You Can’t Go Home Again: Revisiting the Films of Childhood

Maybe Thomas Wolfe had a point. You can’t go home again, but thanks to technology, you can revisit films that once beguiled you as a youngster. Sometimes, of course, this is a mistake.

As a little kid in the ’60s, television, or “the idiot box” was what our parents called “an insult to your intelligence”. Of course, being American kids, we were dying to have our intelligence insulted and would cultivate friendships in hopes of glimpsing some mind-numbing tv shows at a playmate’s house. Since forbidden fruit was often most appealing, I do remember relishing my glimpses of the misadventures of such inappropriate entertainment as The Three Stooges and longed to visit that imaginary universe where the Our Gang kids could somehow fashion an entire Art Deco nightclub out of leftover boards, a few scraps of costumes and the talent of such individuals as Buckwheat and a most annoying and demanding girl, Darla. In retrospect, I understand that my parents hoped to give their children a broader, more imaginative view of the world’s possibilities than old repeats of anarchic vaudeville acts or the Disney corporation was offering children–but, while they certainly couldn’t deny the power of these cinematic siren songs, they did make us aware of more than one form of entertainment, even if we didn’t always appreciate it at the time.

During these “dark” years, my mother, who we sometimes suspected of harboring a secret ambition as an actress, would read all the classics of children’s literature to us. I can still hear her beautiful voice, vividly acting out every part in such books as “Treasure Island”, bringing Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins or Ben Gunn to vivid life. The editions she read from each had some exceptional illustrations too, especially when they were done by such notable illustrators as N.C. Wyeth.

Though we were denied television consistently for some time prior to the NY Mets World Series in 1969, prior to the time when the boob tube finally became a household fixture, we were clearly not deprived in any significant sense. As a matter of fact, in addition to the dramatic readings from my mother, and our surreptitious tv watching at friends’ homes, when we had an opportunity to go to a movie in a theater, the impact of a film was exceptionally vivid, especially on my fevered imagination. It was even more meaningful when the movie we attended was made from one of the books Mom had read.

I realize that reviving hazy, pleasant memories hatched in the cool darkness of the Capitol Theatre on State Street might not be a perfect way to reconnect with childhood innocence, though the experience will certainly make you question almost all your perceptions for some time to come. Despite this hard-won “truth” of my alleged maturity, when presented with a recent opportunity to see the Walt Disney movie version of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) once again on a dvd recently, I jumped at the chance.

It’s been just 40 years since I clapped eyes on this one for the first time. My suspect memory dimly recalls that the book was laced with 19th century piety and adventure. I’m pretty sure that the author Johann David Wyss was not the inspiration for this high-spirited script, which owes much more to the pagan spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the film, there is one early, restrained scene when the mother (Dorothy McGuire) leads the beached family in a prayer that strikes just the right quiet note without overplaying the piety bit. Another well done, discreetly played scene shows the mother and father with their younger son, trying to celebrate Christmas, despite the feared loss of the two older sons, who have left to reconnoiter on the other side of the island. Instead of cloying these brief moments make the point that there is the family’s abiding optimism and faith underlying the structure of this family unit.

When I first saw this film, I was, as most kids are, completely enchanted by this beautifully photographed color adventure tale of a small family attempting to emigrate from Switzerland to New Guinea. After being shipwrecked and abandoned by their ships’ crew, they manage to salvage a remarkable amount of flotsam and jetsam from the hull of the ship, which has conveniently run aground off the shore of an island.

This magical isle in the movie, (actually Tobago in the Caribbean, where it rained for almost 40 days and nights on the intrepid Disney crew), comes complete with fresh, potable water, greenery, coconuts and a range of flora and fauna that would certainly have made Mr. Darwin scratch his head in wonder. I don’t know how the tigers, ostrich, zebras, vultures, elephants, pythons, or those incredibly vicious-looking hyenas all made it to this isolated island, though there is one passing allusion by the “scientific” brother, (Tommy Kirk) to the possibility that their new home might be part of an archipelago that was somehow cut off from the mainland. Hmm, must’ve happened while all these animals were apparently gathered on this spot attending an ASPCA convention, I guess. Yeah, you betcha.

Still, the scenes in which the brothers in the family, played by eldest brother/teen dreamboat James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran have a wild race while riding several of these recalcitrant animals is truly wonderfully staged by director Ken Annakin. And Kevin Corcoran‘s affinity with a baby elephant in the film and all the unlikely animals was one of the remembered delights of this movie for me.

Accepting that they’re likely to have to live on the island for some time, the Robinson menfolk soon set to work building a home in a tree. The tree house that father John Mills and his lads construct from the ship’s wreckage is just incredible, though one wonders why the mother, who seems skeptical of the whole enterprise, apparently didn’t lift a finger building the structure. Her only input is to caution the youngest lad (Kevin Corcoran) not to fall out of the tree while it is being constructed and, when presented with the architectural marvel, she sighs and points out the inappropriateness of the curtains in the bedroom aerie built for the two of them by John Mills. Cheez, I guess it was the end of the fifties when gender defined behavior pretty rigidly.

Or did it? For, just as Mom Robinson doesn’t seem to do a lot other than fussing about her brood, the fact that a Disney movie features a rather intimate scene when the parents are lying in bed discussing their life and their future is quite adult for that period and that studio. The close bond that McGuire and Mills suggest provides just the right note of mutual affection and concern for one another’s emotional well being throughout the film. Actually, the two of them are the heart of the film, giving an outlandish story a much more believable spine. Both leads were excellent actors when given meaty roles. John Mills played in that same year as Swiss Family Robinson in an exceptional part as a career military man under a strain in Tunes of Glory (1960), which was probably his finest role, or in one of the more remarkable realistic films about being a real castaway, when Mills played Scott of the Antarctic (1948). In Swiss Family Robinson he is capable, firmly tender and nurturing, if, given the Disney gloss, a bit bland as well. Dorothy McGuire, whose career often called upon her to play wives and mothers who could only rebel inwardly against everyday life’s restraints in such fine films as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960). I suspect that if McGuire chose, she could probably charm the birds out of the trees in just about any role. Though not portrayed as the capable pioneer woman she played in the earlier Disney product, Old Yeller (1957), here she is given far too little to do by the script.

For example, in a rhapsodic scene in which the boys and Dad enjoy a romp in a cool watering hole, swinging from ropes and sliding into the water, couldn’t Dorothy McGuire at least have been allowed to chuck off the ruffles and ditch the umbrella for a dip? Just once?

 

Gender definition also received another nudge by the canny filmmakers when Janet Munro pops up in the company of her sea captain grandfather (Cecil Parker) while the captives of a roving band of pirates who, interestingly, are led by none other than international cinematic pioneer, Sessue Hayakawa,  Hayakawa’s merry band is definitely played for laughs, but even these buffoonish pirates might’ve deduced the sex of Janet Munro. She is introduced in the guise of a cabin boy, and neither the rather near-sighted pirates nor the rather slow on the uptake MacArthur and Kirk catch on very quickly about her true nature. Munro is suitably elfin and up to a point, fairly game for any adventure, but, just as occurred during my original viewing of this film, she becomes one more tedious girl once she puts on a skirt. Unfortunately, the filmmakers also felt obliged to make the MacArthur and Kirk characters clash over their mutual attraction to the girl, which leads to the most tedious sections of the film.
Unfortunately, another disillusioning arid patch in the film occurs when the film focuses on Kevin Corcoran, though I must admit that reviewing his once endearing performance did cause me to have a small epiphany. I was familiar with Corcoran as a child actor when I first saw this movie, though being a Wonderful World of Disney devotee was tough in our household. As mentioned previously, my parents had thrown up several roadblocks to my consumption of television, but I had somehow seen Corcoran‘s big role as “Toby Tyler”, another Disney production about a boy who ran away to the circus around the turn of the 19th century. I remember keenly identifying with the round faced kid in that role. After all, as a card-carrying tomboy, I too loved animals, wanted to run away to join the circus and even had freckles like this kid.

Now, however, I also suspect that my subconscious identification with the lad may have been because, like Kevin, I was often the youngest and probably the whiniest kid in most groups! And, man, does Kevin Corcoran whine in this movie. You just want to strangle him from the first scene when he starts mouthing off, arguing with his folks about taking ashore two massive Great Danes from the boat. Boy, does that kid grate on my now adult ears! So, I hereby render my deepest apologies to anyone who was ever within earshot of me when I was going through my whiney phase as a lass. Whew, I feel better now.

To counter these annoyances, the brightest sequence occurs when the family–whose menfolk seemed to have received some unacknowledged military training back home in that legendary Swiss Army–fortify the high ground in anticipation of an assault by Hayakawa‘s band of brigands. Though it is amusing to see the customary Disney ingenuity on display as Hayakawa‘s hapless men defeated by what is essentially a children’s army wielding coconut bombs, log rolls and big rocks, (none of which occurred in the novel), it also seems a bit sad to see an actor as accomplished as Sessue Hayakawa used as essentially comic relief, (though I do remember how chilling I found him when I originally saw this film).

I suppose after a lifetime of the vicissitudes of an actor’s life, Hayakawa knew that one must strike while the iron was hot, and, like his distinguished co-stars Mills and McGuire, understood the value of a high profile production made with care and promoted with skill. Perhaps most familiar as the conflicted Japanese prison camp officer in David Lean’s thoughtful epic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), (no doubt cast in this unlikely pirate role after the worldwide success of that film), Sessue Hayakawa, born in 1889, was one of the most subtle and magnetic of actors on screen since the silent days of Thomas Ince.

Hayakawa‘s extraordinary career first brought him fame when, during a tour of a Japanese theatre troupe in the United States, he was cast in American silents, and his stardom was sealed by his performance as the dangerously sexy character in The Cheat(1915), a part that made him a cross-cultural romantic figure. Eventually he tried to pursue his career in the 1920s in Japan, but lack of success there and in the talkie era here eventually led him to appearances in French films, where he worked with director Max Ophüls, among others. Though he never quite matched his earlier fame, the third act of his career in the U.S. eventually led to films such as Tokyo Joe (1949) opposite Humphrey Bogart and, in an exceptionally well-acted part as yet another Japanese commander of a POW camp, he appeared opposite Claudette Colbert in the little seen Three Came Home(1950). This extraordinarily interesting actor eventually returned to Japan, and became a Zen Buddhist priest, in addition to being a drama teacher.

By the way, according to James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk on the dvd, Mr. Hayakawa arrived on set with two young Japanese women whose job seemed to be to fan the actor while he rested between camera setups. Both young actors wondered how they could have such an “amenity” written into their next contract.

While I found that time had changed my perception of this film, given the fact that the holidays are almost upon us, this fast-paced family fare, even with my qualms would remain a likely choice for an airing at the next gathering of the clan at Chez Finnie. Even while my now critical eye sees this film as if “through a glass darkly”, I can still appreciate the high spirit of adventure that Disney’s team captured on film and hear, even now, my mother’s animated voice as she read this highly imaginative story to me decades ago. Just as this film demonstrates in the end, you can’t always go home again, but you can appreciate the caring things that happened there still–especially when you realize that home is, like Thanksgiving, is a movable feast.

Updates:

A recent two part blog on Dorothy McGuire is now available to anyone interested in more about this noteworthy actress. It can be found here.

The noted 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson with Thomas Mitchell and Edna Best can be seen here.

18 Responses You Can’t Go Home Again: Revisiting the Films of Childhood
Posted By MDR : November 14, 2007 8:58 am

I had one of those "you can't go home again" experiences when I recently revisited the film that helped me to discover classic films – King Solomon's Mines (1950) – in my youth.  BTW, I wonder if you've seen (the only remaining?) scenes from RKO's Swiss Family Robinson (1940), which were included on the Disney DVD (of their 1960 version) that I rented.  If not, you can read a summation of the differences between the two on my website here:www.classicfilmguide.com/index.php?s=other_reviews&item=223

Posted By MDR : November 14, 2007 8:58 am

I had one of those "you can't go home again" experiences when I recently revisited the film that helped me to discover classic films – King Solomon's Mines (1950) – in my youth.  BTW, I wonder if you've seen (the only remaining?) scenes from RKO's Swiss Family Robinson (1940), which were included on the Disney DVD (of their 1960 version) that I rented.  If not, you can read a summation of the differences between the two on my website here:www.classicfilmguide.com/index.php?s=other_reviews&item=223

Posted By Lzcutter : November 15, 2007 3:46 am

Moira,Thanks so much not only for the walk down memory lane in terms of The Swiss Family Robinson but for the insightful comments regarding its stars!  I, too, no doubt would wonder how to get 'fanners" into my contract!  A wonderful synopsis ofHayakawa's career! Your entries are wonderful to read!

Posted By Lzcutter : November 15, 2007 3:46 am

Moira,Thanks so much not only for the walk down memory lane in terms of The Swiss Family Robinson but for the insightful comments regarding its stars!  I, too, no doubt would wonder how to get 'fanners" into my contract!  A wonderful synopsis ofHayakawa's career! Your entries are wonderful to read!

Posted By Jeff : November 15, 2007 5:18 pm

Your post conjured up some memories for me and yes, I saw this with the neighborhood kids during the Christmas holidays. The tree house, the animal race and the coconut "bombs" were things we talked about for a long time after the movie, a sure sign for us that it was a "great" movie. 

Posted By Jeff : November 15, 2007 5:18 pm

Your post conjured up some memories for me and yes, I saw this with the neighborhood kids during the Christmas holidays. The tree house, the animal race and the coconut "bombs" were things we talked about for a long time after the movie, a sure sign for us that it was a "great" movie. 

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : November 16, 2007 6:35 pm

Moira, thanks for shedding some light on one of my favorite Disney live action films.Although I have not seen it in years, your article has inspired me to seek it out. I also recall the Thomas Mitchell version which is also very good.By the way, I went up that tree house at Disney World and it was a hoot.

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : November 16, 2007 6:35 pm

Moira, thanks for shedding some light on one of my favorite Disney live action films.Although I have not seen it in years, your article has inspired me to seek it out. I also recall the Thomas Mitchell version which is also very good.By the way, I went up that tree house at Disney World and it was a hoot.

Posted By Christy : November 17, 2007 10:28 am

Dear Moira,What a wonderful post about warm memories, the accomplishments of Sessue Hayakawa, and the influence of the Disney studio. Another great  article!Sincerely,Christy 

Posted By Christy : November 17, 2007 10:28 am

Dear Moira,What a wonderful post about warm memories, the accomplishments of Sessue Hayakawa, and the influence of the Disney studio. Another great  article!Sincerely,Christy 

Posted By Teresa Healy : November 18, 2007 2:31 pm

       I read this book to my son when he was a small child and we were both thrilled when he was able to see the movie.  I appreciated the information given in your article.  Thank you  P.S.  My son is now 26.

Posted By Teresa Healy : November 18, 2007 2:31 pm

       I read this book to my son when he was a small child and we were both thrilled when he was able to see the movie.  I appreciated the information given in your article.  Thank you  P.S.  My son is now 26.

Posted By Anne L : November 20, 2007 3:50 am

 Moira:As always, another gem written by you to be treasured and re-read from time to time when having the opportunity to see the subject movie.  Your insight, as always, leaves me speechless.  

Posted By Anne L : November 20, 2007 3:50 am

 Moira:As always, another gem written by you to be treasured and re-read from time to time when having the opportunity to see the subject movie.  Your insight, as always, leaves me speechless.  

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : December 3, 2008 10:39 pm

[...] drastically–when seeing these films over a lifetime. As I mentioned in an earlier blog on Swiss Family Robinson (1960), mischievously endearing characters such as child actor Kevin Corcoran in that movie were [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : December 3, 2008 10:39 pm

[...] drastically–when seeing these films over a lifetime. As I mentioned in an earlier blog on Swiss Family Robinson (1960), mischievously endearing characters such as child actor Kevin Corcoran in that movie were [...]

Posted By David Riley : December 7, 2008 11:31 pm

As far as Disney movies are concerned, nothing has been more disillusioning and disturbing for this movie-loving baby-boomer than viewing the Disney movies I adored as a child through eyes now older and wiser and recognizing, for the first time, the mistreatment and abuse inherent in scenes featuring animals. A recent viewing of “Swiss Family Robinson” on TCM is a case in point. In one harrowing scene, a Zebra is mired up to its chest in mud and terrorized by Hyenas as the Robinson boys try to rescue it. How did the producers achieve this effect? By the simplest and least costly means possible: by restraining a real Zebra in mud up to its neck and setting real Hyenas upon it. While you and I might know it’s only a movie and that animal handlers would keep the Hyenas from harming the Zebra, the Zebra wouldn’t understand that. It only knows that it’s being stalked by its deadly natural enemy and is unable to run away. In the movie, we watch that poor Zebra struggle and whinny in terror as the Hyenas creep towards it across the mud. At one point a Hyena actually gets close enough to bite the Zebra’s neck before we cut away. That Zebra was so obviously exhausted from its struggles to get out of the mud that it couldn’t even hold its head up and had to keep letting its nose and muzzle drop into the muck. As a cameraman with thirty years experience in movies, I know that scenes like this rarely happen in a single take, but have to be re-enacted again and again before the director is satisfied. Just imagine the terror that poor Zebra went through before that scene in “Swiss Family Robinson” was completed. Now think of all those other Disney movies we’ve seen featuring animals in peril and consider what the producers did to achieve that effect. Just how did they get “Old Yeller” to fight that bear without either animal being injured? How do you think?

Posted By David Riley : December 7, 2008 11:31 pm

As far as Disney movies are concerned, nothing has been more disillusioning and disturbing for this movie-loving baby-boomer than viewing the Disney movies I adored as a child through eyes now older and wiser and recognizing, for the first time, the mistreatment and abuse inherent in scenes featuring animals. A recent viewing of “Swiss Family Robinson” on TCM is a case in point. In one harrowing scene, a Zebra is mired up to its chest in mud and terrorized by Hyenas as the Robinson boys try to rescue it. How did the producers achieve this effect? By the simplest and least costly means possible: by restraining a real Zebra in mud up to its neck and setting real Hyenas upon it. While you and I might know it’s only a movie and that animal handlers would keep the Hyenas from harming the Zebra, the Zebra wouldn’t understand that. It only knows that it’s being stalked by its deadly natural enemy and is unable to run away. In the movie, we watch that poor Zebra struggle and whinny in terror as the Hyenas creep towards it across the mud. At one point a Hyena actually gets close enough to bite the Zebra’s neck before we cut away. That Zebra was so obviously exhausted from its struggles to get out of the mud that it couldn’t even hold its head up and had to keep letting its nose and muzzle drop into the muck. As a cameraman with thirty years experience in movies, I know that scenes like this rarely happen in a single take, but have to be re-enacted again and again before the director is satisfied. Just imagine the terror that poor Zebra went through before that scene in “Swiss Family Robinson” was completed. Now think of all those other Disney movies we’ve seen featuring animals in peril and consider what the producers did to achieve that effect. Just how did they get “Old Yeller” to fight that bear without either animal being injured? How do you think?

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