In the pantheon of Disney stars, Roddy McDowall’s name does not loom as large as Fred MacMurray or Dean Jones. Beginning with That Darn Cat!, McDowall appeared in four Disney pictures and lent his voice to a couple more. But unlike MacMurray or Jones, Roddy McDowall was always more of a character actor than a leading man. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin suggests that maybe the studio should have given him more starring roles.
Roddy McDowall was nine years old when he received his first screen credit on the 1938 British mystery Murder In The Family (Glynis Johns, another future Disney star, played his sister). His family came to America in the early days of World War II. He was cast almost immediately upon his arrival in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. That Oscar-winning film turned McDowall from a child actor into a child star. Throughout the 1940s, he starred in such films as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home.
As McDowall grew older, he evaded the pitfalls of most child stars by taking control of his career. By 1948, he began producing some of his own films including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, another future Disney project. He moved to New York to take acting classes and focus on the stage. His performances in shows like Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, erased the child star image.
By the time Disney cast him in That Darn Cat!, McDowall had gone back to Hollywood. In addition to regular TV appearances, he joined the ensembles of such big-budget epics as Cleopatra and The Longest Day. In 1967 alone, the year The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was released, he also starred in the films The Cool Ones and It!, had a supporting role in a TV production of the play Saint Joan, guest starred on an episode of The Invaders, and voiced the cricket in the Rankin/Bass holiday cartoon Cricket On The Hearth. And that was pretty much the pace he kept up for the rest of his life. Nobody ever accused Roddy McDowall of resting on his laurels.
Like a lot of these lesser-known live-action entries, there’s not a whole lot out there about the making of The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. I can’t say if the project was developed specifically with McDowall in mind or if he was cast later. Either way, the role suits the actor perfectly. It isn’t exactly a challenging role and no doubt other actors could have done well with it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else having as much fun as McDowall appears to be having here.
Lowell S. Hawley, whose last Disney film had been the odd but still kind of enjoyable A Tiger Walks, based his screenplay on the excellently titled book By The Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman. Fleischman was a former journalist who started out writing novels inspired by his own experiences in the Navy stationed in the Pacific. One of those books provided the basis for the John Wayne movie Blood Alley, with a script by Fleischman himself. In 1962, he turned his attention to children’s books, many of which incorporate stage magic, a childhood passion of his. Fleischman went on to write countless books for young readers, including the Bloodhound Gang adventures from the PBS series 3-2-1 Contact.
This would be the last Disney feature for director James Neilson. Neilson’s time at the studio showed him to be a pretty schizophrenic director. He was capable of terrific work, like the TV production Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. But he was also responsible for two of the studio’s worst, the sci-fi misfire Moon Pilot and the strained European shenanigans of Bon Voyage! Based on those two duds, I was prepared to say that comedy just wasn’t his forte. But The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is genuinely funny, so either he was keeping this talent a secret or even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Our story opens in 1848 Boston as Arabella Flagg (Suzanne Pleshette) and her younger brother, Jack (Bryan Russell, last seen in Emil And The Detectives), discover that their late father has left them flat broke. Determined to rebuild the family fortune, Jack stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco. The family butler, Griffin (McDowall), tries to bring him home but the ship departs before they can get back ashore.
En route to San Francisco, Griffin and Jack meet Quentin Bartlett (Richard Haydn, the voice of the Caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland). Bartlett has a map to a gold mine and agrees to partner up with the two newcomers. But before they even make it to port, the map is stolen by wily crook Judge Higgins (Karl Malden, light years away from his role as the kindly Reverend Ford in Pollyanna).
The west proves to be as wild wild as promised and the gold hunters soon run afoul of a burly thug named Mountain Ox (perennial Hollywood tough guy Mike Mazurki, not seen in this column since Davy Crockett). Griffin knocks him out with a slug from a glove filled with gold nuggets, earning him the nickname “Bullwhip”. Sam Trimble (Harry Guardino), the owner of the local saloon, offers Griffin a big payday to go head-to-head with the Ox in the boxing ring. Not wanting to risk a rematch, the team hits the road to pursue Judge Higgins.
What follows is not a plot so much as an extremely episodic and convoluted series of events. Our heroes find the map, then lose the map, then find the map’s been damaged. They find gold, then lose it all to Judge Higgins, who then loses it himself. Higgins dons an array of disguises and almost ends up getting hung but manages to escape. Transitions between scenes are accomplished through charming, old-timey animations by Ward Kimball. It all feels pretty random but it’s never less than amusing.
Bullwhip and Jack eventually make their way back to San Francisco, where they find Arabella has taken a job dancing (and singing some mildly saucy Sherman Brothers songs) at Sam Trimble’s saloon. Sam reminds Griffin that his offer to fight Mountain Ox still stands. Broke and wanting to protect Arabella’s virtue, Griffin agrees. While Bullwhip and Ox essentially turn into live-action cartoons for the fight, Judge Higgins disguises himself yet again to rob the saloon. Bullwhip manages to eke out a victory but a fire breaks out when someone tries to apprehend Higgins. The money is recovered, Griffin and Arabella fall in love and all is right with the world.
Needless to say, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is absolutely, 100%, top-to-bottom ridiculous. If you’re looking for a compelling, historically accurate look at the California Gold Rush, keep on moving. If you want a movie that’s completely devoid of racial stereotypes, it ain’t this one. Its portrayal of Mexicans and especially Chinese is indefensible. The version currently available on Disney+ notes that it has been edited for content, so apparently this is the less offensive version. But the tone is so light and James Neilson does such a good job keeping the story bouncing along, none of that really matters.
This is the kind of movie that lives or dies on the strength of its cast. Neilson assembled a top-notch group more than capable of putting this over. Roddy McDowall is first-rate. He’s very funny as the straightlaced, exceedingly proper English butler. Somehow, he manages to keep that reserve throughout the movie. Even when he’s literally bouncing around the boxing ring, he never seems to be overacting or mugging for the camera. He strikes just the right balance.
Karl Malden appears to be having a real hoot as the villainous Judge Higgins. Growing up, I always had this image of Malden as a very serious actor known for playing working-class stiffs and making American Express sound like the only thing standing between you and chaos. It’s always a pleasure to see him let loose and have some fun. Unfortunately, this will be his last appearance in this column. Karl Malden was a terrific actor but his two Disney performances tend to be dismissed as silly trifles. They were but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. They show different sides of his personality than he was usually asked to deliver and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the rest of his impressive body of work.
My biggest complaint with The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is that it could have used more Suzanne Pleshette. Arabella gives her a bit more to do than her role in The Ugly Dachschund. She gets to sing and dance and assert her independence a little (not a lot, this is still 1967 Disney we’re talking about). But she’s basically absent for the movie’s long middle stretch. Bullwhip’s adventures would have been a lot more fun if Arabella had been part of them. Not to worry, though. We’ll be seeing Pleshette back in this column again real soon.
Neilson fills out his cast with plenty of familiar, reliable Disney faces including Hermione Baddeley (Mary Poppins), Cecil Kellaway (The Shaggy Dog), Alan Carney (Monkeys, Go Home!), Parley Baer (Follow Me, Boys!), and Arthur Hunnicutt (A Tiger Walks). Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Bryan Russell. He isn’t bad or actively annoying like some Disney child stars. He just doesn’t pop on screen the way somebody like Kurt Russell (no relation) might have. Half the time, I forgot he was even there.
Evidently, Bryan Russell’s heart wasn’t really in show business anyway. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was his last film, not just for Disney but for anyone. I’m not sure what exactly became of him after that. I know he got married, had a couple kids, and passed away in 2016 but that’s about it. If anybody has more information, I’d love to hear it.
Honestly, I’m a little surprised that The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is on Disney+ even in what I’m guessing is a mildly censored form. Critics weren’t crazy about it, although a few liked it, including a young Roger Ebert who had just started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. It wasn’t a hit at the box office, either. But it does seem to have a little bit of a cult following, which I suppose I would now consider myself a part of. This is a fun, goofy movie that’s hard to dislike. It should have made Roddy McDowall as big a Disney star as Dean Jones.
VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.