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: 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: Son Of Flubber

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Son Of Flubber

Son Of Flubber was Walt Disney’s first sequel, with an asterisk. Nearly twenty years earlier, he released The Three Caballeros in response to the tremendous response to Saludos Amigos. Caballeros is every inch a follow-up to Amigos but since neither of those movies follow a narrative framework, they don’t entirely count. The same could be said of Melody Time, a spiritual sequel to Make Mine Music. Then there’s Davy Crockett And The River Pirates. It’s obviously a sequel (well, prequel) to Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. But they were originally produced for TV, not the big screen. So sure, if you take all of those sequels-but-not-really out of the equation, Son Of Flubber was first.

That’s certainly a distinction Walt himself would have made. He had explicitly stated in interviews that he didn’t like sequels. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about going back to the same well and trying to make something the same but different. But sequels, especially in those days, weren’t supposed to offer anything but more of the same. If that’s what Walt Disney’s definition of a sequel was, he absolutely delivered on it with Son Of Flubber.

The gang’s all here from The Absent-Minded Professor. Everyone from director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh on down to Fred MacMurray and Charlie the dog returned for part two. The movie picks up almost exactly where the first one left off. Professor Brainard (MacMurray) and his new assistant, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), are flying the Model T down to Washington hoping to collect some of that sweet, sweet government money they’ve been promised. Unfortunately, that’s going to take some time. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) explains the labyrinth of red tape that must be navigated in order to maximize their eventual pay-out. Why settle for less when you could get more? So Brainard and Biff are forced to return to Medfield College empty-handed, except for vague promises that it’ll all be worth it someday.

As always, the financially strapped Medfield needs the money now. The college has made plans for an elaborate new science center, Flubber Hall. When Biff’s father, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), discovers that Brainard didn’t get the money, he gleefully announces plans to bulldoze the entire campus on the first of the month unless his loan is repaid.

Meanwhile, Brainerd is having some domestic troubles with his new bride, Betsy (Nancy Olson). She’s being courted by some Madison Avenue types (led by comedian Ken Murray) who want to buy the rights to Flubber. They dazzle her with the promise of furs, pearls and a million dollar check and come armed with sample commercials for such products as Flubberoleum, a revolutionary bouncy floor guaranteed to change the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America. But once Brainard admits that his government contract prevents him from selling Flubber to anyone else, the ad men pack up and leave.

As they walk out, a man from the government (Bob Sweeney, last seen in Moon Pilot) walks in. However, the agency this government man represents is the IRS, not the Defense Department. He’s here to collect the tax on the prospective earnings reported by Brainard based on the millions he’s been promised. The fact that he hasn’t actually received any of that money yet doesn’t matter. When Brainerd tells the heartless taxman that he’d probably put his own mother in jail, Mr. Harker assures him that he already has for unreported income on her homemade jams and jellies.

In desperate need of money (and refusing to let Betsy go back to work as a secretary for his once-and-future rival, English professor Shelby Aston, again played by Elliott Reid), Brainerd gets back to work on his latest invention. Flubbergas appears to have several interesting properties but Brainerd hopes it will allow mankind to control the weather. A successful experiment made it rain inside from the steam off a boiling tea kettle. But when he tries to go bigger by aiming it at a distant cloud, it doesn’t appear to work. It does, however, shatter every last piece of glass within its reach, unbeknownst to Brainerd.

Biff, in the meantime, is working on an alternative use for Flubbergas. With his pal Humphrey (Leon Tyler, one of the basketball players from the first film) acting as guinea pig, Biff tries to create an inflatable football uniform that allows the player himself to be thrown into the end zone. His experiments aren’t entirely successful, unless his goal was to repeatedly destroy the chicken coop owned by Brainerd’s neighbor, milkman Mr. Hummel (played by Preston Sturges regular William Demarest, a couple of years before he joined the cast of MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons as Uncle Charley).

MEANWHILE meanwhile, Shelby Aston is up to his old tricks, trying to steal Betsy away from Brainard, and this time he’s brought a secret weapon. He invites Brainard’s old girlfriend, sexpot Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore), over to dinner at the Brainards. Betsy eventually becomes convinced that Desiree and Brainard have rekindled their old affair, so she leaves him, temporarily moving in with her old boss, Medfield College President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames) and his wife (Harriet MacGibbon).

As for all that broken glass, Alonzo Hawk’s insurance company has been left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in claims. He figures out that the whole thing started at Brainard’s house and proposes another crooked deal, using the Flubbergas in service of an elaborate insurance scam. Brainard refuses, of course, and Hawk threatens to bring the full force of the law down on him.

Despondent over all these setbacks, Brainard agrees to help Biff out with his project. This time, the inflatable football uniform works and Medfield trounces rival Rutland College in essentially a replay of the first film’s basketball game. Brainard has no time to savor the victory, however. Hawk makes good on his threat and the police arrive to haul Brainard off to jail.

Brainard looks to be in a tight spot until Buzz turns up at his trial with a surprise witness. It’s none other than Ed Wynn, one of the only actors from the original Absent-Minded Professor who does not reprise the same role here. Now he’s the Chief Agricultural Officer and he presents evidence that Brainard’s invention does work, just not in the way he intended. The Flubbergas has somehow supercharged the atmosphere, turning Medfield’s formerly barren farmland lush and verdant, producing giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Wynn dubs the phenomenon “dry rain”. Brainard is once again a hero and the case is dismissed, despite overwhelming evidence that he was clearly guilty of the charges he faced.

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

Believe it or not, I did not have high expectations going into Son Of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor is a fun little movie but there’s nothing about it that left me saying, “More of these characters, please.” But here’s the thing. Son Of Flubber is actually a surprisingly good, funny sequel. That is, right up to the point where, all of a sudden, it isn’t.

The first several scenes are terrific. Walsh’s screenplay takes aim at government inefficiency and absurd tax laws and lands quite a few hits. Disney had previously lobbed some softballs at Uncle Sam in Moon Pilot but the jokes here are funnier and fresher. The sequence with the ad men pitching their ludicrous products is even better. The sight of a typical suburban dad bouncing his baby off a Flubberized floor will never not be funny. This is all good stuff suggesting we’re about to get a smarter, more satirical movie than is actually coming.

The trouble starts when Walsh and Stevenson decide to refocus on Brainard’s latest experiment. From here, they seem content to simply deliver a rehash of the first film. The football game apes the rhythms and gags of the basketball game down to the second. Even Paul Lynde, making his film debut as the game’s color commentator, can’t liven things up. Once again, Brainard flies his Model T over Shelby’s car and once again, Shelby crashes into James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis, the cops from The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. This time, Brainard floods Shelby’s car with rain, which is admittedly kind of a cool effect. But the punchline to the gag is the same.

The movie’s biggest problem is its focus on Brainard and Betsy’s marital problems. Try to set aside the fact that they’re completely rooted in retrograde stereotypes. Brainard’s “no wife of mine is going to work” attitude will have modern women rolling their eyes, while modern men will (hopefully) be equally insulted by Brainard’s total inability to even feed himself without his wife. No one ever accused Disney of having progressive views on marriage.

The bigger issue is that we’ve seen all this before. The triangle between Brainard, Betsy and Shelby was already one of the weakest elements in the first film. Bringing Desiree into the mix does nothing to change that. We already know that Betsy’s willing to put up with a lot from her husband. The guy left her standing at the altar three times, for crying out loud. She ought to be smart enough to see through Shelby’s transparent attempt to wreck her marriage.

The Brainards’ marital woes are endemic of the film’s tendency to repeat itself. A love triangle was part of the first movie, so it needs to be part of the new one whether or not it makes any sense for the story or the characters. It’s also one subplot too many in a movie that’s already overstuffed with dangling plot threads. The business with the taxman is smart and funny but it’s forgotten the second Bob Sweeney leaves the picture. The same goes for the ad men and the brass down in Washington.

None of that seemed to matter much to critics and audiences in 1963. Most critics agreed that even though Son Of Flubber wasn’t as fresh and original as The Absent-Minded Professor, it still breezed by on its light, buoyant tone. Audiences turned out in droves. The movie premiered in January of 1963 and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year, behind much bigger movies like Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tom Jones and Irma la Douce. It was a bright spot in an otherwise so-so year for the studio.

I can’t end this entry without discussing the Great Flubber Fiasco of 1962-63. In the autumn of 1962, Disney teamed up with toy company Hassenfield Brothers (who would shorten their name to Hasbro by the end of the decade) to mass produce Flubber, a bouncy, stretchy glob that was more or less the same as Silly Putty.

Flubber - the Toy

Kids loved Flubber but shortly after the release of the film it was meant to promote, reports started to surface of an outbreak of skin rashes in schools nationwide. Flubber appeared to be the cause and, while nobody at Hassenfield Brothers or Disney ever stepped up to claim responsibility, the bad press was enough to doom the product. By May, Hassenfield decided to yank Flubber off the market.

This is where it gets really fun. Hassenfield Brothers now had a whole lot of potentially toxic Flubber and no idea how to get rid of it. Landfills flat out refused to accept it. Burning it produced a thick, greasy black smoke that stank up the vicinity for miles. They tried to sink it in a lake but the Flubber balls just floated right back up to the surface.

Finally, Hassenfield Bros. just did as Atari would do years later with their unwanted E.T. video game cartridges. They dug a big pit, buried the Flubber and built an employee parking lot on top of it. And supposedly, that’s where Flubber is to this day, buried beneath Delta Drive in Pawtucket, RI. Some say that on hot days, the Flubber bubbles up through cracks in the asphalt. That, along with some of the other details of the story, might be a bit of an exaggeration. But this is the kind of story where it’s more fun to print the legend.

For the time being anyway, Walt Disney was through with Flubber. The studio wouldn’t touch the stuff again until the 1988 TV remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. But we have not seen the last of Medfield College, Alonzo P. Hawk, or most of the film’s cast and crew. Almost everybody will be back in this column sooner or later. Those Disney contracts must have been written on Flubber. People keep bouncing back for more.

VERDICT: The first half is a Disney Plus but the second is a Disney Neutral at best.

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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 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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