Classic Film Guide

Swiss Family Robinson (1940)

I haven't actually seen this entire movie. My family just watched Walt Disney's 1960 version on DVD, which contains 20 minutes of excerpts from this film. According to imdb.com, Disney bought the rights and all known copies (from RKO) of this original to prevent comparisons with his remake. So, what I've attempted to summarize what's on the Disney DVD below.

It was directed by Edward Ludwig, and is based on the Johann David Wyss novel. Co-producers C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne worked with Walter Ferris on the screenplay to produce a B&W film much different than one's which were to follow it. It stars Thomas Mitchell and Edna Best as the parents of four (not three) boys: the teenage boys Ernest & Fritz, played by Terry Kilburn & Tim Holt respectively, are joined by Jack (Freddie Bartholomew) and infant Francis (Bobbie Quillan, actually a two year old girl). Age-wise, the boys ranking from oldest to youngest is Fritz, Jack, Ernest, and then (big gap to) Francis.

Instead of beginning with the shipwreck during the credits, this film opens with Mitchell in an office filling out paperwork to request permission to leave & narration from an uncredited Orson Welles, who gives more background about the turmoil (due to the Napoleonic wars) in Europe - the reasons why the Robinsons left for Australia (in lieu of New Guinea) in the first place. The shipwreck is shown which, combined with the film's other special effects, earned the film an Oscar nomination in the category. The floating of the animals in and around a raft complete with half barrels in which to sit is next, with Mitchell giving thanks to God (in lieu of silent prayer) once the family is safely ashore.

Quite a bit more detail is shown as to how the Robinsons constructed their magnificent treehouse. The time they took to complete it was longer and their temporary "tent(s) made from the ship's sails" furnishings are more realistic than in the remake. The captain's quarters from the rear of the ship are hosted using the two donkeys that were evidently on the ship (in lieu of the elephant found on the island). It is shown how the family made candles and constructed other necessities (e.g. clothes), again, much more so than in the remake during which these details were glossed over and the treehouse materialized in no time including the intricacies required for its operation.

Mitchell's characterization of the patriarch appears similar, if more religious, than John Mills's - a man whose idea this adventure was that sees the opportunity as being good for his family, especially for his boys’ maturation. Edna Best plays the mother a bit more hysterically than Dorothy McGuire did; she's not happy about the decision nor their situation and has a lot more to say about it (whereas McGuire's character is more limited to facial expressions than vocalizations). Of course, Best has a crying, helpless infant boy to worry about, a character that doesn't exist in the Disney film. The boys are perfectly cast: you can't do much better than Holt (this film is one of almost two dozen he made between Gold Is Where You Find It (1938) and before The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)), Bartholomew (looking all grown up, three years after Captains Courageous (1937)), and Kilburn (coming off Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) the year before). Of course, James MacArthur as Fritz, and Tommy Kirk as Ernst are great in the Disney film as well.

It is Ernest, not Francis (an infant in this one, but was played by the rambunctious Kevin Corcoran in the remake), who is the wild adventurous one, which causes him to receive a near fatal spider bite in this original. This is yet more fodder for Mother to lament their fate and rail at Father, who prays to God for his son's (inevitable) survival. In the end, though, Mother wants to stay on the island whereas it's the older boys, Fritz & Jack, who must leave it (on the ship which discovers them) to get a suitable education. The reason this film is more than 30 minutes shorter than the Disney film made 20 years later, despite the fact that it includes the beginning sequence & more treehouse building detail, is the fact that there is no side-plot with pirates (led by Sessue Hayakawa) nor Captain Moreland (Cecil Parker) and his granddaughter (Janet Munro).

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