not men of science. They were men of cartoons. They knew how to tell a story and the myth of lemmings committing suicide is a good one. Not true, though. The idea is so widespread that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game felt compelled to address it on their website.

But worse than the misinformation is the way the sequence was filmed. In 1982, a Canadian news show called The Fifth Estate ran an episode called Cruel Camera. Journalist Bob McKeown investigated reports of animal cruelty in Hollywood. He sat down with Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who had worked on several True-Life Adventures, to discuss staged sequences in the series and in particular, White Wilderness.

The lemming sequence was not shot on location in the Arctic. It was filmed in Calgary with lemmings bought from local Inuit kids for about a quarter a pop. These particular lemmings weren’t even migratory. To make it look like they were migrating, the filmmakers built a set, stuck the lemmings on a turntable and just cut it together over and over. And when it came time for them to jump into the “ocean” (actually the Bow River), they just pushed ‘em in.

In Cruel Camera, Roy admits they went too far that time. However, he is also careful to make clear that he personally didn’t work on White Wilderness and that he doesn’t believe Walt knew anything about what the crew was up to. Strictly speaking, the crew didn’t break any laws or even guidelines. Oversight of animals in film and television was a whole lot looser in the 1950s than it is now. Even if it wasn’t, the film’s status as a “documentary” probably would have allowed them to sidestep any pesky regulations. Still, it’s a black mark on the film that leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.

The entire Cruel Camera documentary is available on YouTube and it’s worth checking out. In addition to Roy’s interview, you get to see Ronnie Hawkins talk about some of the insanity he witnessed on the set of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Marlin Perkins from Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom get super-defensive when asked about staged sequences on his show.

The lemming business is truly unfortunate because it mars what is otherwise a terrific film. I suspect that lingering concern about the lemming issue was behind the studio’s decision to yank White Wilderness off of Disney+ shortly after its launch. I can’t imagine they had pre-existing contracts with other streamers for the True-Life Adventures and all of the other features are available. Better to just ward off any potential controversy before it starts.

I think it’s important to try and watch movies within the context of their times and not judge them based on contemporary values and ideals. But a film like White Wilderness makes that hard. Audiences in 1958 didn’t know that a lot of this stuff was staged. Even if they did figure it out, they certainly didn’t know the extent to which the filmmakers went. White Wilderness has a lot going for it and if you can somehow overlook its dark history, it’s well worth watching. But once you know the behind-the-scenes story, it’s almost impossible to look at it the same way.

VERDICT: Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the story behind the making of the film turns an easy Disney Plus into an unfortunate Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lady And The Tramp

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp

When Lady And The Tramp debuted on June 22, 1955, it should have been a bigger deal. For years, the Disney name had been synonymous with feature animation. Here was the studio’s first feature cartoon since Peter Pan two years earlier. Not only that, it was the first ever produced in CinemaScope. But animation had become almost an afterthought at the studio. Walt himself had decided it was time for his name to become synonymous with something much bigger. His attention was entirely on Disneyland. Lady And The Tramp would have to sink or swim on its own merits.

Lady And The Tramp is easily one of Disney’s most unusual feature animations. For the first time, the story was entirely self-generated and not based on a classic fairy tale or book. Development began all the way back in 1937 when animator Joe Grant brought in some sketches he’d done of his English Springer Spaniel, Lady. Grant had just had a baby and his sketches of the jealous Lady made Walt think there might be a story there. He assigned a small group of storymen to the project and work quietly began on Lady.

By 1945, work on Lady hadn’t progressed much farther than that. Various artists and storymen dropped in ideas here and there but it simply wasn’t coming together. The project might have disappeared into the vault if Walt hadn’t come across a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”. Walt decided a scrappy, cynical dog might be just the counterpoint the sweet, lovable Lady needed.

Walt already knew the story’s author. Ward Greene was a writer and journalist but his day job was general manager of King Features Syndicate, distributing columns and comic strips to newspapers around the country. Disney had been a staple of the funny pages and a feather in King Features’ cap since the Mickey Mouse comic strip premiered in 1930. Odds are this was not a difficult negotiation.

Work continued on what would eventually be titled Lady And The Tramp off and on for the next several years, mostly off. Joe Grant left the studio (and animation, at least temporarily) in 1949, leaving the story to be molded primarily by Ward Greene. Still, the project was simply not a priority at the studio.

Finally in 1953, Walt and Roy Disney had a problem. For years, they had struggled with having too many animated projects in various stages of development. Now, for the first time, they didn’t have enough. Peter Pan had been released but Sleeping Beauty, intended to be Walt’s magnum opus, was nowhere near finished. Roy was in the process of launching Buena Vista, the studio’s new distribution arm. It would be a lot easier to woo exhibitors to Disney distribution with the promise of new Disney animation.

According to Neal Gabler’s excellent book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, Walt first considered simply cobbling together another package film. That would have been easier said than done, since the production of animated short subjects was trickling to a halt. Any animators not working on Sleeping Beauty had been kept busy producing new but cheap footage for the Disneyland TV series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Instead of a package film, Roy encouraged Walt to kickstart Lady And The Tramp, figuring it would be a relatively quick and easy project to complete.

It probably would have been except for one thing: CinemaScope. The widescreen process had become Hollywood’s latest craze toward coaxing audiences away from televisions and back into theatres. Disney had successfully used it on the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar-winning animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. When he decided to shoot Lady And The Tramp in CinemaScope, the animators had to make some big adjustments. The backgrounds had to be bigger. Layouts had to be changed. They even had to prepare a second, alternate version formatted for theaters that weren’t equipped to project CinemaScope. Consequently, the “quick and easy” project took longer to complete than anticipated.

Narratively, Lady And The Tramp remains true to the modest goals first laid out by Joe Grant. The story opens on Christmas with Jim Dear presenting Lady in a hatbox as a gift to his beloved wife, Darling. This incident, supposedly inspired by Walt’s own Christmas gift of a puppy to his wife, Lillian, early in their marriage, helped obfuscate Grant’s contribution to the story in later years. Opening with such a personal moment, everyone simply assumed the story was Walt’s and Walt himself did little to suggest otherwise.

The movie ambles along at its own pace from there, following Lady as she grows up, gets to know her neighbors Jock and Trusty, acquires her collar and official dog license. The movie’s almost a third over before we’re introduced to either the idea of a new baby entering the home or even Lady’s costar, Tramp.

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp has a reputation as one of the most romantic movies of all time, animated or otherwise. It landed at Number 95 on the American Film Institute’s 2002 list of love stories, 100 Years…100 Passions. But the film takes its time revealing that side of itself. Crucially, Disney spends the first 45 minutes or so romanticizing the characters’ world rather than the characters themselves. Tramp and his friends from the wrong side of the tracks are kept separate from Lady and her Snob Hill neighbors. Both worlds seem equally appealing and idyllic on their own. When Lady and the Tramp come together, they blend into a singular, magical space.

After Disneyland opened, it became common shorthand to compartmentalize Disney’s work into the four park areas: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But there was always a fifth area to the park, Main Street USA, and it’s that idealized, hyper-nostalgic worldview that’s on full display in Lady And The Tramp.

More often than not, Disney would indulge his nostalgic impulses through live-action films like So Dear To My Heart and later, Pollyanna. Lady And The Tramp translates that live-action aesthetic into animation and the result is even more idealized. We believe in the somewhat unlikely romance between these two dogs in large part because of their perfect surroundings.

Supposedly, Walt was ready to cut the now-iconic spaghetti dinner scene, concerned that the sight of two dogs wolfing down a big plate of pasta would just look ridiculous. Animator Frank Thomas fought for it, animating the whole thing by himself to prove his point. The beautifully animated scene kicks off the “Bella Notte” sequence, a lovely blend of character animation, sumptuous backgrounds and romantic details. How could anyone not fall in love to images like these?

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Their happiness is short-lived as Lady is thrown into the local dog pound, where she learns some harsh truths about her new boyfriend. Tramp gets around and everybody’s got a story to tell about his love life. By the time she gets sprung from lockup, Lady’s fed up with Tramp. He ran off and abandoned her when she was caught. Now it seems he never really cared about her at all.

But Tramp hasn’t abandoned Lady or run away. He’s completely selfish but he isn’t a coward. We’ve already seen that he’s got a soft spot for puppies and is a true and loyal friend, rescuing dogs on their way to the pound. He assumed that Lady would be fine, thanks to her get-out-of-jail-free license. As soon as she’s out, he comes by to check on her and learns that love means putting another person (or dog or, in this case, baby) ahead of your own best interests. As relationship lessons go, the ones taught by Lady And The Tramp aren’t bad.

For the voice talent, Disney cast a wider net than on other projects, recruiting a number of actors from outside the studio. Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady. It was her first role for Disney but not the last. She’d go on to voice a number of characters over the years, including Kanga in the Winnie The Pooh series. Tramp was voiced by Larry Roberts, a stage performer who never made another film. He retired from show business in the late 1950s and went into fashion design. Reliable Disney stock players Verna Felton and Bill Thompson appeared as Aunt Sarah and Jock.

Disney even brought in a pair of voice talents not typically associated with the studio. Stan Freberg was an established voice talent at Warner Bros. and on radio who was beginning to hit the big time with his own comedy records when Disney brought him in to provide the voice of the Beaver. Alan Reed was still a few years away from landing his defining role as Fred Flintstone but was a popular radio and character actor when he voiced Boris, the Russian wolfhound.

But the not-so-secret weapon of Lady And The Tramp is undoubtedly Miss Peggy Lee. Disney had never relied on celebrity voices for his cartoons but he certainly wasn’t against using them. Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone had toplined The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad and Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was modeled after radio star Ed Wynn. But Peggy Lee was in a different category when she arrived on the Disney lot.

Peggy Lee became the singer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941. Within two years, she had the number-one song in the country, the million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After she left Goodman’s group, her career really took off with huge hits like “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”. Her being asked to work on Lady And The Tramp was the 1950s equivalent of Elton John working on The Lion King or Phil Collins on Tarzan.

Peggy Lee gave the work her all. She provides the voices for four characters: Darling, the cats Si and Am and, of course, Peg the Pekingese. She even gave story notes. Trusty the bloodhound was supposed to die at the end until Peggy Lee cautioned against traumatizing a generation that was still grieving Bambi’s mom.

Album cover art for Songs From Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp by Peggy Lee

Most importantly, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on six original songs. Burke had first worked for Disney on Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom and he’d go on to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic records, including “My Way”. The songs Lee and Burke wrote for Lady And The Tramp work perfectly with Oliver Wallace’s Victorian-tinged score. The lullaby “La La Lu” bridges the gap between the eras nicely.

But the songs everyone remembers from Lady And The Tramp are distinctly modern. “Bella Notte”, “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp” are very much of their era. They help contemporize Lady And The Tramp, bringing it out of the rose-colored mists of nostalgia and into the present day. Today, it creates a feeling of double-nostalgia for both Walt’s turn-of-the-century youth and for the 1950s. It’s the same powerful feeling that accounts for the continued popularity of movies like Grease. We’re nostalgic for nostalgia itself, not for a specific era.

As for “The Siamese Cat Song”, it’s a bit lame to brush aside its casual ethnic stereotyping by saying that this is far from the worst example of it we’ll see in a Disney movie. Sure, they’re cats but there’s no missing the implications of the character design, music or voices. One can certainly understand why the song was scrapped from the recent Disney+ remake. Still…it’s a good song. The Asian pastiche is a pretty common type of popular song and this is one of the better examples of it.

Besides, it isn’t like the cats are singled out. It’s a long-standing tradition in animation that if an animal can be defined by an ethnic stereotype, it will be. Jock, the Scottish terrier, is very Scottish. Boris, the Russian wolfhound, is very Russian. Pedro, the chihuahua, is very Mexican. Of course Si and Am are going to be very “Siamese”, which is a word that people just took to mean generally Asian back in the day. At least they weren’t called “Oriental”. On our ongoing list of Outdated Tropes of the Past, “The Siamese Cat Song” doesn’t seem worth getting too worked up over.

Lady And The Tramp was not an immediate hit with critics. Many longtime Disney supporters dismissed it as sentimental and inconsequential. But audiences loved it. It quickly became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White, ending up as the sixth highest grossing film of 1955.

Lady And The Tramp didn’t exactly lend itself to Disneyland attractions or toys and games beyond the usual merchandise but its popularity earned it a spin-off comic strip. Scamp, originally written by Ward Greene and distributed by King Features, followed the adventures of Lady and the Tramp’s mischievous son for over 30 years. The strip finally ended in 1988 and Scamp returned to animated form in the 2001 direct-to-video sequel Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.

Comic book cover art for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp spin-off Scamp

Even today, Lady And The Tramp remains one of Disney’s most popular films. In 1987, the film was released on VHS for the first time and surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling videocassette of all time. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Peggy Lee, who sued Disney for royalties on the video sales. She was eventually rewarded over $2 million and the case changed entertainment copyright law forever, forcing studios and unions to grapple with new media like home entertainment.

Lady And The Tramp proved that Walt Disney didn’t need a beloved book or fairy tale to deliver a heartfelt, masterfully animated feature. The studio was more than capable of crafting their own stories. But unfortunately, it came around a little too late. Walt had almost done everything he wanted to accomplish with animation. His heart and his mind now belonged to Disneyland. The golden age of Disney animated features was coming to a close.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Cinderella

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Cinderella

The Disney Princess Collection is currently one of the most lucrative franchises in the highly lucrative Disney portfolio. There are clothes and costumes, toys and games, books and albums, dolls of every size and price-point. You can paint your walls with Disney Princess wall paint, decorate the room in Disney Princess furniture, walk down the aisle in a Disney Princess wedding dress and invite your friends to a Disney Princess-themed baby shower. After you’ve lived happily ever after, you can probably even have yourself entombed in a Disney Princess coffin just like Snow White.

(Note: To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not officially licensed the Princesses or anything else to the funerary industry but I’m sure you could find a guy.)

All told, the Disney Princess line has raked in over $45 billion. So it’s a little surprising that it took Walt Disney over a decade to figure out that that’s what audiences wanted to see. He launched his feature animation division in 1938 with the original princess, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. That movie had been a massive, blockbuster success. Nothing else he’d made in the subsequent years had even come close to repeating it. By the time Cinderella became the second Disney Princess in 1950, Walt was in desperate need of a hit.

By the late 1940s, Walt was so in debt that Cinderella came perilously close to never being made at all. After spending the better part of the decade chasing contract work and the diminishing returns of the package films, Walt was at a crossroads. His choice was to either risk a return to feature-length animation or sell the studio. According to some sources, he came very close to picking the latter option.

Even with its fairly obvious similarities to Snow White, Cinderella was by no means considered a sure thing. The story and music departments had been developing a few different projects and Walt wasn’t sure which one to prioritize. He called a studio meeting and presented two options to his employees: Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. He displayed the artwork, he played the songs, and left it up to a vote. Cinderella won. Even after all that, Walt still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. He told the Alice team to keep working, kicking off a race to see which project would finish first.

On his earlier films, Walt had been involved in every step of production, leading daily meetings and agonizing over each detail. But now, his attention was elsewhere. He was devoting more time to live-action projects like So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. And when he wasn’t on location, he was frequently at home tinkering with his latest obsession: the construction of a miniature backyard railroad. Walt had always loved trains. But to many people, it seemed that his trains were now more important to him than his cartoons.

Fortunately, Walt had left Cinderella in excellent hands. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson oversaw an all-star team of animators, including all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. The animators reportedly felt a bit creatively hamstrung by Walt’s insistence on filming live-action reference footage for virtually the entire movie. Even so, their exquisite draftsmanship shines through. The human characters are rendered even more believably and subtly than in Snow White.

Since Walt couldn’t afford to lavish the same amount of time and money on the animation, the team utilized some subtle cost-cutting methods that served the story. Cinderella’s coach seems to float on air, partly because it’s a magical night but mostly to avoid having to animate wheels. When they dance, Cinderella and Prince Charming only have eyes for each other. They’re the only people on the dance floor. That’s highly romantic, considering everyone in the kingdom has been invited to the ball. It also saves a lot of time and money if you don’t have to animate dozens of other dancers.

1973 re-release poster for Cinderella

The blend of character design and shifting perspective between the humans and the animals is absolutely seamless. The parallel world of the animals is arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to the Cinderella story. There are many, many variations on the original folk tale, spanning centuries and different cultures. But Disney is primarily jumping off from Charles Perrault’s version from 1697. Perrault added many of the elements we now associate with Cinderella, including the Fairy Godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin-coach with mice transformed into horses.

Disney took that idea and ran with it, transforming the mice (and, to a lesser extent, the other animals) into full-on supporting characters. The animals add some much needed color to what would otherwise be an unrelentingly dark story. It’s Disney who introduced the idea of the animals coming together to make Cinderella’s dress to repay her for her kindness to them. This does a couple of things. First, it tells us a lot about Cinderella’s character, her genuine kindness, and how horribly she’s been mistreated by her stepmother. Even the animals can see how hard a time she’s had.

Significantly, it also helps justify the Fairy Godmother’s gift to Cinderella. She isn’t just sitting around wishing for someone to rescue her. She wants to go to that ball and is more than willing to put in the work it takes to get there. But with her stepfamily plotting against her, her friends are there to help without her even having to ask. And after the dress is ruined, she still isn’t looking for a handout. She doesn’t even know her Fairy Godmother exists. She appears because Cinderella has earned a break.

Let’s talk for a second about that dress-ruining sequence. Lady Tremaine, perhaps the iciest and most disturbing of all Disney villains, points out her daughters’ discarded scraps in the dress and watches with a sneer as Drizella and Anastasia attack, tearing the dress to shreds. This is all done very quickly and very savagely, leaving Cinderella looking very small, alone and vulnerable. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking sequence that carries all the impact of a rape. Up until now, Drizella and Anastasia have been played primarily for laughs. Once it’s over, you feel like the entire family is in league with the devil. After all, they do have a cat named Lucifer.

Cinderella is certainly a more interesting and complex heroine than Snow White. She’s seen tragedy and faces adversity every day but still manages to look on the bright side. The key to her character comes after the ball as she’s hiding in the bushes with Bruno the dog, Major the horse and the mice. The palace guards chase off into the night but she pays them no mind. She simply thanks her Fairy Godmother for giving her such a wonderful night, expecting nothing else to come of it. Cinderella fully expects to go back to her miserable life with her stepfamily with the memory of this one night to sustain her forever.

Now, it’d be a stretch to call Disney’s Cinderella some kind of feminist role model. I do think there have been very valid feminist tellings of the Cinderella story but this isn’t necessarily one of them. But considering the era and the medium, the character is progressive enough to be considered some kind of achievement. I mean, she’s at least slightly more involved in her own rescue than some of Disney’s other heroines. If nothing else, she was smart enough to hang on to that other glass slipper.

1987 re-release poster for Cinderella

But in other respects, the film is as retrogressive as you might suspect. The whole ball is just a setup to get Prince Charming married so the King can have some grandkids to dote on. We know very little about the Prince other than he seems bored by both his princely duties and women in general. We spend more time with the Grand Duke than we do with the Prince. If we assume that “charming” is an apt description of his demeanor and not just his name, it’s only because Cinderella sure seems charmed by him.

And then of course, there’s “The Work Song”, where the female mice actively reinforce their own stereotype by insisting, “Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin’!” Hey, Jaq and Gus were just trying to help, lady. Cool your jets.

The songs in Cinderella were written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston. As a trio, they’d been responsible for the song “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, which had been a big hit in 1947. They’d repeat that trick here with “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. Lots of artists, including Perry Como and Disney vets Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, ended up having hit records with their versions of the song. It was one of three Academy Award nominations the film would receive.

Cover art for the 1950 release of Walt Disney's Cinderella Story Book Album

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lost the Best Original Song Oscar to “Mona Lisa” from the mostly forgotten Alan Ladd vehicle Captain Carey, U.S.A. That was a highly competitive category in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Seemingly every song that won is now considered a standard, even if many of the films they were originally written for have been overshadowed.

For whatever reason, Walt Disney never fully warmed up to Cinderella. He thought Cinderella’s transformation into her ball gown was one of the best individual pieces of animation his studio had ever produced. But he would also refer to the film dismissively as “just a picture”. Regardless, Cinderella turned out to be exactly the hit he needed. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a return to form. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1950 in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it was also a huge hit overseas, particularly in England and France, territories that had been closed off for years.

Without Cinderella, the Walt Disney Studios we know today wouldn’t exist. There would have been no theme parks, no TV shows. If Cinderella had bombed, Walt would have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he started the 1950s on a high note. Its success would catapult Walt Disney into one of the most productive decades of his life. But animation would play a relatively small part of that decade. His attention would be increasingly spent on new ventures like Disneyland and live-action production. Obviously he would never completely abandon cartoons. But animation was no longer his first and only priority.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Victory Through Air Power

Original theatrical release poster for Victory Through Air Power

World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.

With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?

Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.

The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.

With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.

The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.

But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.

Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.

But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.

On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.

Disney's Donald Duck enters World War II in Der Feurher's Face

Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.

Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.

VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.