Disney/Whitney/Ford (Patrick) and Buena Vista
Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew has recently explored the fascinating topic of non-Disney features distributed by Buena Vista during the fifties. Various commentors have added detail since the post went up. This information Jerry's gathered might be better known if more of the films were in circulation today. As it is, most are MIA and likely to remain so. I’ve wondered for years what The Big Fisherman might be like, being a Super Panavision 70mm release that Disney handled (but had no producing involvement with) in 1959. Buena Vista’s commitment to distribution for other than in-house product was short-lived. They’d taken on outside features to keep offices busy between Disney releases. Expensive set-ups for traffiking prints are just that much more so when there’s so little to fan out, and Buena Vista incurred overhead same as bigger companies handling far more output. Disney’s was thus a boutique studio with a distribution arm crying out for volume. BV salesmen said give us more merchandise. Enter Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. His family was among those rich beyond the dreams of Midas. C.V. Whitney dabbled in everything big money could buy, thriving at most all his ventures, including business interests, polo ponies, and art patronage. He wrote a number of books and was a major philanthropist. A fascination with motion pictures led to investment in the Technicolor Corporation and Selznick’s Gone With The Wind. Whitney gets a bad rap from writers who’ve characterized him as a dilettante. John Ford regarded him as such, but was happy taking his money to make The Searchers, which would be the first of a proposed "American" trilogy Whitney envisioned. I think the public wants to see this great country in perspective, he said, pledging to avoid those screen subjects that over-emphasized sordid aspects of the present day. Whatever his motives, The Searchers would not have come to term without Whitney, as it was his dollars that pushed the go button on that classic western. Where other millionaires sponsored painters and orchestras, his wealth was sufficient to enable big-budget features with top personnel, and Whitney intended for them to avoid faddism and well-worn paths of crime, violence, and sex. The Searchers was a big success, but Whitney got sticker shock over cost and backed off a proposed follow-up with Ford, The Valiant Virginians, which spent several years in preparation but came to nothing. Whitney’s association with John Ford continued by way of the director’s son, Patrick Ford, being hired to produce a modestly priced Americana subject, The Missouri Traveler, which was filmed at Warners during late Spring 1957. Pat was thirty-six years old and knocking about in his father’s shadow for most of these. The old man treated him badly and made no secret of ongoing disappointment where his son was concerned (Maureen O’Hara remembered him often referring to Pat as a capon --- or "castrated cock") . Pat had tried over and over to prove himself worthy of the Ford name. Toward that end, he’d written screenplays, done stuntwork, and served as John Ford’s "executive assistant." He even received an associate producer credit on The Searchers, and by all accounts acquitted himself well on the job. Still, his father never seemed satisfied. It was Whitney who would now give him real opportunity as vice-president in charge of production for C.V. Whitney Pictures, Inc.
Pat’s industry view not unexpectedly mirrored that of his employer. Both he and Whitney saw The Missouri Traveler as an answer to a fashionable formula that has been selling America short. Together they would combat false impressions by substituting correct ones. Pat sounded off for trade reporters thus: Lots of American pictures, including many of the westerns, give the impression abroad that a typical American community, from cow town to modern metropolis, is made up of one strong man who dominates a population too meek to stand up to him. What was he thinking of here? Probably happy enough to be getting such press after years on industry margins, but I suspect Pat was addressing much in his remarks to High Noon, a western disdained by Hollywood’s conservative element. Fed on a picture diet of this kind, it’s no wonder people in other countries get the idea the body of the American population is made up of softies, he said. Such quotes weren’t likely to increase Pat’s credibility around town. Nor was the daily presence of his father on The Missouri’s Traveler’s set and interference attendant upon that. Rumors persisted into June 1957 that The Valiant Virginians (now retitled The Young Virginians) was on again, and would go into production the following April at a budget of four million, with John Ford directing and Pat producing. The reality meanwhile was something else. Whitney was getting fed up with Warners and had decided to take his company elsewhere. Since Walt Disney was looking for producing partners for Buena Vista, why not go there? The Missouri Traveler would become the first domestically produced, non-Disney feature to be distributed by Buena Vista. It was near completion when the deal was announced in early June. As Disney and Whitney were both viewed as apostles of a positive American image, their teaming set a trade press upon wings of praise. The accent on wholesomeness that is basic policy of both the producer and the distributor will prove or disprove the fundamental trade truism that the theatrical motion picture is the world’s best family entertainment, said The Motion Picture Herald, but were families still the bulwark supporting movies by 1957? --- and even if they were, how many cared to look at a picture so laden with righteous doses of correct impressions?
The Missouri Traveler sat on Buena Vista’s shelf for the remainder of 1957. In the meantime, C.V. Whitney engaged another offspring member of John Ford’s stock company, this time on a seven-year acting contract. Patrick Wayne (son of John) had worked occasionally in films with his father and for Ford. Now he would star in Whitney’s third independent venture. The Young Land might have been called I Was A Teenage Sheriff for youthful Wayne’s role as beleaguered lawman set against malcontent Dennis Hopper, with Yvonne Craig supplying ingenue love interest. Again Pat Ford was producing, and trade reports referred to he and Pat Wayne as perhaps the most successful of Hollywood’s second generation of motion picture personalities (shown here). That Autumn of 1957 looked good for C.V. Whitney Pictures, Inc. Buena Vista was gearing up an aggressive campaign for The Missouri Traveler (trade ad here) with plans for an early 1958 release. A $250,000 advertising and promotional effort would precede the January 29 opening set for two hundred theatres in seventeen heartland states (later bumped to February 19). Pat Ford’s seeming rise within the creative community was meanwhile halted by the termination of his contract with Whitney. He was out just as The Missouri Traveler prepared to open and as The Young Land was being edited. It was a sudden parting (trade ads up to this point had emphasized his leadership role with the company) and likely as not Pat’s personal demons played a large part. He’d been weighed down by the same burden of alcohol that hobbled both parents and his sister, and relations between father and son deteriorated further. As startling demonstration of how fleeting Hollywood "success" can be, Pat found himself by 1964 working as a garage mechanic (he’d later be hired by the city of Los Angeles in their probation department). What a remarkable up and down life. I think I’d rather read a biography of Patrick Ford than yet another about his father. As for C.V. Whitney, the business of producing movies and finishing that American trilogy proved perhaps more troublesome than it was worth. His financial advisors recommended backing off (too much risk, not enough return after others had siphoned off theirs). The Missouri Traveler was a disappointment for both he and Disney, as Buena Vista’s release failed to crack Variety’s million-dollar rentals list for 1958. The agreement that contemplated a second Whitney production for BV release was abandoned, despite trade ads promising The Young Land along with others from that distributor for the 1958-59 season. Columbia would finally release it in May 1959, well over a year after The Young Land had been completed. By that time, C.V. Whitney was done with pictures , though he’d continue in other enterprise and live to a ripe age of 93 (he died in 1992, and as far as I’m aware, was never interviewed about his sojourn as a film producer). Both The Missouri Traveler and The Young Land are accessible on small label DVD, which would imply they’re in the public domain, a status I question, as one would assume the Whitney estate still owns these negatives. Columbia syndicated The Young Land to television from 1964, and The Missouri Traveler played on Canadian stations into the seventies. I’d like to know where the original elements reside at this point, as neither film seems to be available in a quality (and preferred widescreen) presentation.