Wednesday 11 May 2022

Ward Kimball and the Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

After a lifetime of cigarette addiction, Walt Disney was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on November 7, 1966. Doctors gave him only six months to live. He didn't even make it that far: Walt collapsed at home on November 30, was taken to the hospital adjacent to his beloved movie studio, and passed away on December 7. His sudden parting left the studio bearing his name in mourning, but the show had to go on. There was still a full slate of films that Walt had been involved with that were in production and due for release. One of those films, debuting on March 8, 1967, was also one of Disney's most inspired comedies, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.

The Disney studio never drifted far from 19th century historical romanticism, even in the decades since Walt's passing. The "Gay Nineties" was a favourite aesthetic sensibility for the company, returned to again and again through The Nifty Nineties (1941), Casey at Bat (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949), The Brave Engineer (1950), Crazy Over Daisy (1950), Football Now and Then (1953), Pigs is Pigs (1954), Lady and the Tramp (1955)Pollyanna (1960), and Summer Magic (1963). The very last live-action film on which Walt Disney worked was The Happiest Millionaire, based on true-life philanthropist and eccentric Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, which was released on June 23 of 1967. Disneyland's Main Street USA was a physical manifestation of this fascination, and every Disneyland park around the world since has had a Main Street (or an ersatz version of it) as its opening act.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin pushes the date back a few decades, to the same mid-19th century period as Song of the South (1946) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but retains that same fascination with the Gilded Age. Specifically, Bullwhip Griffin is set to the California Gold Rush of 1848, and the challenges and opportunities experienced by the sourdoughs who sought fabulous wealth along the Golden State's shining waters. 

The Mexican-American war ended in 1848, which was itself a consequence of the annexation of Texas. The Mexican government refused to acknowledge the annexation, which eventually broke out in violence. The US quickly occupied Alta California and Nuevo México, which were ceded to the US after the cessation of hostilities.

One settler who weathered the transition was John Sutter, a German Swiss immigrant to Alta California. In 1841, with permission of the Mexican governor, he built "Fort Sutter" as the centre of an agricultural utopia in Northern California. Despite his ambitions, Sutter's utopia was a nightmare for the Indigenous Californians. Sutter proved to be a frontier tyrant who waged war upon California's Indigenous peoples and reduced them to a state of forced servitude, including his own personal harem.

One of Sutter's employees, James W. Marshall, discovered gold in the American River in the process of building a mill. Sutter attempted to keep the find under wraps, so that a mad dash for the precious metal would not disrupt his agricultural plans. But a discovery of that magnitude could not be kept secret for long. In March of 1848, San Francisco publisher and merchant Samuel Brennan set up a shop for prospecting supplies and took the streets proclaiming gold in them thar hills. News reached New York in August, and the California Gold Rush was on. Most arrived the following year, becoming the famed '49ers.

San Francisco was the closest port to the gold fields, and the city grew from 1,000 permanent residents in 1848 to 25,000 by 1850. San Francisco Bay became a warren of abandoned ships that had made the one-way journey, only to be cannibalized on arrival for precious building materials. Sutter's ambitions collapsed but his son, John Augustus Sutter Jr., used the land deeded by his father to build the city of Sacramento near Fort Sutter. Sacramento became the gateway to the gold fields. Eventually, Sutter's Mexican land grant was successfully challenged on the grounds that California was now part of the United States. The massive influx of Americans resulted in California being granted statehood in 1850. By 1855, over 300,000 people from all over the world had flooded into the state, living a lawless, rough and tumble existence eking out gold from the rivers and hills or extorting it from one another... The perfect setting for Bullwhip Griffin's homage to dime novel adventures and silent movie slapstick!

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin opens with the reading of a will. Venerable old Admiral Flagg has passed away, leaving behind a daughter Arabella (Suzanne Pleshette), a son Jack (Bryan Russell), and a butler, Eric Griffin (Roddy McDowall). After showering the household staff with millions of dollars and leaving his heirs with the remainder of the estate, Admiral Flagg plays his last joke: a mountain of debts that leaves his family and employees destitute. There was a method to his madness though. Flagg earned his own wealth, and Arabella is convinced that this was his way of ensuring that she and jack would have to do the same.

Jack's plan, inspired by the dime novels he's been reading, is to join the California Gold Rush. When she realizes he is missing, Arabella sends Griffin to the docks to track him down. Shenanigans involving Quentin Bartlett (Richard Hayden), a thespian with a map to the motherlode, and Judge Higgins (Karl Malden), a nefarious character pursuing Bartlett's map, result in Griffin and Jack being unwilling stowaways. Earning their passage to California by serving the ship's captain as butler and cook, the trio of "Bullwhip" Griffin, Jack, and Bartlett earn some capital in pioneer San Francisco offering haircuts for a princely sum. Next they take off to the gold fields to find Judge Higgins and regain their map.

What follows is a romp across California, with gold found, lost, regained, and lost again, mostly thanks to Judge Higgins. Arabella also shows up in San Francisco in pursuit of her lost brother and butler. This ends up sparking a love triangle between her, her saloon-keeping employer, and Griffin who also happens to be her childhood sweetheart as well as butler. The whole farce culminates in a boxing match between Griffin and Mountain Ox (Mike Mazurki) and a great fire, like many that plagued the city through 1849 to 1851.  

Disney was not alone in producing films of the type. Ostensibly one could cite such films as Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964) as antecedents to The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. 1965 saw the release of two films bearing much more direct comparison: Those Magnificent Men in the Flying Machines and The Great Race. An analysis of the latter shows acutely why The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin works so well as an homage to early film and 19th century fiction. 

Based loosely on the 1908 New York to Paris automobile race, The Great Race is purported to be an homage to the silent era comedies of Mack Sennett, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin. But as many critics have noted, including Leonard Maltin, Great Race's director Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany's) had an "incomplete understanding of slapstick"... Indeed, an "incomplete understanding" of the entire genre of the silent comedy film. It's much like the modern wave of reboots and disingenuous decades-later sequels, in which films like Tron: Legacy (2010), J.J. Abrams' and Alex Kurtzman's takes on Star Trek, the Jurassic World series, Ghostbusters (2016), and Star Wars episodes 7-9 are simply regurgitating scenes, tropes, and set pieces without understanding how they actually functioned in the beloved originals.

The moustache-twirling, scenery-chewing performance of Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, the imperturbable perfection of Tony Curtis as The Great Leslie, and Natalie Wood's suffragette reporter are such broadly-executed caricatures that they have more in common with Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties (1959-64), which was itself a loving parody of melodramatic Northern adventure films and Vaudeville shows. The Great Race, however, shows no signs of love for the genre its claiming to honour. The dead-on-arrival delivery of its cliched slapstick, including an overlong, over-budget pie fight at the climax of its 160 minute run time, end up looking more like they're making fun of silent movies than doing them homage. Filling in the vast expanses of time between anything trying to be funny is awkward gender comedy and other Sixties jokes as dated as they are forced. The Great Race is a cartoon - in the worst sense of the term - that thinks it is smarter than the silent movie comedies it's satirizing, and its most appropriate legacy is the cartoon Wacky Races (1968-69).

The Great Race's infamous pie fight.

This kvetching about The Great Race is to point out that while superficially similar in many ways, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin is delivered with an enjoyable subtlety befitting people who actually love the genre. The crew, such as director James Neilson, were old Disney studio hands steeped in its pervading love of the Gay Nineties aesthetic. Neilson had previously directed countless episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Zorro (1957-59), as well as the films The Moon-Spinners (1964), Bon Voyage! (1962), and The Moon Pilot (1962) for Disney. Like most directors in the Disney stable, Neilson was not a Blake Edwards-style auteur by any standard, which is to his credit. He was a solid workhorse who relies on unambitious but nevertheless tried and true studio standards to hang The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin on.   

The result is a much funnier film than a Disney comedy of the Sixties has any right to be, which relies on archetypes that don't nudge you in the ribs. Roddy McDowall plays the imperturbable butler to perfection with a sincerity that actually lets you believe in him and cheer on his ingenuity. Bryan Russell isn't annoying as the kid sidekick. Susanne Pleshette succeeds in playing a strong female character whose strength is in what she actually does instead of complaining about what men won't let her do. Richard Hayden is excellent as the Shakespearean vagabond. The entire show, however, is stolen by Karl Malden's chameleonic villain. Judge Higgins is both comic and menacing with nary a twirled moustache, villainous without being a parody of a villain, yet still recognizable as the deviously ingenious silent movie charlatan. The comedy is more in the actions and interactions of the characters than in forced slapstick, save for the concluding brawl between Bullwhip Griffin and burly Mountain Ox where the slapstick is unleashed to great effect. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin is only one step removed from being an actual silent era comedy, which is exactly what you need. Its difficult to invest emotionally in a film when it is poking at you to retain an aloof, ironic distance. A film like The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin needs to be sincere to work.

Trailer for The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.

Undoubtedly a large part of this understated success is due to the influence of Ward Kimball, who is credited as providing "titles and things".

Ward came into the Disney fold in 1934 as an in-between animator, but his incontestable talent and feverish imagination raised him quickly through the ranks to become one of Walt's "Nine Old Men." Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, and John Lounsbery were Disney's lead and most-trusted animators for decades, from the 1930's to the 1970's. Not only did their talents shape Disney's output, but so did their interests. Frank Thomas, for example, joined Ward Kimball in the Dixieland Jazz band "The Firehouse Five Plus Two" (alongside 20,000 Leagues' Nautilus designer Harper Goff), with a distinctively Victorian fire brigade aesthetic. Ward and fellow animator Fred Moore not only animated The Nifty Nineties, but starred in it as Vaudeville performers. It was also Ward who lit Walt Disney on to the hobby of model trains, on account of his own narrow-gauge backyard railway, the Grizzly Flats RR. Backyard trains became one of the major influences on the creation of Disneyland. Years prior, Walt had given Ward the railway station set from So Dear to My Heart as a gift, but when it came time to build Disneyland, Walt asked for it back. Ward refused, having put considerable work into upgrading it from a mere set to a functional building. Crestfallen, Walt had to build a replica to serve as the station for Frontierland (now New Orleans Square Station). 

Ward's list of credits include Jiminy Cricket, the crows in Dumbo, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, Jaq and Gus, Lucifer the Cat, Captain Hook, Pecos Bill, and the feverish climactic musical number of The Three Caballeros (1944). In many ways, Ward's magnum opus was the Man in Space trilogy for the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. Debuting a year before the Disneyland theme park opened in 1955, the series laid out the conceptual groundwork for it by theming episodes to the park's different lands. Television edits of Disney's animated fairy tales, like Alice in Wonderland (1951) which had underperformed in theatres but was given a new life on the small screen, were aired "from Fantasyland." The landmark three-episode Davy Crockett story was, in turn, aired "from Frontierland." For Tomorrowland, Walt envisioned an educational pitch for outer space as the next exploratory frontier. The first of the trilogy's episodes, Man in Space (1955), is credited with provoking President Dwight D. Eisenhower into taking the idea of an American space program seriously.

To realize Man in Space and its sequels Man and the Moon (1955) and Mars and Beyond (1957), Walt tapped Ward Kimball to direct. When Ward exclaimed that he knew practically nothing about space and rockets, Walt said that was exactly the point. If anyone could relate these concepts creatively to everyday Americans, it was him. The result was a sometimes nightmarish trio of episodes with no small amount of attention to the lunar fantasies of Jules Verne and follies of Victorian attempts at powered flight.

Ward's take on From the Earth to the Moon from Man in Space.

Ward's second realization of From the Earth to the Moon,
this time from Man and the Moon. 

Victorian inventors in the photographer's studio,
as drawn by Ward Kimball for Man in Space.

Ward's talents for retro-Victorian illustration served well to give character to The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. Though filtered through mid-century Gay Nineties nostalgia (which was already on the wane by the end of the Sixties... This film came out the same year as the Summer of Love), they are accomplished and indispensable attempts to recapture the spirit of dime novels and silent melodramas that infuses Bullwhip Griffin. More attention was paid in this than in virtually any other Disney live-action film, and it delivers. It would not be half the film it is without Ward Kimball's illustrations. One can easily imagine his guiding hand in many more aspects of the film's production... The "things" of "titles and things." 

The dime novel-style opening title cards.

An intertitle card.

Sequence of Bullwhip Griffin and Jack tracking down Judge Higgins, master of disguises.

Intertitles describing the climactic boxing match.

What projects The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin from a funny little homage to silent films into a film truly resonating with Scientific Romances is the very end sequence. As the city goes up in a blaze, the scene transitions to Bullwhip Griffin's vision of the San Francisco of futurity. Described by the closing refrains of George Bruns and the Disney studio chorus' "Ballad of Bullwhip Griffin", Ward Kimball offers an imaginative retro-futuristic reinterpretation of famous sights like Fisherman's Wharf, the Ferry Building, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Reconstructed panorama of Ward Kimball's retro-futuristic San Francisco
(click for a larger image, and right click again to embiggen it further).

The panorama of San Francisco ends with a monumental
statue to the city's hero and benefactor, Bullwhip Griffin.

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