Three Legends of Old Hollywood and Disney Films


With the increasing presence of the worlds of Marvel, Frozen, and Star Wars in Disney films and parks around the world, it can be easy to forget that the world of Disney began in a Hollywood of old. Hollywood of the 1920’s to the 1960’s was a buzzing, glamorous place, and had a certain sophistication which is long gone. However, the films stay with us; and many of the celebrities of the time contributed to the world of Disney. Three individuals in particular speak to different eras, styles, and genres, but were able to lend some of their talents at various stages in their careers. Those who love the world of Disney often share a love for Old  Hollywood. Some imaginings of this era are present in Disney parks, such as in Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios, and the Carthay Circle Restaurant in Disney's California Adventure. This fusion of the world of Disney and Old Hollywood are due in part to these, and many other individuals, dipping their toes in Disney film.

Bing Crosby

Of the many voices of jazz and mid-century music, Bing Crosby is probably one of the most enduring. Born in 1903, Bing Crosby emerged as a performer as technology, such as the microphone, sound film, and television, developed. He began a singing career early in a group called The Rhythm Boys. Making a solo debut in 1931, Bing Crosby was almost immediately a hit. Bing Crosby found massive success on radio, performing on the stage, in Hollywood movies, and on television, from the early 1930’s to late 1970’s.

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Crosby was able to utilize the microphone to allow a more intimate style of singing, often including mixing in singing that someone would typically belt out to the back row, with a softer style. However, he was able to be extremely flexible, achieving success across media as they emerged.

The singer had countless hits, including Pennies from Heaven, and Now is the Hour.  He also had a prolific presence on television, with his own show, The Bing Crosby Show, airing for 28 episodes, and including guests such as Jack Benny, Joan Fontaine, and Frankie Avalon.

Starting in the 1930’s, Bing Crosby was also a common screen presence, starring in a series of comedies (The Road to… series) with Bob Hope. Especially in the mid to late 1940’s, Crosby was one of the biggest stars on the screen; and throughout his career, he either starred, narrated, or otherwise appeared in 104 films. Probably the most enduring today are The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) co-starring Ingrid Bergman and High Society (1956) co-starring Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

It is virtually impossible to articulate the magnitude of Bing Crosby’s celebrity from the 1930’s to 1960’s and beyond. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Recording, Radio, and Motion Pictures; and was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one in 1945. He was nominated for two Golden Globe awards. Awards and accolades are too lengthy to divulge here.

Even if you have never heard of Bing Crosby, or his style of singing or movies of that time are not to your taste, in all likelihood you would have heard what is probably his most enduring legacy. These are Christmas songs such as White Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas.

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The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released in 1949, and two shorts lasting approximately 30 minutes each tell stories based on The Wind and Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Crosby narrates the second half, pertaining to the haunting story of Sleepy Hollow.

Crosby’s full talents are on display, providing a perfect melody. Listening to Crosby sing this morbid tale, one can tell that he is truly enjoying this narration. Specifically, the songs, Ichabod Crane, Katrina, and Headless Horseman, were sung by Crosby. These provide a bouncy and warm-hearted addition to an otherwise Gothic masterpiece.

This was the last of a package of shorts which saved the Walt Disney Studios from severe economic woes caused by World War II, which may have resulted in outright closure. The success of the package provided the needed funds for the release of Cinderella in 1950, which revived the studio. The package of films was largely subject to positive reviews, and Crosby’s narration was praised. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in many ways helped save the studio, and proved that Disney could make a full recovery from World War II.

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Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O’Hara was the queen of Technicolor, and a prolific actress of dozens of action-adventure and western features, amongst others. O’Hara was born in Ireland in 1920, initially working as a stage actress and for minor studios in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many of her early successes came as a result of screen-test seen by the actor Charles Laughton, with whom she co-starred the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame playing Esmerelda. She was able to transition to RKO, one of the great studios of Old Hollywood, initially making $700 a week, worth about $12,500 a week today.

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While, of course, not every film was a hit, this began a couple of decades of success making Maureen O’Hara one of the most recognizable and relatively wholesome faces of Hollywood in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her most enduring films today would probably be How Green Was My Valley  (1941), The Black Swan (1942), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Rio Grande (1950).

Maureen O’Hara had a wide variety of talents as an actress, primarily starring in action-adventure films, and later westerns with John Wayne. She often felt her that she was seen as a great beauty, which overshadowed her talents as an actress. Looking back on her filmography now, one can see the diversity of her roles, from a refined noblewoman to warm mothers. She was a tough woman in a time and industry where studio moguls and directors ruled with an iron fist. While actors and actresses did have some power, they were primarily pawns in a larger game. However, Maureen O’Hara was able to go to-to-toe with the roughest of them, such as director John Ford, and Walt Disney.

As O'Hara began to fade from celebrity, she became actively involved in her third husband’s airline in the Virgin Islands. Maureen O’Hara passed away in 2015 at the age of 95, one of the last stars of Old Hollywood surviving at the time.

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The Parent Trap (1961) stars Haley Mills, Brian Keith, and co-stars Joanna Barnes, amongst others. In this film, produced by Walt Disney and George Golitzen, Haley Mills (playing both twins) plays Susan and Sharon. Unbeknownst to them, they were twins separated when their parents divorced, who serendipitously meet at summer camp.

Through some clever maneuvering and intense training, Susan and Sharon look to switch the parent with whom they live; and reunite the pair. Many hijinks and emotions abound as the twins meet parents they have never met while looking to stave off a gold-digging fiancé of the twin’s father.

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Source: Minnesota Public Radio

Maureen O’Hara portrays the twins mother, Maggie, a refined Bostonian. O’Hara portrays a cultured society woman, while also sticking true to her screen persona, with stunning red hair, a fiery temper, and an ability to be seductive and family-friendly in tandem.

The movie was filmed in various locations in California and was an enormous success upon its release. The success of the film was in no small part due to the composition of several songs by the Sherman Brothers. While today, the plot is a little dated and predictable, it is overall great entertainment and includes some funny physical comedy, as well as the occasional impressive landscape.

Maureen O’Hara loved children and was delighted with the prospect of working with Walt Disney, however the relationship between O'Hara and Walt Disney was rocky from the start. Disney, as few should be surprised to hear, often paid relatively meager salaries, and offered O’Hara $25,000 for the picture against her typical $75,000 fee. The actress refused to budge and got what she wanted. However, O’Hara always insisted on top billing, and while promised to her, Disney placed Ms. Mills' name prior to hers. Top billing meant that your name would come first in the credits, be prominent on movie posters, and often be the largest name on a movie theatre marquee. While O’Hara did consider legal action, this was dropped. The wranglings while making this film and the consequences are discussed in the biography, Maureen O’Hara: The Biography, which I highly recommend.

While Maureen O’Hara was her usual assertive self, she loved making the movie and her one venture with Disney was an overwhelming success. However, she dared to do what a very small group of people had done and chose to go up against Walt Disney. Disney refused to work with her again. While it would have been absolute delight to see her in more Disney films, including Mary Poppins, we at least have this one.

Pola Negri

If one wishes to further understand the flagrant, unfettered glamour of Old Hollywood, they need not look further than the screen goddesses of the silent years. Pola Negri, as she came to be known, was born in the late 1890's in modern-day Poland. Originally an actress for the powerhouse of European cinema, UFA; she became one of the first of a very long line of imports to Hollywood from Europe; quickly becoming a massive star competing with those such as Gloria Swanson. Signing with Paramount in 1922, she often starred as a mysterious character. Pola was one of the greatest celebrities in the United States during the height of her fame from 1922-1928, and had high-profile romances, including ones with stars like Rudolph Valentino. While she was without a doubt a great star of silent film, her active personal life often overshadowed her film work. Unlike many films of the silent years, many of her films do survive, including Madame DuBarry (1919), 1924’s Forbidden Paradise, and the 1927 Hotel Imperial.

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After ending a brief retirement in 1928, Pola Negri ultimately returned to Europe to make films, primarily in Germany. Fleeing Europe upon the Nazi occupation of Paris, Pola returned to the United States, appearing in the 1943 film Hi Diddle Diddle, quickly retiring from show business in 1945. She was offered roles, including the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but said no to them, until the 1964 film, The Moon-Spinners.

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Pola Negri with Warner Baxter, 1928

Unfortunately, this actress is largely not known today, unless one has a keen interest in the 1920’s or the gossip and scandals of Old Hollywood. Pola was one of the first actresses to place a handprint outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to motion pictures. Pola Negri passed away in 1987 in San Antonio, Texas.

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The Moon-Spinners (1964) tells the story of jewel thieves on the Greek island of Crete, and their entanglements with the protagonist Nikky Ferris and her aunt. The film was produced by Walt Disney, and stars Hayley Mills and Eli Wallach. Through the course of the film, Nikky, played by Hayley Mills, comes to learn that the thieves intend to sell jewels to a mysterious Madame Habib, played by Pola Negri.

Many of the scenes in The Moon-Spinners were beautifully filmed on location in Crete. The film was reasonably well received by critics. It is a good film; perhaps a little long, but includes gorgeous scenery, a vertigo-inducing scene involving a windmill, and several exciting segments.

The Moon-Spinners was Pola Negri’s first film in 20 years, and also her last. During her retirement, the actress had been living with a close friend, Margaret West, primarily in San Antonio, Texas. The author of the book on which the film is based was friends with those in Pola Negri’s circle, and a part in the film was found for her. While hardly a recluse, especially active in San Antonio civic circles, many simply believed she was dead, including Walt Disney.

As was the true style of a screen goddess, her casting caused a sensation in the media; in no way stifled by Pola, who appeared for the official press conference with a cheetah on a leash, looking relatively youthful and radiant. It seemed like it was perhaps the beginning of a revived career for Pola. However, her role in the film was small, not appearing at all until the end of the film. For an actress who would only wear chinchilla, never rabbit or faux furs on screen, her costume and general appearance come off as cheap and lethargic.

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 Source: DisneyWiki 

So while the final result for Pola is perhaps disappointing, The Moon-Spinners absolutely fits the category of solid family entertainment consistent with Disney of the 1960’s. Perhaps the role was simply a distraction from the passing of Ms. West in 1963, or meant to be a genuine comeback? Or perhaps Pola just wanted a little bit of fun? Either way, it helped reintroduce her to the world.

The world of Disney includes a massive arsenal with the addition of the Muppets, Star Wars, and Pixar. Developments across the parks, media, cruise line, and more show no sign of slowing down. But there is an important heritage which should be protected. There are thousands of people who either dedicated their lives, or gave a portion of their talents, to enrich this world. This includes the three above. They were part of a world of class, quality, and splendor. The sparkle which is evident in all Disney productions of quality, originally emerged in the Los Angeles of 1923, to which Walt Disney arrived. Old Hollywood was a more beautiful, better world than the one we have today, and the magic of that era set the bar for the films and parks millions continue to love.