Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Biscuit Eater

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Biscuit Eater

Disney didn’t invent the boy-and-his-dog movie. But with Old Yeller in 1957, they distilled it down to its purest essence. Since then, they’d returned to the genre with Big Red in 1962 and Savage Sam, the sequel to Old Yeller, in 1963. If The Biscuit Eater had come out around that same time, it would have fit right in. But by 1972, it already felt like an anachronism.

James Street’s short story had been filmed once before. Paramount’s 1940 version starred Billy Lee, who had provided the voice of The Boy in Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon. That movie had been a surprise hit in its day, although you don’t hear about it much anymore. It’s rarely screened these days and it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on home video.

The Disney version was produced by Bill Anderson. Anderson started his Disney career with Old Yeller, so he knew his way around the genre. Spin And Marty creator Lawrence Edward Watkin wrote the screenplay. Watkin was a prolific Disney contributor in the ‘50s but his name hasn’t appeared in the credits since Ten Who Dared back in 1960. That long gap adds to my suspicion that Watkin wrote The Biscuit Eater back when he was under contract and it had been gathering dust in a drawer for about a decade.

Vincent McEveety was picked to direct, making a big tonal shift from his last Disney feature, The Million Dollar Duck. Most of his cast were fairly new to Disney features, solid TV performers who hadn’t been A-list movie stars in years, if ever. Earl Holliman, for instance, had made an impression in movies like The Rainmaker and Giant. He’d previously worked with McEveety on the Wonderful World Of Disney production Smoke, another boy-and-his-dog movie with Ronny Howard as the boy.

Pat Crowley had also appeared in a few Disney TV projects. Back in 1960, she’d had a guest shot on an episode of Elfego Baca. More recently, she’d starred opposite yet another Disney dog in Boomerang, Dog Of Many Talents. She’d also played the mother of a very young Jodie Foster in the Civil War drama Menace On The Mountain, also directed by McEveety. Jodie Foster will be appearing in this column very soon.

Despite the fact that all the grown-ups get top billing, The Biscuit Eater is really about the two young boys, Lonnie McNeil and Text Tomlin. Johnny Whitaker plays Lonnie and his unkempt mop of red hair should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching TV in the late 60s and early 70s. He had just finished a five-year stint on the popular sitcom Family Affair, opposite Disney veterans Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot. Whitaker spent most of 1972 appearing in Disney features, so we’ll be seeing quite a bit of him over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, we will not see Whitaker’s costar, George Spell, back in this column. Spell was pretty active in TV and movies around this time. He’d appeared as Sidney Poitier’s son in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, the sequels to In The Heat Of The Night, and as Bill Cosby’s son in the western Man And Boy. Spell made a few more TV appearances after The Biscuit Eater but he seems to have left acting after 1980. Whenever kid actors vanish from the business like that, I always hope everything’s OK and they just got sick of it.

The Biscuit Eater is a simple story bathed in the glow of nostalgia, even though it appears to have a more-or-less contemporary setting. Holliman plays Harve McNeil, a salt-of-the-earth man’s man who works as a dog trainer for the wealthy Mr. Ames (Lew Ayres, settling comfortably into the elder statesman/character actor phase of his career). Harve’s son, Lonnie, has taken a shine to a misfit dog and believes he can train him to be a champion bird dog. But Harve has already written him off as a no-account, egg-sucking biscuit eater, which is apparently a common dog insult that I have never encountered before now.

Harve is afraid the dog’s bad habits will rub off on his champions, so he tries to give the dog to the owner of the local gas station, Willie Dorsey (played by trailblazing comedian, actor and activist Godfrey Cambridge…you never know who’s going to pop up in a 1970s Disney flick). But Willie is second to none when it comes to horse-trading and somehow manages to get Harve to pay him three dollars to take the free dog off his hands.

Willie’s love of trading gives Lonnie an idea. He convinces his friend Text to partner up with him and get the dog back from Mr. Dorsey in exchange for some chores. They’ll keep the dog at Text’s house and train him to be a world-class bird dog. They ask Text’s mother, Charity (Beah Richards, a then-recent Oscar nominee for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), for help naming the dog. Charity gets all her names from the Bible (Text himself is literally named after the book itself), so she searches for references to dogs. Text stops her when she gets to the word “moreover”, declaring that to be the perfect name. Leave it to someone named Text to pick an adverb for a name.

Lonnie and Text do good work with Moreover and soon feel they’re ready to enter the state championship against Harve and Mr. Ames’ prizewinner, Silver Belle. Harve isn’t so sure but after his wife needles him about being scared of a little competition, he relents. Lo and behold, Moreover gives the other dogs a run for their money, placing him up against Silver Belle in the finals.

That night at the gun club, Harve and Mr. Ames are joking with the other members, drinking brandy and lighting cigars with twenty dollar bills the way rich folk do. When someone asks Mr. Ames if he’s nervous about the finals, he jokes that Harve’s the one who should be nervous ‘cause if he loses, he’s fired.

The remark is overheard by a waiter (vaudeville legend Mantan Moreland in one of his final roles). Now, you’d think the fact that everybody including Harve laughed at the joke would have been a tip-off that it wasn’t to be taken seriously. But the waiter goes back to the kitchen, where Text is busy washing dishes, complaining about those kids making trouble for a fine man like Mr. McNeil.

Text tells Lonnie the bad news and the two of them decide to throw the contest. At a crucial moment, Lonnie fights back tears and yells at Moreover, calling him the B-E-words. The poor dog’s feelings are so hurt that he runs off into the woods, earning him an instant disqualification. The next day, Mr. Ames finds out why the boys did what they did and determines to set things right. He encourages them to keep working with Moreover and try again next year.

Unfortunately, the dog has been so psychologically scarred by Lonnie’s words that he refuses to eat or hunt. The boys even ask Charity to whip up a batch of biscuits in an attempt to show Moreover that we are all biscuit eaters and let me stop you right there. Up until this point, I had been thinking that maybe “biscuit eater” is a euphemism for a dog who picks up excrement off the ground. Odd choice for the title of a Disney movie but hey, at least it makes sense. But no, I guess it really does mean delicious, home-cooked biscuits best served with honey or maybe a little country gravy. I fail to see the insult but then again, I’m not a dog. Who am I to tell Moreover how to feel?

Anyway, Moreover decides to embrace his baser instincts and sneaks off to steal some eggs from the henhouse of mean Mr. Eben (Clifton James, who really cornered the market on southern redneck stereotypes in the 1970s thanks to movies like this and his appearances as Sheriff Pepper in two James Bonds). Sorry, I haven’t mentioned Mr. Eben yet. Mr. Eben pops up periodically to warn Harve about keeping that dog out of his henhouse and to assure the audience that the consequences will be dire when that dog inevitably does get into his henhouse. Sure enough, Mr. Eben has laced the eggs with poison.

Now in Street’s original story and apparently also in the 1940 film, the dog dies. (Spoiler alerts for a couple of things you probably weren’t going to track down anyway.) But I guess the good people at Disney felt they’d killed enough dogs in their day and allowed their Moreover to pull through. Even better, the whole experience cures the dog of stealing eggs and he’s finally able to reach his full potential as a bird dog. I’m not sure there’s a lesson here unless it’s maybe don’t be mean to your dogs.

I’ll be the first to admit that movies like The Biscuit Eater are not my cup of tea. I don’t even like Old Yeller, so there was virtually no chance I was going to be into this. But I admit the movie does have some nice things going for it. Moreover, a German Wirehaired Pointer played by the excellently named Rolph Van Wolfgang, is a very good boy. You could probably edit the movie down into 30-second clips of Moreover being outstanding and watch it go viral on TikTok or whatever. There’s certainly nothing wrong with movies about dogs being dogs.

It’s also worth noting that Disney, who hasn’t had a great track record when it comes to racial sensitivity so far, earns a few points here. At its core, this is a story about a friendship between a white boy and a black boy in the deep south. The movie’s a little vague on specifics. Street’s original story is set in Alabama, the 1940 movie was shot in Georgia and Disney’s website claims their version takes place in Tennessee. Wherever, it’s somewhere in the southeast. But McEveety doesn’t make a big deal about the kids’ racial identities. They’re best friends, everybody accepts each other and that’s that. Even dog-poisoning old Mr. Eben doesn’t seem to have a racist bone in his body.

Willie Dorsey and Charity are both characters that could have easily slipped into caricatures. But McEveety doesn’t let that happen. Charity is on equal footing with the McNeil family. She’s got money, her own business and a nice house. Willie’s a bit of a hustler but he’s definitely not subservient. Both Beah Richards and Godfrey Cambridge were civil rights activists in addition to being tremendous actors, so it’s unlikely they would have agreed to anything demeaning. And look, I don’t want to give The Biscuit Eater too much credit just for not being actively offensive. But I’m so used to loosening up my wincing muscles whenever any person of color shows up in a Disney movie, I’ll take my victories where I can get ‘em.

The Biscuit Eater isn’t really a bad movie but it is kind of a nothing one. There’s a place in this world for pleasant, innocuous stories about boys and their dogs. You’ll know if this movie’s for you during the opening credit sequence of Johnny Whitaker running around the open country with his dog to the tune of Shane Tatum’s folksy song “Moreover And Me”. If you think, “Aw, that’s nice,” you’ll have a fine time. But if you’re like me and you roll your eyes and go, “Oy,” things aren’t going to get better.

Unfortunately, audiences and critics in 1972 were not receptive to an unabashedly old-fashioned family movie that feels like it should be a period piece. Maybe the movie would have fared better if it had actually been one. As it is, the contemporary clothes and production design feel more like laziness than an artistic choice. Audiences pretty much ignored The Biscuit Eater and even the favorable reviews felt dismissive.

It’s a little odd that Disney has made The Biscuit Eater available on Disney+ when there are so many other, better movies that are not. Maybe they were just excited to find a movie in the vault that didn’t require a disclaimer about racial stereotypes. If you’re looking for something inoffensive to plunk down in front of your dog-loving kiddos, you’ll have nothing to worry about with The Biscuit Eater. But don’t be surprised if they get bored halfway through.    

VERDICT: Disney Meh

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bedknobs And Broomsticks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Bedknobs And Broomsticks

When a studio produces a movie that captures lightning in a bottle the way Disney did with Mary Poppins, you can’t blame them for trying to replicate the trick. But Walt’s follow-up musical, The Happiest Millionaire, had been an ambitious and costly misfire. So Bedknobs And Broomsticks would appear to be a take-no-chances attempt to completely recreate the creative alchemy that produced Mary Poppins. That’s sort of true but Bedknobs And Broomsticks isn’t exactly a Mary Poppins clone. It’s more like a fraternal twin.

Walt Disney tried for a long, long time to wrestle the film rights to Mary Poppins out of author P.L. Travers’ clutches. Negotiations were contentious and on more than one occasion, it appeared as though the project was doomed. Walt needed a backup plan in case Mary Poppins fell apart. One idea was a film based on a pair of children’s books by Mary Norton that Disney had acquired the rights to years earlier. The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires And Broomsticks were Norton’s first published works. By 1957, the two books were collected under the title Bed-Knob And Broomstick. Norton’s most famous work is probably The Borrowers, which I’m frankly stunned Disney never made into a movie.

Walt instructed the Sherman Brothers to start coming up with songs for both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Once Travers finally signed on the dotted line, Bedknobs was scrapped. The Shermans picked it up again in 1966, presumably assuming that it would make an obvious follow-up to Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, it was a little too obvious. Bedknobs And Broomsticks felt so much like Mary Poppins that it was abandoned a second time.

In 1968, the Shermans’ Disney contract was due to expire. The boys had always reported directly to Walt. Since his death in 1966, they’d been making plans to leave the studio. Before they left, producer Bill Walsh had them finish up their work on Bedknobs And Broomsticks. As they’d done on Mary Poppins, the Shermans worked closely with Walsh and cowriter Don DaGradi to crack the story.

Apparently Walsh had no intention of actually making Bedknobs And Broomsticks quite yet. He just wanted to make sure that the Shermans’ work wasn’t left unfinished while they were still on the hook for the studio. Once they had a finished script, the Shermans moved on to other projects elsewhere with an assurance from Walsh that they could come back if Disney ever did decide to make the movie.

Walsh returned to Bedknobs And Broomsticks in late 1969, after the Shermans had gone on to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This time, he decided to embrace the project’s similarities to Mary Poppins. He brought in that film’s director, Robert Stevenson. Stevenson had become one of the studio’s most reliable filmmakers since Poppins, turning out blockbusters like Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Love Bug. Animator Hamilton Luske, who had been part of Mary Poppins’ Oscar-winning visual effects team, passed away in 1968, so Ward Kimball was put in charge of Bedknobs’ animated sequence.

Walsh’s first choice to play witch-in-training Eglantine Price was Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. Andrews’ career was about to hit a rough patch. Her 1968 musical Star! had been an expensive flop. Her next film, 1970’s Darling Lili directed by her husband Blake Edwards, didn’t fare much better. When she got the call from Disney, Andrews passed on the role, fearing it was too similar to Mary. She later reconsidered, figuring she owed Disney one for igniting her career and probably thinking she could use a hit, but by then it was too late. Walsh had already given the role to Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury had been in Hollywood since the 40s and it seemed as though she’d had to reinvent her career several times already. She’d received three Oscar nominations but studios frequently had no idea what to do with her. Bedknobs And Broomsticks was her first lead role in a movie musical, despite the fact that she was a regular presence on Broadway. Lansbury will be back in this column in vocal form but not for quite some time, so it’s a little surprising how associated she’s become with Disney. Apart from a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns, this is her only live-action Disney appearance.

To star opposite Lansbury, Walsh tried to get Ron Moody, another Broadway veteran who had just starred in the movie version of Oliver! But Moody wanted top billing and refused to budge on that point. So Walsh brought in David Tomlinson, another Mary Poppins star. This would be Tomlinson’s third and final Disney appearance following Poppins and The Love Bug. His last movie, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu, came out in 1980. After that, he enjoyed a happy retirement until his death in 2000 at the age of 83.

The plot of Bedknobs And Broomsticks is almost a funhouse mirror version of Mary Poppins. Instead of a practically perfect magical nanny coming to the aid of a 1910 family, we have three orphans escaping the German blitz in 1940 being foisted upon a correspondence school witch who doesn’t particularly care for children. Mary has seemingly limitless powers. Eglantine Price is still learning the handful of spells she’s been sent. Mary imparts valuable lessons to the Banks family but it’s the kids who have to teach Miss Price to open up.

The Rawlins children, Charlie, Carrie and Paul, are played by Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan and Roy Snart. All three had previously appeared in a few commercials but that was about the extent of their acting experience. Only Cindy O’Callaghan continued on in the profession, mostly in British TV shows like EastEnders. Snart evidently became a software entrepreneur, while nobody’s one hundred percent sure whatever happened to Ian Weighill. They’re all natural performers, so I hope that if nothing else, they’ve all led happy, productive, scandal-free lives unlike so many other child stars.

The story kicks into gear when the kids spot Miss Price learning to fly on a broomstick while trying to sneak out. Now that Miss Price seems more interesting, they decide to stick around. Charlie, the oldest and most cynical of the bunch, decides to push back against Miss Price’s strict rules by holding her witchy secret over her head. In exchange for their silence and cooperation, she gives them a transportation spell that only young Paul can operate by twisting an enchanted bedknob.

Miss Price has recently received word that Professor Emelius Browne’s Correspondence College of Witchcraft is closing, just as she was about to receive her final lesson in Substitutiary Locomotion. Determined to get the spell, she packs the kids onto the magic bed and has Paul take them to London. There they discover that “Professor” Browne is nothing more than an ordinary stage magician and not a very good one, at that. He’s thrilled to learn that Miss Price is actually able to make his spells work. Unfortunately, the book he’s been cribbing the spells from is incomplete, so he offers to help her track it down.

A search of the market at Portobello Road turns up nothing but attracts the attention of Bookman (Sam Jaffe) and his enforcer, Swinburne (British TV personality Bruce Forsyth). Bookman also wants the spell and had hoped Browne had it in his half of the book. He also reveals that the spell is engraved on the Star of Astaroth, a sorcerer’s medallion now supposedly kept on the legendary Isle of Naboombu. Naboombu is supposed to be off-limits to humans. But most humans don’t have access to a magical bedknob, so Paul whisks them away to Naboombu.

The bed splashes down in the animated Naboombu Lagoon. Mr. Browne and Miss Price have time to win an underwater dance contest judged by a codfish (voiced by Bob Holt, later the Lorax, Grape Ape and lots of others) before they’re fished out by a bear (Disney regular Dal McKennon). Browne demands to see King Leonidas (Lennie Weinrib, voice of H.R. Pufnstuf and many other favorites of the 1970s and 80s). Both the bear and Leonidas’ secretary (also Weinrib) advise against this. The king is in an even worse mood than usual because he can’t find a referee for his anything-goes soccer match.

Browne, an enthusiastic fan and former footballer himself, volunteers for the job. After a far-from-regulation match, Browne is able to palm the Star of Astaroth medallion. They hot-foot it back to the bed, which transports them safely home. Unfortunately, the medallion doesn’t survive the journey between realms. But that’s OK because Paul has had a picture of it, engraving and all, in his picture book the whole time, rendering about half of the movie up to this point completely pointless.

After a little practice to make sure the Substitutiary Locomotion spell works, the group’s dinner is interrupted by Mrs. Hobday (Tessie O’Shea), the local chairwoman of the War Activities Committee. She’s found a more suitable home for the children. But they’ve been having such a good time that now they want to stay, along with Mr. Browne as their new father. Both Mr. Browne and Miss Price want this, too. But they both freak out a little over how quickly things have happened and Mr. Browne opts to return to London.

He’s spending a cold, uncomfortable night alone on the train platform when the town is invaded by Nazis. The Germans have picked a soft target like Pepperinge Eye as a warmup for a full-scale invasion of London. But between Miss Price’s magic and the village’s Home Guard of old-age pensioners, the Nazis are forced to retreat. In the end, Mr. Browne enlists in the army with a promise to return to Pepperinge Eye when the war is over.

Now, here’s the thing about Bedknobs And Broomsticks. This is, at best, a marginally successful picture, especially when held up against Mary Poppins. It doesn’t have a big emotional catharsis like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”. Its supporting characters aren’t as colorful and lively. Its animated sequence is completely superfluous. (So is the one in Mary Poppins, by the way, but it has “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” so nobody seems to notice or care.) None of that bothers me one bit. I love this movie.

I am as susceptible to the siren song of nostalgia as the next person. For whatever reason, Bedknobs And Broomsticks pushes every one of those buttons in me. The movie was released in the States on December 13, 1971 (it premiered in England about two months earlier). So if my parents did take me to see it at the time, I would have been two years old. I have no specific memory of that, obviously. I do remember seeing it later, maybe as a children’s matinee or on a re-release. But it feels as though it has always been imprinted on my brain. From the moment it starts, I’m as hooked as a bed on a bear’s fishing pole.

Unlike a lot of other films, Bedknobs And Broomsticks’ biggest problem isn’t overlength. It’s underlength. Disney had not had much success with roadshow-style engagements since Mary Poppins. Radio City Music Hall, New York City’s premiere venue for major movie musicals, felt particularly empowered to request cuts to movies they felt were too long. The studio had already caved to Radio City’s demands for cuts to Follow Me, Boys!The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. Disney probably already had scissors in hand before they even started talking to Radio City about Bedknobs And Broomsticks.

Over twenty minutes were eliminated from the picture before it even premiered. This explains why Roddy McDowall, making his first Disney appearance since The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, is on screen for maybe two minutes despite receiving third billing. It also explains why “Portobello Road”, the movie’s would-be show-stopper, is inelegantly chopped up into a series of vignettes that never builds any real momentum.

In addition, three whole musical numbers were dropped along the way. The cumulative effect of these cuts is a movie that never quite seems to get anywhere with characters whose motivations remain somewhat inscrutable. In 1996, Disney attempted a restoration with the materials that had been salvaged. It was a good-faith effort with some sequences using re-recorded audio and still photos to stand in for lost footage. But that’s not the version most readily available to audiences today. The “restored”, 140-minute cut is only available on a 2009 DVD. The familiar 117-minute cut is the one available on Disney+ and Blu-ray.

That first round of cuts didn’t help the movie with critics or audiences. When it grossed less than half of its original budget on its initial release, Disney chopped even more out of it and sent it back out on the re-release circuit. It never did become a popular favorite but eventually it began developing a cult following, including myself, who were dazzled by the animated sequence, loved the songs, and were charmed by its refreshingly low-key manner. Bedknobs And Broomsticks might not add up to much but its quirky individual parts are a delight.

It also did surprisingly well at the Academy Awards. The movie received five nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects (its only competition in the category was Hammer Films’ When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth). The effects aren’t exactly revolutionary but they’re effective, fun and fit the tone of the film perfectly.

It was also nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, losing both of those to the now mostly-forgotten epic Nicholas And Alexandra. On the music front, it lost Best Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score to Fiddler On The Roof. The song “The Age Of Not Believing,” which is far from my favorite tune in the movie, lost the Best Original Song award to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” which, fair enough.

A lot of the folks who worked on Bedknobs And Broomsticks will be back in this column, including Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, director Robert Stevenson and producer Bill Walsh. Cowriter Don DaGradi retired after completing his work on the picture. He’d been with Disney since the 1930s, working as a background artist, animator, story developer and art director. He’d started writing live-action screenplays with Son Of Flubber and had been nominated for an Oscar for Mary Poppins. Don DaGradi passed away on August 4, 1991, at the age of 79 and was posthumously inducted as a Disney Legend later that same year.

This would also be the last Disney work from Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman for quite some time. They’d enjoyed a fruitful association with Disney but they felt it was time to move on. Over the next few years, they’d work on such films as Snoopy, Come Home and Charlotte’s Web and receive Oscar nominations for Tom SawyerThe Slipper And The Rose and The Magic Of Lassie. Eventually they returned to Disney and, thanks to the studio’s policy of recycling old material into new feature films, we’ll see them again in this column soon enough.

The failure of Bedknobs And Broomsticks caused Disney to abandon the idea of doing big-budget musical spectaculars for a while. Going forward, Disney movies would be more modest in budget and ambition. But for some of us, Bedknobs And Broomsticks holds up as a high point of the Disney style and the Sherman Brothers’ music. If you read the words “Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee” in rhythm, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Million Dollar Duck

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Million Dollar Duck

There’s a reason there’s not a lot of movies based on Aesop’s Fables and you probably don’t have to be a film major to figure it out. The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs, the fable that provides the jumping off point for The Million Dollar Duck, is all of three paragraphs long. Four if you consider the moral to be its own thing. Not that it really matters in this case, since the folks behind Million Dollar Duck decided to cut the moral and just leave the eggs. As a result, this is a movie that literally has no point.

The Million Dollar Duck was written by Roswell Rogers from a story by Ted Key. Key started his career as a cartoonist, creating the single-panel gag cartoon Hazel for the Saturday Evening Post. He also worked for Jay Ward, creating the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments for The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show. One of the other segments on that show was Aesop And Son, one of the few sustained adaptations of Aesop’s Fables in pop culture. As far as I know, Aesop And Son never tackled The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs. Did The Million Dollar Duck start off as an unused Rocky And Bullwinkle concept? I don’t know for sure but it would make sense.

Producer Bill Anderson gave the film to director Vincent McEveety. This was the first of a dozen movies McEveety would direct at Disney over the next decade. He’d started out as an assistant director, working on Westward Ho, The Wagons!Zorro and other TV productions. Since then, he’d built an extensive TV resume, helming multiple episodes of Star TrekGunsmoke and many others. Practically the entire McEveety family worked at Disney at one point or another. Vincent’s brother, Joseph L. McEveety, was also an assistant director who turned to screenwriting with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. His other brother, Bernard, will be in this column soon.

This was Dean Jones’s first movie back at Disney since the massive success of The Love Bug in 1968. In the meantime, he’d gone off to Italy to make the gimmick comedy knock-off Mr. Superinvisible. That movie was released in the States by K-Tel, who proved to be better at selling records and Veg-O-Matics than movies. It was an inauspicious attempt at kick starting his non-Disney career. You can see why Jones opted to return to Burbank.

Jones’s leading lady was a rising star named Sandy Duncan. Like a lot of Disney stars, Duncan had made a name for herself on Broadway, winning Tony nominations for her performances in the musicals Canterbury Tales and The Boy FriendThe Million Dollar Duck was only Duncan’s first movie but Hollywood really wanted to make her a big star. That same year, she also starred in the Neil Simon movie Star Spangled Girl and got her own sitcom, Funny Face (which would be retooled and retitled The Sandy Duncan Show for the 1972 season).

But Sandy Duncan also had to deal with her share of hardship in 1971. That fall, she had surgery to remove a brain tumor from behind her left eye. The procedure was successful but left her blind in that eye (contrary to urban legend, she does not have a glass eye). Fortunately, she recovered quickly and went on to more Tony nominations and TV appearances, including the epic “Return Of Bigfoot” crossover episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Well, epic to me in 1976, anyway. At any rate, Sandy Duncan will be back in this column.

Tony Roberts, the other actor making his film debut this week, also costarred with Sandy Duncan in Star Spangled Girl. But he won’t be back in this column. In 1972, he starred alongside Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. He’d appear in several more films as Woody’s best friend, which probably saved him from spending the 1970s playing Dean Jones’s best friend.

One of the things I’ve consistently enjoyed about Disney’s gimmick comedies are the frequently playful and innovative opening title sequences. Movies like The Shaggy Dog and The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones not only kept the animation department busy, it allowed them to experiment with different styles like stop-motion. The Million Dollar Duck opens with hand-drawn opening credits by Ward Kimball and Ted Berman, which sounds great in theory. The fact that they’re so utterly pedestrian is the first sign that this is not going to be one of the studio’s best efforts.

Playing against a blue background, the titles show an animated duck crossing back and forth along the bottom of the screen, slowly building a row of six eggs. At the end, he adds a dollar sign, a 1 and a couple of commas, transforming the eggs into “$1,000,000”. That’s it. I mean, come on. This is Disney, for Pete’s sake! The best you could come up with was about five seconds of animation flipped and repeated six times? I get the feeling nobody is bringing their A-game to this project.

Jones stars as Albert Dooley, a professor and researcher in animal behavior at an unnamed university that might just as well be Medfield College. Dooley was once voted most likely to succeed by his graduating class but now he’s struggling to make ends meet. His finances are so bad that he has to deny his son Jimmy’s request to adopt a puppy. Lee Montgomery also makes his film debut as Jimmy. A year later, he’d be best friends with a rat in Ben, the sequel to Willard. And in a 1974 Easter Egg that probably meant very little to audiences at the time, he played a kid named Steve Spelberg in an episode of Colombo.

Dooley’s wife, Katie (Duncan), is doing her part to help out by making her own homemade applesauce. Katie’s too dim to realize that you shouldn’t put garlic, curry powder and mustard in applesauce and Albert’s too polite to mention it tastes like garbage, so he’s sent off to work with a tub full of the toxic sludge. This applesauce is actually a plot point later on, so I hope you’re paying attention.

Albert arrives at the lab, where a chimp tries to steal his lunch. Even the chimp won’t eat the applesauce, so he pawns it off on his neighbor, the duck. The duck happily scarfs it down, just before failing another battery of simple tests designed by Albert’s boss, Dr. Gottlieb (Jack Kruschen). Gottlieb’s had it up to here with this furshlugginer duck and orders it out of the lab for good. The duck wanders into the radiation lab across the hall where it’s bombarded with science rays. Albert retrieves the bird and decides to take the radioactive idiot duck home to his son.

Now a duck’s not the same as a puppy but Jimmy is so desperate for a pet of any kind that he names his new friend Charlie. (Like Clint Howard in The Wild Country, Jimmy’s one of those kids that give every animal the same name for whatever reason.) Albert’s not too thrilled about that. He had planned on giving the duck to a local farmer or something. But Katie cautions him against widening the “generation gap” on the whole pet issue. Gotta love it when Disney tries using zeitgeisty buzz words.

While Albert and Katie are hashing this out, Charlie gets into the next-door neighbor’s pool. Joe Flynn plays the neighbor, Finlay Hooper, adding uptight treasury agent to his repertoire of uptight deans and uptight network executives. Hooper’s dog barks repeatedly at the duck, causing Charlie to lay an egg every time. Katie’s ready to whip up an omelet but Albert, briefly remembering that the duck is radioactive, puts the kibosh on that idea. He tells her he’ll bury the eggs in the backyard under cover of darkness. As one does, I suppose.

That night, Albert accidentally cracks one of the eggs and discovers what appears to be a solid gold yolk. The next day, he has the yolk analyzed and sure enough, it is gold, albeit with some peculiar imperfections like pectin from apple peels. A quick consult with Dr. Gottlieb provides all the pseudo-science Albert needs to go into the golden egg business with his best friend, lawyer Fred Hines (Roberts).

Albert and Fred want to go about this the right way, setting up a corporation and making sure not to spend so much that they’d call attention to themselves. But a call from the bank about some bounced checks rattles Katie. When Charlie lays another egg, she takes it straight to the bank and tries to deposit it. The bank manager advises her to take it to a refinery instead. She cashes in the egg, squares her account at the bank, and buys herself a swell new hat as a reward.

At first, Albert’s mad that Katie just waltzed into a bank with a hunk of gold. But Fred thinks she may be on to something. Basically, Katie is such a guileless idiot that she can go anywhere with a pocketful of golden egg yolks and cash them in. Even if she’s questioned, she can just tell the truth and nobody’s going to believe her anyway. It’s the “don’t ask me, I’m just a girl” theory of scams, crimes and petty larcenies.

Fred’s plan doesn’t work quite as well as he’d hoped, however. Even though Katie spreads the gold around town, people do start wondering where all these egg-shaped gold nuggets are coming from. The Treasury Department, under pressure from President Nixon himself (or at least a guy who vaguely resembles him from behind), launches an investigation. Unfortunately, their only lead is the list of aliases Katie’s used at the different refineries. Except they’re not aliases. They’re all variations of her actual name. But that’s too tough a nut for the T-Men to crack. All except Hooper, of course, who lives right next door to the perpetrators. He decides to engage in a little old-fashioned snooping to figure out what’s going on.

But all is not well at the Dooley household. Albert’s been so obsessed with egg production that he’s failing as a father. Things are so bad that Jimmy and Charlie have started hanging out with dune buggy-driving slackers Arvin and Orlo (Jack Bender from The Barefoot Executive and Billy Bowles). The egg scheme isn’t going according to plan, either. So far, Albert has resisted the temptation to spend money but Fred has swooped in and picked up a sporty yellow convertible. The very car Albert had his eye on, of course.

Hooper finally tricks Jimmy into showing him how Charlie lays golden eggs. Even though Katie manages to snatch the egg away from him, Hooper still reports what he’s learned to his boss, Mr. Rutledge (James Gregory). Rutledge leads a raid on the Dooleys but Jimmy runs away with Charlie and we all know what that means, don’t we? Yep, it’s time for the Wacky Disney Car Chase of the Week (sponsored by Big Al’s Auto Body of Burbank). This one involves a garbage truck, the convertible, Arvin’s dune buggy, a cherry picker, a parking garage and, as always, wet paint. Albert saves Jimmy from falling to his death and realizes that his family is more important than mutant duck gold.

Albert is arrested for violating the Gold Reserve Act. But when Hooper tries to get Charlie to lay an egg on the stand, he’s unable to duplicate the trick. Albert volunteers to show the court how it’s done, even though he could have done nothing and let everyone believe Hooper was crazy. When Charlie lays a perfectly ordinary egg (evidently all the radiation and applesauce has worn off), the case is dismissed for lack of evidence. Hooper points out that the defendants have thousands and thousands of unexplained dollars in the bank but the judge says there’s no law against getting rich, as long as you pay your taxes.

Alternate poster for Million Dollar Duck

For the record, the moral of Aesop’s fable is, “Those who have plenty want more and so lose all they have.” The moral of The Million Dollar Duck appears to be, “There’s no law against getting rich, as long as you pay your taxes.” Personally, I think the original is more universally applicable but there’s nothing like that here. Albert doesn’t lose the duck out of hubris or because he’s trying to get more than the duck can produce. It just stops working. Plus, he gets to keep everything he made up to that point and fix his relationship with his son. Sounds like Albert came out ahead all around on this deal.

Gene Siskel admitted to walking out on a screening of The Million Dollar Duck, one of only three movies he couldn’t make it through in his professional career. His future partner, Roger Ebert, presumably made it to the end but referred to it as “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t wrong but let’s face it. A lot of these Disney gimmick comedies are pretty dumb. That can be forgiven if they’re also funny. This one ain’t.

Throughout his Disney career, Dean Jones was frequently stuck with animal costars. Cats, dogs, monkeys, horses, you name it. He could be a lot of fun in these movies but it seems as though the stars had to align perfectly for them to work. If he’s just a little too arrogant or too dense, you get something like The Ugly Dachshund or Monkeys, Go Home! or this movie. Albert doesn’t seem smart enough to be a scientist and his rocky relationship with his wife and son makes him tough to root for on a personal level. You know a character is unlikable when you hope that he’ll lose his battle with the IRS.

As for Sandy Duncan, she’s saddled with the unenviable task of playing a character so pathologically stupid that it’s a wonder she’s able to make it through the day. It would be one thing if she was simply ditzy or scatterbrained but Katie appears to be a genuine moron. She’s really difficult to take but I can’t entirely blame Duncan for that. I’m hard-pressed to think of any actress who would have fared better with this material.

The Million Dollar Duck came out June 30, 1971, and most critics seemed to agree with Siskel and Ebert. The movie was not well-loved and it did so-so business at the box office. It did somehow manage to snag a couple of Golden Globe nominations. Sandy Duncan was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer – Female, which kind of makes sense if you take the rest of her work that year into consideration. Ironically, she lost to Twiggy in Ken Russell’s film of The Boy Friend, one of the shows that brought Sandy to prominence in the first place. (Incidentally, the other nominees were Cybill Shepherd for The Last Picture Show, Janet Suzman for Nicholas And Alexandra, and Delores Taylor for Billy Jack. What a weird year.)

Dean Jones, on the other hand, was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. He was up against Bud Cort in Harold And Maude, Walter Matthau in Kotch, Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and the eventual winner, Topol in Fiddler On The Roof. In a career full of silly Disney comedies, this was the one Dean Jones performance singled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press as worthy of a Golden Globe nomination. I don’t know, maybe there just weren’t a lot of comedies and musicals in 1971.

In any event, Dean Jones’s return to Disney gave him a little bit more freedom to pursue outside projects. Later in 1971, he produced and starred in a Prohibition-era sitcom called The Chicago Teddy Bears. It only ran three months before CBS yanked the low-rated show off the air. Naturally, Jones bounced back from that by heading back to the House of Mouse. Dean Jones will return.  

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Scandalous John

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Scandalous John

When I told my girlfriend that this week’s Disney movie was called Scandalous John, she laughed. “That doesn’t sound like a Disney movie,” she said. “It sounds like a porno.” She’s not wrong, even though Scandalous John predates the porno chic movement of the 1970s by a couple years. It’s fun to imagine this title on a 42nd Street grindhouse marquee and some very disappointed moviegoers leaving the theatre.

Disney’s Scandalous John was produced by Bill Walsh, who’d been on a bit of a roll lately. His last two films for the studio, Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Love Bug, had both been big hits. Maybe this gave him a little bit of freedom to adapt an obscure 1963 book by Richard Gardner. I haven’t been able to track down anything else by Gardner and the only edition of Scandalous John I’ve found is the movie tie-in.

Walsh cowrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator, Don DaGradi. The increasingly prolific Robert Butler, fresh off The Barefoot Executive, was assigned to direct. Up till now, Butler’s only features had been Kurt Russell gimmick comedies. But his extensive television credits had amply demonstrated that he could tackle all genres, from westerns to action-adventure to sci-fi.

Scandalous John also marked Brian Keith’s return to the studio after six years. Disney had been very good to Keith. The Parent Trap in particular gave his career a huge boost. But Keith hadn’t made a Disney appearance since Those Calloways in 1965. The year after that film, he was cast as the lead in Family Affair, a sitcom about a confirmed bachelor trying to raise his late brother’s three kids. Another Disney regular, Sebastian Cabot, costarred as Keith’s valet. Family Affair was a big hit, running for five seasons on CBS and cementing Keith’s star status. The show aired its last episode on March 4, 1971. Scandalous John was released about three and a half months later.

Keith stars as John McCanless, an aging, cantankerous eccentric who lives alone on his New Mexico ranch. McCanless’s unpredictable behavior has resulted in a revolving door of ranch hands. The latest poor sucker to get stuck with the job is Francisco Torres Martinez, so newly arrived from Mexico that he’s practically still dripping from the Rio Grande. Alfonso Arau plays Martinez. We’ll see him again in this column but most will immediately recognize him from his role as El Guapo, owner of a plethora of piñatas, in Three Amigos!

Martinez gets dropped off at the ranch by his cousin, who assures him that this is a good job. That seems unlikely when McCanless immediately starts shooting at him, mistaking him for someone from the bank. Martinez is rescued by McCanless’ granddaughter, Amanda (Michele Carey). She persuades him to stay, promising that the old man is really harmless, that the work is minimal and the pay is good. Once introductions are made, she ignores his name and dubs him “Paco”, which sure feels like a racist thing to do. Nevertheless, he accepts it and everyone refers to him as Paco from then on.

McCanless lives in fear of the bank coming to foreclose on his mortgage. Seems there’s a greedy land developer (isn’t there always?) named Whittaker buying up all the ranches to make way for…a new dam, I think? Honestly, it’s never all that clear why Whittaker wants the land. He just does. So Amanda talks to Whittaker’s son, Jimmy (Rick Lenz), to see if he can help. Jimmy unwisely tries to parlay this request into a date. Perhaps surprisingly for a 1971 Disney movie, Amanda doesn’t appreciate that and takes off.

Jimmy rides out to the ranch to meet McCanless. While the old man is none too happy to meet someone named Whittaker, Jimmy comes up with a potential solution. He proposes turning the ranch into a museum that John and Amanda can run together. I’m not sure how that would work if his dad wants to flood the place with his dam. In any case, John’s not buying what Jimmy’s selling. Despite his hostility, Jimmy eventually starts developing a fondness for McCanless.

Meanwhile, McCanless and Paco are bonding over music and the occasional gunfight with imaginary Apache. One night over a couple bottles of whiskey, McCanless fills Paco in on his plan to save the ranch. The two of them are going to go on an old-time cattle drive, bringing the herd north to market. McCanless is sure that they’ll fetch enough to save the ranch and then some. But the next morning, Paco learns that the “herd” consists of one very scraggly-looking old bull. Even though it’s clear that McCanless’s grasp of reality is tenuous at best, Paco humors him and agrees to go on the cattle drive.

First, they head into town for supplies, McCanless on his old horse and Paco riding a semi-cooperative mule. They ride directly into a department store, where Paco gets fitted for some new boots. Paco then heads over to the general store alone for the rest of their supplies. This attracts the attention of Sheriff Pippen (Harry Morgan, returning from The Barefoot Executive…toldja we’d be seeing a lot of him).

Even though he refuses to carry a gun, Pippen is still your typical New Mexico sheriff in that his primary mission is to get rid of illegal immigrants. (The term “wetback” is tossed around a lot in this movie, probably one of the reasons it’s not on Disney+.) McCanless intervenes and they’re able to escape back to the ranch with the cops hot on their trail. Once they show up there, McCanless slashes the sheriff’s tires and the two caballeros embark on their cattle drive.

Their journey takes them past a bar where a biker gang is harassing the owner, Mavis (the always delightful Iris Adrian, who also popped up briefly in The Barefoot Executive). McCanless rides to the rescue, capturing the drunks with his lasso. Rather than thanking him, Mavis complains that he wrecked the place and is driving off good customers. Perplexed, McCanless turns the gang over to a couple of old Indians, assuming the gang is with them. The Indian says his people have taken the blame for a lot over the years but he’s not about to accept responsibility for a bunch of “white weirdos”. Undaunted, McCanless pays him to take the bikers away. The Indians shrug, take the cash and lead the captives off into the desert.

Finally, McCanless and Paco arrive in a little tourist trap town with folks dressed up like Old West characters. In one funny bit, McCanless chases off a woman dressed like a prostitute and is horrified when the bartender says, “Take it easy, they’re all just volunteers. Haven’t you ever heard of civic pride?” When he encounters an actor playing a crooked card dealer, he demands to know if he’s carrying a gun up his sleeve. He’s not but pretends to shoot a finger gun. Insulted, McCanless fires his real gun above the dealer’s head. Not realizing the bullets are real, the pretend sheriff admits that a sleeve gun would be a nice touch and advises the dealer to run over to props and pick one up.

McCanless pursues the hapless dealer, firing wildly into the streets, much to the delight of the tourists. No one is hurt but a private train owned by Barton Whittaker himself is badly damaged. Whittaker has just arrived with a bunch of visiting dignitaries, planning to sell them on whatever it is he wants to do with McCanless’s land.

That’s Simon Oakland as Whittaker, by the way. He’s probably best known as the psychiatrist who turns up at the end of Psycho to explain everything. And John Ritter makes his second and unfortunately last Disney appearance as Wendell, Whittaker’s bodyguard/assistant. Ritter plays a pivotal role at the end of the movie but he has exactly one line of dialogue, which seems like a waste. He seems like a natural fit for Disney’s live-action comedies, so it’s bizarre that the studio didn’t utilize him again after his first two roles.

McCanless and Paco end up in jail, where Whittaker tries and fails to make a deal with him. But Jimmy, who seems to have some unresolved daddy issues, has switched sides and helps Amanda break the pair out of lockup. You’d think Amanda might want to keep her grandfather on a short leash after all they’ve been through. But no, they let them go to ride off and hijack Whittaker’s train.

With Paco more or less serving as engineer, McCanless gets rid of Whittaker’s passengers one by one and forces everyone to listen to mariachi music for a while. As hostage situations go, this one’s not too bad. But sooner or later, people start to realize there’s essentially a runaway train on the loose since nobody on board knows how to stop the thing. The train gets switched to an unused stretch of track leading to an abandoned mine, where it finally derails.

Whittaker realizes this has gone too far and is ready to cut his losses. But just then, Wendell shows up and shoots McCanless in the back. Amanda and Jimmy bury the old man back at the ranch and give the animals to Paco. He decides to head back to Mexico, accompanied by the spirit of his new friend.

Quad poster for Scandalous John

It doesn’t take an English major to realize that Scandalous John is a modernized riff on Don Quixote set in the American West. In case you missed it, the reflection in the poster image above makes the connection explicit. What’s a little surprising is that it mostly works. Almost all the credit for this goes to Brian Keith. His face hidden behind a thick beard, Keith gives a funny, fully committed performance. His muttered dialogue is a little hard to understand at first but you get used to it. Keith has several big moments in the film and he makes the most of them. When McCanless comes across a woman’s shoe in the desert, he delivers a touching, wistful monologue imagining what became of its owner. It’s impressive that Butler allows the movie to move at its own languid pace and take time for moments like this.

Alfonso Arau is a fun Sancho Panza to Keith’s Quixote, although the character heads uncomfortably into caricature territory several times. It would have been nice to learn more about his backstory. It isn’t clear where he came from or what he’s going back to at the end. But the friendship that develops between McCanless and Paco feels genuine and heartfelt. It’s hard not to be moved when McCanless defends him against the racist sheriff who wants to deport him.

Michele Carey and Rick Lenz do the best they can but their characters are weak links in the movie. Their relationship starts poorly and even though they end up together for some reason, they still don’t seem to like each other all that much. Not to mention the fact that Amanda’s concern for her grandfather’s wellbeing comes and goes whenever it suits the narrative.

Butler and cinematographer Frank Phillips capture some beautiful images of the New Mexico landscape. But other technical aspects are less impressive. The train sequence features some of the least convincing miniatures Disney has produced in a long, long time. Walt Disney famously loved model trains but I find it hard to believe these would have made the grade under his watch.

Rather than rely on one of their usual house composers, Disney brought in a bit of a ringer to compose the film’s score. Rod McKuen made a name for himself in the 1950s and 60s as a poet, songwriter and musician. He’d had success translating the songs of Jacques Brel into English and branched into film in the late 60s with movies like The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and A Boy Named Charlie Brown. In addition to the score for Scandalous John, McKuen also wrote and performed the song “Pastures Green”. It’s not a great song, to be honest, but his score is kind of interesting.

Disney did not seem to have a lot of confidence in Scandalous John. It was barely released in a handful of regional theatres on June 22, 1971, and sank without a trace soon after. That’s kind of a shame. This isn’t a great movie by any stretch but it is unusual for the studio and individual moments have stayed with me. It sort of reminds me of some of Clint Eastwood’s man-out-of-time movies like Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man. It’d be interesting to see someone like Eastwood take a crack at this material because I do think there’s something of value here.

Sadly, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Brian Keith in this column. He continued to work steadily throughout the 1970s and 80s. His highest-profile gig was probably the show Hardcastle And McCormick, which ran for three seasons starting in 1983. In later years, he was diagnosed with emphysema and lung cancer, battled depression, and suffered some serious financial setbacks. In 1997, his daughter, Daisy, took her own life. Two months later, Keith himself died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 75 years old.

Brian Keith was one of Disney’s best and most reliable stars in the 1960s and he’s too often overlooked. The Parent Trap alone secured his legacy but he was even able to liven up some real duds like Ten Who Dared and Moon PilotScandalous John is by no means a great film but it does allow Brian Keith to go out on a high note. That alone is enough to make this a Disney Plus.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Barefoot Executive

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Barefoot Executive

As we’ve seen repeatedly in this column, Walt Disney loved relying on successful formulas but he was not a fan of direct sequels. He only produced a handful, like Son Of Flubber, during his lifetime. So maybe it was a respectful nod to what Walt would have wanted when producer Bill Anderson, writer Joseph L. McEveety and director Robert Butler decided to follow the very successful Kurt Russell comedy The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes with The Barefoot Executive instead of another Dexter Riley adventure. It’s as good an explanation as any for this deeply weird movie.

Like most of Disney’s gimmick comedies, The Barefoot Executive is more an elevator pitch than an actual story. Russell stars as Steven Post, an ambitious kid hustling in the mailroom of third-place TV network UBC who becomes an overnight success thanks to a chimpanzee named Raffles who can pick hit shows. But unlike other gimmick comedies like The Love Bug and The Shaggy Dog, that quick synopsis isn’t very satisfying. Yes, I can see how a movie about a kid who turns into a dog or a sentient Volkswagen could be entertaining. A movie about a chimp who likes TV? Maybe not so much.

McEveety wrote the screenplay to The Barefoot Executive but the story is credited to Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn and Stewart C. Billett. Garrett and Kahn were TV veterans who’d worked together on such shows as Get Smart and Bewitched. My guess is their original story was a more satirical look at the industry that lost its edge in the process of Disneyfication. Otherwise, I can’t figure out how two people with years of TV experience could be involved with a movie that seems to have no idea how television actually works.

Raffles enters Steven’s life through some needlessly complex machinations. Raffles’ original owners, the Bernaduccis, lived next door to Steven’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Heather North, best known as the voice of Daphne on Scooby-Doo). When the Bernaduccis move to San Francisco, they have to give Raffles up because apparently it’s too cold up there. You might think it would be difficult to rehome a chimp but the Bernaduccis don’t have any problem foisting Raffles off on the nearest warm body.

That first night, Steven is annoyed that Raffles freaks out any time he tries to change the channel. But the next day, he discovers that the shows Raffles watched were the highest-rated shows of the night. (Incidentally, one of the shows Steven scoffed at is called Mother Carey’s Chickens, which was a book Disney had filmed years earlier as Summer Magic. Disney was really a pioneer in the fine art of Easter Eggs.)

Realizing this could all just be a fluke, Steven tests the chimp’s ability by spending the next several nights watching TV with him. He even goes so far as to sneak into Jen’s apartment and swap Raffles out with another chimp so he can spend more time with him at his own place. I didn’t realize chimps were so common that you could just run down to the pet store and pick one up. At any rate, Steven is eventually convinced that Raffles is indeed a TV savant and begins figuring out how to capitalize on his discovery.

Fortunately for Steven, network president E.J. Crampton (Harry Morgan, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of) is flying in from New York. Steven slips a note containing Raffles’ picks from the night before to Mertons the chauffeur (Wally Cox, last seen in The Boatniks, in his final Disney appearance). When Steve is proven right, Crampton is impressed enough to invite him to drop by the screening room later that evening to check out a couple of pilots.

Steven “disguises” Raffles as the world’s tiniest plumber and manages to sneak him into the projection booth. Crampton has high hopes for a show called The Happy Harringtons but Raffles has other ideas. The chimp prefers Devil Dan, a program Crampton and his vice president, Wilbanks (perennial Kurt Russell foil Joe Flynn), have already decided is dead on arrival. When Steve goes to bat for Devil Dan, Crampton and Wilbanks declare him an idiot and put The Happy Harringtons on the schedule.

Convinced that Raffles knows best, Steve pulls a switcheroo, putting the Devil Dan reel into the Happy Harringtons film canister. Because UBC is such a crappy network that nobody bothers to look at the material they’re broadcasting or even knows how to use a “technical difficulties” slide, Devil Dan goes out in its entirety nationwide. Wilbanks fires Steve but the overnight ratings prove that Raffles was right. Devil Dan is a hit and the network is praised for its innovative stunt programming.

Nothing succeeds like success, so Crampton changes his tune and proclaims Steve to be a boy wonder, making him the youngest programming executive in the industry. He moves on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, tastefully decorated with a random carousel horse and a bunch of high-tech burglar alarms to keep visitors out of his secret monkey room. Raffles picks hit after hit and before you know it, Steve is winning the coveted and definitely real Television Man of the Year Emmy Award. Apparently the Television Academy also gives out new cars with this honor? I don’t know, this must be one of the categories they don’t televise.

At any rate, Crampton and Wilbanks begin to get a wee bit resentful of their young protégé’s success. So they send Wilbanks’ sycophantic nephew, Roger, to uncover Steve’s secret. (John Ritter makes his big-screen debut as Roger. We’ll be seeing him again in this column very soon.) Roger dresses up like a bad guy in one of those DePatie-Freleng Inspector cartoons and sneaks into Steve’s apartment. Raffles attacks him before he learns much, other than Steve seems to really, really like bananas.

Jen, on the other hand, finally figures out that Steve stole her chimp and confronts him. Steve confesses everything, along with a declaration of love and a vague semi-proposal of marriage. That’s apparently all she needed to hear because she’s fine with it. Hey, remember that other chimp that Steve stuck her with? Really? Because the filmmakers don’t. I guess Jen just resigned herself to life with a mystery chimp.

Back at the studio, Roger overhears Tom, Steve’s buddy in the projection booth, ask whatever happened to that monkey plumber Steve used to bring in. (That’s Jack Bender making his Disney debut as Tom. We’ll see him again, too. Later on, Bender left acting and became an Emmy-winning producer and director for such shows as Lost and Game Of Thrones. I guess he learned a lot about the TV business from The Barefoot Executive.) Roger puts all his circumstantial evidence together and reaches the inevitable conclusion that the chimp is the one picking the shows. Sounds air-tight to me.

Roger drags Crampton, Wilbanks (and Mertons, for some reason) over to Steve’s building to spy on him. When Raffles gets up during the commercials to grab a beer, everyone is convinced. Crampton decides he must have that chimp! This leads to an interminable sequence with Wilbanks and Mertons stuck on a ledge outside Steve’s penthouse apartment. It goes on. And on. And on. Honest to God, I feel like I could have made and eaten an entire Thanksgiving dinner while they were stuck on that ledge.

Wilbanks eventually falls and is caught in a fireman’s net. Since everyone thought he was suicidal and he’s raving about chimpanzees, he’s carted off to the looney bin. But Mertons explains everything, more or less. The revelation that the top-rated TV network in the country has been programmed by a chimp causes a huge scandal. At a huge meeting of network executives, sponsors and government officials, it’s decided that the best course of action is to buy Raffles from Steve and air-drop him into a remote jungle. Sure. Why not.

At first, Steve assures Jen that he has no intention of selling Raffles. Which is nice of him considering he stole the chimp from her to begin with. But the offer of a million dollars proves too much to resist. Again, THERE’S A SECOND CHIMP! Maybe give that one to Crampton and Steve, Jen and Raffles can take the million and live happily ever after? No? OK, fine. Whatever.

Crampton and Wilbanks board a plane to take Raffles away, putting the chauffeur in charge seemingly for the sole purpose of pissing off Roger. But once they’re over the drop zone, Raffles opens the rear hatch and all the executives and reporters are sucked out into the abyss. Rather than attempting a rescue, the pilot turns around and brings Raffles back home. Steve returns the money (that he definitely could have kept if he’d just remembered he had access to a second chimp) and he, Jen and Raffles ride off into the sunset on Steve’s motorcycle.

OK, so where to start with this thing? First off, I admit there is the germ of a funny idea here. Movies love taking pot-shots at TV and the premise of a chimp programming the highest-rated shows on the air sounds like a logical addition to the “TV Sucks” subgenre. But the problem is that it’s never clear how we’re supposed to feel about these shows. Is Raffles actually picking better shows than his human counterparts? Or are they terrible shows that just happen to be enormously popular?

The Barefoot Executive isn’t concerned with questions like that. And honestly, you can’t tell if it’s because the filmmakers think everything on TV is lousy or if it’s because they think it’s all fine. You can’t really satirize something without expressing your opinion about it. We also never get to see much of the shows Raffles likes or dislikes, so we’re unable to draw our own conclusions. The most we’re shown is a few seconds of the animated opening to Devil Dan, which honestly looks pretty cool. We aren’t even told what Devil Dan is supposed to be about but I’d watch a show that opens with that cartoon devil. Based on that, I’d say let the chimp pick the shows. He seems to have good taste.

It’s pointless to complain about the fact that The Barefoot Executive makes zero sense. Most of Disney’s gimmick comedies are like that and everybody involved knew it. But you can only turn a blind eye to that as long as you’re laughing and too few of the gags in this movie really land. John Ritter is fun to watch and there’s a clever bit with Kurt Russell pitching his idea for a surefire hit show called Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. But everything is dragged out much longer than necessary. I already mentioned the ledge sequence, which is clearly the worst offender. But even in Russell’s pitch, you want to yell at the screen for everyone to stop saying the words Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Just because something is funny once doesn’t mean it’s still funny the sixth or seventh time.

The other big problem with The Barefoot Executive is our so-called hero. Kurt Russell was only about 20 when he made this movie and he already had a knack for playing charming connivers. But Steven Post is nowhere near as likable as Dexter Riley. He whines a lot. He’s a terrible friend to both people and chimps. He’s barely interested in the girl he supposedly wants to marry. He has no ideas of his own. He even stole the Lincoln idea from a guest speaker at his night school. Sorry Steve, you’re just not a fun guy to be around.

The Barefoot Executive also echoes The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in its title music. Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland learned one lesson from that movie and did not try to write a song called “The Barefoot Executive”. Instead, they came up with a generic, go-get-‘em-tiger tune called “He’s Gonna Make It”. The only lyric that sounds specific to this movie is a random bass voice at the end of the chorus singing, “And his little bitty barefoot friend.” It sounds like it was designed to allow other films to remove that one line and replace it with their own rewritten words. Stick in “and his little bitty love bug friend” and you could put it in a Herbie movie.

Released March 17, 1971, The Barefoot Executive received some better-than-expected reviews and did fairly well at the box office, albeit not quite at the level of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Which is not to say it hasn’t had a legacy of its own. It aired frequently on television and a lot of people seem to have fond memories of it. I’m not quite sure why but hey, whatever floats your boat.

In 1995, when Disney went through a phase of remaking a lot of their live-action comedies for TV, the studio hired Susan Seidelman of all people to reboot The Barefoot Executive. Jason London stepped into the Kurt Russell role, just a few years after his breakthrough in Dazed And Confused. The cast included such familiar faces as Chris Elliott, Julia Sweeney, Ann Magnuson, Kathy Griffin, Jay Mohr and Tenacious D’s own Kyle Gass. It sounds like an improvement but from what I’ve seen, it’s not, although it is kind of weird seeing those actors in a movie like this.

After five movies and a handful of television appearances, Disney was officially in the Kurt Russell business. But for his next movie, Russell took a short hiatus from the studio to appear opposite James Stewart, George Kennedy and Strother Martin as a young ex-con named Johnny Jesus in the movie Fools’ Parade. But he’d be back in Burbank before long. And this time, the studio would be throwing Walt’s “no sequels” rule out the window.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Wild Country

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Wild Country

In their 2021 book The Boys: A Memoir Of Hollywood And Family, brothers Ron and Clint Howard dedicate the better part of an entire chapter to the summer they spent in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filming The Wild Country. It was a formative experience for them both and their memories of the summer of ’69 are warm and fond. It’s a good book. You should check it out. But I think it’s fair to say that the Howard Brothers have spent more time thinking about The Wild Country over the past 50 years than most of us. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty good. But it’s definitely one of the deeper cuts in this column.

The Wild Country had actually been in development at the studio for quite a while. Disney bought the rights to Ralph Moody’s book Little Britches, the first in a popular series of autobiographical stories, back in the late 1950s. Now this is pure conjecture on my part, so don’t sic Leonard Maltin on me if I’m wrong. But at that time, The Wild Country almost certainly would have been being developed as a vehicle for Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The personalities of and dynamic between brothers Virgil and Andy Tanner is exactly like roles played by Kirk and Corcoran in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and many others. But Kirk started to be on the outs with the studio around the time he and Corcoran made Bon Voyage! in 1961. Between that and the disappointing reception to the Old Yeller sequel, Savage Sam, it’s little wonder that The Wild Country ended up on the shelf.

Producer Ron Miller dusted off Moody’s book and brought on board a whole bunch of TV people. Screenwriters Calvin Clements Jr. and Paul Savage had both worked on the TV western Gunsmoke, as had director Robert Totten. Of course, Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons, so odds are everybody involved with The Wild Country worked on Gunsmoke sooner or later in some capacity.

Clements later wrote a few Wonderful World Of Disney episodes, including Justin Morgan Had A Horse and The Flight Of The Grey Wolf. He was later a writer and producer on such series as Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Matt Houston and Walker, Texas Ranger. Savage also continued to work in television on shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Murder, She Wrote. He returned to the studio years later writing an installment of the late 80s revival of Davy Crockett for The Magical World Of Disney.

As for Robert Totten, he had directed dozens of TV episodes but few feature films. He’d made an independent war movie in 1963 called The Quick And The Dead that starred Victor French and Star Trek fixture Majel Barrett. His next movie was Death Of A Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. Widmark hated Totten and had him fired, bringing in Don Siegel to finish the picture. Siegel refused to put his name on it, since Totten only had about a week left to shoot when he was let go. But Totten didn’t want his name on it, either, so Death Of A Gunfighter became the first movie directed by the pseudonymous Allen Smithee.

In The Boys, Ron Howard describes Totten as a Peckinpah-like figure who aspired to make tough, independent movies but never quite got the breaks he needed. For Disney, he’d already made a couple of TV two-parters like Ride A Northbound Horse and he’d do a couple more after The Wild Country, including The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. He was also a bit of a mentor to young Ronny, who even then wanted to be a director. Totten was encouraging and took the time to explain his methodology to Howard, who was 15 at the time. Howard says Totten was the first director who didn’t treat him like a kid. That’s a lot better legacy than simply being remembered as the original Allen Smithee.

The artist formerly known as Ronny Howard was squarely in the awkward teen years of child stardom in the summer of ’69. In 1967, Howard made his Disney debut in A Boy Called Nuthin’, a two-parter for Wonderful World Of Color. The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968. Since then, he’d popped up in a few guest spots on shows like (surprise, surprise) Gunsmoke and his little brother Clint’s show, Gentle Ben. But The Wild Country was his highest profile project since the Opie days.

Clint Howard first made his way to Disney via animation. He’d been the voice of Roo in the Winnie The Pooh shorts and the young elephant in The Jungle Book. This wasn’t the first time Clint and Ron had worked together but I believe it is the first and possibly only time they played brothers on-screen. Their dad, Rance Howard, also appears in The Wild Country as a cowhand on the bad guy’s ranch.

The boys’ on-screen father was played by Steve Forrest, the thick-haired, mustachioed single father from Rascal. When I wrote that column, I was under the impression that Forrest only made one Disney feature, which just goes to show how far under the radar this film has flown. I’d clocked the title on Forrest’s filmography but had assumed The Wild Country was a TV production. Anyway, I like Forrest, so I’m glad to see him back. I’m pretty sure this really will be Forrest’s only other appearance in this column but I’ve been wrong before.

The Wild Country was Vera Miles’ fourth Disney movie, following A Tiger Walks, Those Calloways and Follow Me, Boys! She’d already appeared as Clint’s mom in Gentle Giant, the 1967 movie that begat Gentle Ben. Miles’ concerned mom roles for Disney were all fairly similar and pretty thankless. Nevertheless, she must have enjoyed working for the studio. We’ll be seeing her a couple more times.

We’ve seen rugged tales of the frontier in this column before and you can rest assured we’ll be seeing them again. In its broad strokes, The Wild Country isn’t too dissimilar from earlier Disney westerns. The Tanner family arrives in Wyoming full of hope for the future, having left Pittsburgh for reasons that are never made entirely clear but are apparently irreversible. Jim Tanner (Forrest) has purchased a farm at a rock-bottom price from his fast-talking cousin Phil (Dub Taylor, last seen here in The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin). The Tanners don’t know a whole lot about farming but they’re determined to make it work.

They’re in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the property to discover that their fixer-upper farm needs a lot more fixer-uppering than Cousin Phil let on. Their second surprise is finding a trapper named Thompson (Jack Elam, making his first Disney western feature after the crime comedy Never A Dull Moment, although he’d appeared on a few episodes of Zorro) and his pet wolf sleeping in their house. Thompson roams the country with his Indian buddy, Two Dog (Frank DeKova, last seen impersonating a Native American in Those Calloways), and they’ll prove helpful in the months ahead.

Thompson warns Jim to head back to Pittsburgh now and save his family the trouble of trying to work this land. The Tanners aren’t the first people to work this farm. The problem is that all the water comes from the land above owned by a real piece of work named Ab Cross (Morgan Woodward, not seen around these parts since making his film debut in The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho, The Wagons!). Even though Jim’s deed plainly states that he’s entitled to all the water above a certain mark on Ab’s dam, he routinely shuts off the supply come summer.

After Ab’s cattle trespasses on to the Tanner farm and destroys Kate’s garden, Jim and Virgil decide to pay a neighborly call on Ab and work things out in a civilized manner. When Jim threatens to get the law involved, Ab and his gang of roughnecks laugh in his face. Seems there ain’t no law in Jackson’s Hole, a fact that local shopkeeper Jensen (Karl Swenson) later backs up. Since the nearest marshal is in Cheyenne, Jim writes him a letter and bides his time.

This was not the outcome Ab was hoping for. When he and the boys run into the Tanners at the general store, Ab tries to get Jim to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Jim doesn’t want to get sucked into a fight in front of his wife and kids but Ab leaves him no choice. It’s a brutal fight, especially by Disney standards, and even though both men are left reeling, Ab gets the worst of it. Humiliated in front of his men, Ab shuts off the water supply completely.

Jim decides to ride to Cheyenne himself but before he can go, Virgil sneaks up to Ab’s property and tries to unblock the dam. Jim rides after him, preferring to let the law run its slow, natural course. But when Ab finds the Tanners trespassing on his dam, he comes out firing, shooting Jim in the leg.

Temporarily beaten, the Tanners return home so Jim can recover. But it isn’t long before a tornado tears through, devastating the farm and wiping out what little progress the Tanners have made. This is one calamity too many for Kate, who finally decides enough is enough. The family is going back to Pennsylvania. Jim lets her have her say, then quietly but firmly takes her aside to let her know they’re not going anywhere. I’m sure this is meant to come across as a positive message about the resilience of family but given everything that’s happened, it comes across as borderline abusive.

While Jim is reminding Kate who wears the pants, the Marshal finally shows up (and he’s played by Larry D. Mann, probably best known as the voice of Yukon Cornelius in the Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer!). They head on up to Ab’s place, who petulantly agrees to get the water flowing again. That should be the end of it but because Ab Cross is such an unrepentant asshole, you know the Tanners aren’t out of the woods yet, right?

That night, the Tanners are celebrating their victory when Andy goes outside to find their barn in flames. While they scramble to put out the fire, Ab skulks out from the shadows and shoots Jim again! In the back! Kate wallops him with a two by four and does her best to fend him off. But just as Ab is about to finish Jim off, Virgil emerges from the house with a rifle and kills Ab. The next day, Ab’s men come to collect the body and, with much apologetic hand-wringing, admit their boss went a smidge too far. They vow to pitch in and get the Tanners back on their feet.

Alternate theatrical poster for The Wild Country

Considering that The Wild Country evokes memories of several earlier Disney westerns, none of which were all that great to begin with, it’s a little surprising that this movie works as well as it does. Clint Howard’s character, Andy, is very much cut from the Kevin Corcoran cloth. He spends most of the movie attempting to trap various animals, including a skunk, a porcupine and a hawk, to keep as pets, all of which he names Ralph. But Clint’s not as uncontrollably manic as Kevin was and his antics don’t overshadow the rest of the movie. He’s also effective in dramatic scenes, like when he breaks down over the prospect of his mom heading back to Pittsburgh.

The movie’s biggest problem, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, is that it feels more like an extended episode of a TV show than a movie. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of all the Gunsmoke alumni. Part of that is the very episodic story. There’s another subplot about Virgil accidentally shooting at a wild horse that turns out to be pregnant. He misses her but she injures herself in a fall. Thompson and Two Dog are summoned to help deliver the filly (which is actually shown on camera), who Andy of course names Ralph. The whole sequence feels like a Very Special Episode of The Wild Country.

The movie might feel more cinematic if Disney treated it with more respect. The Wild Country is not currently available on Disney+ and the only way you can see it at all is in an old-school TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Frank Phillips seems to do a lovely job capturing the Wyoming landscape. It’d be nice if we could actually see his work the way he intended it to be shown.

Robert Totten may never have become the next Sam Peckinpah but he knows his way around a camera and stacks his cast with great character actors from the golden age of westerns. Dub Taylor is a lot of fun in his small role and it’s always a treat to see Jack Elam. Morgan Woodward is eminently hissable as the bad guy. Whenever one of these old pros is on the screen, which is most of the time, the movie always has something fun to offer.

The weakest link in the cast is probably Ronny Howard. At this point in his career, he had a tendency to go big at the slightest provocation. Totten reels him in when it counts, like in the tense climax, but there are still plenty of moments where you wish he’d dial it back a notch or three. Kurt Russell was a little too old to play Virgil in 1970 but if the movie had been made a few years earlier, he’d have been better suited to the role.

Interestingly enough, Howard admits in The Boys that he was hoping the movie would be a flop before it premiered. He was actively trying to distance himself from his goody-two-shoes Opie Taylor image and he knew that The Wild Country would only cement it. As it happens, Howard got his wish. The Wild Country received some decent reviews but barely made a dent at the box office.

The same year he filmed The Wild Country, Ron Howard also performed a voice on the record The Story And Song From The Haunted Mansion, released to coincide with the opening of the Disneyland attraction. Later in 1970, he appeared in the boy and his dog drama Smoke, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney. And for a while, that seemed to mark the end of his association with the studio. A few years later, George Lucas cast him in American Graffiti and from there, he went on to Happy Days. Howard would eventually return to Disney as a director and his return launched a whole new era for the studio. But it’s a little surprising we won’t be seeing Ron Howard the actor in this column again. Clint, on the other hand, will be back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The AristoCats

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The AristoCats

When Walt Disney died in December 1966, he left behind a handful of animated and live-action projects in varying stages of production. Four years later, that stockpile was almost gone. The AristoCats, Disney’s twentieth animated feature and first since The Jungle Book in 1967, would be the studio’s first feature-length cartoon produced entirely without Walt’s guiding hand. So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it feels a lot like some of their earlier work.

Walt was involved in the project’s earliest development. In 1961, he had tasked producer Harry Tytle and director Tom McGowan with finding animal stories for the Wonderful World Of Color TV series. McGowan had made the popular short The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and Walt wanted more stuff like that. Here’s where things get a little tricky. According to some sources, McGowan found a kid’s book about a mother cat and her three kittens set in New York City. Tytle thought New York was boring and suggested transplanting the story to Paris, since One Hundred And One Dalmatians had benefited from its London setting. Others claim that the film is inspired by a true story about a group of cats who really did inherit a fortune left them by their eccentric owner in 1910 Paris.

Now, I don’t know if either one of those stories is true. If it was a book, I don’t know who wrote it, what it was called or when it was published. And presumably Walt would have had to buy the rights to this thing if it existed. As for it being a true story, the internet has tons of stories about rich weirdos bequeathing their money to their pets. But sources that make the claim for The AristoCats are noticeably light on specifics. Could it have happened? Sure, why not. But I wouldn’t swear to it under oath.

Regardless of where the story originated, Tytle, McGowan and cowriter Tom Rowe envisioned it as a live-action production. Boris Karloff was in mind to play the devious butler, which is wild to think about. As usual, the script went through numerous revisions, none of which pleased Rowe. One by one, the original production trio of Tytle, McGowan and Rowe would either quit or be reassigned.

Sometime in 1963, Walt decided the story was better suited to animation. With the animation department fully committed to The Jungle Book, Walt put the project on hold. Shortly before his death, he handed it to longtime employee Ken Anderson. Anderson and Wolfgang Reitherman tossed out most of the old work and came up with a more cat-centric story. Walt approved the new direction and signed off on some early sketches before his death.

Once The Jungle Book was completed, the animation department turned their attention to The AristoCats (the studio has never been entirely consistent with the title stylization but since the official on-screen title has a capital “C”, that’s what I’m going with). A team of seven Disney veterans cracked the story, including Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, and Ralph Wright. Winston Hibler was originally going to produce the picture but it had been a while since he’d worked on the animation side. Most of his 60s work had been in live-action, mostly animal and nature movies like the recent King Of The Grizzlies. When Hibler ran into trouble, Reitherman took over the production.

The version of The AristoCats that hit screens on Christmas Eve, 1970, was markedly different from the one Tytle, McGowan and Rowe had come up with. A secondary human character, a maid named Elvira, was dropped entirely. New animal characters like Roquefort the mouse (voiced by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway) were either added or had their roles expanded. The Parisian atmosphere Tytle felt was so important gradually fell by the wayside. Harry Tytle walked away from animation and returned to live-action. Tom Rowe tried suing the studio but since this had always been a work-for-hire gig, he didn’t get far. It’s a surprisingly bumpy origin for what ended up being a pleasant but innocuous movie.

Quad poster for The AristoCats

I don’t necessarily want to say The AristoCats straight-up borrows elements that worked in earlier Disney movies but it’s impossible not to see the similarities. The family of cats trying to make their way home across the French countryside recalls One Hundred And One Dalmatians. The dynamic between Duchess and O’Malley gives off some serious Lady And The Tramp vibes. And while The AristoCats team reportedly tried to differentiate Phil Harris’s O’Malley from his performance in The Jungle Book, they didn’t try very hard. O’Malley is basically Baloo in cat form.

The story of The AristoCats is one of the simplest in the Disney library. Madame Bonfamille (voiced by Disney regular Hermione Baddeley, last seen in The Happiest Millionaire) is a retired opera star living alone in Paris with her beloved cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), and her three kittens, Berlioz (Dean Clark), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Marie (Liz English). She sends for her ancient lawyer, Georges (Charles Lane, last seen in The Gnome-Mobile), to dictate her will. She wants to leave her entire estate to her cats. Once their nine lives are up, the rest will go to her devoted butler, Edgar (British comedian and performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby).

Being paid to live in a Parisian mansion with a bunch of cats sounds like a pretty sweet gig to me but it’s not enough for Edgar. He wants to inherit the whole thing right away, so he douses the cats’ cream with sleeping tablets and abandons them far out in the country. He may have had a more insidious plan in mind but his motorcycle ride is interrupted by a couple of farm dogs, Napoleon and Lafayette (voiced by Gabor’s Green Acres costar Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsey from The Andy Griffith Show…don’t bother asking why two French dogs sound like hicks from the American South).

The cats aren’t on their own for long before they meet Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley, an easygoing alley cat. O’Malley finagles a ride back to Paris on a milk truck, then ends up going along when Marie falls off and needs rescuing. And in a lot of ways, that’s kind of the whole story. Oh sure, other stuff happens. The cats meet up with a couple of vacationing British geese (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) and their drunk Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson in his final role). Edgar has to go back and retrieve some incriminating evidence from Napoleon and Lafayette. And, of course, we meet O’Malley’s jazz-loving friends, led by Scat Cat (the great Scatman Crothers, stepping in to voice a role originally intended for Louis Armstrong). But none of it really advances the story.

Things wrap up when Duchess and the kittens get back home and O’Malley reluctantly says goodbye. But they’re quickly intercepted by Edgar, who locks them in a trunk bound for Timbuktu. Roquefort runs after O’Malley, who sends him off for the other alley cats. The animals all team up to defeat Edgar and O’Malley ends up becoming a stepfather to the kittens. The movie’s practically over before you even realize it got started.

The AristoCats re-release poster

Now, there are a lot of problems with The AristoCats and many of them revolve around Edgar. He is by far the least interesting villain Disney ever came up with. His plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially considering Madame Bonfamille seems a long way from kicking the bucket. Even if he had succeeded in getting rid of the cats, what’s to stop her from just going out and adopting more? If your bad guy’s evil plan is essentially to wait patiently, your central conflict might not be as dramatic as you think.

The AristoCats also manages to feel both needlessly padded out and like it’s missing pieces at the same time. Napoleon and Lafayette are fun characters, so I understand the desire to bring them back. But why do they never once interact with the cats themselves? They really feel like they’re in their own movie that has nothing to do with Duchess and O’Malley.

There’s a similar problem with the geese. Practically their entire journey to Paris takes place off-screen. One minute they’re in the middle of nowhere, the next they’re walking up to the café. They’re pretty important characters for a hot second, then they wander off, never to be seen again. Unlike the dogs, the geese aren’t really funny enough to make much impression. They’re just kind of there until they’re not and you forget all about them.

At this point, you’re probably thinking I don’t like The AristoCats all that much. That’s not actually true. It’s a testament to the Disney animation crew that this is still an enjoyable movie despite its familiarity and story problems. In a way, it feels like Walt Disney’s Greatest Hits. There’s nothing remotely new here but the band can still play all your old favorites and that’s just fine.

A big part of what makes The AristoCats work is the music. This isn’t really a musical, in the sense that you could remove every single song and not effect the story one iota. The Sherman Brothers wrote quite a few songs but most of them ended up not being used. Of the few that made the cut, “Scales & Arpeggios” walks a fine line between endearing and annoying. I think it’s cute but I’d understand if someone hated it.

The Shermans also contributed the title song, which is probably the most French thing about the movie. Maurice Chevalier had retired after his appearance in Monkeys, Go Home! back in 1967 but the Shermans were able to coax him back for one last recording session. It ended up being his final work before his death in 1972.

Terry Gilkyson’s Jungle Book song, “The Bare Necessities”, had been nominated for an Oscar, so it makes sense that Disney would want him to come up with another signature song for Phil Harris. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” does not stray far from the “Bare Necessities” formula. It’s an okay song but nowhere near as memorable as Baloo’s big number.

Of course, the song everyone remembers is “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. Huddleston and Rinker first teamed up in the late 40s, writing hundreds of songs at Decca Records. This would be Rinker’s only work at Disney but we’ll see Huddleston in this column again. Their AristoCats song doesn’t sound much like anything you’d have heard in 1910 but it’s pretty terrific, changing direction repeatedly and building to a show-stopping finale.

The whole sequence is lively and beautifully animated, which makes the lazy ethnic stereotyping of the cats even more unfortunate. Supposedly these cats have names but in the credits, they’re just referred to as Russian Cat (the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft), Italian Cat (Vito Scotti, who we just saw in The Boatniks), English Cat (Lord Tim Hudson, one of the Beatle Vultures in The Jungle Book) and (sigh) Chinese Cat (Paul Winchell, immediately recognizable as the voice of Tigger). And sure, all four of them are broad, over-the-top exaggerations, so it’s not like anyone was going out of their way to specifically insult Asians. But Chinese Cat is the one everyone singles out because he is objectively terrible.

We’ve already seen plenty of examples of Disney’s…shall we say…checkered history of depicting people (and animals) of color and no doubt we’ll see even more. And yes, it is important to view these films within the context of their times and Disney was by no means alone in perpetuating Asian stereotypes. But it is worth noting that these kinds of Asian characters held on a lot longer than stereotypes of other cultures and ethnicities and movies like The AristoCats are partially to blame.

Obviously, the studio thought whatever Paul Winchell was doing was funny and this was going to be a breakout character. He’s the only member of the band singled out with a character box on the original poster above. That poster actually makes it worse by referring to him as “Oriental Cat”. It also says he’s the leader of the band, which isn’t true. Scat Cat is clearly in charge. The character’s bad enough as it is without calling attention to him and trying to build him up. So while we should be able to look back at The AristoCats and forgive it as a product of less enlightened attitudes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cringe a little (or a lot) when Chinese Cat pops up.

The AristoCats quad re-release poster

Despite its flaws, The AristoCats was a big hit, winning over audiences and most critics. It did even better overseas, becoming the highest grossing film of 1971 in the UK, Germany and even France. The painted Parisian backgrounds are genuinely lovely. Maybe the movie plays more authentically when it’s dubbed in French.

It’s a little surprising that Disney has yet to return to The AristoCats well, although it’s not for lack of trying. Back in 2000, the studio began developing an animated TV series based on the film that would have followed teenage versions of Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz. Then in 2005, Disneytoon Studios, the direct-to-video branch of the company, announced they’d be making The Aristocats 2. This was going to be a computer-animated feature following the older Marie as she falls in love. Those plans were dropped after John Lasseter took the reins of the studio, realized almost all the Disneytoon movies were garbage that cheapened the brand, and shut the whole thing down. Now the studio is working on a live-action remake because of course they are.

Whether or not the public realized it at the time, the legendary Disney animation studio was in trouble. Without Walt to steer the ship, the department was beginning to cut corners and recycle proven formulas. We’ve already been seeing fewer and fewer animated features in this column. Sad to say, that trend is only going to continue. It’s a shame because The AristoCats proves that even an uninspired Disney cartoon is still pretty darn good.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Boatniks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Boatniks

If you ask me (and since you’re reading this, you kind of did), Ron Miller doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to Disney history. He was related to Walt by marriage, having married Walt’s daughter Diane Disney in 1954. A former pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams, Walt offered him a job at the studio because he didn’t want the father of his grandkids getting hurt on the field. Miller could have gone into acting but Walt wanted him to learn the production side of the business. He worked his way up from second assistant to first assistant director to associate producer.

In 1980, he became president of Walt Disney Productions and CEO three years later. During his tenure at the top, Miller dragged the studio kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century. He shepherded such innovative and non-Disney-like films as TRON and The Black Hole through production. In 1984, he established Touchstone Pictures to produce the kind of adult-oriented films the studio never would have touched before. Not all of his decisions paid off right away and shareholders voted to replace him later in ’84. But at least he was willing to try something new, just like his father-in-law before him.

You can see Miller trying to gently nudge the company toward more grownup fare even in his early films as a producer. Both The Boatniks and his previous feature, Never A Dull Moment, were comedic crime movies with nary a cute animal or precocious child in sight. Sure, neither one was all that successful, either artistically or financially. But it’s still kind of a weird kick to see a G-rated Disney take on a traditionally PG-or-higher genre.

The Boatniks was written by Arthur Julian from a story by Marty Roth. Both Julian and Roth spent the vast majority of their careers in television. Roth had written several McHale’s Navy episodes among many other shows and would go on to co-create the cult Saturday morning sci-fi show Ark II. Julian was a writer, producer and sometime actor who’d worked on F Troop and Hogan’s Heroes, again among many others. He’d later become head writer on The Carol Burnett Show and would write for such sitcoms as Maude, Amen and Gimme A Break!

The prolific Norman Tokar, who has been in this column a bunch of times, most recently on the boy-and-his-racoon picture Rascal, is once again in the director’s chair. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the tenth of Tokar’s fifteen Disney pictures. Hopefully he got a free sandwich at the Disney commissary for filling out his punch-card. Tokar started his Disney career with animal adventures like Big Red and Savage Sam. But Miller must have noticed that he’d shown a knack for wacky comedies in movies like The Ugly Dachshund. From here on out, Tokar would specialize in that genre.

Today, star Robert Morse is probably best known as Bert Cooper on Mad Men. But in 1970, he was famous as the Tony Award winning star of the Broadway musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He reprised that role in the 1967 movie version, starring alongside Michele Lee from The Love Bug. He’d also starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1965 black comedy The Loved One. The Boatniks would be his last leading role in a movie but he would continue to be a major stage star and make TV appearances throughout the 70s and 80s.

Morse’s leading lady, Stefanie Powers, had been on screen since the early 60s. In 1966, she starred in the short-lived spy spin-off The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The show didn’t last but it was enough to put her on the map and today it has a cult following. We’ll be seeing Powers in this column again.

Miller surrounded his stars with an impressive array of comedic talent, including the great Phil Silvers. Silvers became a major star in the 1950s as Sgt. Bilko on the self-titled The Phil Silvers Show. He’d also appeared in such comedy classics as It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The Boatniks was Silvers’ first Disney movie but it won’t be his last.

Also appearing in the film were such familiar faces as Norman Fell, Wally Cox (seen previously in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band), and in cameos, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis and Silvers’ old costar Joe E. Ross (also seen in The Love Bug) as “Nutty Sailor”. Miller even got Don Ameche, who hadn’t done much film work since the 1940s ended, to appear as the eternally frustrated Commander Taylor. By Disney standards, this was a fairly star-studded cast.

UK Quad poster for The Boatniks

The movie is set in and around Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula and, except for some interiors, was shot there, as well. That makes for a nice change from Disney’s usual practice of filming as much as possible within walking distance of the studio. Granted, you can drive from Burbank to Balboa in less than two hours on a good day but the change in scenery helps open things up.

Morse stars as Ensign Tom Garland, an accident-prone sailor taking over command of the Balboa Coast Guard from Lt. Jordan (Joey Forman, another Borscht Belt comic). Jordan is burnt out from dealing with the drunks and amateur sailors who descend on Balboa every weekend. Commander Taylor served with Garland’s war hero father during WW2, so at first he’s thrilled to welcome the young man. But when Garland falls off the boat mere minutes after his arrival, Taylor begins to suspect that the apple has fallen quite a ways from the tree.

Garland also meets cute with Kate Fairchild (Powers), a sailing instructor and owner of a boat rental company, by accidentally dousing her with a can of yellow paint. She gets her revenge later on when Garland’s boat runs aground during a routine rescue operation. Kate tows the stranded Coast Guardsmen back to the pier, humiliating Garland in front of the entire marina and Commander Taylor. But they fall in love later that night when they’re forced to share a table at a crowded restaurant. Hey, these things happen, right?

Amidst all this, the police are searching for three jewel thieves (Silvers, Fell and Mickey Shaughnessy, returning from Never A Dull Moment). With the roads blocked, they’re unable to drive to Mexico. So they buy a picnic basket, hide the jewels in the bread, pickles, chicken and what-not, and charter a boat from Kate with the intention of sailing south of the border. Of course, none of them has ever sailed before, so they have a hard time just getting out of the harbor.

It isn’t long before the thieves get lost in the fog and Garland accidentally sinks their ship. Garland continues to encounter them as they attempt to retrieve the picnic basket from the bottom of the ocean, growing increasingly suspicious as their schemes become more outlandish. When all else fails, the thieves contact an acquaintance in Japan to bring in a pearl diver (played by the beautiful Midori). Once she retrieves the basket, she drops the can’t-understand-English act and helps herself to a portion of the loot.

The bad guys are now free to hightail it down to Mexico and they charter a seaplane (piloted by Vito Scotti in the first of his all-purpose ethnic roles for Disney) to pick them up. But by now, Garland and Kate are convinced that these are the jewel thieves everyone’s been looking for. Their attempt to confront them in front of Commander Taylor goes badly when their opened picnic basket appears to spill out nothing more than a well-stocked (and surprisingly well-preserved, considering it spent several days underwater) lunch.

Taylor is ready to relieve Garland of his command when a pelican grabs a stray pickle and Kate discovers some of the jewels hidden inside. Garland pursues them across the crowded harbor. After a series of mishaps, the thieves end up inside a yellow submarine. The chase continues out to the seaplane. The thieves make it to the plane but it’s too heavy to take off, so they start frantically dumping whatever excess weight they can find. This ends up including the picnic basket. The thieves escape empty-handed, Garland is declared a hero and Kate gets a stolen engagement ring when she can’t pry it off her finger.

Alternate theatrical poster for The Boatniks

The plot of The Boatniks is inconsequential even by the standards of a live-action Disney comedy and that’s really saying something. It’s really just a framework upon which to hang gags about giant fish, sharks, pickles, poor seamanship and, most surprisingly, sex and booze. In Walt’s day, Annette Funicello wasn’t even allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit. Here, Wally Cox plays an eccentric millionaire named Jason whose yacht hosts a neverending party attended by dozens of bikini-clad babes. The times, they were a’changin’.

As for the drinking, Disney movies have never been havens of teetotaling. The pleasures of a good stiff drink have played a part in everything from The Love Bug to Rascal. Even Dumbo famously gets liquored up. But there’s a lot more of it on display in The Boatniks. One of the very first gags has Lt. Jordan responding to a distress call by asking if they have any beer on board. The lost ship replies, “Oh yeah, we’re loaded!” Turns out the boat got lost because they set a beer can next to their magnetic compass and everybody was too drunk to figure that out.

The Boatniks is most enjoyable when it diverts from Garland’s investigation to focus on these random side characters. In addition to Cox and Joe E. Ross, whose Nutty Sailor keeps crashing into things, there’s Gil Lamb (who has appeared in small parts in everything from The Ugly Dachshund to The Love Bug) as Mr. Mitchell. He’s attempting to sail solo around the world, evidently to get away from his wife and gaggle of kids. He doesn’t get far before the Nutty Sailor wrecks his boat. Pretty nutty!

Unfortunately, The Boatniks never quite finds its sea legs. For one thing, it could use more of the live-action-cartoon energy that Robert Stevenson brought to The Love Bug. Whether it’s due to budget constraints or inexperience, Tokar shies away from showing much action. We repeatedly see boats disappearing out of frame or behind an obstacle, followed by the sounds of a crash. Sometimes we don’t even get to see the aftermath of these mishaps. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always found visual gags are a lot funnier when you actually get to see something.

The other big problem is Robert Morse, who can be terrifically entertaining but never cuts loose here. Morse was a good dancer, so you’d think physical comedy should be right in his wheelhouse. But he seems reluctant to appear too foolish, which is a huge handicap if you’re playing a clumsy sailor. Jerry Lewis would have made a nine-course meal out of this role but if you didn’t want to go quite that big, Dick Van Dyke or even Dean Jones would have been more fun.

The Boatniks was Disney’s big summer release for 1970, coming out on July 1. It did pretty well, earning about $5 million that year, although critics weren’t terribly impressed. A few years later, the studio re-released it on a double bill with Song Of The South. Considering all the sexist gags and Japanese and Mexican stereotypes in this picture, that would be a wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate afternoon at the movies these days.

It would be almost a decade before another Ron Miller production would receive Disney’s first PG rating. Until then, the studio kept on making movies like this one. Too wholesome for most adults and older kids but not exactly wholesome enough for the younger crowd. It’s most likely these “problematic” elements that have kept The Boatniks off Disney+, at least for the time being. And while the movie could be a lot worse, it’s far from being a buried treasure in the Disney catalog.

VERDICT: I got a few laughs but overall it’s a Disney Meh.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: King Of The Grizzlies

Hey there, Mouseketeers! Before we get to this week’s movie, I’d like to get some feedback from you. For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a paid tier to the regular Disney Plus-Or-Minus columns (sort of a Disney Plus-Or-Minus+ if you will). This would cover things that fall outside the Disney Plus-Or-Minus umbrella: TV productions, shorts, even Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures eventually.

My first question, obviously, is would this be interesting enough for you to spend a couple bucks a month on it? Secondly, how much sounds like a reasonable amount to charge? Finally, what platform would be best for everyone? Substack? Patreon? Something else I haven’t thought of yet?

Let me know your thoughts either in the comments down below, on the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre Facebook page, on Twitter (@DrAdamJahnke) or however else you might think a message could reach me. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and your continued support of this increasingly ambitious project! And now, we return to our regularly scheduled program.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's King Of The Grizzlies

By 1970, it had been a decade since Disney pulled the plug on the long-running True-Life Adventures series. In the years since, writer/narrator Winston Hibler had become a producer and most of the movies he’d worked on involved animals. Movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar used True-Life Adventures techniques in a fictional setting. King Of The Grizzlies pushed that style even farther. It’s the most documentary-like of Disney’s fictional animal features since Perri.

The movie was based on the book The Biography Of A Grizzly by Boy Scouts co-founder Ernest Thompson Seton. Eight years earlier, James Algar, another True-Life Adventures vet, adapted another Seton book as The Legend Of Lobo. The screenplay was by Jack Speirs (writer of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar), TV writer Rod Peterson, and Norman Wright, who’d been working for Disney since the Fantasia days.

This would be Canadian filmmaker Ron Kelly’s one and only Disney film as a director. He’d continue to focus on local interest stories in his home country into the 1980s. Once again, Hibler utilized Lloyd Beebe and Cangary Limited to produce the nature footage. Director of photography Reginald Morris had a long history of shooting documentary shorts. He’d later become Bob Clark’s go-to cinematographer, shooting films like Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

The star of the film is Big Ted, a 1,300-pound grizzly bear who worked for marshmallows, but the movie does include a handful of human actors who were presumably paid actual money. John Yesno plays Moki, a Cree who feels a spiritual connection to the bear he names Wahb. Yesno didn’t appear in a lot of movies but he did have a distinguished career as a broadcaster and activist in Canada.

Chris Wiggins costars as The Colonel, Moki’s former commanding officer and owner of the ranch Moki works at as foreman. Wiggins did a lot of voice work over the years, although none of it was for Disney. He voiced a number of different characters on Marvel’s animated shows of the 1960s, including Thor, Hawkeye and, appropriately enough in this context, Kraven the Hunter. Horror fans may recognize him as occult expert Jack Marshak from Friday The 13th: The Series. Wiggins and Yesno would also both appear in the 1980 Canadian TV-movie The Courage Of Kavik The Wolf Dog (John Candy, who will eventually appear in this column, also turned up in that one).

But Yesno, Wiggins and the other two-legged performers are definitely supporting players in this drama. We first meet the cub who would be king when he’s just a few months old, scampering around the mountains with his sister and Mama Bear. After more than 10 minutes of cute-baby-bears-being-cute footage, we encounter Moki. Moki was raised to respect the bear and even has a bear paw tattooed on his hand. So he’s not exactly a great first line of defense when the bear family meets up with the Colonel’s cattle.

Young Wahb starts the trouble when he finds a wayward calf (Hibler’s folksy narration assures us that Wahb’s intentions are strictly friendly). The resulting commotion attracts the attention of the Colonel, who shoots and kills Wahb’s mother and sister. Wahb himself manages to get away after tumbling off a cliff into the river below. In a switch from Disney’s usual anthropomorphic manipulation, the death of Wahb’s family isn’t played for pathos. Hibler lets us know that animals have blessedly short memories for such trauma and Wahb is back on his feet in no time.

A little later, Moki happens across the little bear cub, scared out of his wits up a tree. He rescues Wahb, straps him on to his horse, and rides off. But unlike humans in other Disney nature dramas, he doesn’t bring him home to raise him like a pet. Instead, he takes Wahb up the mountain to the site of his own coming-of-age ritual, far from the ranch. He lets the cub go, wishes him luck and heads for home, figuring they’ll probably never see each other again.

Wahb spends the rest of the year looking for food and meeting his new neighbors. An encounter with a black bear at a honey tree goes from bad to worse when an adult male grizzly decides to show everyone who’s boss. Poor little Wahb barely hangs on while the grizzly tries knocking over the tree he’s climbed. It’s a hard-knock life for Wahb. Winter arrives and Wahb returns to his birth den for hibernation, fighting off a couple of wolverines for squatter’s rights.

The story picks up four years later with Wahb finding a wolfpack circling a slab of meat hanging above a bunch of traps. Wahb springs the traps and heads back into the woods, seemingly none the worse for wear. But those traps were laid by Moki, who recognizes Wahb’s distinctive four-toed track. He finally tells the Colonel about rescuing the cub years earlier. Needless to say, this news doesn’t go over well.

Later on, one of the Colonel’s laziest ranch hands, Shorty (Hugh Webster, who appears in another movie this column will get to eventually), decides to catch forty winks while laying some fence posts. Out for some fun, Wahb knocks over the posts and wakes up Shorty. He manages to escape but the Colonel is now convinced that his ranch is on the verge of turning into a freakin’ country bear jamberoo. He demands Moki set bear traps around the property and to hell with his people’s sacred traditions.

Years later (this movie is big on time jumps), Moki comes face-to-face with Wahb, now a massive seven feet tall. Rather than firing his gun, Moki speaks to him in the language of the Cree. The words soothe Wahb and he leaves Moki alone, satisfied that the two of them are kindred spirits.

Unfortunately, he heads straight to the Colonel’s camp where he once again wakes up Shorty (so lazy), destroys the chuckwagon and chases Slim the cook (Jack Van Evera) up a tree. The Colonel decides that eight years of intermittent bear sightings is enough and heads out to take care of Wahb once and for all.

The Colonel stumbles around the woods for a while, finally catching up with Wahb just as he’s winning a rematch with his old rival grizzly from the honey tree. The newly crowned king of the grizzlies attacks, sending the Colonel tumbling into a ravine. Moki turns up and again speaks to Wahb in Cree, calming him down and sending him on his way. Moki helps the Colonel and they watch the bear marking his territory from a safe distance. The Colonel still isn’t convinced that Wahb won’t be back and raises his rifle to shoot but Moki has already removed the bullets. Finally persuaded that this bear really, truly means a lot to his friend, the Colonel agrees to let Wahb go and live his life in peace.

Theatrical release poster for King Of The Grizzlies

King Of The Grizzlies isn’t the best Disney nature adventure but it’s far from the worst, either. On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot. Practically every frame showcases a stunning Canadian landscape suitable for framing in your finest ranger stations and fire lookout towers. The animals are pretty great, too. Some of these movies can get a little sleepy and pastoral but this one at least keeps things moving.

The movie is on shakier ground whenever it goes back to its human costars. The relationship between Moki and the Colonel is probably pretty interesting but nobody seems all that interested in exploring it. Rather than trusting the actors to do their jobs, Hibler’s pushy narrator tells us whatever details he decides are relevant. It’s like no one had the heart to tell him that his services would be required less in a movie about people.

The film also appears to have been shot MOS (that’s without synchronized sound, for those of you who didn’t go to film school). What little dialogue there is was added in post-production, which gives those scenes the feel of a late-period Godzilla sequel. You never really feel any connection between Moki and Wahb. You just have to take Hibler’s word for it that it exists. It feels like there’s an interesting movie to be made from this material. But Hibler and his team of writers never quite find it.

King Of The Grizzlies was Disney’s first release of the 1970s, hitting theatres on February 11, 1970. It did…well, I don’t really know how it did at the box office, to be honest with you. I can’t find any receipts listed on the usual box office tabulating sites. But considering that it isn’t currently available on Disney+ or Blu-ray and I’ve never met any ravenous King Of The Grizzlies superfans, I doubt it packed ‘em in.

By now, the True-Life Fantasy format had already run its course but Disney wasn’t quite ready to give up on the hybrid subgenre. The 1970s were very much the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” decade at the studio, returning time and again to previously successful formulas that Walt liked with increasingly diminishing returns. Both Winston Hibler and screenwriter Jack Speirs will be back in this column and they’ll be bringing some more animals along with them. Prepare accordingly.

VERDICT: Despite some redeeming features, this teeters into Disney Minus territory.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

The shared cinematic universe is usually considered a relatively recent concept even though studios like Universal and Toho started hosting all-star monster jamborees decades ago. Even Disney dropped some shared universe Easter eggs in their early days, like bringing a live-action Bambi into 1957’s Perri. With The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Disney went back to Medfield College, birthplace of Flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor.

A few things have changed at dear old Medfield since the Flubber days. Fred MacMurray’s Professor Brainard has evidently retired, presumably flush with Flubber cash. The great character actor William Schallert is the new all-purpose teacher, Professor Quigley. (I assume Medfield must have additional faculty but these movies only ever seem to focus on one.) The college also has a new dean, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn, last seen as David Tomlinson’s flunky in The Love Bug).

But perhaps the biggest difference between The Absent-Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is its protagonist. The Flubber movies treated the student body like an afterthought, nameless bodies to toss around the basketball court and the football field, keeping the focus on Professor Brainard. Computer shares a little DNA with The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones (which surprisingly did not take place at Medfield) by promoting a student to the lead role. But unlike Merlin Jones, Dexter Riley is no brainiac inventor. As played by Kurt Russell, Dexter is the typical all-American underachiever, more interested in having a good (albeit G-rated) time than academics.

Russell had worked steadily since his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys! three years earlier. In addition to his feature appearances, he’d done plenty of TV including guest shots on non-Disney shows like Daniel Boone with former Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. Now 18, Russell had earned the chance to show what he could do with a starring role.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Medfield’s dire financial straits. Alonzo P. Hawk may not be around anymore to call in the school’s loan but Medfield is still hemorrhaging money. By the way, Keenan Wynn will eventually be back in this column as Alonzo P. Hawk, bringing another Disney franchise into the Medfield-verse.

During a budget meeting with the board of regents, Professor Quigley argues that the school desperately needs to get with the times and buy a computer. Unfortunately, the budget is stretched thin and Dean Higgins shoots down the request. Besides, the regents believe modernization is overrated. Higgins is more concerned with weeding out Medfield’s worst students, a long list that includes Dexter and his friends. Quigley sticks up for them. He believes they’re good kids, just in need of a little extra motivation.

Those troublemaking kids were smart enough to plant a listening device in the conference room and they’ve overheard the whole thing. Wanting to do something nice for Quigley, they decide to go visit Dexter’s old boss, tycoon A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero, who had previously appeared in a few episodes of Disney’s Zorro). He seems to be in possession of the only computer in town and the kids hope to persuade him to donate it to the school.

Arno is surprisingly open to the idea except for one thing. He already donates $20,000 a year to Medfield, so he isn’t about to toss in a $10,000 computer on top of that. But if the school is willing to forego their annual gift, maybe they can work something out. This sounds like a good deal to the kids (obviously not math majors) and they set to work crating up the tons of components that make up a late-60s computer.

It’s surprising that Arno is so willing to part with the computer because we soon find out he keeps it in a secret room behind a hidden panel. The computer’s primary function is keeping track of Arno’s many illegal gambling clubs. Now you might think that Arno would need a valuable piece of equipment like that. At the very least, perhaps he should consider erasing all the incriminating evidence stored in the computer’s memory banks. Nope! Take it away, boys! He just saved 20,000 big ones and he’s a happy man.

Anyway, the computer gets set up at Medfield but Quigley’s demonstration hits a snag when a part shorts out. Dexter volunteers to make the 70-mile drive for a replacement, even though he should really be studying for the upcoming standardized test. Later that night, he gets back to the lab during a torrential rainstorm. He foolishly decides to switch out the part while he’s dripping wet and standing in a small lake of rainwater. As you might expect, Dexter is zapped with about a zillion volts of electricity and instantly dies.

The end.

Quad poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

No, no, of course not. The computer dies but Dexter seems just fine. Sure, he wakes up his roommate later that night, beeping electronically and reciting the coded data about Arno’s gambling joints. And yeah, when his friend asks him about it, Dexter has no idea what he’s talking about. But still, he’s fine.

Dean Higgins and Professor Quigley don’t have much time to be upset about the $20,000 boondoggle because the next day is the big standardized test. Students have an hour to complete the test and, in the opposite of a pep talk, are told that nobody in the history of Medfield has ever finished it. Dexter is surprised to find himself whipping through the whole thing in less than five minutes. Quigley and Higgins are even more surprised to discover that he aced it, getting the first perfect score in the history of the college.

A thorough medical check-up solves the mystery. As so often happens, the accident caused Dexter to absorb the properties of the computer. A quick glimpse inside his ear reveals flashing lights, spinning magnetic tape and all the other hallmarks of a 1969 computer. As long as he doesn’t run out of punch cards, Dexter Riley is the smartest man on Earth.

Quick to capitalize on his human computer, Dean Higgins organizes a nationwide tour for Dexter. As his fame grows, he drifts apart from his girlfriend, Annie (Debbie Paine), and buddies like Pete Oatzel (Frank Webb, who was tragically killed in a car accident just a few years later at the age of 26). He also attracts the attention of Dean Collingsgood (Alan Hewitt, seen most recently in The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit) who hopes to lure Dexter over to Medfield’s arch-rival, State University.

Dexter’s new celebrity status does not pass unnoticed by Arno, either. He may have lost his computer but thinks having a human computer on his payroll sounds even better, especially after Dexter consistently picks winners in horse races. Arno sends his flunky, Chillie Walsh (Richard Bakalayan, who played a similar gangster role in Never A Dull Moment), to give Dexter a taste of the good life. Unfortunately, the club they visit is raided by the cops and Dexter winds up in jail, along with Walsh and the two Deans, who’d been following him.

When Dexter’s friends pool their money to bail him out, Dexter realizes what a heel he’s become. He turns down Arno’s offer and reaffirms his loyalty to Medfield by captaining a quiz bowl team alongside three of his dimmest friends. Dexter leads them to victory and a championship match against State. One Day At A Time’s future Schneider, Pat Harrington, hosts the quiz bowl and Spinal Tap’s future John “Stumpy” Pepys, Ed Begley Jr., makes his big screen debut as one of the State students. We’ll be seeing Begley again in this column.

On one of his College Knowledge appearances, Dexter correctly answers a question with “Applejack”. That just so happens to be Arno’s code name for his illegal businesses, prompting Dexter to start rattling off information about Arno’s gambling joints on live TV. Arno shuts down the exposed locations and sends Walsh to kidnap Dexter the night before the finals.

Pete and Annie track him down and come up with an elaborate plan to rescue him. Disguised as house painters (Merlin Jones used a similar scheme…it seems house painters were given carte blanche to go wherever they pleased in the 60s), the kids search the building and manage to smuggle him out in a trunk. There’s a big chase back to the TV studio with gallon after gallon of paint thrown at the pursuing gangsters. Dexter rejoins his team but the rough handling in the trunk seems to have knocked a few circuits loose. His answers get slower and slower until he finally crashes completely.

Dexter wakes up in time for the final question about the geographic center of the United States but has no idea what the answer could be. He’s back to being a normal, below-average student. The team has been relying on Dexter for so long that everyone’s shocked when Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) realizes he actually knows the answer. He has family in Lebanon, Kansas, and that is the correct response. Medfield wins the day and Arno and his goons end up in jail.

I vaguely remember watching and enjoying the Dexter Riley movies as a kid, so I was looking forward to revisiting this one. Unfortunately, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was not the comedic powerhouse I remembered. So far, I’ve been making fun of the movie’s leaps of logic and Mariana Trench-sized plot holes but they’re not really the problem. The issue is that most of this just isn’t that funny.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was the first screenplay by longtime Disney employee Joseph L. McEveety. McEveety joined the studio in 1957 as an assistant director, working on movies like Moon Pilot, Mary Poppins and, yes, Merlin Jones. He knew the Disney house style backward and forward but comedy wasn’t exactly in his blood. Previous Disney comedies relied heavily on slapstick but Computer’s story doesn’t allow for any until its madcap finale. As a result, the first half can get pretty dull and repetitive. The movie desperately needs more verbal humor or, at the very least, a few jokes.

Director Robert Butler also made his Disney feature debut with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Butler had directed a ton of TV, including Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage”, and multiple episodes of shows like The Untouchables, Batman, The Fugitive, and countless others. For Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, he and Norman Tokar codirected Kilroy, a four-part serial, in 1965. Earlier in 1969, he directed Kurt Russell in the three-part Secret Of Boyne Castle, released theatrically overseas as Guns In The Heather. He knows exactly what’s expected of him here and keeps the tone light and the story moving as best he can. But even so, the movie gets bogged down often enough that it’s hard to not get impatient.

Like most Disney comedies, the action is preceded by a colorful animated title sequence and a peppy title song. Visual effects artist Alan Maley (who went on to win an Oscar for his work on a movie we’ll be getting to soon) designed the abstract titles and they’re pretty cool. The song, by Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland, isn’t quite as successful. To be fair, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is an unwieldy title. Even the Sherman brothers would have a hard time making it work in a song. Brunner’s and Belland’s solution was basically to shout the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible. It’s one of the more aggressively unpleasant Disney songs.

The only reason any of this works on any level is thanks to Kurt Russell. In his earlier Disney appearances, Russell definitely had something but nobody had quite figured out what his strengths were yet. Now we begin to see the charismatic movie star he would become. Russell always brings a little twinkle of fun to every role but here, he’s given his first opportunity to go all in on a broad comedic part. When Dexter’s central processor starts to crash, Russell fully commits to the gag. That’s a genuinely funny scene. I only wish the movie had more like it.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was Disney’s last theatrical release of the 1960s. It was a decently sized hit, particularly in relation to its cost, and most critics gave it a pass. The movie certainly did well enough to inspire Disney to bring Dexter Riley and friends back for more wacky adventures at Medfield.

TV Promo Art for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1995)

Disney also produced a TV remake in 1995 with Kirk Cameron stepping into Dexter’s tennis shoes (a style of footwear Kurt Russell never dons once, by the by). That version had an interesting supporting cast, including comedian Larry Miller as the Dean, Jeff Garlin and Eddie Deezen as FBI agents, Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson hisownself) and Disney veteran Dean Jones playing against type as Miller’s rival Dean. Peyton Reed, who would eventually return to the Disney fold via Marvel’s Ant-Man, made his feature debut as director.

Revisiting The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was a good lesson in tempering your expectations for childhood favorites. I had high hopes for this one. And while it wasn’t a complete waste of time, it definitely wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. They’ll have plenty more chances to impress us, though. Practically everybody involved will be back in this column in some way, shape or form.

VERDICT: Not quite a Disney Minus but nowhere near a Disney Plus, this is a Disney Neutral.

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