For those of us who grew up during the golden age of Disney live-action movies, we especially adored the House of Mouse’s stable of young stars – most notably, fair-haired British import Hayley Mills, Tommy Kirk, who first broke out on TV in “The Hardy Boys” that aired during “The Mickey Mouse Show,” and that very definition of a Disney kid, Kevin Corcoran, who nailed the pesky pipsqueak brother archetype to a T as a character known as Moochie.
With so many of us stuck in the house because of the health crisis who are craving entertainment that can be enjoyed by all ages, you might want to check out this treasure trove of true golden oldies, courtesy of Uncle Walt and Disney’s streaming service.
“Treasure Island” (1950)
Disney’s first completely live-action movie was also the first adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic pirate yarn to be shot in color. The sea-faring adventure had plenty of yo-ho-ho along with a wonderful performance by a lad named Bobby Driscoll as cabin boy Jim Hawkins, who receives a treasure map and sets off on a sailing adventure to find it. That’s when he runs into the wily Long John Silver, who befriends Jim and offers his services as the ship’s cook. British actor Robert Newton left an indelible mark on pop culture with a parrot on his shoulder, a wooden leg and distinctive way of talking (“Aaarrr!”). Little wonder his performance was declared as “a virtual tour de force” by Variety. Newton has since been dubbed as the patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day.
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954)
When it is rumored that a sea monster has been attacking ships in the Pacific, a professor (Paul Lukas) and his assistant (Peter Lorre) launch an expedition to see if they can find the beast. Also on board is as a cocksure harpooner (Kirk Douglas). When the crew is thrown overboard, they realize that the monster is actually an odd underwater metal sea vessel. The three men end up encountering the enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason), who oversees a submarine known as the Nautilus that he uses for his mission of vengeance that leads to an attack by a giant squid. Based on Jules Verne’s 19th-century sci-fi novel, this early example of steampunk had quite a manly cast and featured Douglas singing the tune, “A Whale of a Tale.” The blockbuster was the second-highest grossing picture of the year and would win two Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects.
“Old Yeller” (1957)
Warning! Do not watch this coming-of-age tale without having a considerable stash of tissues on hand. A brave yellow stray Labrador-Retriever mix protects a mother (Dorothy Maguire) and her two sons in post-Civil War Texas when the head of the family (Fess Parker) leaves to collect cattle in Kansas. Older son Travis (Tommy Kirk) and his little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) run into the dog, who steals meat from smokehouses and robs chicken eggs. But Travis grows closer to Old Yeller after ge saves his sibling from being threatened by an angry mama bear. But when a rabid wolf bites the dog on the neck, Travis must summon the courage to do the unthinkable. The New York Times declared the film to be “Sentimental, yes, but also sturdy as a hickory stick.”
“The Sign of Zorro” (1958)
This film was pieced together from eight episodes from Disney’s hit TV series that premiered on ABC in 1957. It featured Guy Williams as Spanish master swordsman Don Diego, who is summoned by his father to California in 1820 to help put an end to the reign of tyrannical Capitan Monastario. While Don Diego acts like a meek intellectual during the daytime, he assumes the identity of his masked alter-ego Zorro while mostly working at night to fight for what is right with his sword. He works with his trusty manservant Bernardo (mime artist Gene Sheldon) who uses sign language and also feigns being deaf. Providing comic relief is Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin), a chubby soldier who likes to drink and sing. He is kind-hearted, loyal and brave but continues to issue cruel orders, while often adding “Please” to his plea.
“The Shaggy Dog” (1959)
The black-and-white magical tale was the studio’s first live-action comedy. It also kicked off a string of Disney laugh-getters with a fantasy element that would drive the film division for the next two decades. The basic premise: A teen boy named Wilby (Tommy Kirk) is transformed into an English sheepdog after coming in contact with a cursed ring in a museum. He learns from a professor that he can only break the spell with a heroic act of selflessness. Meanwhile, his dad (Fred McMurray), a former mailman who is allergic to dogs, doesn’t recognize his son when he shifts into canine form and kicks him out of the house. Only his brother (Kevin Corcoran as Moochie) and the professor know his secret. Also in the mix is a Cold War-era Russian spy and his adoptive daughter Francesca. Wilby ends up rescuing the girl from drowning, which him to maintain his human form again. The wacky comedy would gross more than $9 milllion with a budget of less than $1 million – making it more profitable than that year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “Ben-Hur.”
“Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959)
Darby (Albert Sharpe), who works as a caretaker of an estate owned by Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald), and his daughter Katie (Janet Munro) live in a wee Irish town. Darby tries to catch a tribe of leprechauns and is especially keen on snagging their king Brian. He loses his job to Michael, a younger man (Sean Connery), and is captured by the little people and taken to their lair. Darby is granted three wishes after capturing the leprechaun at sunrise, the first being that Brian has to stay by his side for two weeks or until he runs out of wishes. All ends well as Katie overcomes a sickness, she and Michael become a couple and he humiliates the town bully in public. Connery was dismissed as being “merely tall, dark and handsome” by The New York Times, but its critic praised the film as being “an overpoweringly charming concoction of standard Gaelic tall stories, fantasy and romance.”
In her first of six Disney films, Hayley Mills was irresistible as cheery Pollyanna, a 12-year-old orphan of missionaries arrives in a small town to live with her stern Aunt Polly (Jane Wyman). Her niece has a knack of always maintaining an optimistic outlook, even managing to charm the likes of cranky hypochondriac Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorhead). Her wealthy aunt is opposed to razing an old orphanage that her father donated to the town. But the residents defy her and throw a bazaar to raise funds. Pollyanna is forbidden to attend and is locked in an attic bedroom, but her orphaned playmate Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran) lets her out so she can lead the singing of “America the Beautiful” at the carnival. When she tries to return to her bedroom by climbing a tree, she suffers a fall and ends up in a wheelchair. Pollyanna becomes depressed but she rallies when the townsfolk arrive at her aunt’s house and bestow her with love and affection. Mills won an Academy Juvenile Award for her performance.
“Swiss Family Robinson” (1960)
This picturesque adventure tale about a shipwrecked family who build an idyllic isolated island home was the first Walt Disney Pictures film shot in widescreen. The Swiss family consisting of a mother, father and three sons initially decide to relocate to New Guinea to escape war. But when their ship is attacked by pirates, the crew leaves them stranded and the ship ends up on an uninhabited island where they salvage what they can from the boat. They scare the pirates away from the ship by hoisting a quarantine flag and eventually end up living in an elaborate treehouse. Theys soon learn their new home has a variety of wildlife, including a tiger, elephant, monkey, zebra and ostrich. Brothers Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Tommy Kirk) decide to explore the island in a boat they built. They come across a captain and a cabin boy who is actually a girl named Roberta (Janet Munro) and both vie for her affections. While not exactly “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it did become the year’s top box office hit, grossing $40 million.
“Absent-Minded Professor” (1961)
One of my most cherished cinematic memories from my childhood was watching basketball players bounding about a court and achieving amazing feats of height after putting s strange substance known as Flubber on the bottom of theirs shoes. Fred MacMurray stars as the title character, Ned, Brainard, a college professor of physical chemistry who invents a gooey concoction that gains energy when it hits a hard surface. Alas, he is so excited by his so-called flying rubber, he misses his wedding — for the third time no less. His discovery sets off a series of events including a rival professor pursuing his intended, a basketball player (Tommy Kirk) who is ineligible to play because he failed Brainard’s class, a villain (Keenan Wynn) who wants to cash in on the bouncy goldmine and a flying Model T that proves the power of Flubber. Variety called the film “a comedy-fantasy of infectious absurdity” The movie was nominated three Oscars – art direction, cinematography and special effects.
“Parent Trap” (1961)
A delightful romp highlighted by the remarkable dual performance by Hayley Mills as identical twins Sharon and Susan who discover they are sisters when they attend the same summer camp. Initially, they are rivals as they prank each other and end up ruining a camp dance. Their bad behavior causes them to be “quarantined” together for the remainder of the season. After realizing they both grew up in single-parent homes, it dawns on them that they are twin sisters, and their parents who divorced soon after their birth, took custody of one of them. They switch places so each can each get to know their other parent. When Sharon learns that their dad (Brian Keith) plans to wed a gold digger, she tells Susan that she and their mother (Maureen O’Hara) should leave Boston and join her and their dad in California. That way they can re-spark their parents’ feelings for on another. A highlight: Mills singing a duet with herself on the song “Let’s Get Together.” The movie was up for two Oscars — sound and film editing.
“Mary Poppins” (1964)
Consider this musical fantasy the “Citizen Kane” of Disney live-action releases– which also manages to include a fanciful animated interlude to the tune of “Jolly Holiday,” complete with penguin waiters and flying carousel horses. In her feature film debut, Julie Andrews was truly practically perfect in every way as author P.L. Travers magical nanny who drops from the sky in 1910 London and lands in front of Banks family home. She immediately makes a connection with Jane and Michael while she engages her charges and her friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke) the chimney sweep in whimsical adventures. Soon, Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) resents that his household is so upbeat all of a sudden. When Mary arranges a visit to the bank where he works, the children cause uproar and a run on the bank. He ends being up fired, but manages to face his future with a cheerier mood and is eventually hired again. The blockbuster earned a total of 13 nominations – a Disney record – and won five, including Best Actress for Andrews and Best Original song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
“That Darn Cat” (1965)
A mischievous Siamese tomcat becomes entangled a string of crimes that include a bank robbery and a kidnapping in this comedy thriller that was graced with the final appearance of Hayley Mills in a Disney film. The actress plays Patti, a suburbanite who lives with her sister (Dorothy Provine) who shares ownership of a feline nicknamed DC. On one of their pet’s nightly jaunts, he encounters a robber (Frank Gorshin) and his partner who are holding a female bank worker hostage. Their victim replaces DC’s collar with her watch that she used to scratch the word “help” and sends him back to his owners. Patti finds the watch and alerts an FBI agent (Dean Jones) of her find. While the agent fails to find the captive, Patti hatches a plan to convince the FBI that the watch is indeed evidence of a crime. When Jones appeared in the 1997 remake of the film, he told me in a phone interview that the original DC had to have his behind colored in as to not to offend.
“The Love Bug” (1968)
Race-car driver Jim is caught in a losing streak and is forced to compete in demolition derbies with racers half his age. His pal and mechanic, Tennessee (Buddy Hackett), talks about the virtues of spiritual enlightenment after hanging out with Buddhist monks while he builds art from used car parts. After another crash, Jim seeks out some cheap wheels. He ends up going into a fancy European car showroom after spying Carole (Michele Lee), an attractive female salesperson and mechanic. After seeing Thorndyke (David Tomlinson), the British owner of the showroom, abusing a white Volkswagen Beetle, Jim stands up for the car. The next day, the VW Bug ends up outside of his house and he buys it with a payment plan. After Tennessee convinces him that inanimate objects have feelings, he decides to call his car Herbie and tries to become friends. Herbie appears to be a bit of a matchmaker as he tries to bring Carole and Jim together. When Jim and Herbie ace their first race and go on a winning streak, Thorndyke sabotages the Bug by getting him drunk with Irish coffee. Eventually, it all comes down to winning one final long-distance race – and guess who wins? As for the year’s ticket-sales race, “The Love Bug” came in third after grossing $51.2 million at the domestic box office.
“The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” (1969)
Another fantastical comedy. Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) and his pals attend Medfield College, which cannot afford to buy a computer. They reach out to a businessman (Cesar Romero) to donate an old computer, which was used for an illegal gambling ring. When he installs the computer during a thunderstorm, Riley receives an electric shock and becomes a super-human computer. Suddenly, he has incredible math abilities, can read the entire content of an encyclopedia book in minutes and can speak a foreign language fluently just by consuming one textbook. He is soon a worldwide celebrity brainiac with hopes of participating in a TV quiz tournament and winning $100,000. But when he competes on the show, a trigger word suddenly has him sharing the details behind the illegal gambling. After the ring is captured, Dexter eventually reverts to his normal self, but manages to retain one piece of info – which happens to be the answer to the question that will win him the money. Variety dubbed the film “above-average family entertainment.”
“The Million Dollar Duck” (1971)
In another magical twist, scientist Albert Dooley (Dean Jones) isn’t making enough money to pay his bills. His thrifty wife Katie (Sandy Duncan) goofs up a recipe for applesauce and gives it to her husband to take to work for lunch. A duck that Albert is testing gobbles the applesauce, waddles into a radiation lab and gets zapped. The scientist takes the fowl home as a pet for his son Jimmy and discovers it lays eggs with solid gold yolks. It turns out the duck lays an egg whenever it hears a dog bark. When Albert starts selling the gold yolks, a snoopy neighbor named Hooper (Joe Flynn), who works at the U.S. Treasury department, becomes suspicious. The economic upheaval starts a chain reaction with Hooper getting a call from then-president Richard Nixon with the message, “Get that duck!” All’s well that ends well, as Albert finally learns to value his family more than wealth. Alas, critics at time weren’t quacking out golden tributes about this effort. The illustrious Roger Ebert dubbed it “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I’ve ever seen.” Still, somehow Jones and Duncan were nominated for Golden Globes.