Disney, through Buena Vista, their distribution arm, had a strategy in place since the fifties. You never saw their animation or live action features on the small box. After its release, they were locked up in their vault, only to be released after seven years had passed, the theory being that they would have a whole new generation to which to market it. And it worked. (And still does – since they do something similar with their DVD releases).
Now, in January of 1969, it was Swiss Family Robinson’s turn. I had seen it for the first time when my folks took us to see it at a drive-in theater in Spokane, Washington. I actually enjoyed it more than the playground down in front of the big screen. So I was excited to be able to see it again after seven years.
Things that you are enthousiastic about you like to share. And I was looking forward to the “usher” version of that – slipping into the theater for a favorite scene and experiencing it again with the audience – their first time, and my someteenth, enjoying their surprise or other type reaction to it.
Always a favorite was the pirate attack at the end. It was a heady concoction of action, suspense and comedy. Knowing that pirates were in their vicinity, the Swiss Family had made contingency plans to protect themselves: by building a redoubt on some high ground; putting together some coconut hand grenades; and placing logs and boulders at strategic places to roll down upon their attackers, and a personal favorite, the device rigged by Kevin Corcoran to warn of their enemies approach if they chose to scale the cliff at the back of their fort. Repeated viewings did reveal some of the secrets behind the movie magic. Everything happens at a break-neck pace, so the first time you see the rolling palm tree logs, chances are you didn’t notice one log with a pirate on each end that bowed severely in the middle when they all rolled across the top of a third, and rather plump pirate.
I was in a good frame of mind as I worked broom and dust pan, sweeping up spilled popcorn and wrappers in the entrance way to the theater that was playing Swiss Family. A thirtyish gentleman was standing there outside the closed door. I made the assumption that he had just seen the show and was waiting for the rest of his party before leaving. So I asked him how he had liked the show, assuming he had to have liked it. He rapidly disenchanted me of that notion.
From his snobbish height he looked down his nose upon my impertinence, and let me know in no uncertain terms that this film was nothing, nothing at all compared to the version he had seen in his youth. I was flumoxed. I’d never heard of another film based on the Wyss story. I thought perhaps he was confused and was actually remembering the first release of this version. When I put forth that interpretation, I offended him the more. He replied that his version had been made in the 1940s, and was in every way superior to this modern day interloper. He left me standing there, feeling no bigger than the popcorn kernel I was trying to sweep up.
(I wouldn’t learn until years later that there had been other versions. There was no IMDB in those days. There were some Film year books but I had no access to them. The version that he had no doubt seen was the 1940 RKO one starring Thomas Mitchell).