Did you know Walt Disney was a screenwriter? That's right, the Old Maestro who was best known as one of the finest story editors in the business was not above trying his hand at writing a movie script or two. Walt loved the tale of Robinson Crusoe, and had this idea of doing an updated version of this classic story using comedic actor, Dick Van Dyke as a navy pilot stranded on a desert island. Walt, as always used the pseudonym, "Yensid Retlaw" in place of his own famous name. The story was adapted and brought to the screen by two of Disney's favorite writer/producers, Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. Unfortunately, Walt did not have the services of one of his most reliable directors, Robert Stevenson, but more on that later. As a Disney employee in the sixties, I had the opportunity to follow this project all the way from development, production and postproduction. I can tell this story because most, if not all of the major players in this wacky enterprise have since passed on, with the notable exceptions of Mr. Van Dyke and producer, Ron Miller. Oddly enough, for a movie that deals with a man stranded on a desert island, with the exception of a few surf locations in Hawaii, much of the movie was filmed on Disney's Burbank back lot.
My connection to the movie begins with a talented illustrator named, David Jonas. David had been assigned to take Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi's script pages and translate them into visuals that would assist the director once the movie began shooting. This was nothing new to Disney, who always made use of storyboards in movie making, and live-action was no exception. While perusing David's brilliant storyboards one day, I was introduced to Byron Paul, the man selected by Dick Van Dyke himself to direct the film. Paul had been Van Dyke's agent, and wanted a shot at directing a feature film. When Walt Disney signed the famous comedian for "Mary Poppins," Dick's contract stipulated that Byron Paul would be director on Van Dyke's next project. The movie begins on an aircraft carrier where the rescued fighter pilot played by Van Dyke tells his story in flashback. We see the opening scenes where Van Dykes' character, "Robin," crashes his fighter into the Pacific Ocean. A comic montage follows as the downed fighter pilot struggles to survive in the middle of the ocean. The ocean, in this case was stage three on the Disney lot. Constructed for the production of "Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea" in the 1950's, this stage had a huge water tank built into the floor. It was here filming began with poor Dick Van Dyke floating for hours in a rubber raft in front of the sodium matte screen. The gags that seemed so hilarious on the storyboards were not all that easy to pull off on the sound stage. In spite of all this, Dick Van Dyke managed to remain cheerful as he bobbed up and down for hours on end. He joked with all of us as the filming continued. It's a shame little of that humor is evident on screen. I must admit the Disney team did their best to make this movie work. I remember being on Stage Four where the crew prepared filming Dick Van Dyke braving a tropical storm. Suddenly, the wind machines began to blow, and rain poured from the stage sprinklers. The effects people even created lightning that was so real it scared the heck out of me. Not merely flashing studio lights, mind you, but bolts of "lightning" streaked through the air. Keep in mind this was all being done on a sound stage, but you would have sworn you were in the midst of a tropical storm. Because of the control over the physical elements, it was indeed a perfect storm. More than a few of us left the stage that day somewhat drenched.
Production on the movie continued on Stage Two where the jungle set was being constructed. The centerpiece of the sizable indoor set was "The Great Kaboona." And, who is Kaboona, you ask? Well, he was the huge stone idol that the natives worshiped. However, art director, Carl Anderson was not paying homage to Disney's director of photography. I remember having lunch on the Disney Commissary patio as Anderson ranted about the way William Snyder was photographing his set. "It's a jungle!" he yelled. "The light should be filtered through the dense foliage. This movie looks like it's being filmed in Griffith Park!" Still, the production blunders continued. Carl Anderson and his crew constructed a beautiful jungle lagoon on the back lot of the Disney studio. The beautiful native girl who was given the name, "Wednesday" by Van Dyke's character, swam in the lagoon with other native lovelies. Actress, Nancy Kwan, who I was lucky enough to meet on the set, played Wednesday. Anyway, what follows next might even be denied by Disney, but trust me, it happened. After shooting a fairly involved scene, the cameramen realized they had forgotten to load the camera. Yet, other blunders had tragic consequences. While shooting on location in Hawaii, a crew-member was lost while filming in the unpredictable surf. Meanwhile, back on the Burbank lot, rough footage was being screened for Walt Disney. Believe it or not, I was in most of those screenings. You should have heard The Old Maestro grumble about what he was being shown on screen. The producers and director tried to explain why things went wrong but it was clear Walt was not satisfied with their explanations. Walt practically had his head in his hands as veteran character actor, Akim Tamiroff playing the native chieftain, "Tanamashu," unrelentingly chewed the scenery. Audiences were eventually charmed at the box office by "Lt. Robinson Crusoe, USN." It was a pleasant diversion, but hardly a screen masterpiece. Walt Disney's fun take on the Robinson Crusoe tale never lived up to expectations. Plus, we heard Walt continually grumble how much better the film would have been if only he had gone with veteran Disney director, Robert Stevenson. For all the ups and downs during production, I'll bet more than a few were glad to see this mini fiasco come to a close.
Now, did all this really happen, you might ask? I'll answer that by calling attention to Dick Van Dyke's simian sidekick during the early part of the film. The critter that enjoyed upstaging Dick Van Dyke and getting the best laughs. Was it just coincidence that the guy who was fond of drawing gags about Walt Disney might have found himself the recipient of a joke by the Old Maestro himself? If you remember the movie, you might recall that the cute little chimp that befriends Dick Van Dyke was given a very interesting name. And, what was that you ask? Well, does the name, “Floyd” sound familiar?