When was the last time you saw some of those old 1950s, 60s and 70s Disney live-action movies like Old Yeller, Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes or The Apple Dumpling Gang? If you were a little kid in the 1970s and early 80s or an avid watcher of The Disney Channel up until about five years ago, then you’d have to admit to saying it’s been anywhere from five to thirty years since you’ve seen some of these movies. For those old enough to remember the original theatrical runs, it could be as much as 40 years since seeing a few of them. Not being around then, I remember most of them from their 1970s and 80s showings on TV, either on NBC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” or on local stations–up until they were exclusive to The Disney Channel by the 90s.
After then, Vault Disney on TDC gave us a chance to see these fun films once in a while…if you were apt to be up at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Then they all vanished from TV when the suits at Disney decided to remove Vault Disney from TDC’s programming schedule about five years ago. Even though many fans of classic Disney complained, the Disney Company has yet to revive Vault Disney on the channel or start a Classic Disney channel for the fans who loved many of the live-action movies produced by Walt Disney himself. When Walt died in 1966, his live-action division at the studio had been in operation for close to twenty years and had a set production formula that would continue to operate almost by clockwork for years afterward.
Arguments could be made that some or many of the live-action movies made after Walt Disney’s death weren’t as high quality as the ones produced prior. Nevertheless, many of the post-Walt movies have their strong share of devoted fans who find them better than anything done in the 50’s or 60’s. No matter if you’re a fan of the films Walt produced or the ones done after, a healthy mix of all will be shown every Sunday through December on Turner Classic Movies under the umbrella title “The Family Classics.”
This month-long film compendium is a bit of an extension of the Family Classics banner on TCM that’s aired on weekends for the last couple of years or so. And TCM has already shown hints for a while now that they’ve been willing to show old live-action Disney classics if you remember seeing Hayley Mills’ “The Parent Trap” and “Pollyanna” on the network more than a year ago. Sure, those were still seen here and there in syndication after Vault Disney ended, but not many of the other live-action films utilizing the talents of a young Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell (or a younger Don Knotts and Tim Conway) have been shown anywhere other than being available on bare-bones, grainy DVD releases.
Those particular names above starred in the fare I mentioned in the first paragraph. You’ll have a chance to see these films in their original aspect ratios for the first time ever on TV. And to give a bit of a chronological feeling each Sunday, TCM will show a series of six films each week, starting with one from Walt’s era and ending the night with those smaller budget films of the 70’s.
Certainly if there’s a distinguishing quality between the Disney live-action department of the 1950’s and 60’s to the films made from the late 60’s up to the early 80’s, it’s budget and script quality.
When TCM debuts a new documentary called “Age of Believing: The Disney Live-Action Classics” on December 14 (with reruns on Dec. 21 and 28), that above examination will remind us of the quality and budgets Walt Disney brought to his live-action department from the get-go. While Walt started delving a little into live-action by the late 1940’s mixed with animation, it was 1950’s “Treasure Island” that demonstrated the brilliant direction the studio would go using real actors. Walt understood that when you had an excellent script and a big budget, any live-action movie would be more than likely a hit. The production values of “Treasure Island” and the legendary “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1954 can be any template for how to make a successful big-budget live-action epic. Of course, 1964’s “Mary Poppins” was the greatest example of family filmmaking in history (which won’t be shown on TCM because of its frequent airings on ABC Family).
“Age of Believing” could be the needed push to remind Hollywood of how great family films used to be made. At least the post-Walt live-action movies still had relatively good scripts. You can say that despite some silly concepts, particularly in the Kurt Russell-starring Dexter Riley movies–along with increasingly slimmer budgets. By the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the last of the pre-Michael Eisner live-action era utilized substantially reduced budgets and scripts suffering in quality. Only 1982’s “Tron” ended this era on a production high-note, if you consider that Sci-Fi classic to be entirely live-action.
For those who’ve never seen TCM’s generous collection of Disney’s live-action, the most fun you’ll have is in seeing the beginnings of Kurt Russell’s movie career as well as seeing how Jodie Foster cut her teeth before plunging into more adult roles. You might find it interesting seeing Foster in “Freaky Friday” and “Candleshoe” during a time when she’d already played an underage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” just one year earlier. Unfortunately, the documentary won’t be discussing how Disney’s CEO at the time (Walt’s son-in-law, Ron Miller) or the other execs reacted to Foster’s sudden career move.
Moreover, and if you don’t care about some of the sillier efforts, you’ll get a chance to see the first real pristine TV airings of classics such as “Old Yeller”, “Swiss Family Robinson”, “The Absent-Minded Professor” (plus its sequel, “Son of Flubber”), “Return (and Escape) to Witch Mountain”, “The Shaggy Dog (and D.A.)”, plus all the Herbie movies. Yes, that also includes the final one in the series, the 1980 clunker “Herbie Goes Bananas.”
Studying the trajectory of Disney’s live-action movies is basically following the evolution of the family film from its peak to ultimate decline. With a few recent exceptions (namely “Enchanted”), Disney’s live-action department hasn’t really lived up to its potential as it did when guided by Walt Disney’s magic touch. But all it takes is a compelling documentary to see exactly what the uncomplicated magic ingredients were and what could possibly be done again…