Disney Plus-Or-Minus: That Darn Cat!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's That Darn Cat!

Over the years, Walt Disney signed plenty of actors to multi-picture contracts. But he wasn’t always great at maintaining relationships with his talent. Bobby Driscoll, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk all left the studio under less than cordial circumstances. That wasn’t the case with his number one star, Hayley Mills. Over the course of six pictures, Walt and Hayley enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Walt made Hayley a huge star, showcasing her talents for comedy, music and drama. In return, Hayley made Walt a whole lot of money.

That Darn Cat! would be Hayley Mills’ final Disney feature and, like most of her other movies for the studio, it was a big hit. It was the 6th highest-grossing film of 1965, behind The Sound Of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Great Race, on a budget that was a fraction of those epics. The role is comfortably within Hayley’s wheelhouse, stirring up trouble and innocently deflecting responsibility when it threatens to come back on her. After a couple of underwhelming efforts like The Moon-Spinners and Summer Magic, it’s nice that Hayley was able to leave Disney on a high note.

The movie is based on the novel Undercover Cat by the Gordons. Gordon and Mildred Gordon were a husband-and-wife writing team who specialized in crime fiction like FBI Story. They’d already enjoyed some success adapting their work for movies and TV, notably with the 1962 thriller Experiment In Terror directed by Blake Edwards. Undercover Cat was a bit lighter than the Gordons’ usual work, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Disney optioned the rights. However, the studio did necessitate changing the cat’s name, D.C., from “Damn Cat” to “Darn Cat”.

Bill Walsh, still flying high after Mary Poppins’ runaway success, co-produced with Ron Miller and took a pass at the Gordons’ script, probably adding more slapstick gags. Prolific director Robert Stevenson had taken an unfortunate detour back to Midvale College with The Monkey’s Uncle but shows a steadier hand guiding That Darn Cat! Old Yeller demonstrated that Stevenson could get convincing performances from his animal actors. But it’s one thing to make a sentimental drama about a dog. It’s quite another to turn a Siamese cat into a comedic lead.

D.C. was played by multiple feline actors, including an established Disney star. Syn Cat had appeared a couple years earlier in The Incredible Journey. The cat (or cats, as the case may be) is very much the star of the show, appearing in most scenes and even getting a smooth Sherman Brothers theme song crooned by Bobby Darin. While some of D.C.’s performance is attributable to the skillful editing of Cotton Warburton (who had just won an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins), there’s also no denying that these are some remarkably well-trained cats.

Theatrical release poster for That Darn Cat

As the movie opens, we follow D.C. as he makes his nightly rounds through the Anytown U.S.A. section of the Disney backlot, stealing food from neighborhood dogs and begging for handouts. At the local deli, he catches the scent of salmon as its bought by Iggy (Frank Gorshin, about a year away from scoring his iconic role as the Riddler on TV’s Batman). D.C. follows Iggy back to his flophouse apartment where he’s hiding out with Dan (Neville Brand) after the pair robbed a bank and kidnapped a teller (Grayson Hall, about two years away from her most famous role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on TV’s Dark Shadows). The hostage sees an opportunity and replaces D.C.’s collar with her wristwatch, scratching an incomplete “HELP” on the back and sending the cat on his way.

D.C. heads home where he finds Patti Randall (Hayley) just getting in from a date with pipe-smoking surfer Canoe (Tom Lowell in the first of his three Disney features). A little later, Patti’s older sister, Ingrid (Dorothy Provine…we’ll see her again, too), arrives with their fussbudget neighbor, Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall…you’d better believe we’ll be seeing a lot more of him). Greg and Ingrid share a carpool but Greg’s trying to take their relationship to the next level by inviting her over for a duck dinner with his mother. As soon as D.C. hears about the duck, he hightails it over to the Benson house and steals the bird off their front porch.

While trying to pry the duck out of D.C.’s paws, Patti finally notices the watch around his neck. She leaps to the conclusion that it must belong to the kidnapped bank teller in the news. The next morning, she brings her suspicions to FBI Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones…we’ll get to him in a moment). Both Kelso and his supervisor (Richard Eastham, last seen here as the circus owner in Toby Tyler) agree it’s a longshot but that Patti might be on to something. So Kelso is assigned surveillance duty on D.C. (now dubbed Informant X-14), despite having an allergy so severe he can’t even say the word “cat” without sneezing.

Now if the rest of the movie was nothing more than the slapstick shenanigans of a team of FBI agents attempting to tail a cat, it’d probably be fine. But Walsh and the Gordons pile on all manner of other complications. The Randall sisters live next door to a nosy neighbor (Elsa Lanchester, last seen fleeing the Banks house in Mary Poppins) whose suspicions are raised every time a man sets foot on the premises. Kelso asks to keep the FBI’s presence on the down-low, so both Gregory and Canoe start snooping around trying to figure out what’s what. When the FBI threatens to pull Kelso off the cat detail, Patti convinces local jeweler Mr. Hofstedder (Ed Wynn) to backup a phony tip that confirms the watch belonged to the bank teller.

Eventually D.C. does lead Kelso and Patti to the bank robbers, just as they’re about to get rid of their hostage. Part of what makes That Darn Cat! stand out from other Disney comedies is the scenes with the bad guys. Gorshin, Brand and particularly Grayson Hall play these scenes straight. Gorshin’s a funny guy, so he can’t help but score a few laughs, especially opposite a scene-stealer like Iris Adrian as the gossipy landlady. But Brand is a menacing heavy and he brings a sense of legitimate danger when Kelso and Patti turn up. As for Grayson Hall, she apparently didn’t get the memo that she was appearing in a slapstick comedy for Walt Disney. She projects legitimate fear and proves herself to be braver and more resourceful than your typical damsel in distress, even without many lines. Hall sells the idea that this really is a life-and-death situation.

The really broad comedy is wisely kept separate from the hostage situation. Stevenson stages a funny and elaborate sequence in a drive-in movie theatre, with Richard Deacon of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame as the beleaguered manager. This was the first of many Disney features for Deacon, although he had already appeared as Uncle Archie on the Mickey Mouse Club serial Annette. The drive-in sequence also allows Walt to take a few jabs at the surfing movies Canoe is such a big fan of (and that Annette Funicello herself was now churning out by the score over at AIP).

That Darn Cat! finds everyone involved firing on all cylinders, from outgoing marquee star Hayley Mills, delightful as usual, to incoming marquee star Dean Jones. Jones had been working his way up through small parts on stage, in movies and on TV for a few years. In 1962, he got a big break starring as the title character on the military sitcom Ensign O’Toole. Ensign O’Toole aired Sunday nights at 7 on NBC, right before Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. Naturally, Walt wanted to know who the network had leading in to his show. Walt checked out Ensign O’Toole and Jones’ latest feature, Under The Yum Yum Tree, and liked what he saw. We’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of Dean Jones in this column.

That Darn Cat paper dolls featuring Hayley Mills and D.C.

Unfortunately, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Hayley Mills. For a number of years, Hayley had a hard time shaking her Disney image. She appeared as a rebellious teen in a Catholic girls’ school in The Trouble With Angels and made a number of films back home in England, often with her father, John Mills. Hayley and John costarred with another former Disney star, James MacArthur, in The Truth About Spring. John directed Hayley (opposite future Deadwood star Ian McShane!) in Sky West And Crooked, from a story written by Hayley’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell.

In 1966, Hayley took her most adult role to date as a young newlywed opposite Hywell Bennett in The Family Way. The movie got a lot of press, partly because it featured an original score by Paul McCartney but mostly because Hayley Mills did a tasteful nude scene and became romantically involved with and eventually married the film’s director, Roy Boulting. Boulting and Mills made a couple more movies together, including Twisted Nerve (which is probably more famous since Quentin Tarantino appropriated its Bernard Herrmann music for Kill Bill), before divorcing in 1977.

After that, Hayley Mills took a few years off to raise her kids. When she returned to acting, it was mostly on television. In 1986, she finally returned to the Disney studio with The Parent Trap II for the Disney Channel. That movie was popular enough to earn two more sequels in 1989. Between Parent Traps, she also starred in her own Disney Channel sitcom, Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Hayley starred as a junior high school teacher in charge of such students as Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Lisa (Lark Voorhies) and Screech (Dustin Diamond).

The Disney Channel pulled the plug on Good Morning, Miss Bliss after 13 episodes and Mills walked away from the show. NBC then decided to give it one more chance, giving it a complete makeover and renaming it Saved By The Bell. That version did pretty well for itself. Hayley Mills has also continued to do pretty well for herself, appearing mostly on stage and TV, being inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998 and winning a battle with breast cancer back in 2012. She’s currently 75 years old and her memoir, Forever Young, will be published on September 7 of this year. She seems to be going strong, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she may yet make another appearance in this column.

Hayley Mills was unquestionably one of Disney’s most significant stars. She excelled in period melodramas like Pollyanna, contemporary comedies like The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat!, and adventures and thrillers like In Search Of The Castaways and The Moon-Spinners. As much as anyone, her winning screen presence helped set the tone for the studio in the 1960s. We’ll see a lot of other young stars in this column in the weeks and months ahead. In some ways, all of them will be aspiring to be the next Hayley Mills.

The audiences who flocked to see That Darn Cat! at Christmas of 1965 probably didn’t realize they were watching Hayley’s last Disney movie. Back then, the specifics of actors’ contracts with studios weren’t front-page news the way they can be today. As far as they were concerned, this was just a return to form for Hayley Mills and Disney. The movie became a huge hit and, in 1997, the studio took a shot at a remake that I suppose we’ll have to deal with in this column eventually. But let’s not worry about that for now. Today, let’s just take a moment and bask in the sunshine of Hayley Mills. This column would have been a lot less fun without her.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Monkey’s Uncle

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Monkey's Uncle

It’s fair to assume that nobody at Disney ever thought they’d see Merlin Jones again, even after Walt rolled the dice and gave The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones a theatrical release. For one thing, expectations for the project were low. More importantly, Walt had fired Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones himself, after a scandal threatened to out Kirk’s homosexuality. But money talks and when Merlin Jones blew up at the box office, Walt brought Tommy, Annette and pretty much everybody else from the first film back to try and make lightning strike twice.

Merlin Jones’ original misadventure was clearly a television product inelegantly stitched together for theatrical presentation. So you’d think that the first thing returning screenwriters Helen and Alfred Lewis Levitt and director Robert Stevenson would do would be to concoct an actual storyline that would carry through the entire picture. Nope! Even though The Monkey’s Uncle was made with cinemas in mind, this still feels like two unrelated episodes of a sitcom. Both halves revolve vaguely around the threat of football being abolished at Midvale College but that’s about as far as the intricate plot machinations get.

While 99.9% of The Monkey’s Uncle is Disney business as usual, the movie shows that Stevenson and Walt had been paying attention to the outside world in at least one big way. Annette began appearing in American International Pictures’ cycle of beach movies starting with Beach Party in 1963. AIP’s movies regularly featured musical interludes performed on-camera by such artists as Dick Dale, “Little” Stevie Wonder and The Hondells. Never one to be outdone, Walt recruited the most popular surf rock band of all time, The Beach Boys, to be Annette’s backup band.

At the time of The Monkey’s Uncle’s release in August 1965, the band had already scored two number-one hits. Brian Wilson was operating near the peak of his creative powers, less than a year away from the release of Pet Sounds. But Disney being Disney, you won’t hear any Beach Boys classics like “I Get Around” or “California Girls” here. Instead, the band accompanies Annette on an original title track by the Sherman Brothers, then disappears after the opening credits. The song, which includes such lyrics as “I love the monkey’s uncle and I wish I were the monkey’s aunt”, is very catchy and very dumb. But at least the Beach Boys appear to be enjoying themselves. Well, most of them do. Mike Love gets stuck singing backup and busts out some exceptionally awkward bent-knees and swinging-arms not-quite-dance-moves. He looks like he’d rather be someplace else.

Theatrical release poster for The Monkey's Uncle

A movie like this doesn’t really need to justify its title but Stevenson and the Levitts do just that as soon as the Beach Boys have left the building. It seems that Merlin Jones, the scrambled egghead of Midvale College, has filed a petition to formally adopt Stanley, the chimpanzee from the first film. Judge Holmsby (once again played by Leon Ames) isn’t comfortable with a human caring for a chimp like a child, so he does the next best thing by making Stanley Merlin’s nephew. The Supreme Court could use more judges like Holmsby who make decisions based solely on puns and goofy jokes.

Merlin uses Stanley in his experiments with sleep-learning. Once the chimp falls asleep, a record plays instructions for Stanley to follow when he wakes up. Meanwhile, Judge Holmsby is fighting his own battles with his fellow Midvale board members. Football-hating regent Mr. Dearborne (Frank Faylen, probably best known as Ernie the cab driver in It’s A Wonderful Life but not seen in this column since his appearance all the way back in The Reluctant Dragon) wants to cancel the big game unless the jocks can pass their exams honestly. Judge Holmsby loves football but admits that the team is likely doomed if they can’t cheat. So he recruits Merlin to come up with an honest method of cheating, which turns out to be sleep-learning. If it worked on a chimp, surely it’ll work on a couple of apes like Norm Grabowski (reprising his role from the first movie) and Leon Tyler (last seen assisting Tommy Kirk in Son Of Flubber).

The scheme more or less works but in the movie’s second half, Merlin faces a more formidable challenge. Mr. Dearborne has found a potential donor to solve Midvale’s perpetual financial woes. He’s prepared to make a substantial donation if the college permanently bans football. Things look bleak until Holmsby meets eccentric millionaire Darius Green III (Arthur O’Connell). He promises an even more substantial donation if Midvale’s top scientific minds can fulfill his ancestor’s dream of inventing a human-propelled flying machine. Once again, Holmsby turns to Merlin for help.

Merlin’s flying machine works, up to a point. The problem is that people just aren’t strong enough to keep the thing aloft and land safely. So Merlin develops a strength elixir from pure adrenaline and takes over as pilot himself. The flight goes smoothly right up until some men in white coats turn up to bring “Darius Green III” back home to the funny farm. It looks like Mr. Dearborne’s dream of a football-free Midvale will come true. But it turns out that his mysterious benefactor was also the same escaped lunatic using another alias. Wocka wocka wocka!

Gold Key comic book adaptation of The Monkey's Uncle

OK, nobody expected The Monkey’s Uncle to dig deep into the tortured backstory of Merlin Jones or to see his relationship with girlfriend Jennifer blossom into a rich tapestry of complex emotion. But even by the relaxed standards of a gimmick comedy sequel, this is one lazy, pedestrian effort from all involved. Nobody brought their A-game to the set this time.

Robert Stevenson, a reliable director who had just been nominated for an Oscar thanks to Mary Poppins, could not have been less invested in this material. Stevenson was a sure-hand when it came to visual effects, whether it was Mary Poppins, the Flubber films or Darby O’Gill And The Little People. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones had largely avoided pricy effects. With a slightly higher budget to play with, Stevenson does include some fun flying effects this time out. But they’re nothing special and by the time they show up, the movie is already inching toward the finish line.

The Monkey’s Uncle is a particular waste of Annette Funicello’s time, although she later said performing with the Beach Boys was a high point of her music career. She already didn’t have much to do in the first movie. Here, she’s given two notes to play: supportive lab assistant and jealous girlfriend. First, she’s jealous of Stanley after Merlin devotes all his time to the chimp. When she finally arranges for a chimp-sitter so they can go out on a date, Merlin inexplicably forgets all about his girlfriend and starts mooning over the blonde co-ed (Cheryl Miller, who would continue to costar with animals in the film Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spin-off Daktari).

Walt hadn’t known what to do with Annette for some time now. He’d made her a huge TV and recording star but after Babes In Toyland flopped, he seemed to give up on her movie career. After The Monkey’s Uncle, she left Disney for good. She made some more beach movies and stockcar movies for AIP, then focused on raising a family for a few years. By the time I learned who she was in the mid-1970s, it was as the face of Skippy peanut butter. In 1985, she returned to the studio for the Disney Channel movie Lots Of Luck about a regular family that wins the lottery. Martin Mull and Fred Willard are also in this, so I kind of want to see it now.

Two years after Lots Of Luck, Annette reunited with Frankie Avalon for Back To The Beach. While she was promoting the film, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She went public with her condition in 1992, the same year she was inducted as a Disney Legend. A couple years later, Annette published her memoir, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes. That book was turned into a 1995 TV-movie (featuring Len Cariou as Walt) that brought in huge ratings for CBS. It also turned out to be Annette’s last movie. She passed away from complications from multiple sclerosis in 2013.

This would also be Tommy Kirk’s last Disney movie, although I’m happy to say he’s still with us. This is Tommy’s 11th appearance in this column since we first saw him back in Old Yeller. After leaving Disney, he followed Annette to AIP where he starred in Pajama Party. But late in 1964, he was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana and possession of barbiturates. The charges were soon dropped when it was shown that he had a prescription for the pills but the arrest still cost him several high-profile roles.

Tommy kept working throughout the 1960s, appearing in such non-classics as Village Of The Giants and Mars Needs Women. His drug and alcohol use worsened as he continued to appear in bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. By the mid-70s, he had decided to get sober and quit acting. He eventually opened a carpet cleaning business and lived a quiet, normal life for many years, allowing himself to be coaxed onscreen occasionally in movies like Attack Of The 60 Foot Centerfolds and Little Miss Magic for prolific B-movie auteur Fred Olen Ray. He has yet to appear in another Disney production but was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2006, alongside his Hardy Boys costar Tim Considine and frequent on-screen brother Kevin Corcoran.

Under normal circumstances, The Monkey’s Uncle wouldn’t seem all that unusual or disappointing. It’s a subpar sequel to a surprisingly successful but undeniably goofy movie. And if everybody had still been under contract, this would be a logical (if underwhelming) follow-up. But they weren’t. Walt had very explicitly fired Tommy Kirk and Annette was enjoying more success with Frankie Avalon over at AIP. So Walt had to go out of his way to make The Monkey’s Uncle.

Instead of making the extra effort worthwhile, it’s almost like he was trying to sabotage the Merlin Jones franchise by making something so forgettable that nobody would ever bother asking for another one. Whether he intended it or not, he ended up making a good example of why Walt had never liked sequels in the first place. And even though the studio would eventually return to cranking out part twos and threes, Walt would not personally oversee another sequel in his lifetime.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

By 1965, Walt Disney had perfected the art of making two very specific types of live-action pictures. His True-Life Adventures team, including writer, producer and narrator Winston Hibler, found their documentary skills transferred well to dramatic animal movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. At the same time, Walt continued to indulge his love of Americana with nostalgic period pieces like Pollyanna set in his favorite era, the early 1900s. Those Calloways gave him an opportunity to combine the two. The results are surprisingly effective.

Those Calloways is based on the novel Swiftwater by Paul Annixter, a prolific writer of young adult fiction primarily about nature and animals. Louis Pelletier, who had recently written Big Red, wrote the screenplay, reteaming him with Big Red’s director, Norman Tokar. Hibler produced the film, bringing along several True-Life Adventure veterans. Dick Borden, who had shot some of The Vanishing Prairie, captured the wild geese footage in the film. The other animal unit was run by Lloyd Beebe and William R. Koehler, fresh off their work on The Incredible Journey.

The animals are important to Those Calloways but they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, this is a slice-of-life drama depicting a year in the life of the title family, husband Cam (Disney regular Brian Keith), wife Liddy (Vera Miles, last seen as Keith’s wife in A Tiger Walks) and son Bucky (Brandon De Wilde). They live up in the mountains outside the little New England town of Swiftwater, where they’re viewed as local eccentrics. Cam was raised by the Mi’kmaq Indians (and as soon as you heard that bit of news, you could probably figure out why Disney+ slapped its standard “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on this). His upbringing has given him a deep affinity for nature, especially the wild geese considered to be a totem of the Mi’kmaq. This marks Cam as a bit of an outsider in a town where most everyone else hunts geese for food and/or sport.

Now before you get all excited and retroactively nominate Those Calloways for a PETA Award, be aware that Cam earns his living as a fur-trapper. And if you watch the movie through 2021 goggles, that dichotomy is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for you. Just keep in mind that conservationism was not an all-or-nothing proposition back in the 1910s. Living off the land very much included hunting, fishing and trapping in order to survive. You can do all that and still be against hunting for sport without being considered a hypocrite.

Cam has big plans for this trapping season, heading out to untapped land that the Mi’kmaq believe holds bad energy. They seem to have a point about that. Cam and Bucky are only on their first preliminary scouting expedition when Cam falls and breaks his leg. With his dad out of commission, Bucky heads out on his own. After the first day, he discovers a wolverine is killing all the game along his trapping line. Bucky and his faithful dog, Sounder, track the wolverine back to its den underneath an enormous treefall. After some intense close-quarters combat, Bucky manages to kill the wolverine with a hatchet, salvaging the season.

Despite a record haul of furs (including enough to make Liddy an ermine wrap as a surprise Christmas present), the market bottoms out. The furs go for less than five hundred bucks, which Liddy assumes will go toward paying off their mortgage. But Cam can’t let go of his dream of building a sanctuary for the geese and spends the entire sum on a down payment for a piece of land with a lake. Liddy is understandably upset but when push comes to shove and the Calloways are evicted from their home, she stands by her man, encouraging him to build a bigger, better cabin by the lake.

A lack of money means that work on the new house and sanctuary proceeds slowly at first (there’s even some shades of Swiss Family Robinson in the Calloways’ makeshift shelter by the lake). But soon traveling salesman Dell Fraser (Philip Abbott of Miracle Of The White Stallions) turns up, claiming to be a fellow nature-lover. He offers Cam some literal seed money to plant the corn Cam believes will bring the geese down to the lake. In reality, Dell represents an investor who plans on turning Swiftwater into a sportsman’s paradise, providing Cam’s plan guarantees that the geese will stop every year.

Not everyone in town has ulterior motives. The other villagers band together and volunteer for a community roof-raising, complete with a couple original songs by the Sherman Brothers! With the Calloways’ new home finished, everything looks on track for a happy ending. But then the geese come back, along with Dell and his entourage of wealthy hunters. When Cam gets wise to what’s happening, he burns down the corn and confronts the hunters, accidentally ending up with a bellyful of buckshot. A town meeting is arranged and while Cam recovers from his wounds, the townsfolk vote to reject Dell and his slick, out-of-town friends. Now you can have your happy ending.

I’ll be honest with you. I had very little expectation of enjoying Those Calloways. And for a while, it looked as though I wouldn’t. With a run time of over two hours, the film is leisurely to a fault and crams in a whole lot of extraneous business. I haven’t even mentioned the burgeoning romance between Bucky and shopkeeper’s daughter, Bridie Mellott (future Dynasty star Linda Evans, making her only Disney appearance). Or the rivalry between Bucky and mechanic Whit Turner (future Nostromo captain Tom Skerritt, who would later romance Hayley Mills in the made-for-TV The Parent Trap II). Or the semi-domesticated bear who hibernates in the Calloways’ root cellar. Or Cam’s occasional struggles with alcohol. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in Those Calloways.

But this is a movie that sneaks up on you and before I knew it, I was invested in these characters. It’s an uneven movie but its high points cover up a lot of sins. For instance, Tokar does a great job staging the wolverine sequence. The claustrophobic cinematography by Edward Colman and tight editing by Grant K. Smith creates a sense of real danger. It’s so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s preceded by several banal minutes of Sounder just scampering through the snow, chasing after weasels and other woodland critters.

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

The film’s stars work overtime bringing the audience into the story. Brian Keith and Vera Miles make for a compelling, believable couple. There’s a lot that goes unsaid between them but the way they look at each other speaks volumes. In their first scene together, Keith seems to be apologizing for an earlier fight. We never learn the details of what happened between them but it’s enough to tell us that things aren’t always easy between these two.

Those Calloways offers Vera Miles a much better showcase than her largely unnecessary role in A Tiger Walks. She has several terrific moments but the Christmas scene is by far the most moving. Even before she opens her gift, she takes her time admiring the wrapping and speculating what might be inside. When Cam and Bucky try to hurry her up, she refuses to be rushed. She’s not getting another present until next year, so she wants to savor the moment. When she sees the ermine wrap, she breaks down sobbing, overcome with emotion. Is this all a little bit corny? You bet. Does it work anyway? Absolutely. Miles sells it for all she’s worth. She’ll be back in this column before too long.

Brandon De Wilde was a somewhat unusual choice for a Disney star in that he was already famous by the time Walt signed him. He’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the movie Shane when he was just 11 years old, making him one of the youngest nominees in a competitive category ever. Since then he’d worked steadily in film and television. Walt hired him to star opposite Brian Keith in The Tenderfoot, a Wonderful World Of Color three-parter released theatrically overseas.

De Wilde’s a good actor and a natural Disney star. He’s good-looking, earnest and capable of handling the physical stuff, even when the just-barely-adequate fight choreography lets him down. But he never made another Disney film after Those Calloways. He stayed busy on stage and television but struggled to establish himself in movies, in part because he looked young for his age even by Disney standards. He harbored aspirations to break into music, becoming close friends with Gram Parsons. But in 1972, Brandon De Wilde was killed in a car accident in Colorado. He was just 30 years old.

De Wilde had also worked with costar Walter Brennan before. Brennan was a three-time Academy Award winner now in the autumn years of his career. Those Calloways marked his first Disney project but it won’t be his last. We’ll also see Ed Wynn again, whose performance as the slightly deaf Ed Parker is downright restrained by Ed Wynn standards.  

One name we won’t be seeing in this column again is composer Max Steiner. Steiner was a Hollywood legend having composed the scores to such classics as King Kong, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and countless others. He had never worked for Disney before but in a way, his rendezvous with Walt seems inevitable. Critics of Steiner’s old-fashioned style of film music consistently accuse him of “Mickey Mousing”, the overly-precise synchronization of on-screen movement to music. Like a glissando to accompany throwing an object or a descending scale when a character walks down a flight of stairs. Steiner’s Those Calloways score largely avoids those pitfalls. And if it doesn’t rank among his best work, it’s still a fine score. Unfortunately, it would end up being his last before his death in 1971.

Those Calloways struggled to find an audience in 1965 and critics were split. Quite honestly, I don’t blame them one bit. This is a long, imperfect movie that squeezes all of its best stuff into the middle. It takes a little too long to get going and then a lot longer than necessary to wrap things up. But it’s a rewarding picture for those who can meet it halfway with some beautiful cinematography, excellent performances and real heart. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you and I get it. But if you’re on the fence, give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

VERDICT: Despite its flaws, this is a Disney Plus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Mary Poppins

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

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.

Theatrical poster art for Mary Poppins

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.

Theatrical poster art for the 30th anniversary re-release of Mary Poppins

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.

Mary Poppins single art

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.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

In the early 60s, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were Disney’s favorite screen couple, although you wouldn’t know it based solely on the films covered in this column. Annette made her big-screen debut in The Shaggy Dog, playing second fiddle to Roberta Shore as Tommy’s primary love interest. Their roles were reversed in Annette’s big-budget musical Babes In Toyland. Tommy Sands was Annette’s leading man while Tommy Kirk was stuck playing Ed Wynn’s goofy sidekick.

It was on television that Tommy and Annette finally had a chance to click. They starred together in The Horsemasters and Escapade In Florence, two Disneyland two-parters that received theatrical engagements overseas. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones was clearly intended for a similar release but, for reasons known only to Walt, it got bumped up to American movie theatres. It’s a baffling choice because this is not some widescreen Technicolor epic that demands to be seen on the silver screen.

The story was concocted by gimmick comedy maestro Bill Walsh and scripted by the husband-and-wife team Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt. The Levitts were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist who had only recently begun to find work again, credited under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August. Robert Stevenson, the prolific director behind such previous hits as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber, was recruited to bring some of that Flubber magic to the project.

For Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones was a natural extension of the roles he’d played in The Shaggy Dog and the Flubber pictures. The Shaggy Dog’s Wilby Daniels was an amateur inventor and Biff Hawk had somehow become Fred MacMurray’s assistant in Son Of Flubber. Merlin Jones is, as the Sherman Brothers’ catchy title song helpfully explains, the scrambled egghead, the campus kook of Midvale College (not to be confused with Medfield College, home of Flubber). Annette plays Merlin’s loyal and remarkably patient girlfriend, Jennifer.

In the first part of the two-act adventure, Merlin creates an EEG machine out of a football helmet with a bunch of antennas and other assorted gizmos stuck to it. An accidental electric shock supercharges his brain, giving him the power to read minds, a fact that his science professor (Alan Hewitt, another Flubber alumni) is weirdly unimpressed with.

As Merlin comes to grips with his new ability, he reads the thoughts of no-nonsense Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames, last seen in this column as Medfield College’s President Daggett) as he tries to figure out where to stash some stolen diamonds. Merlin, who has already had some run-ins with the judge, determines that Holmsby is leading a double life as a criminal mastermind. The police don’t believe him at first. Even after he demonstrates his ESP, they can’t lift a finger without real evidence. So Merlin and Jennifer break into the judge’s house and dig up the supposed diamonds. But it turns out the whole thing was just a wacky misunderstanding. Judge Holmsby is leading a double life as a writer of detective fiction under the name Lex Fortas. Everyone agrees to forget the whole thing provided they keep Holmsby’s alter ego a secret.

Merlin’s telepathy disappears just in time for the second episode half of the film. This time, Merlin is conducting experiments with hypnosis. After hypnotizing his cowardly cat into chasing a dog up a tree, he decides to help Stanley the chimp stand up to his bullying keeper, Norman (played by custom car builder turned actor Norm Grabowski). The hypnosis works a little too well and when the science lab ends up trashed, Merlin is once again dragged in front of Judge Holmsby.

Now that Merlin and Holmsby are friendly, the judge has a request. He wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime that goes against his moral code as research for his next book. Merlin commands the judge to break into the lab and steal Stanley. The plan works perfectly but Merlin is caught trying to return Stanley the next morning. He’s arrested for the crime and, unfortunately for him, the judge doesn’t remember that he was actually the guilty party.

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Even by live-action Disney comedy standards, this is some deeply silly stuff not meant to be taken seriously even for a second. The only fair way to judge something like this is whether or not the gags land. Some do. The cat chasing the dog up a tree is kind of funny. Tommy gets a cute bit in the library where he’s overwhelmed by the loud thoughts of his fellow students (including one of Walt’s favorite targets, a poetry-writing beatnik). But overall, the movie is eminently disposable. These are all supposed to be smart characters but they behave in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. I understand Judge Holmsby forgetting about the details of his crime but did he also forget that he asked Merlin to hypnotize him in the first place?

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Tommy and Annette are a pleasant team and they play off each other well. Grabowski was pushing 30 at the time and looks about 40, so he’s an odd choice to play a college jock vying for Annette’s affections. Ames and Hewitt are squarely in their comfort zones as frequently befuddled authority figures. But the movie is so inconsequential that it begins to fade from memory even as you’re watching it. It also lacks the inventive visual effects that helped elevate previous gimmick comedies. That low-rent feeling does nothing to dispel the sense that this project would have been more at home on TV.

Sadly, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones spelled the end of the line for Tommy Kirk’s Disney career. Tommy’s teen years had been miserable as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, his off-set behavior had become increasingly out of control. Alcohol and drugs began to sink their claws into him and he clashed with costars Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman on the set of Bon Voyage.

While filming Merlin Jones, Tommy started seeing a 15-year-old boy on the sly. The kid’s mother found out about the affair and contacted Disney. This was the last straw for Walt. The fact that Tommy was gay was something of an open secret that Walt could ignore as long as it remained more secret than open. He decided not to renew Tommy’s contract and cut him loose. Later in 1964, Tommy was arrested for possession. The charges were later dropped but his All-American boy reputation was irreparably damaged.

And yet, this is not the last we’ll see of Tommy Kirk in this column. Money talks and, when The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones became an out-of-left-field hit in February of 1964, Walt brought Tommy and Annette back one last time for a sequel. In the meantime, Tommy followed Annette to American International Pictures where the two costarred in Pajama Party, a spinoff/sequel to AIP’s popular Beach Party series. Tommy plays Go Go, a Martian sent to Earth on a mission of conquest, because that’s the way those movies roll.

The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones is a minor entry in the Disney catalog that inexplicably hit it big. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the Sherman Brothers song and the stop-motion animated titles by Xavier Atencio and Bill Justice (who had done similar work on The Parent Trap and The Shaggy Dog). Those are certainly the most memorable elements of the movie. But despite the fact that everything else is by the numbers, it was a shockingly popular film that even got a re-release in the 70s. Why it struck a chord is beyond me. I guess there’s just no accounting for taste.

VERDICT: Not actively bad enough to be a full-on Disney Minus but it’s borderline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concept art by Marc Davis for Walt Disney's Chanticleer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical re-release poster for The Sword In The Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Summer Magic

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Summer Magic

One of Hayley Mills’ greatest strengths as a young actor was her earnestness. There was no artifice to her performance. What you saw was what you got. When she delivered a line, you felt like she truly believed it. Only someone like Hayley Mills could have taken the reheated corn of Pollyanna and turned it into something palatable, if not exactly fresh.

Her English accent was a key element in that image. Summer Magic marks her fourth appearance in this column and so far, we’ve seen her play a bona fide British citizen exactly once, in the Jules Verne adventure In Search Of The Castaways. Every other character she’s played has been born and bred right here in the good old U S of A. But she never once attempts to hide her accent. The movies themselves make no effort at explaining or justifying it. It just is what it is. She’s not trying to pretend to be something she’s not. And even when playing characters as deeply American as the twins in The Parent Trap, nobody in the audience ever seems to mind.

Summer Magic is the first time that accent sounds out of place. At first glance, there’s no reason it should. The movie finds us squarely back in one of Walt’s favorite genres, the early 20th century nostalgia piece, just like Pollyanna. But this time she’s got a family: widowed mother Margaret (played by Dorothy McGuire, Disney matriarch of Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson), brothers Gilly (Eddie Hodges) and Peter (Jimmy Mathers, younger brother of Leave It To Beaver star Jerry Mathers), and cousin Julia (Deborah Walley). Not a one of these people seems like they could be related to the others.

This disconnect starts to make sense when you realize that Summer Magic was never intended to star Hayley Mills in the first place. The movie was based on the 1911 novel Mother Carey’s Chickens (you can see why they changed the name) by Mary Douglas Wiggin and adapted for the screen by Sally Benson, whose semiautobiographical stories had formed the basis of the similarly nostalgic 1944 MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis.

Walt began developing the project as a starring vehicle for his star Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello. But Annette had grown tired of waiting around the Disney lot. She was a huge TV and recording star but Walt had only cast her in two features: a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog and the big-budget musical boondoggle Babes In Toyland. Sick of waiting for her Disney ship to come in, Annette took a role opposite Frankie Avalon in the American International Pictures teen comedy Beach Party. Miffed that his star had taken another gig, Walt scratched her from Summer Magic and brought in Hayley Mills.

Beach Party came out about a month after Summer Magic and was a surprise hit, so AIP quickly signed Annette up for more. Eventually, she would be joined at AIP by her once and future Disney costar, Tommy Kirk. But for now, both Annette and Tommy were still under contract to Walt, so they’ll be back in this column.

Summer Magic might have worked a little bit better with Annette since it is essentially a musical with seven original songs by the Sherman brothers. It’s not that Hayley Mills couldn’t sing. She certainly proved she could carry a tune in her previous films. But Annette was a more natural musical performer who had already had some success with songs written for her by the Shermans. The movie feels tailor-made to Annette’s strengths a lot more than Hayley’s.

Comic book adaptation of Summer Magic

Personality is important here because there isn’t a whole lot of plot driving this story. The movie opens in Boston as the Carey family prepares to move out of their longtime home after the death of the patriarch. But Nancy Carey (Mills) remembers an idyllic vacation the family once spent in the small town of Beulah, Maine, particularly a vacant yellow house that her father loved. Nancy writes to Beulah’s postmaster, exaggerating the direness of their situation, and finds that the owner of the yellow house, Tom Hamilton, has been away in China for years, leaving the local postmaster/chief constable in charge of his affairs. He’s willing to rent the Careys the house for just $60 a year.

Upon arriving in Beulah, the postmaster, Osh Popham (Burl Ives, returning to the Disney fold for the first time since the 1948 nostalgia-fest So Dear To My Heart) immediately discovers that he’s rented the house under false pretenses. But rather than being annoyed, he’s charmed and delighted by the new arrivals and bends over backward to help out. Osh also runs the general store and he sells the Careys whatever supplies they need to fix up the house below cost. He provides free labor just so he can have some folks to chat with. Osh’s son, Digby (amusingly played by Michael J. Pollard, of all people), is getting ready to leave for the Big City, so Osh offers Digby’s job as delivery driver to Gilly. He even volunteers his daughter, Lallie Joy (Wendy Turner), to generally make herself available to help the Careys with whatever they may need. Osh Popham is more generous than Santa Claus.

The only voice of reason in all this is Osh’s disapproving wife (Una Merkel, last seen as Brian Keith’s housekeeper in The Parent Trap). She’s pretty sure that Osh hasn’t bothered to ask for Mr. Hamilton’s permission to rent the house and knows full well that he hasn’t told the Careys about it. But whenever she tries to tell them the truth, old Osh comes up with some distraction to prevent it.

When Osh discovers that the Careys are essentially broke, he claims that Mr. Hamilton is so happy with all the improvements being done that he’s refused to accept any more rent. The only stipulation is that the Careys hang a portrait of Mr. Hamilton’s “mother” in a place of honor. Of course, there is no such picture. Osh rummages around in a storage room and finally finds a portrait of a stern temperance leader to pass off as Mrs. Hamilton.

The Careys plan a big open house/unveiling ceremony for Halloween. But who should arrive back in town the day of the party but Tom Hamilton (Peter Brown), who turns out to be a lot younger and handsomer than we’d thought. Osh confesses everything, telling Tom that both he and Nancy have been writing but Osh never bothered to send the letters, assuming that Tom would never get them anyway. Tom’s not entirely happy about the situation but thinks Nancy is a charming, sweet girl, so at the very least, he won’t ruin her party.

The movie ends with Tom and Nancy dancing and most of the family still in the dark about his real identity. Osh reminds his wife that he knew everything would turn out all right in the end and, in a way, he’s right. I guess every story has a happy ending if you stop telling it before you get to the part where people are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.

That isn’t quite all there is to Summer Magic but it’s pretty close. The arrival of Nancy’s spoiled cousin, Julia, upsets the family dynamic for a little bit but she eventually comes around and the two girls grow close. That sisterly bond is tested when they’re both smitten by the handsome new schoolteacher, played by James Stacy. Fortunately, the teacher only has eyes for the older Julia and the movie sidesteps any messy hints of romance between him and Nancy.

Even so, Stacy’s own troubled history makes any scenes between he and the girls a little cringey. In 1995, the actor was sentenced to a six-year prison term for molesting an 11-year-old girl. This is not the kind of guy you want to see hanging around our sweet, innocent Hayley Mills. Stacy will actually be back in this column eventually but he’ll look a lot different when he does. A 1973 motorcycle accident cost him an arm and a leg, literally. He made a bit of a comeback after his recovery until his arrest and conviction put an end to his acting career for good. He died in 2016 and later turned up as a character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, played by Timothy Olyphant.

Compared to James Stacy, the other members of the cast had far less turbulent post-Summer Magic careers. Deborah Walley made her Disney debut in Bon Voyage! (also directed by Summer Magic‘s James Neilson). She would soon join Annette Funicello in defecting to the AIP camp, appearing alongside Frankie and Annette in Beach Blanket Bingo. While Summer Magic would be her last appearance in a Disney feature, she would later do some voice work for Chip ‘N’ Dale Rescue Rangers.

Eddie Hodges, who plays aspiring musician Gilly, became a star on Broadway, originating the role of Winthrop in The Music Man. His first film, A Hole In The Head, saw him perform the song “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra. He continued to act in movies like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and sing, landing a hit record in 1961 with “I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door” when he was 14. Considering Hodges’ musical background, it’s a little surprising that he isn’t given his own song in Summer Magic instead of being relegated to Mills’ duet partner. Hodges’ show-business career was essentially over by the end of the decade but he’ll be back in this column before he retires.

Summer Magic soundtrack LP

As for the songs themselves, they aren’t exactly peak Sherman Brothers. Some of them, like “Pink of Perfection” and “Femininity”, are kind of fun and they all have that same trademark lilting bounce that the Shermans did so well. But with very few exceptions, they don’t grow organically out of the story. They’re just a bunch of random songs that the movie occasionally stops in its tracks to accommodate.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Ugly Bug Ball”. Burl Ives sings this nonsense ditty to young Jimmy Mathers, accompanied by what appears to be stock footage of insects left over from the True-Life Adventures series. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything and overstays its welcome by a solid minute-and-a-half.

Summer Magic was released in July 1963 to mixed revies and indifferent audiences. Its box office take was a fraction of what Mills’ previous Disney vehicles had brought in. Hayley Mills herself would later say it was the worst of her six Disney films. And yeah, it’s not great. But it’s such a harmless, innocuous little trifle that it’s hard to call it a bad movie. I could certainly understand if some people have a soft spot in their heart for it. On the other hand, I would find it very hard to believe that Summer Magic is anybody’s favorite Disney movie.

VERDICT: Who am I to argue with Hayley Mills? It’s a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Miracle Of The White Stallions

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Miracle Of The White Stallions

Walt Disney’s name had been synonymous with family entertainment practically from the very beginning of his career. But that doesn’t mean that all he made were children’s films. Every so often, he’d become interested in a story that held very little appeal for the small fry and was geared, more or less, toward adults. Walt being Walt, they were still suitable for viewing by audiences of all ages. It’s just that younger audiences would likely be bored stiff by them.

Miracle Of The White Stallions appears to be one of Walt’s grown-up passion projects brought on by his life-long love of horses. It’s inspired by the true story of Colonel Alois Podhajsky, an Olympic equestrian and director of the world-famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and his efforts to save the school’s one-of-a-kind Lipizzaner horses from the ravages of World War II. In a way, it’s a spiritual cousin to two very different earlier films: the World War II documentary Victory Through Air Power and Almost Angels, the behind-the-curtain look at the school that houses the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Podhajsky himself served as a consultant on the film and choreographed the performance sequences, much as Alexander P. de Seversky consulted on the adaptation of his book, Victory Through Air Power. Podhajsky can be spotted in the final performance, riding close behind Robert Taylor, the actor who portrays him. AJ Carothers adapted Podhajsky’s book into screenplay form. Prior to this, Carothers worked primarily in television including a stint on Fred MacMurray’s sitcom, My Three Sons. Miracle Of The White Stallions was Carothers’ first job at Disney but it won’t be his last.

The director was another newcomer to the Disney studio. Arthur Hiller also got his start in TV, first in his native Canada, then in the US where he helmed multiple episodes of such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66. Miracle Of The White Stallions was his second feature, following the teen drama The Careless Years in 1957. This would be Hiller’s only Disney film. In 1970, his film Love Story would turn into a phenomenon that catapulted him to the A-list. He’d later direct such comedy classics as Silver Streak and The In-Laws, as well as a handful of projects for the Disney-adjacent Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures beginning with 1987’s Outrageous Fortune. There is absolutely nothing in Miracle Of The White Stallions that foreshadows his future career.

When it came time to assemble the cast, Walt again looked outside of the usual suspects. Robert Taylor had been a popular leading man since the 30s, starring in such films as Magnificent Obsession and Quo Vadis. In 1959, he crossed over to television, starring in the popular crime drama The Detectives. He had just finished his stint on that show when he made Miracle Of The White Stallions, his only Disney appearance.

Podhajsky’s wife was played by Lilli Palmer. She’d become a star in Hollywood in films like Cloak And Dagger and Body And Soul. But she also had an active career in European productions such as the 1958 remake of Mädchen In Uniform. Palmer too was one and done with Disney. She’d continue to bounce back and forth between Europe and Hollywood, film and TV, right up until her death in 1986.

Eddie Albert costars as Podhajsky’s right-hand man, Otto. Albert was already an Oscar-nominated character actor when he made his Disney debut, having received a Best Supporting Actor nod for Roman Holiday. He’d also costarred in Frank Capra’s Our Mr. Sun, the first of the Bell System Science Series, which a lot of people think was made by Disney but wasn’t. Eddie Albert will eventually find his way back to this column but not for awhile. A couple of years after Miracle Of The White Stallions, he landed the lead in the long-running sitcom Green Acres. In 1973, he’d get his second Oscar nomination for The Heartbreak Kid. By the time he gets back to Disney in 1975, he’ll have become a beloved fixture of film and television.

As the film opens, World War II has entered a critical phase. Colonel Podhajsky has been ordered by the Nazis to keep the Spanish Riding School open as a symbol to Austrians that life is continuing as normal. But the war is getting closer to Vienna. Podhajsky has already removed a number of priceless works of art and relocated the Lipizzaner mares to Czechoslovakia for their safety. After an aerial attack comes perilously close to destroying the school, Podhajsky again seeks permission to move the stallions to safety. And once again, he is denied.

But one Nazi officer remains sympathetic to Podhajsky’s request. General Tellheim (Curd Jürgens or, in the Americanized spelling, Curt Jurgens) reminds Podhajsky that his order to protect the school’s most precious artifacts remains in effect. And what is the Spanish Riding School’s most precious artifact if not the lineage of the Lipizzaners?

Podhajsky, his wife and staff load up their remaining wagons and flee Vienna at night. After a perilous train journey, they arrive at the estate of Countess Arco-Valley (Brigitte Horney), a resistance sympathizer who has opened the grounds of her home to refugees after her husband was placed in a concentration camp. While they’re at the estate, the war ends and American troops arrive, using the estate as a base of operations.

American Major Hoffman (James Franciscus) recognizes Podhajsky from his victories at the Olympics. So Podhajsky asks for one more favor. He needs to retrieve his mares from Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia. Without them, the ultra-rare Lipizzaner breed will die out. There’s nothing Hoffman can do but he has an idea. The troops are about to receive a visit from noted horse-fancier General George S. Patton (John Larch). If Podhajsky can throw together an impromptu performance that impresses Patton, he might be able to help.

Miracle Of The White Stallions is an interesting, surprisingly mature film. It’s essentially a war movie but most of the action takes place off-screen. There are a couple of well-staged fighting sequences and some suspense but it’s overall a very talky film. That’s not necessarily a negative. The cast is uniformly excellent and the dialogue is good. But it’s not a movie for the easily bored. The movie’s reliance on conversation was probably a necessity brought on by budget restrictions. This is one of those rare cases where the real-life incidents were actually more action-packed than the cinematic depiction. The Disney version pares things down to the bare minimum.

Podhajsky is an unusual choice for a leading man. He’s a strict taskmaster devoted to duty and tradition and Robert Taylor does nothing to soften his rough edges. The support of the folksier and more likable Eddie Albert is essential in making Podhajsky more relatable. Curd Jürgens also gets a terrific scene where he comes to terms with the fact that he’s now a Nazi war criminal. He’s not proud of what he did during the war but refuses to hide behind the excuse of just following orders. The sympathetic Nazi can be a tough character to swallow but Jürgens does some nice work shading in General Tellheim.

Of course, the stallions are the real stars of the movie. Classical dressage is an extremely specialized skill and Hiller uses it sparingly, treating it almost like a special effect. The film builds up to an extended performance and it’s genuinely impressive. If you had any doubts that these horses and traditions were worth preserving, this sequence alone dispels them. The film probably could have benefited from including a bit more of the stallions, particularly early on. It’s one thing to be told what makes the Lipizzaners unique and the movie’s opening voice-over narrator does exactly that. But it’s something else to see them in action. Giving the audience a taste up-front could have saved some time later on.

Released in March 1963, Miracle Of The White Stallions was greeted with a collective shrug by critics and audiences. This unfortunately seemed to be a fairly common reaction whenever Disney strayed too far outside his comfort zone. It’s too bad because this is actually a pretty good little movie. If this or other atypical Disney productions had received a more positive response, maybe Walt would have felt emboldened to take more risks with his movies. As it is, this remains an interesting curiosity, another orphaned Disney film you won’t find on Disney+ or on Blu-ray. It’s worth a look if you can track it down, especially if you love horses.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternate poster design for In Search Of The Castaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search Of The Castaways soundtrack album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Legend Of Lobo

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Legend Of Lobo

Big Red was released in June of 1962, about a year after Greyfriars Bobby. Besides the adventures of the little Skye Terrier, 1961 also brought us Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North (and One Hundred And One Dalmatians, for that matter). Perhaps fearing that his animal pictures were getting into a bit of a rut, Walt decided to do something different than just another dog movie. His next picture, released in November of 1962, would be a wolf movie. So maybe not all that different.

The Legend Of Lobo was another production from the former True-Life Adventures team led by producer/writer James Algar. Algar cowrote the script with Dwight Hauser (father of cult star Wings Hauser) from a story by Ernest Thompson Seton, a wildlife writer and one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America. Dwight Hauser had worked on several documentary shorts for the studio, including the Oscar-winning Ama Girls (part of the People & Places companion series).

Jack Couffer, whose work as field producer and cinematographer had enlivened such films as Secrets Of Life and Nikki, shot the film with Lloyd Beebe, another long-time True-Life Adventure contributor. The editor, Norman Palmer, had also worked on True-Life Adventures dating back to Beaver Valley in 1950. Curiously, The Legend Of Lobo has no credited director. Perhaps the entire team felt they’d all contributed equally. Maybe it was an attempt to save some money on union fees. Whatever the reason, it’s an unusual omission.

The Legend Of Lobo distinguishes itself from previous animal pictures like Perri and Nikki primarily through its narration. Like Perri, the film has no spoken dialogue. But instead of the folksy narration of Winston Hibler, The Legend Of Lobo features a musical voiceover from Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers had previously appeared alongside Roy Rogers in Melody Time, performing “Blue Shadows On The Trail” and “Pecos Bill”, although most of the members of that incarnation of the group had since moved on, replaced by new Sons of the Pioneers.

Rex Allen was never a Son of the Pioneers but he was cut from the same cloth as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He was a late addition to the Singing Cowboy subgenre, making his film debut with The Arizona Cowboy in 1950. Westerns were on their way out by the 1950s, or at least transitioning over to television, but Allen still managed to become a box-office draw. In 1956, he landed his first Disney gig, narrating the Oscar-nominated short Cow Dog. This started a long association with the studio. In 1961, he narrated the animated short The Saga Of Windwagon Smith. A little later, he’d provide the voice of Father for the Carousel of Progress attraction that debuted at the New York World’s Fair before moving to Disneyland. We’ll be hearing from Rex Allen again in this column.

Allen was also a talented songwriter but he didn’t write The Legend Of Lobo song that recurs throughout the film. That job went to Walt’s new favorite songwriters, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The Sherman Brothers had been kept extremely busy since joining the studio in 1961, cranking out tunes for everything from The Parent Trap and Moon Pilot to Disney’s upcoming World’s Fair attractions (including “It’s A Small World”). Allen also performed the Shermans’ “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress. “The Legend Of Lobo” is not one of their most memorable numbers. The only reason it gets stuck in your head is that it pops up so frequently.

Narratively, The Legend Of Lobo hews closely to the template established by Perri. We first meet Lobo as a young cub, the independent and headstrong son of El Feroz, mightiest of all wolves. While El Feroz is out hunting, a cougar discovers the wolves’ den. The cougar is ready to pounce when she’s unexpectedly shot by some passing cattlemen. The humans don’t find the den but the wolves decide it’s time to move on anyway.

As the wolf family hits the trail, L’il Lobo allows his curiosity to separate him from the rest of the group. He messes around with a tortoise and an armadillo before getting trapped by a rattlesnake. Fortunately, Lobo’s parents have been looking for him. They hear his plaintive howls and come to the rescue just in the nick of time. Most things in this movie happen just in the nick of time.

Lobo grows up and starts hunting with his family. But El Feroz has set his sights on the cattle being driven through the territory. It isn’t long before the cattlemen begin hunting down the wolfpack. And since this is a Disney movie, Lobo’s parents are soon killed, leaving Lobo in search of a new pack.

The cattlemen, like the other humans in the film, have no dialogue and aren’t credited. But if you look closely, you might recognize them as Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest, reteamed after their appearances in Big Red. It wouldn’t surprise me if they shot all their footage in a day during a break in production on the earlier film.

Lobo finds a mate and becomes leader of the new pack, continuing to prey on cattle. The cattlemen respond by placing “Wanted” posters all over, offering a reward for the capture or killing of “the wolf known as Lobo”. There are no pictures on the posters, so these raise all sorts of questions. How do they know Lobo’s name? Without a picture, how are people meant to know they’ve got the right wolf? “Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to be Lobo by any chance?” “Nope, my name’s Steve. Lobo lives two dens down.” “Sorry, my mistake!”

At any rate, a hunter eventually turns up and tracks Lobo and Mrs. Lobo back to their den, an abandoned cliff-dwelling accessible by a tree-bridge. The hunter manages to trap Mrs. Lobo but Lobo rounds up the pack to create a cattle stampede. In the chaos that follows, Lobo rescues his mate. But recognizing that the area has become too dangerous, Lobo decides it’s time to move on and leads the pack to pastures new.

As usual, The Legend Of Lobo is a handsome looking film. Couffer and Beebe capture some nice wildlife photography, even if it lacks the wow factor of earlier True-Life Adventures. Couffer would eventually return to Disney to produce a much better movie about wolves, the underrated 1983 drama Never Cry Wolf. But for now, he seems content to just film wolves being wolves.

Hyperbolic title aside, Lobo doesn’t seem like a particularly extraordinary wolf. The Shermans’ song works overtime to sell us on Lobo’s mythic stature among wolves. But we don’t get to see any of the legendary feats that earned him his reputation. On the one hand, that’s fine. Nobody’s going to bring their kids to a movie with multiple sequences of wolves slaughtering cattle. But it also makes you wonder why they decided to film this particular story in the first place. Sure, the wolves are just trying to get along but you can understand why the cattlemen are trying to kill them. And since movies like this don’t deal in moral ambiguities, the wolves are portrayed as the good guys and the humans are the bad guys.

Wolves are beautiful, majestic animals but they’re also apex predators. It’s a whole lot easier to make a movie about a sympathetic squirrel or a sympathetic dog than it is to make one about a sympathetic wolf. The Legend Of Lobo works about as well as it can under the circumstances but there’s still a strain between how the story is told and what we’re actually seeing. Between the tonal whiplash, the ordinariness of the animals’ behavior and the repetitious song, this short feature (it clocks in at barely over an hour) feels about three hours long.

The Legend Of Lobo didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, Algar and Couffer remained committed to the idea of making narrative feature films with animals and as few humans as possible. Their next project would hit theaters in 1963. And this time, they’d make things a lot easier on themselves by focusing on three domestic house pets instead of squirrels or wolves.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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