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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Turbulent Year For Disney --- Part One

Walt Disney was always for 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 commitment to a level of quality beyond what other feature and television producers dealt in 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 recall the intense television saturation that accompanied every Buena Vista offering. Thirty and sixty second promos burned images into the minds of youngsters that, for many, resonate today. By 1959, Disney had a system in place to guarantee every child’s awareness of what he had to offer in theatres. It was mere matter of translating that awareness into ticket sales. A product ad above lays out studio product for that year. Most would prove commercial disappointments, despite the televised push. Only one broke out and became a major hit, its success by far a 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 had been a Disneyland segment devoted largely to it. An Adventure In Art opened with Walt reading excerpts from a book as he hosts this straightforward primer on the history and technique of drawing and animation. Remarkable that a home audience sixty years ago sat quietly for a sober examination of art and its application, likelier content for one of Disney’s classroom subjects than a TV program designed for a mass audience. An Adventure In Art is a monument to Disney’s integrity and refusal to simplify or ignore a complicated creative process --- but how much did it 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 informed too of distractions with Disneyland (the park) and other projects leaving less time for focus on Sleeping Beauty. The Tchaikovsky music is dynamic, and maybe youngsters in the audience were inspired to seek out classical records rather than a latest Ricky Nelson, but aiming upwards toward your public is a perilous direction to take, hard truth Disney pondered over disappointing receipts from Sleeping Beauty.

Part Two of this column is HERE.


Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

I grew up watching the Wonderful World of Disney and find myself excited when I see an episode included as an extra on a Disney DVD. The True Life Adventures bored me a little as a kid, but I was endlessly fascinated by Walt's episodes that focused on science, history, magic and animation. Now that I am older I know that some of these shows were precursors to "HBO first looks" or "Making of..." specials, but darn if Walt's weren't more entertaining and informative. I never knew I was watching an hour long promo piece for a film, and quite frankly still don't. The man was a storyteller and knew how to entertain and inform. If you collect the Disney Treasures series on DVD, then you know there is plenty of good stuff out there like the "Man and the Moon" science episodes on DVD( that one is on the Tomorrowland DVD). Great stuff.
By the way, Disney is now releasing the True Life Adventures on a series of DVDs similar to the Walt Disney Treasures series. I did grow to like those as I got older.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Rich D said...

Oh man, I can't believe you brought up TONKA. I saw it in elementary school on one of those days near the end of the year where they herd all the kids into the gym to see a movie. I think I was in 3rd or 4th grade. Man, was that almost 30 years ago?

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After dinner Sunday nights at my grandparent’s house all the little ones huddled around the TV for a weekly dose of Uncle Walt Disney. (We used to have huge arguments over which one of us Tinkerbell was waving at with her wand.) Walt could have told us the sky was green and no one would question it. Fast forward to my college years when I found out the truth about Uncle Walt. Bigot, racist, union buster, anti-woman, red-baiter and lead snitch at the HUAC. He testified against the animators that made him rich in an effort to bust their union. He lied and said they were communists. All were eventually exonerated of all charges but many careers and lives were ruined. With the truth about Walt tainting the past and the cynical marketing strategies aimed at children today by Uber-Disney/Cap Cities et. al. I can’t think of Disney with out feeling sad.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About SLEEPING BEAUTY not being the best Disney film: I have to strongly disagree as it is my favorite one next to BAMBI and PINNOCHIO. Both of those classics lost money by the way. A Disney animmated feature losing money the first time out was not unusual and is not a basis for declaring the film a poor one. I also think that it is blindness to say that the three fairies are exactly alike. They actually have distinct personalities and I have often delighted at their character differences. They are far more defined than the 7 dwarfs. And have you ever seen the actual SLEEPING BEAUTY ballet? Woof! Mr. Disney and his team knew how to tell a story and they tell this fairytale better than it has ever been told before or since. I go to the ballet often because I love the score, but I always walk away thinking that Walt Disney knew how to use that music the best.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
RE: "I found out the truth about Uncle Walt. Bigot, racist, union buster, anti-woman, red-baiter and lead snitch at the HUAC." I know which unauthorized book you read. You should look at a film called WALT DINESY: THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH. All the key people alive who worked with him are interviewed and they tell, overall, a very different story. The documentary was not made by the Disney Studio, but by the grandson who wanted to get the story straight.

4:27 PM  

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