Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Gnome-Mobile

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Gnome-Mobile

Ask anybody to start listing off live-action Disney movies and odds are The Gnome-Mobile is not going to be the first, second or even tenth movie they mention. Hell, even if you try to help them out by having them list off live-action Disney movies about magical little people, The Gnome-Mobile will come in at least second after Darby O’Gill. As of this writing, The Gnome-Mobile has not been released on Blu-ray and it’s not available on Disney+. It doesn’t seem to have much of a cult following. Just over 1,000 people have even marked it as “seen” on Letterboxd, making it slightly less popular than Johnny Tremain. But taken on its own merits, The Gnome-Mobile is a fun little movie that, for my money, is a lot more enjoyable than some of Disney’s other late ‘60s output.

Even though The Gnome-Mobile seems like a natural and even obvious subject for a Disney picture, it still has a somewhat unusual history. The movie is based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, of all people. Sinclair was a noted left-wing political activist and the author of such books as The Jungle and Oil! (later the basis for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood).

Sinclair had a rocky history with the movie industry. He had approved of and produced the 1914 adaptation of The Jungle (a silent film now lost) and he got a big payday from Victor Fleming’s 1932 version of his book The Wet Parade. But in 1933, he was hired by movie mogul William Fox to write a hagiography of Fox Film Corporation. The resulting book, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, was a critical look at Fox’s attempt to create and control a monopoly. Needless to say, this did not endear him to Hollywood executives.

In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California as a Democrat with a Socialist-leaning platform. Every studio in town opposed him, churning out anti-Sinclair propaganda to defeat him (you may remember this being touched upon in David Fincher’s Mank). Sinclair practically went broke losing that election, so afterward he went out on a speaking tour to raise some money. The tour took him through Redwood National Park in northern California, which inspired him to write The Gnomobile, one of his only books for children.

After The Gnomobile was published in 1936, Sinclair’s friend, Rob Wagner (whose magazine, Script, had been one of Sinclair’s only defenders during his gubernatorial campaign), introduced Sinclair to Walt Disney, another former contributor to Script. Wagner and Sinclair thought The Gnomobile would make for a good cartoon. Walt thought it was better suited to live-action and promised to keep it in mind if he ever started making live-action pictures.

Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney discuss The Gnome-Mobile

Over the years, Sinclair held him to that promise, periodically checking in with Walt. By the mid-60s, a note of fatalism crept into Sinclair’s correspondence. He was getting up there in years and still hoped to see The Gnomobile turned into a movie before he died. Apparently, this worked. Walt assigned the newly-retitled The Gnome-Mobile to his A-team: director Robert Stevenson, producer James Algar and screenwriter Ellis Kadison.

(I don’t imagine Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney saw eye to eye on much of anything, especially politics, so I was very curious about how they got together. In particular, I need to thank author Ariel S. Winter, whose fascinating blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie provided a great deal of insight into their history.)

“A-team” might be a bit generous in describing Kadison who certainly had an interesting career but only worked with Disney on this one project. Like a lot of Disney writers, Kadison worked extensively in television. He’d also written, produced and directed some odd-looking, lower-budget family films like The Cat, Git!, and You’ve Got To Be Smart, which is probably what brought him to Disney’s attention. The Gnome-Mobile came toward the end of Kadison’s Hollywood career. His last major credit was writing several episodes of Sid and Marty Krofft’s psychedelic nightmare The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

Triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan (last seen around these parts as a friend of Those Calloways) stars as San Francisco-based lumber tycoon D.J. Mulrooney. He’s on his way to an important business meeting in Seattle but not before he stops at the airport in his vintage Rolls Royce to pick up his grandkids, Elizabeth and Rodney (played by those Mary Poppins kids Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber…the credits actually introduce them as “those Mary Poppins kids” to remind you that you already liked one movie these kids were in).

The Mulrooneys stop for a picnic lunch among some giant redwoods. Elizabeth goes exploring and meets a young gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell, Canoe from That Darn Cat!). Jasper has a big problem and his closest friends, a bunch of talking, animatronic forest animals, haven’t been much help. It seems that Jasper’s grandfather, Knobby (played by Brennan without his false teeth), is fading away. He’s lost the will to live since he’s become convinced that he and Jasper are the last of the gnomes.

Elizabeth convinces D.J. to give Jasper and Knobby a ride in the jauntin’ car, now dubbed the Gnome-Mobile according to the Sherman Brothers’ song, to search for other gnomes in other forests. Knobby agrees to go along with it despite his mistrust of “doo-deans” (that’s gnomish for big people), especially the loggers he refers to as “Mulrooney’s Marauders”. D.J. tries to keep his identity a secret but once the cat’s out of the bag, Knobby goes ballistic. He wants nothing to do with Mulrooney and D.J. decides he doesn’t want anything to do with the short-tempered, ingrateful gnome, either. He plans to drop them off and be rid of them at first light.

Unfortunately, Knobby’s tirade caught the attention of Horatio Quaxton (Sean McClory, Kurt Russell’s drunken dad in Follow Me, Boys!). Quaxton runs a traveling two-bit sideshow called Quaxton’s Academy of Freaks (unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of the Academy, otherwise this would likely shoot to the top of my list of favorite weirdo Disney movies). He manages to sneak into the Mulrooneys’ hotel room and kidnap the basketful of gnomes. Once the crime is discovered, D.J. calls his right-hand man, Mr. Yarby (Richard Deacon, last heard as the voice of the survival manual in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.), and orders him to get their security team on the case immediately.

As far as Yarby’s concerned, this is just a sure sign that D.J. is cracking up. He arranges to have his boss locked up in a mental institution. Rodney and Elizabeth borrow the Gnome-Mobile, rescue their grandfather and figure out where Quaxton is hiding by interrogating a pair of his disgruntled employees (played by instantly recognizable character actors Frank Cady and Ellen Corby). By the time they get to Quaxton’s cabin, Knobby has already made his escape but they’re still in time to rescue Jasper.

Meanwhile, Yarby is still on their trail accompanied by a pair of male nurses (one of whom is played by Norm Grabowski from the Merlin Jones saga). They spot the Rolls while filling up with gas and immediately take off after them, yanking the hose out of the fuel pump in the process. D.J. leads them on a cross-country chase that ends up with Yarby’s car slowly coming to pieces bit by bit.

Ultimately, they get rid of their pursuers and are reunited with Knobby, who has found a gnome colony led by the thousand-year-old Rufus (who else but Ed Wynn). Rufus assures Jasper that there are plenty of other gnomes and a surplus of unattached gnome women. Jasper is immediately attracted to a shy beauty named Violet (Cami Sebring, ex-wife of celebrity hairstylist and soon-to-be Manson Family victim Jay Sebring). But in gnomish tradition, it’s the girls who chase the eligible boy. Jasper is dunked into a sudsy bath and whoever is able to catch him and hang on to him for seven seconds wins. In the end, Violet prevails over her more aggressive rivals. She and Jasper get married and D.J. donates 50,000 acres of forestland to the gnomes.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Gnome-Mobile

It seems clear to me that The Gnome-Mobile has been overshadowed by the not-dissimilar Darby O’Gill And The Little People. It’s easy to see why. Darby O’Gill has a lot going for it that The Gnome-Mobile has not, including richer characters and young stars like Sean Connery and Janet Munro. That movie makes room for drama, suspense and romance. This one is basically just a knockabout comedy. But it’s a funny, entertaining knockabout comedy and that goes a long way.

Sinclair was inspired to write his book in the first place by the magnificent redwoods and some echoes of his conservationist message still ring through the movie. But even though it looks briefly like the film is going to be Disney’s version of The Lorax, it never quite gets there. Sure, D.J. is an obscenely rich industrialist who made his fortune by deforesting huge swaths of land but he’s not a bad guy. He seems to feel that he’s made enough money and that it’s important to protect some land for future generations. Leave it to Disney to find away to make a movie that’s simultaneously pro-capitalism and pro-environmentalism.

At any rate, it’s not as though The Gnome-Mobile is heavy with messaging of any kind. The movie exists to showcase some fun special effects, engaging comic performances and goofy slapstick. I mean, what can you really say about a movie where a fuel pump starts spewing gas everywhere and the hapless gas station attendant tries to stop it with his hands and face? You can’t take any of this too seriously. As long as you go with the flow, you’ll have a good time.

We do have to say goodbye to a couple of familiar faces with this movie. Ed Wynn, who has been a presence in this column since Alice In Wonderland, died in 1966 at the age of 79. The Gnome-Mobile, his final film, was released posthumously about a year after his death. Wynn could be a lot but Disney usually had a pretty good sense of where and when to deploy his unique energy. Rufus is a good role for him to go out on. I’ll actually miss seeing him pop up in these movies.

The Gnome-Mobile also marks the end of Matthew Garber’s brief film career. He appeared in three Disney films beginning with The Three Lives Of Thomasina, then evidently decided acting wasn’t for him and went back to school. About ten years later, he contracted hepatitis in India. He died of pancreatitis back home in London in 1977 at the age of 21. In 2004, he and his on-screen sister, Karen Dotrice, were named Disney Legends. Dotrice will eventually find her way back into this column but it’ll be awhile.

When The Gnome-Mobile was released on July 12, 1967, critics weren’t exactly blown away but a lot of them found good things to say about it. It did OK at the box office, well enough to warrant a theatrical re-release in 1976. But it’s a movie that’s left a very small cultural footprint. You don’t hear it talked about much at all, either fondly or disdainfully. As usual, that’s kind of on Disney. They’re the ones deciding what to release on Blu-ray and promote on their streaming service. They could easily start introducing The Gnome-Mobile to a new audience if they felt like it. It’s a fun little movie that deserves another chance.

VERDICT: Another Disney Plus that’s not on Disney+.  

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