In the thrilling tradition of Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Walt Disney’s In Search of the Castaways (1962) is a fantastical fantasy adventure epic. The third Disney film starring Hayley Mills, In Search of the Castaways also marked Walt’s return to the works of Jules Verne after the great showman’s triumph with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Hayley portrays fearless 19th century teen Mary Grant, whose only clue to her missing father—captain of the S.S. Britannia—is a mysterious message in a bottle. Determined Mary, her younger brother and an eccentric professor team up with a befuddled ship magnate and his always amused son to brave mountain-shaking earthquakes, raging flames, a roaring flood, and even a giant condor on their perilous rescue mission.
In Search of the Castaways is based on Captain Grant’s Children (also known as A Voyage Round the World), the 1867 novel by Jules Verne. (Indeed, the film is formally billed as Walt Disney presents Jules Verne’s In Search of the Castaways, much as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had been.) The title of the film was originally to be The Castaways but shortly before release, Walt decided to add “In Search of“ to indicate more strongly the compelling quest undertaken by intrepid Mary Grant and her stalwart companions. Walt was always most concerned with the visual possibilities of his projects, and he asked his wizard of special photographic effects, Peter Ellenshaw, to read the book and create a series of conceptual artworks to inspire the screenwriter of this Victorian adventure yarn. In the Jules Verne book, Peter later recalled, “there were quite a number of passages [that gave me a] chance to paint some interesting pictures. Finally I had a storyboard filled with sketches. Walt brought in a writer and described the way he wanted the story to follow the scenes depicted in my sketches.” Lowell S. Hawley, who had also written Walt’s hit action-adventure Swiss Family Robinson, crafted the screenplay.
Unlike Hayley Mills’ first films for Walt, this new movie would not be produced at the Disney Studios in Burbank but at the famed Pinewood Studios in her native England. Tiger Bay (1959), Hayley’s debut film and the one in which Walt Disney discovered her, was shot there, as were the James Bond, Superman, and Batman films and the Harry Potter series. The Castaways principal photography took place from August 8 through November 10, 1961, and the entire production took eight months.
Some of the largest and most elaborate sets ever created for a Disney picture were constructed for In Search of the Castaways. To convey the globe-trotting adventure authentically on screen, Walt combined actual settings with immense sets that consumed four entire sound stages. One of the most impressive was a scale reproduction of part of the South American Andes, over which the rescuers begin their eventful journey. Ironically, what took the Disney artisans two months to construct was immediately demolished for the earthquake scene. Another stunning set featured a recreation of a 150-foot-tall South American Ombu tree—in which the film’s heroes find refuge when a flash flood threatens their quest—that included 600 Ombu branches flown in from the Argentina Pampas at Walt’s request. The script also called for a “luxurious steam yacht,” so the Disney moviemakers constructed a 150-foot-long replica of the first ocean-going steam yacht. Other remarkable settings incorporated partial recreations of the Victorian-era ports of Glasgow, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia; a New Zealand Maori settlement and stockade; and a simulated lava-spewing volcano.
Besides exotic locales and incredible adventures, the film featured another Jules Verne trademark: colorful characters. The Castaways actors were handpicked to ignite the onscreen exploits with their own personal sparks—and no Disney screen personality had more irresistible charisma than Hayley Mills. After her triumphs in the period drama Pollyanna (1960) and the contemporary comedy The Parent Trap (1961), Walt sought another genre for his versatile star’s next Disney film. Action-adventure called and Hayley answered; she signed on to portray the lost sea captain’s single-minded daughter. “One of the nicest things about making movies for Walt Disney is that I get to play a girl my own age who enjoys life as much as I do,” said Hayley at the time. In between the thrilling action sequences, Hayley had a chance to show off her more elegant side, even wearing several period dresses. Like all of Hayley’s previous adult co-stars, Maurice Chevalier had nothing but praise for his lively “leading lady.” “I have played opposite many, many girls in my time,” Maurice said, “but never one like this. She has warmth and humor without being sticky sweet. She never overacts. As she grows older, she will become a great, great star, because she knows how to act… how to appeal to the heart.”
As Jacques Paganel, the learned-but-lovable professor of geology, Maurice Chevalier brought his patented joie de vivre to the exciting proceedings. A movie star since the 1930s in such films as The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®, as well as Love Me Tonight (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934), Maurice had also triumphed on stage, radio, recordings, and television. Just a few years prior to In Search of the Castaways, this captivating entertainer had one of his greatest screen successes in the hit musical Gigi (1958). When the role of the upbeat Professor Paganel appeared on the horizon, the internationally known singing star jumped in with both feet. “It was a great opportunity for a man of my years to work with Walt Disney. I think I brought a lot of humor to the part.” Of Walt, Maurice said, “I have always admired this great man. He captured the hearts of all the world’s peoples with his wholesome, refreshing entertainment.” After Castaways, Maurice returned to Disney to star in Monkeys Go Home (1967) and to sing the Sherman Brothers’ title song for The Aristocats (1970).
Walt turned to the London stage to cast the role of Hayley’s younger brother Robert. Bearing a strong “family” resemblance to his onscreen sister, Keith Hamshire had originated the role of Oliver Twist in the premiere production of the musical Oliver! As an adult, Keith stayed in the movies, or at least in the movie industry, for today he is an accomplished still photographer, famous for his photos on the sets of the Star Wars and James Bond films, among others.
Acclaimed actor and movie star Charles Laughton was originally sought for the role of Lord Glenarvan, but with Laughton unavailable, Wilfred Hyde-White was cast as the reluctant adventurer. Best known at that time for such classic films as The Third Man (1949) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1952), the droll but distinguished character actor went on to play what is perhaps his most famous role, Colonel Pickering in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964).
At 15, Hayley was a lovely young lady—though still a mischievous tomboy—and it was time for an onscreen romance. The lucky boy was Michael Anderson, Jr. During filming of Castaways, Michael recalled the first time he shared the screen with Miss Mills, in Tiger Bay. “We got on marvelously because we both enjoyed practical jokes of any kind. The location in Cardiff was just one big laugh from beginning to end for us.”
The son of director Michael Anderson (Academy Award nominee for helming the film version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, 1956), Michael the younger was acclaimed for his work in The Sundowners (1960), starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, as well as two Disney staples Glynis Johns and Peter Ustinov. Michael, who was one of the first actors signed for Castaways, visited Shepperton Studios where his brother, David, was an assistant director on “The Prince and the Pauper,” a TV production for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. David mentioned Disney was interested in Michael for In Search of the Castaways. Even so, it came as a surprise to the young actor when his agent told him that Walt Disney wanted him for the role of John Glenarvan, son of wealthy Lord Glenarvan. Michael would go on to films such as Dear Heart (1964) and Logan’s Run (1976), and he played the apostle James the Younger in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Rounding out this sterling cast was sophisticated but sinister character actor George Sanders as the villainous Thomas Ayerton. An Academy Award winner for his supporting role as acid-tongued theatre critic Addison DeWitt in the film classic All About Eve (1950), this longtime movie star would famously perform the voice of the suavely predatory tiger Shere Khan in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967).
The other Castaways “star” is of course Disney’s eye-popping special effects. Walt sent Peter Ellenshaw to England to oversee the onscreen illusions, and Peter personally created a massive amount of matte paintings to set the stage for the many exotic locales visited by Mary, Professor Paganel, and the others on their odyssey across the 37th parallel. “Castaways was a movie full of miniatures and mattes,” Peter later confirmed. “We would spend all day setting up [just one] complex special effects scene.” The exhilarating ice cavern sequence was, as Peter pointed out, “everyone’s favorite scene, in which our heroes luge their way down the mountain atop their rock-precipice sled. We seemed to have all kinds of effects on Castaways, from earthquakes and volcanoes to floods and tornado… and through it all, the support of a great crew.” His fellow filmmakers gave Peter an affectionately tongue-in-cheek award certificate for “Special Defects.” Upon his return to the Disney Studio after filming wrapped, Walt sent Peter and his wife Bobbie a letter thanking them for being away from their California home for so many months.
Adventure, stars, special effects… this film truly has something for everyone, including songs by the celebrated Sherman Brothers. “The combination of Hayley and Maurice was the inspiration of Walt himself,” the brothers once recalled. “He popped in to our office one day in 1961 and said, ‘How’d you boys like to write some songs for Maurice Chevalier?’ He handed us two copies of the script for In Search of the Castaways [and said] ‘Find the spots and check with me,’” In response to this musical assignment, the Shermans created four tuneful songs. For the ever-effervescent Chevalier, the brothers composed the optimistic “Enjoy It.” “That simple ditty, written by two young and talented songwriters, Bob and Dick Sherman, is a wonderful philosophy of life,” Maurice once said. “It has also been my philosophy, and the song has come to mean as much to me as that expressive tune from Gigi, ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Any More.’” As for Hayley Mills, she had scored a big hit by singing the Shermans’ “Let’s Get Together” in The Parent Trap; now the songwriting siblings provided the young star with a tender ballad, “Castaway,” wistfully sung by Mary to the simple accompaniment of John’s mandolin.
This unique fantasy-adventure was directed by Robert Stevenson. Walt’s premier live-action director, Robert had already helmed such diverse Disney classics as Old Yeller (1957), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Kidnapped (1960), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and he of course would direct Mary Poppins (1964) just two years after Castaways. In his positive review for The Hollywood Reporter, critic James Powers took special note of Robert’s directorial finesse: “Stevenson’s direction is controlled in establishing just enough menace without getting grisly. His sense of comedy is rare and does much to balance the story without it taking over or allowing the main theme to appear as burlesqued.”
After a gala world premiere in London on November 14, 1962, which was attended by Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier, the film was released on December 19, 1962. In Search of the Castaways was, as Disney Publicity proclaimed, “A Christmas gift for all the world to enjoy!” There wasn’t a great deal of merchandise tied in with the film but the chemistry between the two leads led to a fun concept album, Maurice Chevalier and Hayley Mills Take You to…Teen Street. Released on Disney’s prestige Vista label (and now available on iTunes), this delightful LP featured a musical tour of teen fads and fancies, as well as the ever-popular Annette. Additionally, a storyteller album was issued, which included the Sherman songs, as well as Hayley’s father, the famous actor John Mills (who starred in Swiss Family Robinson), as the narrator relating the Castaways‘ far-flung odyssey.
“An earthquake of Entertainment—An avalanche of Adventure,” In Search of the Castaways enjoyed several successful theatrical re-releases as well as popularity on home video, due in no small part to the enduring charm of vivacious Hayley Mills. The young actress, who Walt Disney called “the greatest movie find in 25 years,” said of her onscreen Castaways exploits, “Going around the world on all those marvelous adventures, even in make-believe, has been one of the most thrilling times of my whole life.”
By D23: The Official Disney Fan Club’s Jim Fanning