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.