Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Third Man on the Mountain - 1959

Walt Disney and his family had taken to vacationing in Europe and after a trip to Switzerland, Walt became infatuated with the heritage and culture. This sparked his interest in making a film set there. He finally settled on adapting a book called Banner in the Sky, which was based on a true story.

The movie was mostly filmed on location in Zermatt, Switzerland. Walt hired Ken Annakin to direct, who was used to making Disney films abroad after directing The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose. For his two leads, he turned to two of his most recent young stars. James MacArthur had previously starred in The Light in the Forest and Janet Munro was fresh off the set of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. A professional rock climber was hired to film most of the climbing sequences and the actors had two weeks of climbing training prior to shooting. Mountain filming required the crew to travel by mule, helicopter and in on instance, walk across a trechorous glacier to get some of the shots. A minimal ammount of matte paintings were used in this film, making the cinematography that much more impressive.

The film is centered around Rudi, the son of a famous mountaineer who died trying to climb the Citadel, the tallest mountain in Switzerland. One day while playing hookie from his job as a dishwasher at the town's hotel, he finds Captain Winter stranded and saves him. He is invited on an expedition, which he ruins by getting stranded and making the rest of the team come after him. Rudi spends his summer trying practicing climbing with his boss and his daughter, Lizbeth. Romance begins to bloom between them, but it is disrupted when he finds out that Captain Winter is hired another guide to help him climb the Citadel and Rudi runs after them. During the journey, Rudi finds a passage his father had found but never showed anybody which would make the Citadel climbable. On the way to the top, Rudi stays with a fellow climber who gets injured and forgoes being one of the first to reach the top. As a result, he becomes an even bigger hero than the men who made it and he is acclaimed as a hero, even though he is the third man on the mountain and not the first.

Third Man on the Mountain was released on November 10, 1959. It was a critical success and was highly acclaimed for it's magnificent location shooting, great writing and excellent performances. Unfortunately, it was a box office dud. It failed to find an audience, which was a shame because it was an expensive film to make. It was later edited and shown in parts on the Disneyland TV show, retitled Banner in the Sky, the title of the book it was based on.

It's a shame that Third Man on the Mountain never enjoyed success in later years because it really is a great film. Today it is known by most Disney fans as the inspiration for the Matterhorn attraction at Disneyland, but as a film it is well made and very enjoyable. It's a fairly simple story that is told so well that it's hard not to find yourself cheering for Rudi. That, mixed with the amazing cinematography and wonderful characters, make this one of the most underrated Disney films of all time. Film buffs should look for a cameo by Helen Hays, James MacArthur's mother.

Third Man on the Mountain was released on DVD in 2004. Sadly, it contains no bonus features. What's worse is that no restoration was done, so the print is marked with excess grain and artifacts that shouldn't be there. The film is also presented in fullscreen, which was not the normal theatrical ratio by 1959. While the film may have been theatrically released that way, it is more likely that it was filmed in fullscreen and cropped into widescreen for it's theatrical release. Due to the fact that the framing feels natural and open, I'm guessing that the DVD presents the full filmed ratio. It is available on iTunes in widescreen, where it is also available in HD.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Darby O'Gill and the Little People - 1959

After making two feature films that combined live action with animation (Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart), Walt Disney had his sights set on making a third film in a similar manner. So in 1948, Walt Disney and a team of artists went to Ireland for inspiration. While there, Walt publicly announced that he was making a film called "The Little People" based on two books by Herminie Kavanagh about a man named Darby O'Gill and the stories he told about Leprechauns. However, the idea was soon shelved when Walt got too busy with the revived feature animation department and the planning of his groundbreaking theme park, Disneyland.

Ten years later the film was put back in production, this time as an all live action feature. The title was changed to Darby O'Gill and the Little People and a new script was written by Lawrence Watkin, who wrote several earlier Disney films including Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood, and The Light in the Forest. Robert Stevenson was assigned to direct after directing Old Yeller and Johnny Tremain. He is most famous for directing Mary Poppins. Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby O'Gill after seeing him in a play. Newcomer Sean Connery was cast as well and it was this film that brought him to the attention of Albert Broccoli who cast him as James Bond. Jimmy O'Dea was cast as the king of the leprechauns, but received no screen credit because Walt wanted audiences to think that the leprechauns were real. In fact, the film even begins with a thank you note to the leprechauns from Walt.

Darby O'Gill is the caretaker of a wealthy estate where he lives with his daughter, Kate. However, his boss forces him to retire due to his age and the fact that he spends most of his time at the pub telling stories about his failed attempts to catch the king of the leprechauns. His boss sends a younger man, Michael, to take his job just as Darby is captured by the leprechauns. He escapes and is able to reverse the situation by capturing King Brian and making him grant three wishes. Darby's first wish is for the King to stay with him for two weeks while he thinks about his other wishes. Darby accidentally wastes his second wish as Katie and Michael begin to like each other, but when she finds out that he is here to take her father's job, she runs off and gets injured. As the banshee and death coach comes for Katie, Darby uses his third wish to ward it off and save her life. However, it turns out that they weren't after Katie at all and actually came for Darby. King Brian rides with Darby to inform him that Katie is alright and he releases Darby from the death coach. The film ends with Katie and Michael together and Darby living with them.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People opened on June 26th, 1959. It was critically acclaimed for its great performances, groundbreaking special effects and representation of Irish folk lore. Unfortunately, audiences didn't respond the same way. Despite a full episode of Disneyland devoted solely to promoting the release, it failed to find an audience. It was later re-released in theaters in 1964 and many of the actors voices were dubbed over due to complaints that audiences couldn't understand the dialogue. It didn't find success until it was broadcast on television.

Today, Darby O'Gill and the Little People has a moderately large fan base and has become a perennial holiday classic around St. Patrick's Day. The film really deserves more success than it has received. While sometimes slow paced, it has many qualities that make a great film. The special effects look great and most of the techniques created for this film are still in use today. Leonard Maltin considers this to be one of the best Disney films. Hopefully it will continue to gain success as new generations are introduced to this delightfully whimsical film.

Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People was released on DVD in 2004 and is still in print. The DVD boasts a new restoration, a retrospective interview with Sean Connery, a look at the special effects and the hour long episode of Disneyland that promoted the film to audiences. The DVD presents the film in fullscreen, which it claims is the original aspect ratio. However, there is a discrepancy on that issue. The original projection guides sent to movie theaters during its original release instructed them to crop it in widescreen, which would make fullscreen the incorrect aspect ratio. But when I attended a screening of the film at the D23 Expo, they presented it in fullscreen. At any rate, the fullscreen version feels perfectly framed, leading me to believe that it is indeed the correct aspect ratio. It is also available in a 4-movie collection where it is paired with The Gnome-Mobile, The Happiest Millionaire, and The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band. 

The film is also available on iTunes where it is presented in fullscreen and in HD.