A Turbulent Year For Disney --- Part One
Walt Disney was always about enriching his audience. He opted for science fact rather than science fiction. Historical Americana was the genre he preferred over westerns. When ABC applied pressure for Disneyland to program more cowboy fare along the lines of Texas John Slaughter, Disney bailed for another network rather than sell out to accommodate a current fad. His total creative control reflected a commitment to a level of quality way beyond what other feature and television producers contemplated at the time. The Disneyland series had gotten its start in 1954 with programming heavily weighted toward vault favorites. Alice In Wonderland had an early television bow here, only three years after theatrical release, along with comparatively recent features So Dear To My Heart, Treasure Island, and portions of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Original segments included Davy Crockett and the remarkable Man In Space, a science entry with special effects at least as good as anything the major studios were doing for their own theatrical sci-fi efforts. Disneyland was first and foremost a promotional tool for the company’s theatrical releases. Viewers fortunate enough to have grown up during the fifties can still recall the intense television saturation that accompanied every Buena Vista offering. Those thirty and sixty second promos burned images into the minds of youngsters that, for many, still resonate today. By 1959, Disney had the system in place to guarantee every child’s awareness of what he had to offer in theatres. It was merely a matter of translating that awareness into ticket sales. The product ad shown here lays out the studio product for that year. Most of these would prove commercial disappointments, despite the televised push. Only one would break out to become a major hit, its success being by far the most unexpected.
Tonka was a minor western that had been released in the final month of 1958. A vehicle for teen idol Sal Mineo, it was the sort of product one might see on Disneyland, as its director, Lewis R. Foster, had lately supervised a number of Daniel Boone and Andy Burnett episodes for the network. Such an inexpensive venture could still be profitable if only a fraction of Disney’s TV audience bought tickets to see it (and Tonka would indeed find its own berth on Disney’s TV schedule barely three years later in February 1962 under the title Comanche). Sleeping Beauty was something else. This was a six million-dollar investment set for roadshow openings in January 1959. As far back as April 30, 1958, there’d been a Disneyland segment devoted largely to it. An Adventure In Art opened with Walt (shown here) reading excerpts from a book as he hosts this straightforward primer on the history and technique of drawing and animation. Incredible that kids fifty years ago would sit quietly for a sober examination of art and its application --- you’d likelier expect this from one of Disney’s classroom subjects than a TV program designed for a mass audience. It’s a real monument to Walt’s integrity and his refusal to pander to baser appetites --- but how much did this help Sleeping Beauty, despite generous clips from same? The picture had just opened when Disneyland broadcast The Story Of Peter Tchaikovsky, a thirty-minute pocket bio of the composer whose ballet was heavily utilized in the score for Sleeping Beauty. That January 30, 1959 episode also featured an extended preview of the new animated attraction, and in what was billed as a television first, the hour was simulcast in stereo as well (here’s a shot of Grant Williams as Tchaikovsky --- and check THIS previous Greenbriar posting for more about that historic broadcast).
Roadshow engagements of the seventy-five minute Sleeping Beauty were buttressed with a half-hour featurette entitled Grand Canyon. This True-Life derivation sans narration featured only a classical score by Ferde Grofé as background. It’s an oppressively arty subject, though beautifully photographed. No doubt the Technirama projection in a flagship palace would take one’s breath away, but that thirty minutes goes slow. Walt may have envisioned this as a live-action Fantasia using nature subjects instead of animation. There is wildlife, but no lonesome cougars or way-out seals --- consequently, no laughs. Grand Canyon wouldn’t have been a very tasty appetizer for Sleeping Beauty, unless you were that kid on the block that looked forward to his daily violin lesson. The lofty intent seems to have been maintained for the feature ---Sleeping Beauty is by far the coldest animated pageant I can recall seeing from Disney. Having watched it again this week, I was surprised at the weaknesses inherited from rival producer Max Fleischer’s own Gulliver’s Travels (all that labored comedy with would-be in-law kings). Within ten minutes, the whole story, including its resolution, is spelled out. Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spinning wheel and sleep for eternity --- unless awakened by love’s first kiss. It reminded me of a contemporary movie trailer where they give away the whole story before it begins. Another thing is those three fairies. For some reason, I really gag on them. Always have. They’re not funny, ever. They look alike, act alike, and are so sweet and dithery as to make you wish villainous Maleficent would finish them off in the opening reel. One big highlight of the show is a chase and battle with the dragon at the end, but that’s after an hour where very little happens. I’ve read how Disney recognized problems in padding out this fairy tale to feature length. I’m also informed of his own distractions with Disneyland (the park) and other projects leaving him less time to focus on Sleeping Beauty. You sense all that while watching. The Tchaikovsky music is dynamic, and maybe a few kids in the audience were inspired to go out and buy classical records instead of the latest Ricky Nelson, but aiming upwards toward your public is a perilous direction to take, and I suspect Disney reflected upon that hard truth when he counted the very disappointing receipts from Sleeping Beauty.