Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monkeys, Go Home - 1967

Walt Disney died on December 15th, 1966 and left behind a studio of talented people to carry on his legacy. However, it would take more than a year for audiences to stop seeing his direct influence. Monkeys, Go Home was the first film released after his death, but production had been fully wrapped before his death. It's based on a book called The Monkeys by G.K. Wilinson, and since monkeys were featured in Disney films almost as much as dogs its no wonder that it was selected for adaptation. And with Dean Jones quickly becoming the studios biggest star, Walt was looking for other projects for him.

Andrew V. McLaglen was chosen to direct his only Disney film after much success directing for TV. Maurice Tombragel adapted the screenplay after writing a Disney film that featured a chimp called Moon Pilot. Maurice Chevalier costars with Dean Jones in his final film performance. He previously starred in In Search of the Castaways and had an album of Disney songs on Disneyland Records. French actress Yvette Mimieux stars as Jones' love interest. She would return to the studio years later in The Black Hole. The rest of the cast was filled with French actors who were flown to California for the shoot. Most of the film was shot at the Disney Studio and on location nearby. Many of the Zorro sets were redressed to be an Italian village. The Sherman Brothers wrote a song for the film called "Joie De Vivre."

The film begins with footage of a car driving through the Italian countryside as the credits play. A man named Hank gets out of the car in the village to pick up the deed to an olive farm he inherited. Father Sylvain arrives to welcome him and tells him it will be impossible for him to harvest the olives himself without a large family. Father Sylvain sends a pretty girl named Maria to help Hank get settled, meanwhile he sends for four girl monkeys he worked with in the US Air Force. Maria helps Hank train them to pick olives. When a greedy man who wants Hank's land finds out, he convinces the village to protest against the monkeys, viewing them as a threat for their jobs. Hank brings the monkeys to the village and they melt the hearts of the locals, who give up their protest. However, he then finds out that the olive buyers won't buy olives picked by monkeys. To convince someone to buy his olives, he offers them rights to all of the olives in the village by having his monkeys pick the other farmer's olives free of charge. Maria falls for Hank who doesn't return the favor and they have a fight, just as a woman arrives claiming to be Hank's cousin and co-owner of the olive farm. Maria uses the monkeys to scare her away and Hank realizes he loves her. When the wind comes to blow the olives down, the town is overjoyed to have the help of Hank's monkeys. However, Maria buys a male monkey to add to the family and it distracts the girls, who stop picking olives and try to get his attention. Father Sylvain gives a speech to the village about helping your neighbors and the village helps hank pick the rest of the olives. The film ends with Hank proposing to Maria.

Monkeys, Go Home premiered on February 2nd, 1967 and was released on February 8th. Critics agreed that it was full of monkey humor, but claimed that viewers who don't enjoy monkey antics would find it unenjoyable. It didn't do well at the box office and premiered on The Wonderful World of Color in 1970. It was released on home video in 1987.

Critics may have been too harsh on the film in 1967 because the monkeys don't receive as much screen time as they claimed. The film is really about Hank's struggles to succeed as an olive farmer. However, compared to other Dean Jones Disney comedies, it clearly isn't as good and it's easy to see why audiences weren't as receptive to it as The Ugly Dachshund. But if you enjoy Disney animal comedies, you will find yourself amused by Monkey's, Go Home. A field of olive trees were planted next to the animation building at the Walt Disney Studios, which remained there for years until a parking structure was built over the land.

Monkeys, Go Home is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally released in widescreen 1.75:1. A minor restoration has been done, but the picture does suffer from white artifacts. There aren't any bonus features. The film is available on iTunes in widescreen, where it is also available in HD. This film is unlikely to get another physical release on DVD or Blu-Ray, so this may be the only way to own the film in widescreen.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Follow Me, Boys - 1966

Walt Disney was a true American and did many things during his career to help the nation, including handing over his studio during World War II as an army base and making short propaganda films to help the effort. Follow Me, Boys is dedicated to the Boy Scouts of America, an institution that close to Walt's heart. The film is based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor from 1954 called God and My Country. In 1965 Walt Disney released a sentimental film about small town life called Those Calloways that was a box office failure, and in many ways Follow Me, Boys seems like an attempt to correct what went wrong with that film.

Louis Pelletier adapted the screenplay and Norman Tokar directs, the same screenwriter and director from Those Calloways. Fred MacMurray stars alongside some other famous Disney actors. Vera Miles plays his wife after starring in Those Calloways. Luana Patten returned to the studio for the final time after starting her career as a child actor in Song of the South. It was also the film debut of young Kurt Russell, who would become the studio's biggest star for the next decade. Other familiar faces include Elliott Reid (The Absent-Minded Professor), Donald May (A Tiger Walks) and Parley Baer (The Ugly Dachshund). This was the last film for Charles Ruggles, most recognizable as the grandpa in The Parent Trap. Exterior filming was done on Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, with interior sets filmed on the Disney Studio lot. The original working title throughout production was On My Honor. The title was changed when the Sherman Brothers wrote a song for the film called "Follow Me, Boys."

The film opens with footage of a bus driving through the country as the credits roll and title song plays. Inside the bus is a traveling band. After an emergency stop in a small town called Hickory, one of the band members named Lem meets a bank teller named Vida and falls for her. He decides to stay there and gets a job in the general store. He wins Vida over by volunteering to be scout master for to start a local boy scouts troop. He meets her again later while out on a walk with his troop. Her car breaks down and the troop pushes her back. On their first date, they see a boy named Whitey stealing from the store. He hurts his ankle and Lem helps bind it and doesn't turn him in. Whitey has an alcoholic father and is the only boy in town who hasn't joined the troop. After Lem and Vida get married, he catches Whitey spying on his troop and he gets in a fight with one of the boys. When Lem steps in, he gets Whitey to join the troop. Shortly after, Vida discovers that she is incapable of having kids. At parents night for the troop. Whitey's father embarrasses him when he shows up drunk. Later that night, his father dies of a heart disorder and Lem and Vida take him in. Several years later with a new troop, Lem is kicked off the land he's been using for the scouts all these years. The owner, Mrs. Seibert, is fighting her greedy nephew who claims she is mentally unfit and is now in control of the land. Lem helps prove that she is sane in court. Whitey returns from war with his new wife and when the store owner dies, he leaves it to Lem. As Lem gets older and his health starts to turn, Whitey convinces the scouts to stop letting him be their leader since he won't step down willingly. However, they make him "scout master emeritus" and hold a big parade for him, during which every boy from every troop he ever lead shows up to congratulate him. He is also presented with an honorary law degree, which is what he would have done with his life if he hadn't been a scout master.

Follow Me, Boys premiered on August 1st, 1966 and opened in theaters on December 1st. Critics were hard on the film claiming it was full of cliches and that it was too saccharine. However, audiences disagreed wholeheartedly and the film was a success, grossing almost $6 million.  It was rereleased in 1976 edited down from 131 minutes to 107 minutes. It made its TV debut in 1981 and was released on home video in 1984.

I'm not a big fan of Those Calloways, but I think Follow Me, Boys achieves the same desired results in a more successful way. It's a truly heartfelt film that will make you feel good and it has some of the trademark Disney fun along the way. I think critics in 1966 were overly harsh on it. While the runtime is a little long and the film allows the audience to get bored a few times, the payoff at the end is worth the wait. Kurt Russell gives an amazing performance to a role that could have been very unlikeable in lesser hands. And the adult cast rise to the challenge of playing characters at two very different ages because the film takes place over the course of twenty-some years. Some of the opening credits are jokes, including crediting the town of Hickory and listing its population (the film was made entirely in California near the studio). 

The last time Walt Disney appeared on film was for an introduction to a special engagement screening of Follow Me, Boys during which he advertised some of his upcoming projects, including Blackbeard's Ghost, The Happiest Millionaire and The Gnome Mobile. D23 has made this video available to the general public as part of an episode of their Armchair Archivists series, which is presented below:
Follow Me, Boys is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, although its original theatrical presentation was widescreen 1.75:1. There doesn't appear to have been a restoration. The film flickers and is plagued with white specks and discoloration. The first four minutes also feature a bright yellow boarder surrounding the picture. Bonus features include interviews with several of the boys that played the boy scouts and a photo gallery of publicity material. The film is available on iTunes in widescreen and in HD, but the digital copy does not come with any of the bonus features.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fighting Prince of Donegal - 1966

Walt Disney started his foray into all live-action film making with British Adventures like Treasure Island and The Story of Robin Hood. As he branched out into other styles and genres, he abandoned these roots and hadn't made one in that style since 1960's Kidnapped. While he continued to make films abroad, they became less adventurous and more heartfelt in nature. Perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic, he drew inspiration from a novel called Red Hugh, Prince of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly, loosely based on a true story.

British writer Robert Westerby adapted the screenplay, his last before retiring and after several for Disney including Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives of Thomasina. TV director Michael O'Herlihy directs his first of two Disney films. Peter McEnery was cast in the lead role after starring in The Moon-Spinners. Susan Hampshire was cast opposite him after playing the beautiful witch in The Three Lives of Thomasina. This was the last Disney film for both. All of the matte paintings were done by Peter Ellenshaw. The film was shot entirely in the UK, with interior sets filmed at Pinewood Studios.

The film begins with opening credits and Scottish family crests over a green satin curtain. The story begins in Ireland in 1587, which is occupied by the English. There is a legend that "When Hugh succeeds Hugh, Irland will be free." When Red Hugh's father dies and he takes his place as leader of the O'Donnell clan, he has a plan to unite all of the clans and fight against the English. When Hugh and McSweeny are Hugh are invited aboard a British ship for what they think is a peaceful dinner, Hugh is taken captive because they were tipped off that they were planning to rebel and he was their leader. He is placed in a prison with other Irish rebels and with a little help, he is able to escape. However, he quickly ends up back in prison. McSweeny and his daughter Kathleen visit the prison and get the captain to agree to let her visit Hugh. On their visit, she professes her love for him and promises to wait for him to get out. He escapes again, taking several other prisoners with him. They spend the night with a family of nice ladies and narrowly escape an inspection by British soldiers. Meanwhile, the British invade Donegal and say they won't leave until Hugh turns himself in. He instead takes war against his own castle. After conquering his own castle, he takes the captain as a prisoner until the other Irish men are released from their wrongful imprisonment. The film ends with all of the clans celebrating inside the castle.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal was released on October 1st, 1966. Critics gave it mixed reviews. Those that liked it praised it for being a great family-oriented swashbuckler. Those that were harsh cited the liberties it took with history and the fact that the action was watered down to be suitable for kids. It wasn't a big hit at the box office and premiered on the Wonderful World of Color a year later in 1967. It was released on home video in 1986.

Compared to other Disney films of this nature, it's much better than Rob Roy, but not as good as The Story of Robin Hood or Kidnapped. While there are comedic bits, none of them are very funny and the film is plagued by a slow pace. The most enjoyable part of the story for me was the budding romance between Hugh and Kathleen, but it doesn't get much screen time. The actors all give great performances, but the film would have benefited from a few scene omissions to keep the pace up. The production is lavish with many big sets made just for this film and many action sequences. The fact that it cost so much to make and didn't turn a profit made it clear to the studio that they should get out of the swashbuckler genre, and indeed they wouldn't make another for several decades until 1993's The Three Musketeers.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in fullscreen, although its original theatrical aspect ratio was widescreen 1.85:1. A restoration has been done and the print is free of major flaws and excess grain. There aren't any bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes, for those who aren't opposed to owning movies digitally. The iTunes release is the same fullscreen presentation used on the DVD.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. - 1966

Walt Disney and Dick Van Dyke hit it off during production on Mary Poppins and Walt Disney was very eager to work with him again. He had also been interested in doing something with the Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Dafoe and it was his idea to do a modern spin on the tale. He even receives a credit for the story, which appears on screen as Retlaw Yensid, his name backwards. Top Disney story men Don Dagradi and Bill Walsh took the idea and wrote the screenplay for what became this film. Walt's son-in law Ron Miller co-produced the film.

Dick Van Dyke's friend Byron Paul was given the directorial duties for his first and only Disney film after directing several specials for The Wonderful World of Color. Chinese actress Nancy Kwan was cast as Van Dyke's love interest on the island and Akim Tamiroff plays her father. There aren't many familiar Disney faces other than Van Dyke mostly due to the exotic setting needing to seem unfamiliar to audiences. Most of the film was shot on location in San Diego with some interior scenes filmed indoors at the Disney Studio.

The film begins with footage of a naval aircraft carrier as the credits play. An aircraft lands and Robin Crusoe gets out wearing a straw hat and tattered clothes. He immediately starts writing a letter to his former fiance apologizing for missing their wedding and the amount of time they've been apart. As he starts his explanation, we flashback to a year prior when his plane caught fire over the ocean and he had to parachute into the ocean with an inflatable raft. After several days at sea fighting off sharks, he washes up on an island. He builds a crude shelter and explores the island hoping to find people. He comes across a rusted Japanese submarine and discovers a chimpanzee that he names Floyd and he takes anything useful from the ship. After building a better shelter and spending many days playing games with Floyd, Robin finds a footprint that isn't his and follows it to a rock that looks like a face. There he meets Wednesday, an island girl who tries to kill him. He takes her captive to learn more about her and discovers that her father is the chief and she ran away to get out of an arranged marriage. Wednesday's sisters and cousins soon run away as well and Robin trains them for the imminent war against the rest of the tribe. Robin hides in the rock face with a microphone from the submarine to amplify his voice when Chief Tanamashu comes to ask his god questions. His secret is quickly revealed, but after a series of boobie traps, Tanamashu agrees to give the women their rights. At the celebration, Robin dances with Wednesday and Tanamashu, not realizing that it is a marriage dance. He runs away and is pursued by all of the girls just as a helicopter arrives to rescue him and Floyd. It turns out Floyd was a space chimp that they'd been looking for.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. premiered on June 29th, 1966 on the Kitty Hawk, the aircraft carrier used for filming. The crew of the ship were the only guests invited who weren't involved with the film. It was released to general audiences on July 29th when it was paired with the live action short Run, Appaloosa, Run! Critics were mostly harsh on the film, citing faults in both the writing and Van Dyke's performance. However, audiences flocked to see it based on its great premise and Dick Van Dyke's popularity and it was a hit, grossing over $8 million. It was rereleased to theaters in 1974 and made its home video debut in 1986.

As a Dick Van Dyke comedy, its easy to see why critics were disappointed. There are very few genuine laughs to be found. However, the twist on the Robinson Crusoe story is entertaining and as a fan of Disney films from this era, its hard to not get swept up in the fun of it all. It's by no means one of the studio's best films, but it is entertaining and easy to see why it was so successful. It is interesting to note that Akim Tamiroff, who plays dark skinned Tanamashu, is actually a white man. Some of the firework effects used in the battle sequence are recycled from Mary Poppins. Dick Van Dyke also gives a nod to that film when he does a dance and sings "Um-diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-i" from "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is currently available on DVD. A minor restoration was done and it is free of any major flaws. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally shown in widescreen, most likely at a ratio of 1.75:1. There aren't any bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes, where it is presented in widescreen and in HD. It is unlikely that Disney will select this film for Blu-Ray treatment, so this may be the only way to own it in high definition and its original aspect ratio.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Ugly Dachshund - 1966

Walt Disney loved animal movies and his studio churned them out as often as possible. It's surprising that a 1938 novel called The Ugly Dachshund by Gladys Bonwyn Stern wasn't adapted by the studio earlier. This canine twist on the classic fable The Ugly Duckling must have seemed like the perfect addition to the studios cannon of films.

Walt assigned directing duties to Norman Tokar, who had already directed a handful of animal films for the studio. Winston Hibler co-produced the film. Albert Aley adapted the screenplay for his only Disney film. Dean Jones filmed this directly after wraping production on That Darn Cat. Suzanne Pleshette makes her Disney debut playing opposite Dean Jones, who she was frequently paired with. Another familiar Disney face is Charles Ruggles as the vet, who had small roles in The Parent Trap and Son of Flubber. One of the Great Dane actors named Duke is also a Disney veteran, having played one of the family dogs in Swiss Family Robinson six years earlier. Renowned Japanese actor Mako also has a supporting role. The film was shot entirely at the Disney Studio in Burbank.

The film begins with credits over a matte painting that zooms into the home of Mark and Fran Garrison. They are in a rush to get to the vet because their Dachshund is about to give birth to puppies. Mark is sad when he finds out all three puppies were female, but when he sees the vet's Great Dane has had a litter of puppies and expresses his jealousy, the vet urges him to take home the runt of the litter. When Mark arrives home with all four puppies, Fran in her excitement doesn't give him a chance to tell her the boy isn't one of theirs and she assumes he is also a Dachshund. Frank names him Brutus, but when Fran realizes he isn't a Dachshund she returns him to the vet. After Mark gets depressed, she surprises him for his birthday by getting Brutus back. From the minute Brutus returns, the Dachshund pups create messes that Brutus gets blamed for. After ruining a backyard party, Fran wants to get rid of him again, but doesn't have the heart when Brutus saves one of the Dachshunds from a trash compactor. While Fran is training one of the pups to be in dog shows, Mark and the vet secretly train Brutus. Against the odds, Brutus wins "best of breed." The film ends with Mark putting Brutus' blue ribbon on the wall next to Fran's dachshund's ribbons and the whole family being happy.

The Ugly Dachshund premiered on February 4th, 1966 and was released on February 16th. It was paired with the long short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, the first appearance of Disney's version of the "silly old bear." The pairing was a box office success, earning more than $6 million. Despite the success, it was never rereleased to theaters. It made its TV debut in 1968 and arrived on home video in 1986.

The best word to describe The Ugly Dachshund is "cute." There are a few moments that will have you genuinely laughing, particularly the reaction of two Japanese caterers who mistake Brutus for a lion. As a Disney animal comedy, it certainly serves up some laughs and plenty of canine stars. What it lacks is an emotional core which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it explains why it isn't as revered as films like Old Yeller or even The Shaggy Dog, which has a father and a son who don't understand each other. If you like films like That Darn Cat, you will most likely enjoy this film too. Suzanne Pleshette reportedly had to shower at the studio before returning home from filming because her dog would smell her animal costars and get upset. Viewers with a keen eye will recognize many of the Studio filming locations, including residential street and the exterior of the office buildings. The exterior of the Garrison house was newly built for this film.

The Ugly Dachshund is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. A minor restoration was done and the film looks pretty good, although there are some flaws and instances where the image flickers. Bonus features include an interview with supporting actor Mako, a musical montage of Disney dogs and the original theatrical trailer from 1966. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection with The Shaggy Dog, The Shaggy D.A., and the Tim Allen remake of The Shaggy Dog. The film is also available on iTunes, where it can be purchased in HD, but you don't get any bonus features that way.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

That Darn Cat - 1965

By the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions was best known for its top notch animation and live action comedies, which often featured animals. Walt Disney also had a star with one picture left on her contract, Hayley Mills, and was looking for a project that would showcase her comedic talents as an adult. When a book called Undercover Cat by husband and wife Gordon and Mildred Gordon arrived on his desk, it was a perfect starring vehicle for Hayley while upholding what audiences had come to expect from Disney.

Bill Walsh worked with Gordon and Mildred Gordon to adapt the screenplay, embedding comedy into the characters while keeping the kidnapping serious. Gordon Gordon was a former FBI agent and the real FBI kept tabs on production of this film to make sure he wasn't giving away any confidential information. Robert Stevenson directed, having already established himself at Disney with Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor and Mary Poppins. Surrounding Hayley Mills are many familiar Disney faces. Ed Wynn makes an appearance as well as Elsa Lanchester, who made her Disney debut as Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins. Dean Jones stars in his first of many Disney films and he would become the studios biggest star for the better part of the next decade. Roddy McDowall also costars in his first of several Disney films. Several cats were used to play D.C, one of which also starred in The Incredible Journey. Much of the film was made on the Disney studio lot and fans of Disney films from this era will recognize residential street from other live action Disney comedies. The Sherman Brothers wrote the title song, which is sung by crooner Bobby Darrin.

The film opens with footage of D.C. the cat prowling the neighborhood to the film's jazzy theme song as the credits play. His prowl leads him to an apartment where two bank robbers are hiding out with a kidnapped bank teller they used to make their getaway. She tried to scratch "help" on the back of her watch, but is interrupted after the first three letters. She is able to slip the watch on the cat and send D.C. outside before the burglars find out. When D.C. arrives home and his owner Patti finds the watch, she tells her sister Ingrid who disregards it. Patti is sure that somebody is in need of help, so she scratches the missing "p" on the back of the watch and takes it to the FBI, hinting that it belongs to the missing bank teller. Agent Kelso sets up an operation from Patti's home so they can trail D.C. every night when he goes out. The stakeout is a secret, so Patti and Ingrid have to lie to their boyfriends to keep them away from the house. On the first night, D.C. realizes he is being followed and tries to evade the FBI team. Agent Kelso decides to put a mic and transmitter on D.C. the next night and he follows on his own. When D.C. doesn't lead him to anything usable, the FBI decides to stop trailing the cat. So Patti begs a jewelery store owner to call the FBI and claim that he sold the watch to the missing woman. Thankfully her hunch proves correct when D.C. leads Agent Kelso to the apartment. It leads to an eventful showdown and in the end, D.C. gets the credit for catching the burglars. The film ends with a reprise of the theme song and we find out that he has a girlfriend and kids as Bobby Darin warns that your cat could be one of his sons.

That Darn Cat was released on December 2nd, 1965. Critics enjoyed the film and praised the comedic scenes and the animal actors. It was a hit with audiences and made over $9 million in its initial domestic release. It was rereleased to theaters in 1973 and made its home video debut in 1985.

As far as Disney comedies go, That Darn Cat is one of the best. The premise is cute and many of the situations are hilarious. Some of the best moments come from Elsa Lanchester as the nosy neighbor and her husband, who delights in thwarting her efforts to spy on the neighbors. During the 90's when Disney began remaking some of its most memorable films, That Darn Cat was updated starring Christina Ricci and featuring Dean Jones in a supporting role. While that film is well done, it isn't as funny or as charming as the original. After the film, Hayley Mills chose not to renew her contract with Disney to persue more diverse acting opportunities. She returned to the company in the 80's for some television work, including a series called Good Morning Miss Bliss that spawned Saved By the Bell as well as made for TV sequels to The Parent Trap

That Darn Cat is currently available on DVD in a standalone release and in a 2-pack paired with the 1997 remake. In both releases, the film is presented in fullscreen, although its original theatrical aspect ratio was widescreen 1.75:1. A restoration was done and the film looks very good, but there aren't any bonus features for the original film.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Monkey's Uncle - 1965

Anyone who has ever read a biography about Walt Disney may remember that he didn't believe in sequels. He looked the other way when audiences demanded them for his earliest animated features, however this principle was abandoned when it came to his live action films. If something was successful and a sequel was feasible, it was done. Such is the case with The Monkeys Uncle, sequel to the surprise 1964 hit The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

Nearly everyone involved with Merlin Jones returned for the sequel. Husband and wife screenwriters Alfred Lewis and Helen Levitt returned to write the script, again under the pen name Tom and Helen August since they were blacklisted from Hollywood for alleged associations with the communist party. Disney's go-to director Robert Stevenson, who had just finished production on Mary Poppins, returned to direct the sequel. Contracts for both Tommy Kirk and Annette Funiccello ended with Merlin Jones, but both returned to star in the sequel, marking their final appearance in Disney films. Supporting cast members also returned, including Leon Ames, Norman Grabowski and Alan Hewitt. Lost in Space star Mark Goddard makes his film debut in a supporting role. The Sherman Brothers wrote the title song, which is sung by Annette and The Beach Boys. They also wrote another short song sung by Annette called "I Can Fly."

The film opens with a Midvale College party as Annette and The Beach Boys sing the title song while the credits play, after which we find Merlin Jones in court attempting to adopt Midvale's chimpanzee Stanley for a science experiment. The judge grants him conditional ownership and dubs him "the monkey's uncle." He uses recordings while Stanley sleeps to teach Stanley to act like a human. When the school's football team is brought under scrutiny for possible cheating, Judge Holmsby tries to save the team by using Merlin's same sleep learning techniques on the athletes. When the athletes answer exam questions exactly the way Merlin does, they are accused of cheating. However, during an interrogation they are able to prove that they didn't cheat and football at the school seems saved, until a wealthy man offers to donate one million dollars to the university if they will cancel the football program. An even wealthier financier offers them ten million if a student and turn his grandfathers human flying idea into a reality. Merlin Jones is given the assignment and after scaring off one of the athletes from being his pilot, he creates an energy drink that will give him the power to fly his machine. The financier is so impressed that he doubles his offer and gives the school twenty million dollars. However, it turns out the man is actually an escaped mental patient.

The Monkey's Uncle premiered on June 23rd, 1965 and went into wide release on August 18th. It was paired with the animated short Freewayphobia. Critics were kind to the film, recognizing it as a fun escape from the summer heat. However it wasn't as successful as the previous film. It was shown on the Wonderful World of Color in 1967 and debuted on home video in 1986.

As a sequel The Monkey's Uncle recaptures the fun spirit of its predecessor and comes close to almost being a better film. While this one also has two separate stories that make up a feature length film, they are connected much more cohesively than before. There is a Disney in-joke in one scene where Stanley pretends to study a text book that actually holds a Mickey Mouse comic hidden inside. Viewers with a keen eye may notice a redressed set from Mary Poppins. Mr. Bank's study has been redressed as an office at Midvale with different wallpaper and window treatments. There are also many scenes filmed on the backlot's residential street.

The Monkey's Uncle is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally shown in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. There aren't any bonus features. It is also available on iTunes, where it is presented in widescreen and can be purchased in HD.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Those Calloways - 1965

Walt Disney was an avid animal love, so it is no wonder that the writings of Paul Annixter would go one to inspire one of his films. Paul and his wife Jane primarily wrote books for young readers that were centered around animals. His novel Swiftwater about a Vermont family's struggle to rescue migrating geese from hunters serves as the inspiration for this film. The screenplay was adapted by Louis Pelletier, who previously penned Big Red for Disney.

Norman Tokar was hired to direct, who had also worked on other Disney animal films like Big Red, Savage Sam and A Tiger Walks. His chief concern with the film was to create an atmosphere and mood. Disney star Brian Keith (The Parent Trap, Savage Sam) headlines the film as Cam Calloway. Vera Miles is paired with Brian Keith again after working together on A Tiger Walks. Young Western star Brandon De Wilde plays their son in his only film for Disney. Linda Evans plays his love interest in one of her earliest films. A young Tom Skerritt, most famous for his role in Top Gun, has a small role in this, one of his earliest films. Walter Brennan has a supporting role in his first of two Disney films. And Disney favorite Ed Wynn also has a supporting role. While some establishing shots were done in Vermont, the majority of the film was shot on the Disney Studio lot. The entire village plus a lake and the family's cabin were built on the backlot. Since the film takes place in the fall, artists painted 280,000 leaves on the lot to make Burbank look like fall in Vermont. Famous composer Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind and Casablanca) wrote the score, the last film he composed before retiring. The Sherman Brothers also wrote two songs for the film called "The Cabin-Raising Song" and "Rhyme-Around."

The film begins with footage of geese as the credits play and we are introduced to the cottage of the Calloways. The son Bucky gets in a fight with a man in the town who is shooting at the geese as they fly over. When he gets home, his father tries to teach him how to fight. When a rich business man sees the geese and hears that they fly over Swiftwater on their way South and North, he tells the town it would be good business to make it a tourist destination for hunters. When Mr. Calloway finds out what the town is up to he is outraged. He takes a loan to buy the lake property that the town was planning to turn into a stop for the geese. Their main source of income is selling furs. When the market crashes and they make less then expected for their sales, he gets in over his head and can’t pay back the loan. They are evicted from their cottage and they move onto the new property where they build a bigger cabin. They are approached one day by a man claiming to be a photographer who gets them some money to plant corn to lure the geese in the fall for photographs. However, he is actually the business man that came to town earlier and is interested in hunting the birds. An altercation ensues and he gets shot. Thankfully, he is ok and in the end the geese are safe too.
Those Calloways was released on January 28th, 1965. Critics were very mixed on it. Those that wrote favorable reviews talked about the way the film made them feel, which was really the directors intent. Those that didn't like it found it too simple and drawn out. It didn't do very well at the box office and made its television debut in 1969. It made its home video debut in 1985.

It's easy to understand why critics were so torn on this film. It has some really great moments. There is some humor, mostly involving Mrs. Calloway trying to shoe a bear away that always comes to their cottage. There are also some truly touching moments, like when she is presented with her first fur coat for Christmas. All of the actors give fine performances and Swiftwater feels like it would be a great place to visit, which adds to the films appeal. On the other hand, a story about a family who loses everything to save some geese doesn't seem very justifiable and with a two hour runtime, its easy to see why so many were quick to dismiss it. It's a slow paced film full of sentiment for a simpler time that doesn't exist anymore. If you enjoy that kind of film, you will probably be amongst those who truly love Those Calloways. I enjoyed the film, but I wouldn't go as far as to say its one of Disney's best.

 Those Calloways is currently available on DVD. A minor restoration has been done, but the print is still flawed by excess grain and artifacts that shouldn't be there. The film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1. While theater exhibition guides didn't specify which aspect ratio was correct, most Disney films from this era were presented in 1.75:1. However, 1.66:1 is pretty close and is much more preferred than Disney's usual fullscreen transfers. There aren't any bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes where it can be purchased in HD widescreen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Emil and the Detectives - 1964

It must have come as a surprise to movie goers in 1964 that Walt Disney would follow the success of his crowning achievement Mary Poppins with an international film made from the same mold as Almost Angels and Miracle of the White Stallions. The film is based on a worldwide bestseller by Erich Kastner from 1929 of the same name that would have been familiar to US audiences at the time. It had also been adapted for the screen 3 times before Disney made his version. The screenplay was written by AJ Carothers, who also adapted White Stallions.

Peter Tewksbury was hired to direct his only Disney film after a successful track record directed TV comedies, including Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons. American star Walter Slezak was cast to headline the film as the villain, his first and only Disney role. American child actor Bryan Russell plays Emil, who had a small role in Babes in Toyland and would spend most of his short lived career at Disney. Roger Mobley who plays Gustav also had a good career at Disney, mostly in TV movies for The Wonderful World of Color. The rest of the American actors were mostly children who had only acted on TV before mixed with many German actors. Filming was done on location in Berlin and at Filmstudio Tempelhof.

The film opens with animated credits featuring three burglars. A narrator then introduces us to Emil, who is boarding a bus to visit his grandmother with an envelope of money for her safety pinned inside his blazer. However, he is being followed by a thief and when he wakes up from his nap, the envelope is gone. He chases after the man who was sitting next to him and tries to get the police to help, but because Emil didn't see him take the money the police won't help him. He meets a young boy named Gustav, a young detective who agrees to help him track down the thief. Gustav calls on his friends to play detectives too. He gets a tip that the thief will be at a hotel and the kids station themselves to try and catch him. They learn that there are three crooks that they call "skinks" and they are planning to build underground tunnels. They follow them through a dilapidated building under which they are digging their tunnels. The skinks realize they are being followed and catch Emil. The tunnels they are digging lead to banks they intend to rob. Meanwhile, the other kids have been helping the police identify the skinks. They see the leader and one of his men walking with stolen money in a basket and tell all of the kids nearby that they are giving away free money. The men are swarmed by the kids who chase after them. Meanwhile, Gustav and Emil's cousin Pony lead the cops to the tunnels where they rescue Emil and catch one of the skinks. The cops show up just in time to arrest the rest of the skrinks and Emil get reward money for their capture, which he shares with Gustav and the detectives.

Emil and the Detectives opened on December 18th, 1964 as Disney's big Christmas release. Critics enjoyed the film and praised it for having realistic kids that didn't mug the camera and weren't annoying. However, it was not a big success at the box office. It made its TV debut in 1966 and was released on home video in 1987.

It's a shame that more people today haven't heard of or seen this film. The plot is amusing and the child actors all do fine jobs. Especially Roger Mobley as Gustav, a character who in less capable hands would have come off as annoying. There is also some depth to the character in that he seems to be a loner, almost like Dodger in Oliver Twist. And while the other detectives talk about their families at some point, he brushes questions about them away. It makes me curious if his character in the book wasn't an orphan. I've never seen any of the other film versions, but other reviewers claim the original 1931 German version is the best. However Disney's version adds the subplot about the tunnels which appears to be missing from all other versions from what I've read. If you're a fan of Disney films from the 1960's, I recommend this film.

 Emil and the Detectives is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. It appears that a recent restoration was done, since the film looks much better than most Disney films from this era. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally released in widescreen, most likely 1.75:1. There aren't any bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes, where it is correctly presented in widescreen and can be purchased in HD.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mary Poppins - 1964

Walt Disney had spent his career trying to make the best possible product in whatever field he was working in. By 1964, he had found great success in animation, live action films, television, theme parks and world's fairs. He had been looking for a project that would allow his staff to combine all of their talents in one place and the opportunity finally came around when, after many years of asking, P. L. Travers finally signed over the film rights to her Mary Poppins books. The film would require his live action filmmakers, animators and theme park Imagineers to work together on a greater scale than had been done before.

The Mary Poppins books first caught Walt's attention in 1938 when he read them to his daughters. Author P. L. Travers had no interest in a film version of her books, but Walt didn't give up and personally visited her in 1961 and convinced her to give him an option on the film. He immediately had the Sherman brothers start writing songs and Bill Walsh did a screenplay. Travers made many changes before accepting a version and officially signing over the rights. Directing the film was given to Robert Stevenson, famous for Old Yeller and The Absent-Minded Professor among his many other Disney films. Julie Andrews was cast in the lead role after Walt saw her perform on the Ed Sullivan Show and flew to New York to see her in a performance of Camelot. Dick Van Dyke caught Walt's attention not because of his fame on television but because of an interview he did where he expressed that he wanted to see more films made for the entire family. This was one of Walt's philosophies and this was the first of several films Dick made at Disney. Karen Dotrice and Mathew Garber were cast while filming The Three Lives of Thomasina. Walt personally wanted Glynis Johns to play Mrs. Banks, who had starred in some of his earliest live action films The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy. Glynis wouldn't sign on until the Sherman brothers wrote a song for her to sing in the film. Walt and director Robert Stevenson watched several British films and David Tomlinson caught his eye for Mr. Banks, his first of several Disney films. Disney favorite Ed Wynn was also cast in the supporting role of Uncle Albert. Principal photography took place from May to September of 1963.

Mary Poppins is very stylized and was shot entirely indoors on the Disney Studio lot. Similar to Babes in Toyland, Walt wanted the sets to look like a Broadway stage show. Peter Ellenshaw painted over 140 matte paintings for the film. Before the invention of blue and green screen, a sodium vapor screen was used to put the actors in the cartoon world during the "Jolly Holiday" sequence. The "Step In Time" number took a week to film and had to be redone due to a scratch on the film. Dick Van Dyke plays dual roles as Bert and Mr. Dawes Sr. He had to convince Walt that he could convincingly play an old man.

The film opens with a panning shot of London as the credits play. Eventually we find Mary Poppins applying her makeup on a cloud. The camera zooms down to a park in London where jack-of-all-trades Bert is serving as a one man band. He leads us to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, home of the Banks family as their current nanny is about to quit. When Mr. Banks gets home, he writes up an advertisement for a new nanny. When his children Jane and Michael write their own, he tears it up and throws it into the fireplace. The next morning a line of stern nannies are waiting outside number 17 when a strong wind blows them away and Mary Poppins flies down with the children's torn up list of requirements. A dumbfounded Mr. Banks hires her and her first task is to unpack and get the kids to clean their nursery. They are reluctant until she teaches them that it can be a game if they look at it the right way, and it doesn't hurt that she uses a bit of magic to get the job done as well. On an outing in the park, they meet up with Bert who is now a sidewalk chalk artist. Mary takes the children and Bert into one of his drawings where they have a "Jolly Holiday" and win a horse race on merry-go-round horses. The next day, everyone at 17 Cherry Tree Lane is cheerful and happy except for Mr. Banks. Mary and Bert take the kids to Uncle Albert's where they have a tea party on the ceiling and learn that too much of a good thing can be bad. That night Mr. Banks tries to scold Mary Poppins for all of the frivolous outings shes been taking the children on and she puts the idea in his head that he take them to the bank with him. She also tells the children about the bird woman near the bank and teaches them a lesson in charity. Mr. Banks refuses to let Michael waste his money on birds and takes his tuppence. When he screams "Give me my money" in the bank, other customers begin to panic and demand their money. The kids run off into the streets and run into Bert, who is now a chimney sweep. He takes them home and they reunite with Mary Poppins. When Michael gets sucked up the chimney, they all travel up on the rooftops of London and meet other chimney sweeps for a dance party. When they are fired at by their neighbor Admiral Boom, all of the chimney sweeps drop down the chimney at number 17, creating a chaotic scene for Mr. Banks to walk in on. After kicking all of the chimney sweeps out, he receives a call from the bank asking him to come down and accept his termination. Through a conversation with Bert, he begins to realize that he hasn't been there for his children and when he arrives at the bank, his attitude has changed. He tells his boss a joke that Michael heard from Uncle Albert. The wind changes and so Mary Poppins must leave just as Mr. Banks returns home singing and calls for his children. He fixed their kite and takes them out to fly it, where he meets his bosses son and discovers that his boss died laughing from his joke. He is offered his job back with a promotion. The film ends with the happy family completely rejuvenated as Mary Poppins flies away.

Mary Poppins had its world premier on August 27th, 1964 at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It opened to the general public on August 29th. Critics gave it unanimously glowing reviews and audiences flocked to see it again and again. It cost $6 million to make, the most expensive live action film the studio had ever done, and made $31 million in its initial domestic release. The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won 5 for Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee"), Best Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Editing. It was rereleased in theaters in 1973 and 1980. It made its home video debut in 1980 and was the first Disney film released on DVD in 1998.

Its not hard to see why Mary Poppins was so well received and has remained popular all these years. It's a delightful film that fills every viewer with warm fuzzy feelings by the end. For children, its full of great lessons hidden in fantastic adventures. For adults, its a warning to not let life pass you by while worrying about things that aren't as important as they seem. You would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't at least heard of Mary Poppins and it is an important part of most childhoods. Due to its long runtime, the film had an intermission in certain international releases. Julie Andrews was cast in The Sound of Music during production when the filmmakers came to the studio to watch Mary Poppins dailies. Author P. L. Travers was reportedly so upset with the final film that she left the premier in tears. However, she returned to the studio in the late 1980's to work on a script for a sequel that never happened. Upset with the Disney treatment of her books, she sold the stage rights to Cameron Macintosh, who realized he couldn't do it right without the Disney songs. In 2004, a stage version premiered in London as a collaboration between Disney and Cameron Macintosh. The story in the stage version is closer to the books, while still using some of the most memorable songs from the film mixed with some new ones for the show. It made its Broadway debut in 2006 and has been very successful in London, New York and on tour around the world.

Mary Poppins is currently available on blu-ray in a 50th Anniversary Edition. The only new bonus feature is a featurette about Saving Mr. Banks, but the presentation is fantastic. All of the bonus features from the previous 2-disc 45th Anniversary Edition are included here. Bonus features new to that edition were all about the Broadway show, including a behind the scenes look, the complete "Step in Time" number and an art gallery. The rest of the bonus features are from 2004's 2-disc 40th Anniversary Edition, which includes a making of documentary, conversations with the Sherman Brothers and Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, a piece about the premier, a deleted musical number, audio commentary and pop-up trivia track. The film is presented in widescreen 1.66:1, which Disney claims is the original theatrical ratio. While the original theater exhibitor book didn't specify an aspect ratio, most live action Disney films from this era were released in 1.75:1. The previous DVD releases from 1998 and 2000's Gold Collection release presented the film in 1.85:1, which gained picture on both sides rather than losing image from the top and bottom. There is some controversy as to what aspect ratio Disney should have used.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Moon-Spinners - 1964

Now that Hayley Mills was an 18 year old young women, Walt Disney was looking for more mature roles to branch out her talents as well as a way to diversify to typical type of films he was known for. Taking a queue from master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, he greenlit a suspenseful mystery that he expected would appeal to kids and adults. The film is based on a 1962 novel of the same name by Mary Stewart.

James Neilson was brought on to direct, who had previously worked on Bon Voyage!, Summer Magic and episodes of Zorro for Disney. Michael Dyne adapted the screenplay for his only Disney film. Peter McEnery plays opposite Hayley Mills in his first of two Disney films. Walt Disney personally coaxed Paola Negri out of retirement. She had been a big silent film star who retired from the screen in 1943. Beyond that, most of the faces were new to both Disney fans and American audiences, since the film takes place in Greece and uses a largely international cast. Much of the film was shot on location in Greece, with interior sets filmed in England at Pinewood Studios. Terry Gilkyson wrote the title song.

The credits play against footage of beaches and windmills as the Greek-inspired title song plays.  We are introduced to Nikky and her Aunt Frances on an overcrowded bus heading to an Inn called The Moon-Spinners in a small village in Greece. The owner tells them they aren't accepting guests, but Aunt Frances convinces the owner to let them stay. They quickly learn that it is the owner's brother Stratos who has requested that nobody stay at the Inn while he is up to something suspicious. They meet a young man named Mark that evening during a party that the whole village is involved in. Stratos thinks Mark knows what he is up to after seeing him swimming dangerously close to where he is hiding something. When Mark goes missing, Nikky runs off to look for him. She finds him wounded in a church and she returns to the inn to get him clothes and bandages. When Aunt Francis notices her first aid kit is missing, she tells Stratos who realizes that Nikky is helping Mark and takes off after them. Stratos finds Nikky and assumes that Mark told her everything. He ties her up at the top of a locked windmill. Mark saves her in the just in time before Stratos returns with a gun to kill her. Mark tells Nikky that Stratos stole jewels from a countess in England and his hiding them. Nikky and Mark are found by the British Consulate, who it turns out is in cahoots with Stratos. Mark runs back to the inn while Nikky sneaks on to the yacht of Madame Habib, a wealthy eccentric lady who had arranged to buy the jewels from Stratos. Mark chases Stratos onto the ship where a fight breaks out, resulting in the police coming on board to arrest Stratos.

The Moon-Spinners premiered on July 2nd, 1964 and opened in theaters on July 8th. Critics said that the mystery wasn't entertaining enough for adults and would only be suitable for kids. And while they agreed that the actors gave great performances and the shooting locations were beautiful, they found the plot to have too many twists and not enough payoff. It was not a success at the box office and made its TV debut in 1966. It was released on home video in 1985.

While Disney's intentions may have been to make a Hitchcock-like thriller, the end result doesn't hold a candle to any of his films. The audience doesn't find out what Stratos is up to until an hour into the film and his schemes frankly aren't that interesting. The films strengths are the great performances by the actors and the authentic shooting locations. Because Paola Negri had retired from acting and was lured back by Walt Disney, this was her last film. The windmill was built by the production crew in Greece.

The Moon-Spinners is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in pan & scan fullscreen, but it was originally shown in theaters in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. A minor restoration appears to have been done. There aren't any bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes where it is presented in widescreen and can be purchased in HD.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Three Lives of Thomasina - 1964

Walt Disney loved animals, as evidenced by the many films he made about them. But outside of the True-Life Adventure series, most of his films tended to be about dogs. Calling upon the talents from some of his other animal films, he decided to make one about a very special cat. The Three Lives of Thomasina is based on a book by Paul Gallico called Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God.

Don Chaffey was hired to direct his second Disney film, after having success with Greyfriars Bobby. The screenplay was adapted by Robert Westerby, who also adapted Bobby. Patrick McGoohan stars in his first Disney film, although he had starred in a three part episode of The Wonderful World of Color called The Scarecrow of Romny Marsh, which was theatrically released in the UK and against the odds, was theatrically released in the US in 1975. Susan Hampshire was cast in her first of two Disney films as the beautiful witch. A few familiar faces from Greyfriars Bobby appear in this film including Laurence Naismith, Alex Mackenzie and Vincent Winter. The film was shot on location in Scotland and at Pinewood Studios in England, where they reused many sets from a Disney TV movie called The Horse Without a Head. Several cats were used to play Thomasina, one of which reportedly held up production for two days when it refused to perform a specialty trick. Terry Gilkyson wrote the title song.

The film opens with footage of Thomasina as her theme song plays. From there, Thomasina introduces the happy family she lives with and explains that she had to die to make them this way. The film flashes back to when widowed veterinarian Andrew McDhui and his daughter Mary moved to town and took her in. As a vet, Andrew is strictly a man of science and doesn't lend his patients' owners any condolence. When one of Mary's friend brings an injured frog to her father, he refuses to treat him. So the boy takes the frog into the woods to the cottage of Lori, who he perceives to be a witch. She takes in the frog and heals him with love. Thomasina goes missing one night and when Mary finds her, she has come down with tetanus. Andrew is operating on a blind man's seeing eye dog and makes a decision not to put Thomasina down, but saves the dog. Mary is beside herself with grief and the children in the town give a funeral for Thomasina. When Lori attends the funeral, the children run off and she analyzes Thomasina's body and discovers that her heart is still beating. She takes her home to cure her. Meanwhile, Mary refuses to speak to her father. When Thomasina is well enough to leave Lori, she has no memory of her life with Mary. Andrew gets a bad reputation around town and people start to take their animals to Lori for care. When Andrew goes to confront her, he helps her rehabilitate a wounded wild badger and friendship forms between them.  Thomasina is compelled to follow Andrew home. Mary chases after her at night during a rain storm and gets sick. When a gypsy circus comes to town that is abusing its animals, Lori goes to help them and is treated with hostility. Luckily Andrew comes looking for her and saves her and the animals. He asks Lori to come visit Mary and while she is there, Thomasina's memory returns to her and she runs home to Mary, who wakes up and regains the will to live. The film ends with the marriage of Andrew and Lori and according to Thomasina, the beginning of her third life.

The Three Lives of Thomasina was released on June 3rd, 1964, although it had a special engagement release in New York City on December 11th, 1963. Critics agreed that it was charming, but felt it lacked excitement and the pace was too slow. Audiences didn't respond well to it and it was a box office disappointment. It debuted on TV a year later in 1965 and was released on home video in 1985. The film was given a PG rating when it had to be classified in 1992 for thematic elements.

Thomasina is an enjoyable film, but its far from perfect. The story unravels a little too slowly and while the film opens and closes with Thomasina, she is far from the main character which makes it odd when it tries to return to her self-narrated portions. It has many similarities to Greyfriars Bobby, but that film has the benefit of being based on a touching true story that is more memorable. However, over time Thomasina has become to more famous and well known of the two films. Walt Disney cast Karen Dotrice and Mathew Garber in Mary Poppins based on their performances in this film. Author Paul Gallico was invited to the set several times and reportedly didn't get along with Walt, despite Walt referring to him as his "good friend" in the TV introduction to the film.

The Three Lives of Thomasina is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which is close to its original theatrical ratio of 1.75:1. A restoration appears to have been done and the film is free of noticeable flaws. Bonus features include the original theatrical trailer, an interview with Susan Hampshire who plays Lori, and a featurette about Disney cats that includes Walt's TV introduction to this film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Tiger Walks - 1964

It's no secret that Walt Disney was a huge animal lover, but apart from his True-Life Adventure series, his films typically dealt with more domestic animals like dogs. There were many challenges and dangers to working with wild animals, which the studio had a minor experience with from Swiss Family Robinson. A book by Ian Niall served as the inspiration for the film.

Norman Tokar directs his third Disney film, most likely chosen for his experience with animals on Big Red and Savage Sam. Lowell S. Hawley adapted the screenplay, having already written Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, Babes in Toyland and In Search of the Castaways. Brian Keith from The Parent Trap plays Sheriff Pete Williams. His wife is played by Vera Miles, best known for starring in Psycho, in her first of many Disney films. British actress Pamela Franklin was cast in the lead role of Julie, her only theatrical Disney film although she had starred in a Wonderful World of Color movie a year prior called The Horse Without a Head. Sabu stars in his only Disney film, who died in 1963 shortly after production wrapped. Kevin Corcoran (Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson) has a supporting role in his final Disney film. Other familiar faces include Edward Andrews (The Absent-Minded Professor), Una Markel (The Parent Trap), Peter Brown (Summer Magic) Connie Gilchrist (The Misadventures of Merlin Jones) and Jack Albertson (Son of Flubber) who would return to the studio in 1981 as a voice in The Fox and the Hound. Most of the film was shot at the Disney Studio. This was the first film to use a full grown tiger, instead of a young and easier to train one. During production, the tiger once broke through a sheet of glass that was separating it from the cameramen and crew. Nobody was injured in the event.

The film opens with footage of a tiger roaming the wood as the credits roll. A circus truck gets a flat tire in a small town and has to wait a few hours for a new one. Meanwhile, the trainer is worried because the tiger hasn't eaten yet. The driver gets drunk while waiting and decides to open the truck for a kids to see.He proceeds to aggravate the tiger by poking it with a stick and it gets out. A girl named Julie gets a scraped arm when the crowd runs away from the tiger. Her father the sheriff gets involved and leads a group to try and capture the tiger in the fog. Meanwhile, the story catches national headlines bringing lots of media personnel to the small town when the tiger kills the truck driver. Julie ends up on the news and gets her father in trouble with the governor, who he dissuaded from calling the national guard. The governor decides to call them and they arrive on a full scale hunt for the animal with intentions to kill it rather than capture. The men start chanting "Get the tiger" and the kids turn it into "Save the tiger" and turn the media attention towards a campaign to raise enough money to buy the tigers and put them in a zoo. The campaign changes the minds of some of the men on the hunt and they decide to capture the tiger instead of kill him, leading to a celebration in the small town.

A Tiger Walks was released on March 12th, 1964. Critics were rough on it, claiming it was only fit for kids interested in animals and would bore any adult. It wasn't a success at the box office and debuted on The Wonderful World of Color in 1966. It was first released on home video in 1986.

The real core of the film is the relationship between Julie and her father. The government in this small town is corrupt and her father is trying to remain in their good graces to keep his job. In the end, he realizes that saving the tiger is the right thing to do. If you can connect with that, then you will probably enjoy this film. At times it can get a little dull, but it has its redeeming qualities. I wouldn't say its as bad as the critics in 1964 did. There is a Disney in-joke where Una Markel as the hotel owner is so happy to have all of her rooms booked that she starts to sing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Song of the South

A Tiger Walks is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in pan & scan fullscreen, although its original theatrical aspect ratio was widescreen 1.75:1. There are no bonus features.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones - 1964

1964 was a big year for Walt Disney, who was preoccupied with the attractions Disney made for the New York World's Fair and production on the most expensive and risky film the studio had ever made, Mary Poppins. Perhaps because he didn't have enough films in production, he chose to theatrical release a two part episode of The Wonderful World of Color as a theatrical feature. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, a science fiction comedy in the vein of The Absent-Minded Professor, was originally filmed for television.

The film is based on an original idea by Disney story man and producer Bill Walsh, whose credits were many including The Absent Minded-Professor. The screenplay was written by Alfred and Helen Levitt under the names Tom & Helen August due to the fact that they had been blacklisted in Hollywood after being suspected of being communist. Director Robert Stevenson, who had already made a name for himself with films like Old Yeller and The Absent-Minded Professor, directed this film right before moving on to Mary Poppins. Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were cast opposite each other, having already performed together in The Shaggy Dog and two TV movies called The Horsemasters and Escapade in Florence. A few familiar faces flush out the cast including Leon Ames and Alan Hewitt (The Absent-Minded Professor) and Stuart Erwin and Norman Grabowski (Son of Flubber). The animated credits were done by X. Attencio and Bill Justice. The Sherman Brothers wrote the title song for the film.

After a paper animated title sequence featuring Annette singing the theme song, we are introduced to Midvale College, where Jennifer is being hit on by Norman, the school jock, who she turns down because she is dating Merlin Jones, who is somewhat of a joke on campus for his zany ideas. Merlin's current experiment involves finding out what happens in the mind of a driver. Something goes wrong, giving him the power to hear what people are thinking. When he overhears Judge Holmsby's thoughts about all of the crimes he commits, he and Jennifer dress up as plumbers to sneak into his house and search it, finding lots of crime novels from which they believe he gets his information from. After helping the police catch another criminal, he tells them what he heard the Judge Holmsby thinking, but they dismiss his claims as being absurd. He and Jennifer sneak into his backyard to dig for the diamonds and are caught. The judge explains that he has been writing crime novels under a pen name and what Merlin heard were his thoughts of the plot of his most recent book and Merlin's power of reading minds wears off. In the second story, Merlin's science professor hypnotizes him and has him kiss "the first pretty girl he sees," which isn't Jennifer causing them to get in a fight. He experiments by hypnotizing his cat into thinking its a lion. He then hipnotizes Stanley the chimpanzee from the psychology department to stand up for himself against Norman, who isn't nice to Stanley. The chimp gets in trouble for striking Norman and the situation is brought before Judge Holmsby. He asks Merlin about hypnosis for a novel he wants to write in which the main character is unaware that he is a criminal because he is hypnotized. When Merlin tells him that subjects don't commit crimes outside of their moral code while under hypnosis, he asks Merlin to try it on him. So Merlin hypnotizes him and asks him to steal Stanley from the school. When he actually does it, Merlin tries to sneak Stanley back into the school and is caught. Judge Holmsby has no recollection of stealing the chimp, but is reminded during the trial and Merlin is off the hook.

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones was released on January 22nd, 1964. Critics were confused by the two separated plots and instantly recognized this as two unaired episodes of The Wonderful World of Color. They felt that the quality was poor for a Disney film and that none of the actors seemed interested. However, their harsh criticisms were lost on the movie going public and the film grossed $4 million, which is not bad for a live action comedy, especially one made on a TV budget. A sequel was made in 1965 called The Monkey's Uncle and the original was rereleased in 1972. It never aired as part of any of the numerous Disney Sunday night movie series, but made its home video debut in 1986.

While the format of two separate, unconnected stories strung together doesn't give the film great flow from start to finish, I think critics were much too harsh on the film. Obviously audiences did as well and its easy to see why Merlin Jones was a hit. Even today, it has many funny moments and its hard to not like Tommy Kirk and Annette together. This was originally meant to be the last Disney film for both. Annette had become famous for her more sexual roles in beach movies and no longer fit the Disney image. Tommy Kirk had been outed as homosexual in an era when it was exceedingly taboo and risky for a family friendly company in the 1960's to remain associated with him. Neither of their contracts were renewed for these reasons. When the film became a success, they were brought back for the sequel, but without contracts for future films.

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, which may be the filmed ratio since this was originally meant for television, however by this time Disney often filmed even TV content in widescreen. Exhibitor guides didn't give instructions on how to present the film, so if this is the filmed ratio, some theaters may have displayed it this way while others would have matted it to widescreen. Disney hasn't said which is correct. Bonus features include a gallery of publicity images and a video gallery of Disney's fictional inventors, which for some odd reason doesn't include Merlin Jones. The film is also available on iTunes in fullscreen without any bonus features.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sword in the Stone - 1963

Walt Disney purchased the rights to a novel by T. H. White called The Sword in the Stone in 1939 after it was brought to his attention by story man Bill Pete, but he sat on it for a number of years. The book was the first in a popular series called The Once and Future King, which was also adapted as a stage musical in 1960 and live action film in 1967 by Warner Brothers called Camelot. Walt's animators started making drawings for an animated version in 1949, but it wasn't until Walt saw Camelot on Broadway starring Julie Andrews that he decided to resurrect the project.

Wolfgang (Woolie) Reitherman was given the film to direct, his first solo directorial debut after codirecting One Hundred and One Dalmatians and a career in Disney animation the predates Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Bill Peet adapted the screenplay, having been on the story team for nearly every Disney animated film since Pinocchio.  The artistic style of the film is similar to One Hundred and One Dalmatians because of the Xerox process used to transfer the animator's drawings directly to celluloid, eliminating the need for the Ink Department. Walt wasn't a fan of this style, but it was the only way to continue making animated films at a reasonable cost to turn a profit.

Sebastian Cabot was cast as the narrator and Sir Ector in his first of several Disney voice roles. Karl Swenson lends his voice to Merlin and returned to the studio in 1970 in the live action film The Wild Country. Three child actors take credit for the voice of Wart/Arthur due to voices changing during the length of production. Rickie Sorensen is the main voice, who was in a Disney TV film called Johnny Shiloh and returned to the studio in 1978 with a small role in The Cat from Outer Space. The other two voices were the director's sons, Richard and Robert Reitherman. Another familiar Disney voice is Junius Matthews who voices Archimedes and went on to voice Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh shorts and compilation feature. Martha Wentworth who voices Madam Mim had also voiced Nanny in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The Sherman Brothers were hired to write songs for their first Disney animated feature, although they had been writing songs for live action films for a few years. Five of the songs they wrote are used in the film.

The opening credits sequence features an orchestration of songs from the film. Like most Disney fairy tales, a book opens to explain that England's king died without an heir to the throne, but a miraculous sword in a stone appeared with a description that the person who can pull the sword out will be the rightful king. Many tried, but nobody could succeed, leading to the dark ages where the sword had been lost and forgotten. Merlin and his owl Archimedes have been waiting in their wood cottage for a young boy they've never met, who falls through their roof while chasing after his brothers arrow. The boy introduces himself as Arther, aka Wart by his abusive family. Merlin magically packs his things so he can educate him. Sick of not having a king, London decides to have a tournament on New Years Day and the winner will be announced king. Wart's brother is being primed for the tournament while Merlin teaches him some valuable life lessons such as "brains over brawn" by transforming into fish and the power of love by transforming into squirrels, but after transforming him into a bird, he gets chased by a hawk and ends up in the cottage of Madam Mim, a witch and Merlin's worst enemy, who plans to destroy him. Merlin comes to the rescue and the two have a magical wizards duel in which they transform into other things to fight. When Madam Mim breaks the rules by turning into a dragon, Merlin transforms into a virus and makes her sick, winning the duel and teaching Wart that knowledge and wisdom are the real power. On New Years Eve, Merlin is brought to London to be his brother's squire in the duel, which angers Merlin who takes off for Bermuda. When Wart realizes he forgot his brother's sword, he runs off to find one and discovers one stuck in a stone. He pulls it out and returns to the tournament with it, where they cancel the tournament because England now has a king. Merlin returns in tropical shorts, a polo shirt and baseball cap from his vacation to future Bermuda to tell Arthur about the greatness that will come from his being king.

The Sword in the Stone was released on December 25th, 1963. Critics went wild over it, praising its modern humor, catchy songs and beautiful imagery. However, it was only a moderate success at the box office, bringing in $4.5 million. That would be great for a live action film, but Disney animated films typically grossed a lot more. It got an Oscar nomination for Best Score. It was rereleased to theaters in 1972 and in 1983, when it was paired with a new short Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. made its home video debut in 1986.

There are so many great Disney animated films that make The Sword in the Stone feel somewhat forgettable by comparison, but that's not to say that it's not a great film in its own right. The character animation is perfectly done, the designs are appealing and the voice cast does a fine job of breathing life into each character. If the film has any faults, its that the episodic plot makes it easy for the audience to lose interest since its a series of comedic lessons leading up to Arthur becoming king. A lot of the jokes are specific to the 1960's as well, many of which are lost on a modern audience. The true highlight of the film is the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim. Bill Pete has admitted that his adaptation of Merlin is meant to be Walt Disney, borrowing many of his quirky attributes and even some facial features (Merlin has Walt's nose). While two more animated features were put in production during Walt's final years, The Sword in the Stone was the last to be released during his lifetime. The film has inspired theme park experiences at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland where Merlin finds a child who will be able to pull the sword from the stone. While the ceremonies don't take place any more at the US parks, Merlin still greats guests in Paris and Hong Kong and the sword and anvils can still be found in the parks today for photo opportunities. The final gag in the film in which Merlin returns from his trip to the future is repeated in 1992's Aladdin when Genie appears in a Hawaiian shirt wearing Goofy ears from Disneyland.

The Sword in the Stone is currently available on Blu-Ray in a 50th Anniversary Edition, where it is presented in 1.75:1 widescreen. This is the way some theaters would have presented it in 1963, although the exhibitioners guide doesn't specify an aspect ratio and some theaters played it in it's animated full screen ratio. Bonus features include a new alternate opening, featurette on the Sherman Brothers music in the film, an excerpt from an episode of Disneyland called "All About Magic" excerpt, Classic Shorts (A Knight for a Day and Brave Little Tailor), and a sing-along with the movie option. The DVD included and sold sepeerately also has photo galleries and fun facts. For those also interested in owning the fullscreen version of the film, which gains picture on the top and bottom and looses a little on the sides, the previous 2 releases (45th Anniversary Edition and a Gold Collection release). Both fullscreen releases offer a similar restoration, but the Gold Collection release featured the full episode of "All About Magic" and doesn't lose any of the bonus features found on the 50th Anniversary Edition.

The film is also available on iTunes in the fullscreen ratio, where it is offered in HD as well and with iTunes extras.