Walt Disney Pictures. Just read those words and you will have visions of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Bambi, Dumbo, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and the many other animation classics that will live as long as people see and love motion pictures. But those unforgettable pen and ink creations weren’t all that there was to Walt Disney Studios. From the late 1940s, Disney also created live action or combined animated/live action pictures.
Several of those who knew him and/or have studied the man and his career have declared Walt Disney to be a genius. It’s hard to argue with this assessment of a man who made such an impact not just on motion picture history but American and world culture. He knew, however, that his studio could not thrive, or even survive, being just a cartoon factory.
Disney’s live action productions have had a rather uneven history and reputation. During Disney’s own lifetime he alternated heartfelt, often sentimental, like Pollyanna, with commercialcrowd pleasers that were hits at the box office, such as The Absent-Minded Professor. Both kinds of films had high production values. There’s a trick to making good films for the whole family to enjoy, and not children’s films that parents have to endure. Walt Disney knew that trick.
Unfortunately, when he died in 1967, he seemed to take the secret with him. From the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, Walt Disney Pictures (or Buena Vista , the organization’s distribution arm) were generally derided. When doing a TV review of a very lame 80s super hero spoof, Condorman, critic Roger Ebert declared that Walt Disney Studios were pretty much about ten years behind the times, and few would have disagreed.
However, nostalgic baby boomers were beginning to admit that they had loved many Disney films while growing up and a new generation, headed by top Hollywood executive Michael Eisner, refurbished the studio, inaugurating a both a new wave of animation hits. He also retooled the live action section so that those films still appealed to family audiences, but were also funny and knowing. Below is a selection of live action Disney films worth seeking out.
1. The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1952)
Disney films had done rather well in the United Kingdom from the thirties through the World War II years. However, a new law enacted in the face of British post-war austerity froze all foreign monetary assets within the U.K. during that time. Disney was then still a smallish production company with a high profile. The company couldn’t afford to let their assets just lay there unused. Disney came up with a fine solution, though not one that pleased him: the company used the money to make as many British films as possible. The rub was that Disney, pinned to California by overriding responsibilities, couldn’t micro-manage the films as he did most of his other productions.
The result? Three fine films. including 1950’s Treasure Island and 1953’s The Sword and The Rose, and one stinker.1953’s Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue atmospheric and…quite un-Disney-like. If the credits were removed no one unfamiliar with the picture’s histories could have told who made them. Perhaps that is why they have always been treated as the red-headed step children in the studio’s history, rarely shown or seen. Robin Hood was possibly the best of Disney’s British films.
It is perfectly cast with Richard Todd, a very good actor and an obscure Oscar nominee (for the wonderfully touching 1949 war drama The Hasty Heart) and future Oscar winner and star Peter Finch as Robin and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Vibrant color enhancing stunning historic locations along with great action scenes help this version stand along with the classic 1938 Errol Flynn film. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) After nearly a decade of solidly produced but mid-budget live action films, Disney went big budget and big league with this adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel (which is not a children’s book, as it’s so often presented in modern times).
Not only did Disney spend an unusually large sum of money (for Disney, certainly) but he sprang for big names: the great character actor Peter Lorre , the best actor Oscar winner of 1943, Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas and James Mason. The last two were both at the peak of their stardom (Douglas was exactly in the middle of the years between his second and third Oscar nominations and Mason would be nominated that very year for the classic A Star Is Born).
The film was also directed by Richard Fleischer, then at the start of his career, later to garner acclaim for his true crime films,1959’s Compulsion, 1968’s The Boston Strangler and 1970s Ten Rillington Place). It was also the first science fiction film to be shot in Cinemascope (though, to hedge his bets, as many did at the time, the film was also released in a standard version). Ironically, he was the son of animator Max Fleischer, one of Disney’s chief rivals in the 1930s.
Though Douglas, as obnoxious but dashing seaman Ned Land, and a cutesy overused seal detracted, the film to this day is judged to be one of Disney’s best Mason, as Captain Nemo, gave what is likely the best dramatic performance in any Disney film, and a stunning battle with a giant squid was a particularly memorable sequence.
The film raked in the money and was so golden that a documentary detailing the film’s making, shown on the Disney TV show, won an Emmy! The film also started a vogue for films based on Verne’s works which lasted well into the 1960s.However, Disney didn’t like taking such big risks and backed away from following up this success with other similar films,
2. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
After nearly a decade of solidly produced but mid-budget life action films, Disney went big budget and big league with this adaptation of French author Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel (which is not a children’s book, as its so often presented in modern times).
Not only did Disney spend an unusually large sum of money (for Disney, certainly) but he sprang for big names: the great character actor Peter Lorre, the best actor Oscar winner of 1943, Paul Lukas, and Kirk Douglas and James Mason, who were both at the peak of their stardom (Douglas was exactly in the middle of the years between his second and third Oscar nominations and Mason would be nominated that very year for the classic A Star Is Born).
The film was also directed by Richard Fleischer, then at the start of his career, later to garner acclaim for his films concerning true crimes (1959’s Compulsion, 1968’s The Boston Strangler, 1970s Ten Rillington Place). It was also the first science fiction film to be shot in Cinemascope (though, to hedge his bets, as many did at the time, the film was also shot in a standard version). Ironically, he was the son of animator Max Fleischer, one of Disney’s chief rivals in the 1930s.
The film concerns the efforts of heroic scientist and sailors to combat a private war against military ships waged by the brilliant but angry and somewhat mad Captain Nemo. Though Douglas, as obnoxious but dashing seaman Ned Land, and a cutesy overused seal detracted, the film was judged to be one of Disney’s best (and considered so to this day) and Mason, as Captain Nemo, gave what is likely the best dramatic performance in any Disney film, and a stunning battle with a giant squid was a particularly memorable sequence.
The film raked in the money and was so golden that a documentary detailing the film’s making, shown on the Disney TV show, won an Emmy! The film also started a vogue for films based on Verne’s works which lasted well into the 1960s. However, Disney didn’t like taking such big risks and backed away from following up this success with other similar films.
3. Davy Crockett, King of The Wild Frontier (1955), also Davy Crockett and The River Pirates (1956)
Disney always had a keen insight into the tastes of the public However, there was one big exception to Disney’s instincts and, happily, it was a delightful surprise. Disney had been one of the first in Hollywood to see the potential of cross-promoting film and television,. He used his weekly TV show to promote his Disneyland amusement park by assigning each week of the month the theme of an area of the park (such as “Tomorrowland” for scientific or futuristic shows).
One week of the month was “Frontierland,” which featured stories based on figures from early U.S history. No one would realistically expect kids to get too excited about history but that is just what happened when a three part mini-series premiered with little fanfare in 1955. It was entitled “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” and supposedly told the true story of the famed frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett (1786-1836).
Whether it was valid history or not, it caught the public’s fancy in a big way. There was great demand among the younger set for replicas of the title character’s distinctive coonskin hat. The show’s theme song was a number one hit for singer-actor Bill Hayes and was covered by many other artists. Disney, not thinking it would be a big deal, gave the title role to little-known actor Fess Parker. He went on to star in several Disney films and branched out into western pictures and the 60s hit TV show “Daniel Boone” (a real rip-off of Crockett).
Had Disney suspected he would have had such a hit on his hands he wouldn’t have limited it to three episodes,(since in real life, Crockett died at The Alamo.) Otherwise, he surely would have marketed the merchandise to a greater degree. , In order to take advantage of this good fortune he took the episodes and had them edited into a feature film. This might sound cheap but Disney had the foresight to film his many of his shows in color, though they were originally broadcast in black and white.
For this show had hired veteran movie director Norman Foster (best known for 1942’s Journey Into Fear). The shows were carefully edited and a fine, compact feature emerged. Would the public pay for what they’d already seen? For once, yes. The next year Disney produced a “prequel” showing an untold earlier episode in the life of the hero and his sidekick George Russell (Buddy Ebsen) and out came “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” a two part presentation. Itwas easily edited into a feature film. Honestly, anyone unfamiliar with the film’s origins could scarcely have guessed that they weren’t designed for theaters from the start. Such was Disney’s fine showmanship.
4. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)
A vital locomotive is stolen by the North during the Civil War and must be recaptured by the South. Sound familiar? This, of course, is the plot of the great silent comedy The General (1927). It’s also the plot of Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase and small wonder: both films are based on the same historical incident. Where Buster Keaton, star and director of the silent film, saw the story in fanciful terms and created a series of breathtaking and hilarious set pieces, the Disney version chose to stick closer to the facts (well, in a Hollywood kind of way).
It wasn’t a great hit and many found it to be too downbeat (it did stick to the facts of the mission’s ultimate outcome). However, it now seems to be a well made and designed Cinemascope production and one that is unusually mature for a Disney production. Parker came back as the ill-fated hero. He was joined by 50s matinee idol Jeffrey Hunter along with a fine cast of familiar character actors. The film is a worthy item to seek out.
5. Old Yeller (1957)
This film is to Disney’s live action films what the animated classic Bambi (1941) is to that genre. It is: cherished by animal lovers, even though both films bluntly face the cruelty that nature sometimes doles out. This film is surely the dog lover’s “weepie” of all time. Based on an acclaimed and beloved young readers’ novel, the story tells the story of a pioneer family and how they, and especially the family’s oldest son, are affected by a brave and loyal dog that wanders into their lives and who protects his new family at a painful and tragic cost..
One look at this film shows how such a film should be done for it was made with much skill and earned the tears that many have cried over it. A large part of this is due to the cast. While Fess Parker returns as the father, the more prominent cast members are veteran leading lady Dorothy McGuire , Tommy Kirk and Kevin Cocoran, two thankfully non-cloying kid actor discoveries of Disney’s. Miss McGuire and the two child performers would go on to appear in several Disney productions thanks to this film and never let the studio down.
6. Darby O’Gill and The Little People (1959)
Whenever anyone starts making a list of films to see for St. Patrick’s Day, this film is sure to be on that list. Based on a character long known and loved in Ireland, the film tells the fantastic story of an old Irish estate caretaker, Darby O’Gill (Irish actor Albert Sharpe), who’s considered full of blarney with his fanciful tales of leprechauns, treasure and the like, not to mention his love of drink. However, it turns out that he is somewhat in with the little people, especially their king (Jimmy O’Dea), with whom Darby has what might be called a love-hate relationship.
In the more tangible world Darby is about to lose his job to a robust young man (a then unknown and very handsome Sean Connery!), to whom Darby’s lovely daughter (Janet Munro) is also reluctantly losing her heart. There was never, ever a real Ireland such as this one, but who cares? It’s a fantasy. The Irish players are uniformly delightful and the story is sparkling, especially in the integration of well-executed special effects. Not a film for the hard-boiled set but who in that set would look at a Disney film anyway?