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Los Angeles Times (7 May 2002)

"Four Beloved Live-Action Disney Films Now on DVD"

by Susan King

Cast and crew from Pollyanna, Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson, and Parent Trap remember Walt’s hands-on involvement.

Hayley Mills recalls that things didn’t go very well on her first day of shooting Pollyanna, the 1960 Walt Disney drama for which she won a juvenile Academy Award. In fact, she did so poorly in her scene with veteran Karl Malden that her father, Sir John Mills, told her she had as much personality as a vegetable.

“I was just sort of being boring,” says the actress, who recently moved from London to New York City. “I think I was being distracted, really, by the size of the set and the people and being out there in the blistering California sun.”

Mills, then 13, had only made one film in her native England -- the acclaimed 1959 black-and-white drama, Tiger Bay. And here she was suddenly starring in a big-budget, high-profile period drama about a plucky orphan opposite such stars as Malden, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, and Adolphe Menjou.

“I wasn’t concentrating on what I was doing,” says Mills, 56, who continues to act on stage and in TV. “I was much more interested in what was going on around me. The unit was so vast. There were so many crew members. And I was dying for the lunch break because there were all these wonderful things to eat that I had never seen before.”

But after her conversation with her father, Mills knew she had to buckle down. By calling her a vegetable, “I think he just sort of understood that I would understand what that meant.”

Pollyanna is one of four beloved Disney live-action films being released on DVD today in fully restored, two-disc sets. The “Vault Disney Collection” ($30 each) also features the 1957 boy-and-his-dog melodrama Old Yeller; the 1960 action-adventure film Swiss Family Robinson; and Mills’ 1961 comedy, The Parent Trap, in which she plays twins who go through an elaborate ruse to get their divorced parents back together.

The discs include audio commentary from stars and directors; new documentaries on the making of the films; production archives; episodes from Disney’s TV series, Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Disney; vintage cartoons; audio excerpts and several other features.

Mills and others involved in making these films say the hand of studio chief Disney is evident throughout.

“He was involved in all of his movies and in the shooting and the storyboards and how he wanted it to look,” she says. “Some directors, I think, thought he was a bit too much involved. But they had to do it his way. And his way was pretty good. He knew what he was talking about and he was a very great leader.”

Swiss Family Robinson, which starred John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and James MacArthur, was the fourth and final film Ken Annakin (The Longest Day) directed for Disney.

“With Walt, when you had a discussion, even if he said this is an idea off the top of my head, if you opposed that or had any slight objection to it, you could make sure that would be in,” says the 87-year-old British director.

One thing Disney wanted included in this lavish adaptation of Johann Wyss’ novel about a shipwrecked family was a tiger, Annakin recalls. “When he raised the idea of the tiger, I said, ‘You know, Walt, I have worked with a lion, and lions and tigers are very difficult to work with. But I think a lion might be better than a tiger.’ He immediately said, ‘Ken is afraid of a tiger.’ From that moment, every time the tiger was raised, he would say, ‘We’ll do this and this with the tiger -- of course, if Ken feels he can do it.’”

Working with Disney, Annakin says, was wonderful “as long as you kept to the lines of what he had agreed. Every sequence in the picture had been through Walt’s brain. This picture was very unusual. We developed the story to what the characters would be like and then, halfway through, Walt said to me, ‘I am going to give you a storyboard artist and we are going to develop the rest of the picture on storyboard, and then we’ll hand it over to the writer and he’ll put some lines in for the actors.’ That’s what we did.”

MacArthur, best known as Danno on Hawaii Five-O, made four features for Disney early in his career, including Swiss Family Robinson. MacArthur, 64, and Annakin have remained close friends over the decades.

The actor recalls that the cast became one happy family on location on the island of Tobago near Trinidad. “Everybody was having fun,” says MacArthur. “You look back on that and I was like 20 or 21 and I was on this island with pirate ships and was playing poker with Sessue Hayakawa (The Bridge on the River Kwai).”

Hayakawa, who played the captain of the band of pirates, brought his two geishas with him on location. “One of his ladies would always hold an umbrella over him and the other one would bring his meals or any refreshment he wanted,” Annakin recalls.

“I’ve never gotten over that,” MacArthur says of Hayakawa’s geishas. “They framed my entire approach to life ever since. I have been trying to get two women to fan me for 40-odd years but I’m still in search of them.”

Corcoran, 52, is in three of the Disney movies in the collection: Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson. He came to fame as the irrepressible Moochie on the Spin and Marty serial on The Mickey Mouse Club and was in numerous Disney TV productions and movies, frequently as the character of Moochie.

“There was a lot of just extremely talented people who Walt would gather together and put on a project,” says Corcoran, who is now first assistant director on the NBC series Providence. “It was wonderful. You learned a lot.”

Like MacArthur, who played his older brother in Swiss Family Robinson, Corcoran had a great time in Tobago. “We were there for five or six months,” he says. “One of my brothers got to go with me so I had a friend with me, which made it even more fun because my parents were afraid I would get homesick.”

Old Yeller, based on Fred Gipson’s novel, was Corcoran’s first big movie role. He has fond memories of Spike, the 160-pound lab/mastiff who played the lead role. “He was an unusual and incredible animal,” Corcoran says. “He had a head on him the size of a bear and he was just this huge, smart, lovable yellow dog. I used to ride him around like he was a pony.”

He recalls that Disney visited the set of Old Yeller nearly every day. “He really was a hands-on kind of a guy. He was like a little bee who would go around and pollinate all the different places. He would be there making sure it was the way that he wanted.”

Old Yeller was the final film that Fess Parker, who had come to overnight fame two years earlier as Davy Crockett on the phenomenally popular Disneyland series, made for Disney. Parker says fans still talk to him about Old Yeller -- something he never anticipated at the time they were shooting the movie. “It was just something that we were assigned to do and we enjoyed doing it,” says the 76-year-old Parker, who owns successful wineries and hotels in Los Olivos.

The film reminded him of his childhood in central Texas in the 1930s. In fact, he says, author Gipson was a reporter for his hometown newspaper. “My dad and Fred Gipson were friends and, of course, we renewed our friendship when we were making the picture,” he says.

Mills says the longevity and appeal of the films she did for Disney never cease to surprise her. “Of course, the truth is that things that strike you when you are growing up you always remember, because it is part of your developing awareness of yourself and the world,” she says.

“The movies you see and the books that you read and the music you hear and the people you meet make an impression on you. So I realized eventually that for a lot of people, these films are part of the nuts and bolts that put them together.”

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