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Disney Film History: Old Yeller

old yeller

The mid-1950s were chalk full of western films from Disney, mostly starring Fess Parker who had made the role Davy Crockett the most famous character in television and film. The western film genre in general had been a big hit amongst audiences in the 1950s and as Walt was capitalizing on the rugged shoot-em-up genre, he looked at another semi-western in 1957. He wanted to make a film based on the best selling book by Fred Gipson titled Old Yeller.

Old Yeller was a 1956 children’s novel that was a best seller and had won a Newbery award. It mixed Post-Civil War Texas life with a family story. It was the perfect blend of western and family film making that Disney was looking for. Disney brought Fred Gipson into to co-write the screenplay which allowed the film to be true to the novel, which was a risk for Disney as many of his films had been sugar-coated for audiences.
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The film also starred two of the Mickey Mouse Club cast members, Tommy Kirk and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, who had made a name for themselves as playing the Hardy Boys on the hit kids show. Fess Parker plays a small roll in the film as the boys father, but with so many of the past few films I have researched starring the actor, I’m glad to see that he only plays a small part and that the Mouseketeers get most of the glory here, at least as far as human characters are concerned. Old Yeller is a wonderful dog himself and steals the show as a stray dog who winds up being taken in by the family.

Over the course of the film, we learn that the bond between children and dogs is endless and family is truly one of the most important things we have in life. As Old Yeller becomes a part of the Coates family, we connect with him as if he had always been a part of the family. When Old Yeller is infected from a wolf bite and has to be penned due to fear of him having rabies, we feel for this family being torn apart. Then, we get to the ending, when a rabies infected Old Yeller snarls at the boys. The older boy, Travis, played by Tommy Kirk, is forced to put down his dog that he had grown so attached to. It’s one of the saddest moments in film history. It’s strange to think that Walt Disney allowed for such a brutal ending, but he must have known that it would be for the best.

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The film was released on Christmas Day 1957 and was an instant hit with both critics and audiences. The film ended up grossing over $6M in it’s initial release and would go on to make over $21M in later releases altogether. It was within the top 5 films of the year. The film has gone on to be part of pop culture. It is referenced for it’s death scene on shows like Friends. It’s legacy far surpasses many of the live action films Disney had put out in the 1950s, and it may be one of the greatest live action films, the Walt Disney company has ever put out period!

Josh Taylor
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Next Film: The Light in the Forest

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Disney Film History: Johnny Tremain

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The mid-1950s have been filled with historical representations in Disney films. Thanks to the Disneyland television show, which first brought us Davy Crockett, Walt and his company moved forward with several historical films that showcased some real and not so real heroes. For this fictional tale, the hero is Johnny Tremain.

It was no secret that Walt Disney loved America and was a true patriot. During World War II, he didn’t even bat an eye when he was asked to turn his studio lot into an army base and help produce propaganda films. He also didn’t mind going on a good will tour of South America and working on films to showcase the fabulous continent for the benefit of America during WWII.  So I can just see him when he first got to read Esther Forbes’s children’s book “Johnny Tremain”.

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This is the first live action film in over a year at the Disney company that doesn’t star Fess Parker in some sort of role and I’m glad to see that the company moved away from him at this point as it was overkill by this point. The film does star a Disney contracted star however. Luana Patten had been a star of Disney during the 1940s when she played opposite Bobby Driscoll in Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. This was Patten’s first film without Driscoll and as a much more matured female. Hal Stalmaster stars in the leading role but wouldn’t be know for much else other than a few parts in the Disneyland television mini-series The Swamp Fox.  Another newcomer besides Stalmaster was director Robert Stevensen who must have impressed Walt Disney as he stuck around to direct many films we will be talking about including Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The film debuted on June 19th, 1957 and would be split in two parts for the Disneyland show a year later. The lack of film box office numbers must mean that it wasn’t the biggest hit Disney had during the time period but the film does have significance and has had it’s own legacy.

Thanks to it’s historical value of showcasing the Revolutionary War and the Boston Tea Party, the film has been shown in classrooms around the United States and has also found it’s way onto classic film channels like AMC.

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The film also inspired Walt Disney to add an extension onto Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. in 1957 but the idea was passed on. When Walt Disney World was being built, Walt’s idea was brought up again and Liberty Square was added to the park, not as an extension, but as an entire land. The Liberty Tree was added to the area linking it to the film’s historical values.

When talking about the Disney films of the mid-1950s, I haven’t been shy about my displeasure in the over abundance of films that really left me longing for the films of the previous decade. Johnny Tremain, however, was worth sifting through the wreckage. It was a film I knew about and was looking forward to. It has many things going for it. It showcases Walt’s passion and attention to American history, it doesn’t use starpower as a crutch to makeup for a lacking storyline or a weak adventure. The film truly captivates with adventure and romance. It’s definitely a shining star amongst many duds. I hope the upcoming films I see are similar in it’s quality but I’m not confident in that as my list continues on into the next decade with some real headscratchers.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: Westward Ho the Wagons!
Next Film: Perri

Disney Film History: Westward Ho The Wagons!

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In case you haven’t read my last few Whole Picture articles, Fess Parker was on top of the world in the mid-1950s. Starring as Davy Crockett, Fess Parker had been part of the biggest culture craze of the decade and the Walt Disney company was reaping the benefits. He starred in several other films that depicted American history and folklore including The Great Locomotive Chase, but it seems as though Disney wasn’t through using their biggest star after the second Crockett film. He along with his Crockett Co-Star, Jeff York (Mike Fink), teamed up for a depiction of the Oregon Trail titled Westward Ho The Wagons!

During the 1950s, cowboy movies were big. So this took Davy Crockett to the wild west to fight Indians. The film was setup to be a sure fire hit. The biggest star on the Disney lot doing a western movie. It was adapted from Mary Jane Carr’s “Children of the Covered Wagon” which had been Disney’s main cash cow. Adapting short stories and books into film. Many of their ventures outisde of  screenplay adapting tended to fail. Oh yeah, it also featured another big tv star of the time, Superman’s George Reeves. Where can this film go wrong right? It seems where it went wrong was story as it was quickly thrown together, possibly to be a feature on the Disneyland TV show but as Disney saw Fess Parker, the tv miniseries may have been adapted for the big screen.

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The rest of the cast was made up of another of Walt’s favorites: The Mickey Mouse Club. All the children from the show were cast into the movie to fill out the wagons and get into controversy with Indians. They also brought their voices to put together a great soundtrack of songs, but I can’t help but feel like the movie wasn’t a match up for the Mouseketeers.

Westward Ho was shot in Cinemascope, the third film to be shot that way from the Disney studio, and a very expensive way to shoot a film. I would assume that a lot was riding on Westward Ho in that case. I have yet to find any box office numbers for the film, but that can only tell me that wasn’t a box office smash like the studio probably hoped. The film was released in December of 1956 and was the last film of the year from Disney. 1956 had also brought us The Great Locomotive Chase and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. The year had 3 films starring Fess Parker in historical situations. The only other film of the year put out by Disney was their True Life Adventure film Secrets of Life.

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I’m beginning to see why it would fail as a box office hit if it did. Walt Disney was so high on Fess Parker and the “historical film” genre that he overplayed it and it killed itself. In the past, the name Walt Disney meant fantastic stories in animation, great epics in live action, and the only studio to mix live action and animation together. What we got from Disney in 1956 was the same actor playing the same role in 3 different films. Walt had definitely narrowed himself in 1956. Hopefully 1957 has a better slew of movies.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: Secrets of Life
Next Film: Johnny Tremain

Disney Film History: Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

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Davy Crockett has to be one of the 1950s greatest pop icons. Coon skin hats and toy guns were smash hits with kids. the “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” song became a radio hit, and the Disneyland television show became must see television. Davy Crockett was aired on the Disneyland show in several stories, but in 1955 the first three episodes of Davy Crockett were compiled into one film titled Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The film was a success for the Disney company and with the film and television series running wild, it only made sense to continue the series on television and hope to also release another film. That’s exactly what Walt Disney and his company did.

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In the 1955 film we saw Crockett’s life and eventual death, or at least it’s alluded to. So where do you go from there? You create your own tall tales! Walt Disney continued the television series with two new stories about Davy Crockett, both predating his battle at the Alamo. The two episodes of the Disneyland television show were shown in November and December or 1955, several months after the first film came out. These two episodes were much more fictional and eccentric than the original three episodes that made up the King of the Wild Frontier film. The first was an episode titled “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race” which pitted Crockett against Mike Fink, a rugged and exceptional keelboat sailor. Mike Fink, like Davy Crockett, was a real man but is lost in his own folklore as a fighter, navigator, and all around sailor of keelboats. This makes him a perfect match for Crockett. Despite the story being a complete work of fiction instead of a historical fiction like the previous episodes, it still worked over the Crockett crowd and kept the character in the forefront of American pop culture.

The second episode titled “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” is where the name of the film also comes from. In this episode, Crockett and his sidekick, George Russel, are captured by Native Americans after white men murdered their tribesman. They learn that “river pirates” had been doing this and they duo help the Native Americans by capturing the bandits and bringing justice to the river.

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The film was released as a mash up of these two episodes on July 18, 1956. The 7 month gap between the airing of the episodes and the film kept it fresh for moviegoers and again proved that Davy Crockett could be a success at the box office. The Disney studio was smart in keeping their lead stars for the series and eventual film. Buddy Epsen and Fess Parker continued as Russel and Crockett, portraying their characters just as perfectly as they did a year earlier. Despite the over-the-top stories, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates can testify as one of the crown jewels of 1950s Disney. Davy Crockett’s success in every aspect of 1950s pop culture showcases how great Disney’s creative and marketing teams were and still are. I won’t say that this is the best film of the 1950s or even of the two Davy Crockett films, but it stands as an example of how good Disney was during this time period.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: The Great Locomotive Chase
Next Film: Secrets of Life

Disney Film History: The Great Locomotive Chase

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During the 1950s, Walt truly showed his love of other things beyond animation. Walt’s love for history came into account on the Disneyland television show on ABC when Davy Crockett became a huge hit. He would later go on to make other historical films and even dream up the idea of the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show featuring the first human audio animatronic. With such a foot in the past and a foot in the future, it’s not a surprise that he shot a full length cinemascope feature in full color about the Civil War, The Great Locomotive Chase.

The Great Locomotive Chase tells the story of James Andrews, a spy for the Union, who stole a train, “The General”, from Atlanta and brought it back to Tennessee all while destroying train tracks and stations. The film starred Davy Crocket himself, Fess Parker, which is also no surprise. Lawrence Watkin wrote the screenplay. He had previously worked on Treasure Island and The Adventures of Spin and Marty for television. Francis Lyon, who had been the director of Spin and Marty also directed The Great Locomotive Chase. Jeff York, who had played Mike Fink in an episode of Davy Crockett. This whole production was generally put together with stars and crews from the Disneyland TV show.

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Wanting to stay true to the historical events, Walt Disney took a chance in keeping the film from being overly dramatic. Due to this fact, the film didn’t do as well as Walt had hoped. The film only made $1.7 million at the box office which is barely better than the lackluster The Littlest Outlaw, which had only been released a few months previously. Even the Davy Crockett film had made over $2 million and it had been previously shown on television. Despite some critical success, the films flop was mostly related to the lack of true excitement and drama. It’s true to life format also proved that the heroes of the film also fail and were even killed in the end, including Fess Parker’s James Andrews character. That wasn’t what audiences wanted at the time and they expected Walt Disney to give them that happy ending. With Davy Crockett, he gave them a false ending showcasing a more heroic Crockett, but here the film stayed true to real life.

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I would also add that like the previous film, The Littlest Outlaw, this film lacks due to Walt’s attention being in other places like Disneyland. The content of films lacked as well since the Disney company was putting out so many a year versus what they had done in previous years. After this film, which was released in June 1956, the next film was released only a month later. That’s oversaturation if you ask me. It was also a big risk to do a film about the kidnapping of the Locomotive considering that Buster Keaton’s The General was a classic film from the 1920s at this point. There didn’t need to be another film portraying the exact same event in the exact same way again, even if it did star one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in Fess Parker. People would have rather seen him as Davy Crockett than being killed as a Union spy. Luckily for audiences, they wouldn’t have to wait long until Crockett returned to the big screen as it was the film that followed only a month later and the film we will be talking about next time!

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: The Littlest Outlaw
Next Film: Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

Disney Film History: Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

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American legends were nothing new for Walt Disney and his team of film makers. They had dabbled in American folklore with characters like the tales of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill from the 1948 film Melody Time. With the new adventure into television for the Disney company, and with the focus on several lands from the upcoming Disneyland park, using American folklore in the Fronteirland episodes seemed like the perfect fit. Of course the Disney folks had been making True Life Adventure films that wedged perfectly under the umbrella of Frontierland, and would eventually get their own attraction at the Disneyland park, but nothing from Disney’s television show was more captivating than “Frontierland’s” Davy Crockett. Capitalizing on the pop culture phenomenon that was Davy Crockett and his famous hat, Walt Disney released a film version of the original three episodes in May of 1955, just a few months before the opening of Disneyland. Before we reflect on the Davy Crockett film, let’s backtrack to where Crockett fever began.

Tennessee Governor Frank Clements with Walt Disney and Fess Parker (Davy Crockett)

Tennessee Governor Frank Clements with Walt Disney and Fess Parker (Davy Crockett)

To supplement the costs of the building of Walt Disney’s first theme park in Anaheim, he signed a deal with ABC to provide a 1-hour show on Wednesday nights. The show allowed Walt to not only supply money to build his park, but also a great way to advertise his future Disneyland park. The show, Disneyland, premiered on October 27th, 1954 and became a must-see show for families. The show soared to new heights on December 15th, 1954 with a show titled “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter.” From that point on, the Crockett Craze swept the United States. Coonskip caps were sold everywhere and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” became a number 1 hit on the Billboard charts. Many parodies of the song came out, and toy rifles were in stock at every toy store. Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett on the show, became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

The second in the series titled “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress” debuted in late January of 1955 and “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” the last in the series, debuted in late February 1955. each show more popular than the last, the Disneyland television show became one of the most watched shows on television, but Davy Crockett was only reaching those in the United States. Walt wanted to share his Davy Crockett shows with the world just as he wanted his new park to be shared with everyone in the world, so he decided to adapt the show into a film.

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The original three episodes were condensed into a 93 minute film showcasing the pseudo-true events of Davy Crockett’s life, from his early days as a militia man, to his political career, to his eventual battle in Texas at the Alamo. Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier was released on May 25th, 1955 and despite the film’s episodic television origins, it still managed to to make over $3 million at the Box Office and did just what Walt Disney wanted.

The summer of 1955 saw the world enjoying coonskin caps and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was translated into other languages. His character had become a worldwide smash and soon, so would his park. Crockett’s run in the Disneyland series wasn’t over, but this film became the crown jewel of the series. Nothing on the Disneyland television show would ever surpass it’s success.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Next Film: Lady and the Tramp

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