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More Cheese from the Mouse: "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost"

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More Cheese from the Mouse: "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost"

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In an age where some many people seem to know the names of the directors that work on their favorite films (I.E. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron et al), it seems surprising (to me, anyway) that so few people remember Robert Stevenson nowadays.

Which is kind of bizarre. Given that -- back in the mid-1970s -- Stevenson was Hollywood's highest earning helmer. According to Variety, the combined worldwide box office office for the 20 films that he directed for Walt Disney Productions totaled more than a billion dollars. Which is why all the other studios in town tried for decades to lure Robert away from the Mouse House.

But Stevenson never strayed. Why for? To be honest, Robert was loyal. More to the point, Stevenson liked working for Walt Disney Productions. He liked the safe, secure feel that the studio had back in the 1960s & 1970s. Which is why he never felt the need to move beyond Burbank.

You see, you have to understand that Stevenson got kind of a rude awakening when he first arrived in Hollywood back in 1939. At the time, Robert was one of England's top action director. He had helmed such U.K. hits as "Tudor Rose" and "King Solomon's Mine." So -- when Stevenson was signed by David O. Selznick -- it was assumed that Robert would follow in Alfred Hitchcock's footsteps and become the next big thing in Tinsel Town.

Well, that didn't happened. Over the next 17 years, Robert was only to direct 6 motion pictures. Though one or two of these films were fairly high profile projects (I.E. "Jane Eyre" with Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine), none of these movies were huge successes by Hollywood standards. Which is why -- over time -- Selznick seemed to lose confidence in Stevenson's abilities and gave the U.K. helmer fewer chances to direct.

By the time the mid-1950s rolled around, Robert was virtually out of the business. Another Hollywood has-been. But then Walt Disney came on the horizon. Truth be told, Disney wasn't really interested in using Stevenson as a really-for-real motion picture director at first. Walt was just looking for someone who could work quickly and turn out good-looking-but-low-cost episodes for his weekly ABC TV program, "Disneyland."

And -- after all those years of not being behind a camera -- Stevenson nearly blew his big comeback chance when his first film for Disney, "Johnny Tremain," went 'way over-budget. To add insult to injury, Robert's kind of ticked off Walt by staging that movie's Boston Tea Party sequence -- arguably one of the more pivotal event in American history -- as if it were a slapstick scene out of some Hollywood musical.

To help recover the additional money that the studio had spent on completing "Johnny Tremain," Disney put that Robert Stevenson film out in theaters prior to showing this originally-made-for-television feature on ABC's "Disneyland" show. And -- by normal Hollywood standards -- that should have probably been the end of Stevenson's tenure at Disney. Except that Walt must have seen something that he liked in the soft-spoken Englishman. Which is why Robert was given another shot at directing for the studio. The chance to direct Disney's big Christmas 1957 release, "Old Yeller."

That film -- as any good Disney history buff will tell you -- was a hit. And -- from there -- Robert Stevenson had this really extraordinary run at Walt Disney Productions. Directing another 18 films for the studio over the next 18 years. Some of these pictures being Disney's biggest hits of the 1950s, 1960s & 1970s. These titles include:

  • The Shaggy Dog (1959)
  • Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)
  • The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
  • Son of Flubber (1963)
  • Mary Poppins (1964)
  • That Darn Cat! (1965)
  • The Love Bug (1969)
  • Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971)
  • Herbie Rides Again (1974)
  • The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

"To what do you attribute Stevenson's great success at Disney?," you ask. Well, to be honest, Robert had this gift for grounding fantasy in reality. Making even the most unlikely scenario seem plausible. Whether it was a practically perfect nanny who traveled by umbrella or a Volkswagon with a mind (and heart) of its own, Stevenson knew how to sell these things on screen. To carefully lay out all the necessary story groundwork so that an audience could eventually say: "An English spinster lady who wants to help the war effort by using empty suits of armor to battle ***? ... Okay. I guess I can buy that."

Case in point: The two Disney DVDs that we're going to talk about today -- "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost." These two Robert Stevenson films occupy some pretty interesting spots in the Disney Company's filmography. For "The Gnome-Mobile" marked the studio's return to big-screen fantasy following Disney's smash hit, "Mary Poppins." And -- as for "Blackbeard's Ghost" -- Well ... This was actually the Stevenson film that was in production when Walt Disney died in December of 1966.

As for "The Gnome-Mobile" ... This movie was actually hoping to catch a bit of a ride on "Mary Poppins" 's coat tails. For this July 1967 fantasy film stars Karen Dotrice & Matthew Garber, the two English children who played Jane & Michael Banks in the 1964 Academy Award winner. In fact, just to make sure that movie-goers got the connection, Walt actually had Karen & Matthew billed in "The Gnome-Mobile" 's credits as "those 'Mary Poppins' kids."

The film itself is a fluffball. Walter Brennan plays a dual role: D. J. Mulrooney, a well-meaning lumber magnate as well as Knobby, a 943-year-old gnome who lives in the Redwood forest that Mulrooney's company has been cutting down. D.J.'s grandchildren Elizabeth (Dotrice) and Rodney (Garber) try to persuade the old gent to spare the woods & save the gnome's home. Which Mulrooney does ... eventually.

In the meantime, the usual complications entail. When D.J. starts talking about gnomes, naturally his staff thinks that he's gone nuts. Which is why his scheming vice president, Ralph Yarby (Richard Deacon. Best known for his work as the much put-upon Mel Cooley in the original "*** Van *** Show"), has Mulrooney committed. Which is why it's up to D.J. grandchildren to now bust him out of the nuthouse.

This is (of course) followed by a slapstick chase through the forest in limousines. Which is then followed by a semi-pseudo-sort-of "Sadie Hawkins Days" chase through the forest, as Knobby's grandson, Jasper (Tom Lowell) tries to escape a bevy of lady gnomes.

As you might expect with a Disney film from this period, "The Gnome-Mobile" ends happily. With D.J. deeded 50,000 acres of redwood forest to the gnomes -- so that the little people will always have a protected home. Then everyone goes for a ride in Mulrooney's limo as they sing a reprise of the title song that the Sherman Brothers wrote just for this picture.

Disneyana fans are sure to enjoy "The Gnome-Mobile" at the very least for its curio factor. For this film marks the last on-screen appearance of that Disney favorite, Ed Wynn (Who died soon after production wrapped on this picture in June of 1966). Meanwhile Disney theme park fans may be intrigued by this movie's use of Audio Animatronic figures to play the owl, raccoon & bluejays who warn the gnomes to stay away from humans.

It was Walt who (it's said) insisted that Stevenson use those AA figures in "The Gnome-Mobile." For Disney saw this on-screen use of robotics as animation's next logical step in its evolution. So -- with that in mind -- one has to wonder what sort of movies we would have seen coming out of Disney Studios if Walt had just hung on a few more years.

But -- sadly -- Disney didn't have a few more years. The surviving members of the cast of "Blackbeard's Ghost" recall all too vividly the day that Walt made an appearance on that film's set. How sallow the studio exec looked. How the skin seemed to hang off of Disney's already skinny frame. Suzanne Pleshette talks about how she tried to tease Walt during his visit to the soundstage where "Blackbeard" was being shot. Straining to get a laugh out of the obviously exhausted executive. But that night -- when Pleshette went home -- she just cried when she thought back about how sick Disney looked. How obvious it was that Walt wasn't long for this world.

Given the grim feeling that must have pervaded the Burbank lot back then, it's almost surprising to find that "Blackbeard's Ghost" turned out to be such a sunny comedy. The picture is another one of those family-friendly fantasy films that Stevenson seemed to do so well. Disney perennial player Dean Jones plays Steve Walker, Godolphin College's new track coach. Through circumstances that are really too convoluted to recount here (which actually involved an enchanted bed warmer), Walker summons Blackbeard's Ghost (Peter Ustinov). Who's doomed to linger in limbo until he performs a good dead.

In this case, the good deed involves Jones & Ustinov teaming up to defeat a group of gangster who are determined to toss a bunch of little ladies (led -- FYI -- by another Disney studio favorite, veteran character actress Elsa Lancaster) out of their seaside home so that the mob can make it over into a casino.

As you might expect (This being a Walt Disney Productions picture directed by Robert Stevenson), this film features a laugh-laden sporting event (In this case, a track meet where Blackbeard's Ghost helps Godolphin's woebegone team come from behind to win) as well as a slapstick finale. This time around, Dean & Peter work together to rid the rest home of its gangster infestation.

Me personally, what I find fascinating about watching the DVDs of "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost" virtually on top of one another is how much creative continuity there is between these two films. For Stevenson used the very same set designer (Emil Kuri), the very same costume designer (Bill Thomas), the very same cinematographer (Edward Coleman), the very same art director (Carroll Clark) as well as the second unit director (Art Vitarelli) on the two pictures. Robert even used some of the same actors -- with Richard Deacon, Gil Lamb and Norman Grabowski playing key roles in both "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost."

Though -- to be honest -- that was one of the real virtues that the films that Walt Disney Productions churned out in the 1960s had. That -- like the big Hollywood studios used to have in their heydays in the 1940s & 1950s -- Disney had this core ground of experienced creative people back then that the company could always draw on. Studio veterans like Stevenson, producer Bill Walsh and screenwriter Don DaGradi who could always be counted on to crank out a quality product.

But then as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and folks like Stevenson, Walsh & DaGradi retired or passed away ... Walt Disney Productions really seemed to have lose its knack at turning out these sort of films. These family-friendly fantasies that featured eye-popping special effects as well as just enough laughs to keep adults involved in what was ostensibly a kiddie picture.

And -- given that two of Stevenson's bigger hits (I.E. "The Shaggy Dog" & "The Love Bug") are currently being remade by the Walt Disney Company, it'll be interesting to see if these modern remakes can actually recapture the magic that the originals had. Or whether these pictures will just join the long line of pale copies that Disney has churned over the past thirty years. As the studio struggles to recapture what Robert Stevenson seemed to make look so easy. Which is make the implausible look possible.

I know that -- at the very top of this article -- I promised you more cheese from the Mouse. Well, truth be told, "The Gnome-Mobile" and "Blackbeard's Ghost" aren't really all that cheesy. By that I mean: If these two recent BVHE DVD releases were to be compared to cheese, I guess that they'd probably be a quality Camembert. NOT a stinky Limburger.

So -- if you want to have a bit of nostalgic fun -- you might want to pick up a copy of "The Gnome-Mobile" and/or "Blackbeard's Ghost" DVD today.

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