Swiss Family Robinson (1940 film)

Swiss Family Robinson is a 1940 American film released by RKO Radio Pictures and directed by Edward Ludwig. It is based on the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and is the first feature-length film version of the story.

Swiss Family Robinson
Film poster
Directed byEdward Ludwig
Produced byC. Graham Baker
Gene Towne
Written byC. Graham Baker
Walter Ferris
Gene Towne
Based onThe Swiss Family Robinson
by Johann David Wyss
StarringThomas Mitchell
Edna Best
Freddie Bartholomew
Terry Kilburn
Tim Holt
Narrated byOrson Welles (uncredited)
Music byAnthony Collins
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca
Edited byGeorge Crone
The Play's The Thing Productions
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • February 8, 1940 (1940-02-08)
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$890,000[1]


In London in 1813, a Swiss father, William Robinson (Thomas Mitchell), wishes to escape the influence of the superficial profligacy of London on his family. His eldest son, Fritz (Tim Holt), is obsessed with Napoleon, whom he considers his hero. His middle son, Jack (Freddie Bartholomew), is a foolish dandy who cares only about fashion and money. And his dreamy son Ernest (Terry Kilburn) is preoccupied with reading and writing to the exclusion of all else.

William Robinson sells his business and house, in order to move with his wife and four sons to Australia. They set out on a brig bound for the faraway country. Following a long voyage, the family is shipwrecked on a remote deserted island after the captain and crew are washed overboard during a storm.

The family members collaborate to create a home for themselves in the alien jungle environment. They gradually learn to use the unfamiliar plants and animals to create what they need to live and thrive. They have many adventures and challenges and make many discoveries. The mother (Edna Best), however, misses her elegant home and community in England, and wishes to somehow be rescued and return. The father slowly convinces her that living in the natural environment is better for the family and that they are meant to be there.


Production notes

The producers specialised in making films based on public domain texts.[2]

Tim Holt was the first star assigned.[3] Freddie Bartholomew and Terry Kilburn were borrowed from MGM.[4] This was the first feature-length film with a performance by Orson Welles, who went uncredited as the story’s narrator.

A version running 108 minutes (15 minutes longer than the generally available print) is also screened occasionally.

Critical reception

Upon release

The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects (Vernon L. Walker, John O. Aalberg).[5][6]

Frank Nugent of The New York Times wrote:

When it stays with the book, which was adventure plus instruction, the film is considerably better. The storm sequences—there are three of them—are properly noisy, drenching and spectacular. The salvage trips to the reef-bound brig, the lessons in candlemaking and ostrich-taking, the recipe for Mrs. Robinson's fish stew, some of the family's minor naturalistic adventures are amusingly, and often excitingly, depicted. They and the uniformly competent performance of the cast make it a moderately entertaining, if rather somnolently paced, story-book film.[7]

Variety called it "a good adventure yarn" but suggested that the tropical storm sequences went on too long, and that Edna Best's hairdo seemed "always too perfect" for a believable castaway.[8] Film Daily called it "an appealing picture for the family trade" and "a genuine accomplishment."[9] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Pretty good entertainment ... adapted with imagination and produced with skill."[10] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote a mixed review, criticizing the change of the character of the mother from resourceful in the book to "fretful" and "discontented" in the film, a mood that "pervades the story and saps the vigor of the adventure element." However, Mosher thought that "Some pleasant domestic animals and a pet or two add variety," and he found the tropical storm "satisfactory."[11]

The movie recorded a loss of $180,000.[1]

Contemporary critics

Leonard Maltin calls the 93-minute version an "Excellent adaptation of [the] Johann Wyss book", and writes that it "boasts impressive special effects, strong performances, and much darker elements than the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson".[12]

The film is one of Oscar-winning film director James Ivory’s favorite movies. Ivory is quoted as saying that he liked the idea of the Robinsons transforming their deserted island with their London furnishings salvaged from their shipwreck, saying, "Swiss Family Robinson … appealed to my boyhood taste for disasters."[13]

Legacy and DVD release

Johann David Wyss's 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson was adapted again for film in 1960 by Walt Disney. Associate producer Basil Keys stated in a December 1960 Saturday Evening Post article that Walt Disney and producer Bill Anderson chose to make their version of the film after viewing the RKO version. According to a July 1959 Los Angeles Times article, director Ken Annakin used the RKO adaptation as "an example of what not to do," that is, avoiding the 1940 film's soundstage reproductions and focusing instead on location shooting and realistic art direction.[14]

Walt Disney is said to have bought the rights to the RKO film in an effort to suppress its re-release and avoid comparisons to his 1960 version.[15][16][17] Currently the Walt Disney Co. holds the rights to the RKO version, and 20 minutes of it was featured in the "Vault Disney" DVD release of their 1960 Swiss Family Robinson.

Although the RKO version has not been released theatrically for decades, and no home formats from Disney were previously made commercially available, the film’s 92-minute version was briefly made available on DVD in 2010 from Turner Classic Movies, on their own "Vault Collection" DVD label, a library of "rare and forgotten" films, produced "in only small quantities and available for a limited time."[18] A limited on-demand DVD release by Retro Flix has also been produced.[19]

On October 14 2019 the Disney+ Twitter account included both the 1940 and 1960 versions of the film amongst a list of the content available on the streaming service at its launch.


  1. Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p57
  2. THE AGELESS ROBINSONS New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Feb 1940: 122.
  3. DRAMA: Glamour Cast Named for 'Ziegfeld Girl' Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 08 Aug 1939: 8.
  4. Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p145
  5. "The 13th Academy Awards (1941) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2013-06-19.
  6. Turner Classic Movies, Swiss Family Robinson, Notes
  7. The Screen: On a Tropic, Slightly Toporific, Isle Lands Wyss's 'Swiss Family Robinson' at the Music Hall, By Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, February 9, 1940
  8. "Swiss Family Robinson". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. February 7, 1940. p. 14.
  9. "Film Daily". New York. Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 7 February 1, 1940.
  10. "'Swiss Family Robinson' with Thomas Mitchell, Edna Best and Freddie Bartholemew". February 17, 1940: 27. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. Mosher, John (February 10, 1940). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 75.
  12. Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide, 2001 Edition, pg. 1372. Signet, ISBN 0-451-20107-8
  13. Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by John Pym, pg. 21. Harry N. Abrams, New York 1995. ISBN 0-8109-4275-5
  14. Turner Classic Movies, Swiss Family Robinson, Notes
  15. Film History: An International Journal, 2007, Vol. 19, No. 2; Pages 125-143: "Forgotten Faces: Why Some of Our Cinema Heritage is Part of the Public Domain," by David Pierce doi:10.2979/FIL.2007.19.2.125
  16., Swiss Family Robinson
  17. Voyages Extraordinaires, September, 2009
  18. Turner Classic Movies TCM Vault Collection Archived 2011-09-12 at the Wayback Machine
  19. Swiss Family Robinson – DVD by Retro Flix
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