Jim on Film: Disney MVPs
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Part of what makes Walt Disney’s live-action films so special was his use of his favorite actors in live-action film after live-action film. After the Hollywood studio system crumbled, Disney kept his own repertory of talent, giving his live-action films a sense of family, camaraderie, and uniqueness. In the commentary track for the DVD of The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson discuss the benefit of having worked together previously on The Happiest Millionaire and how that bond is reflected in the quality of the performances on screen. So many of Disney’s contract players appeared together or worked with the same directors in many films, which must have created a stronger bond in creativity in all steps of production. In Dean Jones’s autobiography Under Running Laughter, he mentions discussing with Walt Disney ideas for improvements to the script of Blackbeard’s Ghost. Considering Jones was never a big name talent (in comparison to, say, a Fred MacMurray, a Jane Wyman, or a Kirk Douglas), I doubt such easygoing exchanges would be typical in another studio (particularly with the studio head).
For most Disney fans, though, the most notable effect these company players have is that it gives us a familiar face, a sense of continuity, and a stronger connection to a secondary film like The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, which a Disney fan has to see (or even own) just to watch Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello.
Since Walt Disney’s earliest live-action efforts, there have been many people whom we hold dear simply because of their connection to the Disney name. In addition to the adorable Virginia Davis and the other original Alices, there was Bobby Driscoll and Luanna Patten, the young stars who appeared in Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and several other significant Disney films. There have been other talented youngsters as well, from Kevin Corcoran to Spencer Breslin, and teens such as David Stollery, Kurt Russell, and Lindsay Lohan. It’s also amazing to think of the number of extremely talented adult actors who have been Disney regulars, a studio not associated with films that warrant much attention. Among the talented have been Fred MacMurray, Charlie Ruggles, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Una Merkel, Tim Conway, Cloris Leachman, and Tim Allen, to name a few.
Because of the number of talents who have been live-action Disney regulars over the years, I have selected 10 MVPs. The criteria were that they had to have had at least three appearances in feature films (or, like Hilary Duff, had to have had significant television appearances) released under the Walt Disney banner at some point in Disney history. To be an MVP, the performers had to appear in memorable roles that significantly add to the Disney live-action film library, either through consistently amazing performances or through their importance and success in Disney films.
10. Richard Todd—Because his performances fall so early in the history of Disney’s live-action films, Richard Todd is often forgotten as one of the earliest of Walt Disney’s acting regulars. Todd starred in three entertaining adventures for Disney, two of which count among Disney’s best live-action movies. Unfortunately, because they bear the mark of their times—early Technicolor British-flavored dramas with a seemingly somber tone—The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953), and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1954)—are often forgotten. When Disney released their live-action VHS line of The Walt Disney Studio Film Collection, Robin Hood was included in the original titles, with The Sword and the Rose following a year later. As other live-action titles from the collection continued to appear in other editions, Robin Hood and The Sword and the Rose didn’t. Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue only had a brief stint on video in a budget line in the late 90s.
Despite dating from their Technicolor and tone, these are three spirited, intelligent, and exciting adventures, each rooted soundly in Richard Todd’s leading performance. In my favorite of the three, The Sword and the Rose, Todd plays a commoner in a story not unlike Disney’s animated Aladdin. Todd’s Charles Brandon catches the eye of Glynis Johns’ Princess Mary, whom her brother, King Henry VIII, is determined to marry to someone she doesn’t like. After flirting with Charles Brandon, she is heart-broken to learn that he is leaving for the New World. She gives up everything to be with him and to travel to America aboard a ship, where she is discovered. Brandon is arrested, and the king’s advisor arranges to have him killed. Todd makes Charles Brandon a true swashbuckling hero of his time—strong and heroic but also volatile and romantic. It’s a shame Disney stopped making films such a these, or we may have seen more of the talented Richard Todd. Hopefully, it won’t be much longer, however, before we can see the talented Richard Todd on some Disney DVD releases.