Film & Movies
Did the NAACP Kill “Song of the South”?
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This month is the 59th anniversary of the premiere of Disney’s still controversial “Song of the South.” Even though Disney has released the film in both Asian and European markets with no race riots occurring nor lengthy diatribes published condemning the film, the Walt Disney Company still hesitates to release the film in the United States. Despite the fact that — for many years now — there has been a healthy “blackmarket” selling bootleg copies to those who desperately want to see the film.
However, the story of why “Song of the South” is not available in the United States and the controversy sparked by its initial release is a saddening mixture of insensitivity, misunderstandings, and urban legends. It is a much more tangled web than many people realize.
Thanks to the extensive research work of Animation Historian Karl Cohen, whose book “Forbidden Animation” from McFarland Press devotes an entire chapter to the film’s release, and the historical article on the making of the film by Disney Historian Jim Korkis entitled “Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?” that is scheduled to be printed early next year, I think I have enough understanding now to briefly discuss the connection of the NAACP in the controversy surrounding the film. I’d like to thank both those gentlemen for their groundbreaking research work.
It is important to remember that the “Song of the South” came out in 1946 and there was no balance of media images that featured the Huxtable family or John Shaft or George Jefferson or even Spike Lee. African-American performers often portrayed comic roles where they were characterized as lazy, slow-witted, easily scared, subserviant and worse.
Also remember that in 1946, the United States was a highly segregated country with separate facilities for non-whites. And that the brutal torture and lynching of African-Americans was so commonplace that the National Headquarters of the NAACP would fly a black flag out its window when news of a new lynching was confirmed.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was officially formed on February 12, 1909 (timed to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s one-hundredth birthday, although the name itself was not chosen until 1910). Appalled at the violence that was committed against African-American citizens including wide-spread lynchings as well as the “Jim Crow” laws that promoted racial discrimination and segregation, the organization contained both white and black members. In fact, white members held key positions on the board in the beginning.
One of its first protests against the portrayal of African-Americans in films was during the release of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) that the NAACP felt glamorized the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and sparked race riots across the country. Despite all its nationwide attempts to have the film banned, “Birth of the Nation” became a highly successful film and it is still widely available today as an example of innovations in filmmaking even while its racial slant is criticized.
Throughout the 1940s the NAACP saw enormous growth in its membership, claiming nearly 500,000 members by 1946. However, it wasn’t until 1948, that the NAACP was successful in pressuring President Harry Truman to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination by the Federal government.
When “Song of the South” was released, the NAACP was acting as a legislative and legal advocate, pushing unsuccessfully for a federal anti-lynching law and for an end to state-mandated segregation.
The NAACP attempted to create a “Hollywood Bureau” to convince Hollywood Studios to counter derogatory stereotypes of African Americans in motion pictures and to promote more realistic roles for black performers. There was extensive correspondence with producers such as David O. Selznick, Daryl F. Zanuck and other major studio moguls about such classic films as “Gone With the Wind,” “Ox Bow Incident,” “Pinky” and — of course — “Song of the South”.
The Disney Studio had come under close scrutiny when it first announced its work on the stories of Uncle Remus.
Reading the first drafts for the screenplay prepared by a Southern author named Dalton Reymond, who
sprinkled the script with stereotypes and terms that were offensive when referring to African Americans, The Hays Office sent a warning to Disney. It was non-negotiable that those terms needed to be removed but that overall the film was acceptable in meeting the demands of the Production Code. However it strongly suggested “… again the advisability of your taking counsel with some responsible Negro authorities concerning the overall acceptability, from the standpoint of Negroes, of this story … Our Negro friends appear to be a bit critical of all motion picture stories which treat their people, and it may be that they will find in this story some material which may not be acceptable to them.”
Disney hired Clarence Muse in 1944. Clarence Edouard Muse was born in 1889. He was an African-American lawyer, writer, director, composer, and actor. After high school he earned a degree in International Law from The Dickinson School of Law of Pennsylvania in 1911. Disgusted with the poor opportunities for Black lawyers he then selected a show business career. Muse appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also wrote songs, plays, and sketches. He appeared in very dignified roles in films made for all Black audiences and was so articulate as to be considered a spokesman for the Black community.
Muse quit Disney early in 1944 after his ideas to portray the African American characters as more dignified and prosperous were rejected. Once Muse left Disney, he began to inform people about the nature of the Disney feature while it was still in the rough draft outline and before radical leftist screenwriter, Maurice Rapf had been brought in to make the script more acceptable. Muse wrote letters to the editors of black publications a that Disney was going to depict Negroes in an inferior capacity and that the film was “detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people.” So the pump was already primed for disaster.
In later years, screenwriter Maurice Rapf remembered that Walt “had a theory that the reason why the film was picketed and particularly attacked by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was because the head of the local chapter was actor Clarence Muse. He knew that Walt Disney wanted to do a Remus story, and Muse wanted to play Remus. He was a standard serious black actor, but Disney got someone else. Now others said that couldn’t be true, because Muse was a technical adviser on the film, though I think if that’s true he didn’t do a very good job advising.”
Both Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP at the time, and June Blythe, the director of the American Council on Race Relations, had requested to see a treatment of Disney’s “Song of the South” when the production was first announced. But they were ignored or politely given the run-around. Neither the NAACP nor the American Council on Race Relations had any opportunity to review the project before the press screening.
“Song of the South” had its premiere at Atlanta’s Fox Theater on November 12, 1946. The location was chosen to tie in with author Joel Chandler Harris who besides writing several books of the Uncle Remus stories was also a popular writer on the “Atlanta Constitution.”
However, “Song of the South’s” African American cast members were not able to join Walt Disney and the white cast members at the movie’s premiere in Atlanta, GA. because Atlanta was a segregated city. African Americans could not enter the movie theater or any other public buildings downtown. No hotel within reach of the theater would rent a room to James Baskett who portrayed Uncle Remus.
Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers around the country with the following statement:
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in ‘Song of the South’ remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, ‘Song of the South’ unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”
However, White had not yet seen the film and based his statement on memos sent to him by two NAACP staff members in New York who had attended a press screening on November 20, 1946. Norma Jensen wrote that the film was “so artistically beautiful that it is difficult to be provoked over the clichés” but that the film did contain “all the clichés in the book.” She did feel the Uncle Remus stories were commendable and she found “very touching” the relationship between the rich white boy and the black boy and white daughter of a tenant farmer but objected to scenes like the African Americans singing traditional songs since it was an offensive stereotype.
The other staff member, Hope Springarn, listed several objectionable images in the film, including the use of Negro dialect and the “Negroes singing outside the house” when the little white boy was dying.
Both Jensen and Springarn were also confused about the time of the story since it wasn’t clear that it was taking place during the Reconstruction and not during the Plantation days of slavery. It was something that also confused other reviewers who from the tone of the film and the type of similar recent Hollywood movies assumed it must also be set during the time of slavery.
So based on the information in those memos, White released the official position of the NAACP in that telegram that was widely quoted in newspapers including the December 4, 1946 issue of “Variety”, the trade journal of the motion picture industry.
Racially diverse groups of protesters organized to picket movie theaters in major American cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Yet the racial “harmony” demonstrated by these integrated groups of protesters was not common in most of the United States at the time and the philosophical make-up of these protestors resembled similar groups that protested and marched for civil rights in the Sixties. They were not so much protesting a particular incident or item but using that particular thing as a forum to protest a much larger injustice.
“We want films on Democracy not Slavery” and “Don’t prejudice children’s minds with films like this” were some of the slogans that decorated the signs of a racially diverse group of protesters who marched outside of the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, California. The protesters included African Americans and whites, men and women, old and young. The location of the protest was significant because in the 1940s, downtown Oakland was an elegant district with fancy hotels, expensive department stores, and several large-scale movie “palaces.”
At the film’s New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white picketers, including African American servicemen recently returned from fighting in World War II, chanted:”We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom.” While local chapters of the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film. And The National Negro Congress declared that the film “is an insult to the Negro people because it uses offensive dialect; it portrays the Negro as a low, inferior servant; it glorifies slavery” and called on Black people to “run the picture out of the area.”
The New York Tribune reported that at a press conference Walt Disney said that any real antagonism towards the film would come from radicals “who just love stirring up trouble whenever they can.” Disney defended it as a “monument to the Negro race,” pointing out that it was set after the Civil War and therefore could not be about slavery and “that the time had not yet come when Negro susceptibilities could be treated with as much delicacy as Hollywood reserves for, say, American Catholics.”
New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was a “travesty on the antebellum South…no matter how much one argues that it’s all childish fiction, anyhow, the master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded in your yarn, with the Negroes bowing and scraping and singing spirituals in the night that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney.”
So did the NAACP kill Disney’s “Song of the South”? Not really, even though its initial criticism of the film may have been based on some faulty information. It did use the film as a rallying point that resulted in some changes in how films depicting African Americans were made.
Walt and the Disney Studio were not totally innocent either. The ambiguity of the story suggesting that all those happy, singing African Americans might indeed by slaves and Walt naively treating the film as another Disney fantasy (evident by those strong Mary Blair color stylings even in the live action scenes) rather than realizing that using real people would make people think it was all real added to the confusion and made defending the film more difficult than it should have been.
In a public interview, actor James Baskett who played Uncle Remus responded to the criticism by saying: “I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the ‘Song of the South’.”
Film & Movies
Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?
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First came “Cars” in June of 2006.
This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.
“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.
“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.
Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”
So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?
“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off
The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.
“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.
But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,” Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.
“Metro” – The World Below Cars
And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.
Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.
That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.
So who knows?
Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?
One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.
Time will tell.
Film & Movies
Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland
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This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.
John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.
Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.
Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”
What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.
Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?
It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.
Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths
So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.
So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.
Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.
Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive
Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.
Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression
What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.
Lightning Lane – Raising Prices
Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).
And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.
Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.
“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects
Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”
That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.
Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays
Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:
So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.
Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.
Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:
So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:
Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel
Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?
What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.
It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”
Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel
And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.
And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).
Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel
That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.
- Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
- Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain
Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.
This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.
Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings
It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.
All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.
It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.
Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.
Walley World Shooting Locations
And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.
The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).
Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Film & Movies
“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland
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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film
Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.
But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.
It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically). Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.
And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.
There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).
If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.
This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:
“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland
It wasn’t that easy.
The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland
This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Hayley (As in Hayley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).
There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Hayley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.
How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?
Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.
This is where the Imagineers were wrong.
Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse
Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.
200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.
Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.
To be specific here: Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.
Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).
Ken Annakin – Film Director
Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.
Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.
Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”
And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.
New Robin Hood on Disney+?
Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.
So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.
So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
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