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Directors Cuts: Robert Stevenson, One of Disney’s Go-Tos

There was a time in Hollywood history when the producer, or the Movie Mogul, was the name above the title of a movie. David O. Selznick, Jack Warner, and Louis B. Mayer are examples of studio heads who flexed a great deal of creative control over the films they produced, and their names were always large on the poster. But, unarguably, the most long-lasting of these was Walt Disney, who I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of once or twice. His name was and remains the reason a lot of people went and saw family films and animated features for the past nearly 80 years. In his lifetime, he produced a staggering 657 films, television productions, shorts, and documentaries. He even directed 120 things, but those were all Silly Symphonies, short, music-filled animations from 1921-1935.

But his name remained the auteurist staple for everything he produced, but he didn’t direct any of the animated features himself, nor did he direct any of the live action fare that became so prominent in the ’50s and ’60s. But someone had to direct them, right? Many directors worked for Disney during this time, and one of the most prominent and whose work is especially beloved, whether his name is very known or not, is Robert Stevenson, the English director who has 60 directing film and TV credits to his name between 1932 and 1976. Not all of those were for Disney, of course, but the ones he did do for the House of Mouse are among the studio’s most magical, technologically complex, and indelible. Here are but a few of my favorites.

Old Yeller (1957)
Is there a more rips your heart out than Old Yeller? The story of a kid in the 1800s who brings home a big, yellow dog that the boy and his family love, all the way until it gets rabies and has to be put down. It’s the saddest ending of a movie of all time, and one that parents (such as Phoebe Buffay’s mother) refused to let their kids see. But, besides the unbelievable downer of a finale, this is a solid children/family adventure movie featuring a lot of the stock company of Disney actors, like Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran. The Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, also makes an appearance. This was Stevenson’s second production for Disney and would be perhaps his most straightforward.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
This is a movie you can’t escape on or around St. Patrick’s Day, same with radios playing that stupid Unicorn song. At any rate, this was Stevenson’s first foray with Disney into the realm of the magical. Here, the elderly tinker Darby O’Gill finds and catches the King of the Leprechauns and is granted three wishes. Naturally, the king is a real trickster. Along the way, Darby’s attractive young daughter makes eyes at the young and studly Sean Connery whilst a town bully is all naw dawg. Not only does this movie feature an underground kingdom of leprechauns, all of whom are extra tiny through early blue screen-type effects, but it also has a terrifying spectre in the form of the banshee, who looks like a negative-space grim reaper in a ghostly horse and buggy. This movie is a true delight.

The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
As much as the 1990s remake sort of ruined the concept (all due respect to the great Robin Williams), this was perhaps one of the funniest movies Disney ever produced. It stars the always brilliant Fred MacMurray (right after playing a hateful and despicable character in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment) as the jovial titular mad scientist who invents a substance which he calls Flying Rubber, or ‘Flubber’ for short. Naturally, it gets him and the town in which he teaches at the college into a whole lot of trouble. One might even say “shenanigans.” If one were so inclined to do that, of course. This again features Stevenson employing superimposition effects, which blend a little bit better in black and white. This one had a sequel in 1963 which Stevenson also directed called Son of Flubber/

Mary Poppins (1964)
Easily Stevenson’s best film, and maybe even the best live-action movie Disney ever produced. Surely you’ve seen this movie, and you probably even have seen Saving Mr. Banks which fictionalizes the making of that movie, and really downplays (if not completely excises) Stevenson’s role in that production. Granted, the writing of the movie had more of the drama, but Stevenson’s gorgeous color scheme (kudos to cinematographer Edward Colman and the whole art department) and truly astonishing combination of live action and animation were integral to the film’s success and it really feeling like a storybook come to life. This was one of the movies that I’d always put on when I was home sick in elementary school. It’s long and can take away your woes. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Actress Julie Andrews, Best Special Effects, Best Film Editing, and two music awards for Richard and Robert Sherman. It was nominated for a further eight awards, including one for Best Picture and Best Director for Stevenson, his only such nomination. The movie lost out to another big movie musical, My Fair Lady, which gave Oscars to producer Jack Warner and director George Cukor.

The Love Bug (1968)
This is one that I think probably wouldn’t hold up if I watched it today (I could be entirely wrong), but it holds a place with me from childhood. Just a silly romp, but with some impressive effects, which were Stevenson’s trademark at this point. This tells the improbably story of a team of race car drivers, played by Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett, and Michele Lee, who begin winning races with, of all things, a Volkswagen Beetle. But, as is pretty common for these types of things, the Beetle, nicknamed Herbie, has a mind of his own. This movie proved so popular that it spawned a series of increasingly ludicrous adventures, including Herbie Rides Again which Stevenson also directed, in 1974.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Probably my second favorite of Stevenson’s films, and a thematic successor to Mary Poppins, this film stars another iconic British stage and screen actress, Angela Lansbury, who plays a witch attempting to get certified in the craft. She encounters three young street kids and takes them on strange adventures along to cartoon worlds like the Island of Naboombu, and uses Substitutiary Locomotion on suits of armor and things to fight off an invasion by the Nazis during WWII. Songs were again written by the Sherman brothers and they’re just as catchy. Incredibly effects-heavy, this movie, and it was honored with the Best Special Effects Oscar in 1972.

Stevenson made, obviously, quite a few other films for Disney and many, many before in his long career. I’m willing to bet most of you had never heard of him, but you’ve certainly seen his work. These are my favorites, but let me know if you have other ones you love below. (I know my mom loves The Gnome-Mobile.)

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