Disney live action movies have always been a curiosity to me. In their heyday of the 1960’s and 1970’s, they always had a certain look them (usually vibrant and sunny) and had a stable of recurring actors (Hayley Mills, Kurt Russell). They even seemed to operate within certain shared bounds, almost as if they were all in the same universe—one where the villains are cartoonish, and there is danger, but not any real danger.
So one could be forgiven for mistaking 1965’s The Truth About Spring for being a product of The House the Mouse Built, though this is a Universal release (in the US, with Rank handling the distribution in the UK). Hayley Mills and her real-life father, John Mills, play a daughter and father who live on a decrepit old sailboat, alternately fleeing from, and doing business with, two different boatloads of shady characters.
Those two other vessels aren’t exactly pirate ships, but are rather 20th century, Disney-fied ideas of waterborne ne’er-do-wells. Lionel Jeffries helms the one we will see more of. Together with the second-in-command Harry Andrews, he is forever seeking a treasure map the elder Mills keeps on his person at all times. There is always the threat of violence from these two before they physically appear on the screen, but that is dismissed as soon as one sees how comic these characters are. The other boat is commanded by Niall MacGinnis, the alleged partner of Andrews, and who seems to be the more dangerous of the two.
John Mills sails rings around these characters, using their greed to manipulate them and their mutual distrust to continually play one faction off the other. He is a fast-talking con artist, and his machinations are very amusing. The manner in which he dupes others to give him food and supplies is especially amusing. At one point, he asks a character for a cigarette and the owner resignedly hands over the pack. When Mills cheerfully says, “They’re just my brand!”, the pigeon replies with, “Somehow I knew they would be.”
He will have even more clout to commit his exploits when he takes on James MacArthur as a guest. This is a young lawyer from Philadelphia who is lured away from the yacht of his wealthy uncle (David Tomlinson, veteran of a great many Disney live-action films).
MacArthur is initially quite the fish out of water (so to speak). The pajamas he brought on board are a particular source of amusement, first for Hayley, who is genuinely baffled as to why somebody would sleep in a particular set of clothes. Even better is her father’s reaction—or, to be more precise, his complete absence of expression when he sees MacArthur in his jammies. It’s like the poor old sailor got blue-screened.
But MacArthur will earn his keep when he spews legalese at the increasingly bewildered villains. Not that they can verbally respond in kind. After the lawyer’s first verbal barrage, Andrews simply shoves MacArthur against a post hard enough to knock him unconscious. That’s a tactic I wouldn’t mind seeing employed more in courtrooms.
The elder Mills really steals the show here in what can be best described as an off-brand Popeye. I definitely prefer his unofficial take on the character than what Robin Williams did in Altman’s film. Curiously, his accent has a taint of New England to it while Hayley’s is solidly of Ye Merry Olde England.
That Hayley and MacArthur will fall in love is a foregone conclusion. The path to there is rocky, but you know they will somehow manage to be together in the end. The only question is which boat they will sail off on in the end: her father’s or his uncle’s. There is some discussion about how money corrupts, and MacArthur worries how Hayley might change if her father ever actually finds gold. Of course, it is easier for a “have” to think this way than a “have not”. She’s quite pragmatic about it: “You mean money would mess me up? Then I want to be messed up something terrible.”
The final comment I want to make about The Truth About Spring concerns how it was photographed. Fortunately, almost everything was done on boats and actually out in the water. This serves the movie well, and much of the imagery is gorgeous, though not in an overbearing manner. It makes this rather slight entertainment feel more substantial than it really is, and likely serves it better than Disney would. They probably would have used a lot of rear projection.
Dir: Richard Thrope
Starring Hayley Mills, John Mills, James MacArthur
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray