Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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.

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Shaggy Dog

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Since the release of Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney’s live-action division had dabbled in a variety of different but fundamentally similar genres. The boys’ adventure of Treasure Island led to historical adventure dramas like The Story Of Robin Hood and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, westerns like Davy Crockett and Westward Ho The Wagons!, family dramas like Old Yeller, and even one big budget sci-fi/fantasy in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The one thing they had not attempted was comedy. But with The Shaggy Dog, Walt hit upon a formula that would, for better or worse, come to define the studio style for the next twenty or so years.

The Shaggy Dog is based on the novel The Hound Of Florence by Felix Salten, although “based on” seems a little strong. Walt’s first adaptation of a Salten novel, Bambi, was released back in 1942. It had done poorly but was an important film to Walt. Shortly before its release, Walt picked up the movie rights to five more Salten books. Part of the reason was that Salten lived in Switzerland and Disney had money tied up overseas that, due to World War II spending restrictions, had to be spent overseas. But it was also because he didn’t want anyone else to come along and make a movie based on Salten’s sequel, Bambi’s Children.

At this point, it doesn’t seem like Walt had any real intention of filming any of these books, although he claimed to be developing at least a couple of them as cartoons. (Salten himself died shortly afterward in 1945). But then Winston Hibler had the idea to adapt Perri into a quasi-True-Life Adventure entry. Now I can’t say for certain that the experience of making Perri jogged Walt’s memory and sent him back into the Disney library to see what else he’d picked up. But it does seem an odd coincidence that suddenly Felix Salten’s name was attached to two very different movies more than 15 years after Walt originally acquired the rights.

Beyond the central idea of a boy who magically transforms into a dog, The Shaggy Dog has very little in common with Salten’s original book. The story goes that Walt originally pitched the idea to ABC as a television show. When the network passed, an insulted Walt decided to prove them wrong by turning it into a feature. Bill Walsh, the former comic strip writer who had been promoted to running Disney’s TV operations, produced and co-wrote the script with Lillie Hayward, another TV writer who had recently cowritten the screenplay for Tonka.

To direct, Walsh recruited Charles Barton from the TV side, where he’d directed episodes of Spin And Marty and Zorro (not to mention The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, an episode of Walt Disney Presents that was sort of half a mini-biopic of the composer and half a commercial for Sleeping Beauty). But it wasn’t Barton’s TV credits that made him the right man for the job. He had also directed several of Abbott and Costello’s best features, including Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Africa Screams. If there was a director in Hollywood who knew about combining fantasy and comedy, it was Barton.

Barton shot the film on a low budget using a young cast of familiar TV faces. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, the brothers from Old Yeller, starred as brothers Wilby and Moochie Daniels. This was at least the third similar-but-unrelated “Moochie” character for Corcoran, following turns as Moochie O’Hara on Spin And Marty and Moochie Morgan in Moochie Of The Little League. Tommy Kirk was cementing his position as Walt’s new favorite juvenile lead, a status that would come to an unhappy end just a few years later. We’ll get to that story in due course.

Wilby’s best frenemy, Buzz Miller, was played by Tim Considine. This would be Considine’s only appearance in a Disney feature, although he’d been a big star on TV on Spin And Marty, opposite Tommy Kirk as the Hardy Boys, and elsewhere. He’d eventually retire from acting to become a sports writer and photographer but not before starring for several seasons on the sitcom My Three Sons alongside someone we’ll get to here momentarily.

The two young female leads were Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Annettte was by far the most popular of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. She appeared in sketches, sang songs, acted in Spin And Marty and even received her own eponymous serial, Walt Disney Presents: Annette. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of her in this column.

Despite Annette’s popularity, she has a relatively small role compared to Roberta Shore. Shore had played Annette’s friend and sometime rival, Laura, on the Annette serial. Her role as the exotic new neighbor, Francesca, would be her first and last appearance in a Disney movie. Her biggest role came a few years later in a recurring part on the long-running TV western The Virginian. She also would retire from acting by the end of the 1960s, moving to Utah and devoting herself to her family and Mormon faith.

But by far Walt’s biggest get for The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. MacMurray had been a musician and singer who turned to acting in the mid-1930s. He became a star appearing in comedies like Swing High, Swing Low and The Egg And I. Occasionally, directors like Billy Wilder would cast him against his nice guy image, tapping into a darker side in movies like the film noir classic Double Indemnity. But after appearing in a string of mediocre western programmers, MacMurray’s star was on the wane by the end of the 50s.

Walt personally approached MacMurray about returning to his comedic roots. Apparently his second choice for the role was Gregory Peck, which is bizarre to think about. In any event, MacMurray agreed to star as Wilson Daniels, the retired mailman with the severe dog allergy. The role kickstarted the last and most profitable phase of his long career. Between the Disney films (he’ll make frequent appearances in this column going forward) and his role as the family patriarch on My Three Sons, MacMurray would become known as America’s Dad long before Tom Hanks could claim the title.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Shaggy Dog

The story that Walsh and Hayward concocted from Salten’s book is very much a shaggy dog story, a cluttered series of incidents and random tangents that somehow manages to amuse despite itself. Wilby Daniels is an offbeat kid who spends his spare time in his basement coming up with kooky inventions. After a homemade rocket almost destroys the house, his dad lays down the law and orders him to get rid of all his equipment.

While he’s doing this, he spots his friend Buzz picking up Allison, the neighbor girl both boys have a crush on. But pretty soon, the arrival of a new neighbor turns Allison into yesterday’s news. Francesca and her adoptive father, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby), move into the neighborhood along with Francesca’s beloved sheepdog, Chiffon. Chiffon takes an immediate liking to Wilby and the boys use the dog as an excuse to introduce themselves to Francesca.

They accompany her on an errand to the local museum, where Wilby gets separated from the group. He runs into Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who’s putting together an exhibit of artifacts from the Borgia family. Wilby accidentally knocks over a tray and ends up with a Borgia ring stuck in the cuff of his jeans. The ring bears an inscription, “In canis corpore transmute,” that Wilby reads aloud, triggering a curse that transforms him into Chiffon.

Trapped in dog form, Wilby reveals himself to his younger brother, Moochie, who is delighted at the prospect of finally getting a dog. However, the curse isn’t permanent or predictable. Wilby starts switching back and forth between boy and dog at random, inopportune times, including at a dance where Buzz tries to pull off dating both Allison and Francesca simultaneously.

Back in dog form, Wilby finds himself trapped inside Francesca’s house, where he discovers that Dr. Andrassy is part of a spy ring preparing to smuggle some highly classified something-or-other called “Section 32” out of the country. Wilby escapes and goes to his father for help. Wilson faints when he hears Wilby’s voice coming from Chiffon, so Wilby tries to go it alone. After Wilson recovers, Moochie convinces him that the stories are true, Wilby is a dog and the new neighbor’s a spy. But when Wilson goes to the police, they understandably think he’s nuts and send him to the police psychiatrist (played by prolific voice actor Paul Frees in an uncredited cameo). All this nonsense winds up in a wacky chase with Chiffon behind the wheel of Buzz’s car and Wilson, Moochie, Buzz and some disbelieving cops in pursuit.

It’s absolutely pointless to complain that a movie called The Shaggy Dog has a lot of loose ends. Of course it does. But some of the loose ends here seem like they would have been a lot of fun to explore. That whole subplot about Wilby being a boy inventor? Doesn’t really factor into the movie. The bit with Buzz trying to mack on both Allison and Francesca and ending up getting both girls vying for Wilby instead? Funny stuff that’s forgotten about pretty quickly.

What we’re left to focus on is all the Cold War spy stuff. It’s left purposely vague, which is fine. There’s no point in getting into the finer points of international espionage in a movie like this. But it’s also not as character-based as the movie’s best moments. MacMurray does a great job selling peeved, frustrated, befuddled and eventually, harmlessly hypocritical as he allows the papers to sell his image as a dog-loving hero.

Jean Hagen, the Oscar-nominated co-star of Singin’ In The Rain, has a thankless role as Wilson’s long-suffering wife, Freeda. Despite having virtually nothing to do, Hagen makes the most of it, deadpanning her way through her boys’ ridiculous antics and misadventures. She and MacMurray pair off well together. It’s too bad she’s sidelined for the movie’s second half.

The movie’s most pleasant surprise has to be the relaxed, engaging performances delivered by the kids. In Old Yeller, Kirk’s teenage petulance and Corcoran’s hyperactivity grated on my nerves. But with The Shaggy Dog, they’re in their element. Despite his character’s awkwardness, Kirk really is the all-American teenager. And Barton dials back Corcoran’s enthusiasm without losing his sense of mischief and fun. Best of all, their familiarity with each other sells the idea that they’re brothers in a way that seems a bit less forced than in Old Yeller.

Familiarity also drives home the friendship between Kirk and Considine. They have an easy, natural rapport. You buy the idea that they’d remain friends even though Buzz really takes advantage of Wilby at every turn. There’s an art to playing an arrogant showboat like Buzz without alienating your audience. Tim Considine figures it out. Even at his worst, Buzz still seems like he’d be fun to have around.

Annette doesn’t have much of a chance to shine here. She’s the ideal girl next door but that’s about it. Later films would give her more opportunities to showcase the talents that made her such a draw as a Mouseketeer. Roberta Shore is fun as the exotic Francesca, although her vaguely “foreign” accent is forgotten at the first available opportunity.

Nobody had high expectations for The Shaggy Dog. According to Walt, most people around the studio barely even noticed they were making it. The movie was released on March 19, 1959, and became a surprise blockbuster. It became the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Ben-Hur, outperforming now-classics like Some Like It Hot, North By Northwest and Pillow Talk. It was the Disney studio’s most successful film of the decade.

Success breeds imitation, so Walt wasted little time codifying the Shaggy Dog formula. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Walt would corner the market on what Leonard Maltin has described as “gimmick comedies”. The heroes are usually young and/or somewhat eccentric. Something comes along, either an invention or a discovery or a monkey or some other magical McGuffin, to cause chaos and wacky misadventures ensue. We’ll be seeing plenty of gimmick comedies in the weeks and months ahead.

We’ll also be seeing Wilby Daniels again, although not as soon as you might think. Despite the film’s popularity, Disney didn’t produce a sequel until The Shaggy D.A. some 17 years later. In 1987, the studio released a TV sequel called The Return Of The Shaggy Dog, starring Saturday Night Live’s Gary Kroeger and co-written by Paul Haggis. At the time, Haggis was known as a TV writer on sitcoms like The Facts Of Life, still many years away from Oscar-bait movies like Million Dollar Baby and Crash.

After the sequels came the remakes. In 1994, ABC debuted their version of The Shaggy Dog starring Scott Weinger (the voice of Aladdin) as Wilby Daniels and Ed Begley, Jr. as his dad. Finally (at least so far), Tim Allen starred in a 2006 remake that combined elements from both The Shaggy Dog and The Shaggy D.A. to create a movie that seemingly no one likes although it made a lot of money. Today, if it’s remembered at all, it’s as a low point for Robert Downey Jr. before his Iron Man renaissance.

(Iron Man, which predates Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, will not be appearing in this column. Neither will either of the made-for-TV Shaggy Dogs. Tim Allen’s The Shaggy Dog, God help us all, will.)

So the gimmick comedies are here to stay. Some will be good and some will be real clunkers. Eventually, they’ll start to dominate everything else at the Disney studio and be partly responsible for some of the studio’s darkest days. But with the original Shaggy Dog, you can see the genre’s appeal, both creatively and financially. It’s a genuinely amusing comedy that earned a boat-load of cash. No wonder they went back to the well again and again…and again…and again…

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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