When Walt Disney first started producing live action features, his favored genre was the historical adventure. This was mostly out of necessity. Since the studio was obligated to film in the United Kingdom, movies like The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue took advantage of the local scenery and talent. But swashbucklers had fallen out of favor, both at the studio and at the box office. Disney still occasionally filmed overseas but the studio hadn’t made an adventure picture since Kidnapped back in 1960.
The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released on October 1, 1966, but it’s virtually indistinguishable from those other adventure movies released over a decade earlier. Robert Westerby, the screenwriter of Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives Of Thomasina, based his script on the novel Red Hugh: Prince Of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly. Hugh O’Donnell was a real Irish nobleman who fought the British in the sixteenth century, making this very much an Irish cousin to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue.
Making his Disney debut was director Michael O’Herlihy, brother of the actor Dan O’Herlihy whom you should recognize from such films as RoboCop and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Michael O’Herlihy ended up working mostly in television, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-O, The A-Team and many others. If you watched TV at all during the 60s, 70s and 80s, you’ve seen his work. But The Fighting Prince Of Donegal kicked off a brief stint at Disney working on both television and feature productions. O’Herlihy will be back in this column.
As the movie opens, Red Hugh (Peter McEnery) receives word that his father has died, making him head of Clan O’Donnell. An old prophecy says that when Hugh succeeds Hugh, the Clans of Ireland will unite to stand against the British. This seems like a weirdly specific prophecy to me. I can imagine that the elder Hugh felt like he didn’t need to do much since the prophecy just has him waiting to die. Anyway, Red Hugh takes this all very seriously and immediately gets to work on this whole uniting the Clans business.
He first pays a visit to Lord McSweeney (Andrew Keir), a boisterous, hard-drinking man who pledges the aid of Clan McSweeney. Hugh also has his eye on McSweeney’s daughter, Kathleen (Susan Hampshire, last seen as the so-called “witch” in The Three Lives Of Thomasina). This annoys another would-be suitor, Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams), who decides to drag his feet before pledging the loyalty of Clan O’Neill. But after Hugh defeats him in an impromptu wrestling match, the two men become best of frenemies.
Before they can meet with more Clansmen, McSweeney and Hugh accept the invitation of a British merchant anchored just offshore. Once they’re on board the ship, they fall into a trap to arrest Hugh. It seems the British had heard about that prophecy too and managed to crack the code to figure out who the troublemaker was. Hugh is sent to a Dublin prison where he makes a powerful enemy in Captain Leeds (Gordon Jackson) after Leeds needlessly picks a quarterstaff fight with him and suffers a humiliating defeat in front of the other prisoners.
Sentenced to solitary confinement, Hugh escapes with the help of fellow prisoner Sean O’Toole (Donal McCann). He doesn’t get far before Leeds’ men pick him up and toss him back in. McSweeney and O’Neill attempt to buy his freedom with a treaty but Leeds rejects it and arrests O’Neill. With Hugh about to be transferred to the Tower of London, they enlist the help of a sympathetic waterboy to attempt a second escape, this time through the storm drains beneath the castle.
Leeds has had enough and decides to attack the O’Donnell castle and hold Kathleen and O’Donnell’s mother hostage. As John Belushi once pointed out, you should never mess with an Irishman’s mother. Hugh organizes the various Clans and attacks his own castle, soundly defeating the British and taking Leeds prisoner until a treaty can be ratified. The Clans are united and everyone celebrates in traditional Irish fashion, drinking a lot and fighting among themselves.
The Fighting Prince Of Donegal isn’t terrible but I definitely had a feeling of déjà vu while watching it. All of those British historical dramas started to blend together after awhile and this is very much cut from the same cloth. The fight sequences are active without ever feeling too dangerous or exciting. Everyone looks like they’re costumed for a renaissance fair and all the castles are Peter Ellenshaw matte paintings. If you’ve seen one of these swashbucklers, you really kind of have seen them all.
Maybe it would have been better if the fighting prince himself had been more inspiring. Peter McEnery made his Disney debut as Hayley Mills’ leading man in The Moon-Spinners. He was perfectly fine as a fired banker suspected of being a jewel thief. He has an everyman quality that lends itself to the light Hitchcockian thrills of The Moon-Spinners but doesn’t exactly make him a leader of men. With his shock of messy red hair, it’s kind of like trying to picture Ron Weasley in Braveheart.
This would end up being the final Disney roles for both McEnery and Susan Hampshire. Peter McEnery went on to a very distinguished career on the London stage, as well as roles in such films as Negatives and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Susan Hampshire found her greatest success on television, winning three Emmy Awards for her roles in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Vanity Fair. They’re both still with us, so there’s always a chance they could pop up in another Disney project.
The most entertaining performances come from Andrew Keir as McSweeney, Gordon Jackson as the villainous Captain Leeds, and Tom Adams as Henry O’Neill. Around the same time The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released, Adams starred as superspy Charles Vine in a trilogy of 007 knockoffs. Here, he’s saddled with an atrocious Prince Valiant wig but enough charm comes through that you can see why he’d be cast as an imitation James Bond. Tom Adams will not be back in this column. He died in 2014.
This’ll also be the last time we see Gordon Jackson, who last turned up as the farmer in Greyfriars Bobby. Like Susan Hampshire, Jackson also became a prominent TV actor. He won an Emmy for his role on Upstairs, Downstairs (which was as big as Downton Abbey in its day) and starred in the cult crime series The Professionals. Gordon Jackson passed away in 1990.
Andrew Keir also had a small role in Greyfriars Bobby. Between Disney gigs, he appeared in a number of Hammer Films. In 1967, he landed his most prominent role as Professor Bernard Quatermass in Quatermass And The Pit. He returned to the role shortly before his death on the BBC radio drama The Quatermass Memoirs. Around that same time, he also appeared in the non-Disney Rob Roy with Liam Neeson. Andrew Keir died in 1997.
The middling box office returns for The Fighting Prince Of Donegal confirmed that audiences weren’t all that interested in movies like this from Disney. So in some ways, this marks the end of an era but it’s difficult to feel too nostalgic for it. When people think of Disney movies from the 1950s and 60s, a very specific type of film comes to mind. Silly, perhaps even goofy movies with a song or three and maybe a fantasy element to it. Movies like this don’t fit that mold. It’s interesting that the studio directed so many of its resources toward serious-minded adventures rooted in history. If only they had done more to distinguish them from one another.
VERDICT: The movie’s overall been-there-done-that feeling prevents it from being a Disney Plus. Let’s put it on the high end of the Disney Minus.
Almost nobody got away with making just one movie for Walt Disney. Whether you were a newcomer like Hayley Mills or an established star like Fred MacMurray, if Walt liked you and you brought money into the studio, Walt was going to try to get you to stick around. So after Mary Poppins became Disney’s biggest hit in years, it must have irked him that Julie Andrews was suddenly too busy to make a return engagement. Her first musical after Poppins, The Sound Of Music, exploded at the box office and earned her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination. Ms. Andrews’ dance card was going to be full for the foreseeable future.
Dick Van Dyke, on the other hand, was ready, willing and able to work for Walt. Post-Poppins, he returned to his eponymous sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. But his follow-up feature, The Art Of Love co-starring James Garner (who will eventually appear in this column), failed to bring in Mary Poppins-size (or even Merlin Jones-size) numbers. So when Walt pitched him on a contemporary comic retelling of Robinson Crusoe, it’s easy to understand why Van Dyke was eager to sign up. After all, a good portion of Crusoe is essentially a one-man show.
I say Walt pitched the project to Dick Van Dyke because Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Walt’s idea in the first place. In fact, for the first and only time in his long career, Walt took a writing credit on a feature film. Sort of. For a guy who served as the face of his company, whose name was always first in the credits and most prominently featured on posters, and had already named one theme park after himself, Walt was surprisingly modest about taking specific credits. So the story for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is credited to “Retlaw Yensid”. You don’t exactly need an Enigma machine to crack that code.
Walt had Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh, the now Oscar-nominated screenwriters of Mary Poppins, flesh out his general idea into a screenplay. Odds are nobody involved spent too much time reviewing Daniel Defoe’s original novel. Apart from the name and the general premise of a castaway on a deserted island, any similarity between the book and the movie is purely coincidental.
Since this was shaping up to be a Mary Poppins reunion, you might expect director Robert Stevenson or the Sherman Brothers to be involved. But Dick Van Dyke wielded some influence of his own to get Byron Paul to direct. Paul and Van Dyke were old friends who first met in the Air Force back in the ‘40s. Since then, Paul had become Van Dyke’s manager. He’d also produced and directed a number of television productions including For The Love Of Willadean, The Tenderfoot and The Adventures Of Gallegher for Disney. Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. would be Paul’s only feature credit but he and Dick Van Dyke continued to work together in television through the 1970s.
As for the Shermans, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. has no original songs. The film’s score was written by Robert F. Brunner, a composer who Disney hired in 1964. His first full credit as composer had been That Darn Cat! Brunner will stick around this column for quite some time. It’s interesting that Robin Crusoe went songless since Van Dyke had acquitted himself quite well musically in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure if the plan was to make this a non-musical all along and therefore the Shermans’ services weren’t required or if the Shermans were busy and that’s why they decided to go the non-musical route.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe had been a young man who becomes a sea merchant against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to be a lawyer. Disney’s Crusoe (who is referred to as “Robin” exactly once…usually it’s “Rob”, probably to remind audiences of Rob Petrie, Van Dyke’s character on TV) is a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He’s on a routine mission when his plane malfunctions, forcing him to bail out somewhere over the Pacific.
With his life raft inflated, Rob takes stock of his situation by consulting the official naval guidebook Survival At Sea And Like It. In another nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show, the survival manual is read in voiceover by Richard Deacon, the manager of the drive-in in That Darn Cat! and Van Dyke’s TV costar. Rob seems to be in relatively good shape until an aggressive shark comes along and causes him to lose most of his supplies.
Days later, Rob finally washes ashore on a seemingly uninhabited island. After tending to his basic survival needs, he explores the island and discovers the wreck of a Japanese submarine. On board, he meets a fellow Navy officer and castaway: Astrochimp Floyd (played by Dinky the Chimp), whose space capsule washed ashore years earlier. Either this island is in the Bermuda Triangle or the Navy is really lax about tracking down missing personnel.
Rob and Floyd salvage a bunch of material from the sub and construct an island estate that would make the Swiss Family Robinson envious. One day while out golfing, Rob spots another set of footprints. He tracks them to a large native idol where he discovers a native girl (Nancy Kwan) praying. At first, she seems dead set on killing Rob but eventually calms down enough to explain, mostly in charades although she soon reveals that she speaks English, why she’s there. Her father, Chief Tanamashu, has sent her to be sacrificed to Kaboona, the big idol, because she refuses to submit to an arranged marriage. Rob agrees that women should have the right to marry whomever they please. He apparently does not believe that women have the right to keep their given names because he decides to call her Wednesday. Of course.
Before long, Wednesday’s sisters and cousins turn up, more potential sacrifices to Kaboona. Wednesday wants to fight back and she convinces Rob to train them into a giggly military unit. When Rob finds out that Tanamashu claims that only he can hear the voice of Kaboona, he comes up with a plan to outwit the primitive natives by booby trapping parts of the island and rigging up the idol with lights and a sound system off the submarine.
Tanamashu and his men arrive and while the plan doesn’t go off without a hitch, Rob and the girls still manage to win the day. At the celebratory feast, Wednesday asks Rob to dance. Tanamashu thinks this is hilarious because she’s tricked him into performing a ceremonial wedding dance. (“Tanamashu not lose daughter! Tanamashu gain wise guy son!”) Rob runs for his life and spots a passing Navy helicopter just in the nick of time. They airlift Rob and Floyd off the island to safety and a gala reception on an aircraft carrier. For Floyd. It seems that nobody even noticed Rob was missing.
So yeah, Cast Away this ain’t. In fact, it frequently struggles to rise to the level of Gilligan’s Island. Dick Van Dyke is a very gifted and funny performer but this is not the showcase he was hoping it would be. Rather than traditional voice-over narration, the story is told through Rob’s letters back to his fiancée. Which is fine, except that…Van Dyke…reads them…very…slowly…so we…can…understand…that…he is…writing. Honestly, if he just read the letters in a normal cadence, it would probably shave five minutes off this unnecessarily long movie.
Van Dyke has a real gift for physical comedy and you’d think that’s where this movie would shine. But for the first 20 or 30 minutes, he’s either trapped in the cockpit of a plane or stuck splashing around on a rubber life raft. There’s only so much you can do under those conditions. Things don’t improve much on land. The slapstick is either too restrained or too unimaginative. DaGradi and Walsh call on their animation background a bit in the grand finale but not enough.
Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Nancy Kwan’s first and only Disney movie. Kwan shot to stardom as the title character in The World Of Suzie Wong. That role got her a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer, an award she shared with Hayley Mills for Pollyanna. She followed that up with the even more popular Flower Drum Song. But by the time Disney came along, she’d already begun having a hard time finding roles in American movies. As the years went on, she’d make more and more films in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong.
If Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is indicative of the kinds of roles Kwan was being offered, no wonder she went abroad. This is one of those only-in-the-60s movies that thinks it’s making a stand for equal rights by arguing against arranged marriage while accepting marriage as a woman’s natural, inevitable fate. Wednesday and the rest of her sister cousins don’t really want any other rights. They ask to be trained but spend most of their time giggling and serving fruit to Rob (or, as they call him, “Admiral Honey”). As soon as Rob rejects her, Wednesday is out for blood, leading an angry mob of women and throwing spears. It’s dispiriting to see someone as vibrant as Nancy Kwan stuck in a movie like this. She’s a fascinating person and a genuine trailblazer for Asian performers in Hollywood’s modern era. She deserves better.
Wednesday’s father, Chief Tanamashu, is played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor who is decidedly not Asian. Tamiroff was an Armenian actor who emigrated to America from Russia in 1927. He’d worked steadily in Hollywood since the 1930s, earning two Oscar nominations and working with such greats as Preston Sturges and Orson Welles. This would be Tamiroff’s only Disney appearance and he goes waaaaay over the top with it. His performance could almost be considered offensive if it was more specific. As it is, there’s no real way of telling what exactly he thinks he’s doing. He’s certainly not trying to do an impression of a stereotypical Chinese or Japanese or even Polynesian accent. It’s just his own goofy voice delivering a lot of pidgin English gobbledygook. Some of it’s a little amusing but a little goes a long way.
Even though nothing about this movie seems particularly special, Walt Disney had a lot of confidence in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. It was positioned as the studio’s big summer release of 1966, opening just a few weeks after The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its final episode on June 1. The studio held a gala premiere on board the USS Kitty Hawk in San Diego, the same aircraft carrier featured in the film, attended by such Disney all-stars as Fred MacMurray, Annette Funicello, Dean Jones and, of course, Dick Van Dyke. Most critics rolled their eyes at the movie but audiences turned it into a decent-sized hit. It was no Mary Poppins. Few movies were. But it did well enough to get a theatrical re-release in 1974.
Today, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is a footnote in Disney history, a fate it more than deserves. This is just not a good movie. At nearly two hours, it’s a real drag that quickly overstays its welcome. It borrows less from Robinson Crusoe than from Swiss Family Robinson but with less excitement and fewer laughs. Even Dick Van Dyke’s drunk scene falls flat. If you can’t milk a couple of chuckles out of a drunk Dick Van Dyke and a chimpanzee, you’ve got serious problems. Nevertheless, Dick Van Dyke will be back in this column. As will the chimpanzee, for that matter.
When Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles on August 27, 1964, Walt Disney was riding high on some of the most enthusiastic reactions of his career. The only trouble was they weren’t for his films. On April 22, the New York World’s Fair opened and four Disney exhibits quickly became must-sees for every visitor: Carousel Of Progress, Ford’s Magic Skyway, it’s a small world, and Walt’s passion project and personal favorite, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. These were groundbreaking feats of engineering and entertainment. The Audio-Animatronics developed by WED Enterprises’ team of “Imagineers” were the toast of the fair. As the first fair season came to a close in October, almost five million guests had visited the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion to get the song “It’s A Small World (After All)” stuck in their heads.
But back in Hollywood, the name “Walt Disney” had lost a little bit of its magic. Sure, people were still buying merchandise, watching the TV show and visiting Disneyland. But the studio barely made cartoons anymore. Their last animated feature, The Sword In The Stone, was noticeably different from earlier classics in both style and tone and the response to it had been lukewarm. And while the studio was still capable of putting out a sizable hit, they weren’t exactly the kinds of movies that brought invitations to the Academy Awards. Walt certainly wasn’t embarrassed by movies like Son Of Flubber or The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones. But even though audiences ate them up, they weren’t quite what Walt had in mind when he branched out into live-action.
The one movie that he had wanted to make for years was an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. It had been a particular favorite of Walt’s daughters. He first tried to obtain the rights back in 1938 as part of his post-Snow White shopping spree, only to be turned down flat by Mrs. Travers. But Walt Disney was nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After years of flattery and cajoling (and presumably an increased need for cash on Mrs. Travers’ side), he finally got her to say yes.
The behind-the-scenes drama between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is legendary, so much so that the studio made a whole self-mythologizing movie about it that will eventually appear in this column. Suffice it to say for now that Travers disagreed with almost every choice Walt and his team made, from the cast to the music to the animation. Especially the animation. P.L. Travers lived to be 96 years old, dying in 1996, and while she had come to terms with some parts of the film, she still hated cartoons.
Travers’ disapproval had to sting a little bit since Walt really had assigned his best people to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Co-producer and co-writer Bill Walsh had been responsible for some of the studio’s biggest recent hits, including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Co-writer Don DaGradi came from the animation side. He’d been a background and layout artist, an art director and a story man on a long list of Disney projects from Dumbo to Sleeping Beauty. He crossed over to live-action in 1959, first consulting on special sequences for films like Darby O’Gill And The Little People and The Parent Trap before moving on to cowrite Son Of Flubber with Walsh. They made a good team with DaGradi’s visual sense complimenting Walsh’s way with words.
Robert Stevenson had become one of Walt’s most reliable directors since joining the studio on Johnny Tremain. He’d been responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Old Yeller and the Flubber pictures. He was also adept with visual effects, as evidenced by his work on Darby O’Gill And The Little People. He’d never directed a musical before. But Walt hired the then-married choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to handle the dance sequences and had the Sherman Brothers in charge of the songs, so the music was in good hands.
Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, had been on the Disney payroll since around 1960. Walt met them through their association with Annette Funicello, whom they’d written several songs for. Since then, they’d written plenty of tunes, mostly title songs and incidental tracks designed to bridge scenes in movies like The Parent Trap or In Search Of The Castaways. But so far, their best public showcase had been the World’s Fair. Songs like “It’s A Small World (After All)” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” were simple, catchy earworms that have had a global reach that boggles the mind. Even so, they hadn’t had much of a chance to show what they could do on a bigger canvas.
The closest the Shermans had come to writing full-on musicals had been Summer Magic and The Sword In The Stone, neither of which really captured them at their best. None of the songs in Summer Magic were staged as production numbers. They were just songs to sing around a piano or on the porch between dialogue scenes. The Sword In The Stone came a bit closer but these were mostly tuneless, rhythm-based character songs. An audience couldn’t really sing along to them very well, much less hum or whistle them. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for its music. But that went to George Bruns’ score, not to the Sherman Brothers’ songs.
But the Shermans had been working on Mary Poppins pretty much from the beginning of their association with the studio. Walt finally secured the rights to the book right around the same time he met Robert and Richard. They were two of the first people he brought on board and they were very important in shaping the finished film. The Sherman Brothers knew this was a huge opportunity and they made the most of it.
The cast was a good blend of Disney newcomers and returning veterans. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber may have been a bit young to be considered “veterans”. But their performances in The Three Lives Of Thomasina impressed Walt enough to cast them in the key roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Glynis Johns, who had co-starred in two of Disney’s early British productions, The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, returned to the studio as Banks matriarch and suffragette Winifred Banks. And Disney stalwart Ed Wynn was given the role he was born to play, Uncle Albert, an eccentric kook whose uncontrollable fits of laughter sends him floating to the ceiling.
Walt couldn’t have found an actor more ideally suited to the role of the repressed, emotionally withholding George Banks than David Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a consummate professional who’d been acting in British films and on stage since the early 1940s, interrupted only by his RAF service during World War II. He was the very image of a British gentleman and he’d toy with that stereotype throughout his career.
Dick Van Dyke was a somewhat more unconventional choice to play Bert, the cockney jack-of-all-trades. Van Dyke was a newly minted TV star thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show but was relatively untested in films. The fact that the Missouri-born entertainer was distinctly not British did not seem to be a concern. Despite what Van Dyke himself would later refer to as “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”, the movie serves as a terrific showcase for his talents as a song-and-dance man and a physical comedian. Those skills are underlined with Van Dyke’s virtually unrecognizable second role as the elderly Mr. Dawes. Revealing the gag in the end credits by unscrambling the name “Navckid Keyd” is a nice touch.
Of course, the most iconic bit of casting in the film is Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins herself. Andrews had been a sensation on London’s West End and Broadway in such shows as The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Jack Warner had bought the film rights to My Fair Lady and a lot of folks, including Andrews herself, were hoping she’d make her film debut as Eliza Doolittle. Warner had other ideas. He wanted a bankable star in the picture, so he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. Andrews was pregnant when Walt first offered her the part of Mary Poppins. She turned him down but Walt promised to hold off on production until she was ready.
He was right to wait. Julie Andrews delivers a performance for the ages that seems effortless but is very much not. On paper, the character seems impossible to play. She’s magical but prim and proper. She’s warm and loving but not outwardly demonstrative. I don’t think she even gives anyone so much as a hug once in the entire picture. She’s also a world-champion gaslighter, constantly telling the children she has no idea about the magical adventure she just made happen.
Mary Poppins’ magic all comes from the inside out. It’s seen in the twinkle of Andrews’ eyes, the playful smile that only occasionally breaks into a dazzling display of teeth, and her matter-of-fact body language even as she’s literally walking on air. This performance defines Mary Poppins in the popular imagination. Other actresses have played the role on stage and Emily Blunt starred in the belated sequel that I suppose we’ll have to talk about in this column eventually. But they’re all filtering their performance through Andrews’ work here. Not only does the work defy anyone else’s attempt to put their own spin on it, most audiences don’t want to see another spin on it. The measure of success is how closely you can come to replicating the original.
In supporting roles, Walt recruited a parade of venerable character actors. Former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester pops in briefly as the last in the Banks’ long line of ex-nannies. Reginald Owen, who had played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Ebenezer Scrooge, is great fun as the Banks’ neighbor, Admiral Boom. Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, makes what would be her final film appearance as The Bird Woman. And if you know where to look, you can spot several Disney voice actors in the cast, including Don Barclay (as Admiral Boom’s first mate, Mr. Binnacle), Marjorie Bennett (as the owner of Andrew the dog) and Cruella de Vil herself, Betty Lou Gerson (as the creepy old lady who scares the hell out of the kids after they run away from the bank).
I was never a big fan of Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was a pleasant surprise to revisit it and find that I had severely underrated it. The Sherman Brothers are clearly the MVPs here. As a musical, Mary Poppins holds its own with anything that was on Broadway at the time, including My Fair Lady. The Shermans won Oscars for both Best Substantially Original Score (beating out Henry Mancini’s equally iconic The Pink Panther) and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. It’s interesting the Academy chose to honor that one since nearly every song has gone on to become a classic. The titles alone will get the songs playing in your head: “A Spoonful Of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (and yes, I copied and pasted that title).
In addition, Mary Poppins looks and feels like a big-screen movie. So many of Walt’s live-action films, especially from the 60s, look right at home on TV. In the 50s, Walt could get away with releasing made-for-TV productions theatrically because his production values were higher than normal for television. But as other studios made their movies bigger to compete with TV, Disney’s mostly stayed where they were. Mary Poppins was the exception. The sets, the costumes, the gorgeous matte paintings and other visual tricks were all state-of-the-art.
As enchanting as it is, Mary Poppins is not practically perfect in every way. P.L. Travers’ complaint about the animation isn’t wholly off-base. This was certainly Walt’s most ambitious blend of live-action and animation since Song Of The South. Technically, it’s extremely impressive and often lovely. It also goes on forever. They could have lost about half of it and no one would have been the wiser.
The “Jolly Holiday” song that takes up the first half of the sequence is one of the few times the narrative loses sight of the Banks family. Jane and Michael run off to explore the cartoon world while Bert serenades Mary Poppins and dances with some penguin waiters. A little goes a long way, especially since this doesn’t do anything to advance the story. Whatever weird past and/or present relationship Bert and Mary may or may not have had remains just as much a mystery. By the end of it, we haven’t learned a single new thing about either of these characters.
Overlength is probably the single biggest problem that plagues the film in general. Almost every scene, no matter how enjoyable, could probably be trimmed. “Step In Time” is an awesome production number but it feels like it’s never going to stop. I love the song “Stay Awake”, but the movie probably didn’t need two lullabies. And since “Feed The Birds” is a richer, more resonant song, “Stay Awake” feels like filler in comparison.
If critics or audiences shared these concerns back in 1964, they didn’t seem to care all that much. The press went nuts over Mary Poppins, praising it as Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Audiences adored it. Walt may have suspected he had a hit but even he had to be surprised at how big a hit it became. Not only did Mary Poppins become the highest-grossing film of 1964, it became the Disney studio’s biggest moneymaker ever.
When Academy Award nominations were announced on February 23, 1964, Mary Poppins led the pack with 13 including Best Picture, a first for any Walt Disney feature. The ceremony pitted Mary Poppins against My Fair Lady and, in many ways, Jack Warner’s film came out on top. In most categories where the two films went head-to-head, My Fair Lady won (one exception being Best Adapted Screenplay, which both lost to Becket). But Mary Poppins still took home five trophies including two for the Sherman Brothers’ music, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing (the one category where Mary Poppins triumphed over My Fair Lady).
The sweetest victory had to have been Julie Andrews’ win for Best Actress. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady, leaving Andrews to take home an Oscar for her very first film. A few weeks earlier, Andrews had been in direct competition with Hepburn and won at the Golden Globes. Accepting her award, Andrews cheekily thanked Jack Warner “for making all this possible”.
Mary Poppins must have been a pleasant experience for everyone involved, since nearly everyone in front of or behind the camera will be back in this column sooner or later. That includes Julie Andrews, although it’ll be quite some time before she returns. She’d go on to additional Oscar nominations (for The Sound Of Music and Victor/Victoria), a storied career on film, TV and stage, and a long marriage to filmmaker Blake Edwards. In 1981, she parodied her Disney image with a role in Edwards’ hilarious and tragically underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B. The next time we see Julie Andrews in this column, she’ll be Dame Julie Andrews, DBE.
Decades later, Mary Poppins has emerged as an enduring classic and one of Disney’s crown jewels. After its release, Walt would focus his attention on other projects, notably the ongoing work of his Imagineers and what would eventually become Walt Disney World. He’d be less hands-on with film, animation and TV production, with only a few projects capturing his imagination. And perhaps that’s understandable. Mary Poppins was the culmination of his life’s work, a magically entertaining synthesis of everything he’d learned about animation, storytelling and live-action filmmaking. After this, Walt Disney had nothing left to prove.
In 1962, Hayley Mills was on top of the world. Her first two Disney films, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, had been huge hits. The latter movie even netted her a hit single, “Let’s Get Together” by the Sherman Brothers. After The Parent Trap, Disney allowed her to return to England to make Whistle Down The Wind, based on a novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell. Whistle Down The Wind was another hit and Mills scored a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress. Stanley Kubrick offered her the title role in Lolita but her father, John Mills, nixed that idea. Walt himself probably also played a part in keeping Hayley out of Kubrick’s film. After all, his contract players were typically kept on a very short leash.
Hayley Mills was by far the most bankable box office star Walt had ever had under contract. Up to this point, his biggest live-action hit had been his 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. So it isn’t difficult to piece together how In Search Of The Castaways came about. The combination of Hayley Mills with the spectacle of another Jules Verne fantasy adventure must have seemed like a license to print money.
Associate producer Hugh Attwooll had a somewhat unusual arrangement with Disney. He’d been working in the British film industry since he was a teenager, steadily working his way up through the ranks. His career was briefly interrupted by World War II and he spent a little while in Hollywood, working mostly for RKO, before heading back to England and Pinewood Studios. In 1959, Disney hired him to work on Kidnapped, beginning a long association with the studio. But unlike most other Disney crew members, Attwooll was never under contract. The studio simply liked his work and continued to hire him to as a producer for nearly everything they shot in England. His final credit was 1981’s Condorman, so we’ll be seeing a lot more from Hugh Attwooll.
Walt ran into a couple of small hiccups when it came to casting the film. He wanted Hayley Mills’ younger brother, Jonathan, to play her on-screen brother. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the time off school and wasn’t able to follow in his sister’s footsteps. The role instead went to Keith Hamshere, who was then appearing on the West End in the musical Oliver!
In Search Of The Castaways ended up being Hamshere’s only big movie role but it was still a formative experience for him. At the time, he was interested in photography as a hobby and spent much of his downtime hanging out with the film’s stills photographer, John Jay. Jay encouraged Hamshere’s passion and gave him lessons. A few years later, Jay hired Hamshere to work as his assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (a surprising number of Kubrick connections to this movie). After that, Hamshere had a new career. He went on to become a much-celebrated stills photographer in his own right, working behind-the-scenes on such films as Barry Lyndon, Superman II, and a whole bunch of James Bond movies. He makes a cameo in License To Kill as, what else, a wedding photographer.
Walt also cast Charles Laughton as Lord Glenarvan, the shipping magnate who leads the titular search. But Laughton was forced to drop out of the picture after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on December 15, 1962, just a few days before In Search Of The Castaways had its American premiere. Laughton was replaced by Wilfrid Hyde-White, the delightful British character actor.
The other two marquee names in the cast were Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders. Chevalier started his career in Parisian music halls before coming to America in the 1920s. He was a huge star in Hollywood throughout the 30s before a contract dispute sent him back to France. He had only recently begun making American films again with a role in Billy Wilder’s Love In The Afternoon in 1957. He followed that up with Gigi, an enormous hit and winner of multiple Oscars including Best Picture. In Search Of The Castaways would be his first collaboration with Disney but not his last. He’ll be back.
So will George Sanders, the great Oscar-winning star of All About Eve. Sanders was one of those rare actors who moved effortlessly between leading roles and supporting character parts. Sanders’ career (and life) had some tumultuous ups and downs but in 1962, he was still doing reasonably well. Two years earlier, he’d played the lead in Village Of The Damned, a low-budget horror movie that seemed to surprise everyone by becoming a sleeper hit. Between Village and Castaways, Sanders appeared in four more films and a few TV episodes, so he was certainly busy.
Our story opens in 1858 Glasgow as Mary and Robert Grant (Mills and Hamshere) along with eccentric Professor Paganel (Chevalier) attempt to crash a bon voyage party hosted by Lord Glenarvan. Mary and Robert’s father vanished without a trace when his ship, one of Glenarvan’s fleet, went down. But Paganel recently found a bottle with a note in it that appears to have been written by Captain Grant. It isn’t entirely legible but Paganel and the kids believe it contains enough clues to be track Grant’s location.
At first, Glenarvan refuses to believe any of it. But his son, John (played by Michael Anderson Jr., the son of director Michael Anderson, who had himself filmed a Jules Verne adaptation, Around The World In 80 Days), started crushing on Mary the second he laid eyes on her. He persuades his father to mount an expedition. After some deliberation, Paganel decides that Grant’s most likely location is South America.
Up to this point, director Robert Stevenson has been setting us up for a relatively straight-forward adventure like Swiss Family Robinson. But once the searchers arrive in South America, Stevenson changes course and steers his ship toward Wackytown. The adventurers spend the night high up on a mountain in an area prone to earthquakes. When the quake hits, their rock shelf splits off, sending them careening down the mountainside and through a spectacular ice cavern on a stone toboggan. At the end of the ride, a giant condor appears and plucks Robert out of the snow, carrying him off to his aerie. Things look grim for Robert until a well-placed shot from a passing Indian, Chief Thalcave (Antonio Cifariello, continuing the tradition of Italians passing for Indians), rescues the lad.
Thalcave says he knows where the castaways are being held prisoner and agrees to lead the group. But before they get there, they decide to camp for the night by an enormous tree in a flood plain (these folks don’t use the best judgment when selecting campsites). Sure enough, a tidal wave floods the area, stranding the adventurers in the tree. Thalcave goes for help. While they’re awaiting rescue, a jaguar arrives to menace the group and a lightning storm threatens to burn down the tree.
They are eventually rescued by Thalcave but when they arrive at the village, it turns out that these aren’t the men they’re looking for. Paganel finally admits he was wrong about South America. They should be looking in Australia, which was where Lord Glenarvan wanted to go in the first place. So this entire trip (and basically the whole first half of the movie) has been a complete waste of time.
Off they go to Australia, where they encounter Thomas Ayerton (Sanders), who also claims to know where Grant’s ship went down off the coast of New Zealand. Turns out that Ayerton is actually a gunrunner. He and his men took over Grant’s ship, setting him adrift, and now intends to do the same thing to Glenarvan and his crew.
Glenarvan and company reach shore where they’re promptly taken prisoner by a tribe of Maori cannibals. They’re thrown into a hut with Bill Gaye (Wilfrid Brambell, best known, depending on where you’re from, as either Steptoe on the long-running British sitcom Steptoe And Son or as Paul McCartney’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night). Bill Gaye was a shipmate of Captain Grant and has been planning to escape and rejoin him. But his plan depends on squeezing through a small window, just big enough for a boy Robert’s size.
They manage to escape the Maori, losing them by hotfooting it across an active volcano. Finally, they find Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim, who will always be Poseidon from Clash Of The Titans to me) dealing with the treacherous Ayerton. With Glenarvan’s ship left relatively unguarded, they recapture the vessel and rescue Captain Grant. All’s well that ends well.
If Walt’s goal was to recapture the magic of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he didn’t quite succeed. This is an unrepentantly goofy and amiable film. It doesn’t have a strong presence like James Mason at its center. The action sequences are treated with all the gravity and realism of a Donald Duck cartoon. The songs by the Sherman Brothers are silly little tunes with little to no bearing on what’s actually happening on screen. But if you can get on the movie’s wavelength, it offers some minor pleasures.
The cast certainly appears to be having a good time. Chevalier and Hyde-White are both a lot of fun, reacting to various life-or-death perils as if they’re minor inconveniences. Hayley Mills continues to be a charming screen presence. If she fails to generate many sparks with her romantic lead, that can probably be forgiven considering she was all of 15 or 16 years old at the time. And Keith Hamshere manages to avoid the Kevin Corcoran trap of overly precocious child actors.
The movie’s light touch works against it in some ways. It’s hard to become too invested in the search when every character sings a jaunty song in the face of mortal danger. And the midway revelation that they’ve been looking in the wrong place elicits groans more than anything else. It’s easy for the audience to check out at this point. If nothing we’ve seen so far has actually mattered, why should we expect that to change in the second half?
The film also borrows liberally from other Disney films. The search for castaways feels like it could be the flip side to Swiss Family Robinson. The oversized bird that captures Robert feels like an attempt to outdo some of the giant creatures from 20,000 Leagues. And the third act appearance of Bill Gaye brings to mind Treasure Island’s Ben Gunn, another long-haired, half-crazed sailor. They even have the same initials. But despite the film’s many flaws, it’s a hard movie to dislike. It coasts by on charm and spectacle, even as you find yourself rolling your eyes at some of its more unbelievable aspects.
In Search Of The Castaways was Disney’s big Christmas release for 1962. Critics weren’t exactly rapturous in their praise but most admitted that it was harmless fun, if nothing else. Audiences, on the other hand, seemed to love it. It became one of the highest-grossing films of the year in both the US and the UK. Hayley Mills’ winning streak wasn’t over yet. Neither was Robert Stevenson’s. He’ll be back in this column almost immediately.
VERDICT: I had enough fun with it to make it a minor Disney Plus.
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.
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.
By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.
Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.
As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.
The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.
None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.
Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.
Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.
Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.
If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.
Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.
Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.
When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.
Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.
Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.
Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.
As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.
When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.
Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.
Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.
Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.
For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.
The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.
The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?
The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.
Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.
Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.
If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.
Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.
The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.
Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.
Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.
This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.
Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.
With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.
Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.
But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.
Walt Disney LOVED trains. Model trains, full-size trains, animated trains, historic trains, experimental trains, you name it. If it ran on a rail, he was all over it. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a film based on one of the most famous railroad-related incidents of the Civil War, it not all time. The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the 1862 theft of a Confederate train by Union spies, briefly reignited Walt’s interest in filmmaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the thrilling passion project it should have been.
Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s British films from Treasure Island to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, had very much remained a part of the studio since the UK division folded. Watkin not only wrote the screenplay for The Great Locomotive Chase, he also served as producer for the first and only time in his career. Producing might not have been his forte but he continued to write for Disney for many years.
Watkin’s 1942 novel Marty Markham had provided the basis for the wildly popular Spin And Marty segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. One of the primary directors on that show was a former editor named Francis D. Lyon. Lyon had won an Oscar as one of the editors on the classic boxing film noir Body And Soul. His first two films as director, Crazylegs and The Bob Mathias Story, had both been sports biopics that starred their subjects as themselves. Having cornered the market on that very specific subgenre, Lyon signed on to The Adventures Of Spin And Marty.
Spin And Marty became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, almost rivalling Davy Crockett. Considering the success Disney had repackaging other TV productions for theatrical exhibition, I’m a little surprised that Spin And Marty won’t be appearing in this column (although its stars, Tim Considine, David Stollery and second season addition Annette Funicello, certainly will). Regardless, teaming up the director and the original creator of Spin And Marty on a project must have been a no-brainer.
The choice of who to star in the film was even more obvious. Davy Crockett had turned Fess Parker into an international star. Naturally, Disney had placed Parker under contract and now had to generate projects for him to appear in. The role of James J. Andrews, the civilian Union spy from Kentucky who led the mission, was squarely within Parker’s wheelhouse. Andrews may have had a nicer wardrobe but he was still very much a Crockett type.
Jeffrey Hunter was cast opposite Parker as the persistent train conductor William Fuller. Today, Hunter is probably best remembered among geeks of a certain age as Captain Pike in the original pilot for Star Trek. Back then, Hunter had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. He had appeared in movies like Red Skies Of Montana and Belles On Their Toes but efforts to turn him into a major star hadn’t really clicked. That started to change after John Ford cast him opposite John Wayne in The Searchers, which was released just a few weeks before The Great Locomotive Chase.
Ironically, Ford’s first choice for the part had been none other than Fess Parker. Parker wanted the role badly but Disney refused to let him out of his contract. Hunter later said he didn’t know anything about all that until years after the fact, while Parker said losing the part was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. This would end up being one of several incidents that ended up creating a rift between Fess Parker and Walt Disney.
The rest of the cast was filled out with character actors who would go on to have long associations with the studio. Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey and Don Megowan had all appeared alongside Parker on Davy Crockett. Harry Carey Jr. starred as Triple R Ranch counselor Bill Burnett on Spin And Marty. John Lupton, who narrates the film as Union soldier and chronicler William Pittenger, would later appear in several Disney film and TV productions of the ‘70s. Even the great Slim Pickens pops up briefly as the engineer of the train Fuller commandeers. All of these actors will appear in this column again.
This would be Disney’s first time bringing American history to the big screen (Davy Crockett, of course, having been originally made for television) and Walt was prepared to spare no expense. Peter Ellenshaw again painted meticulous mattes that brought the past to life. Walt himself made sure to guarantee the historical accuracy of the locomotives, working personally with the B&O Railroad Museum to secure period-appropriate trains. Watkin based his screenplay primarily on the account written by Pittenger himself. Artist and historian Wilbur Kurtz was brought on board as a technical advisor, a job he’d previously performed on both Gone With The Wind and Song Of The South. The location chosen was along the disused Tallulah Falls Railway in north Georgia, not too far from where the actual event took place.
All of this research may have resulted in a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events, although Watkin’s script absolutely takes some liberties. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a particularly exciting movie. Trains are wonderful, beautiful pieces of machinery. I’m a huge fan of them myself. But they aren’t very fast. Back then, they topped out around 20 miles per hour. Andrews’ train wasn’t going nearly that fast because they kept stopping to cut telegraph wires, tear up rails and perform other acts of sabotage. When Fuller first takes off in pursuit of the train on foot, it seems at first as though the movie’s entire chase might be a foot race.
The movie seems to be told in increments of 10-15 miles. Andrews’ train gets a little ahead, then stops. Fuller catches up a little bit, deals with whatever shenanigans Andrews has prepared for him, then inches forward again. Every so often, one of Andrews’ more aggressive men will spoil for a fight, only to have Andrews talk him off the ledge. For an ostensible action movie, it’s all very leisurely.
Finally, Fuller succeeds in catching up to his stolen train and Andrews agrees that it’s time to make their stand and fight. But no sooner has he made this declaration than the Cavalry rides in, hoopin’ and hollarin’! Hopelessly outnumbered, Andrews and his men head for the hills, abandoning the train and their mission. The big fight is over before it’s even underway and the whole mission has been for nothing. If you’ve ever been uncertain about what the term “anticlimactic” means, watch this movie. All will be made clear.
Andrews and his men are eventually captured and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Pittenger comes up with a daring escape plan. The plan works but Andrews sacrifices himself, allowing himself to be recaptured so the rest can get away. In the end, only about half the men make it back to safety, where they become the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The problem here is that the story is being presented as one of great heroics and honor, when it’s really one of defeat and failure. It’s an interesting story but the movie isn’t equipped to frame it in a way that makes sense. Half our heroes are executed and their plan fails but somehow that’s still a triumphant ending? The only winner here is Fuller. He, at least, gets to shake hands with his nemesis in the end and assure him that he was a worthy and honorable opponent. The movie really should have been about him.
Of course, that movie had already been made thirty years earlier. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General was inspired by the exact same incident. Only in this version, Keaton plays the Fuller character (here named Johnnie Gray), the tireless, persistent Southern engineer who pursues his stolen locomotive regardless of whatever obstacle is thrown at him. In terms of historical accuracy, it has relatively little to do with the actual event. But as a movie, it’s a whole lot more fun to watch.
As a comedy, The General is able to make the Union spies the bad guys without anyone raising an eyebrow. The Great Locomotive Chase might be on the right side of history but it’s telling a story where the good guys lose. And yes, this is a very homogenized look at the Civil War that reduces the players to Good Guys and Bad Guys. Don’t look for any larger explorations of the issues surrounding the war here.
On the plus side, that also makes the film relatively inoffensive. African-American characters are mostly absent. Sure, you could choose to be offended by the fact that they somehow made a movie that takes place in Georgia during the Civil War with only three, mostly non-speaking Black characters. But considering Hollywood’s track record with situations like this, silence is probably golden.
The Great Locomotive Chase only did so-so business when it was released in the summer of 1956. But it ended up playing a small role in another landmark event in Walt’s life. Walt’s adopted hometown of Marceline, Missouri, contacted him that year. The city was preparing to open a new municipal swimming pool and wanted to dedicate it to Marceline’s favorite son. Walt and his brother, Roy, agreed to return to their childhood home for a homecoming visit that summer. One of the planned events would be the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase.
If you’ve seen footage or photos of Walt and Roy strolling around Marceline while reminiscing, it most likely came from this trip. This visit became a key part of the myth-making around Walt Disney’s boyhood. The idealized nostalgia of Disneyland’s Main Street USA and films like So Dear To My Heart and Lady And The Tramp now had a basis in reality. Walt would continue to put Marceline up on a pedestal for the rest of his days. It came to represent everything that was good and pure and true about America.
Also on this visit, Walt began making inquiries into buying the old farm where he and his family had lived. He was envisioning another theme park, one that would transport visitors back to a quieter, more idyllic time. Dubbed The Marceline Project for security reasons (Walt knew that property values would skyrocket the second people discovered Disney was coming to town), it was meant to be an actual working farm with living history exhibits and attractions designed by the Disney Imagineers.
Walt’s death in 1966 brought an end to The Marceline Project. Walt had hoped Roy would bring the new park to fruition but by this time, he was completely absorbed in the construction of Walt Disney World, the Disneyland companion park in Florida.
Still, the Disney connection has provided a big boost to the Marceline Chamber of Commerce. At the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase, Walt told the audience of children, “You are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.” Any town would be thrilled to ride the coattails of a quote like that for generations and Marceline has certainly done just that. In 2001, the town opened the Walt Disney Hometown Museum to celebrate Walt’s centennial year.
As for the movie itself, nobody really talks much about The Great Locomotive Chase anymore. It isn’t available on Disney+ and has not yet been released on Blu-ray. The city of Adairsville, Georgia, holds an annual Great Locomotive Chase Festival the first weekend in October (unfortunately cancelled this year, due to COVID) to commemorate the actual event. I’ve never been but I’m guessing that if any movies are included in their festivities, it’s Buster Keaton’s The General and not this one.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.
In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.
It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.
Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.
To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.
Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.
Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.
As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.
Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.
Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.
Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.
Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.
The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.
But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.
Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.
Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.
Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.
Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.
When Walt Disney turned to live-action film production in the early 1950s, he had a very good reason for focusing on costume dramas. He was an avid history buff but that was only part of it. Walt was a forward-thinking entrepreneur and knew that historical epics would have a longer shelf life than films set in contemporary times. Movies like Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood could be re-released again and again, just like his animated features.
On paper, the decision to make a film based on the legend of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor makes a lot of sense. But Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue turned out to be another disappointment and marked the end of Walt’s commitment to big-budget historical dramas.
Walt must have felt that the tale of Rob Roy MacGregor had the potential to be another Robin Hood. Both were outlaws fighting against a tyrannical oppressor. Even better, the Rob Roy story was much less familiar to American audiences, so there weren’t countless other versions to compare it to. There had only been one prior film version, a British silent picture from 1922 that most likely didn’t get much play in the US. Stateside, the Rob Roy cocktail was probably better known than MacGregor.
Producer Perce Pearce’s British production team remained mostly intact from The Story Of Robin Hood and The Sword And The Rose. Lawrence Edward Watkin again wrote the script. Guy Green, the director of photography on Robin Hood, returned to that role. The four stars of The Sword And The Rose, Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough, were cast in roughly equivalent roles here.
Pearce and Disney had hoped to get Ken Annakin back to direct. But Annakin was under contract to the Rank Organisation, who refused to lend him out for a third time. (He will eventually return to this column.) In his place, Disney hired Harold French. Both French and Annakin had directed segments in the popular anthology films Quartet and Trio, based on the work of W. Somerset Maugham.
The story begins with events already in motion. Rob Roy (Todd) leads an attack of freedom-fighting Highlanders against the Redcoat forces of King George. The specific reasons behind all this remain murky, so I’d recommend doing some independent research on the Jacobite uprising of 1715 if you’re interested. The important thing is that Rob is arrested and we discover that the King’s Secretary of State, the Duke of Argyll (James Robertson Justice) is related to Rob Roy and sympathetic to his cause. The scheming Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) is very much not.
Montrose wants Rob sent to London to stand trial. Argyll finally concedes to this arrangement but not before helping to hatch a plan to spring Rob on the road. Rob returns home to marry Helen Mary MacPherson (Glynis Johns), a bonnie lass who frankly has very little to do other than stand by her man and roll her eyes at her father’s rambling stories and bad bagpipe playing. The delightful Finlay Currie plays Hamish MacPherson and his presence lends some much-needed Scottish authenticity to the proceedings.
Rob and Helen are no sooner married than King George’s men show up, stripping Clan MacGregor of their very name and taking Rob back into custody. He escapes yet again, plummeting over a waterfall thanks to some visual effects that haven’t exactly withstood the test of time. Rob Roy leads his clansmen in an all-out revolt, taking over a fort and weakening George’s grip. This all ends with a bit of a whimper when Argyll intervenes on Rob Roy’s behalf, convincing him to lay down his arms and make peace with the King.
The best thing one could say about Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue is that it’s a lot more action-packed than an interminable slog like The Sword And The Rose. There are battles large and small, daring escapes and high-energy pursuits. But French isn’t quite as adept at filming the action sequences as Annakin or Byron Haskin. Rob Roy’s river escape is a prime example. It’s half thrilling and half silly, prompting at least a couple of unintentional laughs.
Rob Roy also suffers in comparison to Robin Hood. This may not be fair but Disney brought it on himself by casting Michael Todd in both roles. The Story Of Robin Hood is familiar enough that you can get away with glossing over some of the details. Everyone still knows the basic premise and why Robin does what he does. That isn’t the case with Rob Roy. It’s difficult to care about his fight when we don’t really understand what he’s fighting for, apart from his name. And why is that such a great loss? He’s an outlaw. He should have changed his name anyway.
Also, Robin Hood doesn’t have to carry his entire movie on his shoulders. He has his Merrie Men, colorful supporting characters like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. Rob Roy has a whole passel of anonymous and interchangeable MacGregors, most of whom are lucky to get a single line of dialogue. (One of those MacGregors is played by Ian MacNaughton, the future director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Richard Todd isn’t a bad actor but he’s better when he has someone to play against. He also doesn’t have a lot of range. About the only things distinguishing Rob Roy from Robin Hood are his dyed red hair and indifferently executed Scottish accent.
The movie does make a handful of interesting choices. The action temporarily shifts to London where we see how Rob Roy has already become a folk hero. Londoners eagerly snatch up copies of Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized pamphlet The Highland Rogue. A copy even ends up in the hands of King George, who’s impressed by his adversary’s exploits. All of this is rooted in fact and it’s unusual to see a film like this explore how myths are created.
Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue had its gala premiere in London on October 26, 1953. It opened in the US the following February. Like The Sword And The Rose before it, Rob Roy was a box office disappointment. It had cost nearly two million dollars to produce but only did middling business. By this time, work was well underway on Disney’s first fully American-based live-action production, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. There was no longer a need to shoot films exclusively in the UK, so Walt decided it was time to give the costume dramas a rest.
No one was more affected by this decision than producer Perce Pearce. Pearce had joined the studio in 1935 as an inbetweener. Over the years, he distinguished himself with key contributions to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasiaand Bambi. When the studio began to experiment with live-action on Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, Pearce moved up to associate producer. Walt had a lot of faith in Pearce, entrusting him to act as his surrogate on the British productions.
But after the failure of both The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, Pearce’s star faded. Consensus around the studio felt that Walt blamed Pearce for the films’ failures to catch on. So Pearce was taken off film production and became part of the team developing The Mickey Mouse Club for television. The new assignment was short-lived. Perce Pearce died of a massive heart attack in July of 1955. He was 55 years old.
This would also be the final Disney film for Richard Todd. Todd never quite became a major star, at least not in the US. He went on to star in Michael Anderson’s terrific World War II film The Dam Busters and reunited with director Ken Annakin as part of the massive ensemble in The Longest Day. His biggest brush with stardom came when Ian Fleming selected Todd as his first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. But a scheduling conflict came between Todd and 007, allowing Sean Connery, another former Disney star, to catapult to international fame.
Apart from Treasure Island, Disney’s British productions are today remembered as a footnote in the studio’s history. The studio has not treated them with much care. Two aren’t even available to watch on Disney+. But they’re interesting to look at as experiments, training grounds for the demands of live-action production. They cultivated relationships with people like matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and actors Glynis Johns and Finlay Currie, all of whom will be back in this column. But they generally aren’t up to the standards of the animation department. They had to learn to walk before they could run. And rest assured, the live-action division would be off and running very soon.