Now Playing on TCM: Treasures from the Disney Vault

On June 28, TCM returns with the seventh installment from one of its newest series: Treasures from the Disney Vault, a focused look through Disney’s extensive and diverse back catalogue.

As with the previous six installments, Disney aficionado Leonard Maltin (author of The Disney Films and Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons) introduces each selection and provides a bit of context.

The Parent Trap - Poster

No context is needed for 1961’s live-action feature, The Parent Trap (8:00 p.m. EDT), a fan favorite that spurred three sequels for television and a 1998 remake.

Starring Hayley Mills—hot off her success in Disney’s Pollyanna (1960)—as twin sisters, Susan and Sharon, and the incomparable Maureen O’Hara as Sharon’s mother, Parent Trap exemplifies the kind of family-friendly, simplistic, and unthreatening entertainment Walt Disney trafficked in the 1960s. If not for the memorable songs from Richard and Robert Sherman, The Parent Trap would most likely have slipped through the fingers of time, as has many of the live-action Disney films of the decade, but “Let’s Get Together” and “For Now, For Always” have carried this film well beyond its expiration date and planted it firmly in the realm of nostalgia.

Three shorts about a mouse

"Thru the Mirror" (1936)
Thru the Mirror (1936)

Long before he was the face of an empire, Mickey Mouse was Disney’s scrappy little protagonist who could. The first cycle of shorts were replete with barnyard humor and a mischievous Mickey, but by 1935, the Mouse—with Disney himself providing the familiar falsetto—had transformed from scamp into a good-natured everyman. And a bona fide movie star.

All three of the shorts TCM is showing are iconic, but The Band Concert is historic. Disney had been experimenting with color in the Silly Symphonies since 1932 (more on that later), but wasn’t convinced that Mickey required the extra expense and labor. After three years of full color production for the Symphonies, it was time to introduce a colored Mickey, and incorporate sidekick—and occasional foil—Donald Duck into the fray.

Introduced in 1934’s The Wise Little Hen, Donald quickly became everything that Mickey no longer could be. Unburdened by the constraints of Disney’s desire to keep Mickey the good guy, the writers and animators were free to turn Donald loose. They abused him, made him furiously angry, caused others around him to do the same, and crafted gag after gag around him. It worked, and Donald Duck quickly supplanted Mickey’s dominance at the studio.

"The Band Concert" (1935)
The Band Concert (1935)

That transfer of power is most evident in The Band Concert where Mickey is trying to conduct a performance of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which Donald continues to interrupt by playing “Turkey in the Straw”—a musical callback to Steamboat Willie (1928), the first cartoon to incorporate synchronized sound.

The Band Concert shows how far the animation had come since Mickey’s debut seven years prior. Small touches, such as Mickey pushing up his overlong sleeves, show an acute eye for detail and realism—and also look forward to Mickey’s other performance as a conductor of sorts in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940). Maltin describes The Band Concert as, “[A] perfectly realized cartoon that manages to blend music, comedy, personality animation, dramatic action, and storytelling into a seamless whole.”

Though not as historic, the other two Mickey shorts, Thru the Mirror (1936) and Clock Cleaners (1937), are equally sophisticated and entertaining. Program begins at 10:15 p.m. EDT.

From Burbank to Glendale and back

Rough animation of Ariel from "Waking Sleeping Beauty" (2009)
Rough animation of Ariel from Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)

From its auspicious debut in 1923, Walt Disney Studios has undergone multiple sea changes and personnel shifts, few more notable than the period covered in Waking Sleeping Beauty (11:00 p.m. EDT). Directed by Disney producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the BeastThe Lion King) and former Disney executive Peter Schneider, Waking Sleeping Beauty is an insider’s look—a home movie really—from the years 1984 to 1994, when Disney not only rose from the ashes, but flourished greatly under the leadership of Michael Eisner, Jeffery Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney (son of Roy and nephew to Walt), and Jeff Wells, who Disney executive Pete Clark described as “the studio’s moral compass. … Their Jiminy Cricket” in Kim Morgan’s The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip.

Hahn and Schneider cobble together archival footage, home movies, and a plethora of TV appearances to tell the story of Disney’s Renaissance, which not only saved the studio, but exploded them on to a much larger stage. Among those interviewed are the animators who would go on to bring the renaissance to the screen: Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Glenn Keane, to name but a few; as well as the musicians who crafted the award-winning music to accompany these images. The musical importance of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken cannot be overstated, but Waking Sleeping Beauty revolves around the power struggle, between Eisner, Katzenberg, and Roy E. Disney that made all this possible.

Hahn and Schneider forgo the standard historical doc approach and leave the talking heads behind and overlay audio on top of archival images to tell their story. It is a welcome and inventive approach, one that lends itself to multiple viewings.

From Disney’s Renaissance to Disney’s reign

"Flowers & Trees" (1932)
Flowers and Trees (1932)

In 1932, Disney struck a deal with Technicolor inventor Herbert Kalmus that allowed Disney animation exclusive use of Technicolor’s 3-strip process for the next three years. For Kalmus, it was the perfect advertisement for his product. For Disney, he could now ensure that his studio would develop and advance the medium while holding the competition at arm’s length. The deal worked wonders for both men. Disney would go on to be awarded the very first Academy Award for Best Animated Short and would win the prized statue every year for the remainder of the decade.

The switch from black and white to color came with Flowers and Trees (12:45 a.m. EDT). Disney had his animators scrap the production midway through and retool it for the 3-strip Technicolor process. With the debut of Flowers and Trees, audiences were treated to a symphony of music and color unlike any they had seen before. Although somewhat crude by today’s—or even Snow White’s standards—Flowers and Trees has the charm of invention and the look of dreams. From 1932 on, all Silly Symphonies would be colored, and the following two programs, The Pied Piper and Old King Cole (both 1933), exemplify Disney’s color schematic.

Of particular note, Old King Cole, is a remake of a previous Silly Symphony, Mother Goose Melodies (1931), one that uses nursery rhymes to quickly tell each storybook character’s tale. In an appreciation years later, musician Richard Sherman (from the above mentioned Parent Trap) marveled at how succinct and efficient the song choices from Frank Churchill and Bert Lewis are. Over a dozen nursery rhymes are told in a mere seven minutes, yet each one remains distinct.


Old King Cole (1933)
Old King Cole (1933)

Disney technicians would continue to develop and advance their use of the Technicolor process. By the end of the 1930s, they had developed a successive exposure (SE) system that would not only define one of the key Disney aesthetics, it would preserve the artwork and save Disney studios from costly restorations in the years to come. In their book, Before Ever After, Don Hahn and Tracey Miller-Zarneke describe the process:

The SE process photographed the artwork three times through yellow, cyan, and magenta filters onto a single strip of black-and-white-film. The system afforded art directors complete control in the lab over each color record, and subsequent reprints of the film even decades later would not be subject to fading or deterioration in the way that some other color stocks would.

Color, color everywhere

In 1961 Disney took his TV show Walt Disney Presents (formerly Walt Disney’s Disneyland) from ABC to NBC, renamed it Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and introduced the beloved Professor Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by Disney staple, Paul Frees). NBC’s get was huge and they used the program to sell RCA color TVs—painfully evident in the episode—but like most Disney’s product, they remain entertaining and inventive while shilling for the man.

Animator Ward Kimball was brought in to work on Von Drake and the result is a bubbling, maniac character with quips a plenty, and a complete irreverence to the commercial aspect of the program. Not to mention Donald Duck’s segment in Mathmagic Land, which stands the test of time as one of the best shorts produced by the animation staff. The 50-minute program begins at 1:15 a.m. EDT.

Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959)
Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959)

Treasures from the Disney Vault conclude with two live-action features unseen by this reporter: Hot Lead and Cold Feet, 1978 (2:15 a.m. EDT) and Trenchcoat, 1983 (4:00 a.m. EDT), the latter starring Margot Kidder. Better clear out some space in the DVR.