Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Almost nobody got away with making just one movie for Walt Disney. Whether you were a newcomer like Hayley Mills or an established star like Fred MacMurray, if Walt liked you and you brought money into the studio, Walt was going to try to get you to stick around. So after Mary Poppins became Disney’s biggest hit in years, it must have irked him that Julie Andrews was suddenly too busy to make a return engagement. Her first musical after Poppins, The Sound Of Music, exploded at the box office and earned her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination. Ms. Andrews’ dance card was going to be full for the foreseeable future.

Dick Van Dyke, on the other hand, was ready, willing and able to work for Walt. Post-Poppins, he returned to his eponymous sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. But his follow-up feature, The Art Of Love co-starring James Garner (who will eventually appear in this column), failed to bring in Mary Poppins-size (or even Merlin Jones-size) numbers. So when Walt pitched him on a contemporary comic retelling of Robinson Crusoe, it’s easy to understand why Van Dyke was eager to sign up. After all, a good portion of Crusoe is essentially a one-man show.

I say Walt pitched the project to Dick Van Dyke because Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Walt’s idea in the first place. In fact, for the first and only time in his long career, Walt took a writing credit on a feature film. Sort of. For a guy who served as the face of his company, whose name was always first in the credits and most prominently featured on posters, and had already named one theme park after himself, Walt was surprisingly modest about taking specific credits. So the story for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is credited to “Retlaw Yensid”. You don’t exactly need an Enigma machine to crack that code.

Walt had Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh, the now Oscar-nominated screenwriters of Mary Poppins, flesh out his general idea into a screenplay. Odds are nobody involved spent too much time reviewing Daniel Defoe’s original novel. Apart from the name and the general premise of a castaway on a deserted island, any similarity between the book and the movie is purely coincidental.

Since this was shaping up to be a Mary Poppins reunion, you might expect director Robert Stevenson or the Sherman Brothers to be involved. But Dick Van Dyke wielded some influence of his own to get Byron Paul to direct. Paul and Van Dyke were old friends who first met in the Air Force back in the ‘40s. Since then, Paul had become Van Dyke’s manager. He’d also produced and directed a number of television productions including For The Love Of Willadean, The Tenderfoot and The Adventures Of Gallegher for Disney. Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. would be Paul’s only feature credit but he and Dick Van Dyke continued to work together in television through the 1970s.

As for the Shermans, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. has no original songs. The film’s score was written by Robert F. Brunner, a composer who Disney hired in 1964. His first full credit as composer had been That Darn Cat! Brunner will stick around this column for quite some time. It’s interesting that Robin Crusoe went songless since Van Dyke had acquitted himself quite well musically in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure if the plan was to make this a non-musical all along and therefore the Shermans’ services weren’t required or if the Shermans were busy and that’s why they decided to go the non-musical route.

Theatrical release poster for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe had been a young man who becomes a sea merchant against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to be a lawyer. Disney’s Crusoe (who is referred to as “Robin” exactly once…usually it’s “Rob”, probably to remind audiences of Rob Petrie, Van Dyke’s character on TV) is a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He’s on a routine mission when his plane malfunctions, forcing him to bail out somewhere over the Pacific.

With his life raft inflated, Rob takes stock of his situation by consulting the official naval guidebook Survival At Sea And Like It. In another nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show, the survival manual is read in voiceover by Richard Deacon, the manager of the drive-in in That Darn Cat! and Van Dyke’s TV costar. Rob seems to be in relatively good shape until an aggressive shark comes along and causes him to lose most of his supplies.

Days later, Rob finally washes ashore on a seemingly uninhabited island. After tending to his basic survival needs, he explores the island and discovers the wreck of a Japanese submarine. On board, he meets a fellow Navy officer and castaway: Astrochimp Floyd (played by Dinky the Chimp), whose space capsule washed ashore years earlier. Either this island is in the Bermuda Triangle or the Navy is really lax about tracking down missing personnel.

Rob and Floyd salvage a bunch of material from the sub and construct an island estate that would make the Swiss Family Robinson envious. One day while out golfing, Rob spots another set of footprints. He tracks them to a large native idol where he discovers a native girl (Nancy Kwan) praying. At first, she seems dead set on killing Rob but eventually calms down enough to explain, mostly in charades although she soon reveals that she speaks English, why she’s there. Her father, Chief Tanamashu, has sent her to be sacrificed to Kaboona, the big idol, because she refuses to submit to an arranged marriage. Rob agrees that women should have the right to marry whomever they please. He apparently does not believe that women have the right to keep their given names because he decides to call her Wednesday. Of course.

Before long, Wednesday’s sisters and cousins turn up, more potential sacrifices to Kaboona. Wednesday wants to fight back and she convinces Rob to train them into a giggly military unit. When Rob finds out that Tanamashu claims that only he can hear the voice of Kaboona, he comes up with a plan to outwit the primitive natives by booby trapping parts of the island and rigging up the idol with lights and a sound system off the submarine.

Tanamashu and his men arrive and while the plan doesn’t go off without a hitch, Rob and the girls still manage to win the day. At the celebratory feast, Wednesday asks Rob to dance. Tanamashu thinks this is hilarious because she’s tricked him into performing a ceremonial wedding dance. (“Tanamashu not lose daughter! Tanamashu gain wise guy son!”) Rob runs for his life and spots a passing Navy helicopter just in the nick of time. They airlift Rob and Floyd off the island to safety and a gala reception on an aircraft carrier. For Floyd. It seems that nobody even noticed Rob was missing.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. movie tie-in book

So yeah, Cast Away this ain’t. In fact, it frequently struggles to rise to the level of Gilligan’s Island. Dick Van Dyke is a very gifted and funny performer but this is not the showcase he was hoping it would be. Rather than traditional voice-over narration, the story is told through Rob’s letters back to his fiancée. Which is fine, except that…Van Dyke…reads them…very…slowly…so we…can…understand…that…he is…writing. Honestly, if he just read the letters in a normal cadence, it would probably shave five minutes off this unnecessarily long movie.

Van Dyke has a real gift for physical comedy and you’d think that’s where this movie would shine. But for the first 20 or 30 minutes, he’s either trapped in the cockpit of a plane or stuck splashing around on a rubber life raft. There’s only so much you can do under those conditions. Things don’t improve much on land. The slapstick is either too restrained or too unimaginative. DaGradi and Walsh call on their animation background a bit in the grand finale but not enough.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Nancy Kwan’s first and only Disney movie. Kwan shot to stardom as the title character in The World Of Suzie Wong. That role got her a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer, an award she shared with Hayley Mills for Pollyanna. She followed that up with the even more popular Flower Drum Song. But by the time Disney came along, she’d already begun having a hard time finding roles in American movies. As the years went on, she’d make more and more films in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong.

If Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is indicative of the kinds of roles Kwan was being offered, no wonder she went abroad. This is one of those only-in-the-60s movies that thinks it’s making a stand for equal rights by arguing against arranged marriage while accepting marriage as a woman’s natural, inevitable fate. Wednesday and the rest of her sister cousins don’t really want any other rights. They ask to be trained but spend most of their time giggling and serving fruit to Rob (or, as they call him, “Admiral Honey”). As soon as Rob rejects her, Wednesday is out for blood, leading an angry mob of women and throwing spears. It’s dispiriting to see someone as vibrant as Nancy Kwan stuck in a movie like this. She’s a fascinating person and a genuine trailblazer for Asian performers in Hollywood’s modern era. She deserves better.

Wednesday’s father, Chief Tanamashu, is played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor who is decidedly not Asian. Tamiroff was an Armenian actor who emigrated to America from Russia in 1927. He’d worked steadily in Hollywood since the 1930s, earning two Oscar nominations and working with such greats as Preston Sturges and Orson Welles. This would be Tamiroff’s only Disney appearance and he goes waaaaay over the top with it. His performance could almost be considered offensive if it was more specific. As it is, there’s no real way of telling what exactly he thinks he’s doing. He’s certainly not trying to do an impression of a stereotypical Chinese or Japanese or even Polynesian accent. It’s just his own goofy voice delivering a lot of pidgin English gobbledygook. Some of it’s a little amusing but a little goes a long way.

Even though nothing about this movie seems particularly special, Walt Disney had a lot of confidence in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. It was positioned as the studio’s big summer release of 1966, opening just a few weeks after The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its final episode on June 1. The studio held a gala premiere on board the USS Kitty Hawk in San Diego, the same aircraft carrier featured in the film, attended by such Disney all-stars as Fred MacMurray, Annette Funicello, Dean Jones and, of course, Dick Van Dyke. Most critics rolled their eyes at the movie but audiences turned it into a decent-sized hit. It was no Mary Poppins. Few movies were. But it did well enough to get a theatrical re-release in 1974.

Today, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is a footnote in Disney history, a fate it more than deserves. This is just not a good movie. At nearly two hours, it’s a real drag that quickly overstays its welcome. It borrows less from Robinson Crusoe than from Swiss Family Robinson but with less excitement and fewer laughs. Even Dick Van Dyke’s drunk scene falls flat. If you can’t milk a couple of chuckles out of a drunk Dick Van Dyke and a chimpanzee, you’ve got serious problems. Nevertheless, Dick Van Dyke will be back in this column. As will the chimpanzee, for that matter.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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