THOSE CALLOWAYS (d. Norman Tokar, scr. Louis Pelletier, ph. Edward Colman) review by Ernest Rister -------------- Allow me a moment of soap-box preaching. Walt Disney's history as a film producer is incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from nature documentaries to blockbuster animated features to low-budget high-concept comedies to astonishing war-time propaganda films to state of the art live-action fantasy epics. Lost amid these in the public memory are a large number of wonderful, unique personal dramas that failed or underperformed at the box office. Everyone today knows films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, The Shaggy Dog, and Mary Poppins. Few outside of the Disney buff contingent remember or know about films like The Three Lives of Thomasina, Third Man on the Mountain, So Dear to my Heart, or Those Calloways, and yet, as any true Disney buff will tell you, these small gems are among the best films Walt Disney ever made. The list goes on and on. Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. Kidnapped. Darby O'Gill and the Little People. The Light in the Forest. The Sword and the Rose. Pollyanna. All of these films have one thing in common - they were all box office flops. I dare say, one could almost make an argument that they were too smart, too specific, too adult for the standard Disney audience. Those Calloways is a film that falls into this tradition of wonderful Disney live-action movies that defied the expectations of the standard Disney family audience, and failed to recoup production costs in initial release. Many of Disney's better films underperformed on initial release. Films like Fantasia, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty. Unlike the animated classics, the small, wonderful live-action films were not re-released every few years in cinemas, and they died an ignominious death by winding up as two-or-three-part episodes of Disney's weekly tv anthology series. Such was the fate of Those Calloways. The film itself defies simple description. It is a film where setting, mood, theme, music, and various emotional beats are more important than a driving narrative. The film - in a nutshell - revolves around the family of Cam Calloway, a hard-drinking, hard-fisted, hard-willed man who was raised by indians. The family lives out in the timberlands of early 20th century Vermont, and they are seen as eccentric environmentalists by certain denizens who make up the local town. The totem of the indians who raised Cam is personified by the wild geese who pass over the town twice a year, and Cam is driven to protect them. Like any good Frank Capra film, the pressures of modernization and commericalism come to bear when outside forces wish to turn Cam's advocacy into a capitalist opportunity, and the Calloway family pays dearly for adhering to their simple values of tradition, family, and respect for nature. Even this simple distillation of the theme fails utterly in describing the film, which explores alcoholism, commercialism, adolescent maturity, regret, perserverance, greed, self-hatred, and community with equal measure. A rote explanation of the story of this film would be as inadequte an explanation of the film's charm as a rote explanation of It's a Wonderful Life. Consider Capra's film for a moment -- how do you simply describe for people who have never seen It's a Wonderful Life the impact that the local characters have on the experience, or how the values of the characters touch you emotionally...how can you explain Bert and Violet, how can you explain Mr. Gower, how can you explain the tortured longing of George in a simple distillation of the plot? You can't. The experience of the film, the beauty of the visuals, the struggles of the lead characters, the importance of community against commercialism defy a simple one or two sentence distillation. Those Calloways is the It's a Wonderful Life of the Walt Disney canon, right down to an obnoxious black raven that seems to forshadow dire events. This isn't a film to be seen for the plot, it is a film to be seen for the experience. Like any film of this kind, the acting is crucial, and Those Calloways features some of the best performances of any live-action Disney film. Brian Keith gives the best performance of his film career as Cam Calloway, a man whose values are so ingrained into his behaviour, his own life is secondary to his beliefs. Stubborn and willful, he has lapsed into alcoholism to dull the pain of his failures. His battle with the bottle is as central to the plot as his battle with the industrialists looking to turn his town into a hunter's paradise. Vera Miles gives one of the best performances by any leading female in a Disney film as Cam's long-suffering wife, who loves Cam deeply, and yet she struggles to reconcile his love for local wildlife over his love for the family. If I were to name one of the ten best-acted scenes in any live-action Disney film, the moment she receives an unexpected gift on Christmas Eve would be in the top five. Brandon de Wilde plays Bucky Calloway, the young man deeply beholden to his family and yet tortured by the reputation the family has within the community. His defense of the family is expressed by his battles with Whit (an impossibly young Tom Skerritt...yes, Tom Skerritt) and his longing for Bridie (an impossibly young Linda Evans...yes, Linda Evans). There is a moment in the film where Bucky manhadles Bridie and kisses her more out of rage than of love, and at that moment, both characters are shocked to learn how flawed his anger has made him. The scene ends with de Wilde immobilized over his own brutality. The audience is left in hushed wonder -- Yes, Virginia, this is a Disney film. There are other notable contributions from the supporting cast, especially Walter Brennan as the sharp-witted Alf Simes, and we come to suspect Ed Wynn's character only pretends to be as hard of hearing as he lets on, just to play jokes on those around him. The biggest laugh in the film comes from Ed Wynn's observation of a duck blind, which I won't spoil here. It's pure small-town Capra. The film itself is actually much longer than one would expect from a Disney live-action drama -- it clocks in at 131 minutes, and yet, after watching it, one would be hard pressed to find room to cut. On the one hand, there are moments of leisurely atmosphere, but these add imeasurably to the verisimilitude of the film. On the other, removing the character scenes removes the reason the film exists at all. Even the scene where we are introduced to Bucky's dog as he impulsively chases local critters on a hunting trip isn't filler -- we later learn these moments are essential, as this comic action sets up behaviours leading to a heart-stoppping action set-piece in the scene that follows. One final, important contribution to the film must not be overlooked. Like any Disney film, the use of music adds immeasurably to the film's overall impact. The score for Those Calloways was composed by none other than Max Steiner, in his only assignment for the Disney studios. He provided an impeccable sense of melody and leitmotif -- Bridie's theme in particular is beautiful, and the theme for Cam's beloved geese naturally becomes, we learn, Cam's theme. Steiner's handling of the Christmas section of the film also warrants special mention. Why did Those Calloways fail in 1965? It received solid if not ecstatic reviews. Plus, 1965 was the 10th year of the Walt Disney TV anthology show, and so, perhaps audiences needed a spectacular reason to see a family wilderness drama on the big screen when they were getting solid Disney product on TV for free. The film has fallen into obscurity, but its reputation among Disney buffs has survived. The film is now back, on DVD, in widescreen, and it deserves the attention it should have received almost 40 years ago. THE DVD Those Calloways is presented in its original aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer has been struck from an existing interpositive, and so what you'll find on the DVD is likely what you'd see if you attended a "Disney live-action revival" at a film festival. The print is in fairly good shape, and yet print flaws are rampant during the opening titles, and you'll also spot "reel change" cigarette burns. Despite these artifacts and flaws, the print is sharp, and yet this sharpness weakens the film in moments, no more so than during the occasion of some rear-projection process shots. Although the film featured location shooting in Vermont, as well as back lot shooting for the town sqaure scenes, process photography was used for some pick-up moments, and the sharpness of the DVD actually acerbates the artificiality of these moments, whereas a softer film presentation may have been intended by director Normam Tokar. Colors are vivid and natural, and I never noticed any edge enhacement or halos. This isn't on the same par with last spring's Treasure Island, but it is still a solid presentation. The film is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. I watched this film with my 8th grade niece on Thursday, and she is the one who started the film. My home receiver defaulted to a phony surround mode, or (more likely) my 8th-grade niece switched my receiver to a phony surround mode, resulting in a wee bit of confusion. I actually assumed the disc had a 5.1 track, when it clearly does not, because I heard music coming out of my back speakers and some solid bass coming from my amp during the low rumblings of the score. This disc does not have a 5.1 track, and I apologize for the error. Still, moments of Max Steiner's score are pristine and clear, especially Bridie's theme. This is certainly the best audio presentation that I have ever heard for this title, perhaps even better than the original theatrical run in 1965. SUPPLEMENTS/BONUS FEATURES There are no supplemental features. The DVD is bare bones, save for an advertisement for previously-released Disney live-action films on DVD. FINAL THOUGHTS Those Calloways has an avid following among Disney live-action buffs, because, like so many other forgotten live-action Walt titles, it defies the modern reputaton of the Walt Disney live action film library. This year will finally see some of the best live-action films produced by Walt Disney released on DVD, with the powerful Three Lives of Thomasina and the marvelous Darby O'Gill, both streeting this summer. This new release of Those Calloways begins what will hopefully lead to a modern re-appraisal of the context of the Disney catalog. Yes, the man made The Shaggy Dog, and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. He also made many wonderful, forgotten films like Those Calloways. Bonus features or not, this release is one of the highlights on the Disney release schedule for 2004, and it is highly recommended.