SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON—-one word: treehouse. Ah, the memories (of millions of Boomers) that were forever wedded with affection to this rousing Disney Christmas present from 1960.
One of the most thrilling movie experiences of my childhood was watching Robinson patriarch John Mills axe the rope that held a back a pile of coconut logs, which then thundered down a hill—right at you— onto evil Malay pirates below. How cool can you get? Even Walt’s Fess Parker as Davy Crockett didn’t take out that many attackers at one time, no matter how fast he swung Old Betsy. “One thing,if I can’t do that when I grow up, I sure as heck can play versions of it with my friends on the hill in the lot behind our house”, even if it meant that rolling the Capelletti’s landscape rocks instead of logs gets a neighbor kid a nasty bump on his six-year-old noggin. The price of growing up without video games. Would not
John Mills (what a great Dad, onscreen, and apparently off as well), Dorothy McGuire (such a sweet, lovely Movie Mom), James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk (substitute older brothers), Kevin Corcoran (scene-stealer, pet wrangler and inventor of the ‘coconut bomb’, standing in for little boys across the land), Janet Munro (okay for– yeesh–a girl) and Sessue Hayakawa as ‘Kuala’, mean chief pirate. Milton Reid plays the burly, bald henchman, who any kid could see was not the kind of hulk to consider mercy.
Storm & Shipwreck (check). Muskets (check). Loyal Great Dane dogs ‘Duke & Turk’, pet elephant, monkey, an anaconda, a zebra (wait a minute!), six hyenas (just go with it) and a Tiger (ka-triple check).!
Listen to William Alwyn’s manically happy music as the Robinson brood decimate the multi-Technicolored horde. See, Mr. Robinson moved his family from dangerous Napoleonic Europe to somewhere in SE Asia, to be safe and peaceful.*
Eye-filling location work in the Caribbean island gem Tobago, and… The Treehouse of all treehouse-wishers dreams–basically the Taj Mahal of the form, never bettered.** It was the year’s biggest hit—the $40,000,000 haul translates to a treasure chest’s blinding $428,000,000 today–, and unless you’re Not Worth Being My Friend Cause You’re Obviously Stuck Up—it’s still wonderful.
Breathlessly directed by Ken Annakin on a generous $4,000,000 budget, the adaptation of the 1812 Johann Wyss classic doesn’t pause long enough for mulling how animals from three continents ended up on the island with our castaways, nor how inept a hundred murderous pirates would be against one guy, his wife and four kids, but this poopy reflection comes later, when you’re settling in to rewatch it with gray hair and a daiquiri.
Filming was complicated by Hurricane Edith. Ever the trouper, Mills observed “If a scorpion doesn’t bite me during the night I get into the car, and if it doesn’t skid off the edge of a cliff, I reach the mangrove swamp. I walk through; and if I’m not sucked in by a quick-sand, eaten alive by land crabs, or bitten by a snake, I reach the beach. I change on the beach, trying to avoid being devoured by insects, and walk into the sea. If there are no sharks or barracudas about, we get the shot and then do the whole thing in reverse, providing, of course, we haven’t died of sunstroke in the meantime.”
Miss McGuire, Kirk and Corcoran were already family-familiar from Old Yeller
(Tommy thankfully doesn’t have to blast a pet here). Kirk appeared in a record thirteen Disney films, Corcoran added spunk to nine. MacArthur and Miss Munro were at the peak of their Disney grooming: he’d already done The Light In The Forest, Kidnapped
and Third Man On The Mountain
, the last also featuring Munro, who then graced Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
McGuire showed up again three years later in Summer Magic,
one of six starring ‘Father’ Mills daughter, Hayley.
Family ties galore then, fitting for this timeless family classic, 126 minutes of dream adventure, also featuring Cecil Parker. Join Father, Mother, Fritz, Ernst, Francis & Bertie–and lest we forget, giant tortoises, flamingos and an ostrich. Land ho!
* Man’s Gotta Do Dept: Father Robinson’s dilemma similar to Pa Lucas McCain on The Rifleman, who moved son Mark to peaceful North Fork, possibly hoping to just trot over and visit My Friend Flicka. Chuck Connors only had to Winchester-ventilate 168 guest bad guys in between chores and pie.
** Every time I’d hit Disneyland, I’d beeline for the treehouse, and just wistfully linger. Sad day for Western Civilization when it got converted to a hangout for Tarzan in 1999. Must we then head to Florida? Walt spins in cryo-freeze…