By 1968, Dean Jones was firmly established as Walt Disney’s go-to leading man. At the same time, Kurt Russell was climbing his way up to become the studio’s favorite juvenile lead. It was inevitable that their paths would cross eventually. It’s perhaps a little surprising that it only happened once, in the now mostly forgotten comedy The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit.
Producer Winston Hibler and director Norman Tokar took the reins on this one (pun very much intended, thank you very much), reuniting the team from Russell’s Disney debut, Follow Me, Boys! Screenwriter Louis Pelletier, another Follow Me, Boys! alum, based his script on the 1965 novel The Year Of The Horse by Eric Hatch. Hatch himself had some early Hollywood success. He was nominated for an Oscar for the classic My Man Godfrey, also based on one of his books.
Jones stars as Fred Bolton, an overworked creative director at a big Madison Avenue advertising agency. Bolton’s team has prepared a huge presentation for the firm’s biggest client, a pain reliever called Aspercel. But Aspercel’s president, Mr. Dugan (Fred Clark), is unimpressed by the work, even the mechanical pill-swallowing man whipped up by Charlie Blake (Dick Van Dyke Show costar Morey Amsterdam in what is surprisingly his only Disney appearance). Dugan wants a fresh, innovative, sophisticated campaign that appeals to the jet set and he gives Fred just 24 hours to come up with one.
In addition to his trouble at work, Fred is also a single parent trying to raise his daughter, Helen (Ellen Janov), with help from his Aunt Martha (Lurene Tuttle). Helen has been taking horseback riding lessons from S.J. “Suzie” Clemens (Diane Baker) and shows real promise but worries that she won’t reach her full potential unless she has a horse of her own. Fred can barely afford to pay for her lessons, much less buy a horse. But once he hears about the high-class world of competitive equestrianism, he has a brainstorm. Get the client to buy a horse under his daughter’s name, name it Aspercel and bask in all the free publicity once Helen and her horse start collecting medals.
It takes awhile for Helen and Aspy to start winning and for Fred’s subliminal advertising gimmick to start bearing fruit. A little too long for Dugan’s taste, who soon gets frustrated by the miniscule notices the junior equestrian trials merit in the paper. But Fred guarantees that Helen and Aspy will make it to the nationals in Washington, where the real publicity is. Dugan agrees to be patient a little longer but warns that Fred’s job is on the line if he fails to deliver. Helen overhears the whole conversation from inside Aspy’s trailer and finally understands why her dad was so insistent on her competing.
Later on, Fred returns home after a business trip to find the house deserted and Aspercel out of his stable. The horse runs off and Fred chases after it across country. Aspy allows himself to be caught after Fred collapses in exhaustion. Realizing they’ve run miles, Fred decides to try and ride the horse back home, easier said than done for a novice horseman. Meanwhile, Helen and Aunt Martha have returned home and reported the horse stolen to the police. When the cops roll up with the siren blaring, the spooked horse takes off like a shot, jumping fences and walls and eventually destroying a greenhouse after sending Fred through its front door.
Aspy returns home on his own and Fred ends up behind bars. He calls Charlie to come vouch for his identity to prove he didn’t steal his own horse. But Charlie’s only interested in milking the story for headlines, so he lets Fred cool his heels for a bit. Back at home, Helen is feeling the pressure of having to compete to save her father’s job. She’s also caught the eye of Ronnie Gardner (Kurt Russell), the brother of one of her fellow equestrians. When Ronnie shows up at the house to take her on a date, Helen confides that she doesn’t even like competing in horse shows any more and is only doing it because of her dad.
When Fred gets back, Ronnie confronts him, angry that he’d force Helen to do something against her will. Fred hadn’t realized she felt that way and agrees that her happiness is the most important thing, so he decides to take her off the competition circuit. But when Suzie hears about Fred’s wild ride and Aspy clearing a seven-foot-one wall, she has an idea. Instead of the junior leagues, she’ll ride Aspy herself at the International Horse Show in the open jumping division. The only trouble is that she’ll need to bring in a trainer to get her and Aspy in shape and the most qualified one she knows just happens to be her ex-fiancé, Archer Madison (Lloyd Bochner). And just when Fred was mustering up the nerve to tell Suzie that he’s falling for her.
Suzie qualifies for the show and the whole crew heads down to Washington. I’m assuming most of the footage used in the competition montage is from the actual event itself. Eventually, the playing field is leveled down to Suzie and her closest competition, the debonair Lieutenant Mario Lorendo (Federico Piñero). You’ll get no points for guessing which horse triumphs but Tokar manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense out of the final showdown. When the dust settles, Suzie assures Fred that there’s nothing between her and Archer and Helen immediately starts planning their wedding.
The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit is no classic but it’s more enjoyable than its somewhat strained Mad Men Meets National Velvet premise might suggest. The title, of course, is a play on the 1955 novel (and 1956 Gregory Peck movie) The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit about a discontented public relations man. I’m sure that reference meant a whole lot of nothing to kids in 1968 and it’ll mean even less to kids today.
The movie works best when Tokar and company keep things light. The opening scenes in the ad agency are fast-paced and funny. There’s a recurring bit where Dean Jones keeps accidentally snagging things on the saddle he’s toting through the office and it made me laugh every time. The advertising satire isn’t quite as sharp as the marketing gags in Son Of Flubber but it’s amusing enough. Fred’s horseback ride arrives about midway through the film and it injects some needed energy at a crucial moment. Jones also gets an opportunity to spotlight his talent for physical comedy when he tries to figure out how to mount a horse.
But there’s also an overall sense that the movie just wasn’t thought all the way through before they started to roll cameras. We get zero indication of why Fred’s a single dad. It’s clear that the father-daughter relationship is meant to be the heart of the movie but it isn’t really explored after Fred realizes he’s been pushing her too hard. It’s sweet that it’s resolved happily and quickly but there’s still almost half an hour of movie left. The tentative teenage romance between Helen and Ronnie never really goes anywhere. And Fred’s attraction to Suzie never feels like more than a narrative requirement. The chemistry between them is non-existent. Even something as innocuous as Fred’s horse allergy (a gag already lifted from That Darn Cat!) is forgotten about after a while.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it’s just too long. You could easily lose about 20 minutes and still have a fun, entertaining picture that tells the exact same story. Whenever the pacing starts to sag, the movie’s shortcomings become more obvious. Still, the movie has just enough going for it to make it worth watching.
Apart from Dean Jones and Kurt Russell, most of the main roles were filled with actors with limited Disney experience. (A few vets turn up in smaller roles, including Alan Hewitt, last seen in The Monkey’s Uncle, and Norm Grabowski, who pops up as a truck driver.) Diane Baker made her screen debut as Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, in George Stevens’ The Diary Of Anne Frank. Since then, she’d appeared in such films as Marnie and Mirage. She’s really more of a dramatic actress and never seems fully comfortable with the featherweight Disney style. The movie might have worked better with Suzanne Pleshette in the role. Baker hasn’t made another Disney movie since and she seems to have slowed down in recent years but she kept extremely busy. In 1991, she appeared in The Silence Of The Lambs as the senator whose daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. Hannibal Lecter loved her suit.
Fred Clark is one of those actors who seem like they appeared in a ton of Disney movies but really didn’t. He appeared in supporting roles, often comedic, throughout the 1950s, including The Caddy and How To Marry A Millionaire. His cigar-chomping, slow-burn comedic style is ideally suited to Disney work but The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit would be his first and last Disney movie. He died a few weeks before the movie was even released at the age of 54.
This was also the first and last film for young Ellen Janov who played Helen. She was the daughter of Arthur Janov, a psychologist whose book The Primal Scream became a 1970s fad thanks to celebrity followers like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Ellen, who was also a singer and cut a respectable cover of Cat Stevens’ “Portobello Road”, soon decided to leave show business and follow in her father’s footsteps as a practitioner of primal therapy. But her practice didn’t last long. On January 7, 1976, she died in a house fire at the tragically young age of 22.
When The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit was released on December 3, 1968, it brought an old friend along with it. Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, Disney’s second Winnie The Pooh short, appeared as the co-feature. The short earned Walt Disney a posthumous Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, the last of his astonishing 22 Oscar wins. They say records are made to be broken but I don’t think anybody’s even close to knocking Walt off that particular perch.
Even with an assist from Pooh Bear, The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit failed to impress critics or audiences. Today, the studio hasn’t exactly buried the movie but they aren’t going out of their way to make it accessible. It’s on DVD but it isn’t currently on Disney+ or even available to buy or rent digitally. Frankly, it deserves a little better. Sure, it’s low-key to a fault but it’s not without its charms. There are certainly a lot worse movies with the Disney name on them out there.
VERDICT: A minor Disney Plus but, just like a horse is a horse, a plus is a plus.