THINGS I LEARNED AT THE MOVIES BLOGATHON (Learning About Types: Janet Munro in Swiss Family Robinson….And Then There Was Hollywood: Third Rumination)

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I’m happy to be participating in the latest blogathon from Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Please click on the link to visit their places and read as many entries as you can over the next few days. It’s always fun and enlightening!

The subject is “Things I Learned at the Movies.”

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For me, this is a short list. The only people who ever taught me anything “at the movies” are John Ford and Janet Munro.

John Ford’s a book, or maybe a library.

Janet Munro is…well, something that can’t be found in books.

She’s my first movie love.

You learn a lot from your first movie love. Whether or not it ever connects to anything or anyone you encounter in the “real” world (hereafter, Realworld), it’s likely to leave a mark that never quite washes off.

When, exactly, Janet Munro put that mark on me is murky now. Looking up things on the internet, I see that her breakout film, Disney’s 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, was re-released in time to scare the bejesus out of eight-year-old me in 1969. Sorry, but even if I’d been of an age for a first movie crush, it wouldn’t have survived the Banshee and the Death Coach. What I remember about the first time I saw Janet Munro was it was the last time I slept with my parents.

Later that same year, Swiss Family Robinson, which premiered December 10, 1960, two days after I was born (be sure to keep up with the serendipity here, there’s more than a bit), was also re-released, and my nine-year-old self saw it some time in 1970.

The second time I saw Janet Munro, what I remembered was the pirates.

After that?

Hard to say. My memory says the film was released again in about 1972 and I swear I once saw documentation to that effect. If so, the information seems to have disappeared down every memory hole but mine. That being the case, I’ll trust mine and swear I was eleven or twelve–that the eagerness with which I attended that second re-release not once but twice (unheard of in my youth as my parents were not big on either going to the movies or sending me with someone else, though they never objected if someone wanted to take me to a Disney movie) is not only fondly, but accurately, recalled–and a whole lot more interested in girls than I was at eight or nine.

All of which makes me now wonder how I really felt when my about-to-be first movie crush showed up…as a boy.

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In the hands of pirates, of course. Dreamland pirates–everything in Swiss Family Robinson is from Dreamland–but scary enough to mark the memory.

Whenever I started crushing on her, it probably wasn’t just here. I can’t even say, at this distance, if I knew she was going to turn into a girl. I can’t say if I knew it when I was nine and I can’t say if I remembered it at twelve. Maybe I was fooled the first time. Maybe I forgot the second time. Maybe both. Maybe neither.

In any case, I doubt I was much concerned. At nine and twelve, there’s such a thing as being caught up in the story and the spectacle. When Swiss Family Robinson came around, I was that.

Having rarely gone to movies in theaters, a condition that would continue until I could drive to them myself,  those I did see tended to make a larger-than-life impression, even in the crummy little second-run strip mall venues where most of my limited movie-going experience played out. Swiss Family Robinson made the biggest impression of all. It was the only movie I saw three times. It was the only movie I saw that was perfect in every way and stayed perfect in memory.

And then, that last time around–and the real reason I took, or badgered for, the rare opportunity to go on back-to-back weekends–was because, by then, I knew that, somewhere along the way,Janet Munro turned into a girl. The girl, as it happened.

From this (where I must have been catching on, assuming, you know, I didn’t already “know” or remember)…

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…and this (and surely by now)…

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…to this (which I’m not even sure would have done the trick, except that my first movie crush was an excellent actress, and, well, it was a plot point, what they call a “reveal” even in Dreamland)…

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….and this (the part where my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, and his surly older brother, James MacArthur, aka Fritz, turned into gentlemen….at least until they started fighting over her)…

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…and, finally, this…

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…at which point my reaction, there in the cheap seats and the precious dark, was probably something along the lines of this….

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…a reaction I would, as it turned out, have only twice in the “real” world, neither of which ever had a chance to lead anywhere, and which, I realized much later on, when the miracle of home video allowed me to revisit SFR, conditioned all my other movie crushes, too.

I never had cause to regret my Fate. If somebody had to be the first one who left me no choice but to surrender, I couldn’t have asked for better. Whenever it was that I realized “Bertie” was really “Roberta,” I thereafter made no distinctions. After the big change hit me, she was always Janet Munro to me, in this and every other movie I ever saw her in (including the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and her other great Disney movies, Darby O’Gill and The Third Man on the Mountain, where that lucky little so-and-so, James MacArthur, wasn’t quite so surly but just as damn lucky). At least she was Janet Munro whenever she wasn’t “the girl in Swiss Family Robinson.” That was a phrase that brought a smile and a nod to every male my age back in the days when I–never having seen either The Godfather or Walking Tall, the two movies everybody else named as their favorite in the early and mid-seventies whenever the “what’s your favorite movie” conversation started–would admit Swiss Family Robinson was it for me.

In the now forgotten days before it was memory-swamped by Star Wars that was an answer that always changed the conversation around, as in, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one!” More often than not, the other kid would change his pick. A horse’s head in the bed was cool and all and Buford Pusser taking a baseball bat to somebody’e head even cooler….but they weren’t pirates, and they sure weren’t Janet Munro.

Well, Star Wars  did come, God love it, and I still think of it as that admittedly fun movie made by some guy who has never proved he watched any movie except SFR from beginning to end, because there’s no other movie where he’s filched every single element–though the cinnabuns he put on Janet Munro’s doppelganger, Carrie Fisher, were all his own idea–even if he no longer admits SFR director Ken Annakin’s name was the source of Anakin Skywalker, the only character who appeared in all six of the SW franchise movies Lucas was directly involved in. (I don’t hold it against him. Just shows he had good taste. But honestly he should come clean.)

It didn’t matter that, in Dreamland, where everything should go right, she preferred my doppelganger’s older brother to him…and, by  extension, to me. That extension still leaves a bit of a mark on me during every one of the not-infrequent occasions when I renew my acquaintance with the movie via the still-applicable technological miracle of home video. But in the end even that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, aka “the one who didn’t get the girl,” turned out to be gay in Realworld and that he was left with a hellishly hard road to hoe as a result (about as hellish as you’d expect if that central fact complicated the transition every Disney kid, including Janet Munro, who wasn’t really a kid, found so difficult to make in even the best of circumstances).

It doesn’t matter that she was part of a grand tradition, invisible to me at the time, of the tomboy forced to live by her wits, which Disney had revived and/or invented with Glynis Johns surviving Henry VIII’s court in Annakin’s The Sword and the Rose and finalized by first turning Hayley Mills into the All-American Girl (she, like Munro and most of the other girls-next-door America has ever taken to its heart, was a child of show-biz…an English girl is fine, just so she’s a trouper) and then sending her all around the world.

It doesn’t matter that the tradition died with Disney (Walt, that is, not, alas, the corporation) and it doesn’t matter that Janet Munro (already in her mid-twenties when SFR was made) grew up.

It doesn’t mater that one Sean Connery has confessed that, on the set of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (also his breakout movie), she was the only actor who ever intimidated him, by virtue of being the daughter of Alec Munro, a Scottish Music Hall legend. Something along the lines of, if he didn’t measure up in the singing scene, he could never go home again.

None of that has ever mattered.

It probably does matter that she was who she was.

Scottish even if she was born in England (the way I was Scottish even if I was born in America–serendipity perhaps).

It certainly mattered that all that roughhouse show-biz training left her, in Annakin’s accounting, game for anything. That stuff shows and, at nine and twelve, a girl who can ride and shoot and climb trees and mountains is a catch no matter what other qualities she does or does not possess. And Janet Munro hardly lacked for those “other” qualities, which make a subliminal impression even a nine and a not-so-subliminal impression soon thereafter.

I don’t know if it matters that, on the set of SFR, when she was giving a performance in which no single element has ever broken down under dozens of viewings, she was severely depressed and already hitting the bottle that would help kill her–two days before my birthday–in the year I fell in love with her.

Serendipity can be as depressing as anything else in this world.

It’s only from this distance that I see how unlikely she was–that one twenty-six-year-old actress could convincingly play a fourteen-year-old-boy…

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…and a sixteen-year-old girl you wouldn’t mind hiring for a babysitter…or taking home to mother…

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..even if, one, two, three, she was capable of sparking, spurring and manipulating a romantic rivalry…

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..without ceasing to be a down-and-dirty action heroine…

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…her own stunt-woman…

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…or, as the reaction-shot glue in the greatest action sequence ever filmed (yes, Lucas lifted it from a jungle to a space-ship’s garbage bin…and, great as that was, he came short), the all-time Damsel in Distress…

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…in a sequence that otherwise involved Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur (again doing most of their own stunt-work) in a fight with a twenty-foot anaconda that I pray I live to see on a big screen once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

All that and, down at the very end, she had to let my doppelganger down. First hard (sometimes there’s no other way)…one, two, three

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..then, because the heart wants what it wants, even, or especially, in Dreamland, harder…one, two, three…

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…without letting Realworld girls forget they still wanted to be her, or Realworld boys–even those who saw themselves more in Ernst than Fritz–forget they still wanted to be with her, or Realworld parents, in that faraway land of 1960, which now may as well be 1690, forget they wanted their girls and boys to be like or with some version of her.

One…

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..two…

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…three…

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With or without the associations of a first crush, Swiss Family Robinson still has a Dreamland glow about it, which, for better or worse, modernity cannot disturb. Those involved felt it. Ken Annakin, the man who formed the bridge between Golden Age swashbuckler masters like Michael Curtiz and the best work of his own acolytes, Lucas and Steven Speilberg (none of whom were better than he was–with action movies, there’s no such thing as better than Ken Annakin), was exceptionally and justifably proud of it. Tommy Kirk, who survived hell and, with last year’s untimely passing of Kevin Corcoran, is now also the last surviving main cast member, has said it’s the movie he’d like to be remembered for and that he’s the most proud of.

Until James MacArthur’s death, they exchanged Christmas cards every year and signed them “Fritz” and “Ernst.”

On the great documentary and commentary track where I learned a lot of this, (they attend the special two-disc DVD that Disney put out a few years back–accept no substitutes), everyone seemed to have fond but not very specific memories of Janet Munro. In his autobiography, Annakin recalled her fondly as “the complete trouper, ready to try anything.” By way of proof he mentioned the only two occasions she complained.

The first was after he hung her off the side of an Alp in The Third Man on the Mountain (which I should mention here is the greatest mountain-climbing movie ever made…a lot of what Annakin did is the greatest, even if few remember or acknowledge it now). When she was finally hauled up, she said, “You might have padded the harness. I think I’ve lost both my boobs.”

The second was after she took a fall from a galloping zebra in SFR. She walked past him and said: “I don’t know why I do all these crazy things for you!”

That was the full litany of her complaints on two of history’s most grueling action shoots, on which there was next to no stunt-doubling and, of course, no CGI.

Scottish Music Hall was apparently a hard training ground.

I wish she and Annakin had been able to do more together. I bet that would matter.

More than that, I wish she had lived a longer and happier life, long enough, perhaps, to realize, as the other Disney kids did, that their best films are worth remembering and derive most of their iconic power and joy from the performances given by the best of them, among whom not even Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills rank higher than her.

Sad as the passing of any person is at the age of 38, it is infinitely sadder when it was your first movie crush and she died in the year you fell in love with her and you are left with a forever-just-out-of-reach feeling–or perhaps illusion–that only someone with whom you were truly simpatico could have affected you so, here in the real world.

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15 thoughts on “THINGS I LEARNED AT THE MOVIES BLOGATHON (Learning About Types: Janet Munro in Swiss Family Robinson….And Then There Was Hollywood: Third Rumination)

  1. This is a beautiful and wistful tribute to an obviously talented and hardy woman. I have never seen this film, but your post has me frantically googling for it to see if I can watch it online (You can on YouTube – hooray!)

    I will come back to re-read your post after I see the movie. In the meantime, thank you for joining us and sharing your experiences with Janet Munro. 🙂

  2. NDJ

    Nice tribute to Ms Munro. SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON is also a fave of mine and I, too, had a crush on the tomboy on the island. It’s been years since I last saw it so I just placed a hold on a DVD at the library, so I will be seeing it again soon.

    RDN

    PS: I seem to remember a damn near perfect pair of parents …

    • I hope it’s a happy revisit. A few elements are a little cute, but overall I still respond to it every time. If you happen to get the two-disc version, the documentary is well worth watching…one thing that’s not in it is an anecdote Annakin told in his memoir. Sessue Hayakawa played the lead pirate and Annakin’s British crew of stunt-men played his merry band. Hayakawa was in his sixties and had a geisha following him around on the set, attending to his every need. The stuntmen were a tad jealous and kept trying to find ways to goad him. First they “lured” him into a poker game, where he proceeded to take all their money. Then they talked him into trying out some falls of judo, whence he proceeded to throw all twenty of them in succession. After that, they were an unfailingly loyal crew!

      And, yes, perfect parents. Dreamland, you know.

  3. Beautiful article.

    Oh, how I lived and loved that movie. I am one of those realworld girls who wanted to be her. When I got home from the first time I saw SFR I renamed all of my dolls Janet. Some 20 plus years later when my husband suggested Janet as the name for our soon to be born daughter, my heart smiled.

    • Hi Patricia… Thanks so much for sharing that lovely story! If I’d ever had a daughter, I definitely would have wanted to name her Janet and I like to think I NEVER would have married a woman who was likely to object!

  4. Such a nice post! Really appreciate you contributing all this work and insight to the blogathon. I haven’t seen this since childhood and reading this of course makes me want to rewatch asap, thanks for that and for taking part.

    • Thanks Kristina! And thanks so much for hosting…Much work as it is just coming up with a piece I can only imagine how much work that is (though I know you guys are experienced by now….hope it gets easier with practice!) I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about this since I started the blog so it was really fun and satisfying to get the chance!

  5. A lovely tribute! I just watched this this year for the first time since I was a child and was reminded how great it was. I don’t think I ever appreciated what an achievement it was, though, to make a film of that scope.

    • Thanks Christina….I think it’s easy to take some things for granted and this film is certainly one of them. Only Disney could/would have made it in its own time (it was a huge gamble). No one would even think about making a film with so much live action/no stunts/real animals etc. now.

      And I must say I’m really happy to discover so many fellow fans of the film!

  6. Wow! I never seen the SFR but I vaguely remember the actress. This is so beautifully written, almost poetic in its presentation. I don’t think I could watch her on the screen without thinking of your touching words. Thank you, truly

  7. What a wonderful post! Swiss Family Robinson is one of those movies I can watch over and over again. I absolutely love the development of Fritz and Roberta’s romance. There’s also this wonderful “romantic” notion of being a girl disguised as a boy and the real boys not knowing.

  8. Pingback: FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES | The Round Place In The Middle

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