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Monday, June 24, 2013


Disney's 1954 Water Log --- 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Was there a bigger man vs. monster battle staged in 50's sci-fi than the Nautilus crew taking on a giant squid? Rivals could have made whole movies with dollars Disney spent just on this sequence, by far the action centerpiece of what's otherwise a contemplation of what made James Mason's Captain Nemo tick. Trouble is, he's in 127 minute tortoise-hare running with live action Popeye Kirk Douglas and a "funny" seal kibitzing whatever threatens to play too serious. Should rushes-wary Walt have called in Kirk for a tamp down, or did the less experienced with live action producer figure it was OK, if not desirable, for his actors to be cartoon characters minus drawing? Douglas sings, grimaces, hogs scenes ... did he figure this was what WD's "family" audience preferred? KD's the weakest link on a casting chain, but a biggest star Disney had used up to 1954, so who was anyone to challenge him? (director Richard Fleischer tells the story humorously in his Just Tell Me When To Cry book)


In fact, Fleischer was surprised to get the megging job in light of presumed enmity between his dad Max and Walt, but super-success Disney could afford to be magnanimous, as what were chances of the senior Fleischer getting off canvas to square old accounts? 20,000 Leagues is at (underwater) times very much like one of WD's lately popular True-Life documentaries, being guided tour of 'neath waves flora-fauna never captured so vividly. Disney got kid patronage largely for what approving parents saw as educational value of his output, the name representing safe haven and responsible baby-sitting in a market giving way to adult subjects (Leagues followed bare-knuckle On The Waterfront into Broadway's Astor Theatre). A truest star of Leagues was the Nautilus, which unlike Douglas, Mason, et al, could be rebuilt and play evermore to visitors at Disneyland, most of whom had seen, or would see, this ever-greenest of live actioners. Leagues was still in theatres near-twenty years beyond '54, my own Liberty-see on a 1972 parlay with "Bonus Late Show" Bride Of The Monster (!).

3 Comments:

Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson on "20,000 Leagues," plus Disney directors and stars:


Do you have the two-disc DVD? Great stuff, including:

-- The laughable first version of the squid sequence.

-- Kirk Douglas, speed slightly impaired by a stroke but as big and broad as he was in the film.

-- Some weird, unknown-to-science animated fish that didn't make the final cut.


The infamous squid was hastily rigged up as the centerpiece of an exhibit in Disneyland, when Walt was scrambling to fill his new park.


Interesting that Walt Disney gave Richard Fleischer a huge break and it worked out well for everybody, but Fleischer never did another Disney feature. Did his price go up, or did he seek gigs where the studio head was a little less hands-on? Other directors had slightly mixed feelings about Uncle Walt, who was more generous and less crass than most moguls, but kept a very tight rein. David Swift, on the commentary for "Pollyanna", reports that the film came in at two hours plus -- and in a reverse of the usual, producer Disney refused to let the anxious Swift edit it to improve the pace. It's still two hours plus.


Julie Andrews likewise starred in a monster Disney hit but didn't appear in another Disney movie for decades (although she was a favorite on Disney TV specials and mostly embraced her image as a Disney star). I'm guessing she became more affordable and/or the studio was more amenable to expensive stars by the time she appeared in "Princess Diaries".

3:21 AM  
Blogger jeffm12012 said...

This is one of those wacky stories you just want to believe is true. In the late 50's, Kirk Douglas was a guest on the George Gobel TV show. Also on the show was 6-foot pin-up beauty "Irish" McCalla, cast in a sketch as a saleswoman, in high heels so she would tower over Gobel. Apparently, "Lonesome George" was quite fascinated by her (understandably so!) One day on the set, when he had already had a few "belts," he called McCalla over and bet her twenty dollars that she couldn't lift and carry Kirk. She took the bet...and collected! An amazed Gobel remarked to her, "You really ARE Sheena of the Jungle!"

11:04 AM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

Apropos of Kirk Douglas's casting in 20,000 Leagues: I remember reading an offhand remark of Pauline Kael's once -- I've dug through all her books but can't find it, so I can't say what the precise context was, but she wrote: "Would 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea have been such a box-office success if Kirk Douglas hadn't been there to destroy the illusion of the nineteenth century?" (I've always thought the same could be said of Denzel Washington in Glory.)

Donald Benson is right about that first version of of the squid fight: laughable. It proves that reshooting the scene was one of the smartest things Walt Disney ever did; leaving it as is would have killed the whole picture -- Plan 9 from Outer Space in CinemaScope and Technicolor.

Julie Andrews might have made more Disney pictures; Disney and his heirs (I understand) spent decades trying to coax P.L. Travers into allowing a sequel to Mary Poppins, but she was adamant that Disney would never get his hands on the character again. She wouldn't even let the Sherman brothers write new songs for the Broadway version (too bad; the news songs are lousy). She even put it in her will.

4:37 AM  

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