It was another sunny summer afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. We sat on the commissary patio enjoying lunch, or at least trying to. Our little group consisted of several Disney artists along with art director, Carl Anderson who was currently working on a new Walt Disney live-action feature film. The movie starred the talented and affable Dick Van Dyke who like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” would spend a good deal of the movie by himself. However, that movie was decades away and its story would have a far different tone. This particular story penned by the Old Maestro himself would have a comic sensibility and much of it would be played for laughs. If you’re a Disney film buff you may already know I’m speaking of the Walt Disney film, “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN.”
However, let’s get back to lunch on the Walt Disney Studio Commissary where Anderson continued to rant about Director of Photography, Bill Snyder. “What’s wrong with that guy?” complained Carl Anderson. “We’re supposed to be deep in the jungle and Snyder is lighting the scene like we’re in Griffith Park.” Had you been able to visit stage two back in the early sixties you would have indeed found a remote tropical jungle. At least a Hollywood version of a jungle island in the Pacific. This is where Navy fighter pilot, Lt. Robin Crusoe finds himself in the movies’ first act. However, the Navy pilot played by Dick Van Dyke would spend a number of days floating in a rubber raft. Have no fear, we didn’t send poor Mr. Van Dyke out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Dick Van Dyke managed to play out his scenes in the middle of sound stage three. If you know the Walt Disney Studio you’ll know that stage three has a built in water tank. Naturally, that considerable sized water tank became our Pacific Ocean for a number of days as Mr. Van Dyke struggled to survive. In time, our hero is washed ashore on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific.
Most Disney film buffs visit a movie set on occasion, but I was with this film from start to finish even though I didn’t work on it. I confess I continually hung around Don Dagradi and Bill Walsh’s office while they wrote the screenplay based on Walt’s story. I was a consistent visitor to the office of illustrator, David Jonas as he developed a visual continuity for the motion picture. You can see a few of David’s sketches down below. Finally, I was able to meet director, Byron Paul who would helm the motion picture for Disney and hopefully establish himself as a movie director. In case you didn’t know…Byron Paul was Dick Van Dyke’s agent. I followed the movie through preproduction and when shooting finally began, I was a daily visitor to the set. A second unit team was busy shooting establishing shots and live-action plates in Hawaii. However, Dick Van Dyke never had to travel to the islands because all of his scenes were shot at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Whether it was flying the Navy jet, crashing into the Pacific ocean or surviving on the deserted tropical island, those scenes were all filmed on the sound stages and backlot of the Walt Disney Studios.
My time on the Disney film was filled with delightful and unexpected surprises. Meeting the animal star of the film was fun. The clever chimpanzee eventually became a pal with movie star, Dick Van Dyke and would often join him for coffee and a cigarette. You think I’m kidding? Just ask Mr. Van Dyke. The chimp, whose real name was “Dingy” was given the name, “Floyd” in the finished movie. I’ll let you guess where that idea came from. Then there was my encounter with the beautiful island native girls and a tropical swim in an island lagoon. Once again, this lush tropical jungle was created at the magical Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. There was also a special moment with the beautiful actress, Nancy Kwan that had my heart racing. I’m too embarrassed to even talk about that. Finally, the studio special effects wizards created a tropical storm that was good enough to be the real thing. Once again, this was the special magic of movie making we seem to have lost today. Whatever distant location or special effect we needed could instantly be created by Walt’s Wizards such as Peter Ellenshaw, Ub Iwerks, Allen Maley and Eustace Lycett. Yes, boys and girls. This is when movie making was fun. Today, you’ll need 500 to a thousand visual effects people to do what these four guys did on a regular basis.
Eventually, the huge tropical jungle set on stage two was lit and ready for photography. Looming over the set was a large stone idol known as “The Great Kaboona.” Actors, Dick Van Dyke and Nancy Kwan were dragged before the island potentate. It was then character actor, Akim Tamiroff began to “chew the scenery.” Tamiroff played the island chief, Tanamashu and even Walt Disney thought the well known character actor was over acting just a little. The scene wrapped and art director, Carl Anderson was never totally satisfied with what he considered to be some pretty mediocre movie lighting. Oh, well. That’s Hollywood, I guess. Walt Disney’s “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN” proved to be light, fun entertainment and a pretty good little film. I can tell you for a fact that Walt Disney was hardly pleased with the final film and often grumbled that he should have let his go-to director, Bob (Mary Poppins) Stevenson direct the movie. In any case, that time is past. I have my memories and a handful of story sketches reminding me of a Walt Disney Studio that once was… and can never be again.