Category Archives: Movies

Watching MISTY (1961)

The film version of Marguerite Henry’s much-loved book for children, “Misty of the Chincoteague” is one I believe I saw on TV or in a theater as a child. In all the years since, I thought it was a Disney film, but when I bought a DVD of it in the Chincoteague Museum last weekend, I found out it was not! It’s just as good as many Disney live-action films, and better than some.

Paul and Maureen Beebe have come to live on their grandparents’ farm on Chincoteague Island, Virginia after the death of their parents. Grandpa Beebe has a small herd of ponies bought from the wild herd on Assateague Island, and he raises and sells young horses from it. Paul and Maureen are fascinated by the wild herd on Assateague, and while there decide an independent and swift mare called The Phantom (pictured above) is a horse they want to buy at the next annual sale, a tradition on the island. Usually only recently born and yearling horses are sold, but Paul and Maureen believe they can talk the Fire Company (who own the horses) into selling The Phantom to them. Their grandfather has told them that a pony costs $100 at the sale, and they work very hard through the spring and summer to raise that amount, first by gentling and training Grandpa Beebe’s own newborns, then by doing all kinds of odd jobs. On a visit to Assateague, Paul discovers that The Phantom has had a creamy-white foal which he names Misty. Now Paul and Maureen hope to buy both horses, though where the second hundred dollars will come from they don’t know.

The big event of the year is the annual Pony Swim, when the entire herd is rounded up and swum from Assateague to the fairgrounds on Chincoteague for the sale. Grandpa and Paul help with this, and Paul even jumps into the water to help a struggling Misty reach the shore. The day before the sale, Paul and Maureen visit the ponies who will be sold and discover that Misty already has a Sold tag! It seems a man from off-island wanted a horse for his young son, and made a pre-sale deal with the Fire Chief. Paul and Maureen’s hopes are dashed!

That’s enough of the plot, which is fairly predictable, but quite enjoyable. The film is beautifully photographed, the score is excellent, and the acting is generally fine, if a bit corny at times. Only six real actors are in it, including David Ladd as Paul, son of Alan Ladd, and later a film executive. Equally good performances are given by Pam Smith as Maureen, Arthur O’Connell as Grandpa Beebe and Anne Seymour as Grandma Beebe. Many small parts are filled by actual Chincoteague residents, who do fine, though their accents are a bit hard to follow.

As an adaptation of the book, this film does quite well. It’s reasonably close in many areas, with some events moved around or somewhat altered, notably a horse race. It also gives a fine portrait of the area, and the publicity from the film helped preserve Assateague and its wild horses. The spirit of the book is captured well, and the horses are damned cute!

Recommended.

Watching IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962)

Images © Disney.

I remember liking this live-action Disney film when I saw it at age 11 in a theater, and after reading the original book, I wanted to see it again. The film has its flaws, but both Ellen and I enjoyed watching it.

The book is quite long, and the film is well under two hours, so I expected it to be much abridged, and it is, but the script does a good job in the time allowed. For starters, headliner Maurice Chevalier as the Frenchman Paganel and co-star Hayley Mills as Mary Grant, daughter of the missing Captain Grant they are searching for are teamed up from the beginning. In this version, Paganel has brought Mary and her brother Robert (Keith Hamshere) to the steam yacht of Lord Glenarvan with the message in a bottle he’s found telling of Captain Grant’s shipwreck. Lord Glenarvan (Wilfred Hyde-White) is dismissive and skeptical, but his son John Glenarvan (Michael Anderson Jr., not in the book, but essentially replacing Lady Glenarvan) is attracted to Mary Grant and sympathetic to her desire to find her lost father. He convinces his own father, Lord Glenarvan, to undertake the search for his lost Captain. (Unlike the book, Captain Grant worked for Glenarvan in the film, which ties them together nicely.)

The story cuts quickly to the first adventure in the Andes of South America, where an avalanche becomes a Disneyland ride with effects that look pretty silly today. Excellent background paintings by Peter Ellenshaw in this film, but some other effects seem poorly done by today’s standards. There are more adventures in the pampas of eastern South America, including the group being stranded in a giant tree by a flood, one of the best moments of the book, and handled well in the film.

This is not a musical, but there are a few songs for Chevalier and Mills by the Sherman Brothers, nothing very memorable or helpful to the plot, but entertaining enough. Soon the story moves on, skipping most of the Australia third of the book except to introduce villain George Sanders as Thomas Ayerton, former shipmate of Captain Grant, who promises to help the search party, but has other nefarious plans. The finale takes place in New Zealand, and involves laughable Maori warriors and a volcano, which again has poor effects by current standards (this was a Disney B-picture, so budgets were constrained). Wilfred Brambell is entertaining as a half-crazed shipmate of Captain Grant long held prisoner by the Maoris, who helps the party escape them.

In all, still fun to watch. Hayley Mills was not only charming, she was an excellent child actor, and it’s easy to believe each character she portrays, at least for me. Chevalier is also fun and entertaining. The rest of the cast is pleasant enough, but those two are the standouts, and deserved their top billing. So, while the book has lots more story, the film is not a bad abridged version.

Recommended.

Watching FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)

After enjoying the Jules Verne novel (just reviewed here), I was curious about the Irwin Allen Technicolor film. I’ve rarely liked anything Allen did, so I wasn’t expecting much, but even my low expectations were not met. I found the film on YouTube, not a great copy, but good enough to learn that I could only watch about a quarter of it. The film draws very little from the book, just the basic idea of a balloon voyage across central unexplored Africa, the name of the balloon inventor, Fergusson, and a few greatly distorted events from the book. Visually, the effects are cheap and ineffective from the first frame, as we see the balloon on a demonstration flight for the Royal Geographical Society (not in the book). The gondola of the balloon is laughable, one end looks like the head and neck of a giant unicorn for no good reason. Cedric Hardwicke plays Fergusson ineffectively, he’s dull and uninteresting. His assistant Jacques (replacing black manservant Joe in the book) runs the balloon machinery, thereby giving Hardwicke little to do other than act stuffy and officious. Jacques is played by teen idol Fabian in an obvious ploy to attract a young audience. He’s fine, but completely out of place in this story.

Before the balloon launches, the mission is changed by Britain’s Prime Minister from exploration to a silly military/patriotic one where Fergusson must secretly plant the British flag on the west coast of Africa to thwart some slavers there. In charge of this, and going along is Sir Henry Vining (not in the book) played by Richard Haydn. Haydn’s comic performance was the one thing I did like about the film. A British character actor, he’s best known today as the voice of the Caterpillar in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” he’s always fun to watch and listen to. Other cast members of note like Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre and Billy Gilbert were wasted on nonsense and looked uncomfortable. Red Buttons was awful as the reporter sent along to cover the flight for an American newspaper. In the book, there were only three passengers on the balloon…two for a while when Joe jumps overboard into a lake to help keep the balloon aloft. In the film we end up with about eight people on the balloon, none of them interesting except Haydn. I will admit I skipped through a lot of scenes looking for something enjoyable, so I might have missed a few worthwhile moments, but I doubt it. Even the final thrill ride from the book is made silly and dull here.

Verne’s book is not great literature, but it’s a lot more fun than this awful film!

Watching WONDER WOMAN

Image © Warner Bros.

I’m going to begin this with general comments. Later, after a spoiler warning, I’ll address some specific points that I think won’t give anything important away, but if you want to avoid all mention of plot elements, you might want to come back after you’ve seen the film.

I enjoyed the film, I think in large part because of the performance and persona of Gal Gadot, who is an example of perfect casting, born for the part. Sure, others could play the King of Siam, but Yul Brynner was perfect for it, it’s that kind of thing. Her every move, expression, word, gesture and emotion seemed true and right for Wonder Woman. Even her slight Israeli accent works well here. Gal’s skills in the action scenes as well in the character ones hit the mark every time. Chris Pine was fine as Steve Trevor, the rest of the cast, who are largely supporting players, were good too, but Gal made it work for me.

There were no boring parts, always a good sign, though lately I’m more impressed with a film, script and actors who can carry quiet moments equally well, and this film does that. There aren’t many of them, but they work. The effects and action sequences were fine, if a little too frequent in the second half for me. Mixing in moments of super-slow-motion has become a familiar thing in action films, but I kind of like it as it gives my old eyes a chance to see what’s going on better. I saw it in 3D, but did not notice any particularly great uses of it, and often saw none for long periods, so I expect the 2D version would have been fine.

Okay, on to more specific plot and script comments, in case you want to stop here. More below.

 

 

 

 

The top screenwriting credit goes to Zack Snyder, and this film is crafted to fit in with the other DC character films he’s directed, so it’s framed in a brief modern-day sequence, but we don’t learn a great deal from that except that Diana is unchanged, has an impressive base of operations, and is still being heroic. Most of the film is a flashback to her origin, beginning on Themyscira. That sequence is handled quite well, I thought. Young Diana wants to train for battle, her mother wants to protect her. Other Themyscirans help Diana learn what she needs to know. In one early moment, Diana’s mother tells her a bedtime story about her origin that seems too simplistic, but later we learn part of it is not true, so that leaves the rest as just a bedtime story and not necessarily so. A nice, subtle idea.

When American Steve Trevor arrives in his crashing plane, I got the first jolt of unexpected plot: it’s a World War One German plane. In the comics, of course, Wonder Woman was created in the early years of World War Two. When Steve succeeds in convincing Diana to join him in fighting the Germans, it’s all World War One, “The Great War,” with Steve working as a spy for the British. In retrospect, I can see why this was done. It avoids the film becoming “Wonder Woman vs. Hitler.” It also means that, for Diana in the present, this entire story happened over a hundred years ago, freeing later stories from being tied to this continuity and these supporting characters. That could be a good thing or a bad one, depending on how she’s handled in later films.

Once Diana and Steve meet, the language question is always a problem, but here they at once speak to and understand each other perfectly. This seemed odd and wrong at first, but it is explained later, and by inference, subtly lets us know that Themyscira is not ignorant of the world at large, another nice touch.

There are several villains in the story, some obvious ones who are not particularly interesting or well-rounded, and an implied hidden one who is revealed late in the film. He’s the only one who really worked for me.

The usual clash of cultures when Diana enters man’s world takes place in London in this film, and I thought was well handled and entertaining.

The third act of the film takes Diana, Steve, and a band of comic misfits to the front lines where various plans and plots are to take place. Here Diana asserts herself and becomes the true hero we all want to see. I liked that, but the war scenes do go on for a long time. Some of the plot gets too convoluted and tricksy for me, too. Finally, Diana’s growing powers seem to go even beyond anything in the comics, but there is an explanation of that in the film that works when you think about it.

In all, I enjoyed the two hours I spent watching “Wonder Woman,” and recommend it, particularly to witness Gal Gadot’s wonderful performance. Perhaps a second film might be even better, we’ll see.

About Mary Poppins

Image © Disney.

My first exposure to the characters and story of Mary Poppins was in the books by her creator P.L. Travers. Then came the Disney film version in 1964. I loved much of it, but at age 13 was already critical of the changes Disney made to the characters and storyline in the books. And even then I knew Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent was terrible. This past Thanksgiving weekend, Ellen and I saw a performance of the Mary Poppins musical at Centenary College in northern New Jersey, thanks to Dave and Ann Greene. I enjoyed it, but was struck by the strange mixture of elements from the books, elements from the film, and some all-new things created by adapter Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame. It made me want to reread the books for the first time in decades, and I did that through December, specifically the four main books by P.L. Travers. Here are some thoughts on all this, with SPOILERS if you haven’t read or seen any of these things and plan to. Continue reading