Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Love Bug - 1969

When Dean Jones brought Walt Disney a script in the mid-1960's about the first sports car in America that he was interested in making, Walt told him he had a better car story for him. The story that Walt had in mind was Boy/Car/Girl by Gordon Bufford. After Walt's passing, a committee was formed that would pick projects based on what Walt might have done. Bill Walsh adapted Boy/Car/Girl into the classic film we know today as The Love Bug.

Disney's top director, Robert Stevenson, was assigned as director. Dean Jones was attached to the film from its inception, but the toughest casting choice was the car itself. They had a casting call that included a Toyota, Fiat, Volvo, MG, and a Volkswagen. The VW Beetle got the role because studio employees that passed by it would pet it. Buddy Hacket was cast when Bill Walsh saw him performing in Las Vegas. In that same act, Buddy had a story about a French ski instructor named Herbie, which inspired the name of the car. David Tomlinson returns to the studio as the villain after his memorable role as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Joe Flynn makes his Disney debut, best remembered for his role as Snoops in The Rescuers and Dean Higgins in the Dexter Riley series. Iris Adrian has a small role as the carhop, who would become one of the most memorable side character actresses at Disney in the 1970's.

The movie begins with a drag race as the credits play. One of the losers, Jim Douglas, heads home defeated to find his eccentric roommate Tennessee making a sculpture out of his wrecked car parts. While shopping for a new car, he sees a pretty girl named Carole and walks into the upscale dealership, owned by Peter Thorndyke. About to be shown the door, a Volkswagen Beetle rolls in from the back and bumps him in the leg. The little car follows him home, causing him to get in trouble for allegedly stealing the car. If Jim will pay for the car, Thorndyke won't press any charges. On his drive home, the car forces him off the freeway and hides under a bridge. He takes it back to return it and Carole joins him for a drive to validate that the car works properly. When they start to argue, the car starts driving itself and takes them to a drive-in, where it locks them in the car and forces them on a date. When Carole offers to refund him for the car, he decides to keep it after seeing how fast it can go. Tennessee believes the car has a spirit and is alive, but Jim dismisses it and does some maintenance to race it. After winning his first race, Thorndyke offers to buy it back. Carole suggests a deal where Thorndyke will bet the remaining payments Jim owes against Jim's shares of the car. Whichever driver wins gets to keep it. Meanwhile, Tennessee has named the car Herbie as Jim goes on believing that his driving is what is winning the races. After buying a real race car with the winnings from the races, Jim agrees to sell Herbie to Thorndyke, causing the depressed car to run away and attempt suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jim tries to stop him and almost falls, causing Herbie to backup and save him. On the drive, Herbie destroyed a Chinese restaurant and the owner wants the car as payment. Jim makes a deal where the car belongs to him, but Jim gets to drive him in the next race. If Jim wins, the man gets the money and has to sell Herbie back for a $1. During the race, Thorndyke tries to sabotage Jim by replacing their gas with water and spraying oil on the road. Herbie is able to overcome these hurdles with some amazing tricks, including tearing himself apart to win the race and stay with Jim. The owner of the Chinese Restaurant had made a deal with Thorndyke to get the car from him if Jim lost the race, but in the fine print of the contract Thorndyke had to hand over his dealership if they lost. The film ends with Carole and Jim getting in a restored Herbie for their honeymoon.

The Love Bug premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater on March 13th, 1969, where valet parking was exclusive to attendees in Volkswagens. The studio wasn't expecting the massive success of the film, which went on to become the highest grossing film of 1969, and the second highest grossing film in Disney history at the time, second to Mary Poppins. It made $17 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1979 and premiered on home video in 1980.

Herbie has an undeniable charm and it's easy to see why this was such a big hit. It follows the basic Disney formula for successful comedies, but has a freshness that makes it feel new. Of the Disney films made in the 1960's, this one represents the unique qualities of the era the best. Optional titles included ThunderBug, The Magic Volksy, and Beetlebomb before they decided on The Love Bug. Dean Jones plays another character in the film, the memorable hippy at the drive-in. Eight different bugs were used to play Herbie, each built to perform different tricks. In pre-production, Herbie was going to be red, but was switched to pearl white. The iconic scene with Herbie skipping across the pond was shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. To promote the film, Disneyland had a Love Bug day, where guests would bring their Beetles to the park dressed up for a parade. Dean Jones presenting the winner with an award. The number 53 came from Bill Walsh's favorite baseball player, Don Drysdale of the LA Dodgers.

The Love Bug has inspired more follow-up projects than any other live-action Disney film property. Four direct sequels were made: Herbie Rides Again in 1974, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo in 1977, Herbie Goes Bananas in 1980, and Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005. In 1982, Disney attempted a TV series starring Dean Jones that only laster 5 episode on CBS called Herbie: The Love Bug. In 1997 Disney made a TV movie also called The Love Bug, a modern take on the story loosly inspired by the original film that also had a Dean Jones cameo. In 1999, Walt Disney World opened the All Star Movies resort, which features a Love Bug wing.

The Love Bug is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. This version has a wonderful new restoration, but loses all of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD set, which includes a making-of feature, commentary, and vintage promotional material. The film is presented in widescreen with a decent restoration. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection paired with the first 3 sequels, but you lose the second disc and therefore most of the bonus features. The new restoration is also available digitally from all major providers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit - 1968

After Walt Disney's death in 1966, the studio still had a few films in production and pre-production to get them through the next couple of years. These films would still be marketed the same as when he was alive, with "Walt Disney Presents" above the title. The first film marketed a different way, with "Walt Disney Productions Presents" was The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, based on the book The Year of the Horse by Eric Hatch.

With the studios' biggest star Dean Jones attached, they assigned Norman Tokar to direct. The two worked together on The Ugly Dachshund. The screenplay was adapted by Louis Pelletier, who did several Disney films before it including Follow Me, Boys!. Winston Hibler, famous as an animation writer and animal film producer, filled producer duties. Disney's rising star Kurt Russell appears here in his third Disney film, shortly before taking Dean Jones' title as the biggest star at the studio. Alan Hewitt returns to the studio, having appeared in both Absent-Minded Professor films, who would be paired with Russell in the upcoming Dexter Riley film series. Character actor Norman Grabowski makes his final Disney appearance here, best known as the dumb jock in the Merlin Jones series.

After an animated credit sequence, we are introduced to advertising agent Fred Bolton, who is working on marketing a digestive pill called Aspercel. While at work, he receives a big bill for his daughter's horse riding lessons that makes his head spin. After the boss is unimpressed with their campaign, he gives the team 24 hours to create a new one. When Fred picks up his daughter Helen from her lessons, he settles the bill with her pretty riding instructor, who had suggested to Helen that if she had her own horse, her riding would improve and she could compete in big races. In a stroke of insanity, he pitches the idea to his boss of having a show horse named Aspercel to subliminally bring the product to a higher class market, which gets him promoted to vice president. After Helen loses the first competition, Fred takes advice from Ronnie, the brother of another competitor. He has Helen's instructor increase training to every day because if Helen and Aspercel don't make it to the finals in Washington, he will be fired. After hearing her father argue with his boss before a show, she gets under a lot of pressure even though she is consistently winning. When Aspercel runs away and Fred chases after him, Helen reports the horse stolen. Their ride turns into a police chase and Fred gets locked up in jail, but the story gets media attention which pleases his boss. When Ronnie arrives to take Helen on a date, she stands him up to practice and has an emotional breakdown under the pressure of competing. After finding out that Aspercel jumped a 7 foot wall during the chase, the trainer decides to enter the horse in the open jumper championship, which could land them bigger media attention. With the trainer riding, the pressure is off Helen. When Aspercel wins, Fred realizes he is in love with Helen's instructor and they get engaged.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit was released on December 20th, 1968, paired with the second Pooh short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. It earned $3.3 million during its box office run, about half of what Dachshund earned and not quite a success. It premiered on TV in 1971 and was first released on home video in 1986.

While the title and marketing suggest this is a zany Disney comedy, it actually has a lot more heart than what appears on the surface. There are also a lot of deeper themes, such as gender inequalities of the 1960's, the importance of family over careers, and the psychological trauma of children who support their family. The film offers fun, classic Disney charm with great performances from all of the actors. The only faults I can give it are inconsistent pace. It starts out fast paced and exciting, but quickly becomes slow paced once Aspercel starts competing. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. The title is a joke on a popular novel and film from the 50's called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Fred's dog is named Herbie, possibly an intentional nod to the next Dean Jones Disney comedy, The Love Bug.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen. The original theatrical ratio was 1.75:1 widescreen. They used the VHS master from the 1998 release to make the DVD and there aren't any bonus features. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection of Kurt Russell films where it is paired with Now You See Him, Now You Don't, The Strongest Man in the World, and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Never a Dull Moment - 1968

When Walt Disney was alive, he had formed a friendship with Dick Van Dyke, a comedic actor who believed in clean family entertainment. He signed him to a film contract and was looking for another project for him before passing away. That project would be a book called Never a Dull Moment by John Godey.

Jerry Paris was hired to direct his only Disney film because he was a leading director (and costar) of The Dick Van Dyke show. The production team felt that he would be capable of bringing out the best performance from Van Dyke. AJ Carothers adapted the screenplay, his last for Disney. For Van Dyke, this would be his final Disney branded film (although he was in Touchstone's Dick Tracy in 1990). Gangster film icon Edward G. Robinson plays the head of the mob. Dorothy Provine returns to the studio one final time after a memorable role in That Darn Cat. Slim Pickens also returns to the studio after Savage Sam and Disney TV westerns. Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller produced this, his first film with full producer credit (he co-produced several films including Summer Magic).

The film begins with two crooks and a hostage in a surrounded building when the one crook kills the other. It turns out these are actors in a TV show and the killed crook is a bit-part actor named Jack Albany. While still in costume on his way home, he gets mixed up with a mob who think he's Ace Williams, one of the leading gangsters in the world. When he meets the head of the mob Joe Smooth, he is receiving art lessons from a pretty girl who recognizes him from TV. The crime he is to assist in performing is to steal a 40 foot famous painting from the Manhattan art museum. When Sally the art instructor stumbles into the meeting, she is forced to stay the night along with the rest of the mob involved in the heist. That night, the real Ace shows up. Unsure who is the real one, Joe Smooth locks them both in a room alone and decides that whoever comes out alive must be the real Ace. It just so happens that Sally was hiding in the same room and she knocks the real Ace out. After a short discussion, Sally convinces Jack that the best way to save their lives is for him to keep pretending to be Ace and hope to break free at the museum. When he is discovered as a phony at the museum, a mad cap chase includes with a climax on a giant spinning mobile. After setting off the fire alarm, their plan is foiled and the gangsters are arrested. Jack and Sally get their happy ending, with Jack leaving to call his agent as he is about to make headlines for his good deed.

Never a Dull Moment was released on June 26th, 1968. In its original release, it was paired with the classic short The Three Little Pigs. Critics bashed the over-the-top acting and noted the lack of comedic moments in this Disney comedy. It made $4 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1977 packaged with The Three Caballeros and made its TV debut in 1979. It was first released on video in 1985.

If you're a Dick Van Dyke fan and enjoyed Lt. Robin Crusoe, then I recommend Never a Dull Moment as a follow up. While there are a few highlights in the film and I enjoy the performances, especially Dorothy Provine, this film doesn't measure up to the more well known Disney comedies of its era. Also for a film called Never a Dull Moment, there sure is an awful lot of sitting around and talking with long breaks between key action sequences. In the early scenes where Jack is acting on TV, you can see the interior walls of the Disney soundstage where the scene was filmed. This film features some amazing matte paintings to double local LA and the Disney Studio for New York City. Director Jerry Paris from The Dick Van Dyke Show makes a brief cameo as a police officer towards the end of the film.

Never a Dull Moment is currently available on DVD where it is presented in widescreen. The original theatrical trailer is included as a bonus feature. It is also available on iTunes, where it is offered in HD.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band - 1968

The Happiest Millionaire was a big budget live action musical flop that struggled to get released, not playing to general audiences until the end of 1967. However it was Walt's belief that Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson were the next big onscreen couple, so before his death he had found another project for them.. It would be their last film together. Originally intended as a two-part TV special, the studio developed the autobiography of Laura Bower Van Nuys called The Family Band into the much longer titled film, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

The book was adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and was his final screenplay (other works include Swiss Family Robinson and Babes in Toyland). TV director Michael O'Herlihy directs his only Disney film. Walter Brennan makes his final Disney appearance as Granda Bower. Disney Legend Buddy Ebson also returns to the studio for the last time. Kurt Russell (Follow Me, Boys!) has a small roll in this film, shortly before his rise to fame at Disney. One of the children, John Walmsley, was also the voice of Christopher Robin in the short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. The Sherman Brothers wrote ten original songs for the film, eight of which made it into the film.

The film begins in 1888 with the Bower family rehearsing a song in their barn. A man arrives from the Democratic National Committee to ask Grandpa Bower to have the family perform their campaign song at the St. Louis Convention. They give him a demonstration performance and get an invitation to perform at the reelection campaign for Grover Cleveland. While the family is dancing and celebrating, the man the eldest daughter Alice has been writing to arrives and she gets embarrassed, but he finds it charming. He's in town to find fellow Republicans to move to the Black Hills of Dakota, which causes a fight with Democratic grandfather. The family decides to move, with Alice becoming the town's school teacher. After the family sings their Grover Cleveland song in public, the family becomes outcasts and school is canceled on Alice's first day. Joe sings to her about his love for her to cheer her up. Meanwhile grandpa went to tell the kids to go home but unintentionally gave the kids a history lesson. This causes a bigger fight in the family and grandpa decides to leave. Shortly after, grandpa returns to find that the family hasn't been practicing for their big performance. They beg him to come back and lead them. When Cleveland loses to Benjamin Harrison, the whole town is reunited when Cleveland announces he will make the Dakota's states before he leaves office. The film ends with closing credits as the town celebrates with a parade.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band premiered on March 21st, 1968 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Like Millionaire before it, it was a critical and commercial failure. It made it's TV debut in 1972 and the title was shortened to just The Family Band. It was one of the first Disney films released for video rental in 1981 and was released for sale in 1985.

I really enjoyed The Happiest Millionaire, but find Family Band to be a fairly weak follow up. It has a few highlight moments, mostly when the Sherman songs liven things up. I tend to really enjoy films set in the Victorian era with a slow pace, but this film is a little bit too slow. When the decision was made to make it a feature film instead of a two-part TV special, the Sherman Brothers were resistant because they didn't feel the story was strong enough to warrant more songs or a theatrical release. Two songs were cut from the film and Richard Sherman claims the original runtime was 156 minutes (the only version ever released is 110 minutes long). Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russel's life partner, makes her feature film debut as a dancer in this film. It was their first meeting, but sparks didn't fly between the two until more than a decade later.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in pan & scan fullscreen. The original theatrical release was widescreen 1.75:1. This presentation has some excess grain and artifacts. The DVD release surprisingly has bonus features, which include an audio commentary and a retrospective featurette with the cast. A newer restoration was done and is available on iTunes in widescreen and HD, but without any bonus features.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blackbeard's Ghost - 1968

Walt Disney passed away in late 1966 and his older brother Roy O. Disney took over as the leader of Walt Disney Productions. While Walt may have been gone, all of the people that had worked with him for many years were still there. They continued doing their jobs the way they had before, the only difference being that Walt wasn't there to lend his uncanny expertise for what audiences would want to see. Sometimes the team was right on the money, which thankfully is the case with their first film without Walt's guidance.

Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, who wrote the screenplay for Mary Poppins, adapted a book by Ben Stahl about two teenagers who set the ghost of the famed pirate Blackbeard free into a Disney-style comedy. The most prolific director at the studio, Robert Stevenson, took on directorial duties. Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette were reunited to star in it after winning over audiences together in The Ugly Dachshund. Dean Jones was by now one of the biggest names with a contract at Disney. Academy Award winner Peter Ustinov was cast as the titular drunken pirate, his first of several Disney films. Elsa Lancaster is another staple Disney actress playing the head of Blackbeard's Inn.

The film begins with a prologue about the death of the feared pirate Blackbeard, followed by credits set against footage of rolling waves along the shore. Steve Walker drives into the town of Godolphin where he checks in to Blackbeard's Inn. He just took a job as track coach for Godolphin's lackluster college team. When he arrives, the ladies who run the Inn are having a Bazaar to raise money to save the Inn from a buyout. In an effort to outdo the competitive football coach, Steve buys a bedwarmer that belonged to Blackbeard's 10th wife. As gratitude, the women who run the Inn put Steve in Blackbeard's old room and explain that his last wife was a witch and had cursed him to be a ghost until he could show a sign of "human goodness." When Steve accidentally breaks open the bedwarmer, he finds a spell book. After reciting a spell, Steve is able to see and hear the ghost of Blackbeard. The two are about as incompatible as possible, Steve being a mild-mannered man who doesn't drink, Blackbeard being a selfish pirate who can't stand being sober. While taking a drive to clear his head, Blackbeard gets him pulled over and due to the open bottle of rum in the car and Blackbeard's antics, he gets arrested. Steve begs him to give the ladies at the Inn his treasure to save it, but he is reluctant. After being set free, he meets his hopeless track team and Blackbeard offers to help train them, since he has experience training a crew and he thinks their success can somehow help the Inn. While on a date with Jo Anne, who is helping the ladies fundraise, Steve tells her what happened. Meanwhile Blackbeard steals her fundraising money and bets it on Godalphin winning the track meet. During the meet, Blackbeard helps the team and hinders their competitors, despite Steve begging him to stop. When the issuer of the bet cancels, he offers to let them play roulette with their original money instead. With Blackbeard's assistance, they win enough to save the Inn and fight off the casino goons. At the party to burn the mortgage papers, Steve has everyone recite the incantation so they can see and thank Blackbeard. Having proved that he can do a selfless deed, Blackbeard is free to sail into the next world.

Blackbeard's Ghost premiered on February 8th, 1968. It was a critical and box office smash, ranking in $21 million in it's initial theatrical run. Its initial success earned it a theatrical rerelease in 1976. It made its TV debut in 1982 and was released on video for the first time that same year.

Despite the initial success of Blackbeard's Ghost, it has faded into obscurity over time. It is a thoroughly enjoyable film with top notch performances, interesting characters, cool special effects, and some genuinely funny moments. The problem is that its best moments can be found in better films. The zany track meet feels directly inspired by The Absent-Minded Professor. Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette have wonderful chemistry, which can also be seen in the more original The Ugly Dachshund. And the special effects that make this film standout were recreated to better affect years later in Pete's Dragon. None of this detracts from the entertainment value of the film itself, but seem to be the cause for why this film isn't widely known today.

Blackbeard's Ghost is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in pan & scan fullscreen. The film was originally released in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. The DVD also shows a lot of dust on the film. There aren't any bonus features. A more recent restoration was done and that version can be found on iTunes in widescreen, where it is also available in HD.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar - 1967

Walt Disney's love of animals and nature leant itself to many films during his career. Outside of animal characters in animated shorts and films, he started a series of live action nature documentaries with a series called True-Life Adventures. These films lead to story-based animal films. While Charlie the Lonesome Cougar was greenlit by Walt, filming didn't begin until after his death. Therefore, this is the first film made by Disney without his involvement.

The project was written and directed by Winston Hibler, who worked on some of Disney's most classic animated films as well as his nature documentaries. Rex Allen narrates his last Disney film, after narrating other story-based animal films like The Incredible Journey and The Legend of Lobo. The task of filming was outsourced to Cangary Limited. The human cast is entirely made up of unknowns, most of whom were natives of Washington near the Columbia River Gorge, where the film was shot on location. Jack Spiers and Franklyn Marks wrote the main credit song "Talkin' About Charlie."

The film begins with a fun animated credit sequence to an upbeat song written about Charlie. After the credits we are introduced to orphan baby Charlie, who is adopted by a man named Jess who is a logger. When Charlie grows big, he begins to cause a lot of mischief and trouble for Jess. He creates a log jam in the river that they use to transport logs and causes Jess' boat to catch fire. Charlie gets himself in a pinch after stealing from a farm, causing the farmer and his dogs to chase after him with guns. He then gets the whole town mad at him, and a chase ensues between the loggers he used to be friends with, resulting in Charlie getting trapped in an elevator shaft. Jess steps in at the last second and is able to calm Charlie down. In the end, Jess takes Charlie to a protected reserve where he will be free.

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar was released on October 18th, 1967. It was part of a double-bill with The Jungle Book, which was released on the same day. The Jungle Book earned $13 million in its original release and was a huge hit, but it is hard to determine what percentage of the audience stayed for Charlie. The studio didn't have enough faith in it to release it separately and it feels more like the type of film that would have been made for TV by Disney in this era rather than theatrically released. It is not surprising that it made its TV debut in 1969. It's first home video release was in 1985.

Compared to Disney's other live action animal films from this era, Charlie is able to hold its own. But modern audiences have come to expect animals to talk in this type of film and I imagine most modern kids would have a hard time sitting through the whole film. I think the main audience for this film nowadays are adults who were delighted by the story as a child. The narrative gets dry several times where it is easy to lose the audience, but there are a few moments worth waiting for. The highlight of the film is a scene where Charlie rides a log down a log flume. And the early scenes of young Charlie bonding with Jess are truly adorable.

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen. The theatrical release would have most likely been widescreen, but the fullscreen presentation feels correctly framed. The opening credits are even set in a little so overscan doesn't cut them off and the ratio of that image is 1.33:1. The film does have some visual flaws, with dust and white specs not fully removed during the restoration. There aren't any bonus features. It is also available on iTunes, where it can be purchased in HD.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Jungle Book - 1967

Walt Disney was fascinated with Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, but the novel lacked a plot that would lend itself well to a feature film. After years of development and not being satisfied, Walt told his story department to throw the book away, which is how they ended up with this uniquely Disney telling of the story.. It was unintentionally the last animated film made under Walt's guidance and he passed away before it was completed.

While Disney had previously used some recognizable celebrity voices in previous animated films, this was the exception, not the rule. This concept was turned around for The Jungle Book, where celebrity voices were cast and their characters were based around them. Singer, actor, and comedian Phil Harris was given top billing as Baloo in his first of several iconic Disney roles. Sebastian Cabot voices Bagheera, having previously voiced Sir Ector in The Sword in the Stone and narrating the Winnie the Pooh shorts. Jazz singer Louis Prima was cast as the swingin' King Louie. George Sanders voices Shere Khan, having previously stared in In Search of the Castaways. Sterling Holloway, who voiced more Disney characters than any other actor, plays Kaa. Clint Howard voices Colonel Hathi's son while Verna Felton, most famous as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, voices his wife in her final Disney role. Colonel Hathi was also voiced by a recognizable Disney voice, J. Pat O'Maley, most famous for playing Tweedle Dee/Dum in Alice. Mowgli is voiced by Bruce Reitherman.

One of Walt's legendary Nine Old Men, Woolie Reitherman, who previously directed 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, and the Winnie the Pooh shorts. The film was in development for a while with Terry Gilkyson as the songwriter. When that darker draft of the film was revised into what was eventually made, the Sherman Brothers replaced him as songwriters. The only Gilkyson song that remains in the film is "The Bare Necessities." The retooling of the film also caused story man Bill Peet to quit his job with Disney. The vultures were created for The Beetles, but after the characters were designed John Lennon decided the band should not participate. The same song is in the final film ("What Friends Are For"), but the tone was changed to a barbershop quartet. King Louie was originally created for Louie Armstrong, but was recast with Prima. For this reason, some scholars claim the character is an offensive African American stereotype, but Prima is speaking in his normal voice and not doing an impression of anybody else.

The Jungle Book was released on October 18th, 1967, paired with another Disney film, Charlie the Lonesome Cougar. It was a huge success, earning $13 million in it's original release. Critics agreed that the film was far removed from the novel, to the benefit of the film. Those that were harsh on the film claimed it was too easy going and didn't offer enough story. "The Bare Necessities" was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards. According to Gregory Peck, the Academy also debated about nominating the film for Best Picture, although it ultimately wasn't part of that category. The film was rereleased in theaters three times in 1978, 1984, and 1990. It made its home video debut in 1991 and was considered so prestigious that it wasn't aired on TV until 2011.

I had the privilege of experiencing The Jungle Book for the first time in theaters during its last theatrical release. King Louis and the "I Wanna Be Like You" sequence had a big impact on me. Watching it today, it's still easy to get wrapped up in the characters. Jungle Book is light on plot, but heavy on fun and entertainment and that's why it has remained one of Disney's most beloved classics all these years. There are a lot of pop culture jokes that aren't relevant to modern audiences, but most modern audiences will miss the 1960's-specific references.

This film has had a lucrative legacy for the Walt Disney Company. A television series based on the characters as pilots debuted in 1990 called Tale Spin that ran until 1994. In 1994, Disney made a live action version of the story that sees Mowgli become a man, plus a direct to video spin-off called Mowgli's Story. When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, one of the original attractions was a show called "Journey into the Jungle Book" that lasted a year. In 2003, Disney Toon Studios made The Jungle Book 2, made by the same team that handled direct-to-video sequels. A stage musical based on the Disney film premiered in Chicago in 2013.

The Jungle Book is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Diamond Edition. The film was fully restored and presented in widescreen aspect ratio of 1.77:1. The film was originally animated in fullscreen with the intention of being matted into widescreen in theaters. A Limited Issue DVD release from 1999 presented the film in fullscreen if you prefer the full animated picture. That release doesn't have any bonus features. The Blu-Ray features most of the bonus features from the 2007 Platinum Edition DVD (contains a making-of documentary, deleted scenes and songs, audio commentary, art galleries, and featurettes). But the new single-disc DVD is missing many bonus features, I recommend the Platinum Edition if you're looking for the film on DVD.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Gnome Mobile - 1967

Of all of the film genres that Walt Disney's studio regularly produced, the one that is best associated with the studio are the fantasy films. It had been three years since the last fantasy film, Mary Poppins. Based on the book The Gnomobile by Upton Sinclair from 1936, The Gnome-Mobile is the first fantasy film made at the studio since the juggernaut success of Poppins, and is sadly the last one made while Walt was alive.

Disney Legend Robert Stevenson was assigned to direct while Disney Legend James Algar took producing responsibilities on this film. Walter Brenan from Those Calloways plays dual lead roles as D.J. Mulroony and Knobby the gnome. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, most famous as the Banks children in Mary Poppins, play his grandkids in their final Disney roles. Other familiar Disney faces include Tom Lowell (That Darn Cat) and Ed Wynn in his final film role. He passed away before it's release on June 19th, 1966.

Disney park designer Sam McKim was a production designer for this film. Lots of location shooting was required in Big Basin, California. "The Gnome-Mobile Song" was written by The Sherman Brothers. Disney used the same special effects techniques used in Darby O'Gil and the Little People to make the gnomes small in this film by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey. Audio Animatronic were used to make forrest animals speak.

The film begins with an old car driving through the Red Woods. D. J. Mulroony is the wealthy owner of a lumber company in San Francisco. After picking up his grandchildren from the airport, he takes them on a picnic in a section of the Red Woods forrest that his company owns. When his granddaughter Elizabeth meets a gnome named Jasper while exploring the forest, she introduces them to D. J. and her brother. Jasper needs help because his grandpa Knobby is beginning to disappear, having lost the will to live because they believe they are the last of the gnomes. D.J. has a business trip to Seattle and agrees to let the gnomes come with them so they can look for other gnomes, renaming his car "the gnome-mobile." On their journey, Knobby reveals that the other gnomes ran away because the trees were being cut down. They stop for the night at a motel, where a man named Quaxton is staying, who owns a traveling freak show. When Knobby finds out it was D.J.'s company that knocked down the trees, they get in a big fight and Quaxton overhears. Quaxton kidnaps Jasper and Knobby, while D.J. gets put into a mental institution when he tells his employees about the gnomes. The grandkids work together to drive the car and break him out. After rescuing the gnomes, a chase ensues between the mental institution's goons chase after them. After some evasive maneuvers, their pursuers total their car and D.J. is able to reunite the gnomes with the rest of their kind, where there are many girl gnomes that want to become Jasper's wife. According the gnome customs, the girl picks the guy and a ceremony begins where Jasper is greased and the girl who is able to catch and hold him for seven seconds gets to marry him. Jasper marries the winner, a shy gnome named Violet, and they are immediately married. D.J. deeds 50,000 acres of the Red Woods to them as a gift and offers for any of the other gnomes to be transported with him in his gnome mobile.

The Gnome-Mobile premiered on July 12th, 1968, and was released on July 19th, 1968. It was a moderate success, making $4 million in its original theatrical release. Critics were mixed on it, praising the effects and performances, but overall felt the storytelling missed its mark. It was theatrically rereleased in 1976 and debuted on TV in 1978. It made its home video debut in 1985.

I didn't discover The Gnome-Mobile until I was an adult. It grows on me with every viewing, but it's biggest weakness is that the characters are unmemorable. The highlight of the film for me is the gnome chase with the girls trying to win Jasper's hand. The car chase is fun, but is outdone in later films like The Love Bug and Freaky Friday. The visual effects are very well done, especially a shot at the end with all of the gnomes riding in the car. For those that have seen Darby O'Gil and the Little People, it's hard to not compare the two. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but the fact that the earlier film became a St. Patrick's Day tradition for many families and TV stations, it is easy to see why this film has faded into obscurity. If you're a Disney fan and haven't seen it, it's a fun little film and you won't regret watching it, but I wouldn't expect it to become an instant favorite. The car and oversized interior set still exist and can be visited at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, MI. Walt Disney was friends with the owner and donated the set to him when filming was complete.

The Gnome-Mobile is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen with no bonus features. The original theatrical release was in widescreen 1.75:1 aspect ratio. It is also available in a 4-movie collection where it is paired with Darby O'Gil and the Little People, The Happiest Millionaire, and The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band. The film is available in widescreen and in HD on iTunes. It is unlikely to get another physical release (DVD or Blu-Ray), so this may be the only way to get it in widescreen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Happiest Millionaire - 1967

After the monumental success of Mary Poppins, Walt Disney was on a mission to make another blockbuster film musical that could follow it up. He believed he had found the source material in a play based on a book about the life of Cordelia Drexel Biddle called The Happiest Millionaire. Rather than being a fantasy musical like PoppinsMillionaire attempts to be a true life musical. It was the last production started while the studios' visionary leader was still alive.

The songwriting team behind Poppins, the Sherman Brothers, were involved from the beginning. They contributed 13 original songs for the film. AJ Carothers adapted the screenplay, having previously done Miracle of the White Stallions and Emil and the Detectives. Norman Tokar was assigned as director, who was one of Walt's go-to directors by this point (Follow Me BoysThe Ugly Dachshund). Fred MacMurray was the only choice to play the lead role and was given star billing, having become a fixture of the Disney Studio for films like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. Oscar nominated Greer Garson plays his wife in her only Disney role after a successful career at MGM. Lesley Ann Warren makes her feature film debut as their lovestruck daughter. Her love interest, John Davidson, also makes his film debut here. Walt was priming them to be the next Annette/Tommy Kirk style couple. British pop star Tommy Steele plays John Lawless, their butler and the fourth-wall breaking narrator. Geraldine Page, who would later voice Madame Medusa in The Rescuers, plays Mrs. Duke. Hermione Baddeley appears in her final on-screen Disney role (she voices Madame in 1970's The Aristocats). Eddie Hodges plays one of MacMurray's sons, after costarring in Summer Magic.

After the standard Buena Vista logo comes an overture followed by credits set to paintings of high society life. We are introduced to John Lawless, who just arrived in Philadelphia from Ireland, who sings about his "fortuosity" with his upcoming interview by the millionaire Biddle family to be a butler. When he meets his prospective employer, he has just been bit by one of his pet alligators. John gets caught up in a lot of commotion on his first day, including Biddle's sons knocking out a suitor for his daughter Cordelia, who gets furious and contemplates where she belongs. Aunt Mary arrives furious about reading that Cordelia has been boxing in the paper and requests that she go to boarding school. Against her fathers wishes, Cordie wants to go. While there, Aunt Mary takes Cordie to a dance. Attempts at setting her up fail, but she catches the eye of a handsome man named Angier Duke (nickname: Angie). They are instantly smitten and Angie's enthusiasm for cars cause them to begin dating. When she returns from boarding school, she is engaged and her parents haven't met Angie yet, which causes another fight. The story continues after a brief intermission with Cordie's parents meeting Angie. They adjust to him quickly, but the in-laws end up causing a big fight and when Cordie finds ou that Angie will take over the family business instead of following his automobile passions, calling off the wedding. Angie runs off and John chases after him to a bar where Angie gets in a fight and thrown in jail. When they rescue him from jail, the couple makes up and decide to elope to Detroit where Angie is going to get into the car business. Anthony and his wife realize how empty the house feels without Cordie. His wife insists that they let the kids be their own people, but Anthony gets a happy ending when the Navy requests him to become a trainer for the war. The film ends with ending credits and exit music.

The Happiest Millionaire premiered on June 23rd, 1967 in Hollywood. This was the full 172 minute cut of the film, which included an overture, intermission, and exit music. After having a hard time booking theaters for such a long film, Disney was able to get Radio City Music Hall in New York City to add it to their holiday bill on November 30th, but they mandated that the film be shortened to 159 minutes so they could also run a holiday stage show before the film. This version lost the song "It Won't Be Long 'Til Christmas." After mixed critical reviews, Disney decided to scrap plans for a special Roadshow release and released a further edited version to theaters at 144 minutes. During this run, they decided to release an even shorter cut that ran 118 minutes. It was a critical and box office disappointment, grossing $5 million which would be fine for most live action Disney film of the 60's, but this one cost a considerable amount to make. Possibly due to its length, was one of the few films from this era never to air on Disney's TV series. It remained out of public view until 1984 when Disney Channel was able to restore the original cut (except for a few lost lines of dialogue), and that same year Disney released the film on VHS.

Watching Millionaire today, it's hard to see why critics were so harsh on it. This film features some of the finest songs the Sherman Brothers ever wrote (my favorite is "Detroit"). While the runtime is long, the characters are fun and engaging and the pace only gets slow a few times. Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson steal the show. I think this film simply had the misfortunate of being released after films like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, to which it would have inevitably been compared at the time. The film has some great choreography by Marc Beaux and Dee Dee Wood, who also choreographed Poppins. Pieces of the sets can be found at Disneyland. The Biddle's phone booth was installed in the exclusive Club 33 and pieces of the bar set are in Cafe Orleans. "Fortuosity" and "Let's Have a Drink on It" can also be heard on Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. To date, this was the last reserved-seat experience Disney has attempted (the only other one was Fantasia). It's interesting that Walt chose this as his follow up to Poppins because while both films are about turn-of-the-century families, the major themes are at opposite ends of the parental spectrum. Mary Poppins is truly a story about an absent father learning that his children are the most important thing in his life. The Happiest Millionaire is about an involved father learning to let go as his children grow up. Perhaps this theme hit close to home since Walt's daughters were grown and married by this time. The film may be too happy-go-lucky for the average viewer, but should be required viewing for any Disney fan.

The Happiest Millionaire is currently available on DVD, where its original Roadshow length has been restored, intermission and all. The film is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1). While a restoration was done, this release does have some issues where the image is routinely blurred. There aren't any bonus features. It is also available on iTunes, where the run time is 5 minutes shorter than the DVD (presumably losing the overture, intermission, and exit), but iTunes has the film in HD.

While I wouldn't recommend the shortened version because it goes against the original filmmakers intentions, the 144 minute version was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 1999 and can be found on the second hand market.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin - 1967

Walt Disney had made several Western Films, most of which failed to find mass appeal. But this never stopped him from trying. Of the Westerns made during Walt's era, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin rises to the top for it's appealing cast and humor. This is not your typical cowboy vs. indians film, but focuses on the gold rush as the setting for a comedic adventure about an out-of-place butler. The source material is a book called By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman. Walt Disney wasn't alive at the time of it's release, but it was nearly completed when he passed away the previous December and the marketing for the film says "Walt Disney's."

Bullwhip Griffin was the last Disney film directed by James Neilson, whose other Disney work included Zorro, Summer Magic, Bon Voyage, and The Moon-Spinners. Lowell S. Hawley adapted the screenplay, having previously done Swiss Family Robinson and Babes in Toyland for Disney. Roddy McDowall returned to the studio after a small role in That Darn Cat, but this time in the lead role of Bullwhip Griffin. Suzanne Pleshette also returns to the studio following her role in The Ugly Dachshund. Her younger brother is played by Bryan Russell, who was Emil in Emil and the Detectives. And Disney character actress Hermione Baddley, most famous for her role as Katy Nana Mary Poppins, also makes an appearance.

Most of the animated visual effects were done by animation legend Ward Kimball. The role of Quentin Bartlett was originally played by Tony Hancock, who was recast with Richard Hayden (voice of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland) due to behavior problems on set. All of the interior sets were built on the studio lot and the exterior town was custom built on the backlot. A lot of location shooting was also done around California and at Golden Oak. Matte paintings were made by Peter Ellenshaw and the Sherman Brothers wrote the theme song.

The film begins with animated credits and a themed Buena Vista logo. Eric Griffin is a butler for the Flagg family in Boston. After the passing of the master of the house, the family learns that they are penniless which causes grandson Jack to run away to California to join the gold rush. Eric follows after him and gets wrapped up in the adventure, sailing with the boy to San Francisco. On their voyage, Jack meets a man with a map to a secret gold site, but he is being followed by a charlatan intent on stealing the map. Shortly after arriving in California without any money, Griffin sets up a hair cut business and gets into a fight with a thug named Mountain Ox. After knocking him out with a glove full of gold nuggets, he becomes a local legend known as Bullwhip Griffin. The owner of the local saloon offers him $2,000 to hold a rematch at his saloon, which Griffin turns down to head to the gold field. When the crooked man steals the map, Griffin and Jack have to save him from execution to get it back. When Jack's sister Arabella finds out what happened, she too sets out for California. She ends up working as a saloon singer and the boys meet up with her after being robbed. To get some money back, Griffin agrees to the match with Mountain Ox. With a strategy to dodge his blows and tire Ox out, Griffin ends up winning the match through luck and also wins the hand of Arabella. The film ends with the continuation of the ballad explaining how Bullwhip Griffin built the city of San Francisco with the money he made from the fight.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin premiered on March 3, 1967, and was released on March 8, 1967. Critics were mixed on it. Those that disliked it claimed the plot was slow and too drawn out. Those that praised it cited great performances, comedy and effects. It was a box office failure and debuted on TV in 1971. It's home video debut was in 1986.

This is one of my favorite Disney films from the 1960's. The lovable characters, tall-tale ballad narrative, and unique comedy is outstanding. On top of Ward Kimball's zany animated interludes, there's a great recurring gag in the first quarter of the film involving a portrait of Jack and Arabella's grandfather. The portrait has a stern face at times, but when something happens that he would find humorous, the portrait has a huge grin. It hasn't achieved the fan base that it deserves, but hopefully this post will encourage others to give it a viewing.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in widescreen 1.66:1. This may be the original theatrical ratio, but the standard for Disney during this era was 1.75:1 which is most likely the correct ratio. There aren't any bonus features on this release. The film is also available on iTunes in widescreen in HD and standard definition. It is unlikely to get a Blu-Ray release, so this is one of the few ways to get it in HD.