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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Monkey’s Uncle

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Monkey's Uncle

It’s fair to assume that nobody at Disney ever thought they’d see Merlin Jones again, even after Walt rolled the dice and gave The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones a theatrical release. For one thing, expectations for the project were low. More importantly, Walt had fired Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones himself, after a scandal threatened to out Kirk’s homosexuality. But money talks and when Merlin Jones blew up at the box office, Walt brought Tommy, Annette and pretty much everybody else from the first film back to try and make lightning strike twice.

Merlin Jones’ original misadventure was clearly a television product inelegantly stitched together for theatrical presentation. So you’d think that the first thing returning screenwriters Helen and Alfred Lewis Levitt and director Robert Stevenson would do would be to concoct an actual storyline that would carry through the entire picture. Nope! Even though The Monkey’s Uncle was made with cinemas in mind, this still feels like two unrelated episodes of a sitcom. Both halves revolve vaguely around the threat of football being abolished at Midvale College but that’s about as far as the intricate plot machinations get.

While 99.9% of The Monkey’s Uncle is Disney business as usual, the movie shows that Stevenson and Walt had been paying attention to the outside world in at least one big way. Annette began appearing in American International Pictures’ cycle of beach movies starting with Beach Party in 1963. AIP’s movies regularly featured musical interludes performed on-camera by such artists as Dick Dale, “Little” Stevie Wonder and The Hondells. Never one to be outdone, Walt recruited the most popular surf rock band of all time, The Beach Boys, to be Annette’s backup band.

At the time of The Monkey’s Uncle’s release in August 1965, the band had already scored two number-one hits. Brian Wilson was operating near the peak of his creative powers, less than a year away from the release of Pet Sounds. But Disney being Disney, you won’t hear any Beach Boys classics like “I Get Around” or “California Girls” here. Instead, the band accompanies Annette on an original title track by the Sherman Brothers, then disappears after the opening credits. The song, which includes such lyrics as “I love the monkey’s uncle and I wish I were the monkey’s aunt”, is very catchy and very dumb. But at least the Beach Boys appear to be enjoying themselves. Well, most of them do. Mike Love gets stuck singing backup and busts out some exceptionally awkward bent-knees and swinging-arms not-quite-dance-moves. He looks like he’d rather be someplace else.

Theatrical release poster for The Monkey's Uncle

A movie like this doesn’t really need to justify its title but Stevenson and the Levitts do just that as soon as the Beach Boys have left the building. It seems that Merlin Jones, the scrambled egghead of Midvale College, has filed a petition to formally adopt Stanley, the chimpanzee from the first film. Judge Holmsby (once again played by Leon Ames) isn’t comfortable with a human caring for a chimp like a child, so he does the next best thing by making Stanley Merlin’s nephew. The Supreme Court could use more judges like Holmsby who make decisions based solely on puns and goofy jokes.

Merlin uses Stanley in his experiments with sleep-learning. Once the chimp falls asleep, a record plays instructions for Stanley to follow when he wakes up. Meanwhile, Judge Holmsby is fighting his own battles with his fellow Midvale board members. Football-hating regent Mr. Dearborne (Frank Faylen, probably best known as Ernie the cab driver in It’s A Wonderful Life but not seen in this column since his appearance all the way back in The Reluctant Dragon) wants to cancel the big game unless the jocks can pass their exams honestly. Judge Holmsby loves football but admits that the team is likely doomed if they can’t cheat. So he recruits Merlin to come up with an honest method of cheating, which turns out to be sleep-learning. If it worked on a chimp, surely it’ll work on a couple of apes like Norm Grabowski (reprising his role from the first movie) and Leon Tyler (last seen assisting Tommy Kirk in Son Of Flubber).

The scheme more or less works but in the movie’s second half, Merlin faces a more formidable challenge. Mr. Dearborne has found a potential donor to solve Midvale’s perpetual financial woes. He’s prepared to make a substantial donation if the college permanently bans football. Things look bleak until Holmsby meets eccentric millionaire Darius Green III (Arthur O’Connell). He promises an even more substantial donation if Midvale’s top scientific minds can fulfill his ancestor’s dream of inventing a human-propelled flying machine. Once again, Holmsby turns to Merlin for help.

Merlin’s flying machine works, up to a point. The problem is that people just aren’t strong enough to keep the thing aloft and land safely. So Merlin develops a strength elixir from pure adrenaline and takes over as pilot himself. The flight goes smoothly right up until some men in white coats turn up to bring “Darius Green III” back home to the funny farm. It looks like Mr. Dearborne’s dream of a football-free Midvale will come true. But it turns out that his mysterious benefactor was also the same escaped lunatic using another alias. Wocka wocka wocka!

Gold Key comic book adaptation of The Monkey's Uncle

OK, nobody expected The Monkey’s Uncle to dig deep into the tortured backstory of Merlin Jones or to see his relationship with girlfriend Jennifer blossom into a rich tapestry of complex emotion. But even by the relaxed standards of a gimmick comedy sequel, this is one lazy, pedestrian effort from all involved. Nobody brought their A-game to the set this time.

Robert Stevenson, a reliable director who had just been nominated for an Oscar thanks to Mary Poppins, could not have been less invested in this material. Stevenson was a sure-hand when it came to visual effects, whether it was Mary Poppins, the Flubber films or Darby O’Gill And The Little People. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones had largely avoided pricy effects. With a slightly higher budget to play with, Stevenson does include some fun flying effects this time out. But they’re nothing special and by the time they show up, the movie is already inching toward the finish line.

The Monkey’s Uncle is a particular waste of Annette Funicello’s time, although she later said performing with the Beach Boys was a high point of her music career. She already didn’t have much to do in the first movie. Here, she’s given two notes to play: supportive lab assistant and jealous girlfriend. First, she’s jealous of Stanley after Merlin devotes all his time to the chimp. When she finally arranges for a chimp-sitter so they can go out on a date, Merlin inexplicably forgets all about his girlfriend and starts mooning over the blonde co-ed (Cheryl Miller, who would continue to costar with animals in the film Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spin-off Daktari).

Walt hadn’t known what to do with Annette for some time now. He’d made her a huge TV and recording star but after Babes In Toyland flopped, he seemed to give up on her movie career. After The Monkey’s Uncle, she left Disney for good. She made some more beach movies and stockcar movies for AIP, then focused on raising a family for a few years. By the time I learned who she was in the mid-1970s, it was as the face of Skippy peanut butter. In 1985, she returned to the studio for the Disney Channel movie Lots Of Luck about a regular family that wins the lottery. Martin Mull and Fred Willard are also in this, so I kind of want to see it now.

Two years after Lots Of Luck, Annette reunited with Frankie Avalon for Back To The Beach. While she was promoting the film, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She went public with her condition in 1992, the same year she was inducted as a Disney Legend. A couple years later, Annette published her memoir, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes. That book was turned into a 1995 TV-movie (featuring Len Cariou as Walt) that brought in huge ratings for CBS. It also turned out to be Annette’s last movie. She passed away from complications from multiple sclerosis in 2013.

This would also be Tommy Kirk’s last Disney movie, although I’m happy to say he’s still with us. This is Tommy’s 11th appearance in this column since we first saw him back in Old Yeller. After leaving Disney, he followed Annette to AIP where he starred in Pajama Party. But late in 1964, he was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana and possession of barbiturates. The charges were soon dropped when it was shown that he had a prescription for the pills but the arrest still cost him several high-profile roles.

Tommy kept working throughout the 1960s, appearing in such non-classics as Village Of The Giants and Mars Needs Women. His drug and alcohol use worsened as he continued to appear in bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. By the mid-70s, he had decided to get sober and quit acting. He eventually opened a carpet cleaning business and lived a quiet, normal life for many years, allowing himself to be coaxed onscreen occasionally in movies like Attack Of The 60 Foot Centerfolds and Little Miss Magic for prolific B-movie auteur Fred Olen Ray. He has yet to appear in another Disney production but was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2006, alongside his Hardy Boys costar Tim Considine and frequent on-screen brother Kevin Corcoran.

Under normal circumstances, The Monkey’s Uncle wouldn’t seem all that unusual or disappointing. It’s a subpar sequel to a surprisingly successful but undeniably goofy movie. And if everybody had still been under contract, this would be a logical (if underwhelming) follow-up. But they weren’t. Walt had very explicitly fired Tommy Kirk and Annette was enjoying more success with Frankie Avalon over at AIP. So Walt had to go out of his way to make The Monkey’s Uncle.

Instead of making the extra effort worthwhile, it’s almost like he was trying to sabotage the Merlin Jones franchise by making something so forgettable that nobody would ever bother asking for another one. Whether he intended it or not, he ended up making a good example of why Walt had never liked sequels in the first place. And even though the studio would eventually return to cranking out part twos and threes, Walt would not personally oversee another sequel in his lifetime.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

In the early 60s, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were Disney’s favorite screen couple, although you wouldn’t know it based solely on the films covered in this column. Annette made her big-screen debut in The Shaggy Dog, playing second fiddle to Roberta Shore as Tommy’s primary love interest. Their roles were reversed in Annette’s big-budget musical Babes In Toyland. Tommy Sands was Annette’s leading man while Tommy Kirk was stuck playing Ed Wynn’s goofy sidekick.

It was on television that Tommy and Annette finally had a chance to click. They starred together in The Horsemasters and Escapade In Florence, two Disneyland two-parters that received theatrical engagements overseas. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones was clearly intended for a similar release but, for reasons known only to Walt, it got bumped up to American movie theatres. It’s a baffling choice because this is not some widescreen Technicolor epic that demands to be seen on the silver screen.

The story was concocted by gimmick comedy maestro Bill Walsh and scripted by the husband-and-wife team Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt. The Levitts were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist who had only recently begun to find work again, credited under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August. Robert Stevenson, the prolific director behind such previous hits as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber, was recruited to bring some of that Flubber magic to the project.

For Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones was a natural extension of the roles he’d played in The Shaggy Dog and the Flubber pictures. The Shaggy Dog’s Wilby Daniels was an amateur inventor and Biff Hawk had somehow become Fred MacMurray’s assistant in Son Of Flubber. Merlin Jones is, as the Sherman Brothers’ catchy title song helpfully explains, the scrambled egghead, the campus kook of Midvale College (not to be confused with Medfield College, home of Flubber). Annette plays Merlin’s loyal and remarkably patient girlfriend, Jennifer.

In the first part of the two-act adventure, Merlin creates an EEG machine out of a football helmet with a bunch of antennas and other assorted gizmos stuck to it. An accidental electric shock supercharges his brain, giving him the power to read minds, a fact that his science professor (Alan Hewitt, another Flubber alumni) is weirdly unimpressed with.

As Merlin comes to grips with his new ability, he reads the thoughts of no-nonsense Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames, last seen in this column as Medfield College’s President Daggett) as he tries to figure out where to stash some stolen diamonds. Merlin, who has already had some run-ins with the judge, determines that Holmsby is leading a double life as a criminal mastermind. The police don’t believe him at first. Even after he demonstrates his ESP, they can’t lift a finger without real evidence. So Merlin and Jennifer break into the judge’s house and dig up the supposed diamonds. But it turns out the whole thing was just a wacky misunderstanding. Judge Holmsby is leading a double life as a writer of detective fiction under the name Lex Fortas. Everyone agrees to forget the whole thing provided they keep Holmsby’s alter ego a secret.

Merlin’s telepathy disappears just in time for the second episode half of the film. This time, Merlin is conducting experiments with hypnosis. After hypnotizing his cowardly cat into chasing a dog up a tree, he decides to help Stanley the chimp stand up to his bullying keeper, Norman (played by custom car builder turned actor Norm Grabowski). The hypnosis works a little too well and when the science lab ends up trashed, Merlin is once again dragged in front of Judge Holmsby.

Now that Merlin and Holmsby are friendly, the judge has a request. He wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime that goes against his moral code as research for his next book. Merlin commands the judge to break into the lab and steal Stanley. The plan works perfectly but Merlin is caught trying to return Stanley the next morning. He’s arrested for the crime and, unfortunately for him, the judge doesn’t remember that he was actually the guilty party.

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Even by live-action Disney comedy standards, this is some deeply silly stuff not meant to be taken seriously even for a second. The only fair way to judge something like this is whether or not the gags land. Some do. The cat chasing the dog up a tree is kind of funny. Tommy gets a cute bit in the library where he’s overwhelmed by the loud thoughts of his fellow students (including one of Walt’s favorite targets, a poetry-writing beatnik). But overall, the movie is eminently disposable. These are all supposed to be smart characters but they behave in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. I understand Judge Holmsby forgetting about the details of his crime but did he also forget that he asked Merlin to hypnotize him in the first place?

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Tommy and Annette are a pleasant team and they play off each other well. Grabowski was pushing 30 at the time and looks about 40, so he’s an odd choice to play a college jock vying for Annette’s affections. Ames and Hewitt are squarely in their comfort zones as frequently befuddled authority figures. But the movie is so inconsequential that it begins to fade from memory even as you’re watching it. It also lacks the inventive visual effects that helped elevate previous gimmick comedies. That low-rent feeling does nothing to dispel the sense that this project would have been more at home on TV.

Sadly, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones spelled the end of the line for Tommy Kirk’s Disney career. Tommy’s teen years had been miserable as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, his off-set behavior had become increasingly out of control. Alcohol and drugs began to sink their claws into him and he clashed with costars Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman on the set of Bon Voyage.

While filming Merlin Jones, Tommy started seeing a 15-year-old boy on the sly. The kid’s mother found out about the affair and contacted Disney. This was the last straw for Walt. The fact that Tommy was gay was something of an open secret that Walt could ignore as long as it remained more secret than open. He decided not to renew Tommy’s contract and cut him loose. Later in 1964, Tommy was arrested for possession. The charges were later dropped but his All-American boy reputation was irreparably damaged.

And yet, this is not the last we’ll see of Tommy Kirk in this column. Money talks and, when The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones became an out-of-left-field hit in February of 1964, Walt brought Tommy and Annette back one last time for a sequel. In the meantime, Tommy followed Annette to American International Pictures where the two costarred in Pajama Party, a spinoff/sequel to AIP’s popular Beach Party series. Tommy plays Go Go, a Martian sent to Earth on a mission of conquest, because that’s the way those movies roll.

The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones is a minor entry in the Disney catalog that inexplicably hit it big. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the Sherman Brothers song and the stop-motion animated titles by Xavier Atencio and Bill Justice (who had done similar work on The Parent Trap and The Shaggy Dog). Those are certainly the most memorable elements of the movie. But despite the fact that everything else is by the numbers, it was a shockingly popular film that even got a re-release in the 70s. Why it struck a chord is beyond me. I guess there’s just no accounting for taste.

VERDICT: Not actively bad enough to be a full-on Disney Minus but it’s borderline.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Moon Pilot

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Moon Pilot

For all his rose-tinted nostalgia and love of trains and history, Walt Disney was a genuine futurist. He had ambitious plans for his theme park’s Tomorrowland and would soon begin to formulate an even bigger dream called EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Disneyland TV show produced several acclaimed episodes on the space race, including Man In Space, Man And The Moon and Mars And Beyond. A feature film centered around man’s attempts to reach the stars was all but inevitable. But for whatever reason, Walt’s first movie on the subject was a bizarre comedy clunker.

Moon Pilot was based on an obscure sci-fi novel called Starfire by Robert Buckner, the screenwriter of such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy. (Give the Disney story department credit for this much, they were adept at finding deep cut books and short stories to base their films on.) Maurice Tombragel was assigned screenwriting duties. Tombragel came from the TV side, where he’d written a ton of Disneyland episodes including Texas John Slaughter and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca.

Director James Neilson also came from television, having helmed episodes of Zorro and Texas John Slaughter. Moon Pilot would be his first theatrical credit for Disney but not his last. He’d also continue to work on the TV end and several of those projects would be released theatrically overseas, including the pirate adventure The Mooncussers with Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran and Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. Neilson will be back in this column very soon.

Our story opens in medias res, as cigar-chomping Air Force Major General John Vanneman (Brian Keith in his third Disney outing) monitors an astronaut named Charlie as he attempts the first manned orbit of the moon. It’s a picture-perfect mission and as the crew recovers the capsule, we discover that Charlie is a chimpanzee, proudly carrying on the lineage of Disney Primates from such films as Toby Tyler.

Everyone is so pleased by the mission’s success that they decide to move up their timetable and launch a human astronaut within the week. For some reason, this seems to be the first time anyone has considered sending a man into space and Vanneman asks for a volunteer. Despite the fact that all these men work for the space program, nobody wants the dangerous honor of being the first man to orbit the moon. The Right Stuff, this ain’t.

Charlie takes matters into his own hands by sticking his klutzy trainer, Captain Richmond Talbot (Tom Tryon), in the butt with a fork. Talbot leaps to his feet and Vanneman mistakes him for an enthusiastic volunteer. Talbot reluctantly agrees but first asks for a few days leave to go home and visit his family. Vanneman signs off on this plan and why not? It’s not like that time could be better spent on details like training and test flights.

On the plane home, Talbot meets a sexy, mysterious young woman named Lyrae (Dany Saval). Lyrae knows all about Talbot’s top-secret mission and when she continues to unexpectedly pop up with warnings that his spacecraft isn’t safe, Talbot reports that he’s being followed by a foreign spy. Vanneman orders him back to the base and a “National Security” agent named McClosky (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned to make sure he does.

Lyrae follows Talbot to San Francisco where she reveals that she’s an alien from the planet Beta Lyrae. Why she has the same name as her home planet remains a mystery. She provides a secret formula to protect Talbot’s spacecraft from the dangerous photon rays that have made Charlie more aggressive and unpredictable. As they explore the city, Talbot falls in love with the space girl.

Vanneman and McClosky arrive and interrogate Talbot at the police station. Unable to find Lyrae, McClosky orders a round-up of young beatnik women in hopes that a witness will be able to pick her out of a lineup. One of these poetry-reciting girls, clad in a baggy sweater and glasses, is played by a young Sally Field making her film debut. Field will eventually make her way back to this column, providing the voice of Sassy the cat in the 1993 remake Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and its sequel, but that’s quite a way down the road.

At any rate, Vanneman gets Talbot back to base and even agrees to coat his spacecraft in Lyrae’s mystery compound if it makes him feel better. The launch proceeds without a hitch until, all of a sudden, Lyrae shows up out of nowhere in the seat next to Talbot. Why are there two seats in a capsule designed for a single astronaut? I don’t know but if that’s the only thing that bugs you about this story, you’re not paying close enough attention. Lyrae and Talbot are in love and she invites him to return with her to Beta Lyrae. Talbot changes course and off they go, blissfully singing the space anthem “The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae” (one of three original tunes composed by the Sherman Brothers, not exactly bringing their A-game) as a thoroughly confused Vanneman listens over the radio and a thoroughly confused audience rushes for the exits.

So where do we start with Moon Pilot? This is meant to be a wacky comedy and that’s fine. I can certainly appreciate a good wacky comedy. Every so often a gag will land, maybe not as forcefully as it should but enough to provoke a smile or two. Bob Sweeney, last seen as the smarmy concession salesman in Toby Tyler, is fun as a smarmy, glad-handing Senator. The beatnik lineup is kind of cute, although it’s basically the same joke repeated over and over as one group of weirdos and oddballs gets replaced by another.

The biggest problem is leading man Tom Tryon. This was Tryon’s first and only movie for Disney after landing the title role in Texas John Slaughter. Tryon looks like he was well-suited to playing the lead in a western but comedy is not his forte. He just isn’t funny. Talbot is a naïve, bumbling guy who gets in way over his head. The part calls for someone like Jerry Lewis. Tryon is stiff and uncomfortable throughout.

Tryon went on to have a pretty interesting post-Disney career. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and worked steadily in films and TV through the end of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, he’d become fed up with acting and became a successful horror novelist, writing books like The Other and Harvest Home. He died in 1991 at the age of 65, ostensibly of stomach cancer although it was later revealed that he’d been keeping his HIV-positive diagnosis a secret.

Dany Saval was also one-and-done with Disney. She was a rising star in France when she made her American film debut in Moon Pilot. Saval went right back to France after Moon Pilot’s failure to launch, making a brief return to Hollywood for the Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis comedy Boeing, Boeing in 1965. She retired from show business in the late 1980s.

In addition to Brian Keith, there is one other familiar Disney face in Moon Pilot. Our old buddy Tommy Kirk, billed as a “special guest star”, turns up as Tryon’s younger brother. It’s a superfluous cameo with Kirk picking Tryon up at the airport and giving him a ride home. I half suspect that Kirk really was just picking Tryon up at the airport and they decided to roll cameras on the spot. Honestly, Kirk would have been a better choice to play the lead here. Granted, he was a little too young to believably pull off being an Air Force captain. But believability did not seem to be of utmost concern anywhere else in this movie, so why should that matter here?

Moon Pilot came and went without making much of a dent in April 1962. It made a little bit of money but not enough to promote it into the big leagues. While many contemporary critics found good things to say about the movie, the FBI was less than enthusiastic. They complained about Edmond O’Brien’s portrayal of a bumbling, incompetent agent, even though they’d already forced Disney to change the name of the agency he works for. The Bureau was clearly being oversensitive, probably because they were still nursing hurt feelings over a Disney/FBI collaboration that had fallen apart a few years earlier.

The FBI’s declassified file on Walt shows that they’d had a somewhat cozy relationship. Walt admired their work and the Bureau believed that Walt could be a very friendly asset if necessary. In the late 50s, Walt plotted out a short series for The Mickey Mouse Club that would follow young cub reporter Dirk Metzger’s journey to Washington. Segments were planned on the treasury, the White House and the Congress and a big chunk would be spent on the FBI. The Bureau became heavily involved with those scripts, demanding a whole laundry list of changes even after seeing the rough cuts. As far as Walt was concerned, nobody had final cut approval on his work except for Walt Disney, not even the FBI. So he canned the whole project. Moon Pilot isn’t exactly Swiftian in its satire of the Bureau but it certainly isn’t the piece of rah-rah propaganda he’d been planning before, either.

While Walt would continue to dabble with science fiction, primarily through his gimmick comedies, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t return to outer space in his lifetime. It’ll be quite some time before we see another rocket or spaceship in this column. That’s kind of a shame. The Disneyland episodes suggest that Walt could have made a very good, serious movie on the subject. Although to be honest, I’d be happy if he’d simply made a more successful comedy.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Toby Tyler

It was the dawn of a new decade but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll around the Disney lot. Granted, the aesthetic of the 1950s would remain firmly entrenched around most of the country for at least the first few years of the 60s. But as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it would linger around the conservative, family-friendly Disney studio even longer. But Walt wasn’t just trying to stop time. He was trying to turn it back. Once again, he was trying to recapture his boyhood in Marceline and another of his youthful obsessions: the circus.

Toby Tyler was originally a serial by prolific kid-lit author James Otis that ran in the pages of Harper’s Young People in 1877. It was collected as a book in 1881 and followed by a pair of sequels. Otis’s book falls squarely in the tradition of mischievous youth novels like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy. It was a childhood favorite of several future literary giants, including William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and Carl Sandburg.

The book had been filmed once before as the 1923 Jackie Coogan vehicle Circus Days. (Good luck tracking that one down. The film had been considered lost until recently and it still hasn’t been made available to the general public.) Whether Walt had read the book or seen the movie or both, it’s hardly surprising that it ended up on his radar. The 1880s setting and depiction of small-town Americana puts it right in his wheelhouse.

Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward, who had previously collaborated on The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s biggest hit of 1959, reunited to adapt the book. They lightened the tone considerably, softening Toby’s character and making him more sympathetic. They also got rid of the book’s bleak ending in favor of something a lot happier. To direct, producer Walsh brought back another Shaggy Dog alum, Charles Barton.

As usual, casting was a relatively simple matter of assigning roles to the usual batch of contract players. For Kevin Corcoran, this was finally a chance at the spotlight after being teamed up with Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. In those previous outings, Corcoran wasn’t required to do much other than act precocious. But he’s in almost every scene as Toby and he’s surprisingly up to the challenge. He even gets to do some impressive trick horse riding. Sure, you can see the safety wire but so what? When I was his age, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do those stunts, even with a wire.

Walt also cast a pair of actors from the Zorro TV series that were sitting idle while a contract dispute between Disney and ABC played out. Henry Calvin, Zorro’s bumbling Sergeant Garcia, appeared as circus strongman and Toby’s reluctant protector Ben Cotter. Mime Gene Sheldon, who played Zorro’s mute companion Bernardo, had a rare speaking role as clown Sam Treat. Since this column is following the American theatrical release order, we haven’t quite made it up to Zorro but we will very soon. Here, both Calvin and Sheldon have an easy, natural rapport with Corcoran, imbuing their characters with real humanity that goes beyond mere caricature.

The cast included another longtime Disney employee. Composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the pre-Snow White days, makes his acting debut as the bandleader. In a nice touch, the then-72-year-old gets the on-screen credit, “and introducing Ollie Wallace”. Oddly enough, Wallace did not do the score for Toby Tyler. That job went to a relatively new hire, Buddy Baker. Baker had been hired by another staff composer, George Bruns, to work on TV projects like Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club. Toby Tyler was his first feature credit but far from his last. Baker would stay with the studio until the early 1980s. He’ll be back in this column and if you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve heard plenty of his work.

The movie hits most of the book’s major points, albeit through Disneyfied glasses. Toby is a poor orphan sent to live with his child-hating aunt and uncle (played by veteran character actors Edith Evanson and Tom Fadden) on their hardscrabble dirt farm. In the book, Toby lives in an orphanage and runs off to join the circus to escape the constant abuse. Here, Toby’s relations are far from loving but that isn’t why he leaves. Instead, Toby feels guilty that his indolent ways have made him such a burden, so he joins the circus temporarily with plans to return home once he’s earned enough money.

Toby’s new career path puts him in the employ of shifty concessionaire Harry Tupper (the very funny Bob Sweeney, who will be back in this column). Harry apparently has a reputation around the circus for mistreating his assistants, so Ben warns that he’ll be keeping an eye on him. The specifics of that reputation go unsaid, so you can feel free to read as much or as little into that as you’re comfortable with.

Toby has a little trouble fitting in at first but soon begins making friends like the warm and friendly Sam, gruff but lovable Ben, child equestrian Mademoiselle Jeanette (Barbara Beaird) and mischievous chimpanzee Mr. Stubbs. On one of their parades through town, Ben’s wagon capsizes and Mr. Stubbs gets loose, making his way into local sheriff’s office where he gets his paws on a loaded gun. As Mr. Stubbs fires wildly and the lawmen dive for cover, Toby bravely enters the jail and disarms the chimp. This causes a sensation and the circus owner (Richard Eastham) immediately tries to capitalize on Toby and Mr. Stubbs’ new fame.

Toby’s star continues to rise when Jeanette’s partner, Monsieur Ajax (Dennis Olivieri, then credited as Dennis Joel) hurts himself while trying to show off practicing without a safety line. Toby had told Jeanette about his old horse back on the farm, so she suggests he take Ajax’s place. But Toby failed to mention that he had never actually ridden that horse, so Ben and Sam team up to give him a crash course in trick riding.

Just as he’s about to make his big debut, Mr. Stubbs shows Toby a bunch of letters he’s received from his aunt and uncle. Turns out they’ve been writing him all along and Harry’s been hiding them from him. Uncle Daniel’s doing poorly and they desperately want Toby to come home.

Toby sets out for home, followed by Mr. Stubbs. They’re making their way through the woods when a hunter (James Drury, who we’ll see again in this column and went on to star on the long-running TV western The Virginian) accidentally shoots Mr. Stubbs out of a tree. Things don’t look good for the little guy as Harry shows up and drags Toby back to the circus where Toby’s family is waiting.

Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are overjoyed to see Toby again. They promise things will be better if he comes home. Just when things can’t seem much rosier, Jim the hunter shows up with Mr. Stubbs, who has made a miraculous recovery. Everyone gathers under the big top to watch Toby and Jeanette triumphantly perform their trick riding act, now with a grand finale appearance by Mr. Stubbs! Even Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are impressed and it’s unclear at the end of the movie if Toby goes back to his drab homelife or if he stays and becomes a big-time circus star. One would assume the latter but Uncle Daniel seems prone to wild mood swings, so who knows.

It’s been a long time since the days of “everybody loves the circus”. These days we’re more likely to see clowns in horror movies and circuses in news reports about either alleged animal cruelty or businesses you didn’t realize were still a thing. At this point, I’d wager that most people have never even been to a circus, at least not one without the words “du soleil” in its name. That’s too bad because a heaping dose of nostalgia for (or at least interest in) the golden age of the circus is needed to truly enjoy Toby Tyler.

I have a passing interest in circus culture, so I can appreciate both the atmosphere and the genuine circus performers whose acts are immortalized on film. It’s fun to see actual Ringling Brothers clowns, the Flying Viennas trapeze artists and the Marquis Family Chimps (especially Mr. Stubbs, who is awesome). Walt even acquired and restored some authentic period circus wagons, which are now on display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Like all of Walt’s period pieces, Toby Tyler succeeds at capturing an idealized time that never really existed except in memory.

But if you’re not into circuses and clowns, I don’t think Toby Tyler is going to change your mind. Toby’s ten weeks on the road certainly look more appealing than what he had going on back home but compared to other boy’s adventures, they’re kind of low-key. For some, that’ll be part of the movie’s charm and appeal. Others may be left rolling their eyes.

If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in luck because you’re not very likely to stumble across it accidentally. It’s not currently streaming on Disney+, presumably because of all the scenes involving chimps and guns. The fact that there actually are multiple scenes that can be described this way should tell you something. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to pick it up on DVD or digitally, where there is a nice HD print.

On the other hand, if this flavor of cotton candy appeals to you, Toby Tyler is worth seeking out. Kevin Corcoran finally demonstrates some of the charm that Walt presumably saw in him from the get-go. The supporting cast is a lot of fun. And you’ve got a chimp shooting up a jail! What more could you ask for?

VERDICT: Disney Plus, if only for Mr. Stubbs.

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