One of my mother’s few extravagances after my dad died was cable TV. The Disney Channel debuted in 1983, scant months after Dad’s death, and while I don’t think we got it quite that soon, I do know that we got cable in part to get The Disney Channel. (And Showtime, where Mom watched movies not rated G.) It was, at the time, a premium channel, so Mom even paid extra for it.
I watched a hell of a lot of Disney stuff as a kid, is what I’m saying. One of the things my sisters and I did every week was keep track of what movies would be playing on Friday and Saturday evenings, when we were allowed to stay up a little later. There were even certain movies we specifically looked forward to seeing, and to this day, I’m always a little surprised when I come across anything from Walt Disney Studios made before my own birth that I haven’t actually seen. I’ve even seen a ton of episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney from the Old Days.
The thing is, these movies and so forth aren’t all bad. Okay, so some of them are. Even I can’t quite defend Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, and Kurt Russell’s character in The Barefoot Executive is frankly cruel. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with growing up seeing Mary Poppins every now and again, even if the sexual politics get a little awkward when you think about them. I may have seen The Parent Trap more times than was strictly good for me, and no one should watch the sequels at all, but at least I didn’t have any illusions that my parents were going to get back together because of it. Death is pretty final, after all.
I spend a lot of time defending Disney, but today, I’m going to focus on the live-action stuff, because whenever Disney accumulates defenders, there’s this unspoken agreement that the name “Hayley Mills” will not come up, and I think that’s missing something. I think there is a genuine defense for most, though not all, of the live-action Disney films running between about Treasure Island (1950) and The Rocketeer (1991). That’s forty-one years of mostly watchable pictures, which is a good run by anyone’s standards. I’m sure you can even get people to defend stuff after that, but with few exceptions, I can’t.
But okay, let’s start with Hayley Mills. I do not deny how likely it is that The Parent Trap gave children with divorced parents false hope that their parents would totally get back together, guys, seriously. Come to that, I don’t deny that there’s a pretty clear-cut case of parental abuse involved in never letting a child know anything about a parent you’d trust to raise the other child, much less the “don’t know you’re a twin” scenario. On the other hand, this is a movie made in 1961 wherein the two main characters are played by the same actress. Susan Henning was her body double for a lot of it, and there are some shots where they never bothered doing the technical work to put in Hayley Mills, because you don’t see both of her at an identifiable angle. On the other hand, for a large chunk of the movie, the Disney special effects people put in a sterling effort and make it basically seamless.
If I’m going for preferred Disney Hayley Mills, though, I go with two slightly more obscure movies, a romantic comedy and a romantic thriller. One, Summer Magic, I’ve referenced in this space before. It’s a comedy about a family in reduced circumstances that move from Boston to a rural Maine town around the turn of the last century. It’s got Burl Ives and various amusing Shermer Brothers songs, and I heartily recommend it. The other, The Moon-Spinners, is a thriller about a young English girl caught up in a plot about stolen jewels while on vacation in Crete. It only slightly resembles the book on which it’s based, but I love it anyway. It’s got a great cast, too—in addition to Mills, it has Eli Wallach, Joan Greenwood, Irene Papas, and Pola Negri.
This is a thing people don’t seem to remember about Disney live-action, in my experience. The casts. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea stars James Mason, of course, but it’s also the first movie I ever saw with Peter Lorre or Kirk Douglas. In Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Sean Connery even sings; it’s the film that directly led to his being cast as James Bond, apparently. We all know Mary Poppins has Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and Ed Wynn, but it’s also one of three live-action Disney movies to feature the Bride herself, Elsa Lanchester. And, yes, it was weird the first time I saw Double Indemnity and saw Fred MacMurray as something other than the sort of genial dad-type I’d grown up with, seeing him in various of the five movies he made for Disney.
I don’t deny that a lot of these movies are silly, especially if there’s any sort of caper involved. You wouldn’t believe the plot of The North Avenue Irregulars if I tried explaining it. For all it’s based on a true story. (I owned the book, but I never got around to reading it, because it wasn’t as funny.) How many people, when Edward Herrmann died, immediately envisioned him riding a motorcycle in his boxer shorts? I’d bet all of us were of an impressionable age in the mid-’80s and had The Disney Channel. And much though I laud The Moon-Spinners, it does end on a yacht with Pola Negri and a jaguar. Which is beautiful but bizarre.
One of the consequences of the falling-off of quality in Disney movies seems, honestly, to be the lack of care for the child stars. I’ve thought for a while now that Kurt Russell, Jodie Foster, and a few of the others should be teaching a course on life after child stardom, because they all seemed to do okay. (Fun fact—one of the last things Walt ever wrote was Kurt Russell’s name.) The answer seems to be making a clean break in some way—make non-family films or go to college or something. Become an accountant; it doesn’t matter. But make plans to be an adult. Hayley Mills and Kurt Russell have gone back to Disney a time or two, but they learned to move on.
Okay, so the original Broadway cast recording of Company is weird to me because Dean Jones is singing about having sex, not turning into a dog or driving a VW in a road rally. It’s not a problem that comes up for a lot of people. What’s more, I really feel as though I learned a lot about being a decent person from all those movies, in addition to seeing fine performances and pretty good special effects and some of the best music going.
No, really. Think about it. Old Yeller, of course, taught us that growing up is hard, and that love won’t cure the hydrophobe. Blackbeard’s Ghost taught us that anyone can be redeemed, but The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, among others, taught us to wait for evidence before assuming someone had, in fact, been redeemed. Candleshoe, one of my favourites that didn’t play often—my sisters and I were so excited whenever we found out it was going to be on—taught us that family is what you make it, that blood isn’t the only kind. Pollyanna taught us to look for the good in things, even when you legitimately had a reason to be upset. Escape to Witch Mountain taught us not to fear outsiders, even when they were from seriously far outside. Heck, The Apple Dumpling Gang taught us that a woman could be both tough and feminine; there are more feminist messages in these films than you might expect. The North Avenue Irregulars has women stepping up when men won’t and taking down the mob, after all. (I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.) And, yes, there’s always the happy ending, but there are enough sequels to remind you that every ending is just a pause in the story.