Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Parent Trap - 1961

Walt Disney had a knack for recognizing talent, and he saw a lot in his new star, Hayley Mills, who made a name for herself as the star of Pollyanna. He was in search of a project to showcase her talents when story man Bill Dover approached Walt with a book he found in Germany called Lisa and Lottie by Erich Kastner, about two children who discover they are sisters separated at birth by quarreling parents. Working titles included "We Belong Together," "Petticoats and Blue Jeans" and "His & Hers" before Walt picked The Parent Trap. The story was adapted to the screen by writer/director David Swift. David Swift was also the writer/director of Pollyanna. The parents are played by Brian Keith, who was primarily known as an action star and was in Disney's Ten Who Dared, and Maureen O'Hara in her one and only Disney film.

The film was shot both on location and at the studio. An exterior of the dad's house was built on Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. However some scenes outside the home were filmed at millionaire Stuyvesant Fish's ranch in Carmel. Almost all of the interior set were built within the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Ub Iwerks invented many of the techniques used to allow Hayley Mills to play both Sharon and Susan. Effects included split screen, sodium traveling matte and the most simple of which, using a double who simply doesn't show her face during the shot. The filmmakers were worried about how convincing the effects would be and were delighted as the dailys came in to find that they worked.

Walt insisted on adding music to the film and used his newest addition to the studio, The Sherman Brothers. They had previously only written one song for the studio, "The Medfield Fight Song" in The Absent-Minded Professor. However they were the songwriting duo behind many of Annette Funicello's hit songs, which were released on Disney's Buena Vista Records. They wrote three songs for this film: "The Parent Trap," "For Now For Always" and "Let's Get Together." The title song was sung by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, who were both working together on Babes in Toyland at the time. Annette also sings a version of "Let's Get Together" that is played during the dance sequence at the camp. Hayley Mills was reluctant about singing because she did not consider herself a singer.

The film opens with an entertaining stop-motion sequence depicting two girls trying to reunite their parents. From there we are introduced to Sharon and Susan, two girls from opposite ends of the country who meet at summer camp and look identical. They immediately dislike each other and get in a big fight, resulting in the counselors isolating them to their own cabin. Forced to get along, they discover that they share the same birthday and parents, so they decide to switch places so the other can meet the parent they never knew. Susan goes to Boston to meet her mother and Sharon goes to California to meet her father. Their plan was to eventually tell the parents and reunite them, but this is sullied by the fact that over the summer, the dad proposed to a younger woman named Vicky. Sharon soon discovers that his fiance is really only after his money and after a plea for help to Susan, she returns to California with their mother. The twins decide to not tell their parents who is who until they all go on a camping trip together. When Vicky intervenes and invites herself along, the mother ducks out at the last minute and the girls play a series of jokes on their future step mom, forcing her to reveal her true intentions. Upon returning home without Vicky, their father realizes he never stopped loving their mother and the two rekindle their romance. The film ends with the girls dreaming of their parents inevitable wedding.

The Parent Trap premiered on June 12th, 1961 and opened to the general public on June 21st. Critics were mostly positive towards the film and nearly all of them attributed its success to Hayley's performances. The complaints seemed unanimous that its run time was too long (2 hours and 4 minutes) and the plot too predictable. However, audiences didn't seem to mind either and the film was a huge box office success. It proved that Hayley Mills was one of the studio's most bankable stars and that audiences had come to trust Walt Disney when it came to live action comedies (his previous efforts being The Shaggy Dog, Pollyanna and The Absent-Minded Professor). The film did well enough to be rereleased theatrically in 1968. It made its home video debut in 1984. It was nominated for two Academy Awards for editing and sound. It was also nominated for two Golden Globes for best comedy and best actress in a musical/comedy for Hayley Mills. The soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy.

I first saw The Parent Trap as a child on The Disney Channel. I remember being sucked in by the fascinating opening credit sequence and while the plot was definitely more mature than I could relate to at the time, I never got bored with it. Over the years I have come to appreciate it even more and looking at it through an adult's eyes, it's easy to see just how brilliant and special this film truly is. It plays entertaining levels for both children and adults. Some of the most memorable scenes include "Let's Get Together" and the girls' antics at summer camp. But as an adult, some of the most entertaining scenes are when the reverend is at the house to discuss the marriage and takes great delight at the situation when he finds that the groom's ex wife has shown up unannounced. And the scene where the parents realize they still love each other is touching and gets me misty eyed. The film has had a surprising legacy for the Disney Company over the years. Three television sequels were made in the 80's: The Parent Trap II in 1986, Parent Trap III and Parent Trap Hawaiian Honeymoon both in 1989. All three sequels starred Hayley Mills reprising her dual roles as an adult, with Sharon and Susan having their own marriage troubles. The success of "Let's Get Together" as a radio hit inspired a full album from Hayley Mills. A fantastic remake was done in 1998 starring Natasha Richardson and Dennis Quaid as the parents and introducing Lindsay Lohan in her first film as the twins. Both versions of the film are great and while many fans prefer one over the other, I am unable to decide which I like more.

The film is currently available on DVD in a fantastic 2-disc set, part of the Vault Disney collection. A great restoration has been done, although at times the image is blurry and could certainly be improved. The film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. While the original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.75:1, this change is a barely noticeable difference and you are missing very little image from the top and bottom of the screen. Bonus features include a making-of documentary, audio commentary, original promotional material and conversations with the Sherman Brothers and Hayley Mills. The set was rereleased in 2005 and added 1986's The Parent Trap II to disc 1. While this was a welcome inclusion, the 2-movie set does suffer some from compressing two films onto the same disc. While the standalone release is now out of print, copies can still be found at a decent price. If you are only interested in the original film, it is the option I recommend. The other two sequels have never been released in any home entertainment medium.

It is also available on iTunes in widescreen, where it can be purchased in HD. However the digital copy doesn't include any of the fabulous extras.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Absent-Minded Professor - 1961

Walt Disney made his mark on comedy films in 1959 with The Shaggy Dog, so its surprising that it took 2 years before this formula was repeated with The Absent-Minded Professor. Walt was reportedly drawn to live action material that could have been done in animation. And this film certainly boasts enough special effects to have warranted being done in that medium.

To add to the similarities between this film and The Shaggy Dog, they both share the same producer (Bill Walsh) two lead stars (Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk). Also Forrest Lewis, who played Officer Kelly in The Shaggy Dog reprises the same role in this film. Both films were shot in black & white to conceal the tricks used in many of the special effects. Ed Wynn has a cameo appearance and his son, Keenan Wynn, makes his Disney debut as Alonzo Hawk, the film's villain. And Nancy Olson plays opposite Fred MacMurray after an Oscar nominated performance in Sunset Boulevard and making her Disney debut in Pollyanna. One of Walt's go-to directors, Robert Stevenson, took charge of the film having already established himself at the studio with Old Yeller, Darby O'Gill and the Little People and episodes of Zorro. The flying car effects were achieved through wire tricks, scale models and matte paintings. Most of the film was shot on the Disney Studio lot. A keen eye will recognize most of the houses on residential films from The Shaggy Dog and the studio's office and animation buildings served as the exterior for Medfield College.

Professor Ned Brainard misses his own wedding for the third time when he accidentally invents a substance called flubber that never loses energy. Not only does he get in hot water with his fiance Betsy, but also with Medfield University after he fails their star basketball player and son of Alonzo Hawk, the school's biggest donor. After testing out his invention on his car, which gives it the ability to fly, he irons flubber onto the basketball teams' shoes, which gives each player the ability to bounce higher than the opposing team and win the game. When Alonzo Hawk witnesses Professor Brainard in his flying car, he approaches him with a business proposition to expand Medfield College for the sale of Flubber, but Hawk wants to use it to blackmail the government. Professor Brainard declines Hawk's offer, so he steals the flying car. When Betsy forgives him for standing her up at the alter, she helps him steal back the car. After being chased and narrowly escaping, Brainard and Betsy take the flying car to Washington, D.C. After turning over the invention of Flubber to the government, they finally get married and fly off into the night.

When The Absent-Minded Professor was released on March 16, 1961, critics raved about its light hearted tone and humor and audiences made it a huge success. It was rereleased twice in 1967 and 1974. It made its VHS debut in 1981 and a controversial colorized version was released in 1986. It was nominated for three Academy Awards for special effects, art direction and cinematography. Fred MacMurray was also nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical/comedy.

Thanks to a clever plot, great performances and dazzling special effects, The Absent-Minded Professor is one of the best Disney comedies ever made. A large part of its success seems to be the casting choices. In less capable hands than Fred MacMurray, Ned Brainard could have come off as an unlikable doofus. He breaths so much charm and life into the character and the rest of the cast provide fully realized and developed performances. This film is notable for being the film debut of songwriting duo Richard and Robert Sherman (aka: The Sherman Brothers). They would go on to write some of the most memorable Disney songs, including the entire soundtrack for Mary Poppins and the theme park song "It's a Small World." The had previously achieved success writing songs for Annette Funicello, which were released on Disney's record label. A sequel was made in 1963 called Son of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor has been remade twice, as a TV movie in 1988 and then a theatrical remake in 1997 called Flubber starring Robin Williams. And while Medfield College originated in this film, it would become the setting for many other Disney comedies.

The Absent-Minded Professor is currently available on DVD. Sadly the DVD contains no bonus features, which is perplexing given how beloved and well known the film is. It is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but this is actually framed incorrectly. According to guides sent to theater owners with the film in 1961, it was meant to be framed at 1.75:1, meaning you are seeing more image on the top and bottom than the filmmakers intended. However, this widescreen release is much closer than a fullscreen release would have been and it's better than nothing. It is also available as a combo pack paired with the sequel, Son of Flubber. The film is also available on iTunes where it is available in widescreen HD.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One Hundred and One Dalmatians - 1961

Walt Disney had spent most of his career in animation, refining and improving the medium with each picture. By the 1950's, he had brought it to such a high level of detail that films like Sleeping Beauty were so expensive that they couldn't make a profit. He had also become very busy with other projects, like live action films, television and Disneyland. He was actually advised to get out of the animation business now that he had found success elsewhere. Thankfully, he didn't give up and he took the animation division in a new direction.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is based on a book of the same name by Dodie Smith. Walt personally sought the rights to the book because he thought it would make a fantastic animated feature. This film broke many traditions in Disney animation. For starters, it was the first Disney animated feature to take place in the era in which it was made (late 1950's/early 1960's). While the film contains songs, it's not really a musical. The style of the animation was reminiscent of modern art, which lost a lot of the sleek and refined lines that the studio had been perfecting over the years. Technical advances allowed them to cut time in the Ink & Paint Department by using Xerox technology to scan animator's drawings and print them to celluloid for painting. To create the vehicles in the film, animators filmed model cars and transferred thE film to cels using Xerox, giving them a more realistic look than was possible through hand-drawn animation. There was a designated team that was completely responsible for applying the spots to each dog. Ken Anderson designed the background to look like they had been scanned with Xerox as well to give the whole film a unique style. While the animators were very enthusiastic about the style of the film, Walt was sad to see the refined and polished style of his previous animated films disappear.

It took a staff of 300 animators three years to finish One Hundred and One Dalmatians, even with the Xerox process decreasing the amount of time between initial drawings and final cels. The film also cost $4 million to make,  which while still expensive was much cheaper than the $6 million it cost to produce Sleeping Beauty. For all of it's breaks in tradition, the film does boast two familiar voices. J. Pat O'Mally voices Jasper and previously voiced Cyril in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Tweedle Dee/Dum in Alice in Wonderland. Betty Lou Gerson, who voices Cruella De Vil, was the narrator in Cinderella. And the directing team of Woolie Reitherman, Ham Luske and Clyde Geronimi directed some of the greatest Disney animated films up to this point including Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella and Peter Pan.

The film opens with a very stylized credit sequence inspired by the spots on the canine protagonists. Roger is a single workaholic songwriter until his dalmatian Pongo forces him to meet a lady named Anita, who un-coincidentally has a dalmatian named Perdita. Roger and Anita/Pongo and Perdita fall in love and get married. When Perdita has a litter of puppies, Anita's fashion crazed boss Cruella De Vil makes a forceful offer to buy the puppies to become part of a fur coat. Roger and Anita refuse, so Cruella has her henchmen Horace and Jasper dognap them. Pongo and Perdita set off on a chase to get their puppies back, getting a whole slew of other animals involved. When they catch up to them, they find that Cruella has had so many other puppies stolen that there are now 99. They are able to outsmart Cruella and return home to Roger and Anita, who decide to keep all 101 dogs (99 + Pongo + Perdita = 101) and move into the country where they can have a "Dalmatian Plantation."

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was released on January 25, 1961. It was a hug success both critically and financially. Critics were unanimous in their praise. Some claimed it was Disney's best film since Dumbo. Others applauded the more sophisticated and witty humor vs. the more slapstick gags that Disney was famous for. In terms of financial success, it made $14 million in its initial release, more than 3 times what it cost to make. It reinvigorated and saved an animation studio at risk of being depleted by Walt's other successful ventures. It was rereleased to theaters 4 times in 1969, 1979, 1985 and 1991. It made it's home video debut in 1992.

I first saw One Hundred and One Dalmatians during its 1991 theatrical release and I was instantly obsessed with it. While the title card and original promotional material for the film spell out the number, the 1969 rerelase and all subsequent releases have shortented it to the numerical spelling, 101 Dalmatians.  The film is delightful and instantly appealing to all age groups. Look for cameos from some of the dogs from Lady and the Tramp, including Lady, Jock, Bull and Peg. Disney animation fans might also catch the puppies watching the famous Disney short, Flowers and Trees. The film was adapted into a successful live action film in 1996, starring Glen Close. A short lived animated series was made in 1998 and a live action sequel, 102 Dalmatians, followed in 2000. In 2003, Disney made a direct-to-video animated sequel, 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch's London Adventure. While it has spawned an impressive amount of content in recent years, none of it lives up to the original 1961 classic.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is scheduled to be released on Blu-Ray as a Diamond Edition on February 10th, 2015. It was last released on DVD in 2008 as a 2-disc Platinum Edition, which has been out of print since January 2010. The film has received a full restoration and looks spectacular. The film is presented in fullscreen, which is actually it's original theatrical aspect ratio. While surprising for an era where widescreen was the norm and a selling point to get viewers away from their TV sets, shooting in fullscreen saved both time and money. Bonus features on the DVD include a behind the scenes feature, a piece about Walt Disney's relationship with Doddie Smith, animation galleries, deleted songs and a pop-up trivia track. It is expected to be released again in 2014 as a Diamond Edition.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Swiss Family Robinson - 1960

By 1960, live action adventure films based on classic literature had become a staple of The Walt Disney Studios. It was only a matter of time before Walt Disney tackled his own version of Johann Wyss' Swiss Family Robinson. The story had only been adapted to the screen once before, by former Disney distributor RKO in 1940. British director Ken Annakin and Walt screened that film for inspiration, which convinced them to take a different approach and also film on location rather than on a soundstage.

The Disney version is very loosely based on the classic book. To cast the film, the studio relied heavily on its stable of familiar stars. Dorothy McGuire had previously worked on Old Yeller with Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, who also played brothers in The Shaggy Dog. James MacArthur and Janet Munro had worked together in Third Man on the Mountain and while John Mills was new to the Disney family, his daughter Hayley made her Disney debut with Kevin Corcoran in Pollyanna. Even the director, Ken Annakin, was a familiar face at the studio, having directed films like The Story of Robin Hood and Third Man on the Mountain. The film was shot entirely on location on an island called Tobago. Some of the artificial locations that were built there, including the tree house, took months to build. Inclement weather, a typhoid epidemic, animal actors and a difficult film crew caused delays in production, which lasted 22 weeks. It was shot in Panavision Widescreen, the first and only Disney film made using the Panavision process, which was similar to CinemaScope.When the film arrived in Burbank, most of the audio was unusable and had to be rerecorded through audio dialogue replacement.

The film opens with a ship at sea in a storm that gets stranded when it crashes against a rock. After the storm, a family is able to escape from below only to realize that the rest of the crew and passengers abandoned the ship during the storm to escape pirates that were pursuing them. The oldest son Fritz constructs a raft to transport the family to a nearby island. Father, Fritz and Ernst return to the ship to rescue the livestock on board when the pirates catch up to them. They scare them off by flying a quarantine flag, but realize they won't be safe for long. They build a tree house to keep them safe from the dangerous animals that inhabit the island. Fritz and Ernst explore the island by sailing around it, but when their boat is destroyed they find the pirates who have kidnapped a man and a small boy. They are able to free the boy, who turns out to be a young woman in disguise named Roberta. The family prepares themselves for the inevitable pirate attack as Fritz and Roberta fall in love. When the pirates figure out where they are hiding, a battle ensues. Just when it looks like they might lose, Roberta's grandfather comes to the rescue. However, when the opportunity to leave the island presents itself, most of the family realizes they have everything they could ever want on the island and they decide to stay.

Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson premiered on December 10th, 1960, and was released for the public on December 21st. Critical reception was mixed. Many snubbed Disney for giving the film a lighter tone than the book and for some of the slapstick humor. However, a large number of critics were able to see Walt's intentions and saw that the film succeeded in being well made, entertaining and memorable. It was the most expensive live action film the studio had made up to this point, costing $4.5 million. I'm sure the finance department was relieved when it became one of the most successful films of the year, grossing $7.5 million at the box office, more than Sparticus and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which were also released that year. While most live action Disney films only received one theatrical release before becoming part of Walt's weekly TV series, Swiss Family Robinson was re-released to theaters four times (1969, 1972, 1975 and 1981). It became one of the first Disney films released on VHS in 1982.

I first saw Swiss Family Robinson  on The Disney Channel when I was a kid and I was instantly delighted by its charm. The appeal for me has only increased through the years and it has become one of my favorite movies of all time. I feel that it has something for everybody; action, adventure, comedy, romance and drama. It's easy to see why it was such a ginormous hit in 1960 and why it has stood the test of time.  A walk-through attraction of the tree house was built in Disneyland in 1962, and it was copied at Walt Disney World in 1971, Disneyland Paris in 1992 and Tokyo Disneyland in 1993. Disneyland's attraction has been rethemed to Disney's animated version of Tarzan, but the other parks around the world have kept theirs as the Swiss Family Treehouse. This was Janet Munroe's last theatrical film for Disney, although her last role for the company was in the made for TV film, The Horsemasters in 1961, which also starred Tommy Kirk.

 Swiss Family Robinson is currently available on DVD in a fantastic 2-disc set, part of the short lived 'Vault Disney Collection.' The film has been fully restored and is presented in its original Panavision Widescreen aspect ratio. Bonus features include an in-depth making-of documentary, audio commentary, a vintage episode of Disneyland that took a look behind the scenes before the film was released, plus production photos and original trailers. The film is also available on iTunes in widescreen, where it can be purchased in HD. However the digital version doesn't include any of the bonus features.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jungle Cat - 1960

From 1948 to 1960, Walt Disney's True-Life Adventure series offered movie goers a glimpse at exotic locales and the animals that inhabit them. The award winning series is heralded as the creation of the nature documentary format. The seventh and final feature length True-Life Adventure film tells the story of jaguars in Brazil. A team of three photographers spent over two years in Brazil to amass all of the footage used in the film. Because of the humidity and heat in South America, some of the film was ruined by the time it was sent to the studio.

Like most of the True-Life Adventures films before it, Jungle Cat opens with a paintbrush, but instead of painting a globe it paints a statue of an ancient Egyptian cat. The narrative segues from domesticated cats to their wild cousins that hunt to survive. After introducing its audience to the unique jungles of Brazil, Jungle Cat sets its focus on a family of jaguars and their struggles to serivive. Many other animals are featured throughout the film including monkeys, birds, crocodiles, otters, sloths and snakes.

Jungle Cat was released on August 10th, 1960. Like the other True-Life Adventure films, critics praised it and audiences worldwide made it a financial success. With these facts, it is hard to understand why it was the end of this prestigious series. According to Roy E. Disney, Walt ended the series because he felt that television was a better medium for this type of subject matter. The Wonderful World of Color (later The Wonderful World of Disney) carried on the medium of nature documentaries and today there is a cable channel that is solely devoted to this genre.

As a film, Jungle Cat proves humorous and enjoyable fifty years after its release. While the film offers some intense moments, such as a jaguar almost getting killed by a boa constrictor, there is enough lighthearted fare to appease any viewer. My favorite scenes involve the adorable Brazilian monkeys. It's hard not to laugh when they team up on a sloth that invades their favorite tree, causing them to shake it out.

Jungle Cat was released on DVD in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. It can be found on the third volume of the True-Life Adventures series where it has been fully restored. The DVD is now out of print and copies are hard to find. It is now available on iTunes, where it is available in HD.