Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor

Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.

When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.

The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.

Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.

Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.

Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.

Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.

To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.

Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.

MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.

The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.

There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.

Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote “The Flubber Song”, a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn’t show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.

The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.

The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Kidnapped

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Kidnapped

Walt Disney’s Treasure Island launched the studio’s live-action division with a bang back in 1950. The movie raked in a small fortune, both domestically and overseas. So it was only a matter of time before Walt decided to return to his library’s Robert Louis Stevenson shelves to see what else might be worth adapting.

Stevenson was a popular and prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays and nonfiction. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, his entire life’s work can pretty much be boiled down to Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped. Of those, Kidnapped is the most “obscure”. There have only been about a dozen different movie and TV versions of the novel over the years, compared to the countless official and unofficial adaptations of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll.

Director Robert Stevenson (no relation to the author, although the Disney publicity department certainly wished he had been) was in production on Darby O’Gill And The Little People when Walt suggested Kidnapped as a follow-up. Stevenson thought that was a fine idea and wrote the screenplay himself. Stevenson had started his film career as a scriptwriter in England, gradually directing more and more and writing less and less. He hadn’t received a screenwriting credit since Jane Eyre in 1943. This would be the first and only time he’d be credited as a writer for Disney, despite his long and profitable association with the studio.

Stevenson had been obliged to shoot Darby O’Gill in California but Kidnapped would be filmed on location in Scotland, with studio work done in London at Pinewood Studios. The entire cast and crew hailed from the United Kingdom, with one notable exception. All-American contract player James MacArthur, star of The Light In The Forest and Third Man On The Mountain, starred as David Balfour, rightful heir to the dilapidated House of Shaws. MacArthur had definitely improved as an actor since his Disney debut but attempting a Scottish accent was punching above his weight.

David’s parents have recently died and, armed with a letter of introduction, he makes his way to his ancestral home and Uncle Ebenezer (John Laurie, who had appeared as Blind Pew in Treasure Island). When the eccentric and miserly Ebenezer discovers that the House of Shaws rightfully belongs to David, he tries to arrange a little accident for him. When that doesn’t work, he pays off an old sailing associate, Captain Hoseason, to shanghai the young man and sell him into indentured servitude. The great character actor Bernard Lee makes his one and only Disney appearance as Hoseason. He would soon begin a lengthy association with Darby O’Gill’s Sean Connery as M to Connery’s 007.

Hoseason’s ship has barely made it out to sea when it collides with a boat in the fog. The sole survivor of the accident turns out to be Alan Breck Stewart, the real-life Jacobite rebel played here by Peter Finch. Finch’s performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Disney’s The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men had given his career a nice little boost. Kidnapped would be Finch’s only other Disney project before moving on to such acclaimed films as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Network.

After David discovers that Hoseason is planning to rob and murder Stewart, the two men fight their way off the ship and are separated as they make their way back to shore. David makes his way to the town of Appin where he encounters Colin Campbell (Andrew Cruickshank), known far and wide as the Red Fox, an emissary sent to deal with the Jacobites. While the Red Fox is interrogating David, he’s shot dead by a hidden assassin. Pursued by Redcoats, David runs into Alan, who denies that he’s the killer.

Once again, the Appin Murder is an historical incident that is presumably fleshed out a lot more in R.L. Stevenson’s book. In R. Stevenson’s 97-minute movie, this entire middle section is more than a little tedious and confusing. There’s a lot of talk about politics, loyalty and taxation which will likely make your eyes glaze over unless you’re extremely well-versed in 18th century British history.

The highlight of this section is the first screen appearance of Peter O’Toole. Peter Finch had worked with O’Toole at the Old Vic and recommended him to Stevenson. O’Toole plays Robin MacGregor, son of Rob Roy MacGregor whose own struggles against the Redcoats had been indifferently dramatized in Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. The second O’Toole enters the scene, you forget that poor James MacArthur is even there. You can’t take your eyes off him and he has an electricity with Finch that MacArthur can’t hope to replicate. Even the fact that the scene culminates in a bagpipe duel, a spectacle that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds, can’t dim O’Toole’s undeniable star quality.

O’Toole and Finch would remain good friends until Finch’s untimely death in 1977. There’s a great story that the two Peters were out drinking late one night in Ireland. When the landlord refused to serve them another drink, they bought the pub. The check bounced but hey, it’s the drunken impulse that counts. Unfortunately, Peter O’Toole will not be back in this column, unless I’ve decided to include Pixar movies by the time we get to Ratatouille. Just a couple years after Kidnapped, O’Toole would hang up his bagpipes for good as Lawrence Of Arabia catapulted him to a whole new level of stardom.

Eventually, David and Alan make their way back to the House of Shaws where they confront Ebenezer and get him to confess to his misdeeds within earshot of a lawyer. David gets his inheritance, Alan heads off presumably to further adventures and all’s well that ends well. Or something. At least it ends.

For its first twenty or so minutes, Kidnapped holds some promise. The Scottish countryside is lovely, the old ruins of the House of Shaws are creepy, John Laurie is an engagingly sinister presence and James MacArthur…well…he fulfills the terms and obligations of his contract. But the actual kidnapping part of Kidnapped is over much too quickly. Scotland is not a huge country, so it feels like David is really only on board that ship for less than a day before he and Alan escape. It seems about as perilous as missing your stop on a bus.

The rest of the film gets bogged down in endless dialogue scenes. Robert Stevenson the director gave too much control over to Robert Stevenson the screenwriter. You can tell that he wanted to remain as faithful to the book as possible but he does so by concentrating on incident and plot over character and emotion. And since the story is circular, ending up right back at the House of Shaws, everything in the middle feels a bit pointless.

Finch delivers an entertaining performance but Alan’s story remains vague and confusing for anyone not familiar with the novel or history. The emotional crux of the story should hinge on the developing bond between Alan and David but that never materializes. By the time they part ways, they still seem like relative strangers to each other.

Contemporary critics and audiences agreed that Kidnapped was no Treasure Island. Robert Stevenson recovered quickly, however. He’d continue to work for Disney into the 1970s, directing some of the most profitable and beloved movies in the studio’s history. He’ll be back in this column again. So will Robert Louis Stevenson for that matter, although not for a very long time.      

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rerelease poster for Darby O'Gill And The Little People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Dedicated to Sir Sean Connery

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Old Yeller

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Old Yeller

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Spoiler alert: the dog dies. You probably already knew that. Even if you’ve never seen Old Yeller, you probably knew that the dog dies. Bill Murray uses it to rally the troops in Stripes. An entire episode of Friends is built around Phoebe’s discovery of how the movie really ends. It’s one of those pop culture moments that transcends itself and enters into our collective subconscious.

Old Yeller started life as a novel by Fred Gipson published in 1956. It received a Newbery Honor, the runner-up prize to the award won by Johnny Tremain. Walt Disney must have snapped up the movie rights to the book almost immediately to get it into theaters for Christmas 1957. Gipson is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with William Tunberg and as near as I can tell, the film remains extremely faithful to the book.

This makes sense because the story doesn’t exactly have a lot of twists and turns. The Coates family are homesteaders trying to make ends meet in 1860s Texas. Patriarch Jim Coates (Fess Parker) is embarking on a cattle drive that’ll take him out of state for a few months, so oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is appointed Man of the House. Pa’s gone less than 24 hours when a big yellow dog (Spike) comes tearing through the Coates’ cornfield, destroying crops, scaring the plow-mule and ripping up a couple lengths of fence.

That old yeller dog keeps showing up, stealing food and making himself comfortable. Travis is ready to shoot him on sight but his precocious younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) immediately lays claim to the mutt. The boys’ extraordinarily patient mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), thinks this is a fine idea for some reason and lets Arliss keep Yeller, sticking with literally the first name they could think of.

It isn’t long before Yeller stops stealing food and starts earning his keep. He saves Arliss from an angry mother bear (justifiably angry, since Arliss was messing around with her cub). He turns out to be a good herding dog. Even Travis warms up to him, eventually spending more time with him than Arliss does.

A hint of conflict seems to appear when Yeller’s original owner, cowboy Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up to claim his dog. But Burn turns out to have a heart of gold. After he sees how the family has bonded with Yeller, he agrees to let them keep the dog (in exchange for a horny toad and a “woman-cooked meal” in an arrangement worked out with Arliss). Before he leaves, Burn takes Travis aside and warns him of a spread of hydrophobia that’s going through the area. This information will come in handy very soon.

Travis and Yeller’s bond is cemented when Yeller is seriously injured saving Travis from a pack of wild hogs. Travis is also badly hurt but makes it back home and brings his mother out to rescue Yeller. They escape the threat of hydrophobia this time but it soon descends on the Coates home. First, Travis has to put a rabid cow out of her misery. Then Yeller saves Katie from a rabid wolf attack. While at first it seems that Yeller might be OK, he eventually starts exhibiting symptoms. And so, Travis has to man up and shoot the best friend he’s ever had.

Re-release poster for Old Yeller

Old Yeller was an enormous hit when it was released in 1957. It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and it became a touchstone for multiple generations. It’s one of those movies that people either love or hate for the exact same reason: it’s so incredibly sad. If the death of Bambi’s mother makes kids cry, the death of Old Yeller seems to make men, women, boys and girls of all ages weep.

And yet, this is a film that has never done anything for me. It is not difficult to make me tear up during a movie. But I am resistant to the saccharine manipulation of Old Yeller. Look, nobody likes to see a beloved pet get put down and Yeller seems to be a very good boy indeed. But I just don’t get invested in the relationship between this particular boy and his dog.

Part of the problem is that all of the young performers grate on my nerves to some extent. This worries me because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of both Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in this column. It isn’t that I think the kids are giving bad performances or are miscast. I believe they’re doing exactly what Walt and director Robert Stevenson asked them to do. I just don’t care for it.

Arliss is particularly hard to take. He’s an exploding little dynamo of energy, splashing around in mud puddles, climbing over the furniture and swinging from the rafters. Corcoran shouts most of his dialogue at the top of his lungs. He’s the kind of kid that makes you grit your teeth in frustration if you saw him at the grocery store or a restaurant, hoping against hope that his mother will actually step in and do something about the little hellion.

Travis is a bit more complicated and Kirk does a good job shading him in. He’s a decent kid, doing his best with probably too much responsibility. He warms up to Yeller slowly and believably, at least at first. But when he does decide he likes the dog, it’s like a switch has been flipped. All of a sudden, it’s his dog, not Arliss’. When neighbor Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) tries consoling Travis by gifting him a puppy sired by Yeller (and not just any puppy, the pick of the litter), Travis petulantly rejects it, saying he already has a dog. When Lisbeth gives the pup to Arliss instead, I expected him to shout, “Hooray! Now I have two dogs!” I have a hard time feeling bad for Travis at the end since he essentially stole his brother’s dog. And I can’t feel sad for Arliss because he’s Arliss and everything seems to work out for him anyway.

Both Kirk and Corcoran went on to long careers at Disney. Tommy sort of stumbled into acting when he was cast in a bit part in a production of Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse (also in the cast of that production was troubled former Disney star Bobby Driscoll). Afterward, he became a go-to child guest star on TV shows like Matinee Theatre and The Loretta Young Show.

In 1956, Disney secured the rights to Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, intending to make it their next Mickey Mouse Club serial. Tommy was cast as Joe, opposite Tim Considine from Spin And Marty as Frank. The Hardy Boys was a big hit, so Walt kept Tommy busy hosting remote segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. There was even talk of Tommy appearing as young Davy Crockett before Old Yeller came along. Old Yeller was huge but his next movie for the studio would be even bigger and secure Tommy’s reputation as Disney’s All-American Teenager.

As for Corcoran, he also started out on The Mickey Mouse Club, frequently playing different-but-similar characters called Moochie on serials like Spin And Marty and Moochie Of The Little League. After Old Yeller, he appeared as Tommy’s younger brother a couple more times and eventually moved up to starring roles. After graduating college, Corcoran went back to Disney as an assistant director and producer on movies like Pete’s Dragon and Herbie Goes Bananas. So he’ll continue to be a presence in this column for some time.

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker both receive above-the-title billing, although Parker probably filmed the entirety of his role over the course of a day and a half. He sports a mustache this time but apart from that, it’s Parker as usual. He was getting very close to the end of his association with Disney by this point, so it’s hardly surprising that his role isn’t much more than a cameo.

McGuire had been Oscar-nominated for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 but her career had hit a bit of a rough patch. Now in her 40s, she had begun to transition into “Mom Parts” with William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sizable hit in 1956. Old Yeller cemented the matriarchal image of her career’s second act. She’ll be back in this column before long.

One actor who will not be returning to this column is Chuck Connors. Connors had been working steadily in movies and TV throughout the 50s but hadn’t become a huge star yet. Old Yeller would be his only work for Disney but it proved significant. Shortly after the film came out, Connors was cast as the lead in the television series The Rifleman. He turned the role down, telling the producers they weren’t paying enough. They were ready to move on to another actor when they went to a screening of Old Yeller. Impressed by Connors’ chemistry with Kirk, they agreed to his salary demands and Chuck Connors got the most iconic role of his career.

Old Yeller was a bona fide blockbuster but, perhaps because of the subject matter, Disney showed a fair amount of restraint when it came to tie-in merchandise. It was mostly limited to tie-in books and adaptations for comics and younger readers. There was one bizarre lapse in judgment. In 2005, Disney licensed the name to Kroger for Disney’s Old Yeller dog food. DogFoodAdvisor.com gave the product a one-star rating and it appears to have been bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. It doesn’t look like they make it anymore, which is probably just as well.

Disney's Old Yeller Dog Food

Walt was very proud of Old Yeller and re-released it to theatres a couple of times. The film was so popular that optioning Fred Gipson’s sequel was a no-brainer. So even though Old Yeller himself won’t be back in this column, the Coates family will.

Over the years, Old Yeller has remained critic-proof (except for dog food critics, that is). It’s easy to understand why. You simply cannot argue against the visceral, gut-punch reaction most people have to this movie. Believe me, it is no fun to be the odd man out at the party. Especially when that party’s more like a wake and everybody around you is bawling their eyes out. So if you are one of those people who hold Old Yeller near and dear to your heart, I understand, even if I can’t entirely relate.

VERDICT: Disney Minus. Sorry, it’s just not for me.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

Branching into television production worked out extremely well for Walt Disney. In an era when TV was still broadcast in black-and-white, Walt was forward-thinking enough to insist on filming in color. This enabled him to repackage the enormously popular Davy Crockett serials and release them theatrically. Those two features proved that the quality of Walt’s TV productions could hold their own on the big screen.

Johnny Tremain was intended to premiere on the Disneyland TV series, just like Davy Crockett. Walt would continue to make historical adventures a key element of the show for years with serials like The Saga Of Andy Burnett and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca. But after screening Johnny Tremain, Walt decided it was good enough to skip television and premiere theatrically instead.

If he was going for longevity, Walt couldn’t have picked better source material. Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1943. It’s been a fixture of middle school curriculums ever since. The book has never gone out of print and in 2000, Publishers Weekly placed it at #16 on their list of all-time best-selling children’s books. If you’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without being exposed to Johnny Tremain, you must have gone to a school that didn’t have books.

Tom Blackburn, Disney’s go-to writer for historical adventure projects, adapted the book. He and composer George Bruns also tried to recapture their “Ballad of Davy Crockett” magic with a couple of original songs, although “The Liberty Tree” didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Blackburn’s script betrays the movie’s TV origins, splitting the story into two distinct episodes.

In the first, we meet our young hero. Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is an apprentice silversmith in Boston working under Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright). Wealthy merchant Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot) wants to commission a replacement piece but Lapham refuses, concerned that his skills are no longer up to the task. Johnny insists that he’s up to the challenge and accepts the work under a tight deadline.

While working on the piece, Johnny reveals a secret to Lapham’s daughter, Priscilla (played by former Disney child star Luana Patten, considerably grown up from her appearances in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart): Johnny is in fact related to Lyte. Before she died, his mother gave him her christening cup engraved with the Lyte family crest. But Johnny wants to make his own way in the world and has decided not to confront Lyte with his story unless he absolutely must.

For advice on Lyte’s commission, Johnny goes to visit Boston’s other prominent silversmith, Paul Revere (Walter Sande). Revere, of course, is a member of the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary organization formed by Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane). Printer’s apprentice Rab Silsbee (future West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Richard Beymer) encourages Johnny to get involved but Johnny prefers to stay out of it.

Taking Revere’s advice, Johnny breaks the Sabbath to finish Lyte’s commission. But an accident badly burns his hand, rendering it useless. The Laphams are forced to let him go. Unable to find work anywhere else, Johnny appeals to Lyte, showing him the cup his mother left him. Rather than taking him in, Lyte accuses Johnny of burglary and has him arrested. Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell) defends Johnny in court, calling Priscilla as a witness and clearing his name. Grateful for all their help, Johnny takes a job delivering newspapers and acting as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty.

From this point on, Johnny has a front-row seat for all the key events of the American Revolution. He and Rab take part in the Boston Tea Party. He’s there for Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to Lexington. He’s on the front lines of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. If he’d been carrying a gun, he probably would have been responsible for the shot heard round the world.

There’s nothing about Johnny Tremain that I would describe as actively bad. It’s a well-made film with high production values and a capable cast. But it is an extremely old-fashioned movie, a little bit stiff and stagy. At times, it feels more like a professionally made Independence Day pageant than a film, especially when the entire cast marches through the streets of Boston singing “The Liberty Tree”. Hamilton, this isn’t.

The biggest problem is that Forbes’ novel has had every last trace of grit and toughness scrubbed out of it by the Disney Sterilization Crew. The book treats the Battles of Lexington and Concord with some degree of realism. Rab is wounded and dies painfully (spoiler alert for a novel you really should have read by now, I guess). The movie treats it like an exciting romp through the woods with high spirits and laughter all around. I don’t expect Johnny Tremain to turn into Saving Private Ryan but any anti-war message from Forbes’ book has been completely jettisoned.

Much of the pleasure of Johnny Tremain comes from watching the cavalcade of character actors as real-life historical figures. Walter Sande is a particular treat as Paul Revere, giving the silversmith a down-to-earth decency that goes beyond the usual thumbnail sketch of kids’ Intro to American History books. Sebastian Cabot is smugness personified as Lyte. And Jeff York (Mike Fink, King of the River!) is virtually unrecognizable as James Otis, a founding member of the Sons of Liberty whose behavior has become increasingly erratic after a head injury.

Considering the presence of Luana Patten, you might expect Walt to cast her former co-star Bobby Driscoll as Johnny. But Driscoll had already been arrested once for marijuana possession by this point, so Walt cast newcomer Hal Stalmaster in the lead role. He isn’t a natural actor but he certainly sells Johnny’s earnestness.

If you’ve paid attention to the credits of virtually any movie or TV show from the second half of the 20th century, you’ve seen the name of Hal’s older brother, the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Lynn was already in casting when Hal got the part in Johnny Tremain and was evidently surprised to find out that his younger brother had any interest in acting. As it turned out, Lynn was right. Hal’s interests did end up lying elsewhere. Walt cast him in another Revolutionary War TV serial, The Swamp Fox starring Leslie Nielsen. But apart from a few small TV roles, Hal retired from acting entirely before the end of the 1960s. He ended up following in his brother’s footsteps, working in Disney’s casting department for a time before becoming a talent agent.

But Johnny Tremain’s most significant addition to the Disney roster was director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson was a British director who emigrated to the US in the early 1940s. He was under contract to David O. Selznick, for whom he made the 1943 version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles, and made a few films at RKO before moving into television. He was a prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke.

When Walt hired Stevenson to direct Johnny Tremain, it was just another TV gig. It became a life-changing experience. Over the course of the next twenty-plus years, Stevenson would direct another 18 features for the studio, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his work on Mary Poppins. In 1977, Variety named him the most commercially successful director of all time with 16 films on their list of all-time highest-grossing films. Needless to say, we’ll be seeing a lot more Robert Stevenson movies in this column.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt’s theatrical gamble paid off for Johnny Tremain. Box office numbers weren’t widely reported back in 1957. But Walt certainly acted like he expected another Davy Crockett-size hit. He flooded stores with Johnny Tremain toys, comics, and other tchotchkes. There were even official Johnny Tremain tri-cornered hats to try and convince kids that coonskin caps were so 1955.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Crayons and Stencils
Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Tri-Cornered Hat

The movie also inspired Walt to propose a new addition to Disneyland called Liberty Street recreating Revolutionary-era Boston. Liberty Street eventually morphed into Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The Johnny Tremain connections might not be quite as overt as Walt had once planned but the Liberty Tree, an enormous 100-year-old southern live oak, still dominates the area.

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

Johnny Tremain also stayed alive through screenings on TV and schools. That original TV format lent itself to editing, so in addition to returning to its original berth on Disneyland, Disney edited it down further to focus on sequences like Paul Revere’s ride. For years, even if you hadn’t seen Johnny Tremain in its entirety, you’d probably seen some of it on a day when your history teacher needed a break.

Today, Johnny Tremain isn’t impossible to find but Disney certainly isn’t treating it like one of their crown jewels. They haven’t released it on Blu-ray or made it available on Disney+ but you can rent or buy an HD version digitally on Vudu or iTunes. It isn’t a terrible movie but I think it’s destined to remain stuck in the past. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy revisiting it. But if you’re new to the world of Johnny Tremain, I don’t think you’ll be inspired to buy your own tri-cornered hat.

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

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