Walt Disney's Last Live Action Film

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt Disney's Last Live Action Film: Blackbeard's Ghost

Released theatrically on February 8, 1968, Blackbeard's Ghost is the last live-action film to have been touched by Walt Disney before his untimely passing. He watched it being filmed before he checked into St. Joseph's Hospital for the final time.

The film recounts the story of a young track coach named Steve Walker (played by Dean Jones) who has been hired to help the hopeless team at Godolphin College before an upcoming track meet.

Walker accidentally conjures up the ghost of Blackbeard (played by Peter Ustinov) who must perform a good deed to break the curse of his 10th wife that condemned him to limbo. To make matters more challenging, only Walker can see and hear Blackbeard and the ghost is full of mischief.

There are additional complications, including Walker trying to woo another Godolphin professor (Suzanne Pleshette) and a local crime boss named Silky Seymour who is trying to take over the hotel where Walker is staying from some little old ladies.

Blackbeard provides some of his special help at the track meet and helps the little old ladies save their hotel—and is allowed to join his former crew in the hereafter.

As might be suspected, the film emphasizes physical humor and relies heavily on the charm of Jones and Ustinov to sustain interest in the predictable family film formula.

It is not a bad film but it is definitely not a memorable one. The gangster slapstick section seems very dated and surprisingly, after the excellence of the special effects in Mary Poppins, a wire is clearly visible when Blackbeard takes a bottle of rum from a motorcycle policeman and also when Blackbeard helps the Godolphin pole-vaulter.

The special effects for the film were handled by a legendary crew: Eustace Lycett, head of special photographic effects; Peter Ellenshaw, supervising matte painter; Art Vitarelli, second unit director; and Bob Mattey, head of special visual effects.

Under the direction of Vitarelli, the second unit shot background footage on location at San Luis Obispo and Trancas that was later combined with shots from the sound stage. Additional location shooting was done at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. With the use of several fog machines, the small lake on the ranch doubled for the Atlantic coastline in the scene where the ghost of Blackbeard rows to shore.

Simple effects like floating rum bottles were done in real time on the set itself. More complicated effects were done on a special effects stage.

One effect went very wrong. Hank Jones, playing the part of Gudger, was rigged up in the same wire harness that was used in Mary Poppins but without the padding of that bulky Victorian dress. The sharp wires cut into his skimpy track suit and he started trickling blood into Ustinov's face down below. Suddenly, the wires unraveled and Jones fell more than 10 feet right on top of Ustinov. Jones remembers that Ustinov's only concern was whether Jones was hurt.

Producer Bill Walsh offered to stop shooting for the whole day but Jones decided to try it again. Unfortunately, it took 10 more takes to get it right. It was Hank Jones's first Disney film and he played a nerd character in several other Disney films.

The real Blackbeard was born Edward Drummond (although he later changed his name to Edward Teach). When he sailed from his homeport of Bristol, England, he was apparently an honest, hardworking seaman. There are conflicting stories about his transformation into one of the most notorious pirates with flaming wicks tied into his long black beard to frighten his foes.

He was known as North Carolina's most infamous pirate citizen. Many people still believe that Blackbeard's treasure will one day be found somewhere between Smith and Tangier Islands in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and today, tales abound of Blackbeard's ghost roaming the area.

Ben Stahl was a well-known and prolific artist who won many prestigious awards. He later taught at the Art Institute, as well as at the American Academy of Art, the Art Students League of New York, Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and at various universities. His work appeared in many magazines including approximately 750 stories in the Saturday Evening Post.

Stahl was one of the founding faculty members for the Famous Artists School. In addition, he produced advertising artwork for various companies, and posters for several movies, including Ben-Hur. He illustrated a number of books, including the 25th anniversary edition of Gone With the Wind.

Stahl wrote two novels. Blackbeard's Ghost was published in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. The Secret of Red Skull, a sequel to Blackbeard's Ghost, was also published by Houghton Mifflin.

Stahl lived in Sarasota, Florida, and according to Disney publicity at the time: "With an illustrator's eye, he visualized every scene in Blackbeard's Ghost in great detail and then translated that vision into words on paper."

Commissioned by Warner Brothers to paint a portrait, Ben took along a copy of his nearly completed book manuscript to Hollywood and showed it to Walt over lunch.

Three days later Walt called to say he was interested in the film rights. The same day Austin Olney, editor of Houghton Mifflin, wired that his company would publish it.

Why Blackbeard instead of Captain Kidd or other villainous pirates?

"Because Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard, was the craftiest rogue who ever buckled a swash and yet he had a streak of fun and humor in him that made many of his victims almost forgive his outrages," Stahl said.

However, that description of Blackbeard isn't quite accurate but for an artist, the pirate was certainly a visually striking character.

Filmed in color by Technicolor, Robert Stevenson directed from a screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi from the book by Ben Stahl. Walsh also served as co-producer.

At the time, Bill Walsh had spent 22 years at Disney working on films like The Shaggy Dog, The Absent Minded Professor, That Darn Cat, Mary Poppins and many more. In fact by the time of this film, Walsh had co-scripted 13 of the 16 films he had done for Disney and was preparing a new script called Boy-Car-Girl that became The Love Bug and a film titled Khrushchev in Disneyland. It was a comedy about what would have happened if Russian leader Nitka Khrushchev (to be played by Peter Ustinov) had been allowed to visit Disneyland.

Walsh explained how he approached the script for Blackbeard's Ghost: "The first portion of each film takes time to establish characters and to delineate situation. Although this initial part may move more slowly than the rest of the film, it is a necessary and deliberate movement. Walt used to call this part of the picture, 'winding the clock'. Once the stage is set, the action picks up momentum as the picture unfolds. Too often comedies begin at a nervous clip, moving at a fast pace until they run out of gas, without having told a good story. The most important single consideration of any picture is the script.

"The second most important consideration is the cast," he continued. "Comedy-fantasy requires actors who can play unbelievable situations for real. The success of Dean Jones lies in his sincerity. The nuttier the situation gets, the more he believes in it. Actors often go wrong in fantasy. They become cute with the material and lose audience contact."

Director Robert Stevenson also directed Disney classics like Mary Poppins, That Darn Cat, Old Yeller, The Absent Minded Professor, and The Monkey's Uncle besides several other top Disney credits. He was a direct descendent of Robert Louis Stevenson who authored Treasure Island. His first Disney directing assignment came in 1956 when he filmed Johnny Tremain.

Actor Dean Jones remembered in the book Remembering Walt, by Amy Boothe Green and Howard Green, talking with Walt about the script before filming began:

"I had an interesting lunch with Walt once. There were five things I felt were kind of corny and old-fashioned in 'Blackbeard's Ghost,' which I thought should be taken out. On two of them, Walt said, OK, but you're pushing your luck.' On the fourth and fifth point he got upset and said, 'If there are so many things about this picture you don't like, you don't have to do it. I'll get another actor!'

"Look, Walt," I said, "I'm not asking for more close-ups. I'm not asking for more money. I'm trying to make the picture better and I'm just pointing out that we've seen this joke 100 times on screen and I don't think it's funny anymore."

"Walt countered, 'That joke was funny in 1923 and it'll be funny today!' (The joke stayed in the picture and I laughed at it along with the rest of the audience at the premiere. Walt was right!)

"On another one of my objections, Walt dug in his heels. Later, we were walking back toward his office and he started up the steps of the Animation Building. We said goodbye and I was walking on when he stopped me. 'Oh, that scene with the phony gun—we'll do it your way.' Then he pointed his finger at me and added, 'but you better be right!' And I knew I'd better be."

In his autobiography, Dean remembered the following: "Walt had said once that I was perfect for his pictures because I was such a good family man. What he didn't know, and what I hoped he hadn't found out, was that half the nights I came home smelling of perfume my wife didn't wear. The one thing about Walt Disney that never failed to impress me was his genius for remaining himself. Walt would spend the rest of that sunny afternoon in the northeast corner of the third floor, in the room with the baby grand piano and the walls filled with mementos of past triumphs. And in less than two months, he would be dead."

"I really wasn't sure what to expect from Peter," said director Stevenson, "He is, after all, a director, too. I didn't know how he would like taking orders rather than giving them. Many actor-directors become boorish in the way they try to influence the direction of every picture they're in. On the first day of shooting, I was prepared to fight him back should he attempt a takeover. But he disarmed me with his simple wholehearted co-operation. Not a word from him all day about how we should do a scene.

"My curiosity gnawed at me until I had to ask him if he had a suggestion about a particular shot. 'It's kind of you to ask. I do have one little idea,' he said. But he wasn't pushy. He earnestly wanted to help. And he figured that the best way he could help was to leave the directing to me unless I asked for his opinion. I should think that, being a director, he understood full well the problems of direction and gave his full support as he would have liked me to give mine had our positions been reversed."

At the time, Ustinov, besides being an actor in countless movies, plays and television shows, had written 18 plays, seven movie scripts and seven books. He had directed six movies. He also dabbled as an artist. From those who worked with him on this film, there was nothing but terrific stories of Ustinov being very playful and doing imitations, speaking in foreign languages and telling marvelous stories.

What was his approach to Blackbeard? He told a Disney publicist: "Nothing to it if you get the right camera angles. Everyone has a certain amount of spirit. It's simply a matter, then, of getting it on film. Right?"

"To make the sequence come across as an authentic college meet, we needed some cheerleaders to complete the picture," said Bill Walsh, "We were watching a UCLA football game and it seemed that the cameraman was enamored with the UCLA cheerleaders, and we saw more of them than we did the game. We practically had to call the paper to get the results of the game. UCLA won. But the point is that we did see a lot of the girls in action. And they were very attractive. When the time came to select cheerleaders for the track meet, there was no question in our minds. They did an excellent job. Just like on TV."

The UCLA cheerleaders in the film were Linda Lockwood, Elaine Larkins, Holly Borowiak, Donna Laughlin, Lynn Switzer and Renee Stuber.

"Peter, who is probably one of the most brilliant figures in our industry today, even learned their routine for one of the scenes," Walsh said.

Disney Costume Department Head Chuck Keane said, "(We) fitted (Ustinov) with off-white canvas pants, a beige raw silk shirt, brown velveteen vest, navy blue wool full-length coat, and auburn velour hat. All of which were tailored to design specifications of our chief designer, Bill Thomas. His boots were specially designed cavalier boots, coming knee high with an extra-wide cuff. Constructed of black kangaroo leather, the boots had to be sturdy enough to support his massive hulk, yet still be comfortable to his wide foot and high instep. At the cost of $175, they were made by a craftsman who does nothing but make footwear for stars in specific roles. To age these boots two centuries, we sandpapered the leather and bruised it without breaking the support features down. Then we sprayed them with a brown aging solution, waxed and powdered them. It's not really a complicated process, but it certainly gets results.

"We use the same process to age clothing. But in addition to sanding the material, we sometimes sandblast it, and that ages it in a hurry. His blue coat became an antique in a matter of seconds, buttons and all. A light brown spray of the aging solution was followed by a generous dusting with 'rottenstone', a grey and brown powder, which discolored the navy fabric to a non-descript blue. Blackbeard's other garments were made old in a similar fashion."

Ustinov said, "I felt like a walking antique wearing these relics from the costume department where they became museum collector's items overnight."

There was merchandise and promotional giveaways including a VariVue badge that would change the image when you tipped it. On one view it had a pirate hat and crossbones and said "Only YOU can see" and when tipped there was a cartoon caricature of Ustinov as Blackbeard's Ghost and the phrase "Walt Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost."

There was a special tie-in with Sugar Daddy, Sugar Mama and Sugar Babies candy. There were even 11 one-page comic strips produced that could be found in the package of these candies. Each page told a section of the movie's story. There was a special $37,000 in prizes sweepstakes connected with the candy promotion. Those prizes included six week-long trips to Disneyland for four people, 300 Kodak Instamatic Cameras, 500 G.E. Transistor radios, and 200 AMF bicycles.

The Walt Disney Treasury of Classic Tales Sunday comic strip featured an adaptation of the film. There was also a coloring book, a Gold Key comic book adaptation, a Whitman storybook and a Story Teller LP with 12 color pages of artwork and story where Peter Ustinov narrated the "Story of Blackbeard's Ghost.

The film has been released on DVD but with no special features and with a ratio system that ruined the composition by cutting off edges of the film so that actors who were fully seen on the actual film were cut in half vertically at times.

However, the strongest and saddest memories of the cast and crew on Blackbeard's Ghost are of Walt's last appearance on the set.

Director Stevenson remembered: "Suddenly I came onto the set and saw him sitting on one of those stools and he was drinking coffee. I said, 'Walt, I thought you were in the hospital.' He said, 'Yeah, well, they cut away my ribs to get to something. It's just some damn thing they're fooling around with.'"

Both Stevenson and Ustinov were upset by Walt's appearance but both tried not show it. Walt even joked with Ustinov about an upcoming film he wanted to make titled Khrushchev in Disneyland.

Walt Disney saw Suzanne Pleshette in a TV guest appearance and after inquiring about her credits held a special screening of "40 Pounds of Trouble. 40 Pounds of Trouble is a film I would love to write about another time since it has a long sequence of actor Tony Curtis being chased through Disneyland. In fact, it is the only non-Disney live action film that I can recall that had such a huge segment shot at Disneyland.

Producer Winston Hibler agreed with Walt that she would be ideal for The Ugly Dachshund and co-starred her with Dean Jones. She again played Jones' love interest in Blackbeard's Ghost.

In the book, Remembering Walt, Pleshette recalled: "The morning he came out of the hospital, he came onto our set. We were filming 'Blackbeard's Ghost.' He looked so gray and yellow, yet still had a sparkle in his eyes. He must have been in terrible pain. I knew it was coming. If you've ever seen anybody with cancer, you know that color. He said, 'Come out from behind that desk. I wanna see if you're wearing a mini-skirt.'

"I said, 'You just want to see my thighs, you devil you.' Those were the last words we spoke. I gave him a big hug and went home that night and cried and cried."

Actor Dean Jones wrote extensively about that final meeting on the set in his autobiography, Under Running Laughter (1982, Chosen Books):

"While we were shooting Blackbeard's Ghost, I had heard that Walt had been across the street at St. Joseph's Hospital having an operation on his neck. One day, after the director yelled 'cut,' I glanced up and right behind the camera stood Walt. He looked terrible. His cheeks were sunken and his face looked thin and extremely tired. I looked at him in shock.

"When I realized how I had reacted, I walked over trying to cover my feelings with a smile. 'Walt, how are you? How's your neck?' He said, 'Neck, hell, they took out my left lung.' I was speechless. Normally, Walt would keep the ball rolling in a conversation. This time, he didn't—he just stood there. I was thinking cancer and 'Walt's dying'—all these thoughts went racing through my mind. Just as I was called back to the set, he said, "I'm going to Palm Springs."

"I paused, then said, 'Walt, can you wait around a minute. We're gonna finish this short take. I want to tell you something.'

"I had no idea what I was gonna say to him—I was stalling. I just knew I wanted to say something of value to this man who had meant so much to me and the world. I went back to work, but kept blowing takes. I blew about seven takes on a very simple scene. I couldn't concentrate; couldn't get it straight. When I finally got one right, I walked back to where Walt had been, but he was gone."

In Jones's autobiography, he went into that moment in even greater detail: "We're ready to roll, Dean," called the assistant, 'Everybody be quiet!' Then, remembering that Walt was there, he yelled just as loudly, 'Almost everybody be quiet!' Several members of the crew laughed appreciatively. Walt just stood there. His face was haggard and colorless, and there were large circles under his eyes. It was his last visit to his favorite spot on earth.

"In less than two weeks, he was dead. We closed down the set for the day, and I drove home shocked at death's finality. It was hard to imagine Disney Studios without Walt. I remembered once, at a cast party for 'That Darn Cat', Walt had reprimanded me for spending so much money on gifts for the crew.

"You should save your money, Dean," he had said, "You never know when things might turn sour."

"Climbing onto a stool at my favorite tavern, I ordered a Scotch and placed a hundred dollar bill on the bar.

"I'm buying for everybody, Jerry," I said, "When that's gone, let me know."

There was one final tribute to Blackbeard's Ghost in the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. The original captain on the pirate ship was supposed to be Blackbeard and that was Imagineer Marc Davis's intent but that reference is now gone with the captain transformed into Barbossa from the Pirates movie trilogy.

As guests exit the attraction, on the left, there were two pirates pushing up a treasure chest and sticking out of that chest, was a replica of the painting from the movie Blackbeard's Ghost (it has since been replaced by an Audio-Animatronic Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film). It was a fitting tribute because the attraction was preparing to open while the film was in production and the Disney Company has dozens of photos of Ustinov in costume as Blackbeard cavorting in the attraction and mugging with the Audio-Animatronic figures. The last attraction that Walt personally supervised and the last live action film with Walt's touch together at last as a reminder of a remarkable man.