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Brighty of the Grand Canyon

Brighty of the Grand Canyon
Family Outdoor Adventure Classics
1967 / Color / 1:66 flat letterbox / 89 min. / Street Date March 4, 2003 / 12.98
Starring Joseph Cotten, Pat Conway, Dick Foran, Karl Swenson, Dandy Curran
Cinematography Ted and Saizis
Film Editor Joseph Dervin
Original Music Phyllis and Richard Lavsky
Written by Norman Foster from the book by Marguerite Henry
Produced by Stephen F. Booth
Directed by Norman Foster

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This is a not-at-all-bad children's film that will hold the interest of adults by virtue of some rather good cinematography in and around the Grand Canyon. It's tame in the drama department but has a basically good attitude and doesn't bog things down with heavy moralizing.

An independent production, it was written and directed by an ex-Disney veteran and makes good use of star Joseph Cotten.

The DVD is an elaborate but somewhat amateurish job. It lacks polish but compensates with some interesting extras and a higher level of respect for the audience than one finds in budget family releases.


The south rim of the Grand Canyon, 1906. Hunter Jim Owen (Joseph Cotten) takes time out from helping out prospector Hezakiah (Dick Foran) to serve as a guide for big-game devotee Theodore Roosevelt (Karl Swenson). His nephew Homer Hobbs (Dandy Curran) gets to go along as well. Hezakiah makes friends with an amiable burro he calls Brighty, that has a knack for tangling with the local cougars. But incorrigible claim-jumper and bad man Jake Irons (Pat Conway) makes trouble for all of them.

Norman Foster has quite a resumé starting with Mr. Moto movies in the 1930s. He went with Orson Welles to Brazil and is always dismissed as the director in name only of Journey into Fear. His other noir was Kiss The Blood off My Hands, still a title with a charge to it. But in the 1950s he had a solid run of successes with Walt Disney, from the Davy Crockett and Zorro TV shows to The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.

Brighty of the Grand Canyon made use of Foster's experience filming in remote locations with trained animals. It's a simple story that's fairly well told, with Brighty losing his prospector pal and undergoing trials various natural threats and a treacherous claim-jumper. Surpisingly for a independent film, a lot of the burro action is real. Only the occasional fake burro leg is used here and there. Brighty really does get carted across the raging Colorado river in a cable bucket, and he does mix with some scary-looking mountain lions. The cast plays it all broad and simple with nary a tone of condescension. Top-billed Joseph Cotten (the star of Journey into Fear) takes the entire enterprise quite seriously, and gets good support from the old Universal contract player Dick Foran (The Mummy's Hand). Lesser-known actor Pat Conway is okay as the heavy, and non-pro actor Dandy Curran is fine in the requisite eager kid role.

Not bad at all as Teddy Roosevelt is familiar Western actor Karl Swenson. His impersonation is excellent, and he adds a touch of enthusiasm to the proceedings. How the ex-president can take a hunting trip by himself without an entourage is stretching it a bit, but the movie isn't adversely affected.

But this isn't the typical brat-with-an-exotic-pet movie. The burro spends most of its time finding gold for Foran, escaping the bad guy, getting bitten by big cats, etc. Both Foran and Cotten appreciate the burro, but Brighty puts some heavy mileage on this beast of burden. Strangely enough, there are some coincidences here with Bresson's Au Hazard, Balthazar, the heartbreaking religious allegory about an abused mule used by smugglers to transport contraband.

In Oh Hazard Burro-zar, I mean Brighty of the Grand Canyon, the burro does get used and abused to haul stolen gold, and there a couple of religious references are thrown into the script (nothing overbearing). Just like Balthazar, Brighty is shot, but instead of being abandoned he ends up being towed across the snow on a sled for an upbeat ending.

Foster's doesn't use fancy camerawork but tells his story well. The relaxed pace will be way too slow for many, but the scenery is too spectacular to dismiss. The show is filmed on a small scale but makes good use of the Grand Canyon wilderness in all seasons.

The only dated aspect of the film is the role given the cougars. Cotten hunts them as part of his job, and they're treated as a menace that needs to be rubbed out.

Family Outdoor Adventure Classics' DVD of Brighty of the Grand Canyon is an okay presentation with far better extras than usual. The original producer of the movie would seem to be in charge, and the transfer appears to have been made from a prime source element in fine shape. But the disc itself has the homemade look of pro-sumer software. The main feature is intact and in good physical shape, but it has pale colors and a lack of contrast, all of which I chalk up to sub-par encoding. The audio (5.1) is robust, with extremely clear dialogue (probably post-dubbed) and good separation on Phyllis and Richard Lavsky's lively Grofé-influenced score.

The menus are crude but function well. The many live-action extras are mostly short bits about various aspects of The Grand Canyon that you might see on a travel video, hosted by an okay fellow named Matthew Boston. They were nicely shot but may have come from a 3/4" video master and don't impress on a larger monitor.

The main extra is buried at the bottom of the list - a lengthy interview docu with Stephen F. Booth, the producer of the original movie and, many years later, this DVD. Accompanied by photos, Booth relates the entire tale of the production. He discovered the popular book while on vacation, prepared it for two years, rewrote it with Norman Foster and filmed it in the unique setting of the Grand Canyon. There's far too much detail for the average viewer but not for anyone who's ever thought about pulling off this kind of production - it's not as easy as it looks. The "main" Brighty burro ended up being a particularly smart one raised in Illinois by the author of the original book. Helicopters had to be used for dozens of trips daily in and out of the canyon. Brighty is Booth's one theatrical adventure and he shares it with great enthusiam.

The packaging has a cluttered cover and text on the back that overstates the extras, with special notation that the film was shot on "35mm Eastman (TM)" film stock.

Although I could not sample them, the text heralds a number of DVD-Rom text extras for PC or Mac. They include a coloring book, a Brighty snapshot album, the director's original screenplay with margin notes, more production photos, and internet links to promotional sites and travel resources.

There are trailers for other Family Outdoor Adventure Classics(TM) but they tend to be of the "kids on vacation play matchmaker" G-rated variety, that might get regional theatrical time but look like tame direct-to-video mulch. By contrast, Brighty of the Grand Canyon is a labor of love and a very good film of its kind. 1

Thanks to Glen Grant of Burbank for help with this review.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Brighty of the Grand Canyon rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good --
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Seven Grand Canyon featurettes, Docu on making of Brighty of the Grand Canyon hosted by its producer, DVD Rom features (see above0
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2004


1. I thought I'd seen this film until I read the date ... there must be some other children's film about a burro in the desert made around 1959 or 1960 that I thought was Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Any ideas?

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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