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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

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 has 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 in 1959 (but had no producing involvement with). 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 where there’s little merchandise to send out,  Buena Vista incurring overhead same as bigger companies with far more output. Disney’s was thus a boutique studio with a distribution arm crying out for volume. BV salesmen said give us more product. 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 so, but was happy taking Whitney's money to make The Searchers, the first of a proposed "American" trilogy the neophyte producer 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 the motive, 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 successful, 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 Pat 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. Adding to daily pressure was Patrick Ford's father on The Missouri Traveler 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 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 amended 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 more troublesome than it was worth. His financial advisers 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.


Blogger Robby Cress said...

What a fascinating post. I also would now like to read a biography on Pat Ford's tumultous life.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is not about Disney movies, but about some that I think are often more fun! Silly 1950's horror films.
Just a comment on the cool picture at the top of the page right now. That's "The Deadly Mantis" (Universal-International, 1957), right?
And yes, how fondly I remember those bubble gum cards. "Monster Laffs" they were called, and I still have some. But I don't think I recall them using shots from Universal movies. They used American-International images, mostly if not exclusively, as far as I remember.

7:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Rich --- I remember having gum cards that featured Universal monsters with funny captions, but I can't locate them at the moment. I do know they were called "Spook Stories" and were issued in two sets, I believe, between 1962 and 1965.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Years earlier Whitney had produced Contraband, the Powell & Pressburger thriller (which is excellent), and I believe there was an interview with David Pierce somwhere that talked about him going to Whitney's widow and getting the rights; there was no amount of money he could offer that would have done the trick, but he figured out what her pet cause was, and offered a donation to it for the rights, which worked. So somebody could get these back into circulation, I expect, but it will take some creativity.

The Borzage connection (him returning to films after a decade away and, allegedly, in the bottle) makes me curious about The Big Fisherman, though it's probably a big white elephant. There's a comment at the IMDB by one "al-eaton" that has some info about Disney only having 16mm material by that point.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Ward Bond have any children?

7:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Married twice, but I didn't see any reference to children ...

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Second Reel says:

Dilettante with money meets c-listers. Sounds like the pitch for Ed Wood.

With Disneyland online they had the cash to play with. Handling outside pictures wasn't a bad idea but buying up cheap parcels in central Florida was a better one.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lionel Atwill -- 124 years young! I've been trying so hard since I read this, this morning, for your benefit John, to remember what Stu had told me about being at a party -- sometime in the mid 40's, I think, with Atwill. Dad was a young boy-about-town in those days, dating all these actresses like Ruth Roman, and one of The Goldwyn Girls, named I believe, Martha Montgomery. Anyway, Dad said he became friendly for awhile with "The Thin Half" of Brown & Carney (you know, RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello. Wally Brown, was that it?) Anyway, as a very-strained memory serves, Dad talked once about being at this dinner party at this man Browns' home, and Lionel Atwill was present. And Atwill fancied himself quite the ladies' man, and as we would say nowadays, was "coming on" to all the ladies there, and Dad said, making rather direct sexual references to his own virtues as a lover. Sounds like he must have been a real pain in the butt! But, what an actor! I still think about the hardest I've ever laughed at anything, was in "To Be Or Not To Be", when he's rescuing Jack Benny from the Gestapo, and gives this overripe, completely over-the-top performance as an SS Man, and the real Nazi says to Atwill's more sedate partner, "How did HE ever get in the SS?" And he remarks, "He's Goerring's brother-in-law". Clearly, Lubitsch was lampooning BOTH the Nazis' AND Atwill's trademark subtle acting-style, all at the same time! Happy Birthday, Mr. Atwill, those Sherlock Holmes' and Universal horrors would never have been the same without your wonderful presence!

5:10 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Re: Today's Banner---Goldwyn, as per usual, seems to be in his own little world.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also Re: Today's Banner (Goldwyn, Lasky, DeMille and Zukor at the dedication of the Paramount Barn). I can't help observing that Zukor on the right appears rather frail in comparison to the other three, all looking quite bluff and hale. Understandable, of course, since he's the oldest of the bunch -- odd, then, to reflect that he would go on to outlive them all.

7:24 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sent this fascinating e-mail about his encounter with Patrick Ford:

Part One:

I had only recently seen "The Quiet Man" for the first time. And, I must say, under what terrific circumstances! I'd seen a superb, surviving Technicolor print in 35mm, shown at one of the really great 'revival' houses that were so popular around the L.A. area in the 1970s, this one being called---appropriately----the Encore.

The beautiful photography and wonderful music (both actual Irish songs, and Victor Young's superb score) were all in my ear when I went to my ridiculous job at that time. I had this so-called job, setting up a steel-tubular chair with back and seat cushion like you see in thousands of institutional places, and placing myself at the entrance to a parking lot right on the breakwater in Redondo Beach, where my Mom and Dad had moved in 1970. I can't remember what year THIS was, but it could have been '71, or '72. This as I keep insisting, John, was a very poor excuse for a 'job', but, it kept me occupied and made a small pittance. Basically, it was to save face with my parents while I rather aimlessly attended a local community college in the daytime. And this was a weekend and evening gig. So. I'm there, a bit chilled, trying to distract myself from this horrible job, staring down (up?) the road, and of course, virtually no incoming traffic at that hour. I am near a public telephone (remember THOSE? They're virtually all gone, now, due to the popularity of cellphones), which sheds some light, apart from the high-up sodium vapor lights. I love to whistle----since I can't sing very well!----and, I'm whistling "Wild Colonial Boy" from "The Quiet Man", when a guy I otherwise wouldn't have taken very close notice of says to me, in the semi-darkness, "What's that song you're whistling there?" I focus, and it's a big guy, smoking a pipe, leaning on the fencing near the phone book, at the corner of the marina. I take it he's out for a late stroll. I don't really want to talk to him, or anybody else, really. I'm a shy kid, in those days. But, he asked me a civil question, so I hem and haw and fake it. "Oh...I don't know. A movie tune, I think..." I mean, I don't know who this is, and I just want to be polite, and hope he'll be satisfied and move on, or, leave me alone. So he says, "Yeah, I know. It's from 'The Quiet Man', isn't it?" Now, I'm taken by surprise. Also, a little unsettled. I'm 'outed' as an old-time movie lover. Because, for one, he's dead right, of course. For another, how would I know what it's from, unless I DID know what it's from! And, I didn't really want to reveal this 'secret' side of myself, much less to a total stranger. So, I kept up my 'act', a trifle longer. "Uh...yeah! You know, you're right. It is. I just saw it on TV [not true!----at the Encore Theater in Hollywood!] a bit ago." He shoots right back, "Yeah, I know it is----I doubled Vic McLaglen on that." WHAT? O.K. This changes everything. Now, I'M interested. The hell with reserve! I have to know more about this! I get up off my crummy chair and walk over the fifteen or so feet to this guy. And, he's tall----taller than me, and I'm 6'. He's bulky and his face is somewhat paunchy. However, the distribution of features, the small nose and long upper lip, reminds me of my Uncle Bob, and is another 'map of Ireland', as the phrase goes. I want to know more about "The Quiet Man", and see what this guy knows about it. So I admit that I know "The Quiet Man" VERY well, and I was just being coy about it because....I didn't know what else to say. He shrugs that off. He seems happy to talk about it.

More in Part Two at next comment ...

10:21 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Craig Reardon's Patrick Ford encounter:

I ask him, what was Victor McLaglen like? He says he was a wonderful guy, like a father to him. Wow, I thought----that's a hell of an encomium. He tells me he doubled him, as I say, mainly in the concluding fight scenes. I decided to ask him about some of the other celebrated personages associated with that movie. What about John Wayne? He says, "I think he's got a monkey on his back-----gotta be a big star, gotta be in the public eye...gotta be 'JOHN WAYNE'." Well, I was a John Wayne fan, but, not an idolator of his, and this seemed plausible or valid enough, although frankly as a fan, I didn't really relish hearing something negative about Wayne. But, do we, ever? About our 'favorite' movie stars? I can't remember at what point I asked him about Ford-----it could have been prior to inquiring about Wayne. However, I did ask. I said, "What did you think of John Ford?" And he said, "He's my father. I think he's a prick." Wow! What a bombshell THAT was. I mean, so, now I get the picture. I'm talking to the son of John Ford. That's why he worked on "The Quiet Man", presumably!----and doubled McLaglen, and whatever else. That's how he has an insider's sort of perspective on Wayne, as well as such a particular feeling about McLaglen. And....what he just aid about Ford certainly couldn't have come from any more authoritative source! Or shall I say, from anyone any MORE entitled to at least express an opinion, about the man (who was still alive then, so this was well before 1973, when he passed away.) I remember I chatted with Ford awhile longer, and he offered opinions of other actors. I think I asked him whether there were any actors he'd worked with he also LIKED, and he immediately mentioned John McIntire and [his wife, actress] Jeanette Nolan, who he said were both "the salt of the earth". It really was about that compact a conversation. I wish two things, so many years later. I wish it had been longer, and, I wish I'd had more self-esteem (practically zero, however) in those days, because I would have said something like, "Hey, how about lunch, tomorrow?" Befriended the guy. I actually spotted him near his boat (still in its slip) on another occasion, but, apart from that, never saw him again. I know now that Dan Ford is his son, the guy who wrote the book "Pappy", and who has appeared on at least one DVD documentary about John Ford. Dan, who I've certainly never met, does not----as you know, John-----resemble his father. Nor does he look a lot like John Ford. Pat DID look a bit like the senior Ford, but also his mother, "in a blender"----the way many of us resemble both our parents. I know I do, although I 'lean' toward my father in my appearance. This is the most trivial of trivial talk, but that's my specialty! It also sums up, in toto, how "well" I "knew" Patrick Ford! I've since read about him in books about John Ford, as well as having enjoyed your excellent article about his involvement on that picture "The Young Land", and his constant hopes in those days of making his own mark in the motion picture business.

More to come in Part Three ...

10:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Craig Reardon ...

I think that Patrick Ford's reliance on his recalcitrant bastard of an old man is heartbreaking, that sense of continuing faith or, on the other hand, mere semi-reliance and (between the lines) weakness, requiring the elder, more honored and established man to keep him involved in the business, all adding up to a rather sad portrait, as is sometimes the case with sons of famous and accomplished fathers. I mean, look at the life of Lon Chaney, Jr. Yet, he has a co-screenwriting credit on the recently released "Wagon Master" (which, "t'ank God", to put an Irish accent on it, is finally out on DVD), and most accounts also credit him with having read and admired the short story that led to the creation of one of his father's greatest films of all time, "Stagecoach". Surely he could and perhaps should have been at least as effective a producer as so many gray and forgotten men who served in those positions over the years----? He did carry a certain air of wounded dignity and shambling sadness about himself, but on the other hand, there was no overt, cringing self-pity detectable. I look upon the brief expereince as another one of those bits of serendipity that sometimes come in life, a little window in on something that I will otherwise never know and can never know about an amazing moviemaking journey and legacy, that of John Ford.

Thanks for this amazing anecdote, Craig. Fantastic stuff!

10:24 AM  

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