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Live-Action Walt on DVD: A Buyer's Guide

As part of the research for my biography of Walt Disney, I've recently seen all of the live-action features that Walt himself produced, starting with Treasure Island in 1950 and ending with The Happiest Millionaire in 1967. I've also seen almost all of his live-action shorts—well over a hundred films in all. I'm now working my way through as many of the Disney TV shows as I can find.

The natural question to ask about Walt Disney's live-action films is, "Why aren't they better?" (or perhaps, if you've just sat through a disaster like Bon Voyage, "Why are they so bad?). Actually, a few of them—including some obscure titles—are very good. Others are fully as watchable as almost anything else from the fifties and early sixties, a period notorious for its many lame Hollywood movies.

I've listed a few of the choicer items below. Although I've been watching films in a great variety of formats—VHS, DVD, and laserdisc, as well as 35mm and 16mm at the Library of Congress—I've limited myself to those Disney films that have been reissued on DVD. I've also excluded those live-action films that are significant mainly for the animation that they contain, like The Reluctant Dragon and Song of the South.

The Disney home video people began reissuing Walt's live-action productions with a flourish in 2002, launching a Vault Disney series of two-disc sets with remastered films and plentiful extras, some of them of genuine interest. Unfortunately, that series seems to have flopped; there have been no more Vault Disney DVDs since the initial four, although a few subsequent releases have included extras that were probably intended for a Vault Disney presentation.

The Disney company's standard procedure now is to dump its older live-action films, like those that Walt produced, onto the market in a bare-bones format, with few or no extras, no remastering, and, typically, disregard for the original aspect ratio. This is a great pity, because some potential extras are ready at hand, and adding them to the DVDs could not have added significantly to the cost.

Be that as it may, here is my choice for the cream of the crop of Walt's live-action DVDs, the ones that have some of the same "Disney" in them as the best of the animated features. And as to why more of them don't—well, you'll have to read my book.

Treasure Island DVDTreasure Island (1950): This was Walt Disney's first wholly live-action feature, the first of four such features that he made in Britain in the late forties and early fifties to use up earnings that he couldn't take out of the country. It's the only one of the four available on DVD, and it's probably the best. It's an atmospheric retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's story, with a terrific cast made up mostly of great British character actors (one of whom, Finlay Currie, appeared in many of the Disney movies to come). Bobby Driscoll is too American and, it must be said, too pretty for his role as Jim Hawkins, but that's not his fault—he was a very good child actor, and his casting, while unfortunate, does no real damage to the film. Robert Newton, on the other hand, is wonderful as Long John Silver, his face constantly in motion as if he were some wily animal, ever on the alert. The director, Byron Haskin (an American), complained that Newton was better in rehearsal, and that he throttled back during the actual filming. If so, Newton knew what he was doing; he never quite goes over the top. This is one of the most violent Disney films, its violence neither glossed over nor dwelled upon, but simply taken in stride. The violence that originates in Ralph Truman's George Merry seems rooted in psychosis—surely a valid way to portray that character, and one that brings to the film a surprising chill when Merry is on-screen.

20,000 Leagues DVD20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954): When Walt began making live-action features in the United States, he did so with a vengeance, hiring big-name stars and spending millions of dollars on this conspicuously first-class production. He wanted to establish himself firmly as a live-action producer, and he did, but there are a million things wrong with this movie. The script is morally confused, Kirk Douglas is a disaster—a mugging, prancing human cartoon character—Paul Lukas is a wet blanket, Peter Lorre is fun but outrageously miscast, the famous squid fight looks as hopelessly phony as almost everything of that kind looked in pre-CGI days, and on and on. But James Mason is totally convincing as Captain Nemo, Harper Goff's art direction is sensationally good, and the story is all but indestructible. Moreover, this two-DVD set—a Vault Disney issue in all but name—is full of marvelous "extras," including a feature-length "making of" documentary. There's nothing missing except "Operation Undersea," the famous Disneyland TV show on the making of 20,000 Leagues; it was broadcast just before the film's release in December 1954, and it was part of the 20,000 Leagues laserdisc set released in the nineties. That's just one more reason that some of us cling to our laserdisc collections, anxiously nursing our aging laserdisc players as if they were vintage sports cars.

Davy Crockett DVDDavy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955): Of the many actors who became identified with the Disney studio's live-action films, there was probably only one, Fess Parker, who had the potential to become a major movie star. He was phenomenally popular in the mid-fifties, thanks to the three Davy Crockett shows seen on the Disneyland show in 1954 and 1955. Walt Disney took advantage of that popularity by paring down the three TV episodes and combining them in this feature-length theatrical release, which came out in June 1955. Scrapping the footage that opens the first TV show, the film jumps ahead to begin with Davy "grinnin' down a b'ar," and anyone who isn't won over by Parker after seeing him in this hilarious business is simply immune to movie-star charisma. It remains a mystery why Walt so thoroughly—and presumably unconsciously—sabotaged Parker's career in the disappointing films that followed; maybe his brush with Kirk Douglas in 1954, and Douglas's subsequent lawsuit, left him with a jaundiced view of he-man American movie stars. But it's our loss that Parker had so few opportunities in subsequent years to play roles that showed him to such good advantage. (The second Crockett feature film, on the same DVD, is much inferior to the first.)

Darby O'Gill DVDDarby O'Gill and the Little People (1959): This gentle, sweet-tempered Irish fantasy suffers greatly from the traffic-cop direction of Robert Stevenson, the most overused and overpraised of Disney's live-action directors. It's simply too quaint and cozy, without a sense of supernatural power and danger; the leprechauns should be menacing as well as charming. But, even so, two of its assets make the DVD irresistible to me. For one thing, the special effects involving the leprechauns are executed wonderfully well, with only two conspicuously false scenes. There is in Darby little or no visible evidence of the process work that dominates a sixties clunker like The Gnome-mobile and makes it such a trial to watch. Darby relies instead on sly camera work that is a delight to the mind and eye. The DVD also benefits from extras—including an explanation of how the illusion of the leprechauns' tiny size was achieved—that were almost certainly intended for a never-realized Vault Disney release. Another extra: the Disneyland show that promoted the film, with a tongue-in-cheek story in which Walt Disney himself plays the leading role. Walt was always confident and relaxed in front of the camera, but he was no actor, and his performance in this show is endearingly awkward.

Third Man DVDThird Man on the Mountain (1959): This is my favorite live-action Disney film, an absorbing story in which there are no real villains, only good people who bump against one another as they lead their lives and try to do what's best. It is, in other words, the Disney film that most resembles real life, even though the story—set in a nineteenth-century Swiss village, and dealing with a boy's desire to follow in his dead father's footsteps and become a guide for Alpine climbers—is far removed from contemporary concerns. This is one of four Disney features directed by the Englishman Ken Annakin, and in all four there's evident a skill with actors that is lacking in most other Disney live-action films. In Annakin's films—only two of them are on DVD, so far—the people on the screen not only are believable as their characters, but they also seem to be responding to one another's presence in a way that screen actors seldom do. I've seen Third Man on the Mountain three times in the last year. I've become more aware of the film's mechanics—the mountain-climbing sequences, some of them quite hair-raising, are an artful assemblage of scenes in the Alps with the actors, long shots with skilled climbers dressed as the actors, and studio work with backgrounds painted by the superb Peter Ellenshaw. But I never find the story less than absorbing, and my admiration for the script (by Eleanore Griffin, her only Disney credit) has grown. James MacArthur, Michael Rennie, Janet Munro, and Lawrence Naismith are the principal actors, and they're all wonderful, as are almost all the rest of the cast. (Herbert Lom is too sour, but not enough to spoil the party.) Sadly, this modest masterpiece has been given only a bare-bones release, without any extras to speak of. This was a missed opportunity, since a Disneyland show was devoted to Third Man's filming. I haven't yet seen the DVD, but it apparently uses the same video master that was used for my laserdisc—which is OK, although it hardly does justice to the beautiful scenery around the Swiss village of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, where much of Third Man on the Mountain was shot.

Pollyanna DVDPollyanna (1960): There are two reasons to buy this two-disc Vault Disney set. One is the thirteen-year-old Hayley Mills, who is truly astonishing—a kind of monster, as her father John Mills called her. The illusion of spontaneity in her performance is complete, and it's vital, because any sense of calculation, whether originating with the performer or imposed by the director, would be deadly. Instead, Pollyanna's goodness (which is most emphatically not the same as sweetness) seems natural and unforced, and is thus wholly winning. Pollyanna was directed by the late David Swift, a former Disney assistant animator, and he and Hayley Mills clearly liked and trusted each other. That comes through in their audio commentary, which they recorded together; they sound very pleased to be together again, and their memories of working on the film are often illuminating, not least about Walt Disney's own role. Such extras are the second reason to buy the set. The film itself is, unfortunately, at least twenty minutes too long, and it suffers from structural problems that Swift identified and Walt refused to correct. But it's by no means the sticky concoction that the title might suggest.

Swiss Family DVDSwiss Family Robinson (1960): This was the last of Ken Annakin's four films for Disney. He might have directed more, but he had the misfortune to see Walt's wife, Lillian, fall on her face outside his London home, and Walt apparently could not forgive him for having witnessed that embarrassment. Be that as it may, Swiss Family enjoys some of the same virtues as Third Man on the Mountain. Despite the variety of accents and acting styles, it's possible to believe that the five principal characters are really members of a family, because of the way they respond to one another—there is connubial tenderness between John Mills and Dorothy McGuire, as the parents, and the rivalry between James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk, as the two older sons, is true sibling rivalry, strong but never overplayed. Even Kevin Corcoran's character, the youngest son, is less objectionable than is usually the case with Corcoran characters. He seems not just hyperactive and shrill, his usual state, but also crazy about animals—there's a focus for his feverish activity. The script by Lowell Hawley is very well put together (even though it contains an occasional booby trap that Annakin escapes). The menace of the pirates never slips too far into the background, even as the film luxuriates in the building of the family's tree house and in their idyllic life on the island. Swiss Family Robinson is another of the Vault Disney sets, and so there are lots of extras, some of them very much worthwhile, like Ken Annakin's audio commentary. He says this about Walt Disney: "In the days of Walt, you were making a picture for what the content was, and what the story line was, and what the characters should do. He knew what he wanted, and he would do anything to help you to get it. He would be conscious of money … but one way or another, it was always balanced, and therefore the pictures were not controlled by accountants and lawyers, they were controlled by people who wanted to make real entertainment." It seems significant, though, that Annakin's references to Walt's wishes concern the splashier and more obvious aspects of the film—its abundance of animals, the pirates' attack, and so on, rather than the character relationships. It was through the attention he paid to those relationships that Annakin transformed what could have been a noisy children's entertainment into something considerably richer and more interesting.

Mary Poppins DVDAnd after 1960, all is darkness—unless that is, you count the largely live-action Mary Poppins as a triumph for the light. I don't; the last four times I've seen it (out of total of at least six), I've been dismayed by its creaky robots, its stupefying length, its conspicuous process work, its dull and obvious animation. "Elephantine" is the word that always comes to mind. This is not a popular opinion, of course; Walt regarded Mary Poppins as his greatest triumph, and most Disneyphiles do the same.

Maybe Walt and all those Disney freaks are right, and I'm wrong. You can test our opinions by viewing the sumptuous new fortieth-anniversary DVD set of the film. I've bought it, and I've watched Mary Poppins twice, with a certain amount of enjoyment. This is a film that is impossible to actively dislike, however strong one's reservations about it, because it's so obvious that most of the people involved had a good time making it (that comes through clearly not just in the actors' performances but in their audio commentary and the extras for the new set). But it's to Third Man on the Mountain that I'll return when it's real pleasure that I'm seeking from a Disney live-action film.

[Posted December 7, 2004; corrected December 12, 2004, and June 14, 2014; updated February 27, 2005]