Walt Disney's THOSE CALLOWAYS (1965) -- The Film and the DVD

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ernest Rister, Mar 12, 2004.

  1. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    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.
     
  2. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    (no message)
     
  3. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    Ernest,
    You're writing this review early Saturday morning when many of us are sleeping. I'm sure there will be a response from others during the course of the weekend. I'm glad to see this title was released in it's OAR because I had doubts about that which led me not to preorder it. Of couse, since your confirmation it's back on my order list. Thanks for the review.






    Crawdaddy
     
  4. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    No, no, the "no message" is there because I removed a secondary post. I'm not *that* sensitive, my friend. LOL...

    By the way, I just picked up "Walt: The Man Behind the Myth" and "Frank and Ollie: SE" and will be sharing thoughts on both in short order. I can already say the "Firehouse Five + Two" chapter in the Frank and Ollie special features section is one of my favorite bonus features of the year.
     
  5. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    Ernest,

    I'm very interested in Walt: The Man Behind the Myth, especially if it's exactly that: not a 'PR'-type of "documentary".

    Thanks for the review above!
    I own several of those "secondary" Disney gems on VHS and I can't wait to replace them on glorious DVD (some already acquired!).


    Cees
     
  6. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    "Ernest, I'm very interested in Walt: The Man Behind the Myth, especially if it's exactly that: not a 'PR'-type of "documentary".

    It has footage of Walt's actual HUAC testimony, so it at least tries to address some of the sharper edges of the Walt Disney story. Still, it was produced by the Disney family, so what it DOESN'T have - to my disappointment - is any hint of an important question...WHY?
     
  7. LukeB

    LukeB Cinematographer

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    Better check that DVD again, Ernest - it's mono, not 5.1!
     
  8. Rodney

    Rodney Screenwriter
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    Great review Ernest. Right on target. I hope this sells well. I pre-ordered it and am very happy!
     
  9. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    "I hope this sells well."

    I doubt it, especially since few DVD review sites that I know of (if any) have even bothered to review the disc. That's why I wrote what I did, to get the word out to those who would listen. Reminds me of last year, when several high-profile DVD sites failed to review 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: SE. They all jumped to review Freddy Vs. Jason, but some DVD review sites couldn't be bothered to review 20,000 Leagues (HTF was the first "Leagues" DVD review I read, and I commend HTF for taking the time to praise and criticize it). If some sites (cough Digitalbits, DVDFile, IGN-DVD cough) can't find the time for Leagues, I seriously doubt you'll be seeing many reviews for Those Calloways. And so, because it is one of the most obscure Disney live action titles, and because it is being ignored by the DVD review sites like other live-action Walt Disney titles, I do not expect it to sell well -- personally, I'm just glad I was given the opportunity to own it in wide-screen with a 16x9 enhancement. I have it, I love it, it looks and sounds better than it ever has, with understandable caveats. That's good enough for me.
     
  10. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    Just curious Ernest, what is the Question that was not included or asked

    cheers
     
  11. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    The question is why....why did Walt feel such a driving need to continually risk his company's entire fortune on such large ideas, what personally motivated him. The inner life of Walt Disney remains as much of an enigma as Charles Foster Kane. Many people involved in show business do so because of a lack of emotional support in their childhood years -- and there are some frankly disturbing stories out there about how Walt was disciplined by his father, Elias. Walt's boyhood friend, Walt Pfeiffer (sp?) is on record talking about how Walt was afraid of his father, Virgina Davis was at a Q&A in Hollywood with Leonard Maltin and she talked about "how hurt he'd been". There's an entire dynamic to Walt's personal motivations that is always skipped over somewhat in biographies, and the film "Walt" is no different. Things like Snow White and Fantasia and Disneyland are all explained as business decisions...think about it, Walt created an entire modern monument to himself in Anaheim, like some sort of Egyptian pharoah struggling to achieve imortality. Was Walt driven to "beat death", was he compensating for a lack of emotional support in his formative years, or was he just a big kid who liked to build things? The question is "why", and the film doesn't attempt to answer that question, or even ask it. The film does soft-ball some issues in Walt's life, such as his contentious decision to trademark his own name, forcing his brother to pay him a royalty every time his name was used in company products. It's obvious this was a back-handed bit of spite towards Roy, who refused to give Walt money for such ideas as Seal Island (Walt had to fund the film himself using his life-insurance as collateral) and Roy was dead-set against the idea of Disneyland at first. "You've been taking things away from me my whole life" Walt is known to have told Roy, and there is also a story that Walt hurled the Best Documentary Oscar for Seal Island at his brother as an "in your face" gesture. Walt and Roy had a famous on-stage reconciliation the night B'Nai B'Rith honored Walt Disney, with a teary-eyed Walt calling Roy onto the stage to share the honor with him. None of this is even touched on in the film - I suppose an adequate biographical film about Walt would probably stretch to four hours or so, because there is so much to cover, from the boyhood struggles all the way up to his death. This isn't to say the film "Walt: The Man Behind the Myth" is bad. In fact, some of the bonus features are pure nirvana for Disney buffs. It's a celebration of the man's life, not an *examination* of it, and I always say that films should be appreciated for what they are, and that critics should review the film that was made, not the film they wanted to see made.
     
  12. DaViD Boulet

    DaViD Boulet Lead Actor

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    Ernest,

    Thanks so much for posting this review. Every since you first mentioned this film to me, I've been waiting for Disney to send me a screener but have yet to receive it. I'm glad you've taken the opportunity to post your review of this film/DVD for the benefit of HTF. As I would have expected, your review of of the film is artful, enlightening, and provides a foundation of the film's historical context which is of immense value.

    If the disc does show up (if it doesn't I'll place an order), I may post some additional comments regarding the DVD picture/sound quality into this thread which, in my opinion, is the "Official HTF Review" for this title -- I hope that Ron and/or Parker (please) archive it once it's had a while to garner some conversation so it can be preserved for future visitors.

    Bravo!

    -dave [​IMG]
     
  13. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    Thanks for the expansive answer to that.

    I guess Walt would have proud of Tron then ?

    Cheers
     
  14. Brian W.

    Brian W. Screenwriter

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    Thanks for the review, Ernest. I knew nothing about this film, but I plan to pick it up as a blind buy now.
     

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