Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pixar Freeze Frame! - Hidden Heroes in Finding Nemo

Our next Pixar Freeze Frame takes us again to the Australian setting of Finding Nemo where we will focus in on the waiting room of Sydney dentist Dr. Phillip Sherman.  Any good dentist's office has its obligatory toy box to keep younger patients sufficiently distracted from their impending procedures, and Dr. Sherman's abode is no exception.  But among his collection of toys is a certain Space Ranger of note.  Though lying prone on the floor, Buzz Lightyear stands out amidst the other rather generic playthings.

Later in the film, a young boy occupies himself with a Mr. Incredible comic book in the same waiting room, while chaos ensues in the nearby exam room.  Similar to Luigi from Cars, Mr. Incredible's appearance in Finding Nemo predated the release of his own movie.  The Incredibles was released eighteen months after Finding Nemo premiered on May 30, 2003.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vintage Snapshot! - The Main Street Flower Market

I will take a moment in regard to this particular Vintage Snapshot to wax editorially.  One of my primary criticisms of Walt Disney World in last decade or so has been the desire on the part of management to sacrifice aesthetics for increased consumerism.  Such a maneuver is what brought about the end of the Main Street Flower Market, shown here in this photograph from 1975.  The Flower Market was without a doubt one of the most beautiful set pieces in all of the Magic Kingdom; an expanded Emporium now occupies that area.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tangled at Home: Beautiful But Slight

Tangled was a wonderful, refreshing surprise.  Defying expectations, it proved both a critical darling and a commercial success, affording Walt Disney Animation Studios a much needed boost to both reputation and credibility.  In our review published back in November, we called it a "visually stunning, cleverly written and eminently fun and entertaining animated film."

Tangled is even more spectacular when seen in a high definition home theater presentation, as now possible due to its Blu-Ray/DVD release this week.  It escapes the dim and occasional murkiness of what was a rather poor post-production 3D conversion process.  I can't speak to the quality of the Blu-Ray 3D presentation, but on traditional Blu-Ray, I believe it is now the bright, rich and vibrant film its creators had intended.

Unfortunately, the film is not nearly as well served with the remainder of its home entertainment bells and whistles.  Bonus features are slight and decidedly juvenile in nature.  Untangled: The Making of a Fairy Tale is brief, superficial and little more than a Disney Channel promotional piece.  Stars Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi trade jokes and trivia and mug for the cameras, but provide little to no substantial content relating to the making of the film.  Considering that Tangled was in development for close to a decade and pioneered some rather notable CG character animation, more could have been offered up to both mainstream viewers and animation enthusiasts alike.  Press materials called the feature "a kooky behind-the-scenes tour," seeming to indicate that nothing beyond that was truly warranted.  Deleted scenes, extended songs and alternate openings prove rather mundane and uninteresting.  Tangled Teasers is just a collection of commercials and Disney Channel promotional bits.  The 50th Animated Feature Countdown? A minute's worth of clips in a rather uninspired presentation. Glaringly absent is a production gallery, for which you would assume a veritable wealth of materials should have been available.  In comparison, the bonus features on last year's Princess and the Frog DVD set were much more substantial and well considered.

Another major disappointment relates to the packaging of the various DVD sets.  Disney has been a big proponent of the digital copy, but they have made a major misstep here in that regard.  No digital copy was included in the Blu-Ray+DVD combo pack.  A digital copy is in fact only available in the more expensive 4-disc combo pack that adds the Blu-Ray 3D version of the film.  Considering that the market penetration for Blu-Ray 3D is rather minimal right now, was this just a stupid decision or an obvious money grab?  As a consumer who always seeks out the digital copy editions for his gadget-loving family, I found this mystifying to say the least.

Tangled is just too darn good to discourage anyone from buying the DVD edition of the film.  But it deserves much better.  A simple question to Walt Disney Home Entertainment -- what happened?

Explore the 2719 Hyperion Archives:
Tangled: A Success in All But Name
Consider the Source: Radish Obsessions and a Blind Prince

Monday, March 28, 2011

"You Can't Sue God"

From Kirk Douglas' 1988 autobiography The Ragman's Son:  "I was shocked at Disney's audacity in exploiting my children."

What was the star of Disney's own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea so upset about?  So much so that he carried a grudge for three decades?

Sometime in early 1956, Kirk Douglas and his two young sons, Joel and Michael, spent a Saturday afternoon at Walt Disney's Holmby Hills estate.  The highlight of the visit for Kirk and his kids was the opportunity to ride on the Carolwood Pacific, Walt's 1/8 scale model railroad.  Shortly thereafter, film footage of the older Douglas sitting atop a miniature engine and navigating a trainload of kids around Walt's backyard appeared on an episode of the Disneyland television program.  The show in question, Where Do the Stories Come From, demonstrated how the inspiration for the 1951 Donald Duck cartoon Out of Scale came from the model railroading hobbies of Walt and two of his animators, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball.  The episode first aired on April 4, 1956.

Douglas was surprised and distinctly irritated by the footage.  "I wrote him a letter saying that I would prefer that he never use film of my kids and me on a commercial program," he revealed in The Ragman's Son.  He noted that he then received a letter of apology in return.

But when Where Do the Stories Come From was rerun just two months later on June 6, 1956, the footage in question was still included in the program.  Douglas was outraged.  On the advice of his lawyer, he initiated a lawsuit that named Walt, the Disney Studios, the ABC television network and the program's sponsors among the defendants.  Douglas insisted it was a matter of principle and if he won, any monetary awards would be donated to charity.

But according to Douglas in his autobiography, just before the matter went to trial he had misgivings.  "I thought, what am I doing?  There are some people in our profession –Bob Hope, Walt Disney-who can do no wrong."  Over the objections of his lawyer, he dropped the suit.  "I doubt if I could have gotten anywhere with it.  You can't sue God."

Douglas' recollections, while apparently noble on the surface, are seemingly at odds with the public record from the summer of 1956.  In The Ragman's Son, he portrays himself as the offended parent, furious over the seeming exploitation of his children.  Yet, upon examining the film footage in question, the Douglas sons are at no point either identified or mentioned.  Numerous children are shown riding the train, but there is no direct correlation between any of them and Kirk Douglas, at least not to the public at large to which Joel and Michael would certainly have been unrecognizable.

Douglas' exploitation charge becomes especially curious when examining newspaper accounts of the affair from the summer of 1956.   He sued for $400,000 in damages and an additional $15,000 for compensation for the "work" he did in the filmed footage.  He claimed the matter was an invasion of privacy, but according to multiple reports, emphasized more that ". . . the showings damaged his reputation and earning power, because his status and income potential are based on the kind and number of appearances he chooses to make and the payment he gets for these performances."  It appears that what really upset the actor was that he wasn't paid for the appearance.

Not so coincidentally, a couple weeks after the charges were filed, Douglas expounded on how television had the means to undermine his career and livelihood.  In a newspaper column he himself penned, he stated, "I feel if people can twist a knob and see me in their living rooms every week, they will not leave the house to pay to see me in a film."

In fairness, Walt Disney is not without blame in the matter.  The studio agreed not to use the footage in subsequent airings of Where Do the Stories Come From and whether by error or design, failed to live up to that accord.  In response to the suit, Walt stated publicly that, "The entire appearance of Mr. Douglas on television was for 26 seconds and it is inconceivable that a man who has appeared so extensively in motion pictures, magazines and television could be damaged on a television screen in that amount of time."  But had the studio excised the footage as promised, the entire matter would have been over before it started.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pixar Freeze Frame! - Finding Luigi in Finding Nemo

It's a special spin on an enduring feature!

The Freeze Frame! post has been a standard of 2719 Hyperion since the site's inception back in the Fall of 2006.  We've showcased a number of Freeze Frames relating to Pixar movies, but have just barely explored the tip of the cameo and inside joke-filled iceberg that exists within the Pixar canon.  Thus we have decided to create a special category-within-the-category--the Pixar Freeze Frame!  Yes, we know we aren't breaking any new ground or discovering the undiscovered; such Pixar content has been generally well-documented via any number of sources.  But we thought it would be fun to expand our Freeze Frame! archive and hopefully expose our readers to some moments they may have missed heretofore.

Pixar loves to cross-pollinate its films with in-house cameos and it is those fleeting moments we will be focusing on in the weeks ahead.  Despite the fact that most of Finding Nemo took place under the sea, a few non-aquatic Pixar characters managed to sneak into the picture.  Luigi, the 1959 yellow Fiat 500 from Cars, zooms by quickly during the final moments of the movie.  It is definitely a split-second appearance, occurring as the Tank Gang makes their final escape from the dentist's office to the ocean.  It's an especially notable cameo in that it preceded the release of the movie Cars by three years!

More Finding Nemo Freeze Frames are on the way.  Stay tuned! 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Vintage Headlines: Fred Waring in Wonderland

This month marks the 60th anniversary of an early television era Disney milestone.  On March 18, 1951, a significant portion of the popular Fred Waring Show was devoted to showcasing the music from Alice in Wonderland and featured cast members Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway.  Walt was featured in a brief prerecorded segment about the movie itself while Mary Blair designed the special stage sets used on the program.  The actual release of Alice in Wonderland was still months away.  Walt had already promoted Alice the previous Christmas Day with the special One Hour in Wonderland, his first foray in television production.

Peg Simpson, a television reporter at the time, noted:
Fred and his Pennsylvanians will introduce the music of Walt Disney's new, all-cartoon motion picture, "Alice in Wonderland." Although the story will not be told, the music will be presented with settings costumes that interpret the true "wonderland" flavor. Twelve-year-old Kathy Beaumont who acted the part of Alice for the animation of the film, will join the Pennsylvanians in the interpretations. Sterling Holloway, Disney's Cheshire Cat, will also be there. But, with the exception of little Kathy and Holloway, all parts will be taken by the Waring staffers.  Six of the songs from the film will be launched with the aid of all the Pennsylvanians.  Mary Blair, Disney set designer, has adapted the sets to television and the whole show's sure to be a gay, charming event. "I can think of no one in this cockeyed world better equipped to introduce the music from "Alice in Wonderland" than Fred Waring and Pennsylvanians," says Walt Disney. We agree fully.
Columnist John Crosby observed:
Among the more serious firsts to be committed recently was that of Walt Disney in plugging his forthcoming movie, "Alice in Wonderland," on Fred Waring's Sunday night television show.  Actually, this is the second  time Mr. Disney has used television to promote his new picture. He did it once before on a special Christmas show during which a good many of the better scenes from his early movies and one scene from "Alice in Wonderland" were shown Disney is the first major producer to use television this way.  In general, the movie people have shied away from TV as a competitor even though it's possibilities as a promotional medium are pretty obvious. Personally, I think Disney has done a shrewd job of exploitation. The two fragments of "Alice in Wonderland" I have seen have whetted my appetite for more, for the whole picture, in fact.

Fred Waring was no stranger to Disney.  He and his Pennsylvanians had performed the Trees segment in the 1948 package film Melody Time.

Excerpts from this particular episode of The Fred Waring Show are included on both the Masterpiece and 60th Anniversary Alice in Wonderland DVD sets.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Studio Ghibli's Earthsea: Flawed But Still Beautiful

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea.

As I noted in my earlier review of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Studio Ghibli films certainly produce varied reviews beyond just John Lasseter's glowing endorsements.  Tales from Earthsea, with its unusual Miyazaki pedigree, has received decidedly very mixed reviews to date, with many of the more critical dissertations being very harsh indeed.  As a result, I approached the film with quite low expectations and was, as I'd mentioned, pleasantly surprised.

It is indeed a beautiful film, though I would not go so far as to say it outshines all contemporary American animation, as one of my fellow Disney bloggers proclaimed (Sorry, George).  Japanese anime is so fundamentally a style all its own that any such comparisons tend to have little merit.  But in context to other anime, I found the film exceptionally well realized on a visual level.  The landscapes of Earthsea were vibrant, colorful, and occasionally even breathtaking.  Unfortunately, the film's character animation holds generally true to anime standards of static-exaggerated facial expressions that I have personally always had trouble with.  It is a design style that I've come to accept, but one I've never been able to understand or completely embrace.

Although lacking familiarity with Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books, I found the film to be accessible in terms of plot and story though not altogether compelling in execution.  The culture gap present in much Japanese animation does not present an obstacle in Tales from Earthsea, likely due to American pedigree of its source material.  But the adaptation is not without some degree of critical controversy.  LeGuin herself expressed disappointment with director Goro Miyazaki's liberal interpretations and reworkings of her stories.  Goro's father, celebrated director Hayao Miyazaki, distanced himself from the project, even though it was his initial interest in the material that prompted LeGuin to extend the movie rights to Studio Ghilbli.

The new DVD of Tales from Earthsea was curiously only released in standard format, despite Walt Disney Home Entertainment large scale efforts in supporting high defintion Blu-Ray.  That aside, picture and sound are top quality and optimize brilliantly on my PS3 Blu-Ray platform.  Extras include a making of feature entitled Behind the Studio. and Enter the Lands, an interactive feature that showcases Studio Ghibli productions.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Windows to the Past: Gasoline Unsurpassed

In a post last week, we opened a window to 1939 that showcased a Standard Gasoline billboard in downtown Los Angeles.  The advertisement featured Mickey Mouse and was part of a Disney-themed campaign for the Standard Oil Company that continued through most of 1940.  Our very good friend and fellow Disney historian Paul F. Anderson very generously forwarded us this photograph that provides a better view of another billboard with the same advertisement.

Our thanks to Paul for making the photograph available to us.  Be sure to check out Paul's excellent site, the Disney History Institute.  It is a true treasure trove of Disney history and resources.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Exhibit Hall: Sorry No Win - The Disneyland Dream Machine Tickets

Some pieces of ephemera can have very, very short lifespans.  The perfect example: a Disneyland Dream Machine ticket.  A component of Disneyland's 35th Anniversary celebration in 1990, these non-winning contest tickets were typically discarded within just a few feet of of the main entrance turnstiles where they were distributed.  As near as we can determine, a complete set consisted of twenty-four variations, each with a different character or characters. We have gathered them all together for our newest 2719 Hyperion Exhibition Hall showcase: Sorry No Win - The Disneyland Dream Machine Tickets.

More than just a memory of the 35th Anniversary celebration, the Dream Machine tickets also provide a snapshot of the popular entertainment that the Disney Company was producing in 1990.  So head on over to the Exhibition Hall and into Exhibit Room 35D and see just who the Disney stars were that graced these now rare mementos of Disneyland history.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Four Color Irish Fun

It is certainly not the best example of comic book storytelling, but Mickey Mouse in the Haunted Castle, published in Dell Four Color Comics #325, has merit enough to be featured here as part of a special Saint Patrick's Day-themed Four Color Friday.

Mickey and Goofy travel to Ireland to claim a radio contest prize, which to their amazement happens to be a "genuine haunted Irish castle."  The castle in fact is not haunted by ghosts, but instead by a mischievous leprechaun.  The story is a bit of a disjointed mess, both a mystery and treasure hunt mixed heavily with broad pratfalls and numerous irrelevant comedic sidesteps.  In the end it is simple, silly fun, but distinctly lacking the talent and sophistication that a Barks or Gottfredson would bring to the page.  Script credit for the story has never been determined.

Redeeming the overall effort is wonderful artwork by Al Hubbard.  His renderings very much complement the whimsical nature of the story, and his design of the leprechaun character is especially well realized.  Hubbard also treats readers to a few quite nice half-page splash panels that showcase the haunted castle of the story's title.  Hubbard did not do the cover of the issue; the Grand Comics Database speculates that those pencils may have been the work of Carl Buettner.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Consider the Source: The Hollow Heart of Sleive-na-mon

"Suggested by the Darby O'Gill Stories by H.T. Kavanagh"

That particular credit from Darby O'Gill and the Little People is indeed an accurate assessment.  The screenplay, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin, is not a direct adaptation of any of Kavanagh's original Darby O'Gill material.  Watkin instead combined elements from a number of the tales and used those elements and other themes to craft a wholly original story.  As we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day, let's take a moment to consider the source of one of Walt Disney's most endearing and especially underrated live action productions.

Herminie Templeton Kavanagh passed away nearly a decade before Walt Disney began to actively consider a feature film based on her Darby O'Gill tales.  She is a bit of an enigma.  Information about her is quite hard to find, and places and dates regarding her life, and most especially her two marriages, are difficult to confirm and are often contradictory. The Darby O'Gill short stories were written by Kavanagh and featured as a serial in McClure Magazine near the dawn of the 20th century.  They were later collected and published as a book in 1903 under the title Darby O'Gill and the Good People.  Two decades later, Kavanagh published a second collection that was called Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O'Gill Tales.  She died in 1933 at the age of 72.

As noted, the Walt Disney-produced film was "suggested by" Kavanagh's works.  The most striking difference is in the character of Darby himself.  The literary Darby is distinctly younger than his movie counterpart.  The author portrayed him as a thirty-something Irishman with a headstrong wife named Bridget and a brood of children.  As interpreted by actor Albert Sharpe, the Disney Darby was an older widower in his sixties, his only offspring being a grown daughter named Katie.

Various plot points from the film can be traced back to the early Darby stories.  Darby's imprisonment by King Brian early in the film relates to Kavanagh's first story, Darby O'Gill and the Good People.  In that tale, Darby is confined for six months in "the hollow heart of Sleive-na-mon," the subterranean mountain home of King Brian and his subjects.  Similar to events in the film, he manages to escape by wits and trickery.  The overriding storyline of King Brian granting Darby wishes takes its inspiration from Kavanagh's second story, Darby O'Gill and the Leprechaun.  The movie's climactic moments involving the Banshee and the Death Coach were derived from the story The Banshee's Comb.

It is interesting to note that a sequence in the Disneyland television episode I Captured the King of the Leprechauns was adapted from the Kavanagh story How the Fairies Came to Ireland.  The episode depicts Walt Disney traveling to Ireland at the suggestion of actor Pat O'Brien in an attempt to recruit a real live leprechaun to star in his upcoming motion picture.  In his search, Walt visits a library where ancient texts reveal how the leprechauns had fallen from heaven at the same time Satan was exiled.  The narrative is taken almost directly from Kavanagh's story.

But, as we consider the source of these Disney endeavors, it is also important to consider the source of the Kavanagh stories as well.  According to the author:
This history sets forth the only true account of the adventures of a daring tipperary man named Darby O'Gill among the fairies of Sleive-na-mon. These adventures were first related to me by Mr. Jerry Murtaugh, a reliable car-driver, who goes between Kilcuny and Ballinderg. He is a first cousin of Darby O'Gill's own mother.
By all accounts, it was a tongue-in-cheek statement on Kavanagh's part.  And Walt Disney employed a similar "true story" strategy when he "visited" Ireland in I Captured the King of the Leprechauns and then went so far as to acknowledge King Brian and his Leprechauns " . . . whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Windows to the Past: A Four-Leaf Clover from 1939

This particular Window to the Past features a timely tie-in to the upcoming Saint Patrick's Day holiday.  The above photograph dates from 1939 and showcases the 800 block of Hill Street in Los Angeles.  Our interest in the image is due to the billboard for Standard Gasoline that prominently features Mickey Mouse.  Mickey is proudly holding a four-leaf clover while the advertisement copy proclaims, "Good Picking!"

The billboard was part of an ad campaign by Standard Oil that featured Disney characters.  Walt Disney produced a commercial short entitled The Standard Parade that was shown to station operators to highlight components of the campaign.  We have previously featured a number of the campaign's Travel Tykes newspaper ads here at 2719 Hyperion.

The photograph more prominently features the RKO Hillstreet Theatre.  That venue opened as a vaudeville house in 1922 as part of the Orpheum circuit and was originally called the Hillstreet Theatre.  It became the RKO Theatre in 1929 and was eventually renamed the RKO Hillstreet.  No doubt many Disney cartoons graced its screen as RKO was the Disney Studio's distributor from 1937 to 1956.  The theatre was demolished in 1965 and replaced with a parking garage.

The image is part of the USC Digital Archive and credited to the Dick Whittington Studio.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vintage Snapshot! - Cinderella and Her Castle

Cinderella Castle serves as an appropriate backdrop for its namesake princess in this photograph from 1981.  Cinderella rides within her coach as it crosses the bridge that leads into Liberty Square.  She and her coachmen were part of the Tencenial Parade that celebrated Walt Disney World's 10th anniversary throughout 1981 and 1982.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What a Character! - Bucky Beaver

His flame burned bright for a number of years, but then quickly faded.  An undisputed icon of late 1950s popular culture, Bucky Beaver starred in television commercials for Ipana toothpaste, and for necessary relevance here, has quite a noteworthy Disney pedigree.

Similar to 7-Up spokesbird Fresh Up Freddie, Bucky was created by the largely forgotten Disney Studios commercials production unit that was active throughout the 1950s.  Disney artist Tom Oreb has been credited with the design of the character.  Oreb has emerged in recent years as one of the leading talents behind the stylized "cartoon modern" look that was prevalent during much of the 1950s and 1960s.  While his resume includes films such as Sleeping, Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom, he worked extensively in the commercials unit, spending much of his time restyling many of Disney's own characters into more abstract designs, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket.  Bucky Beaver is an excellent example of that particular approach and easily one of the better designs born out of Disney's commercial efforts.

Bucky's trademark "Brusha, brusha, brusha" jingle was written and composed by adult Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd, who also provided Bucky's voice, albeit in an altered, sped-up form.  Bucky's arch-nemesis was DK Germ, a Snidely Whiplash type villain who would always turn tail at the sight of a tube of Ipana, which Bucky was always quick to brandish.  Each commercial would have Bucky playing a different role--train engineer, circus star, white knight, and my personal favorite, Bucky Beaver-Space Guard.  That commercial in particular showcases the era's infatuation with space age-themed marketing.

Though largely unknown today, Ipana toothpaste was probably the most popular brand of toothpaste in United States from from the 1920s through the mid-1960s.  Its success began to wane in the 1970s when its parent company, Bristol-Meyers began to focus more on pharmaceuticals.  Bucky quickly faded from public memory as well.  The appearance of a Bucky Beaver Ipana commercial in the 1978 film Grease seems to be the character's only substantial claim to fame to subsequent generations.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Four Color Friday: Dalmatian Animation

Here's a quick crash course on animation, courtesy of Dell Four Color Comics #1183 which featured an adaptation of 101 Dalmatians.  This special feature appeared on the inside back cover of that comic book and was in many ways a storyboard of the making of the film.  The xerography process, pioneered on 101 Dalmatians, was even mentioned.  Al Hubbard provided the art for the one one-page feature; the text is uncredited.

The issue included the 32-page adaptation of the movie drawn by Hubbard.  The inside front cover showcased black and white stills from the film and a summary of the story.  The back cover featured Dalmatian Diary, a history of the breed as told by Pongo and also illustrated by Hubbard.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Windows to the Past: "Walt Disney Will Love This!"

This week we open another Window to the Past that provides an additional view of the north African war theater during World War II, a location we visited in similar fashion last week.  In this photograph, dating from April 1943, the flight crew of a B-25 put the finishing touches on their Pluto-inspired insignia.

The photo's caption provided the following details:
"Walt Disney will love this!"  "Pluto gets a break as Lt. John J. Privara of Lions Ill. and Capt. James T. Mckee of Picayune, Miss., Pilot of the North American B-25 along with Lt. Russel E. Wise of Arlington, Mass. co-pilot and William L. Lewis, of Mexico, Missouri admire their new insignia.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Consider the Source: Folly, Buzz and Fifteen Puppies

The novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith was first published in 1956.  Walt Disney secured the film rights to the book in June, 1957.  The completed film was released on January 25, 1961.  It was an exceptionally fast journey from author creation to screen realization, and hence, despite the original novel emerging over time as an unsung classic of children's literature, the film 101 Dalmatians has always dramatically overshadowed its own source material.

When Dodie Smith first set to write The Hundred and One Dalmatians in the mid-1950s, she was already recognized as an accomplished playwright, screenwriter and novelist.  The inspiration for the story came from her own love of dalmatians.  With her husband Alec Beesley, she had owned a dalmatian named Pongo, who passed away in 1940.  Shortly after Pongo's death, the couple acquired two new dalmatians, Folly and Buzz.  In 1943, Folly gave birth to fifteen puppies, one of which appeared to be stillborn.  Alec revived the pup, and those events, combined with a somewhat insensitive comment from a friend ( . . . their skins would make a nice coat) became the basis of the book she would write a decade later.

Upon acquiring the rights to Smith's book, Walt immediately handed the project to studio veteran Bill Peet.  In his autobiography, Peet related:
"Walt wanted me to plan the whole thing: write a detailed screenplay, do all the storyboards,and record voices for all the characters . . . I scrawled my manuscript for Dalmatians on large yellow tablets and worked at it with a frenzy every day and on through the weekends.  I left out some parts of Dodie Smith's book and enlarged on others without losing the strange twists and turns in the wildly suspenseful story."
There are quite a few name changes from book to film.  The Dearlys in the book (no first names are ever provided) become Roger and Anita in the movie.  The couple's servants, Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler, are combined into one character for the film.  In the book, the name of Pongo's wife is Missis; Perdita is in fact a wholly different character.  She is a stray who is found by Mrs. Dearly and brought home to act as a wet nurse for some of the puppies.  The elimination of the book's Perdita character was perhaps the only major disappoint Smith expressed with Peet's adaptation.  Perdita and her backstory were the basis of a clever plot twist that Smith revealed in the final chapter of the book.

Peet stayed generally true to Smith's story but did eliminate a number of book's sequences and created an entirely different final confrontation between the dogs and the villainous Cruella de Vil. The journey of Pongo and Missis across country to Hell Hall is significantly shortened, and a dramatic scene in which Cruella stands atop her car and applauds a burning building is eliminated completely.  There is no climactic car chase in the book.  Instead, Pongo and the entire brood are provided entry into the de Vil home by Cruella's white Persian cat, at which point they set about destroying Cruella's quite large and extensive collection of furs:
There was not enough space in one room to finish the whole job, so the pups spread themselves throughout the house.  After that, the fur flew like a vengeance--in every direction.  Chinchilla, Sable, Mink and Beaver, Nutria, Fox, Kolinsky and many humbler skins--from kitchen to attic the house was filled with a fog of fur.  And the white cat did not forget the ermine sheets.  She did good work on those herself, moving so fast that it was hard to see which was clawed white ermine and which was clawing white cat.
Cruella arrives home shortly thereafter with Mr. de Vil (also eliminated from the film; "he was a small, worried-looking man who didn't seem to be anything besides a furrier"), at which point Pongo and Missis steal her elaborate mink cape. After entering the house, " . . . Cruella could be heard shrieking with rage."  It is subsequently learned that the destruction of the furs impacted the de Vils financially and they were forced to flee England to escape their debts.

Other interesting variations from the book:
  • Mr. Dearly is not a songwriter, but an accountant.  "He had done the government a great service (something to do with getting rid of the national debt) and, as a reward, had been let off his income tax for life."
  • The Dearlys purchase Hell Hall and turn it into their "dalmatian plantation," although Smith never used that particular play on words.
  • Smith created the television show What's My Crime, but the program Thunderbolt was exclusive to the film.
  • The puppy that is resuscitated by Mr. Dearly, called Cadpig, is never identified by name in the film.
Smith enthusiastically endorsed the film, although she in good nature chided Walt about how small her name appeared in the opening credits.  She wrote a sequel to the book that was published in 1967.  The Starlight Barking was distinctly different from its predecessor with a storyline that involved an extraterrestrial character, Sirius, Lord of the Dog Star, attempting to evacuate all dogs from the planet in order to save them from the threat of nuclear war.

Walt Disney had also secured the rights to Smith's earlier adult novel, I Capture the Castle.  He had hoped to cast Haley Mills in the starring role, but the proposed film was ultimately never made.

Illustrations from The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Nausicaa: A Different Kind of Blu

Over the past decade or so, Hayao Miyazaki has been linked closely with the Walt Disney Company, primarily due to his films being distributed in the United States by Walt Disney Home Entertainment and the unabashed cheerleading of Pixar chief John Lasseter.  I have been generally slow in embracing Miyazaki, more out of laziness than lack of enthusiasm.  Thus, when given the opportunity to review the new Blu-Ray release of one the director's earliest efforts, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I decided it was time to extend my animation education into areas heretofore largely unexplored.

Though released under the Studio Ghibli brand, Nausicaa actually preceded the creation of that now famous Japanese animation powerhouse.   Shortly after the film's release in 1984, Miyazaki teamed with fellow director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suziki to form Studio Ghibli.  The studio released Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky in 1986 and Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in 1988.  I personally rate Grave of the Fireflies as one of the very best animated films ever made, Japanese, American or otherwise.

Nausicaa was Miyazaki's second directing effort, following The Castle of Cagliostro, released in 1979.  It has a somewhat controversial English language pedigree; it was initially released to American audiences as Warriors of the Wind in a heavily edited English-dubbed version that severely compromised Miyazaki's original vision for the film.  It led to Studio Ghibli later insisting on a "no edits" edict for foreign releases of their films.  Buena Vista released a restored edition of the film on DVD in 2005, which included a new and much more faithful English language track, and also the original Japanese language version with subtitles.  This week's release upgrades that edition to a high definition Blu-Ray format.

Although Miyazaki is generally held in high regard, his work is not quite as universally acclaimed as one might assume from Lasseter's glowing accolades.  Even superficial research will produce a wide range of varying opinions, especially among animation scholars such as Michael Barrier, Michael Sporn and Amid Amidi.  In a similar vein, my reaction to Nausicaa proved more reserved than I expected.  It was an interesting film but quite underwhelming in visual dynamic and technique.  I found much of the animation to be static and lacking energy; backgrounds were often sparse and minimal and character animation was generic at best.  I simply could not find the level of quality that I have heard others enthusiastically describe.  Miyazaki has since made films that I sincerely admire for all the things I found lacking here.  It's not a bad film and does indeed have many merits, but it is by no means a masterpiece.

Also released this week from Studio Ghibli was Tales from Earthsea, directed by Goro Miyazaki, who is the son of Hayao.  Curiously, it was only released in standard DVD format.  The film adapts material from author Ursula K. Le Guin's classic fantasy series and was released in Japan in 2006.  Disney did a limited theatrical release of the film last summer.  Le Guin fans will find the movie a distinct departure in story from the first four Earthsea books it purportedly adapts.  Le Guin herself was especially disappointed in the film in that regard.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Studio Geo: The Golden Oak Ranch

Walt Disney began his career as a filmmaker in January of 1920 when he took a job making animated advertisements for the Kansas City Film Ad Company. It was the beginning of a journey that would take a struggling young artist and entrepreneur and eventually mold him into one of the most celebrated icons of 20th century popular culture. The historical map of that journey is an extraordinary one.

Welcome to Studio Geo. These are the places where Walt Disney created his moving pictures:

The Golden Oak Ranch
Over the years, millions upon millions of movie and television viewers have looked upon and admired the beautiful outdoor landscapes and rustic scenery of the Golden Oak Ranch. It is a significant, though almost wholly unrecognized facet of Disney film history.

Movie ranches primarily emerged during the waning years of the silent film era and were widely used throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The popularity of western movies in particular, sent Hollywood producers looking for optimal outdoor shooting locations that were still within a convenient distance from Hollywood. If a film crew could remain within a thirty mile radius of their home studio, they did not have to pay their union workers an out-of-town stipend. Popular locations for the movie ranches included the Santa Monica Mountains, the Canyon Country of Los Angeles and the Simi Hills in Ventura County.

Walt Disney first made use of such a location in 1955 when he leased the 315-acre Golden Oak Ranch for the filming of The Adventures of Spin and Marty. Located in the Santa Clarita area approximately 25 miles north of Disney's Burbank studio, the ranch had earned a filmmaking pedigree more than two decades prior to its playing the role of the Triple R Ranch in the popular Mickey Mouse Club serial. Trem Carr, one of the founders of Monogram Studios, leased the same land for his own self-named studio in 1931, and had his set designer Ernie Hickson build a full scale western town on the property. When the lease ran out in 1936, Hickson purchased land two miles to the west and moved his sets and buildings to the new location. That facility became especially well known when singing cowboy Gene Autry purchased it shortly after Hickson's death in 1952 and turned it into his own Melody Ranch.

Following the exodus of Carr and Hickman, the Golden Oak property reverted to a traditional cattle ranch which was still occasionally used by Hollywood filmmakers. In 1959, Walt decided to purchase the property, seeing it as a valuable asset for his ever increasing slate of live-action productions. Bringing his theme park expertise to bear, he enlisted Disneyland master planner Marvin Davis to upgrade the property. Davis installed two man-made lakes (one of which could double as a river, complete with water pumps to simulate currents), a waterfall and an extensive irrigation system to keep the greenery as green as possible. In subsequent years, additional land surrounding the property was purchased, increasing the ranch to its present-day size of close to 700 acres.

Among the notable early Disney live-action films to use the Golden Oak Ranch: Old Yeller, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus, The Shaggy Dog, The Parent Trap and Follow Me, Boys! The ranch has hosted countless other Hollywood productions, ranging from classic television programs such as Bonanza, The Virginian and Lassie, to contemporary shows such as Bones, Boston Legal and My Name is Earl.

The name of the ranch refers to the discovery of gold on the property, some seven years prior to the famed California gold rush of 1849. An oak tree close to where rancher Francisco Lopez dug up small gold flakes and nuggets in 1842 still purportedly remains on the ranch and is commemorated with a small plaque.

The Golden Oak Ranch continues to serve both the Walt Disney Company and entire film industry and remains one of the few surviving southern California movie ranches.  It has recently added a residential neighborhood set featuring thirteen different houses, each with their own unique architectural style.  Work is proceeding on an urban business district set that will include 43 different storefronts and will be complete sometime in 2011.

The Disney corporate web site currently features concept art of a new entrance to the ranch where it is identified as Disney-ABC Studios at the Ranch.  According to the site: "Walt Disney personally selected Golden Oak Ranch as the location for segments of his iconic television show, The Mickey Mouse Club. Now, 50 years later, the Disney-ABC Studios at The Ranch project will transform a small portion of Golden Oak Ranch into a state-of-the-art soundstage and production complex."  The proposed project would develop 56 of the ranch's 890 acres and include up to twelve soundstages, a warehouse, writers/producers bungalows and a commissary.

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Saturday at the Archives: "Grab Your Shootin' Iron Son, We're Goin' Huntin'!"
"Grab Your Shootin' Iron Son, We're Goin' Huntin'!"
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published January 6, 2009

Editor's Note: The release of Bambi on Blu-Ray this week reminded me of one of the best gags ever presented in a Disney cartoon.  The phrase "man is in the forest" takes on an entirely new meaning in the 1955 cartoon No Hunting.
 One of the great joys of the Disney Treasures DVD The Chronological Donald Volume Four was to see the 1955 cartoon No Hunting restored to its original unedited, widescreen Cinemascope presentation.

No Hunting clearly stands out as one of director Jack Hannah’s best efforts over the course of his tenure with Donald Duck. It is more akin to Tex Avery’s numerous MGM parodies or Goofy’s own “How To” series, than it is to traditional Donald Duck cartoons. Donald and his typical antics are kept to a minimum, in favor of a broader, satirical take on the outdoor sporting life that was especially romanticized during the post-war years.

Hannah's approach to lampooning that era's sportsmen was certainly an interesting creative choice. The director and his crew set their very over-the-top satire in a tableau of World War I and II-inspired battlefields and elements. Hunters hunker in trenches and hunter-paratroopers descend down from the sky. Beachhead landings and devastated landscapes feature prominently. The comedy is broad and often hilarious, despite the use of very harsh wartime imagery as its primary satirical device.

The broad, but still somewhat sharp social satire is combined with well-crafted slapstick in the form of the spirit of Donald's Grandpappy. He is certainly at the heart of the short's humor and foreshadowed future eccentric Donald Duck relatives such as Ludwig Von Drake and Moby Duck.

Hannah discussed No Hunting with Jim Korkis, in an interview reprinted in Volume One of Didier Ghez’s series of books Walt’s People. Here’s an excerpt where Jack relates the inspiration for the short:

I used to go hunting with my dad when I was a kid and this short was a great takeoff on these hunters and fishermen. They really are this way. They are as dangerous to themselves as to the game they’re hunting. I’ve heard there are more hunters shot on opening day than deer. It shows how timeless these shorts are because it still spoofs hunters and fishermen. They’re still that way.

My students especially enjoyed the joke where all the trash cans are coming down the river and I stuck in Bambi’s mother who says, “Man is in the forest. Let’s dig out.” There was sort of a subtle feeling in the short that Donald wasn’t himself which is why he doesn’t talk. Hunting didn’t mean a thing to him but it was the spirit of his grandfather that came out of the painting off the wall that got into him and now made a monster of him. He was possessed. That’s why he didn’t speak. Donald just wasn’t himself. I never thought of that later as being one of my better shorts but after seeing it recently, I’ve changed my opinion.

Beyond his directing chores, Jack made another interesting contribution to No Hunting:

Talking about this particular short, I stuck my voice in several times. Remember where the spirit of the Duck had antlers on and a moose was down in a hole with him and the moose says, “Hmmm, you’re a cute one”? That’s my voice! The animator I was working with on that sequence, John Sibley, got a big kick out of the way I said it so I finally said, “Hell, I’ll record it.” And I did.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Vintage Snapshot! - All Aboard in Frontierland

The original Frontierland train station in Walt Disney World was a somewhat modest and unassuming structure when now compared to its contemporary counterpart.  This Vintage Snapshot dates back to 1975, years before the landscape of Frontierland, and the station itself, was dramatically re-imagineered to accommodate an E-Ticket attraction of epic size and proportions: Splash Mountain.  Also notable are the vintage 1970s-era blue strollers parked in the foreground.  Classic ankle killers of the highest order!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Windows to the Past: Donald Duck and the Seasweep

The Kingdom Hearts video game was not the first time Donald Duck was transformed into a mer-creature.  Witness this long-classified photograph taken during World War II at an undisclosed location somewhere in north Africa.  Emblazoned on the aircraft is a fish-tailed Donald, replete with a trident and a stern expression.  The photo's caption reads:
AN ADVANCED NORTH AFRICAN AIR BASE--The crew of "Seasweep" North American B-25 Mitchell bomber of, Major General James H. Doolittle's Bomber Command, have completed their 50th mission. Left to right are: Lt. Wm. J. Hartman, Catskill, N.Y., navigator; Lt. James T. Holey, Tuskaloosa, Alabama, pilot; Lt. Wm. M. Butterfield, Moscow, Idaho, co-pilot; S/Sgt. Alvin L. Langford, Waco, Texas, gunner; T/Sgt. John D. Glass, Biquiu, New Mexico, radio-gunner, and Lt. Marion S. Vestal, Grand Rapids, Michigan, bombardier.
The photograph was dated November 29, 1943.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Disney's Hollywood: Gower Gulch and the Drugstore Cowboy

It's always fun to find trace evidence of bygone popular culture lingering in the background of a classic Disney cartoon.  Such evidence is on display in the 1943 Goofy short Victory Vehicles, and it serves to remind us of a long-faded but still quite memorable Hollywood archetype: the drugstore cowboy.

In Victory Vehicles, Goofy briefly played the part of a drugstore cowboy, aptly demonstrating lasso-powered mobility as a form of alternate transportation.  The narrator even refers to him as a "Hollywood drugstore cowboy."  So, just what exactly is a "drugstore cowboy," at least in context to the Hollywood of Walt Disney's time?  The answer can be found in that very same scene, if one looks beyond the mugging Goofy to the background behind him.  The Gower Gulch Pharmacy is the clue that unravels the story of this particular piece of silver screen folklore.

Gower Gulch is the nickname for a very specific piece of Hollywood geography: the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street.  This was a location central to a number of well known movie studios, including Columbia, RKO, Paramount and Republic Pictures.  Located at the southeast corner of Gower and Sunset was the Columbia Drug Co., famous for both its soda fountain and newsstand.  Both Columbia and Republic specialized in westerns during this time period, and aspiring actors, many of whom were actual working cowboys, would congregate in and around the drugstore, hoping to be selected by the studio casting agents who would frequent the area.  Many of these hopefuls would come to Gower Gulch fully outfitted in their cowboy clothing and gear, and thus the moniker "drugstore cowboy" was born.

For more information about Gower Gulch, check out today's post on our companion site Boom-Pop!--The History and Mythology of Gower Gulch.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Bambi's Second Screen: Amazing, Engaging and Fun

As each new Blu-Ray upgrade of a Disney animated classic is released, it seems there is less and less to say beyond a cursory evaluation of any new supplemental material not included on previous DVD editions.  Such was the expectation with Bambi, the latest in the Diamond Edition series.  But with this particular release, Disney has thrown a curve ball game-changer, a WOW! inspiring next step in home entertainment that is especially compatible with a film such as Bambi, and classic Disney animation in general.  Disney Second Screen is nothing short of amazing and it is indeed the "groundbreaking experience" that Disney's own publicity material proclaims.

Second Screen is exactly that, an additional interactive platform that provides supplemental content that is synchronized to the actual presentation of the film.  Two such platforms are currently available, either an Apple iPad or a laptop computer.  Second Screen comes to the iPad by way of a free application downloaded via the App Store.  For the Mac or PC, it is a Flash-based interface streamed through Disney's web site.  While the PC version works well, one has to feel that Second Screen was designed very specifically with the iPad in mind; it takes full advantage of the portability of that device and its exceptionally responsive capacitive touch interface.  Navigating it with a mouse or touchpad feels distinctly clunky in comparison.  Another advantage to the iPad version is that, once downloaded, the Second Screen content does not require an Internet connection to operate.

For Bambi, the Second Screen content is primarily a wealth of production artwork, interspersed with archival photos, anecdotal snippets of text and trivia and a few vintage film clips that take you inside the Disney Studio during those early years of production.  The presentation is a near perfect fit for animation.  The interface is easy and intuitive.  Original storyboards can be experienced effortlessly through the iPad's touch/swipe interface and the Flipbook feature is a particular delight.  Dragging the flipbook button back and forth  literally recreates the original test animation, much like a moviola.  A simple toggle lets you compare the original animation to the finished film sequence.  And although the experience is very much tailored to the animation enthusiast, Second Screen does include a number of kid-friendly features and activities that are well integrated, yet easily avoided if so desired.

Second Screen is indeed a major leap forward for supplemental features.  As much as I always value the gallery content Disney includes in the majority of their animated film DVDs, those galleries have always been largely user-unfriendly and typically slow and clumsy when navigating via a remote control.  As noted, the iPad interface is especially fast and seamless.  An added bonus is that the content can be accessed with or without synchronization to the film.

As to the Bambi disc itself, the high definition presentation serves the film well; picture and sound are top drawer and a pleasure to behold.  Beyond the Second Screen feature, there is little new in the way of special features that have not already been included on the previous Platinum Edition.  There is an "enhanced edition" of the Inside Walt's Story Meetings from the prior set, two additional deleted scenes, a rendition of the deleted song "Twitterpated" and the family-friendly Disney's Big Book of Knowledge: Bambi Edition.  Not migrated from the Platinum Edition were Disney Time Capsule: 1942 and a feature on the first DVD restoration process.

As always, a high definition version of a Disney animated classic is a welcome addition to a home entertainment library.  The Disney Second Screen proves to be very enticing and delicious icing on the cake.  If you are an iPad owner, it is an especially fortuitous and engaging experience.