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Thursday, July 09, 2015

Concluding a Disney Week

Johnny Tremain for Summer 1957

This showed up on TCM last week, along with a Disneyland episode that amounted to an hour long trailer for Johnny Tremain. Patriotism must have run rife through the land to see so much celebrated along US history line, TV and movies cracking binders on varied fights for freedom taught then by schools, thus known by youth. And it wasn't just Walt that taught. MGM had The Scarlet Coat out in 1955, and eastward went director George Seaton and VistaVision cameras to tell Williamsburg--- The Story Of A Patriot. Maybe word of the latter spurred Disney toward revolution recap, though Variety said it was "an attempt to build another Davy Crockett bonanza," this borne out by much of talent from the latter put to work on Johnny Tremain. Playing it after 58 years to TCM's class earns apple for teacher --- Tremain really is fresh meat on cable's counter --- plus this to the network's credit: JT played HD and proper 1.85. The show hasn't looked so fine since 1957.

The project was lit in summer 1956 for start date of August 6 (later delayed to September), under direction of Robert Stevenson, himself a native Redcoat, but rehabbed to Yank assignments since arriving to colonies in the early 40's. There had been a Tremain vid series in 1953, beamed over NBC, but forgot since. Idea was for two parts on Disneyland, follow-ups to come if the concept made good. In fact, trades were already calling it a "series." All of shooting would be done at Burbank, this being TV after all, with no concession to big screening other than color (just in case) and wide ratio. Disney had learned from Davy Crockett to cover all bases. He'd not discount theatrical from selling equations again. Still, it was economies first, and that put limit on period-dressed streets (we see but a few), with matte work (nicely) filling backgrounds. Johnny Tremain plays much like pageants and outdoor dramas that were then-popular recreation of history, its drama paced along lines of Williamsburg --- The Story Of A Patriot. Had Seaton given a Walt a preview? (Williamsburg was first public-shown in 3/57)

Casting was keyed to teen watchers of Disneyland, the company getting foothold on a market more lucrative by the day. If young stars could be born on The Mickey Mouse Club, why not here? Old and new were called --- Hal Stalmaster in the title part, his a Disney career that would stall, but there was vet Luana Patten, no longer the tot of 40's packaging (Song Of The South, Fun and Fancy Free, others), but having to be borrowed by Walt from contract-holder U-I. Lensing wrapped in October '56, the boss taking a look at result and telling trades on 10/24 that he'd hold Johnny Tremain for July 4 theatrical dates in 1957. One million had been spent on the neg, Tremain "figured to show a quick profit (in theatres), while TV showing wouldn't show any net," said Variety. Unusual care had been taken on the project in any case, Stevenson reporting that he shot tests for every actor in for more than a day, "I'm sure that's never happened in TV before," said the director.

Johnny Tremain would be summer-shown along with Old Yeller and Perri in 1957, idea being to tie-in with Independence Day. Spring of the year saw King Features syndicating a 13-part color comics telling of Johnny Tremain, that to conclude in time for playdates. Twenty other manufacturers were aboard as well for product support, all with notion Johnny might take off like Davy Crockett. Trade reviews were mixed at best, Variety calling Johnny Tremain "but fair entertainment at best," with B.O. prospects "spotty." Overall consensus was too much schoolbook at expense of action. Disney wanted authenticity and got it, but maybe history dealt him a weak hand, if events happened so languidly as shown here (no resistance to the Boston Tea Party, but assume that's how it happened). Citations came from libraries and better pic groups, but these wouldn't deposit so well at banks.

A New England launch for June 4, 1957 was expected, the Boston preem to honor source novelist Esther Forbes. Johnny Tremain would go from there to saturation at seventeen northeast venues for late June. Returns were variable. At some spots, business was fine ("solidly" in Boston, natch), while others, like Portland, reported "major disappointment." Omaha's newspaper critic handed Johnny a pan, result but "fair" biz, said trades. Walt Disney himself made a stadium appearance in Evanston, Illinois and brought Hal Stalmaster, along with the Mouseketeers and Fess Parker, all in for July 4 with the place jammed. Minneapolis posted grim tiding re Johnny Tremain, which for the town's RKO Orpheum failed to last a second week or merit a move-over to another first-run venue. Disneyland was blamed, "too many of the youngsters have watched Tremain on video," said management.

A Few Of Hoops To Jump Through When You 16mm-Rented WD Pics

Here was a major issue, for recent check of that Disneyland has Walt pretty much giving the show away, with scenes and narration recounting Johnny Tremain from start to end. ABC broadcast The Liberty Story on May 29. Tube-viewing Walt's summary of Johnny Tremain would, for many, save time and expense of theatre-going, surely not his design, but very much the outcome, at least in Minneapolis. Johnny Tremain soon enough tube-played, per original design, first on Disneyland in November and December 1958 as retitled two-part The Boston Tea Party and The Shot That Was Heard Around The World, then on NBC as late as February 1975. Audio Brandon and other non-theatrical suppliers offered Johnny Tremain at $60 daily rental during 16mm heyday that was the seventies. The film can be had on DVD, albeit full-frame, while Amazon Instant streams Johnny Tremain in HD and wide.

A Disney arrival this week not to be missed: the latest of Didier Ghez's book series, Walt's People, Volume 16. This collection of interviews, like all of previous ones, is a must.


Blogger MikeD said...

"Here was a major issue, for recent check of that Disneyland has Walt pretty much giving the show away, with scenes and narration recounting Johnny Tremain from start to end."

Apparently Walt did the same thing with Darby O'Gill. I may have seen Darby on TV but not at the theater when it first played. But the recent TCM vault showing of both the Darby movie and Disneyland show illustrated the same idea you pointed out for Johnny Tremain. In fact, didn't TCM also show 'Third Man on the Mountain' and its Disneyland equivalent? How did Walt Disney or at least one of his execs not realize that they were giving the store away? Show maybe half way thru the movie with the added bits (Pat O'Brien blarney for Darby), but not all the way to the conclusion! I realize the TV show was meant to drum up business and didn't cost much when most of the show came from film clips, but gee whiz!!

Was there a Disneyland show for 'Fighting Prince of Donagale', another TCM vault offering? I wanted to like it just because it was Disney, but what a snorefest! Guess it would have helped if I was 50 years younger. But I never would have understood the politics when I was ten. "The Irish don't like the English? The Irish want to help Spain? Wait, what?"

8:23 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

My sister-in-law teaches fifth grade, and annually runs "Johnny Tremain" as a treat after her kids have read the book. She says it goes over big.

Myself, I remember the Tea Party half being shown in class in 16mm (this was the early 60s). I also recall seeing Disney films as a section of a larger rental catalog.If memory serves, they managed to offer only talky dramas I didn't care to see, as well as reels of multiple cartoons. I never saw the pages you present here, but pushing 16mm rentals for home family nights is pretty funny -- especially as the Disneys were priced higher than most. Also, they were very, very adamant that no money change hands where a Disney 16mm was shown. No fundraisers, no "defraying the cost", no nothing.

As for "The Liberty Story": Remember that Disney scored on the Davy Crockett movies after giving away the whole show on TV. Perhaps he assumed the lure of big-screen color would work again. Or perhaps he simply lacked (or didn't want to invest in) "behind-the-scenes" stuff, real or staged, to reduce the reliance on clips. Many of the preview shows also mixed in True Life Adventures, plugs for new Disneyland rides, and longer clips from older films. "The Liberty Story" did make use of "Ben and Me", even padding that a bit with a prologue detailing the mouse's ancestry.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

I first saw JOHNNY TREMAIN in middle school, as a follow-up to reading the novel, as Donald Benson tells of his sister doing with the film. Some would say, I suppose, that the classroom is the most appropriate place for the film.

10:06 PM  
Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

As a Williamsburg resident in the late 70's, we would often go see STORY OF A PATRIOT at the purpose built theaters in the information center there as it was shown free. It was one of the few instances when a VistaVision film was shown in its original horizontally projected format. The results were dazzling and there was also a six track magnetic Todd-Ao sound track. The film was restored by Robert Harris about a decade ago and now they show it in more standard 70mm. I have a piece of one of the old prints of this where you can see Jack Lord and also the magnetic striping for the soundtrack. It is very much a relic of its time but it does have a nice score by Bernard Herrmann. I did catch a bit of JOHNNY TREMAIN on TCM and it looked boring beyond belief and done on the cheap.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Don`t know how they figured kids would go wild over JT. Seems too much like a history lesson to me. I was gonna say the Audie Murphy story would have been a better choice but it had already been done in 1955 with Murphy.

2:26 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I do remember seeing excerpts from this film in glorious 16mm when in 5th grade; about the only thing that stands out in my memory is that "Liberty Tree" song. Our class hadn't been assigned the Esther Forbes book, but the teacher had LPs of a series of audio dramas based on Newbery Medal-winning books, and "Johnny Tremain" was included, along with "It's Like This, Cat" and "The Matchlock Gun."
The class was also subjected to a couple of those American-history shorts WB made in the '30s. We laughed when a sped-up fistfight occurred in the middle of the "Declaration of Independence" short.

5:01 PM  

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