While being known primarily for his animated catalogue, Walt Disney had always been fascinated with the prospects of live-action filmmaking.
Some of his earliest works, the “Alice Comedies,” saw Walt (along with frequent creative collaborator Ub Iwerks) experiment with combining live-action photography of a real-life human girl with animated backgrounds and characters. Looking back on it, this seems like a prototypical version of what is now commonly utilized in major motion pictures (look no further than this year’s dazzling retelling of The Jungle Book).
When Walt arrived in Hollywood, he wasn’t really looking to continue the animated series that he had begun back in Kansas City, Missouri. Instead, he looked towards the world of live action. “I was a little discouraged with the cartoon at that time. I felt at that time I thought I was getting into it too late. In other words, I thought the cartoon business was established in such a way that there was no chance to break into it,” Disney admitted later. “So, I tried to get a job in Hollywood, working in the picture business so I could learn it. I would have liked to have been a director.” That didn’t happen. ”I just didn’t get in anywhere,” Walt said later. “And, before I knew it, I was back with my cartoons.”
He might have been back with his cartoons but he was still fascinated with live action: Projects like Fantasia, Saludos Amigos, Fun and Fancy Free, and The Reluctant Dragon (which featured a live action “studio tour” embroidered by animated segments). Part of this was because of necessity: many of these “package” films mixed and matched aesthetics because the studio was producing films for the government during World War II. There weren’t enough to go around.
So Dear to My Heart, released in 1949, was originally supposed to be fully live-action. “Walt had conceived it as a fully live-action feature, his first,” Disney historian Neal Gabler has said. Gabler recounts Walt’s earlier ambitious of breaking into live action and notes that he “never quite surrendered the dream.” But later, animated sequences were added. “Cartoons are used to introduce the acts,” Walt said. “But the story is carried by the live action.” (Film historian Leonard Maltin said that pressure was put on Walt to include these animated bits, but that “it’s essentially a live-action film”). Soon after, he had worked on a treatment called Hound of Florence. He sent it to RKO, who was distributing his films at the time, with a note that “this is not intended for combination cartoon-live action, but instead it is written entirely for live action, using all the tricks we know a dog can do and playing it for comic suspense throughout.” This 1923 novel would later prove the inspiration (however loose) for The Shaggy Dog and its sequels.
“As soon as Walt rode on a camera crane,” one animator recounted to Gabler, in an acknowledgement of Walt’s appreciation of technology and being able to skillfully control every moment, “we knew we were going to lose him.”
Interestingly, it was pragmatism that would ultimately get Walt to make his first fully live-action feature, in the form of Treasure Island. Following World War II, the British government had imposed a 75 percent import tax on American films shot in Britain and ordered that 45 percent of the films shown in British theaters be made in England. Additionally, the French (who agreed to a similar quota, aided largely by the American State Department) and British governments had both impounded receipts earned by American studios in those countries, as a way of making sure the currency be spent there.
“After the war we still had the frozen fund situation in Europe,” Walt said later. “So, in order to get the funds out of England, they wanted me to go to England and do something. I had this story Treasure Island I had wanted to do, and I suggested we go over and do Treasure Island and that way we’d use our funds. Making a picture over there seemed the most logical way of making use of these frozen funds.” He added: “All in all, the project worked out very well, and I believe we are getting a very good picture.”
Walt had chosen Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic Treasure Island as So Dear to My Heart was wrapping up. He tasked Perce Pearce and Fred Leahy to go to England and oversee the production, but Walt eventually wound up traveling to Europe (ostensibly as a vacation for his wife and children) to help supervise Treasure Island. Disney representative William Levy wrote to Roy (still back at the studio), that Walt had arrived “in excellent spirits and full of confidence.”
Production on Treasure Island began on July 4, 1949, and while Walt said that he would be taking a more hands-on approach to the production, he only visited the set (at Denham Studios) every so often. After five weeks in Europe (the Disney family also visited Ireland, France, and Switzerland), Walt returned home. A month and a half later Walt returned to England, as the drama-free production was winding down. As Gabler wrote, “The only suspense had been whether the British government would issue a work permit to Bobby Driscoll, who was to star in the film, since a British law prohibited employment of actors under thirteen years of age.” This led to some rather creative workarounds for the young Academy Award-winner (who had previously starred in So Dear to My Heart), especially when bad weather had delayed the actor’s involvement of the film.
According to Gabler, Walt was “unusually involved in post-production” on Treasure Island. He had asked Pearce and Leahy to airmail him specific takes for editing, and after a test screening in January, Walt ordered them to cut several minutes and swap the musical score for something more “forceful.” Afterwards, he had the editor fly from England to Los Angeles, so Walt could be more involved in editing the film himself.
Treasure Island–the first adaptation of the Stevenson story to be in color–was released in America on July 29, 1950. (Its big premiere was, of course, in London on June 22.) “Walt Disney, whose artistry marked a new era in motion picture entertainment, now sets a new milestone with his first all-live action feature,” shouted the film’s original trailer. “Only Walt Disney could bring to realistic life and with such dramatic impact Robert Louis Stevenson’s memorable characters.” The trailer promised a movie full of “daring action” and “breathless suspense,” and it delivered. The film was a hit. But with such success, the general public was worried that Walt would forsaken the animation medium that had made him a household name. He wrote a note to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who shared that worry. “We are not forsaking the cartoon field,” Walt promised.
Walt and RKO green lit three more British productions–The Adventures of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. These are films that are important, according to British author and Disney historian Brian Sibley, not just because the films were “remarkable,” but because they “captured the essence of British stories.”
“In live-action, you can take a mediocre story and put in interesting characters and personalities and have a good show,” Walt said, in relation to the differences between live-action and animation. “We can’t do that in cartoons. We can’t hire actors; we have to create them ourselves. We have to make them interesting, or we’re sunk. I’ve had a lot of fun making live-action pictures, mainly because I can move so fast. But I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve made mistakes, but now I can apply the lessons to cartoons.”
Leonard Maltin notes that there was some significant crossover between the two mediums, too. “One thing he may have contributed to the live-action film that isn’t widely recognized is the use of storyboards,” he said. Alfred Hitchcock, a similarly groundbreaking perfectionist, had used them. But Walt brought them into the mainstream filmmaking process. “No one had really leaned on that technique for planning out a live-action film until he did.” This was a way that Walt could maintain creative control while being away from the actual physical production. According to Maltin, he was a “master of reading a storyboard, of sensing where something needed punching up, where it was lagging; or where it was too hurried and needed some relaxing. He gave his directors a pretty good blueprint.”
In the years that followed, Walt Disney would make a series of live-action features that would push the boundaries of technology and storytelling (his ambitious adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954), tug at your heartstrings (Old Yeller, 1957) and make you howl with laughter (The Absent-Minded Professor and The Parent Trap, both 1961).
Soon, Walt Disney’s live action films would be defined by their own spirit, just as the animation features had. You knew exactly what you were getting into when you saw one of these films; they weren’t exactly the animated features, but they had an easily identifiable vibe. They were almost always dizzyingly high concept (some of them, like The Three Lives of Thomasina, veered into gentle abstraction) and stuffed with humor, heart, and adventure. Many of them featured the same actors, who would appear again and again (people like Dean Jones and a young Kurt Russell); sort of the Walt Disney company players. And there were a bunch of them. In between the release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (January 25, 1961) and The Sword in the Stone (December 25, 1963), there were 16 live-action Disney movies released.
After Walt passed, the stream of live-action releases continued in the same spirit, many times continuing stories that Walt himself had overseen (like Herbie Rides Again and the series of films that saw Kurt Russell as a science whiz kid college student). Towards the end of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, the live action slate was diversified, with bold moves into visionary science fiction with films like The Black Hole and TRON, and ambitious, artful co-productions with Robert Altman’s Popeye and Dragonslayer. When new management at the studio in the mid-‘80s, the Disney live-action brand was re-established, with movies like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Newsies, and The Mighty Ducks. The technology might have become more sophisticated and the actors had changed, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Walt giving the go-ahead for these movies in the mid-‘60s. (Some, too, were outright remakes of those earlier films, like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Flubber, and That Darn Cat.)
More recently, Disney live-action productions have had an interesting way of honoring the past while pushing the boundaries of imagination, with films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series (based on the Disney Parks attraction), this year’s The Jungle Book (based on the 1967 animated classic), and next year’s Beauty and the Beast (based on the 1991 animated classic). And just like in Walt’s day there is a mixture of real-life adventures, like this year’s The Finest Hours, futuristic fantasies like TRON Legacy and Tomorrowland, and inspirational sports dramas like McFarland, USA, or this fall’s Queen of Katwe. The next Disney live-action film is the breathlessly beautiful Pete’s Dragon, itself a remake of a 1977 film that Walt had originally optioned in the 1950’s for a segment of his Disneyland TV series. In the circular nature of this tale, the original was a live-action feature … with animated elements.
As in Walt’s day, the studio’s output has found the perfect equilibrium between animated output and live-action ingenuity. Or, as Walt once said: “As long as I live I’ll always be doing things with cartoons. But I don’t want to be trying to do things with a feature cartoon that could be done better with a good live cast.”