7. Third Man on The Mountain (1959)
Disney never created any real superstars but the studio did promote the careers of a number of actors who had a popular following, at least for a time. One of these players was James MacArthur, an appealing young actor who was the adopted son of the great stage star Helen Hayes and her husband, noted playwright Charles MacArthur.
Signed to a contact after giving a fine performance in the little-seen 1957 film The Young Stranger, the young actor was quickly cast in the studio’s adaptation of Conrad Richter’s Pulitzer Prize novel, The Light in The Forest in 1958. He got some fine reviews and was off and running. One of the best of the many films he made at Disney was Third Man on The Mountain, a tense and thrilling adventure tale about a young man struggling to conquer the mountain which had taken his father’s life.
Backed up by such excellent European actors as Michael Rennie, Herbert Lom and Laurence Naismith, with Janet Munro again as love interest, the young actor did well in his role. However, the real star of film may well be the stunning location photography of the famed Matterhorn. Reportedly, shooting on the mountain was almost as big a challenge for the cast and crew as the fictional tasks the hero of the film was facing. It was worth it and the stunt work combined with the location, made this film a wonderful example of the adventure genre.
8. Pollyanna (1960)
In 1959, Disney was looking to cast the title role for his version of the children’s classic, Pollyanna. Actor John Mills suggested his young daughter, Hayley, who had then recently debuted on screen to much acclaim in the British film Tiger Bay, opposite her father. Disney was as enchanted by her as the rest of the world would soon be and cast her not only in Pollyanna but in five subsequent films, which cemented her standing as not only the biggest Disney child star but his biggest acting discovery, period.
Pollyanna, taken from the early 20th century children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter, casts the young performer as the orphaned daughter of missionaries come to live with her wealthy, cold-hearted Aunt Polly (Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman). Aunt Polly rules the quaint small American town in which she lives in just about every possible way, from local government to the sermons heard on Sunday morning (all fire and brimstone at her behest).
Pollyanna, taught to be almost absurdly optimistic, decides to make things better and causes a huge, positive stir in the little hamlet. This should be a lot of treacle and the title character impossible but Miss Mills, a lovely child, also had real talent and real star magnetism and she truly pulled it off.
Disney was also at his best, mounting one of his finest productions with fine period detail and perhaps the best cast ever to grace a Disney film: Oscar-winning or nominated actors Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Adolphe Menjou (in his final film), Nancy Olson and Donald Crisp, as well as such familiar faces as Richard Egan, Kevin Cocoran, James Drury, and Edward Platt. It would be nice to report that it was one of Disney’s biggest hits but it was, in fact, a disappointment at the box office. However, Miss Mills would prove, in the end, to be Disney’s greatest discovery.
9. In Search of The Castaways (1963)
Though Haley Mills was given an honorary Oscar for her Disney debut in Pollyanna and had a big hit with 1962’s The Parent Trap, she had other hits, still worth remembering, that have fallen into obscurity. One, surprisingly, was in Disney’s return to the works of Jules Verne with one of the author’s lesser known novels: In Search of The Castaways.
In this film, Miss Mills plays a young girl battling to rescue her shipwrecked sailor father amid a dizzying variety of colorful adventures. The star was supported by the great French actor/singer Maurice Chevalier, in his first Disney film, and the wonderfully snide Oscar-winning character actor George. The director was veteran Robert Stevenson, who was then best known for 1943’s Jane Eyre. He and Disney would soon see even greater success together but this excellent family adventure was a real stepping stone.
10. Summer Magic (1963)
Another lovely Mills film that isn’t as remembered as it could be is Summer Magic, a lovely bucolic period piece with songs (but not a musical). The film was based on a young reader’s novel from the early 20th Century by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Wiggin, like Disney, had a knack for creating solid stories for the younger set that didn’t smack of condescension.
This film was taken from the novel, Mother Carey’s Chickens, in which a youthful widow and her three children move to a lovely, if somewhat rundown, home in the countryside of Maine in order to live as happy and peaceful a life as their somewhat limited circumstances will allow. With this film it became apparent that Disney was going to avoid the big mistake often made with child performers: he was going to allow Hayley Mills to grow up on screen. In this one she plausibly finds innocent romance.
Backing her up in a quality production are Dorothy McGuire as her mother, Oscar-winning actor/singer Burl Ives as the kind hearted local handyman, Oscar nominated veteran character actress Una Merkel and a trio of popular young performers of the day: Deborah Walley, Eddie Hodges, and Jerry Mathers (eternally “The Beaver” of TV’s “Leave It To Beaver”).
11. The Moon Spinners (1963)
Disney seemed to be fixated on Haley Mills and she regularly delivered for him in quality and cash flow. The Moon Spinners was a real stretch for Mills and Disney. Mary Stewart (1916-2014) was a well known author of suspense/mystery novels from the 1940s through the 1980s but she was not normally a children’s or adolescent novelist.
The Moon Spinners, set, as are several other Stewart novels, in the Greek Isles, was written with an adult audience in mind and the main character, though young, was definitely an adult. To compensate for the heroine being made younger, she was given an aunt as a travelling companion. The aunt was played by the distinctive British character actress Joan Greenwood, but she would be far from the only casting surprise in the film. The villains in this diamond smuggling caper were noted stage actor Eli Wallach and renowned Greek actress Irene Pappas.
However the true jaw dropper was the cameo appearance of silent star Pola Negri, who had not appeared in a film since 1943 and no Hollywood film since the early 1930s. Disney talked her into coming back for what turned out to be her movie swan song. All of this, plus exquisite location filming on Crete, turned The Moon Spinners into an unusually serious and adult Disney hit.
12. Mary Poppins (1964)
There is a magnum opus for everyone who has ever worked successfully in film, one film that stands above the others. In the live action realm in terms of Disney’s own lifetime, it is Mary Poppins. This musical fantasy, taken from the beloved children’s books by British author P.L. Travers, was the most acclaimed, most awarded, and most attended film to come from Disney Studios during Walt Disney’s time on earth.
It was all time top ten box office for many years. How did this happen? First, superior material provided a good starting point. As the 2013 Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, demonstrated, the ultra difficult Mrs. Travers only sold the film rights to her books due to dire financial circumstances, She wanted a more serious Mary Poppins, a non-Disney sort of film to be produced. However, much to her dismay, the film, lushly produced with stunning sets and costumes created by stage legend Tony Walton (the then husband of the film’s star), emerged as a musical.
The songs were courtesy of the Sherman brothers, Disney’s best songwriting team, and they proved to be Oscar caliber hits. Robert Stevenson was chosen as director and Disney went all out with another top-notch cast including notable British character actors David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Elsa Lanchester, Ed Wynn, Arthur Treacher, Oscar-winning American actress Jane Darwell and Hermione Baddeley.
The stars were American Dick Van Dyke, then riding high as star of his own much acclaimed show on TV and the Broadway smash, “Bye Bye Birdie.” His exuberant performance atones for the worst cockney accent ever. Mary Poppins was played by British-born Broadway star Julie Andrews, who had taken New York by storm in “The Boyfriend.” “Camelot” and, especially “My Fair Lady.” She gives a superb musical comedy performance in a film that, if seen at an impressionable age, is forever after loved.
13. Tron (1983)
Mary Poppins was the both the high point of the classic Disney era and its de facto goodbye. Times were about to change for the world, certainly the U.S. and truly for Walt Disney Studios as Disney became ill with the cancer which would claim his life on December 15, 1966. He was always such a visionary that it is particularly ironic that he would exit his company and the world at just about the worst possible moment. He might have helped the studio navigate the cultural changes that ended up shaking the world when many of the kids who had been so entertained by his films a few years earlier wanted a different lifestyle than the innocent Disney world view.
Finally in the 1980s newer heads at the studio realized that things had to change and started to acclimate to a new cultural climate. The first non-G rated Disney movie was The Black Hole in 1979 but that film pleased no one. Higher hopes were held out for Tron in 1983, a film based on the innovative idea of having characters drawn into the world of a video game (a new and exciting thing just starting to dominate the youth market at the time).
The story had a video game designer, seeking to right a terrible wrong done to him by a co-worker, being transferred inside the savage world of one of his games by the game’s powerful opponent and having to fight for both survival and justice in two worlds. As in older times, the studio chose a distinguished cast with the great, eventual Oscar-winning, New Hollywood era actor Jeff Bridges as the hero, veteran British star David Warner as the villain and Tony-winning Broadway star Barnard Hughes in one of the key supporting roles.
The film was years in production, had the most elaborate special effects any Disney film to that date had ever featured (and that’s saying something) and caused a great stir during the time of its gestation. Anticipation was great, the first time a Disney film had been so anticipated in years. However, once the film premiered, the critics gave the actors high marks and the effects were deemed worthy but the dramatic components of the film were not praised.
The film wasn’t a flop but it wasn’t a big hit, either. However, sometimes family films not considered successes by the critics or adult viewers of the time can come back as beloved cult items by the kids who originally saw them (think 1973’s Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory) and grow in prestige with the years. Tron fits into that category. Its cult has grown and grown over the years to the point where a big, belated, successful sequel, Tron Legacy was produced in 2010 with yet another film chapter promised for the future.