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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Incredible Journey - 1963

Since the end of the True-Life Adventure series, Walt Disney had made three films starring animals to tell a pre-written story in conjunction with Calgary Ltd, a Canadian film company. While these films weren't usually big hits at the box office, they were inexpensive to make and were almost guaranteed to make money. For his fourth of such films, he selected a very popular book called The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.

James Algar, who worked on the True-Life Adventure films as well as the previous Calgary Ltd. productions, adapted the screenplay. Canadian director Fletcher Markle was hired to direct his only Disney film. Rex Allen narrates his second Disney film after narrating Niki Wild Dog of the North. Émile Genest stars in his third and final Disney film, after previously appearing in Niki Wild Dog of the North and Big Red. While there aren't any other familiar Disney faces, Jan Rubes who plays Carl Nurmi returned to the studio many years later in D2: The Mighty Ducks in 1994.

The film begins with flyovers of Canadian forests. The narrator then introduces John Longridge and the three pets he is looking after while their owners are away. When John goes off hunting, there is a communication error and his housekeeper thinks he has taken the pets with him. In reality, they assume they have been abandoned and set off on a 200 mile journey back to their real home. They get into an altercation with a bear, meet an eccentric mountain man and when they get seperated, Tao the Siamese cat gets into a fight with a lynx. After reuniting, Luath the retriever gets quilled in the face by a porcupine and is helped by a kind hunter and his wife. When John Longridge arrives home to discover the animals are missing, he notifies the family. While the parents don't believe the animals will return, the children don't lose hope. On the son's birthday, the pets return to their home, having completed their three week journey.

The Incredible Journey premiered on October 30th, 1963 and was released to theaters on November 20th. Critics adored it, praising it as one of the best animal movies for children. It was not a huge box office hit, but because it didn't cost much to make it turned a profit. The studio rereleased it to theaters in 1969. It was first shown on the Wonderful World of Color in 1977 and was released on home video in 1984.

I've never been a huge fan of Disney's narrated scripted animal films, but The Incredible Journey is certainly one of the better ones. While you would expect the human actors to lead the story and carry the emotional weight, the animal actors far outshine anybody with a speaking role. And many of the shots are amazing, including the fight between the cat and the lynx. I think the biggest mistake with the film is not showing the pet's owners until the end of the film. It's hard to care about people at the end of a film who have been absent the whole time. It's something they corrected in 1993 when the film was remade as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. That film starts with the family and how much they love their pets and also returns to them several times to show how miserable they are without them. While some may prefer this 1963 version that doesn't feature talking animals, the remake adds an emotional element that is missing here. However, both are good films on their own terms.

The Incredible Journey is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1, although the back of the box incorrectly lists it as being in fullscreen. No bonus features are included. The film is also available on iTunes in widescreen, where it can also be purchased in HD.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer Magic - 1963

Walt Disney must have been disappointed when his first attempt at a live action musical, Babes in Toyland, turned out to be a box office bomb. Thankfully it didn't dissuade him from making more. Walt had another musical in mind for Annette Funicello based on a turn-of-the-century novel called Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggins. For unknown reasons, but probably because of Babes in Toyland, he gave the role to Hayley Mills, who had achieved success with songs from her films.

The screenplay was adapted by Sally Benson, famous for writing Meet Me in St. Louis for MGM. James Nielson was chosen to direct, who had previously done Moon Pilot and Bon Voyage! One of the later film's stars, Deborah Walley, was cast in her second and last film for Disney. Dorothy McGuire (Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson) plays Mrs. Carey in her final Disney film. And popular singer Burl Ives returns to the studio, after a memorable role in 1948's So Dear to My Heart. Other familiar Disney faces include Una Markel (The Parent Trap) and Eddie Hodges, who later appeared in The Happiest Millionaire. For original songs, Walt turned to Richard and Robert Sherman, who had been at the studio for a few years writing small songs for films, including "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap. Seven original songs are used in the film. The film was entirely shot at The Walt Disney Studios.

The film opens with a big storm as the credits play. As the storm clears, we are introduced to turn-of-the-century Boston at the Carey home, a family who recently lost the head of the house and are preparing to move due to financial problems. Daughter Nancy writes a letter to Osh Popham in Buelah, Maine and finds out that a yellow house they once visited is available to rent. They move to the house and it is revealed that Nancy lied to Osh Popham about the families circumstances, but all is forgiven. What the Careys don't know is that Osh never received clearance from the home's owner, Mr. Hamilton, to rent it out. Meanwhile, their cousin Julia comes to live with them. Julia annoyingly complains about the fine standards she's accustomed to and how their home can't compare. When the handsome, young new school teacher Mr. Bryant comes to town, Nancy and Julia start to compete for his attention. Julia wins his affection while Nancy is busy helping Osh fulfill an alleged request from Mr. Hamilton to throw a party in honor of his mother on Halloween, her birthday. A stranger arrives, who turns out to be Mr. Hamilton. Osh gives him all of Nancy's letters and he arrives at the party and escorts her, without revealing his name. The two begin to dance together at the party as the film ends.

Summer Magic was released on July 7th, 1963. Critics were pretty harsh towards it, claiming that only children would find it entertaining and that the songs weren't memorable. However, audiences seemed to disagree. It made $4 million at the box office, proving itself a moderate hit. Hayley Mills was nominated for best actress at the Golden Globes for her performance. While it never received another theatrical release, it made its TV debut in 1965 and was released on home video for the first time in 1985.

What Summer Magic lacks in plot it makes up for in charm. It's easy to see why critics weren't thrilled, but anybody who is nostalgic for simpler times will fined themselves feeling very cozy watching this film. All of the actors give delightful performances and the Sherman Brothers songs are catchy. "Ugly Bug Ball" has gone on to become somewhat of a children's classic. Walt Disney allegedly wasn't trilled with the song, but the Shermans convinced him to keep it in the film. Another song called "On the Front Porch" is Richard Sherman's favorite song he ever wrote. My personal favorite song in the film is called "Flitterin.'"Visitors to Disneyland and Walt Disney World have unknowingly heard many of the songs before because instrumental versions make up much of the area music on Main Street (some of the other songs come from another Disney/Sherman musical, The Happiest Millionaire). And visitors to the Magic Kingdom in Florida with a keen eye may even notice who the proprietor of the Emporium is... none other than Osh Popham!Another interesting fact is that a film version of Mother Carey's Chickens had been made by RKO in 1938 starring Ruby Keeler. RKO was Walt Disney's distributor at the time.

Summer Magic is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1 and a decent restoration was done. There are no bonus features. It is also available on iTunes in widescreen, where it can also be purchased in HD.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Savage Sam - 1963

Walt Disney had a few successes with sequels, even though he generally didn't believe in them. Davy Crockett and the River Pirates and Son of Flubber made a lot of money at the box office and proved that sequels were too lucrative to pass up. However, Old Yeller made in 1957 had to have seemed like an odd choice six years later, with one of its child stars now an official adult and the titular character having died at the end of that film. At any rate, Old Yeller author Fred Gipson wrote a follow up book and Disney made a decision to adapt it to the screen.

Norman Tokar was hired to direct his second Disney film after making Big Red. Author Fred Gipson and William Tunberg adapted the screenplay, the same way they did for Old Yeller. Three of the original principal cast returned including Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and Jeff York. This was York's last Disney film, although he did appear in the TV serial Daniel Boone in 1966. Neither of the parents, Dorothy McGuire or Fess Parker, returned and in their place, Brian Keith from Ten Who Dared and The Parent Trap took the role of Uncle Beck. The character Lisbeth was recast with actress Marta Kristen. This was her only Disney film. Terry Gilkyson wrote one song for the film called "Savage Sam and Me." He previously wrote a song for Swiss Family Robinson and would go on to write "The Bare Necessities" from The Jungle Book.

The film opens a lot like Old Yeller with footage of Sam instead of Yeller running around the farm as the credits and "Savage Sam and Me" play. Travis and Arliss are taking care of the farm while their parents are out of town. Sam causes a lot of mischief for Arliss while doing the chores, which gets him and Travis in a fight. Uncle Beck arrives just in time to break it up. Bud Searcy and his daughter Lisbeth show up and tell Travis that some Indians are terrorizing the settlers. When Travis, Arliss and Lisbeth go chasing after Sam into the mountains, they are taken captive by Indians. Savage Sam is attacked during the fight and they assume he is dead. The Indians make Arliss one of their own and plan to make Lisbeth a bride and Travis a slave. Travis is able to escape during a fight and Savage Sam finds him. They run into Uncle Beck and Bud who have formed a rescue mission. They successful rescue Arliss and Lisbeth and return home. The film ends with Savage Sam running off to chase after a young bobcat as a reprise of "Savage Sam and Me."

Savage Sam was released on June 1st, 1963. Critics were fairly mixed. While many admitted that it was a typical Disney western film, others saw bigger problems. The biggest criticisms were that the comedy bits didn't fit in a story that was at times very intense, making them feel pointless. It was not a success at the box office, possibly because Disney didn't attempt to link it to Old Yeller in any of the marketing. It was first shown on TV in 1966 and was released on home video in 1986.

The plot of this film reads well on paper and must have seemed very exciting before it was filmed.  However, the transition to the screen is not as graceful. The film has many slow points where the story comes to a stop and while concern for safety of the three captives could have been intense, they are handled in a light way, so the audience never truly feels they are in real danger. Tommy Kirk makes the transition to a more mature role with a lot of charm, but Arliss should have been written older for Kevin Corocoran. Half the lines they give him seem awkward coming from someone whose voice is changing. It's not a bad film by any means, but its fairly mediocre, especially when considering this is a sequel to one of the greatest dog films ever made. Like most Westerns from this era, the Native Americans are represented as being somewhat savage and therefore might be offensive to anyone of Native American descent.

Savage Sam is currently available on DVD in a combo pack with Old Yeller, where it is compressed onto the same disc as that film. A standalone release from 2004 gave the film its own disc, but is now out of print. Both releases present the film in fullscreen, but its original theatrical aspect ratio would have been widescreen, most likely 1.75:1. It is available in widescreen on iTunes, where it can also be purchased in HD.