Sunday, May 20, 2012

Recalling more Disney "live action" - "The Great Locomotive Chase"

Disney’s California presence has certainly been redeveloped in the past couple decades, with Downtown Disney (as a kind of bigger Main Street), the California Adventure (not quite all done), and more resorts.  It still looks smaller than Orlando, and if I get down there later, I want to try the “animated film” tutorial (30 min).

When I was growing up, Walt Disney Studios stood apart from the other biggies.  It seemed to be the work of one man (maybe Paramount was, too).  I remember Disney’s own accounts of his plans for Florida; they sounded like all his own idea.

Disney’s films in the 50s had "labels": animation (or “cartoons”), and True-Life Adventures (like “The Living Desert”, “The Vanishing Prairie”, and the bizarre “Secrets of Life”, all with narrator Winston Hibler. I still remember an unusual family outing one Sunday afternoon to see “Desert” in the old Playhouse Theater in downtown Washington (next to the Keith’s, with the unusually tall screen).

The other category of Disney features was called “Live Action”.  It seemed odd to need to have such a name for an offering of film.  The most famous of the 50s was Jules Verne’s “20000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and example of early Cinemascope (and very effective), and “Swiss Family Robinson” (reviewed here March 28, 2012).  Disney “live action” had a way of creating a (family-friendly) world of its own, completely separated from our ordinary reality. In a way, it anticipates the work of modern directors like Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”, etc).

I wanted to note here “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956), a great childhood favorite. Disney gave the making of this film a lot of attention on his “Walt Disney Hour” show.  Directed by Francis Lyon, it shows the true story (written by Lawrence Edward Watkin) of a union spy James J. Andres (Fess Parker, another childhood “hero” who passed away in early 2010) leads some soldiers into the South to steal a train.  The conductor of the train catches on to them.  The concept of steam engine train chases seems unique in the movies, and one wonders how it would look if depicted in a model railroad set (like the Choo Choo Barn in PA).  The film was another early example of masterful use of Cinemascope.

The film can be rented "legally" and cheaply from YouTube (the movie is still owned by Disney) for $1.99. 

Another “live action” favorite was the classic musical “Mary Poppins”  (1964) by Robert Stevenson (Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) about a happy English nanny and a reclusive, asocial banker and his family.  Remember the umbrella flights?  Disney did not use anamorphic wide screen format for this film, which would have been expected of all big musicals in its day.

Disney’s concept of dividing a theme park “kingdom” into separate “lands” has always been interesting to me, and appears in my own “Do Ask Do Tell” screenplay, in the works.

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