How “Pete’s Dragon” went from being a “Mary Poppins” wanna-be to an “E.T.” -inspired delight

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It’s the movie that Leonard Maltin is calling “ … the summer’s best family film.” Disney’s Pete’s Dragon reboot – which opened in theaters earlier today – is a genuine Hollywood rarity. A reimaging that actually improves on the original.


Which – if we’re being completely honest here – probably wasn’t all that hard to pull off. As delightful as this E.T.-inspired reboot is, the original 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon was decidedly mediocre. Walt Disney Productions’ second attempt inside of 6 years to create a Mary Poppins-like hit. Which – in spite of its ambitious mix of music, animation & Academy Award-winning performers and creatives – failed at a fundamental level to connect with audiences back in the day.

Mind you, when Walt originally optioned “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.” (i.e., the unpublished short story by Seton I. Miller & S.S. Field that these two movies are actually based on), he had a very different developmental path in mind for this title. He saw “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.” as a possible starring vehicle for Kevin Corcoran, the child actor who played Moochie in the “Spin & Marty” serials on the “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show.

More to the point, Walt never thought of “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.” as something that Disney Studios was going to make for the big screen. But – rather – he thought that this short story (which talked about a young boy who had trouble telling fantasy from reality and would often day-dream about what it might be like to have a dragon for a pet) would be perfect fodder for his weekly television show on ABC.


And for a while there, it really did look like “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.” would air on “Walt Disney Presents” during its 1958 – 1959 season. But then … Well, Walt supposedly wasn’t happy with the way the teleplay for this proposed two-parter was coming together. So Disney eventually tabled the idea and moved on to other projects.

We now jump ahead 25 years to the early 1970s. It’s been 5 years since Walt Disney Productions had its last truly successful motion picture (i.e., The Love Bug. Which – after into wide release back in March of 1969 – this Robert Stevenson film made over $50 million during its initial domestic run). And given that Mary Poppins (which had just been re-released to theaters in 1973 as part of Disney’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration) had just sold $9 million worth of tickets, Mouse House execs were itching to produce another family-friendly movie musical that could then connect with audiences the way that Poppins had.

There was only one problem with this plan: Making another super-popular Mary Poppins -like motion picture was actually a lot harder than it looked. Witness what had happened when Walt Disney Productions had released Bedknobs & Broomsticks back in November of 1971.Though the Studio had reassembled virtually the entire Poppins production team (i.e., producer Bill Walsh, director Robert Stevenson, screenwriter Don DaGradi, songwriters Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman), lightning hadn’t struck twice. Though WDP had spent $8.5 million on Bedknobs (which was $2 million more than Walt himself had spent on the production of Poppins), this effects-filled extravaganza only wound up selling $8.1 million worth of tickets during its entire North American run. Which means that the Mouse actually lost money on this Mary wanna-be.


In the end, what the Big Cheeses at the Mouse House decided about what had gone wrong with Bedknobs was that they’d stuck too close to the Poppins formula. Hell, at one point, the Studio had even tried to lure Julie Andrews back so she could play Eglantine Price, the apprentice witch who was hoping to use her skill at sorcery to prevent the Nazis from invading England during WWII. Andrews initially said “No” to Disney’s offer, but then changed her mind in July of 1969 and agreed to play Miss Price. Unfortunately by the time Julie said “Yes” to Mickey, the Studio had already signed Tony Award-winner Angela Lansbury to play Eglantine.

Anyway … Frank Paris (who was a story editor at Disney Studios at that time) was convinced that there were only two ways that the Company was ever going to produce another Mary Poppins -sized hit. One of these was promoting from within. Allowing people who’d previously proven themselves at Walt Disney Productions to take a shot at producing this project.

Which is why Paris persuaded Mouse House managers to let Jerome Courtland – an actor who’d previously played the title character in “The Saga of Andy Burnett,” which was this “Davy Crockett” -inspired mini-series that had aired on ABC’s “Disneyland” television series during its 1957 – 1958 season – root around in the Studio’s story archives. Frank thought that Jerome had the makings of a producer. And Paris felt vindicated when Courtland returned from his archaeological dig in the Company’s story archives with two yet-to-be-produced / very promising titles. One of which ― “A Sporting Proposition” ― WDP quickly turned into its December 1975 release, Ride a Wild Pony. And the other was “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.”


Getting now to the second way Frank felt the Walt Disney Productions might finally wind up with a new “Poppins” -sized success … Paris thought that it would be a mistake hire the Sherman Brothers (who were not only responsible for Mary Poppins & Bedknobs & Broomsticks scores but had also written songs for Disney animated releases like The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and the Winnie-the-Pooh featurettes) to do the music for this project as well. Frank felt that it was time for a change. To bring some fresher talent in. Which is why Paris asked upper management to invite Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn to come by the Burbank lot for a meeting.

Now Al & Joel are all but forgotten these days. But back in the early 1970s, Kasha & Hirschhorn were the white-hot Masters of Disasters. Largely because they’d written “The Morning After,” the theme song for The Poseidon Adventure (which won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1972) and “We May Never Love Like This Again,” the theme song for The Towering Inferno (which won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1974).

Anyway … Frank knew that ― before Walt Disney Productions execs would offer Al & Joel the opportunity to write a full score for Pete’s Dragon – they’d first need to write a sample song. Something that would prove that Kasha & Hirschhorn could write a classic Disney-like score. In his 1987 memoir, “Reaching the Morning After,” Al recounted how “ … Frank had repeatedly told us: ‘Disney will do a musical but only if it’s a classic. It has to be a classic.’ “


And Kasha & Hirschhorn had hoped that they’d be able to extend their Oscar winning streak by taking on Pete’s Dragon. Which is why – for their sample song for Mouse House managers – Al & Joel decided to pay tribute to their earlier Academy Award winners. And since The Poseidon Adventure was a disaster film that was set out on the ocean & The Towering Inferno was about this skyscraper that had accidentally been set ablaze … Well, fire + water = “Candle on the Water.” Which – FYI – did actually get an Academy Award nomination in 1977, only to then lose to that perennial wedding favorite, “You Light Up My Life.”

Okay. So now that Pete’s Dragon had its song-writing team in place (Kasha & Hirschhorn would eventually be tasked to write 12 new tunes for this Poppins -inspired production), it was time to find someone to write the screenplay for this musical fantasy. And since “Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A.” was originally supposed to be a two-part episode of the Disney television show … Well, it only makes sense that Malcolm Marmorstein, a veteran TV writer, would eventually wind up with this assignment.

At first glance, Malcolm really does seem like an odd choice for this project. Given that Marmorstein had been the head writer on “The Doctors” (i.e., NBC Daytime’s long-running soap opera) & “Peyton Place” (i.e., ABC’s hugely popular prime-time soap opera), he didn’t seem like the sort of guy who should be writing a family-friendly fantasy. But given that Malcolm had also written episodes of “Dark Shadows” & “Night Gallery,” he clearly had some well-established fantasy chops. Which is why studio execs were willing to let Marmorstein try his hand at taking Miller & Field’s short story and then turning that into a feature-length project.


And since that Pete’s Dragon was going to be produced by Disney Studios … Well, Malcolm did everything he could to turn Seton & S.S.’s tale into proper fodder for a family-friendly movie musical. Which is why Pete would up as a nine-year-old orphan living in turn-of-the-century New England whose invisible friend, Elliott the dragon, accidentally wreaked havoc on all those Pete interacted with.

Now please note that word “invisible.” In the original version of Marmorstein’s screenplay, the only time that Elliott was ever supposed to have been visible in Pete’s Dragon was in a relatively short dream sequence. We’re talking just a two or three minute-long scene where Pete – as he’s sleeping – imagined what it would be like if everyone in Passamaquoddy could see Elliott the dragon as well.

Now that Disney had a script & score in hand for Pete’s Dragon, it was now time for the Studio to seek out an appropriate female lead for this production. What they were looking for was what Walt had seen back in 1962 when he caught Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production of “Camelot.” He saw someone who was relatively new to film. Someone that his Studio could then claim to discover / help mold into a really-for-real Hollywood star.

George Burns (center) with two lovely ladies: Helene Reddy (L), the performer that Disney eventually hired to play Nora in <em>Pete’s Dragon</em>, and Olivia Newton John (R), the Grammy Award-winner that the Studio first tried to cast in this role
George Burns (center) with two lovely ladies: Helene Reddy (L), the performer that Disney eventually hired to play Nora in Pete’s Dragon, and Olivia Newton John (R), the Grammy Award-winner that the Studio first tried to cast in this role

And because Walt Disney Productions really was hoping that lightning would strike twice with this Poppins -inspired production, that’s why they wanted someone who’d never really made a movie before to play Nora, the feisty daughter of a lighthouse keeper who winds up befriending Pete (and – by proxy – his dragon Elliott). Which is why they reached out to the then-28 year-old Olivia Newton John and offered her the opportunity to star in this initially-budgeted-at-$8-million motion picture.

What Ms. John said in response to Disney’s offer (More importantly, how Elliott went from being an invisible dragon to a mostly visible animated character), I’ll get to in the second half of this HuffPost piece.

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