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Monday, July 06, 2015

When Disney Summers Were Boxoffice Magic

School Out For Summer Magic In 1963

Picture the Disney World in 1963. Not the one in Florida, still years from completion, but a Disney World all the same, weekly on Sunday television, near-monthly in theatres. Those observing at the time will recall a trailer at the end of each NBC broadcast for the newest Disney feature we could access downtown. Reasonably supervised children, certainly those whose mother read the Parent's magazine film guide, saw mostly Disney product. Survey of release charts reveals I was there for around two-thirds of what Buena Vista distributed during the 60's. That's a high ratio that no other company met with me, save perhaps Hammer and AIP by mid-point of the decade. Was Disney something we more resigned to than enjoyed? Groups would go, or a neighbor would invite, parental approval a given. So much of live-action became blurs --- The Miracle Of The White Stallions, The Incredible Journey, even Son Of Flubber --- all from 1963. Memory I retain of Sword In The Stone is sit through innumerable Disney shorts to get at meat that was the 79 minute animated feature.

Then there were ones I missed, for reasons unknown, or at least unremembered. Did Savage Sam represent a loss, especially as Old Yeller was before my time? Skipped also was Summer Magic, a July '63 release to follow paw prints of Savage Sam, which came but scant weeks ahead in June. Fifty-two years is not unreasonable delay toward catch-up with Summer Magic, what with a quite nice DVD that's available, plus HD streaming both at Vudu and Amazon (Amazon's is 4:3, Vudu and the DVD are wide). Again, if you came up in that era, you recall at least a heavy promotion for all that was Disney. Each made big noise via tie-ins and TV saturation. It took almost willful effort to miss them, as was apparent case for me and Summer Magic. Time was a factor --- we had the Disneys, and most anyone's product, for three days tops. A short family trip or even a haircut could snafu attendance. And these lesser live actions didn't come back, not when you could have them in short order from The Wonderful World Of Color (Summer Magic ran there, in two parts, on 12/5 and 12/12, 1965).

Summer Magic looks inexpensive. Word is they made whole of it on the backlot. Attractive mattes supply bucolic background for rural settings. Minor conflict is resolved by song or a selfish character simply deciding not to be selfish anymore (Deborah Walley). A pair of handsome young men from then-familiar television (Peter Brown, James Stacy) provide antiseptic escort for Hayley and chastened Deborah. Summer Magic was directed at teens, especially girls, who were experiencing puberty rites alongside Hayley Mills, who, unlike Annette Funicello, enjoyed major feature stardom (Annette was incidental to some hits, but her big trial balloon, Babes In Toyland, had burst). Posters for Summer Magic focused entirely on Mills, she and others of the cast in modern dress despite Magic taking place in a first quarter of the century.

"Goo" seeps in through endless smiling close-ups and sugar-frosted songs (by the Sherman Brothers), latter tied in with Alcoa Wrap for a record premium, as in buy tinfoil, get the platter. We might assume these are collectible, at least by Disneyphiles who want it all. Summer Magic is full of elements customized to please Walt --- nostalgia for rural past like his own and what was captured (better) in Pollyanna --- was sameness of studio live-action a result of toadying to the boss? There's an oversize sheepdog for comedy's sake that wrecks the house on cue, a device annoying as was case when a sheep did the same thing for (or to) So Dear To My Heart (a problem for which I'd prescribe mutton for dinner). Animals could sometimes work as great a hardship upon viewers as characters in these films, but Disney fell back on the device often enough to make us assume that Walt had appetite for such mayhem (a following year's The Ugly Dachshund would be ultimate expression of pet-in-house excess). For critics that bothered, Summer Magic was as many fish in a barrel, attacks largely pointless as the Disneys were by now on autopilot but for specials like full-length cartoons still done (Sword In The Stone a much-anticipated Christmas '63 release) or following year Mary Poppins (8/64).


Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I haven't seen Summer Magic—I've read the charming book by Kate Douglas Wiggin that it was based on, Mother Carey's Chickens, and I'm rather more interested in seeing a 1930s adaptation by the original name. From the few pictures and clips I've seen, Summer Magic does seem to have a cheesy, inexpensive look that doesn't come near the period flavor of Pollyanna. It's puzzling how Disney could produce some historical films with really wonderful atmosphere and attention to detail, and then others that were really lame in that department.

But for the record, your missing Savage Sam was not a loss—it's frankly awful. It doesn't come anywhere near the quality of Old Yeller, which I think is one of Disney's live-action best (and an excellent adaptation of its source novel), and the only actors in it who are any good at all are the few veteran character actors in supporting parts.

10:34 AM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

I can't remember if I saw Summer Magic, but I must have: It featured Haley Mills, my future wife. Well, that's what a lot of teenage boys at that time hoped for.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

The insects from the True Life Adventures got a guest shot in Burl Ives's rendition of "The Ugly Bug Ball", which should count for something. I still like "Summer Magic" -- a milestone in my life was realizing I now found Dorothy MacGuire more fetching than Deborah Walley, especially at the party at the end. It's certainly higher on the scale than the two "Merlin Jones" movies.

I definitely remember those post-credit trailers on the TV shows. Now I idly wonder if they placed those as ads with NBC, or simply spliced them onto the show they delivered. In some cases a Disney live-action feature was just backup for a new Winnie the Pooh two-reeler.

Nice People would talk about Disney being the only studio that made "decent family entertainment" (they still write reviews on Amazon), but there was plenty of friendly, toothless fare from other studios. The difference was, you didn't have to read reviews or even look at the poster to know the new Disney was safe. The words "Walt Disney" offered the assurance of a fast food franchise: Known fare and clean restrooms, at the least.

An ad or poster with cowboys, for example, could signify anything from light Don Knotts foolery to one of THOSE westerns, with blood and dirt and scenes upstairs at the saloon. James Bond toys were marketed to us kids, but the movies themselves were not intended for us. "2001" was promoted by our local kids' show host and a model of the Pan Am spaceship was a send-away premium.

Our neighborhood house, always a bit random in pairing double features, would sometimes place a G-rated comedy with a very hard M (later GP, later PG, later PG-13). "Yellow Submarine" followed a grim, violent "Treasure of Sierra Madre" knockoff. So for parents who worried about films, anything non-disney demanded some pre-internet digging.

Disney, Pixar and others revived the concept of the family movie with big summer/holiday releases, heavily and clearly promoted as kid friendly but with some level of depth (cheap laughs) for teens and adults. But what happened to family movie going as theater attendance began to decline? An early casualty or the last of the faithful (almost surprised that "Herbie Goes Bananas" was as late as 1980)?

4:44 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I remember going to see SM that July in 1963. I just didn`t remember it was 63. I thought it has come out in 64 or 65. I do remember the theater was packed.

8:56 PM  
Blogger The Metzinger Sisters said...

Hmm...I never noticed the modern dress in the poster art before. My dad saw this film in school ( back when schools actually played movies during study-break ) and he recalled not enjoying it all because it wasn't to a young boys liking. However, years later when he watched it with his two daughters he liked it, then when he saw the subsequent viewings, he really liked it. Now it's one of his favorites. Disney films have a way of seeping in. I love this film too and I'm quite certain that all the "goo" was intentional on behalf of Hayley Mills part - she was displaying disdain for her all-too-flowery cousin's behavior.

9:17 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Interesting to see Eddie Hodges with that Guild guitar. On some other blog I read recently, an audition list for the Monkees showed Eddie trying out for that show.
I don't remember Summer Magic, even though I watched Disney on Sunday nights. I did see In Search of the Castaways with my dad so Hayley Mills was on my radar. I guess I dismissed SM as a movie for girls. Hope it shows up on a TCM Disney vault night.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Circa 1957 - 1964, there were three categories of movies that were guarantees of a packed auditorium at our then 30+ year old theater...Disney, Elvis and Jerry Lewis. My neighborhood buddies and I seldom missed any. And we always set our strategy to arrive a bit late, guaranteeing our being permitted to sit in the balcony, which opened only when the downstairs seats were full. SUMMER MAGIC was one of those experiences.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Speaking of modern dress posters, check out similar artwork for "Mary Poppins" (both the closeup with Julie's and Dick's faces, and the one with them dancing) and "Happiest Millionaire" (Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson).

Also the MGM poster for the "Children's Matinee" re-release of "The Time Machine", which replaces George Pal's Victorian marvel with an "up to date" machine.

I'm sure at some point somebody rendered a modern-day film to imply period expense / nostalgia / spectacle.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Makes you think about period pieces that were sold with "modern dress" advertising. THE GREAT RACE comes to mind; most of the accessories depicted the antique-auto comedy faithfully, but exhibitors who were afraid of anything "dated" could elect for an alternate ad campaign. A few of the posters and at least one of the TV spots showed Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood in 1960s street clothes instead of the fanciful costumes and makeups shown in the film.

7:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon reflects on the ideal title that was Disney's "Summer Magic":

You know what I miss about the Disney films made in the last years of his lifetime? Sometimes just the TITLES. "Summer Magic" is a brilliant title. It manages to evoke a host of emotions in only two words.

The poster is typical Disney cute-banal-yet attractive for all the films the studio produced and marketed then. Haley Mills was a real phenomenon, and it's so amusing to me that Walt D. spotted her in a film with her dad (wasn't it called "Tiger Bay"?) and was the first American producer to see something special there, approaching her to come work for him. (Was she actually contracted? I might already be able to have this question answered if I read your 'Hayley Archives', but I have a lot to get done right now.) Her sis, too, is a charmer as far as I'm concerned, and the spitting image of her dad. I think Hayley got her name from her mother's maiden name, but I may be off base.

I saw her once! I can't remember where or what airport anymore, but I did see the once-illustrious Ms. Mills quietly moving through the place on her way out. Very nice-looking older lady. I'm not sure HOW old, today, but she can't be all that much older than me, I imagine. (I'm 62 and counting.) I remember seeing that she'd attended one of the Turner Classic Movies Festivals in Hollywood with her sister Juliet, two pretty old ladies now. Sigh. Time passes...does it have to?


8:07 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...


Her mom's name was Mary Hayley Bell; yes, Juliet was quite a looker (and had the better adult career); and Hayley was born several months after I was, so she's 69 years old.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

We were taken to see both "Summer Magic" and "Pollyanna" as children

They were,literally, chick flicks we were dragged to by old hens in the neighborhood. All I remember of "Pollyanna" was weird tension between Jane Wyman and Karl Malden. Was there cross cutting between her brushing her hair violently and him chopping wood with a similar preoccupied and violent air? I thought something "grown up" was going on that I didn't understand.

As for "Summer Magic" all I remember is Burl Ives singing "The Ugly Bug Ball", and later (or before) Burl arguing with a woman and ending it by telling her that her pot was overboiling. This may have been meant as a metaphor, but one could see a pot in the background on a stove.

How strange that all I can remember about movies meant to be the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy are scenes of anger and contention.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Was going to watch "Summer Magic" tonight, but pulled out the previous year's "In Search of the Castaways", where Hayley costars with Maurice Chevalier. Now there's an odd film -- sort of a poor man's "Swiss Family Robinson" (elaborately but safely shot on English soundstages), or a rich man's Irwin Allen film (ala "Five Weeks in a Balloon" or "The Lost World"). Or a Ray Harryhausen film without his creature effects.

The matte paintings and the sets are nifty, giving that nostalgic attractive-but-not-real Disney look. Other effects run the gamut from decent to cheesy.

The script is literally all over the map; a series of flashy set pieces. Plus three songs (one for Maurice, one for Hayley, and a duet), budding romance for budding Hayley, and George Sanders late in the game as a suave gun runner. For such a visual film a lot of important plot points zip by in the dialogue.

Like "Summer Magic", it's fun for its sheer Disney-ness, and probably best enjoyed by boomers. Didn't see on its first theatrical release -- the ads highlighted the earthquake scene and Hayley's brother getting carried off by a condor, which convinced me it would be scary (I was a wimpy kid). Ironically, nearly every thrill was played for laughs (even the kid being carried off by a condor is comically cheerful about it).

3:43 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Footage from "Summer Magic" was used in "The Barefoot Executive," as one of the programs on a TV network that gets programmed by a chimp.

Hayley did a couple of "Parent Trap" sequels for the Disney Channel in the '80s, as well as the sitcom "Good Morning, Miss Bliss" (which moved to NBC without Mills, and became "Saved By the Bell").

11:34 PM  
Blogger tomservo56954 said...

To promote this film Dieney bought time on the NBC prime time version of THE PRICE IS RIGHT that summer.

10:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Was not aware of that. Thanks for the info, Tomservo.

5:26 AM  

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