Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. Remembered

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

When I wrote about the Disney live-action comedy Blackbeard’s Ghost, I got a very nice e-mail from a woman whose husband had forwarded her the column. She timidly admitted she hesitated to read my column since she loved the film and everything she had read about it in print was negative. She was very excited that I had concentrated on some of the behind the scenes stories of making the film and some of the positive aspects of the production.

While I don’t consider Blackbeard’s Ghost a Disney classic (although at its core was enough good stuff to make it one if some things had been handled differently), it is certainly diverting enough and the charm of the performers overcomes some of its flaws. Another Disney live-action film that was also a light-weight theatrical entry at the time that doesn’t seem to receive much attention was Dick Van Dyke’s follow-up to the successful Mary Poppins.

The story idea for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is credited to “Retlaw Yensid” (“Walter Disney” spelled backward.). Yes, Walt Disney himself came up with the idea for the story and for the only time in the history of the Studio received a story credit on a Disney film.

Walt gave an interview to reporter Sean O’Neil of the Honolulu Advertiser in the summer of 1965 when filming for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was taking place on the island of Kauai.

“The Retlaw Yensid is an old joke we’ve had around the Studio for years. I started using my name backward on the slate to identify the scenes," Walt told the reporter. "Pretty soon, my cameraman followed suit and the poor guys at Technicolor processing the film thought we had hired a bunch of immigrants. This will be the first time it has been used in the credits.”

"Dad pitched the concept of Lt. Robin Crusoe to Ron and me, wanting to encourage us to become a writing team," wrote Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, when I contacted her about the film. "I wasn't taken with the idea at all, and had six children who took up all of my time and a large house and yard. That was my career of choice, and I cherished it. He finally did it himself.”

While I am still patiently waiting for Kevin Kidney, the expert in all things Disney that are Hawaiian oriented, to write an extensive piece about the Orange Bird and also about Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., I guess I will just have to jump in and share what little I know about the film especially since like Blackbeard’s Ghost,  the Disney-released DVD of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., has no extras at all.

Even the outstanding book The Disney Live-Action Productions by John G. West Jr. (Hawthorne and Peabody, 1994) that covers the live-action films produced while Walt was alive omits an entry on Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N and Leonard Maltin’s The Disney Films barely gives the film a page, most of which is devoted to the negative reviews it received when it was first released.

So, since I am devoted to sharing with MousePlanet readers Disney material they can’t find anywhere else, let’s take a look at  Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

On May 7,1965, the Disney family left for Kauai to visit the location filming for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Lawai-Kai, the estate of Queen Lilu Kalani, the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, was used for additional beach scenes and its 125-acre botanical gardens doubled for the dense jungle through which Crusoe fled from a group of spear carrying native girls.

“The location was really a wonderful time for us,” wrote Diane to me. “We left the youngest, Ronnie, who wasn't quite 2, home with the wonderful FouFou (Thelma Howard... you wrote about her) and spent about three weeks at the Waiohai Hotel with mom and dad, Bill and Nolie Walsh, the Van Dykes, Byron Paul and his family. The Van Dykes were a wonderful family. Dick's a superb human being as well as a great talent.”

The film does not take place in Hawaii but like in so many other Hollywood productions, Hawaii was substituting for a tropical paradise.

The first unit rolled on a Monday and folded on a Friday, departing for the mainland after a week of shooting in and out of the rain. The second unit put in three weeks, starting before the first and wrapping a week later. While there was some location shooting, most of the picture was filmed on the Disney lot.

Art directors Carroll Clark and Carl Anderson and set decorators Emile Kuri and Frank R. McKelvy had to match the Wailua Beach locale from Kauai so they transported tons of white sand from nearby Pacific beaches along with palm trees and tropical plants. A tropical lagoon was also created on the backlot in the area known as Berm One for additional exterior shooting but for the actors’ comfort and safety the pool had an elaborate filtering and heating system installed. Crusoe’s bamboo house was recreated as both an interior and exterior set. The immense stone idol, Kaboona, surrounded by jungle growth that was a key element in the film’s climax took over one of the Disney Studios largest sound stages, Stage 2.

Here is a short synopsis of the film where I have tried to avoid as many spoilers as I could for those who haven’t yet seen the film.

The film begins when Lt. Robin Crusoe, played by Dick Van Dyke, flies a routine mission in the Pacific but has to parachute to safety in the sea when the plane has a malfunction.

Adrift for days at sea and menaced by a threatening shark, he finally finds himself on a deserted jungle island. He soon discovers an odd set of footprints and follows them to a beached World War II Japanese submarine that is now the home for Floyd, an astro-chimp who has survived a misadventure in space.

Together, utilizing materials from the submarine, the pair build a bamboo hut and a gold course. One day, in the sand trap, they discover another set of footprints that lead them to a beautiful native girl played by Nancy Kwan. Crusoe names her “Wednesday” and discovers she has been exiled to the island by her father, played by Akim Tamiroff, for refusing to marry his choice for her husband.

Soon, Wednesday’s sisters and female cousins join her to also escape the tyranny of the chief. The following morning war canoes arrive and there is a confrontation. The two warring factors march off to consult the great stone idol, Kaboona.

However, Crusoe and Floyd have rigged the idol with flashing eyes, fiery breath, and booming voice to scare off the warriors but unfortunately, one of the tricks backfires and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

The chief isn’t really as bad as expected and he admits his defeat and joins Crusoe and the girls in a victory celebration. Unfortunately, when Crusoe starts to dance he doesn’t realize he is actually performing the marriage dance with Wednesday and then finds he can’t talk his way out of it.

In the nick of time, a Navy helicopter rescues Crusoe and Floyd and returns them to the aircraft carrier where one final surprise awaits.

Also in the film is an Audio-Animatronic mynah bird who seems to have escaped from the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland who constantly argues with Crusoe, but then disappears midway through the film.

Like most of the Disney films of the time, a lot of award-winning talent was assigned to make this story come to life.

Believe it or not, Dick Van Dyke’s first encouragement to act professionally came while serving in the Army Air Corps, where a fellow airman nabbed him to be an announcer on Flight Time, an Air Force radio program. That friendship even led to them working up an act together with Dick as the straight man and his friend as the comedian but the act was terrible.

Eventually, that friend who was named Byron Paul became Van Dyke’s personal manager and was the director of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. After his military stint, Paul pursued a career in television, first, as a cameraman and then later as a director.

His first series as a director was the children’s series Mr. I. Magination although he went on to direct several-thousand television shows between 1949 and 1961, including episodes of “Gunsmoke, Ben Casey and Have Gun, Will Travel.

He had also directed a number of the Disney television shows including A Taste of Melon, Treasure in the Haunted House, The Tenderfoot and the first three episode series of the Gallegher stories. (And wouldn’t it be great to have all the Gallegher television episodes on DVD?)

It was Paul who helped Van Dyke negotiate a four-picture deal with Disney with “Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. being the first of the four. However, there must have been some re-negotiation later because Van Dyke only appeared in one other Disney film, Never a Dull Moment in 1968.

Bill Walsh who co-wrote the screenplay with Don DaGradi was also the co-producer of the film along with Ron Miller. Walsh had a long and varied career at the Disney Studio from writing the Mickey Mouse comic strip to scripting the first two big Disney Christmas shows for television in 1950 and 1951.

As a writer/co-producer, Walsh was responsible for Disney films like The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, Bon Voyage, Son of Flubber and, most impressively, Mary Poppins.

The musical director of the film was Bob Brunner who scored some of the Wonderful World of Color programs and films like That Darn Cat. For this film, he found his inspiration in the traditional songs and chants and various dialects of the Polynesian people.

According to a press release:

“Brunner conducted an extensive preliminary research program, which resulted in one of the most exciting musical scores to emanate from a Disney film. Largely Polynesian in mood and tempo, the background accompaniment varies from lilting island themes, broken, occasionally by a haunting oriental strain to the pulsating rhythms of a ceremonial dance and the frantic staccato beat of an exciting chase.

“Brunner was so inspired by the melody and fluidity of the Tahitian dialect that he gave each of his original musical themes an appropriate title, borrowing words and phrases from the language. Among these are colorful titles like ‘Mahana Toru” (Wednesday), ‘Mataro Vahine’ (Girl Sailors), ‘Tamahine Ata Ata’ (Giggling Daughters), ‘Hora Rahi Mahi’ (Clock Bird) and ‘Tama’I Nui’ (Big Fight).”

While working on the film, Van Dyke was quoted as saying, “People enjoy laughing, and movie makers are gradually waking up to that fact. Disney has always been aware of this.”

Van Dyke’s wife, Marjorie, makes an unbilled cameo appearance in the film. She is seen in the photo that the Crusoe character has of his girlfriend, Jane, whom he missed marrying when his plane went down. In the film, Crusoe writes to Jane of his misadventures on the island. The Wednesday character gets jealous when she sees the photo. Marjorie was “disguised” in the photo with a long blonde wig.

Van Dyke brought his entire family along for the location shooting in Hawaii, especially since his two teenage sons, Chris and Barry, loved surfing. On one of his few times off since Van Dyke was on screen for just about all of the film’s 114 minute running time, he decided to go surfing with his sons. They paddled about a mile out and caught a wave but Van Dyke was not as skilled as his sons and soon found himself thrashing about in the water to keep from drowning.

He looked up to see his sons were just standing by and it took him a moment to realize they were only waist deep in the water. Van Dyke stood up and found his feet were touching the bottom of the cove.

“That did it,” Van Dyke recalled, “I beached myself for the duration of our stay.”

A wise decision since the film called for him to participate in a lot of physical stunts including riding on a high-pressure hose, being lifted upside down by a rescue helicopter and almost getting drowned in a jungle pool.

“I never ran so much in all my life. Up and down beaches, through jungles, over hills and even mountains,” Van Dyke said. “It was like being on a treadmill…always on the move but never getting anywhere.”

As with most Disney films of the period, there was a massive marketing campaign that this time tied in with Dole and its new Pineapple Pink Grapefruit Juice Drink. In fact you could “win a 10-day adventure in Hawaii just for trying the juice that everyone would like to be shipwrecked with on a desert island! New Dole Pineapple Pink Grapefruit Juice Drink!” (Runners up could win RCA color television sets or a 1,000 original cast albums of Mary Poppins.)

There was a saturation campaign blanketing the country with full-page, four-color ads themed around the movie appearing in more than 125 Sunday newspapers. In more than 12,000 stores there were point-of-purchase displays, complete with entry blanks.

King Features syndicate published a comic strip adaptation of the story in Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales appearing in 55 major newspapers for 13weeks every Sunday from April 3 to June 26, 1966.

There was a 50-cent Tempo Paperback from Grosset and Dunlap adapting the story in prose as well as a 50-cent Golden Magazine that included lots of photographs, as well as a $1 Golden Press hardbound book. Of course, there was also a 12-cent Gold Key comic book adaptation that included 32 ,pages of art by Dick Shaw as well as photos on the covers and interior front cover.

The big contest was the “Your Girl Wednesday’s Footprint Contest” aimed specifically at the teenage market. Based on Crusoe finding Wednesday’s footprint, the contest required the contestant to outline a girl’s footprint on a sheet of paper and send it in to the radio station conducting the contest. As silly as this might seem today, more than 33 radio markets participated and it turned out that creative folks decorated those footprint outlines with artwork or comments like “this has soul.”

Station WIXY in Cleveland set up a portable foot printer in a downtown shopping center and had a large number of people walking around the site with one ink-stained foot. Station KYA in San Francisco chartered a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet and flew 120 Crusoe’s and their girl Wednesdays to an afternoon at Disneyland hosted by DJ Emperor Gene Nelson. Station KFWB in Los Angeles invited 1,000 footprinters and their girls to a premiere showing of the picture just prior to its general release. Even Dick Van Dyke showed up.

Unfortunately, the film was not a critical success. It was nearly a half-hour longer than any other Disney comedy released at this time and rather than a satisfying story, it seemed more like just a series of amusing sketches one after another.

Whether because of the Disney name or the star power of Dick Van Dyke, the film survived generally poor reviews that felt the material couldn’t sustain its length and went on to gross more than $8 million dollars, which was a more than healthy box office in those days.