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.