The Persistence of Disney, Part 15: Lady and the Tramp (1955)


“In the whole history of the
world there is but one thing
that money cannot buy . . .
to wit – the wag of a dog’s tail.”

– Josh Billings

Lady and the Tramp opens with this lovely statement and thankfully never backs away from it.  This is a movie in love with dogs.  It loves the way they move, the way they howl, the way they beg, the way they sleep, the way they love us and most curiously the way in which they observe us.  Here is a movie so in love with the canine world that you can imagine the animators crawling around on the floor for inspiration.

Apart from any other studio dealing in animation – which at the time included Warner Brothers and the Fleisher studios – the animators at Disney were not about going after the obvious jokes.  Yes, there are a thousand jokes to be made about the typical habits of the domesticated dog but there was something more intimate in Disney’s presentation.  We understand their body language, but here is a movie that wants us to get inside their heads.  The movie closely observes not only their movements but also their attitudes regarding the world around them, a world in which the master is the center of all things and the curiosities of the world don’t extend much further than treats, mischief, nap-time and the ever-present net of the dog catcher.

The movie opens with a scene that has every dog lover nodding with recognition.  It opens when Lady is just a puppy and the owners want to keep her in a basket in the basement.  She persistently sits at the door and howls and cries until she gets their attention.  Upset at her persistence, the master of the house pushes a chair against the basement door.  Undaunted, Lady pushes at the door until she has enough room to get out.  Then she climbs the stairs and begs to sleep on their bed.  Finally, the owners relent and let her sleep in their bed, but “Just for tonight.”  As Lady settles in we see the passage of time and realize that one night of sleeping on their bed has turned into a lifelong commitment.  Watching that scene I almost don’t even have the watch the rest of the movie.  It’s a wonderful short film in and of itself.  It tells a story that has a perfect punchline, and is probably one of the most perfect pieces of animation ever put together by Disney.

That scene is done almost without dialogue and that adds a nice natural touch to the moment.  However, the rest of the movie does give dialogue to the dogs and it’s nice that it doesn’t mar the effect (for an example of how it could go wrong I refer you to 2000’s Dinosaur).  In presenting the world of dogs, the writers walked a very fine line between observing canine behavior and giving them human sensibilities.  When in the presence of a human, Lady and Tramp bark and wag their tails like real dogs but away from the human world they speak English and even philosophize.  Careful observations of behavior are then given to human-like pleasantries.

Yet, when the dogs do speak, it’s not a lot of Sesame Street treacle.  It observes their world in the cute adorable way that we might expect.  It’s childlike but surprisingly mature – or mature enoughLady and the Tramp is far more “adult” then any of the other 14 features that preceded it, and that sounds like an odd observation given the fact that the movie sees the adult world through a dog’s eyes in much the same way that a child might see their parents.  They are loved and spoiled but become part of a rigid routine that they often find themselves rejecting.  The dilemma for Lady is that she feels that she is being pushed out of the way by her owners Jim Dear and Darling (that’s what they call each other so she assumes these are their names) in response to the onslaught of a life changing event that lessens her station in their lives with the coming of a new baby.  The full-on attention that she once received suddenly takes a backseat to the care and feeding of this tiny new creature who has stolen their undivided attention.  Lady heartbroken as she goes from sleeping on the bed to sleeping outside.  This is much the same way that a first born might feel upon the arrival of a brother or sister.  What’s interesting is that its all a mystery to her as she wonders what she could have done wrong.

In observing the world of a dog, the animators also did away with the fantasy settings that, up to this point, had become the Disney trademark.  The previous films of the decade, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, occupy the same time frame (the early 20th century) but only in so far at the framework was concerned –the central core of their stories were the fantasy worlds of Wonderland and Neverland respectively.  Here the landscape is, more or less, the real world.  It takes place in New England sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th at a time between the horse-drawn coach and the advent of the motorcar.

Walt Disney was born and raised in this time period, he was born in Chicago in 1901 but famously grew up in Missouri.  This is a time and place that he might have recognized, the sterile world of the early 20th century before World War I.  The motorcars, the broad class distinctions and the landscape dotted with newly arrived immigrants make this setting uniquely American.  Disney’s previous films were fuzzy on their locales whether it be Snow White that takes place somewhere in western Europe; Pinocchio that takes place somewhere in Italy; Bambi that takes place somewhere in . . . God knows where!  Canada?  Wyoming?  Washington state?   Lady and the Tramp takes place in New England.  We can see that.  It is most obvious in the settings, the world of privilege and even in the scene in which Jim Dear nails a Yale banner to wall in the baby’s room.  High on the hill of this lush setting, Lady lives in the posh New England landscape of wealth and privilege.  Cast out into the world, she ends up on the wrong side of the tracks were we see the lower end of the social spectrum, a world of back alley’s, store fronts, and laundry strung between the tenement buildings.

This early American working class setting is fitting for the early years of the century as we are introduced to a vast tableau of immigrants.  Yes, there are the Italian-a chefs who who serve-a da spaghetti.  But also the vast array of dogs who are bound by their country of origin – The Russian Wolfhound is Russian;  the Scottish Terrier is Scottish; the Dachshund is German, etc.

This world is presented most especially by the presence of Tramp, a free spirited mutt who isn’t bound by the master’s leash.  He’s something new to Lady who has only understood the comforts of treats and the morning walk.  Lady and the Tramp is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and not by way of any kind of cliche.  Its genuine.  When Lady and Tramp meet, it’s not love at first sight, in fact their first scene together has him laying out all of the horrors that await her domestic tranquility in the wake of the new baby.  His disservice to her suffering is only put forth by the fact that, as a homeless dog, he himself will never have to deal with such things as masters and their new babies.  Yet something connects between them as he shows her the ways of chasing chickens and back alley meals.

That meal, by the way, is movie folklore and one of the greatest romantic expressions ever put to film.  Fed spaghetti and meatballs behind the Italian restaurant, the immigrant cook and waiter Joey and Tony serenade the canine couple with the lovely “Bella Notte.”  We all know how it goes.  Tramp noses the meatball in her direction before they both take a bite of the spaghetti strand unaware that they are munching on the same noodle.  They come together and accidentally have their first kiss.  Then the focus falls on Lady who, just as the song reaches “Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes,” we see stars in Lady’s eyes as the camera pulls up to the full moon.  The moment is almost Chaplin-esque in it’s simplicity.  Where some films meander and philosophize about love and romance, here is a movie that draws it in broad strokes and the effect is simply beautiful.

That simplicity is the movie’s masterstroke.  Lady and the Tramp deals with, more or less, adult issues but in a way that a child could identify.  It sees their world in microcosm with adult human being the far distant mystery and romance being an even greater mystery.  Grown-ups are seen in fleeting glances and their conversations are only as half-understood as their intentions.  That the movie allows children to see the adult world through the eyes of a dog is another great element.  It allows us to understand why we feel so close to our childhood pets.  Why and how they are as baffled by the world as we are is one great mystery that the moment muses over.  Its why we connect with our pets.  The love is pure and uncomplicated.  All it takes is the wag of a tail.


The Persistence of Disney, Part 15: Peter Pan (1953)


If James Barrie hadn’t invented Peter Pan then his adventures might just as well have come from the mind of Walt Disney.  The story of the adventures in the far away Neverland with the pixie boy who never grew up and does battle with the hook-handed pirate Captain Hook seems right up the animator’s alley.  Stories like this seem to have been the tapestry of the books that Disney devoured as a child; he spent much of his career adapting those books into the visual animated medium.  Yet, adaptation was a tricky venture.  At the time (and, in fact, even today) he earned scowls from the literary community over his perceived mishandling of Alice in Wonderland.  However, in adapting Barrie’s classic stage production, he wisely reorganized the story so that it could be properly transferred to the screen.  Of this, literary critics were far less harsh.

As with Snow White, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland adapting Peter Pan to the animated form was in Disney’s plans from the start.  In fact, he had intended it to be his second feature (it would eventually be his fourteenth), but his plans were put on hold due to the an establishment in Barrie’s will that bequeathed the rights to the play to The Great Ormand Street Hospital, a children’s hospital in the Bloomsbury section of London.  Disney spent four years negotiating a deal to be able to adapt it for the screen.  In that time, his feature plans were put on hold due to World War II.

Perhaps it was for the best because the story needed a proper adaptation.  Disney’s reorganizing of the stage play works to the film’s great advantage.  The most noticeable difference is the fate of Tinkerbell.  In the stage play, Tink is wounded and clings to life which inspires Peter to famously break the fourth-wall and plead with the audience to clap their hands in order to bring her around.  For a live audience, this may work but in a movie theater it might feel awkward especially today with the film screened on home video.  So he made the wise decision to remove that element.

On the stage, Tinkerbell was never seen save for a small bit of light.  Here, for the first time, we actually get to see her and in giving her a form, she is also given a personality.  She’s a full-blooded character with a bold personality despite the fact that she never speaks a word.  Her eyes, her body language and her movements speak volumes.  She’s temperamental and often her actions reflect this as when she becomes angry and burns a hole in a leaf by flying through it.  This is something that only animation could capture.  We get close in so that we become part of her wordless experience.  Her facial expressions speak volumes.  Compare this with the awkward live-action performance of Julia Roberts in Hook and you’ll see what I mean.

Peter himself is given an upgrade too, as this was the first time that he was actually played by a male actor.  On stage Peter has always been played such varied actresses as Jean Arthur, Veronica Lake, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and more recently by Allison Williams.  So, in casting Bobby Driscoll as the voice, we get our first male representation of the character and what we get is rather interesting.  The voice is not a child per se; it is not girlish but that of a boy whose voice has most recently moved into adolescence.  It’s deep but still squeaky; you can sense that it has a long way to go.  Attitude wise, the boy who never grew up seems to have stopped growing deep into the stage of prepubescent cynicism.  He’s immature particularly in his regards to Wendy and to woman-kind in general.

This is a very male-centric picture.  Watching the film again I realize that its aim seems squarely at young boys, which is a switch from previous pictures like Snow White and Cinderella which seemed to be aimed at girls.  There’s rough-housing and swordfights (both for play and to the death) but any romantic notions are chucked right out the door.  Romantic notions seem to be in the Disney pantheon, already this decade there’s been Cinderella and it is the call of the next two pictures Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty.  In Peter Pan, the love angle is treated more as a problem as the affliction that is cause for jealousy on the part of the women-folk.  Captain Hook even says “A jealous female can be tricked into anything.”

In my evaluation of Disney’s animated features up to this point, I’ve noted how female-centric Disney’s stories tend to be, and yet they are always movies of their time in which the aim of all female characters is to find their prince and get married.  Here the female characters don’t come off very well.  Wendy is tasked with looking over the lost boys and becoming the mother figure they apparently never had.  Tinkerbell meanwhile spends much of the film in a jealous snit over Peter’s association with Wendy.  And the mermaid’s come into the picture with the function of fawning over Peter and making fun of Wendy.  She seems the straight-man, for lack of a better word.  She isn’t much removed from the Alice character and, in fact, is voice by Katherine Beaumont, who voiced both characters.  She’s there to be the sensible fulcrum to the story, she’s fascinated by the magical landscape that she finds herself in but she finds herself the whipping post for most of the inhabitance there.

Peter’s reaction to Wendy kind of surprised me.  He’s dismissive.  He regards her more as a bothersome older sister than a potential lover.  When they meet, she kindly offers to sew his shadow onto his feet but when she tries to make small talk he disregards it with “Girls talk too much.”  When she formally introduces herself as Wendy Moira Angela Darling he interrupts her with “Wendy’s enough.”  That’s an interesting approach because it would have been obvious to make him interested in the girl, but since he is the product of stunted maturity, he remains in a space that boys experience just before hormones kick in and girls forever after become of glorious and fascinating mystery.

As a romance the movie founders but as an adventure story the movie rises to the top.  Disney’s version of Peter Pan is a red-blooded adventure teeming with atmosphere, fun and excitement; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem.  If Cinderella and Snow White were (for better or worse) fantasies for girls, then Peter Pan contains the kinds of adventures that boys devoured in books like “Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Revisiting the film I was kind of stunned at just how full this movie is.  It has pirates and fairies and mermaids and battleships and flying and swordfights and slapstick and drama.  As I said it’s light on the romance but who needs mushy stuff in a movie with pirates?

The geography of Neverland itself is made up and of counties and states the seem like broken off pieces of a boy’s imagination; Cannibal Cove, Mermaid Lagoon, Blindman’s Bluff, Peg Leg Point.  There’s even a place called Hangman’s Tree.  It’s all so neatly laid out.  It’s one of those great spaces in the movies that you’d like to visit.  That’s rare.

Just as much as the adventure story works so too are the songs.  Critic Roger Ebert dismissed the music as forgettable, especially the song “We’re following the leader.”  I would disagree on this count due to the fact that I think the song sounds very much like the kind of thing that young boys would invent while playing in the back yard.  No, it’s not “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but it isn’t meant to be.   Neither is “You Can Fly,” the film’s signature song.  That song, for me, is kind of magical.  It swirls and flies with the lyrics so you feel the weightlessness of Peter and Wendy and John and Michael as they fly over London.  I was taken aback by this especially in an era when most songs in animated features are just grafted onto the film without any kind of integration.

Peter Pan also continues to a new trend for Disney that was introduced in Alice in Wonderland.  This is the fourteenth of Disney animated theatrical features and up until Alice in Wonderland, the previous endeavor, the villains were all fearsome creatures like the evil queen in Snow White, the Coachman in Pinocchio and the headless horseman in Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  Beginning with Alice in Wonderland, the villains would be comic foils.  Alice had the Queen of Hearts, a screaming brat who enjoyed dolling out beheadings.  Here the villain is the foppish Captain Hook, a vengeful pirate desperate to find Peter’s hideout but always foiled, not just by the pixie hero, but by his deathly fear of the crocodile that once consumed his hand and is always lurking around hoping to claim the rest.

Voiced by the great Hans Conried, Hook is not a terror of the seas but more of a buffoon hell-bent on revenge.  He’s just right for this story as the villain in a boy’s adventure story.  Yes, he does evil things like shooting a crew member for playing a jaunty tune, but his vile machinations are easily beaten back.  He advances on Peter at one point when the boy’s back is turned but suddenly the crocodile makes an entrance and Hook is sent running for the hills and always screaming for his first mate.  My favorite character in the movie is Hook’s roly poly first mate Mr. Smee whose demeanor is so passive and good–natured that it is to wonder if he knows who is working for.  Voiced by the invaluable Bill Thompson, most famous as the voice of Droopy, there’s something wonderfully naïve in the voice, something pathetically sagging.

And speaking of pathetic, let us now deal with the film’s nadir.  I mentioned earlier that the film’s view of women is sorely lacking but it is not quite as appalling as the film’s view of Native Americans.  Decades before the bullet train of political correctness the images of other cultures in the movies were brought to life by stereotypes, often to an appalling effect.  The Native American characters here are more or less a compendium of all of the worst elements of the culture given to us by Hollywood.  Their song “What Made the Red Man Red?” is more or less a collection of this.  The characters aren’t really seen as people but a stand-in for what we thought of Native Americans at the time.  They are stereo-types, there’s no doubt about that, but one doesn’t feel any measure of the people.  In my review of Dumbo I spoke about how the crows, while branded as black stereotypes, were at least emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance through their song and their use of language.  There’s no such valid argument here.  There’s no sense of the culture or the people beyond the stereotypes.  The best you can say about the Native Americans in Peter Pan is that at least they are not blood thirsty savages, nor are they portrayed as villains.  They play with The Lost Boys in a game of who can capture who so there’s a bit of friendly fun in their approach to the white man.  Still, however, modern audiences (myself included) cringe at the war paint and the pidgin English.  The liberal in me is bound to be appalled by this misrepresentation, yet the pacifist in me is bound to suggest that the only way to deal with this when showing the film to a child is to open a dialogue about the fact that this is a stereotype of what we thought of Native Americans at the time – that these attitudes are no longer valid.

If the stereotypes represent the worst and most dated element of Peter Pan, the theme of maturity is probably its best asset.  This is very much a story about growing up.  We spend a great deal of time in Neverland, a place where growing up is nearly non-existent.  The story sees the patterns of growing up from three different viewpoints.  Peter will never grow up.  Wendy is melancholy about the prospect of growing up.  And her father George begins the film by being frustrated that his children aren’t trying to grow up but in the end comes to understand the importance of having an inner child.  That’s a pretty complex approach.  Most Disney films explore a theme from one point of view but this film sees it from several points of view and that gives the film a complexity that you don’t expect.  What does it mean to grow up?  Does it mean that we throw away all manner of childhood?

In studying these questions I thought of the verse from 1 Corinthians that tells us that “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  This is a cold-water treatment to the ideas that Peter Pan is trying to formulate.  If we think hard abou the character, none will ever completely grow up.  Peter is the boy who never grew up.  Wendy will grow up and have her own children as well as nieces, nephews and eventually grandchildren and likely relive her childhood through them.  George will likely be a grandfather and will experience a bit of childhood through them as well.  In that way, none will ever truly be without the gift of an inner childhood.  It will be experience in one way or another.  That’s a tender thought and a lovely message.  When you become a man, do you really ever put away childish things?  If you do, then it’s a sad lot in life.  I find a lot of greatness in being an adult and one of those things is having the wisdom to cull such a message from Disney’s work, but still being tender-hearted enough to enjoy them as much as I did when I was a kid.

While the film was a box office success and is today hailed as a Disney classic (are there any that aren’t?), many critics have dismissed it as not really following the same great tradition as Pinocchio or Snow White.  Ebert made this abundantly clear in his review on “Siskel and Ebert” in which he admitted that it was a lot of fun but not exactly in the tradition of the great Disney classics.  True, it is a straight-forward retelling of Barrie’s classic and not exactly experimental.  But I stand with Leonard Maltin who said in his book “The Disney Films” that “It seems unfair to criticize the film for what it isn’t when it is such an unpretentious, delightful endeavor.”  I agree with Maltin’s assessment.  No, it isn’t Pinocchio but the movie is so much fun that it hardly even matters.  I myself have criticized the film on many counts (many in the paragraphs above) but I have to admit that I found the film a lot more fun than I remember it.  It’s a full-blooded adventure story packed to the gills with giddy charm.  Despite my problems with the film as a whole, I can watch it and get caught up in its spell, the childishly delightful spell.  It makes me feel like a kid all over again, and gives me the comfort that even though I’ve become a man; I don’t always have to put away childish things.

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Posted by on 10/09/2016 in Uncategorized


The Persistence of Disney, Part 14: Alice in Wonderland (1951)


One constant in the story of Walt Disney seems to have been an ever-persistent passion for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  That is reasonable because, for a visual storyteller, it might have seemed irresistible.  It is said that Disney read the book as a child and was so captivated by its bizarre and clever world that it stayed with him ever-after.  When he broke into motion pictures as a young man he made it his mission to bring the story to the screen.  His attempt to visualize Carroll’s world stretches all the way back to the 1920s when, through his short-lived Laugh-O-Gram Studios, Disney created a series called The Alice Comedies featuring a live-action actress having misadventures in a cartoon world.  Later he would loosely adapt Lewis Carroll’s story into a 1936 short called Thru the Mirror with Mickey Mouse in the Alice role.  A feature seemed inevitable.

In the late 1930s, after the enormous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt was eager to get down to the serious business of adapting Alice in Wonderland but his plans were put on hold by creative difficulties, budgetary problems and a halt on major projects due to the intrusion of a rather bitter sequel to World War I.  Once the war had ended and he could go back to making feature-length animated movies, Walt made the film a priority.  This was a daunting task.  Carroll’s book doesn’t exactly lend itself to a three-act structure and is therefore not an easy transference to a visual medium.  The book is not intended to be visual; it’s more a play on nonsense words, rhymes, riddles and songs.  Putting the book to the screen would take a lot of time and a lot of talent.

What Disney was able to put together is probably as good a version of Carroll’s book as has ever been rendered for the screen.  In fact, despite a great deal of criticism both casual and professional, I think it’s rather brilliant.  It is a vibrant, lively, colorful journey that doesn’t subsist on a trajectory but is more a collection of strange events and dysfunctional characters.  You remember the journey but you don’t really remember the ending because it doesn’t really matter.  It’s not the point.

A lot of the criticism comes from the fact that the movie is so episodic, that the events of Alice’s journey happen and are then unceremoniously abandoned.  Those looking for a firm narrative structure find themselves frustrated.  Some Disney purist decry the film for not having a heart.  I cannot agree.  The world inside this movie, while maddening, doesn’t need a heart.  I think the point of the journey is that Alice has found herself in a world in which time and space seem to have no meaning.  Here the landscape is dotted with silly and bizarre creatures made up of words and songs, of strange and bizarre creatures that appear and disappear at will.  It is almost as if Alice has landed in a world of literary run-off, as if she’s found herself in a dumping ground of rejected ideas ejected from much more structured material.  Therefore that’s no shape or structure; it’s just a maddening series of events.

The world that surrounds these kooky characters is the work of a conceptual artist named Mary Blair who worked with Walt Disney not only on Alice but also on Peter Pan, Cinderella and Song of the South.  Her style of bold colors may have come from her exposure to the landscapes in South America when she traveled with Walt on the good will tours of the early ‘40s wherein Disney made Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.  For Alice she came up with an interesting style of allowing the colors to pop by keeping the backgrounds very black.  The choice is interesting because it plays to the feeling of abandonment of the characters.  If Wonderland is a literary dumping ground then we might imagine that sunlight and colorful backgrounds would not be part of the tapestry.

Each of the characters has a quirk but not really a personality and that’s kind of the point.  Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum arrive in the film to sing songs and to tell Alice the story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”  The Mad Hatter and The March Hare are only present to have a tea party, a maddening pitch of nonsense in which a lot of tea is poured but none is ever consumed.  The Cheshire Cat only serves as a smart-allecky rendering of double-talk and physical manifestation and decombobulation that has no rhyme or reason.  The caterpillar is a hooka enthusiast with a penchant for obvious questions.  The Queen of Hearts has a decapitation fetish.  And, of course, The White Rabbit is very late indeed.  What he’s late for – and the reason he’s so panicked about getting to his destination – is probably the only thing in the film that makes any grounded sense.

What is interesting about these characters is that we never really understand their motives.  Are they leading Alice astray?  Are they dangerous?  Some seem cool while others seem loaded with hostility, though we can never figure out which is a threat and which is just passively insane.

The central element that, I think, makes the movie work is Alice herself.  She’s been criticized as being rather flat and dull and surprisingly unaffected by the bizarre events and characters that she comes across, yet I don’t find that to be the case at all.  Alice is an anchor to the story yet she’s not a lead weight.  She is a sensible yet imaginative girl whose presence in Wonderland is seen through her eyes.  She is not horrified by what she sees, in fact much of the time she’s kind of fascinated.  There is a rounded character here but she isn’t drawn with broad strokes.  You do have to look for the edges.  She nice and polite, but she can become frustrated.  There are moments when she is appalled by massive breaches in etiquette and characters that would rather frustrate her journey then helpfully assist.  Of this we understand the moments when she becomes angry and tries to fight back.  In a strange way, she and her adventure are very much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, both are flung to a far-off world of color and nonsense and whimsical characters, though I think dear Dorothy at least had the aid of friends to guide her.

This is odd to say but I think I felt more for Alice then I have for any of the previous Disney heroines that I’ve examined so far.  Though there are things to like about Snow White and Cinderella, there is nothing about them that I can really relate to.  There is a moment in the movie when Alice gives me a moment that I kind of understand.  Late in the film when she has become exhausted and frustrated by the world that she has come to inhabit, she walks through Wonderland’s impenetrable forest looking for some clarity.  Suddenly a strange bird made of eyeglasses lands on her face.  At a moment of weary emotional fatigue, she removes the bird from her face and places it on a nearby branch quietly pleading, “No, no please.”  I can relate to that.  I’ve had days when the world seems determined to be especially unyielding and you just want a moment of normalcy to get your head together.

In that way, I can relate to Alice.  She’s trying to be herself and trying to be ingratiating to the world that she now inhabits even though she is forced to be a tenant in a disturbing universe that resists any measure of assistance or friendliness.  Every character here is after their own ends and seems to have an agenda that makes little to no sense.  We’ve all felt like that.  We’ve all had those days when the world seems to make no sense and those around us seem patently determined to be the thorn in our foot.  Even though Alice resides in a world of nonsense, I see myself in her shoes more that I could understand the domestic abuse of Cinderella or the killer’s kiss that looms over Snow White.

As I have said, the film was criticized for being far too episodic and noisy for its own good.  Disney historian Leonard Maltin, in his book “The Disney Films, says “Alice in Wonderland is a very flashy and generally entertaining film but it lacks that essential thread that made Disney’s best features hang together, and moreover it lacks, warmth.”  Even Ward Kimball who animated Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum was dismissive of the final product: “It degenerated into a loud-mouthed Vaudeville show.  It lacks warmth and an overall story glue.’  He blamed too many directors and too many hands getting in the way of a solid story.  On both counts, I disagree.  This is not a story about warmth; it’s a story about a girl trying to make sense of a world made up of screwy nonsense.  If it had more emotional weight, then the coldness of the world would be less effective and there would be less motivation for Alice to press on.

As I watched the film again the other night I was captivated.  All the problems that the detractors had push on the film didn’t really bother me.  I found the film to be a journey, much like Dorothy’s Adventure in Oz.  She meets a lot of strange characters and tries to make sense of a world of nonsense and even runs afoul of a tyrant that wants to do her some harm.  The movie doesn’t need sentiment nor a straight-forward narrative.  Personally, I think the movie may have been ahead of its time.  While it was not a massive hit upon first release in 1951, it was reassessed during the cultural art movements of the 1960s where the film was seen as a psychedelic trip.  I stand with those who came to appreciate it.  I see what is special about it, I know what makes the film work.  It’s a journey, a good one, and I’ll gladly take it again.


The Persistence of Disney, Part 12: Cinderella (1950)


After nearly a decade of sidelining his artistic yearnings in favor of World War II and frustrating limits of his budget, Walt Disney celebrated the birth of the new decade with his first narrative feature in eight years.  It was not just a return to the form that he helped to create but it was a return to the simply-told fairy tale genre that he always had in his sights.  Cinderella was about as basic a story as one could tell, and seemingly the most universal.  As with Snow White, this movie appealed to a fantasy elements that were unquestionably popular at the time, but that were so “of the moment” (in spite of the common advertising claim of it being ‘timeless’) that its elemental message would become questionable in the wake of a massive culture shift in the decades to come.  The women’s movement and the rise of feminism would prove the antithesis for the rather limited message being given here.

Given the current cultural climate, one is compelled to ask: what is the value of Cinderella?  Where does its message really land when you get to the end of the story?  There has been a lot of talk about the film being anti-feminist, that this is the story of a young woman who is abused and works through her difficult situation until her prince shows up to make her life perfect.  Is that really true?  Is the movie selling young girls on a wish-fulfillment that relegates their destiny to the idea that getting married is and should be the ultimate goal?  Is it limiting their choices?  All of these arguments are valid and in some cases I outright agree with them.  This is always a difficult task, dealing with a film of another time, another set of values that are outdated and out of fashion.  Approaching Cinderella with a 21st century mindset is a little like approaching Gone With the Wind.  You can see it as entertainment but you have to traverse a minefield of ideas and attitudes that are particularly un-P.C.

The 1950s were not a great time for forward-thinking women.  During World War II a great number of American women had gone to work in factories to help with the war effort, it was a lumbering step backward to exit the war years and now be expected to get married, have children and stand in the shadow of The Man of The House.  In a fairy tale sense that fuels the story of Cinderella, which is based around the rather insane idea that a young girl will be pulled out of hard domestic servitude to marry a wealthy prince and effectively never have to work a day in her life.  The goal is to be married, that’s the trajectory of the young women in this film.  The King wants a grandchild and makes a call to every woman in the kingdom to come and meet the prince.  The prince, in a meat-market sort of set-up, gets to pick whichever woman he wants.  I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what is wrong with that scenario.  The prince meets various women at the ball and he picks Cinderella out of the crowd.  He’s been tasked with picking a wife like he might pick a puppy.

To stand back and look at this scenario is to be baffled by its insanity, but if there is any positive measure that can be gleaned from it, it may be the idea that at least Cinderella has, in a way, earned her way to a better life, unlike other Disney princesses who just sort of have it handed to them.   She’s worked for years under the yoke of a stepmother who worked her day and night and now she has earned the right fall in love and get married.  Is that any less insane?  Her fate may not be any less “marriage fueled” but when she gets married at the end there’s a feeling that it comes after having been tried and tested for so long by those who cared nothing about her.

Even with that you can’t ignore the emptiness with which the two leads come together.  Cinderella and Prince Charming get married at the end but it is difficult to overlook the fact that their marriage is based on function.  She’s pretty, he’s handsome, they dance, so . . . wedding bells.  There isn’t much meat on this relationship.  In fact, I don’t even remember if the prince has a line in this movie.  He’s just sort of there.  They talk (allegedly), and they get to know one another (allegedly).  Yet, even with all that, he apparently never caught her name.  Actually we don’t know because their time together is seen in a montage over music so we can’t hear what they are saying to one another.

Here it is important to remember the logic of cartoon romance.  In the mid-20th century, love and romance were not full blooded relationships in which two people connected in a real way.  They were just functions of the plot, often played as a gag or played for emotional overtones.  It was the union that represented the climax of the film but what they were to each other beyond their romantic orientation often remained in the viewer’s imagination.  Think of Snow White and Cinderella, the union was based on function, not logic.

I realize that I’m carping over a movie that is supposed to be a joyous fairy tale for young girls, but in assaying the form and function of the “Disney Princess “ dynamic as this series  moves along it is important to deconstruct the underlying purpose of each.  Why was this film so popular upon release but then so contentious as we’ve crossed over into the 21st century?  Are we supposed to examine this story logically?  Yes and no.  Disney films in the early years were not based on logic but played their characters for dramatic effect.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we follow a lonely young girl that seems alone in the world.  Friends are hard to come by and so the yearning for something different is always part of their forward thinking.  Neither Cinderella nor The Wizard of Oz or in fact any of the early Disney pictures were airtight as far as logic was concerned but they were always better at conveying a certain level of emotion.  How we feel about Cinderella’s plight is more possibly important than examining how she logically gets to the final scene.

Cinderella’s plight is that of a young girl who is stuck at home, mired in overbearing complacency of domestic servitude.  She was the daughter of a loving widower father; a wealthy Baron who felt that his daughter needed a mother’s love.  So, for whatever reason, he married the widowed aristocrat Lady Tremaine who had two plain-looking daughters of her own, Drizella and Anastasia.  When the father died, the stepmother put Cinderella to work – hard work – so much work in fact that she was effectively a slave.  What I always responded to in Cinderella’s plight was the fact that despite her difficult situation, there’s something unbreakable in her personality.  She works day and night doing difficult chores and is often ordered to do them over again just at the whim of her stepmother.  Yet, she never frets.  Something in her heart holds tight to the fact that this isn’t ever-lasting.

As I said before, Cinderella has a much more difficult life, while Snow White just seems to be . . . around.  Sure Snow is pursued by a jealous queen who twice tries to kill her, but the day in and day out struggle of Cinderella grabs at the heart.  We want her to succeed.  We want her to overcome the abusive harridan that controls her life.  We want to see her happy.  You can say that about Snow White but only to the degree that she’s in the lead.  Nothing that she really does ever earns her the hand of the prince outside of the fact that she’s a nice girl.  Here we feel Cinderella’s plight, especially in a heartbreaking moment when she is promised a trip to the ball and arrives in a newly made gown, but has it ripped apart by her stepsisters.  It’s actually a devastating moment.

Yet, while Cinderella is given some meat to her story, the prince himself is kind of given a sideline in this story.  He stands mostly as functionary.  Sure he falls in love with Cinderella but we never really get any time with him.  That’s too bad because I learn that originally he had a much bigger part.  There was a scene toward the end when he reunites with Cinderella and recognizes her and there was to be some reconciliation to the fact that he married a commoner who wears rags.  From what I could research apparently it would have cleared up a lot of gaping holes that exist at the end of the story.

As it stands, neither character is, truth be told, bold in personality.  Disney’s lead characters rarely ever were.  Looking back over his first five animated films I find that most of the heroic leads (Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi) were very light on personality.  Things happened to them rather than their actions motivating the plot.  The more interesting roles are often given to the villains who bend others to their will through magical manipulation.  What struck me in revisiting Cinderella is that the villain here has no magical powers.  It is interesting that Lady Tremaine exudes her will over our heroine just by force of will.  It’s interesting that the power comes not from magic wands but just from her station of having control over someone else’s life.  That’s an interesting dynamic.  This type of Disney character is rare and I’ve always found far more interesting.  There are only a handful of Disney villains who don’t have any magic – Captain Hook, Cruella de Ville, Madame Medusa, Gaston, Claude Frollo – so their manipulation comes from human flaws, even though it sometimes takes magical means to overcome them.

I haven’t even mentioned the magical elements of this film.  As I watched it the other night I was so focused on the human element that the magic stuff seemed to pass me by.  Is that a positive in a fairy tale?  Possibly in this case it may be because I noticed that the magical elements of Cinderella seem to drop in out of nowhere.  The fairy godmother drops into the story at the moment of Cinderella’s deepest despair to make her presentable for the ball but you have to wonder, where has she been all this time?  Why didn’t she show up before?  It left me wondering if this story might have functioned just as well without it.  Cinderella might have found a way to go to the ball and look presentable without magical manipulation.  That might have been an interesting angle, have Cinderella figure a way out of her situation using her ingenuity rather than the engine of a magic wand.

Plus, the magic in Cinderella drops in out of nowhere, almost as a dues ex machine and almost feels separate from the narrative.  Compare this to Snow White where the magical elements are far more organic.  As I say, Cinderella might have been much more interesting without it.  But, of course, losing the magical element might have robbed us of some of the brighter moments in the film, the fantasy elements, and the idea that at our moment of lowest despair, something magical will come along and help us out of a jam.  It’s fantasy, total fantasy and not an invalid one.  As much as I carp and analyze this film I must admit that there are moments when I felt much more for Cinderella than I did for most other Disney heroines.  She keeps a smile in place despite her difficult situation and she makes friends among the mice that surround her.  She shows them the kindness that is not shown to her by her stepmother or stepsisters.  And in the end, they help her out when she is locked away at the moment that the archduke drops by with the lost glass slipper.  Her kindness is rewarded.  Maybe that’s a message that can be gleaned from this very flawed and outdated film, that kindness is a much bigger and bolder weapon than manipulation.  Manipulation is easy but kindness takes time and patience and work, something that gets her the fairy tale ending she always wanted.


Movie of the Day: It Follows (2015)


In horror movies, it sucks to be young. Our minds and our bodies are beginning to get adjusted to so many scary things and then you have to deal with some fool with a butcher knife or a ghost with a 200 year-old axe to grind.  It’s hard to grow up, but it’s even harder when it comes in the form of outward forces that we can’t explain – we get enough of that from the natural world.  Kids in horror movies have gotten a raw deal ever since that chainsaw business back in the early 70s, and we find that the best of the genre seems to lean on this idea.

David Robert Mitchell’s oddly titled new horror exercise It Follows is no different.  The kids are dumped on from beginning to end, but the difference is that there’s a method to all the madness.  They aren’t just pawns, they are actual human beings forced to deal with the unexplainable.  Mitchell’s genius is that he creates a dark mood and tone, and the feeling that something is around every corner and emerges from a place no one can quite explain.  He’s a born filmmaker whose efforts here got him noticed – the film was widely praised at the Cannes film festival last year, and I’m happy to say, it was earned.  Unlike most films in this genre that feel like fish food hammered together based on whatever seems popular at the moment, this is a movie that was put together with care – somebody wanted to make this movie.

It Follows is built on a premise that is almost fatally ridiculous but you don’t mind so much because the movie is put together with breathtakingly ambitious filmmaking that evokes a sense of fear and terror even when nothing is happening. It takes it’s horror from the simple but unsettling notion that even when all is peaceful and calm, someone is watching.

It Follows is a movie that might have found good company back in the 70s and 80s when filmmakers – newly free from the strangulation of the production code – were not only able to experiment with new kinds of explicit content but with mood and tone and a sense of dread. That was the age of Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Carrie, Halloween, The Shining and Poltergeist. We are reminded of the spirit of those films because it builds it’s supernatural terror from a foundation of reality.

The movie opens in a quiet suburban neighborhood with the camera planted in the middle of the street. The camera swivels around to a middle-class cracker box house from which emerges a young girl who is obviously scared out of her mind – something is chasing her.  In a few short moments, she gets in her car and drives away.  At a shallow spot in road, she calls her father to tell him goodbye and the next morning – well, you can guess.

Our focus shifts to a different girl – broody young Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde with gangly limbs whose 20 year-old youth ebbs somewhere between the end of budding teen years and the beginnings of the mysteries of her own sexuality. There’s nothing typical about her. She’s got a lot on her mind, and we can see in her eyes that something is going on – perhaps the terror that the kid years are ending and the real world expectations are about to begin. That’s the least of her worries, especially when she accepts a date with sort-of hunky Hugh (Jake Weary), a good-looking but dorky kid who tries and fails to hide jangled nerves – he takes her to a movie but bolts when he thinks he sees someone staring at him.

Spoilers Ahead!

Hugh’s eccentricity is not enough to keep Jay from accepting a second date so they go out for a drink before she (consensually) surrenders her virtue in the back of his car. What she doesn’t know is that Jay is cursed, and has passed the curse on to our heroine. That’s right — the curse is sexually transmitted. But! But! But! Just wait! Before you shut down this review in a fit of jaded cynicism hear me out. What happens to Jay is not based on plot but on blistering paranoia. She sees entities, dead people who approach her at a walking pace and never seem to stop. They come in through windows, across fields, down the beach, from everywhere, at any time, at any place.  Worse is that sometimes they don’t come at all.  At times she sees several dead people, at times she sees nothing. She never knows where they will come from or in which form they will take.

What makes It Follows so special is that director David Robert Mitchell has deep-fried his movie in an almost crushing atmosphere of dread. Every frame of this movie is steeped in dark tones, bare-bulb lighting and an electronic score that seems to be piped in from Mars. He has so much confidence in his tone that he hovers on long scenes of fields and parking lots and windows. We expect to see something emerge. Sometimes it does, many times it does not.

This is a beautifully shot, but unsettling movie to experience. Mitchell lingers on long shots, of grassy fields, parking lots, dirty houses, and long corridors. We remember little details like tin cans, a beach chair, a telephone, a blade of grass. The movie’s production design is not slick but made up of filthy rooms, dingy corridors and open spaces. Much of the movie is seen through Jays eyes, and we feel her terror. Young Maika Monroe – an actress that I am unfamiliar with – gives a wonderful performance as a young woman whose problems of youth are doubled by the terror she experience from the curse. She has an expressive face with eyes that reveal feelings that she doesn’t express in words.

In many ways, It Follows reminds me of the early films of Wes Craven (particularly the first Elm Street), only this film isn’t quite as plotted as Craven’s work.  Much of what happens once the curse is set in motion is left to the filmmaking, not the writing.  Much of Jay’s journey is helped along by her high school friends who take her at her word that something wicked this way comes.  Mitchell keeps the viewer at arm’s length and seems unwilling to hold our hand.  We don’t get inside Jay’s head but we feel more like we’re standing next to her.  We’re in the room with her and her friends as they hear noises outside.  The friends are not standard movie types, but specific individuals who seem to exist in Jay’s hemisphere as classmates who are on the verge of moving on with their post-high school lives – this is a movie very much about time and place.

The third act does get a little gimmicky as the kids try and confront the curse on a physical level.  That part of the movie seems a little hokey.  The movie works best when the dread is suggested rather than confronted.  Still it ends on a terrifyingly reasonable note suggesting an endless vicious cycle.  Life goes on and so, apparently, do the dead.


Movie of the Day: Lovelace (2013)


Let’s face it, the world wasn’t exactly missing a biopic about Linda Lovelace, the  former actress who made her immortality in 1972 by becoming the star of “Deep  Throat” the most profitable adult film in the history of the medium. Digging around in the trash of a celebrity has a certain level of titillation, but it’s no more necessary than digging around in the sex life of Liberace (at least his story has music to fall back on).  But how far have we come? Once, long ago, Hollywood made biopics about monarchs  and presidents, people who accomplished things and changed the world. Now, rather than pages out of history books, we get pages out of the tabloids.  You’ve gone the wrong way, baby!

That’s exactly how “Lovelace” feels. This is not the portrait of a life, but a  dreary soap opera about an abused woman with a scummy husband who forced her (at gunpoint, we’re told) into a life of pornography and prostitution. The problem is that this movie is all tragedy and no substance, giving us a story  that might have been better suited for a documentary, which is curious because  the movie comes from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who have made  great documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. Why didn’t they just make a documentary? This is drama  played at the level of a bad Lifetime Original Movie.

Lovelace – henceforth referred to by her given name, Linda Boreman – is played  in a stiff performance by Amanda Seyfriend, an actress of breathtaking beauty  who has yet to find a role that proves that she is more than just photogenic.  She plays Boreman as a wounded saint, a Little Girl Lost who is pushed and bullied and manipulated by her husband  so much and so often that we never feel that there was another note to her personality or their relationship.  Her performance is made up of wide-eyed petrified looks wrapped up in period clothes.

The movie hits the bulletpoints of Boreman’s life without examining any of  them. She was born Linda Boreman in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 under domineering parents, and then uprooted to Florida where she had a baby by age 19. In the aftermath of giving up her child, she met Chuck Traynor (Peter  Sarsgaard), who initially seemed like a nice guy, but turned out to be a slimeball who (she said) got her involved in the porn world against her will.  He even sold her into prostitution to get himself out of debt. Sarsgaard is a good actor whose range here moves from creepy nice guy to desperate pervert with an unnerving slow burn.

Most of the movie follows Boreman’s volatile relationship with Traynor.  The film’s first half shows a loving  relationship that builds between him and Boreman, but the second half rewinds the clock and tells her side of the story in flashback, this time containing  the more realistic bits of his control over her every move. You can’t help but feel pity for Boreman, but knowing the rest of her story, when she renounced the industry, divorce, remarried and had a child, you can’t help but feel that there was more to her story than just sex and being slapped around. Her life away from Traynor, and her famous interview with Phil Donahue, are handled in a few brief scenes, but you get the feeling that this is where the film’s second act should have begun.  The film wants us to understand the circumstances that took Boreman from porn star to anti-porn feminist but it wallows in the glow of her early profession with lots of soft light and nudity.  Epstein and Friedman wallow in the decadence of a lifestyle they are trying to renounce.

The problem with telling the story of Linda Lovelace is that there really isn’t much to tell. If “Deep Throat” has been a flop, no one would care or even  remember her. The only way to tell this story would be to portray the 70s porn chic world that surrounded her as Paul Thomas Anderson did with “Boogie  Nights,” which showed the glamour and the superficial hedonism of an era in which the morals of America were  slipping so fast that porn was threatening to become mainstream.  The story of the film’s impact was also told much better in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” which wasn’t a great movie but offers more insight into that world than is portrayed here. What we get in “Lovelace” is an  exploitative portrait of misery and despair that ends with Linda becoming a  feminist. Yet, that transformation comes as a momentary revelation.  Screenwriter Andy Bellin misses the journey that got her there.  Why do we care?  What is the journey?  What is the point?  Who was this woman?


Movie of the Day: Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me (1992)


I have no objection to a director who fancies himself a stylist but once in a while I do ask that a stylist occasionally let me in on the joke. David Lynch has always been the master of his own work, sometimes brilliant but often times baffling, confusing and frustrating. Frustrating because he tries so hard to outsmart the viewer and himself that often, I think, he forgets to just make a movie.

`Twin Peaks’ was no exception. I didn’t mind being taken into his comic nightmare on television (however one or two episodes were about all I could take) but this senseless and tiresome movie grates on +your nerves the moment you realize that it isn’t even going to try to make an attempt at any cognitive reason. In my mind the movie plays like a stubborn child who won’t budge from his seat and keeps smiling just the irritate you.

What I saw of `Twin Peaks’ on television I foolishly thought could be explained here. `Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ chronicles that last seven days of the life of Laura Palmer, the McGuffin at the center of the entire enterprise. The series begins with the discovery of her dead body and the subsequent investigation to trace how she got there. The movie takes us back a full year before that discovery to lead us through Laura’s life up to the day of her murder.

The movie begins with another murder under investigation by two FBI agents (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland) who predict, rather predictably that the killer will kill again. Agent Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) has a vision about this time of a red room and some babbling nonsense about garborzonia.

Then we meet Laura, whom I found to be a robust, fascinating and very well written character. She lives with her parents, she persistently abuses drugs and her own body in pursuit of reckless sex. Her father (Ray Wise) has an unhealthy fixation on her and her mother (Grace Zabriske) is too much of a weakling to do anything about it. The only solace that Laura seems to find is in her friend Donna (Moira Kelly) whom she almost takes down with her.

All of this is fine and good. I wanted to see a movie about this particular subject but Lynch isn’t satisfied with just a simple story, no, he has to leaden it with a lot of weird rooms, backward talking midgets, nonsensical twisty timelines and unnecessary plot machinations. I swear the last hour of the movie just seems to completely leave the earth.

I would like to have seen that story. I think Lynch had it in his hands to make a great drama about a trailer trash girl with a drug habit, an unhealthy sex life and a home life that is a ticking time bomb. That would have made for the kind of drama that Tennessee Williams would have envied. C’mon David use your gifts for great filmmaking and stop with the self-indulgence already.