They say familiarity breeds contempt. I think the more natural result is complacency. If something is able to stick around long enough, sometimes people come to believe they know all there is to tell about that particular subject. Something like this appears to have happened to Walt Disney. He's a staple of childhood, he managed to make himself into something of a national treasure, and he's everybody's favorite family entertainer. End of story, right? That seems to be the price-tag that comes with ubiquity. The trouble with being just about everywhere is that it's easy for anyone to assume that they know all there is worth knowing about the life of a man.
Take his films, for instance. A lot of them can be named off the top of the head by anyone in the street. There's Fantasia, Dumbo, Aladdin etc. These seem to be the films that stick in the memory. So what else did he do? Is that all he made? Was there nothing else? What if I told you Disney once made a short animated cartoon with the help of a Pulitzer Prize winning author? Does that sound too good to be true? Didn't everybody look down on Uncle Walt back in the day? Well, just don't tell Sinclair Lewis that, he seemed perfectly happy to lend his services as part of 1947's anthology film Fun and Fancy Free. That's just one possible example out of many others. The truth is that popularity of the moment seems to determine just how Disney and his film's are viewed from one year to the next. This can be a saving grace in that the old filmmaker still has a solid life in the public memory. At the same time, the trouble with memory is how selective it can be. The net result is that only the best parts are preserved, while a lot of other material is deemed subpar. A lot of Walt's live-action efforts fall into this category.
It's true that Mary Poppins is still the one live-action film everyone remembers (now with a bit of recent infamy attached to it). After that, the closest picture anyone can recall in this same category is the studio's biggest mistake, Song of the South. If you put those two together, I almost have to wonder if they don't form an ironic commentary on the nature of the public's awareness of Disney's efforts in the non-animated medium. It wouldn't surprise me to hear future historians making the mistaken claim that because South is such an atrocity, Disney decided never to make another live-action flick ever again until the release of Poppins. The sad truth is I don't think such an outcome is far-fetched in a time where cultural literacy and historical memory are on the decline. I think it can become an even greater mistake if everyone just let's this sort of thing go on.
For these and other reasons, I've thought it might help to take a trip down a forgotten avenue of memory lane. It turns out ol' Uncle Walt had more than a few trick us his sleeve, ones that didn't have to rely on the Ink and Pain department. These are the films that have been left in history's dustbin. Here you can also find authors who used to be big, like Robert Louis Stevenson, along with voices that have been unjustly neglected, like Johann David Weiss or Mary Mapes Dodge. It's also a place where you could meet up with historical figures that used to be national phenomenons, and nowadays have more of a local fame, such as Davey Crockett. The perfect entry point to explore this terrain is provided by John G. West's study, Walt Disney and Live-Action: The Disney Studios Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s.
Saturday, June 8, 2019
Most people like to read a well-written story. The question is, how do you make the writing of that story interesting? That's the challenge facing the makers of this film, an attempted biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings. It's a challenge that confronts the project right out of the starting gate, and director Dome Karukoski was given a daunting task when he signed on. His job was to take the life of one of the most well known and revered authors around the globe, and try to make an interesting story out of his life. Whether he succeeded or not is the big question.