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Disney’s forgotten live-action releases, 1957-59

This is perhaps the most off-topic post I’ve written for Cartoon Brew, but I hope you’ll indulge me. It’s regarding a neglected aspect of the Walt Disney Company that I’ve been curious about for years and haven’t read about anywhere else. It’s regarding the six live action feature films (at least, that’s how many my research has uncovered so far) released by Buena Vista in the late 50s – directed by no less than Sidney Lumet, Frank Borzage and Michael Curtiz, starring the likes of Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd and Lee Marvin.

Walt Disney took many gambles in the 1950s: with Disneyland, with True-Life adventures, with television, with CinemaScope… to name but a few. Perhaps his biggest, outside of Disneyland, was to control his own destiny in Hollywood by creating the Buena Vista Distibution Co.

It began in 1953. The hand-writing was on the wall, Disney was growing unhappy with his 18 year arrangement with distributor RKO. In protest, Buena Vista was created to market a single film (The Living Desert). Once established, plans were quickly made to expand Disney’s annual release slate with live action features and shorts, documentaries, comedies, dramas, westerns and fantasies – and to get out of the RKO deal as quickly as possible. After several additional British costume dramas (The Sword and The Rose, Rob Roy The Highland Rogue), 1955’s Music Land, a pastiche of segments culled from Make Mine Music and Melody Time, fulfilled Disney’s obligation to RKO — and was the company’s final RKO release.

Beginning with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), BV became a Hollywood player with a strong slate of promised Disney productions – animated features such as Lady and The Tramp and Sleeping Beauty supplemented with lighter, suitable family fare, mainly westerns and true-life adventures. However, Disney productions alone were not coming fast enough to keep the new distribution staff busy. Like any business, the company’s life blood is a steady stream of new product.

Between 1957 and 1959, BV released six acquisitions that played a part in keeping the company afloat during this initial phase of its growth. None of these films were produced by Disney (at least I think they weren’t) but all reflected something of his views and values. It began with a couple of foreign language pick-ups:

If All The Guys In the World (released April 1957) D: Christian-Jaque. An optimistic French film about how the world comes together to save twelve poisoned fishermen.

The Story of Vickie (released January 1958) D: Ernst Marischka. Starring Romy Schneider. Filmed in Vienna, it’s the story of Queen Victoria.

The Missouri Traveler (released March 1958) D: Jerry Hopper. Brandon DeWilde and Lee Marvin star in this film about a runaway orphan and the townspeople he affects.

Stage Struck (released April 1958) D: Sidney Lumet. Starring Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg, about a young girl coming to New York to become an actress (this was one of last films produced by RKO, ironically it ended up being distributed by Disney).

Proud Rebel (released May 1958) D: Michael Curtiz. Starring Alan Ladd and Olivia DeHaviland, the story is about a western doctor trying to find a cure for his mute son.

The Big Fisherman (released October 1959) D: Frank Borzage. This was a big budget wide-screen Biblical epic starring Howard Keel as the Apostle Simon Peter.

Disney no longer owns any rights to these films – at least I think they don’t. If anyone has further light to shed on this period of Buena Vista’s history, I’m interested in hearing about it. Additional information about these releases is encouraged in the comments below.

UPDATES: As noted in the comments below, there was a seventh independent BV release, Yang Kwei Fei (Japan) in 1956. Also, please read John McElwee’s post on C.V. Whitney, Disney and the early days of Buena Vista.

Click thumbnails below to see full size images: left: A 1958 Buena Vista trade ad. Note The Young Land, mentioned in the ad below, was ultimately released by Columbia Pictures in 1959. center: A piece of Disney stationary for Proud Rebel courtesy of Mike Van Eaton. right: The one sheet poster for The Big Fisherman.

  • Fred Cline

    Wow! Of all the Disney histories I’ve read, I don’t recall any of the writers mentioning these releases. Did they all miss it or did I not remember it?

  • Fred Cline – These releases are, as far I know, undocumented in any Disney history book. That’s why I decided to post about them.

  • Bugsmer

    Howard Keel would be great in a movie like that. Do you suppose it’s a musical? I don’t seem to remember reading about these in Maltin’s Disney Films, and some of them do sound intriguing. Thanks for mentioning these, Jerry.

  • There may be one more: the September 11, 1956 edition of The New York Times contains a review of “The Princess Yang Kwei Fei,” a live action feature which, they state, was “…produced by Masaichi Agata and Run Run Shaw for Daiei Studio, Tokyo, and released by Buena Vista Films (sic).” That would be six months prior to the first film listed. It opened in New York at The Normandie Theatre, which is where the majority of the other films listed premiered.

  • One major foreign film that Buena Vista released in 1956 was the great Kenji Mizoguchi’s Yôkihi (Princess Yang Kwei Fei) (Japan, 1955), which, if I recall, had a brief run at New York’s Guild Theatre on 50th Street before disappearing. Disney probably picked it up based on the success in the States of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. I never got to see it (though it was later reissued by New Yorker Films.), though Edward Gorey, who saw it when first shown in New York raved about it.

  • Don Brockway and Harvey Deneroff – Thanks guys. That title was NOT listed anywhere… except, thanks to you both, I just found it listed in Film Daily Yearbook 1957 (which reflects 1956) as “Yang Kwei Fei”, a Buena Vista release, in their “Features Imported in 1956” section (page 237). Read more about the film here. Here is the IMDB listing.

  • Terrance

    Great book about Walt and the Society of Motion Picture Producers during this period:

    And a site loaded with info not included in the book:

  • Alfons Moline

    Have you noticed one slight mistake in the ad promoting Buena Vista’s 1958-59 releases? THE SHAGGY DOG is listed to be in Technicolor, whereas it was actually made in black and white (though decades later ‘colorized’ for TV and home video release).

  • I recently saw a live action movie produced by Hanna-Barbera called Deadline. Made in the late 70’s, it starred Barry Newman (Vanishing Point) and was about a nucelar bomb going off in Australia. It was pretty bad – but fun.

  • Keith Bryant

    The only one of these that I’ve actually seen (or heard of) was “The Big Fisherman” and that was almost 40 years ago!

  • B. Baker

    Terrific scholarship, Jerry. I never realized that Buena Vista had anything to do with releasing STAGE STRUCK or PROUD REBEL — let alone most of the other pix. [I used to own a one-sheet for STAGE STRUCK — it bore no mention of BV or Disney, just RKO.] I knew about the French film, and, of course, the 70mm roadshow THE BIG FISHERMAN, the most prominent and elaborate of the non-Disney productions that BV handled. I believe that BV did briefly handle one more foreign film in the early ’60s — perhaps a French picture — but I can’t recall the name of it.

    Much later, in 1979, Disney’s Ron Miller picked up Kieth Merrill’s indie PG-rated high school wrestling drama TAKE DOWN and distributed it through Buena Vista sans any WDP identification; I think this was also later done with RUNNING BRAVE in 1983.

    There have been unconfirmed reports over the years that Disney did still retain at least some rights to THE BIG FISHERMAN, almost completely unseen anywhere since an early ’80s TV airing on the syndicated SFM Holiday Network. There have even been some rumors (also unconfirmed) that the studio was restoring the picture using the original 65mm elements. I don’t know whether any of this is true, but Frank Borzage was an interesting director — I’d like to see the film again.

  • I was working at Disney in the fifties, and I think the real break with RKO Radio Pictures came when the distributor refused to handle Walt’s new series, “True Life Adventures.”

    Walt knew he had something good, and RKO didn’t think so. Turns out RKO was wrong.

  • Ross Anderson

    This episode in the Walt Disney Company history has been covered by Bob Thomas in the book, ‘Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire’ (Hyperion,1998), pages 241,242. It doesn’t have the detail of this post and the comments, but it puts the situation into context…

    “We need more product,” the Buena Vista salesmen complained to Roy.

    Traditionally, the studio’s releases had been geared to holiday, when children were out of school. With the downfall of the restrictive Production Code, the major companies could now explore profanity, sex, nudity, and other content deemed unsuitable for tender minds. A Disney movie was the safe choice for parents.

    But holiday releases were not enough to sustain a fully staffed, worldwide releasing company. Roy decided Buena Vista would need to release films from other producers, who would be partly financed by Disney, if necessary.

    In, 1958, the Buena Vista salesmen mounted a campaign for ‘The Missouri Traveller,’ a period film with Brandon de Wilde as an orphan moving into a Southern town. The rich socialite, C.V. Whitney, financed the movie, which featured Lee Marvin, Gary Merrill, Paul Ford, and Mary Hosford, an unknown actress who happened to be Mrs. Whitney. ‘The Missouri Traveller’ created little enthusiasm from the critics and less from film buyers.

    Roy decided to aim for bigger attractions. He was approached by Rowland V. Lee, a producer-director who had been in films since 1915. He had acquired the film rights to ‘The Big Fisherman,’ a novel about St. Peter by Lloyd C. Douglas, pop writer of religious themes. The adaptation of his ‘The Robe’ had been the first film in Cinemascope and had helped rescure 20th Century-Fox from bankruptcy in 1953.

    Lee, who hadn’t directed a film in a dozen years, hired Frank Borzage, another Hollywood veteran who had won the first Oscar for a dramatic film, ‘Seventh Heaven.’ Roy had known Borzage from their polo playing days in the thirties. ‘The Big Fisherman’ would be Borzage’s last picture.

    Walt disapproved of the subject matter; throughout his career he had eschewed any film material dealing with religion, reasoning that a portion of the audience would be displeased by the depiction of a particular sect. He would hav nothing to do with ‘The Big Fisherman,’ leaving all of the corporate responsibility to his brother. Roy was uncharacteristically free with the budget: $6 million, a huge amount for a Disney film. But he flinched at one outlay. He offered the role of the Arab princess to Elizabeth Taylor. She responded that she might be willing — for a million dollars. “A million dollars!” Roy exclaimed. “Walt Disney doesn’t get a million dollars.” The role went to Susan Kohner.

    Casting the role of Simon Peter presented a problem. Most of Hollywood’s important leading men were either not interested, tied to studio contracts, or wanted more money than Roy would pay. The role finally went to Howard Keel, who had been a star of MGM musicals.

    Roy decided to road show ‘The Big Fisherman,’ opening in 1959 with a reserved-seat, two-a-day appearance at the Rivoli Theater in Manhattan. The critics responded negatively, as did the public. The Hollywood Reporter sounded the death knell: “The picture is three hours long, and except for those who can be dazzled by big gatherings of props, horses, and camels, it is hard to find three minutes of entertainment in it.”

    Buena Vista released a few other films, including imports from Germany, England, and Japan, but none produced much revenue. Roy abandoned the policy, adhering to Disney-made films exclusively and vowing never again to venture into the creative arena. Walt, of course, was secretly delighted.

  • s porridge

    By the time it reached cable TV, “Take Down” bore the logo of “American Film Consortium.” Another Disney alias, perhaps?

    Along with “Take Down,” “Midnight Madness” (an early Michael J. Fox comedy) was also among BV’s first (somewhat hesitant) tries at PG product.

  • B. Baker

    To my understanding, Disney’s experiment with distributing TAKE DOWN through BV didn’t work out, and it eventually returned the picture to Merrill and indie producer American Film Consortium. [I saw it on cable, too — the print had no Buena Vista logos or markings by then.] Though the studio didn’t extensively market the film, it was indeed the first PG rated movie that the company ever distributed, preceding the Christmas ’79 release of THE BLACK HOLE by a few months.

    1980’s MIDNIGHT MADNESS was really a departure for the studio, however. To his credit, Ron Miller did at least try something different with this rowdy and (very slightly) racy PG rated Disney-produced college comedy. He hired two kids in their mid-’20s to write and direct the picture, and whatever you might say about it, it isn’t a typical comedy for the studio. It isn’t particularly fresh or funny, but it’s at least a departure from twenty years of Disney pictures. Put it this way: Stephen Furst of ANIMAL HOUSE is the character actor in this picture — not Cesar Romero.

    Then, trying to avoid any possible stigma of squareness or family entertainment associated with the name “Walt Disney Productions,” Miller released the picture without any corporate logos or company identification (except for BV distribution). It never really found an audience in its theatrical release, but I tend to believe that lessons learned in the distribution of MIDNIGHT MADNESS and TEX two years later led to the studio’s formation of Touchstone Pictures — a non-Disney label for the studio — in early 1984. It’s worth remembering that Miller was responsible for Touchstone, and oversaw the production and release of SPLASH before his ouster from the company.

  • On a similar topic, years ago when I was programming the college film society, I found some old correspondence from UPA relating to a documentary (I guess you’d call it) they distributed in the late 60s which was supposed to be a filmic representation of an LSD trip! I don’t remember the name, but it was amusing, and a bit sad, to find UPA trying to cash in on Haight-Ashbury in such a Kroger Babb kind of way.