Classic Movies

Grey Market Cinema: Swiss Family Robinson (1940)


Pastor Johann David Wyss’ novel The Swiss Family Robinson (Der Schweizerische Robinson), first published in 1812, has served as inspiration for several motion pictures and television adaptations (the series Lost in Space, for example, functions essentially as a “Swiss Family Robinson in the cosmos”) with perhaps the best-known adaptation emanating from the Walt Disney Studios in 1960.  The Disney version of Robinson was a huge financial success, and to many Disney acolytes it’s one of the studio’s finest motion picture achievements.  What prompted Walt to tackle this project?  Well, he had sat down with a previous film based on the source material, a 1940 RKO release directed by Edward Ludwig, and decided along with producer Bill Anderson (not the country music singer) that he could improve on the material.

dvd2This decision to “adopt, adapt, and improve” even went as far as Disney’s decision to purchase the rights to the RKO version…and as the story goes, Walt was determined to erase any traces of the previous film by “disappearing” all known prints to stave off any potential re-releases (or comparisons to his version).  This would not be the first time something like this happened, of course; MGM went on a tear destroying prints of the original 1940 version of Gaslight (a.k.a. Angel Street) to avoid evaluations with their 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (personally, I think the 1940 Gaslight is a better movie).  Let’s be honest, though: it was a dick move in both instances.  The RKO version is purportedly tucked away in the Disney vaults (playing gin rummy with Song of the South [1946], no doubt), though twenty minutes from the film did surface on one of the Disney “Vault” DVD releases of Robinson…and according to (always reliable) Wikipedia, the 92-minute film was released in 2010 as part of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™’s “Vault Collection”—“a library of ‘rare and forgotten’ films, produced ‘in only small quantities and available for a limited time.’”

If there’s any legitimacy to the “small quantities” portion of that statement, then anyone fortunate to have purchased the TCM release must have it stashed away in the same Disney vault.  Any evidence of the 1940 Robinson’s existence on DVD that I could dig up online is accompanied by consumer comments complaining about the poor quality of the release, and I find it a little hard to believe TCM would associate themselves with something that substandard—rarity or no—while Bobby Osbo was still around.  (If someone out there owns a copy, give me a shout-out in the comments section; I just want confirmation as to its presence because while I’m not the end-all and be-all when it comes to classic movie releases on disc you’d think I would have come across this news when it was announced in 2010.  Granted, it’s possible this might have taken place during my medical episode in March of that year.)  My inner P.I. posits that these disparaging remarks may have been directed toward an unauthorized version—or “bootleg,” to use the more familiar nomenclature—like the one the now-defunct once had in their inventory.

dvdHow do I know they had it?  Because I purchased a DVD of the 1940 Swiss Family Robinson from my pal Martin Grams, Jr. and his fabulous Finders Keepers site recently…and Forgotten Films appears to be the source of the Finders release, as their logo is displayed onscreen once the closing credits are over.  I will not lie to you: it’s a very rough (though certainly watchable) print—so uneven that, for example, some of the movie’s narration has gone missing…and that narration comes courtesy of our obedient servant Orson Welles (Orson agreed to the gig for $25, then donated the money to charity).  There are marked differences between the 1940 and 1960 versions, naturally; you’re not going to find that silly animal steeplechase (though one of the characters in the 1940 film does ride an ostrich briefly) or the business with the pirates, and the Disney version adds another female character for a little love interest, if you know what I mean…and I think you do.

Many argue that the 1940 Robinson is a bit more faithful to Wyss’ novel though there are deviations—in the movie, the Robinsons appear to be the only occupants on the ship that ultimately flounders while in the book, other passengers are evacuated while the Family Robinson is left behind.  That shipwreck occurs from patriarch William Robinson’s (Thomas Mitchell) decision to move his family from 1813 London to “the colonies” (Australia).  William is concerned about the influence Old Blighty—which has become a hot spot of profligacy—is having on his sons; Jack (Freddie Bartholomew) is a foppish dandy, Ernest (Terry Kilburn) a nerdy bookworm, and Fritz (Tim Holt) a budding young soldier itching to enlist in any army that will have him…though he’s got his sights set on joining up with Napoleon Bonaparte, a man he admires despite Nappy’s pesky war of aggression in Europe.  With wife Elizabeth (Edna Best) and youngest son Francis (“Baby” Bobby Quillan) in tow, the family start off on their arduous trek until a nasty old storm washes the captain and crew overboard and leaves the family’s transport a battered hulk.

Tim Holt, Thomas Mitchell, Edna Best, and Terry Kilburn in Swiss Family Robinson (1940)

The Robinson clan manages to escape to an uncharted desert isle via a makeshift raft (they’re able to bring along some animals that were conveniently on the boat along by lashing them to floatation devices fashioned from barrels) once the crippled vessel washed up on a reef.  Because the family has the misfortune to be stranded on an island that’s not on any official trade routes it looks like any chance of rescue is slim and none (and Slim just left town) unless Father William devises a way to build a transmitter out of cocoanuts.  (Little Gilligan’s Island joke for those of you in the audience.)  William is genuinely stoked about being marooned because of his obsession with turning his sons into men; Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a bit more “sivilized”—as Mark Twain would put it—and she’s so anxious to get off that stinking island that she beseeches her husband to begin construction on a boat.  The boat preparations go south when what the family has constructed so far is destroyed during a fierce storm, and a fanatical William—in a display of behavior that I’d wager won’t be witnessed again until the publication of The Mosquito Coast—is convinced that it’s “God’s will” the family remain on the island.  (The Supreme Being is a bit of a prankster, is he not?)

Freddie Bartholomew, Mitchell, and Holt

At the risk of spoiling it for everyone out there in YesteryearLand—the Robinson family are eventually discovered by a ship’s crew who’s wandered off the main trade route, though only Jack and Fritz elect to head back to civilization while William, Liz, Ernest, and Francis decide to stay behind.  (This is the reason why I’ve never completely cottoned to The Swiss Family Robinson.  My idea of life in the Great Outdoors is margaritas on the patio.)  In the Disney version, it’s “Ernst” who says “sayonara” to his island-loving family (well, the family is short a son in Walt’s retelling…and of course, they gain an extra female who was posing as a cabin boy).  Elizabeth’s decision of “naw, mang—I’m good” is most puzzling considering her earlier bewilderment as to why her husband enjoys going native—but I don’t write these movies…I just watch them.

I think both the 1940 and 1960 versions of Swiss Family Robinson are solid entertainment…though I’ll confess that while Walt’s movie is amazing in the visual trickery department (the 1940 take was nominated for a Special Effects Oscar but lost to The Thief of Bagdad) and benefits from on-location filming, the 1940 film takes a walk on the dark side (and I like the dark side).  Mitchell’s patriarch is not a particularly pleasant guy and while I was puzzled as to why the family never declared mutiny by feeding him to their pet geese, his William Robinson is kept grounded by a splendid performance by Edna Best as Elizabeth (the role had been offered to Lillian Gish).  Since Tim Holt was already on RKO’s payroll he was the first to be cast in the film; producers Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker (who also penned the screenplay along with Walter Ferris) then borrowed Terry Kilburn and Freddie Bartholomew from MGM to play Jack and Ernest…with Freddie, while good in his role, demonstrating that child actors unfortunately come with a “sell-by date” when it comes to cuteness.

Kilburn, Best, Bartholomew, and Mitchell

Robert Mitchum once joked that RKO used to illuminate their noir movie sets with a lit match, and though it’s tempting to speculate that ace cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca used the same lighting method on Robinson, I realize it’s the shabbiness of the print that renders a goodly portion of the film in pitch-black darkness.  Producers Towne and Baker’s production company was known as The Play’s the Thing, an outfit specializing in making films from public domain properties, and after Swiss Family Robinson (their inaugural effort) they produced two more movies, Tom Brown’s School Days (1940—also with Bartholomew) and Little Men (1940), before closing shop.  (The dismal box office response to Robinson might have hastened their decision to disband their business.)  Unless the Disney people wake up one morning with an irresistible urge to release Robinson to DVD, this is likely your best bet if you’re curious.

Addendum: Linda Young corrected me on Facebook that the “animal steeplechase” I described as Disney’s flight of fancy is in Wyss’ novel; I haven’t cracked open the book since I was a youngster, and I honestly didn’t remember it being in there.  In addition, with regards to the pirates Linda notes: “…I thought Disney had made the pirates up out of whole cloth until recently, until I discovered there are actually two versions of the book!”  She further goes on to say: “There is another version of the book, with something like thirty more chapters that continues where Wyss senior left off, written by a French woman, and the attack of the pirates (originally “savages,” so you can see Uncle Walt cleaned that up) come from that.”

Disney and Wyss also introduce a second female character (the “love interest” I alluded to in the review) into the Robinson’s narrative…only they approach this in different directions: in the Wyss version, she’s a woman discovered on a neighboring island while Uncle Walt presents her as a gal living among the pirates disguised as a cabin boy.  Be that as it may, I needed to put together this mea culpa and I’m most grateful to Linda for keeping me honest.

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