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.