March to Disney: The Advances of Peter Pan

Introduction

Last year to coincide with a trip to Walt Disney World in March, I decided to have a month-long focus on Disney fare. Their vaults are vast and varied enough such that this is a theme that could recur annually. Below you will find links to the inaugural posts written for the theme.

Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan (1953, Disney)

Walt Disney’s production of Peter Pan is one that seems like its oft overlooked. That is why I a glad that it has recently come back up in the Disney rotation both with a Blu-ray release and also with a new Disney World attraction. Of course, the story is one that is universally known and beloved, but what can be lost with such a ubiquitous narrative is the distinguishing characteristics of each individual rendition.

Disney, from 1938 to its eventual 1953 release, dedicated himself to bringing this story to the silver screen anew in a version unlike anything anyone had yet seen. It’s ingenious but sometimes it takes a genius to think of something so ingenious: even in the 1950s the only way to bring forth a revolutionary interpretation of this story was to animate it.

With the conventions of stagecraft being stripped like actors flying on wires, an actor in a dog suit, a light as Tinkerbell and a girl playing Peter; the easiest way to changes these things, things that occurred on screen in the silent era, was to draw it.

The recycled documentary on the Blu-ray (it was on the DVD release as well) does well to highlight that the animators in this film had the brand new challenge of attempting to depict weightlessness of the human form. For to be able to fly, a person had to also be able to float.

Disney to this point, and past it in its history, used live models regardless, but never had their role been as pivotal as it was here for the animators through them were given guidance, and a frame of reference without the constraint of cameras rolling and a production around them, as to how to create said effect.

Peter Pan (1953, Disney)

The actors ability to pantomime for the animators was just one thing that had to be taken into consideration. Casting in this day and age at Disney was a multi-faceted process. Typically, animators were usually dealing with specific characters so they too had to “cast” so to speak. Yet, there was also the voice aspect to consider. Here there were a few inspired choices made.

First, there was Hans Conreid, who was most notably a radio actor, in the tandem roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. There is a duality to his voice and so much emotion that he can emit through it that makes it one of the more indelible performances in the Disney canon. It is also rightly noted that Bobby Driscoll, although Disney’s first contract player and roundabout the right age for the part, was still the proper choice. Sure, it was the easy choice but it was the correct one. It was his Disney swan song, and perhaps his most lasting turn.

Also interesting to note here, in hindsight, that some of the concept art was darker than what Walt eventually approved for use in the film. Especially considering that it seems that P.J. Hogan’s sensibility in his ’03 live action version is closer to those original concepts. While it would’ve been great to see those things drawn by the talented hands at Disney un-softened. I look at it more as a calculated decision by Walt rather than softening for softening’s sake.

There is still in this story the threat of death and of growing up being flaunted in the face of children. Hook’s menace is quite real and present, thanks in large part to Conreid. Therefore, the visuals needn’t be as harsh as initially designed to get the message home. The emotions desired will still be elicited. Also, at a young age kids don’t necessarily consider stylistic choices. The danger, the emotions in general, are generated by the characters how they act and interact rather than the atmosphere.

What Walt Disney’s Peter Pan is most definitely Disney’s version of the narrative but also one that is progressive in terms of altering, and depending on your opinion, correcting prior conventions of this particular narrative. Like many things in the canon there are the iconic moments, namely Tinkerbell who became part of the Walt Disney Pictures logo. And she should be, since the first cinematic image of the character was his creation. However, in that logo she blends with Cinderella’s castle and is removed from her original context. The context being this film, which in spite of its changes and quirks is one of the true Disney masterpieces. A labor of love unquestionably re-branded, but also indebted to its source, and one that should live in the consciousness of children and children-at-heart for generations to come.

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March to Disney: Trips to Treasure Island

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

When one looks at a studio and all the films they’ve made in a given subgenre, it could be easy to forget what the first incarnation of a particular type of character is. As I revisited Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island I realized that this was the Studios first treatment of pirate lore in a feature film, seeing as how it was the first entirely live-action film Disney made.

In fact, once I got the pirate notion in my head I watched with an eye for that and I found that many of the men that Long John Silver recruited, as cast in this film, seemed to be models for the Pirates of the Caribbean animatronics that would follow soon thereafter.

Disney, as it was widely reported, had been seeking to enter the live-action film world. The desire was, in part, to produce cheaper films that were easier to turn a profit on. Aside from being a first it’s interesting to note that, based on what the average production timeline on an animated feature, Peter Pan was likely already in the works. So Disney’s hand at working with a seafaring tale and representing pirates was being tested.

Another interesting correlation between those two projects is the involvement of Bobby Driscoll. Driscoll was literally the first actor to be a contract player for Disney. In fact, his loan to RKO, which earned him an the Juvenile Award at the Oscars for The Window, was thanked in the credits of that film. He voiced the prior incarnation of Goofy’s son, Junior, and also appeared in So Dear to My Heart and Song of the South. After working on Treasure Island he served not only as voice actor but also as the model for Peter Pan, which proved to be his last involvement with Disney and one of his final roles in film. The end of Driscoll’s career and later on life are progressively sadder stories. You can easily find those on the IMDb if your day is going too well and you need a depressing interlude. However, the fact remains that in participating in some of Disney’s classics and being the pioneer of actors signing with Disney, Driscoll and his films serve as milestones. In the studio era if you had no contract players you had no chance, he was the linchpin to the early parts of that plan, and certainly this film.

The film preserves Hawkins’ perspective and tells itself through his eyes such that some things are learned after the fact through dialogue. The difficulties this film faces are due to some slight pacing issues, some over-the-top performances and a few overly-simple characters, but it is and enjoyable version of the tale.

Another interesting historic note is that The Muppets, after Jim Henson Productions were acquired by Disney, did their own Treasure Island, which I just recently saw as well. It’s true to form for the Muppets down to the musical treatment, the involvement of Tim Curry and the casting choice among their stable of characters.

Disney has also put a sci-fi twist to the tale via the animation in Treasure Planet, which I need to see and is currently streaming on Netflix (US). However, currently the most well known Disney pirate property is the one one based on the ride that was, in part, inspired by this tale, The Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ve seen all those films and they go up and down quality-wise.

So here you have another Disney table-setter in more ways than one that is worth checking out for cinematic purposes as well such as the production design and cinematography.

Favorite Older Films First Seen in 2012, Part 2

This is an idea I first saw on @bobfreelander‘s blog. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Wait Until Dark (1967, Warner Bros.)

Part of what I really like about 31 Days of Oscar is that despite how high up the you-shoulda-seen-this-by-now ladder a film is the slate typically makes it quite easy to catch up on many of those titles. I always figured that the closing half of this film must be great, but what good is that without an effective build-up? Not much, but this film has both.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road (1933, Warner Bros.)

Yes, I learned it an always vaguely knew what Pre-Code was, but this year was the first time I really studied up on it and started to watch it more. This film, in part, was the catalyst. What really strikes you is how this film epitomizes the working class, stoic tackling of Depression themes head on that was a Warner signature of the era.

The Window (1949)

The Window (1949, RKO)

If I wanted to try and completely drive myself insane and place these films in order, this would likely come out atop the fray. This is a film based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, the same man who gave us Rear Window, and is essentially that tale crossed with “The Boy who Cried Wolf.” It’s short and as suspenseful as you could possibly stand, with real danger and a tremendous performance by Bobby Driscoll that earned him the Juvenile Award from the Academy.

Mrs. Parkington (1944)

Mrs. Parkington (1944, MGM)

This is a another 31 Days of Oscar selection that allowed me to redeem missing one of Greer Garson’s nominations as Best Actress. A few years back TCM aired each of her five successive nominations in order and I should’ve seen the whole block. This is a duplicitous family portrait that spans lifetimes and does so very entertainingly.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque Red Death (1964, AIP)

In my previous post I discussed the dichotomy between Roger Corman and Charles Band. Where Corman sets himself apart is in the careers he helped kickstart, but also with his Poe adaptations. I saw a lot of these films in the past year and this was likely the most artistically daring and complete of the lot.

Faces of Children (1925)

Visages d'Enfants (1925, Pathé)

I have a lot of silents and older films sitting on my DVR that I must get to. This is a case of my catching a piece of this film on TCM late one night then being determined to watch it whole again one day. This film stuck with me not just because I discovered the work of Jacques Feyder through it, but also due to the wonderful tinting work involved in it.

Spectre (2006)

Spectre (2006, LionsGate)

I embrace any and all horror series like Six Films to Keep You Awake that round up genre directors from certain countries to tell quick effective tales. It’s not dissimilar to Door into Darkness or Masters of Horror, this edition highlights the uniquely opaque, intricate and dramatic flair that Spain has for the genre. There will be another tale from the series on this list. This is the one that separates the die hards from the casual admirers.

A Child Called Jesus (1987)

A Child Called Jesus (1987, Silvio Burlusconi Communications)

Any film willing to fill in some Biblical gaps, or at the very least cover ground rarely trod, will get my attention. Similarly any film that can hold my attention in spite of terrible dubbing is also worth noting.

The Christmas Tale (2005)

A Christmas Tale (2006, Lionsgate)

As mentioned above in Spectre, this is a Six Films to Keep You Awake tale, but this is the more accessible of the two I chose. It deals with a group of kids who find a woman trapped in a hole, as they learn about what got her there each faces moral dilemmas about how to deal with the situation. It not only sets up good horror but great character study.


Death and Cremation (2010)

Death and Cremation (2010, Green Apple Entertainment)

Prior to Jeremy Sumpter being the not-so-obscure object of desire in Excision he starred in this film which features a very overt and twisted mentor-protegé relationship. Bringing horror icons into the fold of a new project can be a double-edged sword but Brad Dourif is very effective in this role. Conversely, Sumpter utilizes his seeming vulnerability to channel a disconnected attitude and anger. The undertaker/death obsession mixed with suburban malaise can be seen as an obvious connection, but it’s not an overwrought one and works well with the performances.

For the Return of the Juvenile Award

This can be considered a general call to attention for several entities. Firstly, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you will be asked in the course of this article to un-retire an award. Now several categories have been scratched from the list of Oscars handed out annually many of them with reason. For example, there used to be separate color and black & white cinematography awards. This was logical because there is an inherent and obvious difference in shooting black & white versus color. It was also logical because for many years there was a fair split between films shooting in either medium. Now the question “Color or black and white?” is hardly asked and the award no longer is qualified.

That is an example of an award that has been retired and should be. An award that should be un-retired and become a staple is the Juvenile Award. The Juvenile Award was presented 10 times between 1935 and 1960. It was a category where there were never nominees but on occasion the academy would feel a performer was worthy of honoring.

Now the nomenclature is a little dated and if the Academy were willing to update the name that’d be fine. The fact of the matter is that due to the outstanding and consistent achievement by young performers year after year there should be a category to recognize these achievements. We’ve reached a point where the occasional young nominee as an honoree and as a pseudo-stunt is old.

This will allow proper credit to be bestowed upon young talent and thus Keisha Castle-Hughes would have her statuette and so would Haley Joel Osment and he would’ve been nominated appropriately as a lead amongst the youths anyway.

There is precedent for honorary statuettes becoming standardized categories, for example, honorary awards were bestowed upon foreign releases before the creation of a fully-nominated category in 1957.

The second intended audience for this piece is the studios and distributors who are sitting on Oscar-winning performances which are pieces of history that are unknown to the public.

Typically, the Juvenile Award was cited for the actor’s body of work as the best of his age group in Hollywood during the given year. However, examining filmographies one can easily see the specific projects that garnered the honor.

Juvenile Awards were Awarded to:
     

Hayley Mills

Hayley Mills in Pollyanna (Disney)

“For Most outstanding juvenile performance during 1960.”

Pollyanna is a Disney classic title and readily available.

Vincent Winter and Jon Whiteley

Jon Whietely and Vincent Winter in The Little Kidnappers (United Artists)

For his outstanding performance in The Little Kidnappers.

This title seems to be out of print and it shouldn’t be it’s a shared award for one film, which is rare. I had also never heard of this film or these last two winners until I was updating this post so I’m glad I did.

Bobby Driscoll

Ruth Roman, Bobby Driscoll and Paul Stewart in The Window (RKO)

“For the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949.” 

This was mostly for the The Window, a film noir where Driscoll plays a modern incarnation of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” So Dear to My Heart, a Disney film, went wide in January of that year but premiered in 1948. It is typically drama that’ll have influence on such an award and The Window is available from The Warner Archive Collection but streams on Amazon.

Ivan Jandl

Ivan Jandl

“For the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948 in The Search .”

This film is available from Warner Archive. It’s the tale of an American soldier helping a Czech boy find his mother.

Claude Jarman, Jr.

Claude Jarman, Jr. in The Yearling (MGM)

“For the outstanding child actor of 1946.”

This award is truly for The Yearling which was Jarman’s debut. It is still readily available on DVD and is well worth seeing. Be sure to have Kleenex on hand for this tear-jerker.

Peggy Ann Garner

Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell and Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (20th Century Fox)

“For the outstanding child actress of 1945.”

While her notable performances from 1944 (Jane Eyre and Keys to the Kingdom) are available and her most famous 1945 role (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) the other two parts in 1945 that earned her a general citation for excellence (Nob Hill and Junior Miss) are out of print.

Margaret O’Brien

“For outstanding child actress of 1944.”

O’Brien earned her award for four performances. Only Meet Me in St. Louis is on DVD. The Canterville Ghost is on VHS, if you like that sort of thing.  
 
 
Judy Garland 
  

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (MGM)


   
“For her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile during the past year [1939].”

Judy Garland’s performances in both Babes in Arms and The Wizard of Oz which won her the award in 1940 are both readily available. The first is part of a Rooney-Garland Box Set released by Warner Brothers Home Video.

 Mickey Rooney and Deanna Durbin

MGM

“For their (Durbin/Rooney) significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”

Rooney’s Andy Hardy films are still readily available.

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple

“In grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934.”

Most of Shirley Temple’s filmography is still readily available.

Any gaps in the availability of a performance in the history of this unique and short-lived award should be rectified. Likewise, the award should return. The Academy can name the award after Ms. Temple if they like and honor young actors every year.

For even missing from this list are the likes of Freddie Bartholomew, Jackie Cooper, Roddy MacDowell, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth Taylor, Patty McCormack, Anne Rutherford, Debbie Reynolds and more, so even in an era when the award existed not everyone worthy won the award. Not that trophies need to be handed out in hindsight or to those who have left us but the award should definitely make its presence known again both on video and in the ceremony.