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Friday, August 23, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: Mary Poppins, Part Five

After a short delay due to Julie Andrews’ pregnancy, filming on Mary Poppins began. The film would use state of the art technologies to bring the magical world of Mary Poppins to life. While the shoot itself was a breeze when the scene didn’t have special effects, some of the technology caused huge issues with the cast. For example, the picture used an audio animatronic bird that required Julie Andrews to wear heavy cables under her costume. Needless to say, she was not very happy about it.

Many of the special effects used in Mary Poppins were devised by Disney Legend Ub Iwerks. If you recall Disney history, that name should ring a bell. Ub Iwerks was the only animator who stayed with Walt Disney after Oswald was taken by Universal Pictures and animated the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons. Mr. Iwerks was made a partner in the business, owning a third share of Walt Disney Productions. When Walt Disney’s second distributor tried and failed to steal the Mickey Mouse copyrights, he convinced Ub Iwerks to jump ship and go out on his own. Mr. Iwerks cashed out his shares for $4,000, devastating Walt Disney who could barely afford to buy him out. (That stake would be worth about $60 Billion today.) After his solo efforts failed, Ub returned to Disney on the condition that he not be asked to work in the animation department. Walt Disney let Ub work on his own projects, which laid the groundwork for the special effects used in Mary Poppins.

The production completed, the film would go into post production to incorporate Ub’s special effects with the live action footage. Walt Disney was nervous about how the public would receive the picture. Would the film be worth the Herculean effort he put into making it?

Mary Poppins would be huge. Not only would it become beloved by the public, it would be critically acclaimed, winning Oscar nominations in the major categories, winning for Best Actress, Best Original Song and in technical categories. The financial windfall would be put to good use by Walt Disney, who would invest some of the company’s profits into DISNEYLAND, adding new attractions that are still enjoyed today. (The division charged with designing and building these attractions was named MAPO after the film.)

The years have further cemented the film’s legendary status. Its stars have been immortalized at the Magic Kingdom; Julie Andrews became an honorary DISNEYLAND Ambassador and had a horse at King Arthur’s Carrousel named after her. Dick Van Dyke has been honored at the park’s Jolly Holiday Bakery, which is itself a tribute to the film. Mary Poppins continues to be loved and watched by millions the world over.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: Mary Poppins, Part Four

After the drama with P.L. Travers subsided, Walt Disney set about building his cast. He was certain that he had found the only person he felt should play Mary Poppins- Julie Andrews. Ms. Andrews had actually been discovered by another Disney Legend- DISNEYLAND’s Wally Boag. Mr. Boag has been performing in England when he invited a young and shy Julie Andrews to the stage. She dazzled the audience with her singing and by 1962 was performing on Broadway.

There was one problem, however. Ms. Andrews was performing in My Fair Lady at the time and was being actively recruited for the part. She agreed to do Mary Poppins, but only if she wasn’t offered the role of Eliza Doolittle. As fate would have it, Audrey Hepburn would get that role and Julie would gratefully accept the role she was seemingly born to play.

Dick Van Dyke was probably an odd choice for Bert, considering he was American and seemingly would have an issue with the accent, but Walt Disney had seen him on The Dick Van Dyke Show and felt that his everyman persona would help introduce the audience to the magical world he intended to produce on screen.

The rest of Cast was all British- Mr. and Mrs. Banks were David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns and the Poppins Kids by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.

With the cast in place, filming would begin entirely on a soundstage at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: Mary Poppins, Part Three

Mary Poppins went into pre-production with the Sherman Brothers, Don DaGradi and Walt Disney brainstorming ideas. After about a month, Mr. Disney flew Ms. Travers in from England to join the pre-production process. That’s when the sparks began to fly.

Ms. Travers’ participation at this point in the production process was unheard of in Hollywood. Most of the time the authors who license their books to Hollywood do little more than cash the sizable checks they receive. Hollywood sees the authors as knowing little about how a film is made and more often than not sidelines them in favor of more seasoned screenwriters. In cases where the author gains the right to submit the first draft of the script, the studios will often discard the script by default. Ms. Travers was given unprecedented access to the production process at its earliest stage.

Many people have criticized the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks for “smearing” the name of P.L. Travers by portraying her in a negative light. While the movie did take some liberties- the movie depicts Walt Disney hosting Ms. Travers at DISNEYLAND when it was Don DaGradi who took her to the park- it actually softened her abrasive attitude. Richard Sherman has said that the depiction of Ms. Travers in the film made her seem much nicer than she actually was. The proof is in the recordings made of their intense sessions with her. Ms. Travers criticizes the songs, voices her strong opinions and seems to have vastly different ideas of how the film should be. The sessions were recorded so that they could refer back to them after P.L. returned to England, but they ended up proving that the author seemed to have little patience for these Hollywood types and their eccentric (to Ms. Travers) boss. Richard has voiced the opinion that his experience on the pre-production end of the film was more stressful due to Ms. Travers. 

Eventually, this part of the pre-production ended and Ms. Travers flew back to London. She didn’t leave on the best of terms and still expressed doubt that they were on the right track with the picture. While she still provided written notes now and then, the next time she would be back in Hollywood would be for the grand premiere.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: Mary Poppins, Part Two

With P.L. Travers on board, Walt Disney set about arranging his production team. Prior to Mary Poppins, Walt Disney and his animators would storyboard a feature and determine where the songs should go. At that point, the studio’s songwriters would be brought in to work on the music. They were told what the song should convey and how it should fit into the film.

For Mary Poppins, Walt Disney wanted to change the process. He wanted the songwriters to be involved from the very beginning so that the music would be fully integrated into the picture. This would involve the hiring of full time staff songwriters, which was becoming a rarity in Hollywood. After the collapse of the studio system, most of the studios had shed their full time staff. Walt Disney Productions, on the other hand, had so many musical projects in the hopper that it still had staff writers- Richard and Robert Sherman to be exact.

Richard and Robert Sherman were the sons of legendary song writer Al Sherman. Despite their father’s discouragement, they decided to join the family business and become song writers. They mostly wrote bubblegum songs, which caught the attention of Tutti Camarata, who hired them for DISNEYLAND Records. Tutti had been tasked with turning Annette Funicello into a pop star and he felt the Shermans could do the job, as well as write other songs that might be required for the label. Annette’s string of hits caught the attention of Walt Disney, who offered “the boys” the chance of a lifetime- to write the music and songs for Mary Poppins. The brothers were surprised; not only did Walt Disney apparently know who they were (they hadn’t had much direct contact with him up to this point) he also entrusted them with a massive film project that was near and dear to his heart. They had never undertaken such a project before, but they could hardly say no to Walt Disney. They eagerly accepted this new challenge.

When it came to scripting the action, Walt Disney selected the person at his studio who he felt was the best at script and story writing- Don DaGradi. Don was asked to work with the Sherman Brothers to craft a fully realized story that was completely integrated with the music and songs. While Don knew he was fully up to the challenge, he would have to do some on the job training with the Shermans to get them up to speed on what was required for a movie script and how their songs could become an indelible part of the final picture. The biggest challenge, however, would be working with the strong willed P.L. Travers. It would be an experience nobody involved would ever forget.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: Mary Poppins, Part One

Mary Poppins is considered to be one of Walt Disney’s greatest films, however the film didn’t have an easy path to production. When Walt Disney began his effort to make the film, his daughters were young children. By the time the picture was released, his daughters had children of their own. Along the way, Walt would face his biggest challenger yet- P.L. Travers, the author of the famed Mary Poppins books.

The saga began when Mr. Disney’s daughters were quite young. The book they loved to have read to them at bedtime was Mary Poppins and once they realized that their father was the Walt Disney, they asked him to turn their favorite book into a motion picture. Mr. Disney promised that he would and quickly made an offer to acquire the rights from the author of the book- P.L. Travers.

Despite the extremely British setting of her books, P.L. Travers was born and grew up in Australia, moving to England as an adult. Ms. Travers was known as a blunt perfectionist; a less kind version of Mary Poppins. When she was first approached by Mr. Disney, she quickly declined his offer. She didn’t want Mary to be a cartoon character and when he first approached her, Disney was only producing animated films. World War II would intervene and Walt Disney had other worries to deal with, so the project would take a long rest. After the war, England would try to rebuild itself by freezing foreign assets, including those of Walt Disney Productions. If Disney wanted to do anything with its British earnings it would have to make pictures in England. Walt figures this would be an excellent opportunity to ask Ms. Travers to purchase the film rights again.

Prior to this time, Disney hadn’t produced a fully live action film yet and Ms. Travers was still reluctant to entrust Mr. Disney with Mary Poppins. Walt Disney Productions would eventually begin producing live action pictures, but it would also find itself extremely busy throughout the 1950’s, with numerous television shows, DISNEYLAND and a full slate of pictures. By the end of the decade, fate would finally intervene; Walt Disney would be ready to make the film and Ms. Travers would find herself in diminished circumstances. She finally agreed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney provided that she be given unprecedented access to the pre-production process. Walt Disney enthusiastically agreed.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Part Four

Disney had brought its prodigal son back to produce whatever he wanted. When he decided to produce a stop motion film, Disney was overjoyed that maybe this could be a way for it to bridge the gap between Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney Pictures chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had even publicly stated that he hoped the film could help lift the studio’s stodgy reputation.

At practically the last minute, however, the company got cold feet. This film was too macabre. Too stark. Too scary. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy before it, the film was sent to theaters with the more adult Touchstone Pictures brand on it. An odd choice, considering that the company had already regretted doing that to WFRR. By 1993, Roger Rabbit had already been welcomed into Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom with his very own attraction. Jack Skellington would be similarly exiled. 

Without the Disney name, the studio put minimal effort behind promoting the film. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving Weekend release, the film would premiere days before Halloween with a muddled promotional push. Early trailers referred to the film as being from Walt Disney Pictures, but viewers looking for the latest Disney film were greeted with the Touchstone logo. The shift in marketing allowed some toy licensees to drop out while others hastily covered the Disney logo with Touchstone Pictures stickers on the packaging.

The film would be a modest success, but wouldn’t be a Lion King sized success. The merchandise would fail to find very many buyers and the film would soon make its way to the Disney vault, destined to become just a trivia question. Disney might have had little faith in the picture, but its fans wouldn’t let it just disappear. The film gained a massive fan community in the years after its release. By 1998, dolls based on the character Sally that had languished on clearance shelves in early 1994 were fetching $800 on eBay. Disney obviously took notice. Small amounts of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise were produced for Disney Theme Parks and were eagerly snapped up. Licensees lined up to produce even more merchandise for sale. Most films sell the bulk of their merchandise during their initial release. Jack and the gang were selling 20 times more merchandise than they did in 1993 seven years after the film came out.

Disney would make up for lost time. In 2001, Jack Skellington would take over DISNEYLAND’s Haunted Mansion for both the Halloween and Christmas seasons. Despite the huge drop in tourism that year, Jack’s takeover would be a huge success. Florida’s Magic Kingdom ordered its own version and The Magic Kingdom at the Tokyo Disney Resort wanted one too, but initially had to wait. When Florida canceled the overlay, Tokyo eagerly jumped at the chance to add a little madness to its Haunted Mansion. Both seasonal overlays have become cherished additions.

Who could have guessed that the little project that Disney originally rejected would become such a huge phenomenon. Jack and his crew might not have succeeded in stealing Christmas, but they did succeed in stealing the hearts of their millions of fans.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Part Three

Upon his return to Disney, Tim Burton set about choosing his first project. He decided to return to his Disney roots by turning his Halloween themed short idea into a feature length stop motion film. Disney originally had cold feet. What would people think about this grim, macabre take on Christmas and Halloween? The company’s hardline would soften once it realized that it already owned the property and wouldn’t have to negotiate to acquire it from Burton.

At the time, Walt Disney Animation was experiencing a second Golden age. The Little Mermaid had ushered in this new era while Beauty and the Beast had cemented Disney’s new dominance. Disney CEO Michael Eisner had hoped to do what Walt Disney himself was unable to accomplish; release a new animated feature every year. With Aladdin opening up one year after Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on deck for the next year, it seemed as though he would achieve this goal.

The Lion King, however, had fallen behind schedule. It would not be finished in time to meet its original November 1993 release date. The company thought that possibly The Nightmare Before Christmas would fill the void. Production on the stop motion picture, however, was going very slowly.

The actual filming took place in San Francisco, 400 miles away from Disney’s Burbank studios and its prying eyes. The studio feared that the production was going too long and that some of the film’s elements would be too scary for children, despite the fact that this film was supposed to show Hollywood and the world that Disney was willing to create and release edgier pictures. Disney’s fears would prove unfounded; the picture would be ready in time for a Holiday 1993 release. Would Disney, however, be ready for The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Part Two

After his firing from Walt Disney Productions, Tim decided that his future was in directing live action films. Luckily for him, his Vincent short was seen by Paul Reubens, who was looking for a director for the big screen debut of his Pee-Wee Herman character. The film was a huge success, which caught the eye of Warner Brothers executives. They quickly signed him to a contract.

The studio still had some reservations about handing over huge budgets to make some of his more eccentric projects. He began working on a script for a new take on Batman, but while encouraging him to work on the project, Warner Brothers was reluctant to hand such a big project over to him. Eager to work on something that would actually get produced, Tim found a script that had the same sort of twisted view that he liked to portray on screen. Beetlejuice was a huge hit, produced on a small budget. Warner Brothers was finally ready to hand over a huge budget and the equivalent of its Crown Jewels to Burton. His version of Batman would finally hit the big screen.

At first, Warner Brothers began to regret its decision. Tim chose Michael Keaton as his Batman, which the studio found puzzling. The fans were outraged, resulting in a drop in the studio’s share price. After Jack Nicholson was signed, the grumbling quieted. In the end, the film became a colossal hit, making hundreds of millions of dollars for Warner Brothers. When the huge merchandising push was factored in, the studio made in excess of $1 Billion off the film. This made Tim a directing superstar.

This success would not go unnoticed by anyone in Hollywood. Disney CEO Michael Eisner saw an opportunity to grab some of the success for the company. Tim’s firing had come before Eisner had joined the company, and it had been transformed since then. The company’s Touchstone Pictures division now produced the sort of films that could give Burton the freedom to fully explore his visions. Eisner took advantage of Tim’s fondness for Disney and the new freedom he would have to sign Tim to make a few projects for the studio. Warner hadn’t signed Tim to an exclusive contract, so he was free to work where he wanted. So in 1990, Tim would return to Disney. But what would his first project be? It would end up being a literal blast from the past.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Part One

These days, The Nightmare Before Christmas has become an established Halloween treat that bridges the gap between Halloween and Christmas. Who could imagine Halloween without a visit from Jack Skellington and the other denizens of Halloweentown? This beloved classic has even inspired yearly Haunted Mansion overlays at DISNEYLAND and the Tokyo Disney Resort’s Magic Kingdom Park. The film’s current success, however, was hard earned. Executives in charge at The Disney Studios were never big fans of the project and it would take Batman and ten years for the film to make it to the big screen. Join us as we trace the history of this now classic film that was initially rejected then buried by Disney. It would be the film’s fans- and their dollars- that would eventually elevate the picture to its current heights.

Tim Burton was never a normal kid. Growing up in Burbank, he was literally in The Walt Disney Studios’ backyard, but while he aspired to one day join the ranks of the studio’s artists, his tastes leaned darker and more gruesome than the squeaky clean world of Disney. Of course, while Disney’s world was never completely gumdrops and lollipops, its villains always took a back seat to the heroes and everything seemed to be either black or white. Tim, on the other hand, saw things in shades of grey.

Tim’s artistic gifts would eventually lead him to the legendary CalArts. Endowed and built by Walt Disney, the school had soared to the top of arts colleges by the late 1970’s. While it was descended from institutions that had been established decades before, it had only been established as CalArts in the mid-1960’s. It had become a reliable producer of talent for the various Hollywood studios and was a great place to begin an artistic career. Tim had produced a pencil drawn cartoon short in 1979 that caught the attention of Walt Disney Animation- Stalk of The Celery Monster. The studio would offer young Tim an apprenticeship and then a job. A few of the studio’s old guard saw Tim’s potential and regarded his different, darker style as intriguing enough to let him pursue his own projects.

One of his first productions was Vincent, a macabre stop motion short that featured a young boy, not unlike young Tim, who aspired to be just like his favorite actor- Vincent Price. At least, he aspired to be how he imagined Vincent Price to be like in real life. This novel short was unlike anything that Disney had ever released before, which rattled a few executives at the studio. Vincent Price, however, quickly signed on to narrate the film, which changed a few minds at Disney. The short was a huge success, prompting Tim to start working on other concepts for the studio.

His next big project for the studio was a Japanese-themed retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story for The Disney Channel In 1983. The bizarre live action production flummoxed studio execs. They weren’t sure what to make of it and chose to air it just once on Halloween of that year. The film was eventually shelved, never getting a home video release or even a repeated viewing on television.

Undaunted, Tim chose the macabre Frankenweenie as his next project. The featurette, which told the story of a young boy who brought his dog back to life, was the last straw. Disney executives, faced with a hostile takeover and increasing irrelevance, decided to fire Tim Burton. It was determined that the type of projects he was creating would never fit in at Disney.

Tim was devastated, especially after he learned that his next project had also been canceled. The project was deemed, like his others, to be too dark and macabre for Disney. That project was The Nightmare Before Christmas.