THRILL TO The Fabled Tree-House! — The Wild Animal Race! — The Great Pirate Attack!
Disney has the rights to two features based on the famous Wyss novel. Yes, that’s right; two! Most of us are surely familiar with the extremely popular 1960 version produced by Disney himself and starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, and James MacArthur.
But what most do not know is that Disney also owns the rights to an earlier version released in 1940 by RKO. This shorter version (at least in its rarely available 93 minute form) stars Thomas Mitchell, Freddie Bartholomew, and Tim Holt. The film was moderately unsuccessful an posted a loss on release, although it did garner a single Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects, losing to The Thief of Bagdad. Remember that prior to 1962, visual and sound effects nominations were grouped together in a combined Special Effects category.
So why does Disney own the rights to two versions? So the story goes, when Walt opted to film the novel, which was in the public domain, he decided to purchase the rights to the earlier version to prevent any potential re-release and any resulting competition and comparisons to his own version.
But the two films share little in common excluding some of the barest of plot similarities. The earlier, 1940 version is darker, grittier, and more comprehensive in the story it tells. It is also a little more believable while providing good- if mostly unexceptional entertainment value.
Here, the first reel or two are spent with the family patriarch, William Robinson (Thomas Mitchell) detailing how he has made the surprise decision to take his family away from London to escape persecution. The wreck of their ship doesn’t happen until around the fifteen minute mark in the first of three extremely well done storm sequences. Seems like whenever the producers needed to inject some action, they went to the storm. These three sequences are the best parts of the picture and surely why it garnered a nod from the Academy. Disney’s version skips the backstory outside of a line or two and starts with the initial sinking of the Robinson’s vessel.
Once settled on the island, Mitchell and his brood, with Tim Holt and Freddie Bartholomew playing two of his four sons, much of the saga goes through how they settle in and adapt to life on the island. Much time is spent working through how they will build their home, the tree house made famous- in 1960. Their ultimate tree house is a rather pedestrian and makeshift affair, with parts of their wrecked ship playing key roles in the construction. So ramshackle is it that the walls are mainly constructed of straw mats. We don’t have the rather opulent (by comparison) estate of Mills’ Robinson which comes complete with kitchen and running water. And the ship’s wheel definitely isn’t used for something as vain as a moon-roof by which to watch the stars!
Mitchell’s family also spend a lot of their time fashioning new clothes and gathering food, and we get a view on how they mean to accomplish the more rudimentary aspects of their new lives, especially on the candle-making process and learning new recipes (like ostrich soup). Both versions take liberally from the varied animal kingdom which the novel presents, though the 1940 versions depict more drama and suspense. The bestiary in 1960 is used for toil (hauling wreckage) or bemusement of the castaways.
The Mills’ branch of the Robinsons seems off more on an extended holiday than finding themselves in the middle of a crisis. Their home is strong and well stocked and most days are spent riding their animals around or swimming. Both Mills and Mitchell are religious in their demeanor- though Mills in a much more subdued and perhaps spiritual manner. Mitchell is clearly leading his family towards a beacon of freedom, going so far as to raising an altar cloth as the flag of the little island, claiming all who seek freedom shall be welcome there. Mills only allusion to anything more concrete than an idyllic life is to establish a holiday; the primary feature of which is comedic animal races.
Both families (who have differing numbers of children depending on the version) have a maternal influence with is none too keen on life on an island away from civilization. Dorothy McQuire’s 1960 rendition is more subdued and restrained, while Edna Best’s portrayal is borderline hysterical. While both families are lead by strong male figures, much of the 1960 remake revolves around of the sojourns of the children as they explore the island.
The result of these explorations is the one key element that the fine folks at Disney include which is in neither the original book or the 1940 version. Pirates, matey. And although pirates always get kids dreaming of plunder – or capturing Blackbeard himself- it becomes the key element in the picture and is the leading reason for the much longer run time at 126 minutes.
As strong as the storms are in the 1940 version, the true big plus of the 1960 remake is the audio and visual presentation it presents. From a dramatic score by Willam Alywn to the crisp Panavision print, it is hard for one to compete with the other. An added bonus is that Disney’s version was filmed entirely on location in Tobago and looks beautiful for it, with exquisite shots of the island throughout. The clearly set-bound 1940 version has to cry uncle on this one.
Though adults may prefer the somewhat deeper and more somber earlier version full of storms, if you are looking for all around family entertainment, the choice is clear. No one knows family entertainment better than Disney- and when somebody does they go and buy them out (note: Lucasfilm).
There are surprisingly other Star Wars tie-ins with the 1960 version. Luke Skywalker’s father, Annakin, takes his name from Disney’s director, Ken Annakin. Further, it is hard to decry the overt similarities between the climactic battle between the Robinsons and the pirates in the film and the same battle of the Ewoks and the Empire in The Return of the Jedi.
Though most will enjoy the 1960 version more, the 1940 version presents a realism and theme which overshadows the high production values of the remake. Though hard to find outside of youtube, Disney did release a twenty minute segment of the 1940 version with the Vault release of their own 1960 remake.