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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.