The Story of Robin Hood at the Box Office

The original film poster of 1952

One of the many questions I have tried to answer since starting this blog is how much did Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men make at the box office in 1952? It has not been easy to get an accurate figure. Also, the available sources vary as to the top box office hit films of that year. Kinematograph Weekly (Saturday 31st January 1953) judged the top 15 films of 1952 (based on box office returns) as:-
1.The Greatest Show on Earth
2. Where No Vultures Fly
3. Ivanhoe
4. Angles One Five
5. Sound Barrier
6. African Queen
7. Mandy
8. The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men
9. Reluctant Heroes
10. A Christmas Carol 
11. Planter's Wife
12. Son of Paleface
13. The Quiet Man
14. Sailors Beware 
15. Room for One More 
From the various lists we can assume that Disney's second live-action film was a success at the box office and for the studio.

This move by Walt Disney to make films in England had come about due to his studio's post-war funds being frozen by the British government in an attempt to revive its own film industry. Disney had considered building an animation studio here but opted to produce live-action movies instead.
We won't turn into a live-action studio, but we'll get into the live-action business. (Walt Disney)
The studio's first live-action movie Treasure Island cost $1.8 million (using up the blocked funds) and was released in July 1950. Produced and supervised by Disney, it made the studio and RKO Pictures $4 million, returning $2.2 and $2.4 million. So with this success under their belt Disney embarked on another historical adventure.

For The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men Disney used just three of his American production crew, Perce Pearce (producer), Lawrence Watkin (writer), and Fred Leahy (production manager). All three of them sailed with Walt and his family on board the Queen Mary to England in January 1951 to begin planning their next live-action film. 

Walt Disney and family visiting England in 1951

In mid-January 1951 Richard Todd met Perce Pearce at the Dorchester Hotel in London and eventually accepted the role of Robin Hood. Todd also suggested James Robertson Justice as Little John to Pearce.

The Story of Robin Hood premiered on March 13th 1952 at the Leicester Square Theatre in London and according to press cuttings of the time was a huge success.

The queues outside the Leicester Square Theatre in London to see Robin Hood.

This article is taken from 'To-Days Cinema' (March 27th 1952):
Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, the RKO Radio release in Technicolor starring Richard Todd with Joan Rice is keeping up its second week pressure, as evidenced by these photographs taken outside the Leicester Square Theatre, where it has been attracting spectacular business since its World Premiere on March 13th. Part of the second week-end queues to one side of the house, with a defile waiting patiently across the other side of the street, facing that along the theatre itself.

A programe from the world premiere

My regular contributor Neil Vessey, has recently found a reference for the box office takings for Walt Disney's third live action movie The Sword and the Rose (1953).  In The Animated Man : A Life of Walt Disney (2007) the author doesn't give us a figure, but states that The Sword and the Rose exceeded the budget of Robin Hood, but only earned the studio $2.5 million - less than half of its predecessor.

Neil concludes from this, that Robin Hood must have made the Disney Studio about $5 million from its original outlay of $1.9 million dollars. 

At last, this is a breakthrough and since Neil's email to me I have been hunting for more information. At the moment all I have found is a snippet on Google Books from volume 41 of Newsweek (1953). On page 97 it has this:-
The Story of Robin Hood also made in England, was budgeted at $1,300,000 and promptly grossed a $3,000,000 return. And only a few months of the "Robin Hood" box-office potential is reflected in Disney's...  
From the information available we can deduce that The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men had significant success for the studio.

Using a familiar production crew and cast, Disney ventured into the legends of the misty hills of Scotland for his fourth and last live-action movie Rob Roy the Highland Rogue, which was released in October 1953. It was openly described by its director Harold French as a 'western in kilts'!  Rob Roy contained the same technical quality and outstanding acting talents of the previous three Disney live-action adventure films but it was not received as well. 

After the release of Rob Roy, Walt and his older brother Roy formed their wholly owned distribution company Buena Vista. It was up and running when Disney embarked on his next and most expensive live-action adventure film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Costing a staggering $4.5 million this would be the studio's first American-made live-action feature.

But the production in Britain of Treasure Island and Robin Hood had led the way and proved that Walt Disney's company was now not just a small studio devoted to animation.


Clement Glen said...

Special thanks to Neil for the box office information on Sword and the Rose.

Neil said...

I think that this information is more of an estimate and I personally think it would have earned much more that the 5 million dollars because that would not have included the promotional products worldwide or indeed the whole worlds box office takings - this was in fact a world targeted film. Of course it could not include the much later video or dvd release plus the TV showings.

Clement Glen said...

I agree Neil. We always thought Robin Hood did well at the box office and at least the information we now have indicates that fact.It shows that the success of Robin Hood and Treasure Island inspired the Disney Studio to continue with live-action film making.