And We Don’t Even Include ‘The Cat From Outer Space’
Most people went straight for the Pixar movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, new “Star Wars” content, The Simpsons, or old Disney Channel shows when they logged on to Disney+ for the first time. But I made a beeline to the obscure stuff the House of Mouse put out in the 1960s and 70s. Those two decades were an interesting time for the studio. Production on animated shorts slowed down as the company implemented a new form of xerography animation on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and expanded its live-action film slate with movies like Swiss Family Robinson, Mary Poppins, and Pollyanna.
In 1966, Walt Disney died from lung cancer and left his brother Roy in charge of the company. Walt Disney World opened soon after, and a slew of smaller comedies and other films followed. Roy died in 1971 and left the company to the first non-Disney family executives in the company’s history.
The 70s saw success in the animation department with films like Robin Hood and The Rescuers, but Disney’s live action releases were a mixed bag of genre film attempts and quirky takes on the safe, old-school Disney family film formula.
During these two decades, Disney released a lot of material unknown to modern audiences. A lot of it was hard to find…until now. Below are five choice obscure offerings from 1960-1979 currently on Disney+.
Those Calloways, 1965
Before Fly Away Home, there was Those Calloways, a tale of man and geese in Vermont. Cam Calloway (Brian Keith) is a white fur trapper raised by Native Americans who wants to create a sanctuary for the geese that fly over his property during migration. He enlists his teenage son in this pursuit, much to the chagrin of his wife. Oh, and did I mention that Cam also lives with a pet black bear, a dog and a crow?
All of the animal shenanigans are typical Disney family fare, but the depiction of alcoholism and the reliance on Native American tropes are very of-the-times. Cinematographer Edward Colman shot the film on location in rural Vermont, and that’s the biggest appeal here.
The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, 1967
What a name. This Western pastiche follows Eric “Bullwhip” Griffin (Roddy McDowall), an English butler for a Boston family who stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco in 1848 with his employer’schildren after the employer’s death. They head out West seeking fortune in the Gold Rush.
As is the case with many of Disney’s live action films from this era, the interesting premise above is not outlandish enough, and so we learn how Griffin gets his name: By punching out the town bully and mountain man. The newly-mined Bullwhip enters a boxing contest, and the movie then becomes a sports movie of sorts.
Critics panned this upon its release but watching it now is a reminder that the House of Mouse used to be more comfortable with creating original, out-of-the-box material.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, 1969
An urban legend about Walt Disney is that the last thing he wrote before he died was Kurt Russell’s name on a slip of scrap paper in 1966. That’s not entirely true, but it makes for a good story and it further amplifies the legend of Russell, who at the time was 15 and already starring in Disney fare like Follow Me, Boys! and Mosby’s Marauders.
Russell’s big Disney break came in 1969 in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, where he played Dexter Riley, a handsome but averagely intelligent college student. After the students persuade a local businessman (Caesar Romero, coming off of playing The Joker) to buy the university a computer, lightning strikes Dexter while he’s installing said compute, endowing him with super-intelligence. Semi-sinister forces then hunt him for his mind.
What follows is a fun encapsulation of the Disney family formula at its peak, with every indication that Russell would go on to become the star he’s now known as.
The Million Dollar Duck, 1971
There are a lot of “Dean Jones interacts with animals” movies in the Disney+ catalog (The Shaggy D.A., The Ugly Daschund, and the original That Darn Cat!) but this is the most obscure of the bunch.
The plot is like something from a short cartoon brought to life. When scientist Albert Dooley (Jones) goes to work one day, he takes the applesauce his wife made him for lunch and throws it away. A test subject duck that he’s evaluating eats the applesauce and then, through a series of wacky misadventures, becomes irradiated. The result: The duck can now lay golden eggs. Coincidentally, Dooley’s neighbor is a U.S. Treasury employee. Uh-oh. Will the government come and take away Dooley’s gold? Will Dooley learn about the importance of family?
Like “Bullwhip,” this was also widely panned, but Jones was nominated for a Golden Globe for his comedic acting as Dooley. He would go on to star in more Disney films throughout the 70s. In a brilliant later bit of casting, he shed his Disney reputation as a man who loves animals when he played a villainous veterinarian in 1992’s Beethoven.
The Black Hole, 1979
In 1979, there was no way of foreseeing that the Walt Disney Corporation would merge with 20th Century Fox decades later, and thus own Star Wars. So in 1979, Disney released its first-ever PG-rated movie to compete with George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut.
It didn’t work.
The Black Hole turned a profit, but just barely, earning $35.8 million on a $26 million budget—nowhere near Star Wars money. Numerous script revisions and janky science bogged down the film, originally conceived as a disaster epic set in space. Watching it now, there are influences of everything from the disaster films of the era to Star Wars to 2001 to Disney’s own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island.
Its main stars at the time were Anthony Perkins and Robert Forster, and the plot will seem very familiar to those who have seen Ad Astra: An exploratory vessel receives a signal from another ship stuck in a black hole, and the vessel goes to investigate. It turns out that the captain of that black hole ship is the father of one of the astronauts on the exploratory vessel, and his crew has mutinied, leaving him all alone. That nobody compared the two when Ad Astra came out is a testament to the small amount of staying power The Black Hole has.
But The Black Hole is worth it for its Oscar-nominated special effects and cinematography and for its genuine moments of dread and horror, rare for a Disney movie. It’s a curious cultural artifact from the ’70s that’s still worth seeing today, even if Star Wars is just a click away.