Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The AristoCats

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The AristoCats

When Walt Disney died in December 1966, he left behind a handful of animated and live-action projects in varying stages of production. Four years later, that stockpile was almost gone. The AristoCats, Disney’s twentieth animated feature and first since The Jungle Book in 1967, would be the studio’s first feature-length cartoon produced entirely without Walt’s guiding hand. So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it feels a lot like some of their earlier work.

Walt was involved in the project’s earliest development. In 1961, he had tasked producer Harry Tytle and director Tom McGowan with finding animal stories for the Wonderful World Of Color TV series. McGowan had made the popular short The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and Walt wanted more stuff like that. Here’s where things get a little tricky. According to some sources, McGowan found a kid’s book about a mother cat and her three kittens set in New York City. Tytle thought New York was boring and suggested transplanting the story to Paris, since One Hundred And One Dalmatians had benefited from its London setting. Others claim that the film is inspired by a true story about a group of cats who really did inherit a fortune left them by their eccentric owner in 1910 Paris.

Now, I don’t know if either one of those stories is true. If it was a book, I don’t know who wrote it, what it was called or when it was published. And presumably Walt would have had to buy the rights to this thing if it existed. As for it being a true story, the internet has tons of stories about rich weirdos bequeathing their money to their pets. But sources that make the claim for The AristoCats are noticeably light on specifics. Could it have happened? Sure, why not. But I wouldn’t swear to it under oath.

Regardless of where the story originated, Tytle, McGowan and cowriter Tom Rowe envisioned it as a live-action production. Boris Karloff was in mind to play the devious butler, which is wild to think about. As usual, the script went through numerous revisions, none of which pleased Rowe. One by one, the original production trio of Tytle, McGowan and Rowe would either quit or be reassigned.

Sometime in 1963, Walt decided the story was better suited to animation. With the animation department fully committed to The Jungle Book, Walt put the project on hold. Shortly before his death, he handed it to longtime employee Ken Anderson. Anderson and Wolfgang Reitherman tossed out most of the old work and came up with a more cat-centric story. Walt approved the new direction and signed off on some early sketches before his death.

Once The Jungle Book was completed, the animation department turned their attention to The AristoCats (the studio has never been entirely consistent with the title stylization but since the official on-screen title has a capital “C”, that’s what I’m going with). A team of seven Disney veterans cracked the story, including Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, and Ralph Wright. Winston Hibler was originally going to produce the picture but it had been a while since he’d worked on the animation side. Most of his 60s work had been in live-action, mostly animal and nature movies like the recent King Of The Grizzlies. When Hibler ran into trouble, Reitherman took over the production.

The version of The AristoCats that hit screens on Christmas Eve, 1970, was markedly different from the one Tytle, McGowan and Rowe had come up with. A secondary human character, a maid named Elvira, was dropped entirely. New animal characters like Roquefort the mouse (voiced by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway) were either added or had their roles expanded. The Parisian atmosphere Tytle felt was so important gradually fell by the wayside. Harry Tytle walked away from animation and returned to live-action. Tom Rowe tried suing the studio but since this had always been a work-for-hire gig, he didn’t get far. It’s a surprisingly bumpy origin for what ended up being a pleasant but innocuous movie.

Quad poster for The AristoCats

I don’t necessarily want to say The AristoCats straight-up borrows elements that worked in earlier Disney movies but it’s impossible not to see the similarities. The family of cats trying to make their way home across the French countryside recalls One Hundred And One Dalmatians. The dynamic between Duchess and O’Malley gives off some serious Lady And The Tramp vibes. And while The AristoCats team reportedly tried to differentiate Phil Harris’s O’Malley from his performance in The Jungle Book, they didn’t try very hard. O’Malley is basically Baloo in cat form.

The story of The AristoCats is one of the simplest in the Disney library. Madame Bonfamille (voiced by Disney regular Hermione Baddeley, last seen in The Happiest Millionaire) is a retired opera star living alone in Paris with her beloved cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), and her three kittens, Berlioz (Dean Clark), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Marie (Liz English). She sends for her ancient lawyer, Georges (Charles Lane, last seen in The Gnome-Mobile), to dictate her will. She wants to leave her entire estate to her cats. Once their nine lives are up, the rest will go to her devoted butler, Edgar (British comedian and performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby).

Being paid to live in a Parisian mansion with a bunch of cats sounds like a pretty sweet gig to me but it’s not enough for Edgar. He wants to inherit the whole thing right away, so he douses the cats’ cream with sleeping tablets and abandons them far out in the country. He may have had a more insidious plan in mind but his motorcycle ride is interrupted by a couple of farm dogs, Napoleon and Lafayette (voiced by Gabor’s Green Acres costar Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsey from The Andy Griffith Show…don’t bother asking why two French dogs sound like hicks from the American South).

The cats aren’t on their own for long before they meet Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley, an easygoing alley cat. O’Malley finagles a ride back to Paris on a milk truck, then ends up going along when Marie falls off and needs rescuing. And in a lot of ways, that’s kind of the whole story. Oh sure, other stuff happens. The cats meet up with a couple of vacationing British geese (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) and their drunk Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson in his final role). Edgar has to go back and retrieve some incriminating evidence from Napoleon and Lafayette. And, of course, we meet O’Malley’s jazz-loving friends, led by Scat Cat (the great Scatman Crothers, stepping in to voice a role originally intended for Louis Armstrong). But none of it really advances the story.

Things wrap up when Duchess and the kittens get back home and O’Malley reluctantly says goodbye. But they’re quickly intercepted by Edgar, who locks them in a trunk bound for Timbuktu. Roquefort runs after O’Malley, who sends him off for the other alley cats. The animals all team up to defeat Edgar and O’Malley ends up becoming a stepfather to the kittens. The movie’s practically over before you even realize it got started.

The AristoCats re-release poster

Now, there are a lot of problems with The AristoCats and many of them revolve around Edgar. He is by far the least interesting villain Disney ever came up with. His plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially considering Madame Bonfamille seems a long way from kicking the bucket. Even if he had succeeded in getting rid of the cats, what’s to stop her from just going out and adopting more? If your bad guy’s evil plan is essentially to wait patiently, your central conflict might not be as dramatic as you think.

The AristoCats also manages to feel both needlessly padded out and like it’s missing pieces at the same time. Napoleon and Lafayette are fun characters, so I understand the desire to bring them back. But why do they never once interact with the cats themselves? They really feel like they’re in their own movie that has nothing to do with Duchess and O’Malley.

There’s a similar problem with the geese. Practically their entire journey to Paris takes place off-screen. One minute they’re in the middle of nowhere, the next they’re walking up to the café. They’re pretty important characters for a hot second, then they wander off, never to be seen again. Unlike the dogs, the geese aren’t really funny enough to make much impression. They’re just kind of there until they’re not and you forget all about them.

At this point, you’re probably thinking I don’t like The AristoCats all that much. That’s not actually true. It’s a testament to the Disney animation crew that this is still an enjoyable movie despite its familiarity and story problems. In a way, it feels like Walt Disney’s Greatest Hits. There’s nothing remotely new here but the band can still play all your old favorites and that’s just fine.

A big part of what makes The AristoCats work is the music. This isn’t really a musical, in the sense that you could remove every single song and not effect the story one iota. The Sherman Brothers wrote quite a few songs but most of them ended up not being used. Of the few that made the cut, “Scales & Arpeggios” walks a fine line between endearing and annoying. I think it’s cute but I’d understand if someone hated it.

The Shermans also contributed the title song, which is probably the most French thing about the movie. Maurice Chevalier had retired after his appearance in Monkeys, Go Home! back in 1967 but the Shermans were able to coax him back for one last recording session. It ended up being his final work before his death in 1972.

Terry Gilkyson’s Jungle Book song, “The Bare Necessities”, had been nominated for an Oscar, so it makes sense that Disney would want him to come up with another signature song for Phil Harris. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” does not stray far from the “Bare Necessities” formula. It’s an okay song but nowhere near as memorable as Baloo’s big number.

Of course, the song everyone remembers is “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. Huddleston and Rinker first teamed up in the late 40s, writing hundreds of songs at Decca Records. This would be Rinker’s only work at Disney but we’ll see Huddleston in this column again. Their AristoCats song doesn’t sound much like anything you’d have heard in 1910 but it’s pretty terrific, changing direction repeatedly and building to a show-stopping finale.

The whole sequence is lively and beautifully animated, which makes the lazy ethnic stereotyping of the cats even more unfortunate. Supposedly these cats have names but in the credits, they’re just referred to as Russian Cat (the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft), Italian Cat (Vito Scotti, who we just saw in The Boatniks), English Cat (Lord Tim Hudson, one of the Beatle Vultures in The Jungle Book) and (sigh) Chinese Cat (Paul Winchell, immediately recognizable as the voice of Tigger). And sure, all four of them are broad, over-the-top exaggerations, so it’s not like anyone was going out of their way to specifically insult Asians. But Chinese Cat is the one everyone singles out because he is objectively terrible.

We’ve already seen plenty of examples of Disney’s…shall we say…checkered history of depicting people (and animals) of color and no doubt we’ll see even more. And yes, it is important to view these films within the context of their times and Disney was by no means alone in perpetuating Asian stereotypes. But it is worth noting that these kinds of Asian characters held on a lot longer than stereotypes of other cultures and ethnicities and movies like The AristoCats are partially to blame.

Obviously, the studio thought whatever Paul Winchell was doing was funny and this was going to be a breakout character. He’s the only member of the band singled out with a character box on the original poster above. That poster actually makes it worse by referring to him as “Oriental Cat”. It also says he’s the leader of the band, which isn’t true. Scat Cat is clearly in charge. The character’s bad enough as it is without calling attention to him and trying to build him up. So while we should be able to look back at The AristoCats and forgive it as a product of less enlightened attitudes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cringe a little (or a lot) when Chinese Cat pops up.

The AristoCats quad re-release poster

Despite its flaws, The AristoCats was a big hit, winning over audiences and most critics. It did even better overseas, becoming the highest grossing film of 1971 in the UK, Germany and even France. The painted Parisian backgrounds are genuinely lovely. Maybe the movie plays more authentically when it’s dubbed in French.

It’s a little surprising that Disney has yet to return to The AristoCats well, although it’s not for lack of trying. Back in 2000, the studio began developing an animated TV series based on the film that would have followed teenage versions of Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz. Then in 2005, Disneytoon Studios, the direct-to-video branch of the company, announced they’d be making The Aristocats 2. This was going to be a computer-animated feature following the older Marie as she falls in love. Those plans were dropped after John Lasseter took the reins of the studio, realized almost all the Disneytoon movies were garbage that cheapened the brand, and shut the whole thing down. Now the studio is working on a live-action remake because of course they are.

Whether or not the public realized it at the time, the legendary Disney animation studio was in trouble. Without Walt to steer the ship, the department was beginning to cut corners and recycle proven formulas. We’ve already been seeing fewer and fewer animated features in this column. Sad to say, that trend is only going to continue. It’s a shame because The AristoCats proves that even an uninspired Disney cartoon is still pretty darn good.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Happiest Millionaire

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood studios pumped millions of dollars into lavish epic musical extravaganzas and when they hit, they hit big. Disney had first-hand experience with this. In 1964, Mary Poppins became a phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film in the studio’s history and winning five Oscars. Needless to say, Walt wanted to do that again. But The Happiest Millionaire, which ended up being the last live-action film released bearing Walt Disney’s personal thumbprint, failed to recapture that old Poppins magic.

The Happiest Millionaire was based on a play by Kyle Crichton (no apparent relation to Michael Crichton, despite what IMDb may say), which was in turn based on My Philadelphia Father, a book Crichton cowrote with Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The Happiest Millionaire was not a musical when Walt acquired the rights to it. It was evidently Mary Poppins producer Bill Walsh’s idea to turn it into one. But Walt didn’t keep Walsh on the project. Instead, he turned it over to Bill Anderson, who had produced a lot of things for the studio (most recently The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin) but no musicals.

Anderson wasn’t the only one making his first musical. Screenwriter A.J. Carothers had been responsible for such non-singing-and-dancing films as Miracle Of The White Stallions and Emil And The Detectives. The closest Norman Tokar had come to directing a musical sequence was Fred MacMurray leading his boy scouts in the title song of Follow Me, Boys! That tune had been written by house songsmiths Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Once again, they’d be the ones primarily responsible for guiding the musical elements of the show.

Walt again cast his favorite leading man, Fred MacMurray, in the starring role. MacMurray was not the Shermans’ first choice (or, indeed, their second or third). They hoped to get Rex Harrison, star of My Fair Lady. But Walt had the final say on all casting decisions, so once he got his heart set on MacMurray, nobody else really stood a chance. You can understand why the Shermans might have wanted someone else. Despite his background as a saxophonist and vocalist early in his career, MacMurray wasn’t exactly known as a song-and-dance man anymore.

Second billing went to Disney newcomer Tommy Steele. Steele had become a star about a decade earlier in the UK. Considered Britain’s first rock and roll star, Tommy hit the top of the pops with songs like “Singing The Blues”. He made his movie debut (as himself) in 1957’s The Tommy Steele Story (released in this country as Rock Around The World because nobody over here had any idea who Tommy Steele was).

With his broad, toothy grin and ingratiating manner, Tommy Steele was an unlikely pop star, even by late ‘50s England standards. Still, he continued to be a big deal across the pond for a number of years. As the 1960s opened, Steele left rock ‘n’ roll behind to focus on acting. In 1963, he appeared on the West End in Half A Sixpence, a new musical developed specifically around his talents. Steele later took the show to Broadway and reprised the role again in the film version, which was made right after he finished work on The Happiest Millionaire.

Tommy Steele has a big, playing to the rafters energy that makes him an ideal musical theatre star. I’m sure seeing him live on stage was quite a treat. Heck, it may still be quite a treat. Now 84, the recently knighted entertainer was still performing as recently as 2018 in The Glenn Miller Story in London. But on the big screen, Tommy can be a lot. He’s the first character we meet in The Happiest Millionaire and his opening number, “Fortuosity”, reminds me a little bit of the “You’re Gonna Like Me” song Gabbo introduces himself with on The Simpsons.

“Fortuosity” sets the stage for everything that works and doesn’t work about The Happiest Millionaire. It’s a pretty good song that effectively sets up the story. Steele plays John Lawless, fresh off the boat from Ireland in Philadelphia, on his way to start a new job working for an elegant millionaire and his elegant family. The song is built around one of the Shermans’ favorite devices, a completely made-up word that the song defines. And Steele sells the hell out of the song, giving it all he’s worth.

It feels like the song is going to be one of those big Broadway-style opening numbers but that never really happens. Steele sings and dances all over the elaborate Main Street USA set, which is thoroughly populated by pedestrians in their best 1916 finery. But those passersby really do just pass on by. Nobody once joins in. Now in a musical, when you’ve got an energetic, effervescent guy singing and dancing up a storm, you kind of expect his enthusiasm to be contagious. But if life goes on like normal all around him, he just looks crazy.

At any rate, John arrives at the Biddle house where housekeeper Mrs. Worth (Hermione Baddeley, possibly wearing her old Mary Poppins costume) makes vague allusions to the family’s eccentricities. He gets an example of this almost immediately as patriarch Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) bursts in demanding chocolate cake and complaining that one of his alligators bit his finger. This, we soon discover, is not a euphemism. Lawless also meets the Biddle children, Cordelia or “Cordy” (Lesley Ann Warren), Tony (Paul Petersen) and Livingston (Eddie Hodges). All four are wearing identical turtlenecks emblazoned “Biddle Bible Class”, making the whole family look a bit like a cult.

Now at this point, I had to stop watching the movie to try and figure out what the hell was going on. Who are these people? Turns out, the movie is more or less based on a true story. The real Anthony J. Drexel Biddle’s family fortune gave him the freedom to focus on his passions: boxing and the Bible. He was a proponent of something called “Athletic Christianity” and considered a bit of a kook by Philadelphia’s upper crust. And he did in fact raise alligators for some reason.

Maybe if you live in Pennsylvania, the Biddles are more commonly known and you already knew this. But I had no idea and the movie makes no effort to clue us in. The movie is a bit reminiscent of Life With Father, another semi-autobiographical Broadway show depicting family life in the 1880s. But in that case, you don’t really need to know who the Day family really was because they’re presented as a fairly typical New York family of the era. The Biddles are anything but typical. The movie just throws us into the deep end with these folks and hopes we’ll figure it out as we go along, which makes the madly grinning John Lawless our guide and surrogate. Heaven help us.

Theatrical release poster for The Happiest Millionaire

The film’s primary conflict is between father and daughter, Cordy. Like her brothers, Cordy has been raised to be a fighter, which doesn’t help attract gentlemen callers. (The brothers are given one song, “Watch Your Footwork”, to size up a potential suitor, then completely disappear from the movie altogether.) Worried about Cordy’s future, Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) arranges for her to attend a private boarding school. Biddle isn’t sold on the idea but Cordy enthusiastically agrees to the arrangement.

At school, Cordy attends a dance hosted by some more rich relatives. Here, she meets Angier Buchanan Duke (played by future game show host John Davidson). “Angie” is expected to take his rightful place in the family’s tobacco business but what he really wants to do is move to Detroit and design cars. Angie and Cordy get engaged and Mr. Biddle is won over by the young man’s knowledge of jiu-jitsu. But the road to the altar hits a snag when Cordy realizes Angie won’t stand up to his domineering mother (Geraldine Page).

The wedding is called off and John Lawless, who has become a vital member of the household, follows Angie to a nearby bar. John gets him good and drunk, starting a barroom brawl that lands him in jail. Mr. Biddle comes to bail him out and, with a little reverse psychology, persuades Angie to run off to Detroit with Cordy and elope.

Now from that description, you may have noticed that The Happiest Millionaire appears to primarily be about Cordy and Angie and not so much about the top-billed stars, Fred MacMurray and Tommy Steele. This is true but both MacMurray and Steele still have plenty to do. As World War I draws near, Mr. Biddle makes repeated trips to Washington, offering to train men in the art of hand-to-hand combat. A new maid accidentally leaves a window open, freezing the alligators in blocks of ice. Somehow they manage to survive and Lawless spends several minutes trying to round the gators up. But all this business is just window dressing to the main romance.

The love story is not all that compelling in and of itself and the Shermans’ love songs, like “Are We Dancing?”, are the weakest parts of their score. If you end up caring about these people at all, it’s thanks entirely to the likable performances of Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson. Warren came to Walt’s attention after she starred in the TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Davidson also came from television, appearing in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Fantasticks and hosting The Kraft Summer Music Hall variety show. Both were making their film debuts in The Happiest Millionaire and they’ll both be back in this column before long.

Both Warren and Davidson are capable singers and dancers but the Shermans don’t do them any favors. The songs they’re given are either boring (the aforementioned “Are We Dancing?”), ridiculous (“Bye-Yum Pum Pum”, a duet between Warren and Joyce Bulifant that’s essentially a rewrite of “Feminity” from Summer Magic) or both (“Valentine Candy”, Warren’s solo lament in which she tries to decide if she’s “valentine candy or boxing gloves”).

Davidson at least gets to participate in the film’s biggest, most energetic number. “Let’s Have A Drink On It” is a rousing setpiece, led confidently by Tommy Steele. Here, finally, is the big, cinematic musical number that “Fortuosity” should have been. It comes a little late in the proceedings to solve everything but it’s a taste of what a better version of this movie might look like.

Tommy Steele is certainly a unique screen presence and it’s a little disappointing that he won’t be back in this column. After this, he only made one more Hollywood film, appearing as Og the leprechaun in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow. He then made a couple more British movies before returning to the stage for good. That was probably the right choice and it certainly seemed to work out well for him. But a part of me wishes he’d stuck around to inject more of his sugar rush energy into a few more Disney movies.

Comic book adaptation of The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire premiered in Hollywood on June 23, 1967. Intended as a roadshow attraction, it made its way across the country gradually with higher, reserved-seating prices. In November, it was booked at Radio City Music Hall as their Christmas attraction. But since it would be playing with a live stage show, the venue demanded that it be cut down. Twenty minutes were chopped out, bringing it from 164 minutes to 144. As the roadshow experiment faltered, the studio cut it down even further. By the time it made it into general release, the running time had been slashed to just under two hours.

One of the first things to go had been the song “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas”, sung by Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) as her husband struggles with empty nest syndrome. It’s actually one of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs in the entire movie. Fortunately, Disney has restored the complete roadshow version and that’s the one you can find on Disney+.

Casting Oscar winner Greer Garson as Mrs. Biddle must have been quite a coup for Disney. She was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, racking up seven Academy Award nominations over the course of her distinguished career. But she’d slowed down considerably in recent years, making occasional TV appearances and appearing in the Debbie Reynolds vehicle The Singing Nun. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do here, either. But “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” is a nice spotlight for her and a tender moment among all the other wacky shenanigans.

When all was said and done, The Happiest Millionaire only earned about $5 million at the box office, just about enough to break even. The movie did mange to get a single Oscar nomination for Bill Thomas’s costume designs (it lost to another mega-musical, Camelot) and Tommy Steele was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Most Promising Newcomer – Male category (he lost to an even more promising newcomer, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). But the general consensus was that The Happiest Millionaire simply didn’t work.

It’d be nice to say that the general consensus was wrong and that Walt Disney’s last live-action project is really a misunderstood gem. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. There are individual moments in The Happiest Millionaire that sparkle but the whole thing never really comes together. Walt was nothing if not ambitious. But in this case, his ambitions got away from him and ended up smothering a project that never quite figures out what it wants to be.

VERDICT: This is almost (but not quite) a Disney Plus buried inside a Disney Minus.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

In the pantheon of Disney stars, Roddy McDowall’s name does not loom as large as Fred MacMurray or Dean Jones. Beginning with That Darn Cat!, McDowall appeared in four Disney pictures and lent his voice to a couple more. But unlike MacMurray or Jones, Roddy McDowall was always more of a character actor than a leading man. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin suggests that maybe the studio should have given him more starring roles.

Roddy McDowall was nine years old when he received his first screen credit on the 1938 British mystery Murder In The Family (Glynis Johns, another future Disney star, played his sister). His family came to America in the early days of World War II. He was cast almost immediately upon his arrival in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. That Oscar-winning film turned McDowall from a child actor into a child star. Throughout the 1940s, he starred in such films as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home.

As McDowall grew older, he evaded the pitfalls of most child stars by taking control of his career. By 1948, he began producing some of his own films including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, another future Disney project. He moved to New York to take acting classes and focus on the stage. His performances in shows like Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, erased the child star image.

By the time Disney cast him in That Darn Cat!, McDowall had gone back to Hollywood. In addition to regular TV appearances, he joined the ensembles of such big-budget epics as Cleopatra and The Longest Day. In 1967 alone, the year The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was released, he also starred in the films The Cool Ones and It!, had a supporting role in a TV production of the play Saint Joan, guest starred on an episode of The Invaders, and voiced the cricket in the Rankin/Bass holiday cartoon Cricket On The Hearth. And that was pretty much the pace he kept up for the rest of his life. Nobody ever accused Roddy McDowall of resting on his laurels.

Like a lot of these lesser-known live-action entries, there’s not a whole lot out there about the making of The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. I can’t say if the project was developed specifically with McDowall in mind or if he was cast later. Either way, the role suits the actor perfectly. It isn’t exactly a challenging role and no doubt other actors could have done well with it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else having as much fun as McDowall appears to be having here.

Lowell S. Hawley, whose last Disney film had been the odd but still kind of enjoyable A Tiger Walks, based his screenplay on the excellently titled book By The Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman. Fleischman was a former journalist who started out writing novels inspired by his own experiences in the Navy stationed in the Pacific. One of those books provided the basis for the John Wayne movie Blood Alley, with a script by Fleischman himself. In 1962, he turned his attention to children’s books, many of which incorporate stage magic, a childhood passion of his. Fleischman went on to write countless books for young readers, including the Bloodhound Gang adventures from the PBS series 3-2-1 Contact.

This would be the last Disney feature for director James Neilson. Neilson’s time at the studio showed him to be a pretty schizophrenic director. He was capable of terrific work, like the TV production Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. But he was also responsible for two of the studio’s worst, the sci-fi misfire Moon Pilot and the strained European shenanigans of Bon Voyage! Based on those two duds, I was prepared to say that comedy just wasn’t his forte. But The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is genuinely funny, so either he was keeping this talent a secret or even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Our story opens in 1848 Boston as Arabella Flagg (Suzanne Pleshette) and her younger brother, Jack (Bryan Russell, last seen in Emil And The Detectives), discover that their late father has left them flat broke. Determined to rebuild the family fortune, Jack stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco. The family butler, Griffin (McDowall), tries to bring him home but the ship departs before they can get back ashore.

En route to San Francisco, Griffin and Jack meet Quentin Bartlett (Richard Haydn, the voice of the Caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland). Bartlett has a map to a gold mine and agrees to partner up with the two newcomers. But before they even make it to port, the map is stolen by wily crook Judge Higgins (Karl Malden, light years away from his role as the kindly Reverend Ford in Pollyanna).

The west proves to be as wild wild as promised and the gold hunters soon run afoul of a burly thug named Mountain Ox (perennial Hollywood tough guy Mike Mazurki, not seen in this column since Davy Crockett). Griffin knocks him out with a slug from a glove filled with gold nuggets, earning him the nickname “Bullwhip”. Sam Trimble (Harry Guardino), the owner of the local saloon, offers Griffin a big payday to go head-to-head with the Ox in the boxing ring. Not wanting to risk a rematch, the team hits the road to pursue Judge Higgins.

What follows is not a plot so much as an extremely episodic and convoluted series of events. Our heroes find the map, then lose the map, then find the map’s been damaged. They find gold, then lose it all to Judge Higgins, who then loses it himself. Higgins dons an array of disguises and almost ends up getting hung but manages to escape. Transitions between scenes are accomplished through charming, old-timey animations by Ward Kimball. It all feels pretty random but it’s never less than amusing.

Bullwhip and Jack eventually make their way back to San Francisco, where they find Arabella has taken a job dancing (and singing some mildly saucy Sherman Brothers songs) at Sam Trimble’s saloon. Sam reminds Griffin that his offer to fight Mountain Ox still stands. Broke and wanting to protect Arabella’s virtue, Griffin agrees. While Bullwhip and Ox essentially turn into live-action cartoons for the fight, Judge Higgins disguises himself yet again to rob the saloon. Bullwhip manages to eke out a victory but a fire breaks out when someone tries to apprehend Higgins. The money is recovered, Griffin and Arabella fall in love and all is right with the world.

Needless to say, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is absolutely, 100%, top-to-bottom ridiculous. If you’re looking for a compelling, historically accurate look at the California Gold Rush, keep on moving. If you want a movie that’s completely devoid of racial stereotypes, it ain’t this one. Its portrayal of Mexicans and especially Chinese is indefensible. The version currently available on Disney+ notes that it has been edited for content, so apparently this is the less offensive version. But the tone is so light and James Neilson does such a good job keeping the story bouncing along, none of that really matters.

This is the kind of movie that lives or dies on the strength of its cast. Neilson assembled a top-notch group more than capable of putting this over. Roddy McDowall is first-rate. He’s very funny as the straightlaced, exceedingly proper English butler. Somehow, he manages to keep that reserve throughout the movie. Even when he’s literally bouncing around the boxing ring, he never seems to be overacting or mugging for the camera. He strikes just the right balance.

Karl Malden appears to be having a real hoot as the villainous Judge Higgins. Growing up, I always had this image of Malden as a very serious actor known for playing working-class stiffs and making American Express sound like the only thing standing between you and chaos. It’s always a pleasure to see him let loose and have some fun. Unfortunately, this will be his last appearance in this column. Karl Malden was a terrific actor but his two Disney performances tend to be dismissed as silly trifles. They were but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. They show different sides of his personality than he was usually asked to deliver and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the rest of his impressive body of work.

My biggest complaint with The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is that it could have used more Suzanne Pleshette. Arabella gives her a bit more to do than her role in The Ugly Dachschund. She gets to sing and dance and assert her independence a little (not a lot, this is still 1967 Disney we’re talking about). But she’s basically absent for the movie’s long middle stretch. Bullwhip’s adventures would have been a lot more fun if Arabella had been part of them. Not to worry, though. We’ll be seeing Pleshette back in this column again real soon.

Neilson fills out his cast with plenty of familiar, reliable Disney faces including Hermione Baddeley (Mary Poppins), Cecil Kellaway (The Shaggy Dog), Alan Carney (Monkeys, Go Home!), Parley Baer (Follow Me, Boys!), and Arthur Hunnicutt (A Tiger Walks). Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Bryan Russell. He isn’t bad or actively annoying like some Disney child stars. He just doesn’t pop on screen the way somebody like Kurt Russell (no relation) might have. Half the time, I forgot he was even there.

Evidently, Bryan Russell’s heart wasn’t really in show business anyway. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was his last film, not just for Disney but for anyone. I’m not sure what exactly became of him after that. I know he got married, had a couple kids, and passed away in 2016 but that’s about it. If anybody has more information, I’d love to hear it.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is on Disney+ even in what I’m guessing is a mildly censored form. Critics weren’t crazy about it, although a few liked it, including a young Roger Ebert who had just started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. It wasn’t a hit at the box office, either. But it does seem to have a little bit of a cult following, which I suppose I would now consider myself a part of. This is a fun, goofy movie that’s hard to dislike. It should have made Roddy McDowall as big a Disney star as Dean Jones.    

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

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

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!