Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rascal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rascal

Animals had been a huge part of Walt Disney’s aesthetic even before he’d started making live-action films. The studio temporarily became a veritable zoo during the production of films like Dumbo and Bambi as real elephants and deer were brought in for the animators to study. And if there was anything Walt liked more than animal pictures, it was the honey-glazed, Norman Rockwell-style nostalgia for smalltown America in the early years of the twentieth century.

Even though Walt had been dead for a few years, the studio that bore his name was still very much guided by the interests and tastes of its founder. So while a movie like Rascal feels out of step with the prevailing trends of late 1969, it makes perfect sense as a Disney movie. The problem is that it doesn’t exactly feel like a Walt Disney movie. Instead, it feels like a faded carbon copy of earlier successes.

Walt surely would have related to the subtitle of the book that provided Rascal’s source material. Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir Of A Better Era was published in 1963 and it went on to win a shelf-load of children’s book awards including the prestigious Newbery Honor. Walt may well have been familiar with the book himself. He’d based his 1948 live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart on an earlier North book. Everything about Rascal fell directly into Walt’s wheelhouse.

Former animator and True-Life Adventures veteran James Algar produced Rascal. Norman Tokar, most recently responsible for The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, handled the directing duties. The screenplay was written by Harold Swanton, whose only other Disney credit was on the Wonderful World Of Color two-parter Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders).

Like so many other live-action Disney features, Rascal takes place in the bucolic American Midwest (Wisconsin this time) in a 1918 seemingly untouched by outside forces like World War I. That’s not the case with the book. The movie cuts out an absent older brother, away fighting in the Great War, as well as a sequence where young Sterling contracts the Spanish flu. The presence of a Stanley Steamer is just about the only thing left that gives the setting any specificity.

Former Lost In Space star and future Dr. Demento mainstay (thanks to Barnes & Barnes’ all-time great novelty song “Fish Heads”) Bill Mumy stars as young Sterling North. Walter Pidgeon, who had previously appeared in Tokar’s boy-and-his-dog drama Big Red, narrates as the older Sterling. It’s the beginning of summer vacation and the North family is still recovering from the recent death of Sterling’s mother. His older sister, Theo (Pamela Toll), has been taking care of things for their frequently absent father (Steve Forrest), whose work takes him on the road from state to state.

On the last day of school, Mr. North picks up his son and takes him out into the country for a surprise. A lynx has wandered down from Canada and made its home in the Wisconsin woods. The lynx surprises a family of raccoons, who manage to get away but leave the youngest behind. The young raccoon wouldn’t last a day with a lynx on the hunt, so Sterling brings the little fella home, naming him Rascal.

The Norths’ neighbors are less than thrilled by the new pet. Garth Shadwick is afraid Rascal will spook his prize horse, while Cy Jenkins warns that his old coonhound will chase him off the second he looks at his corn patch sidewise. But all the animals seem to get along just fine and Sterling vows he’ll “de-varmint” Rascal to ensure Cy’s corn remains untouched.

By the way, the great character actors Henry Jones and John Fiedler made their live-action Disney debuts here as Garth and Cy. Fiedler had joined the Disney family earlier, providing the voice of Piglet in Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, a role he’d stick with right up until his death in 2005. Both Jones and Fiedler will be back in this column.

Theo has to return to her own job in Chicago, so she lines up interviews for a potential live-in housekeeper. Mr. North agrees to meet with Theo’s favorite, the no-nonsense Mrs. Slatterfield (Elsa Lanchester, making her fourth and final appearance in this column, although she’d go on to appear in the Wonderful World Of Disney two-parter My Dog, The Thief). But after realizing that both he and Sterling crave a bit of nonsense, Mr. North dismisses her and decides they can take care of themselves.

Mr. North soon returns to his life on the road, leaving Sterling on his own to have the best summer of his life with Rascal and his dog, Wowzer. He builds a canoe in the middle of the living room. His concerned schoolteacher, Miss Whalen (Bettye Ackerman), stops by with Reverend Thurman (Jonathan Daly) to see how he’s getting along. Fortunately, Mr. North makes it home himself, just in time to get everybody drunk on homemade cider. Most of all, Sterling writes copious letters to his sister, assuring her that Rascal’s just fine and pretending that Mrs. Slatterfield actually got the job.

Of course, the summer isn’t all cider and canoes. Rascal gets loose in the general store and trashes the place, turning everyone in town against Sterling and his raccoon. The local constable (Robert Emhardt) issues a citation for keeping an unlicensed varmint or something and threatens to hold Sterling responsible for damages unless he keeps Rascal caged up.

Sterling is just about to set Rascal free when Mr. North butts in. Turns out that Garth has made a not-entirely-friendly wager with local auto enthusiast Walt Dabbett (Richard Erdman) that his horse-and-buggy can beat Walt’s Stanley Steamer in a fair race. A lot of folks, including the constable, have bet good money on Garth to win. But things aren’t looking too promising until the Norths arrive with Rascal. Garth takes the raccoon as a passenger and that’s somehow enough to spur the horse on to victory. Now everybody loves Rascal again. Well, everybody that matters, anyway.

Everything goes back to normal until Theo comes home for Thanksgiving with her new beau, Norman (Steve Carlson). She hasn’t even made it to the house when she learns that Mrs. Slatterfield hasn’t been working for the family at all. Enraged, Theo abandons Norman and heads home. She’s appalled by the mess and finally has it out with her irresponsible father, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he still has a son to raise and no one to help.

That same night, Rascal hears the mating call of a female raccoon through the window. He predictably goes nuts and tries to escape through Theo’s room, waking her and everyone else. When Sterling goes to grab him, Rascal bites his finger. Sterling’s more sad and surprised than seriously hurt and realizes that now it really is time to let Rascal go be the varmint he always was. At the same time, Theo’s heart-to-heart has the desired effect and Mr. North decides it’s time to grow up and be a real father for a change.

Sterling sets out in his homemade canoe to return Rascal to his old stomping grounds. (By the way, Wisconsin experienced then-record snowfall during the Thanksgiving of 1918, not the balmy Indian summer weather Sterling paddles through here.) Rascal quickly locates his lady racoon (or a lady racoon, anyway) and they go off to make little Rascals. But before Sterling leaves, that lynx spots the happy couple and attacks! Sterling starts back to help but Rascal and Mrs. Rascal don’t need it. They outwit the lynx, sending him tumbling into the water. Looks like they’re gonna be just fine.

Rascal quad poster

It’s interesting that Rascal was Disney’s very next movie after Smith! Both films are quiet, low-key affairs that amble along at their own pace, seemingly unconcerned with sending the audience to sleep. They also both have acoustic, folksy theme songs by Bobby Russell. Unfortunately, while Russell’s “Summer Sweet” does indeed include the lyric “You Rascal You”, it only makes you wish you were listening to the Louis Armstrong song of that name instead.

Of the two, Rascal is certainly the superior film, although, considering what a waste Smith! ended up being, that is the faintest of praise. Sterling North’s book sounds pretty good and I think an interesting movie could be made from it. Steve Forrest’s character remains frustratingly two-dimensional until the end. But after Theo lets him have it, you can see the complexities that a richer film could dig into. A suddenly single parent mourning the loss of his wife in his own way, who very much loves his son but has never really been there for him? That’s an interesting character.

Forrest does the best he can with what he has to work with, although he’s more comfortable as the glad-handing dreamer than the wounded, irresponsible father. This would be Forrest’s only Disney feature, although he did make a couple of Disney TV appearances. Television became Forrest’s bread and butter in the 1970s, starring on the show S.W.A.T. and appearing in loads of guest shots, TV-movies and miniseries. He’s a charismatic screen presence. I’m sorry we won’t be seeing him back in this column.

Bill Mumy turns in a nicely restrained performance as Sterling, probably more nuanced than someone like Tommy Kirk would have given had this been made a decade or so earlier. But to my eyes anyway, he seems a little old for the part. In the book, Sterling would have been around 11 or 12. Mumy was 15 when Rascal was released, maybe 14 when the movie was shot. Not necessarily a huge difference. But to this Gen-Xer, when Sterling is left alone, my first thought was, “What’s the big deal? I was left on my own all the time at that age.”

Mumy seems like the sort of kid who would have been right at home on the Disney lot, especially in earlier movies like Old Yeller and Big Red. But this will also be Bill Mumy’s only appearance in this column. He’d earlier appeared in a couple of TV projects, Sammy, The Way-Out Seal and For The Love Of Willadean. But by 1969, I guess the studio was going all in on Kurt Russell as their resident juvenile lead and didn’t want to split their attention. Besides, Mumy was already fairly established thanks to growing up on TV in shows like The Twilight Zone and Lost In Space. Disney always preferred their young stars home-grown.

My biggest problem with Rascal is that there just isn’t much to it. For some folks, this might not be a deal-breaker. It’s pleasant and unchallenging and, at a brisk 85 minutes, is never in danger of overstaying its welcome. But it’s never a good sign when you have to really think to remind yourself what happened in a movie you just finished watching. When I sat down to write this column, all I could remember was the canoe in the living room, Rascal wreaking havoc on the general store and something about a horse racing a car. And I wasn’t too sure about that last one. For all I knew, my brain was mashing up The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit and The Love Bug. The perils of watching too many Disney movies, I guess.

Rascal was released on June 11, 1969, making this the last movie in this column to come out before I was born. Ouch. It didn’t have a huge impact, although it was the first movie ever reviewed by Gene Siskel in the pages of the Chicago Tribune (he didn’t like it). But a later adaptation of Sterling North’s novel would have a major effect on Japan, of all places.

In 1977, an anime adaptation of North’s book, Araiguma Rasukaru, began airing in Japan. The series was wildly popular. As a result, Japanese kids began begging their parents for racoons, an animal indigenous to North America. But just like Sterling, these kids eventually realized that racoons make terrible pets and they released them into the wild. So many racoons were imported that they eventually became a real nuisance, destroying crops and cultural landmarks. The government moved to ban the import of racoons but it was too late. Japan had been infested with an army of Rascals.

Back home, Rascal has its champions but it remains fairly obscure. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and the studio has never done much with it on disc. Unless someone decides to remake it, I don’t foresee a huge resurgence of interest in Rascal any time soon. There are just way too many other places to get your coming-of-age-with-a-cute-animal fix these days.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Smith!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Smith!

According to the 2010 Census, Smith remains the most common surname in the United States. It’s a name most of us encounter every day. If you’re not a Smith yourself, odds are you probably know one. But even if your name is Smith, I can guarantee you’ve never heard “Smith” said as frequently as you will in the 1969 film Smith! If you made it a drinking game, you would be passed out cold within the first hour.

The addition of the exclamation point does not make Smith! a more exciting title. The movie is based on the book Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre, so I get why producer Bill Anderson, screenwriter Louis Pelletier and director Michael O’Herlihy decided to change the title. Why they chose to change it to something that sounds like a musical or a 60s spy movie, I couldn’t tell you. It certainly suggests an energy level that’s totally misaligned with the movie itself.

Paul St. Pierre was a Canadian writer and journalist who specialized in tales of British Columbia. At the time Smith! was released in 1969, he was also a Member of Parliament representing Coast Chilcotin. His political career was short-lived, however. After losing his re-election bid in 1972, he returned to writing and continued to be a popular columnist for the Vancouver Sun for many years.

A number of St. Pierre’s stories revolved around a rancher named Smith (no first name, just Smith) and his friendship with an Indian called Ol’ Antoine. St. Pierre himself had already brought Smith to the screen on the short-lived Canadian TV series Cariboo Country. David Hughes, who would later go on to appear on the Disney-adjacent Anne Of Green Gables, starred as Smith and Chief Dan George played Ol’ Antoine, a role he’d reprise in Smith! Cariboo Country was the Indigenous actor’s screen debut at the age of 65. The year after Smith! hit theatres, he’d be nominated for an Oscar thanks to his role in Little Big Man. We’ll see him again in this column.

Disney tapped screen legend Glenn Ford to star as Smith, his first and only gig for the studio. Ford wasn’t quite as big a star as he’d been at his 1950s peak. He’d started the 60s with a couple of expensive flops like Cimarron and The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. But he made a bit of a comeback with Frank Capra’s 1961 comedy Pocketful Of Miracles, on which he was also an associate producer. Ford’s genial, everyman charm is a good fit for Disney, so it’s kind of strange that he only made one picture at the studio.

As the movie opens, Smith is returning home after spending a few days rounding up some wayward cattle. His wife, Norah (Nancy Olson from Pollyanna and the Flubber saga), and son, Alpie (Christopher Shea, best known as the original voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials), have some troubling news for Smith (everybody calls him Smith, even his son). An Indian named Gabriel Jimmyboy (Colombian actor Frank Ramírez) has been accused of murdering a white man in a bar fight. Norah suspects that Ol’ Antoine has brought Gabriel to their land and is hiding out with him in an old shack near the edge of their property.

On his way out to the shack, Smith runs into sheriff’s deputy Vince Heber (Keenan Wynn, playing a rather more serious villain than Flubber’s Alonzo P. Hawk). Vince wants to go over Smith’s place with a pair of bloodhounds but Smith puts him off by demanding he get a warrant first. Smith faces Gabriel Jimmyboy unarmed and tries to persuade him to turn himself in, confident that a jury will find he acted in justifiable self-defense. Both Gabriel and Ol’ Antoine scoff at Smith’s naïve belief that an Indian could ever receive a fair trial from an all-white jury.

But it isn’t only the whites who are interested in Gabriel Jimmyboy. The police have offered a $500 reward to anyone who can bring him in. The scent of money attracts the attention of fast-talking sleazeball and part-time translator Walter Charlie (played by the great Warren Oates, who might not be the last person I expected to pop up in a Disney movie but he’s close). Walter Charlie offers to split the money with Smith but, needless to say, Smith can’t be bought.

Smith encourages Ol’ Antoine to turn in Gabriel and use the reward to hire a decent lawyer. Ol’ Antoine does collect the cash but Walter Charlie intercepts him and convinces him to buy a used convertible for $499.95 instead. As a result, Gabriel is stuck with an inexperienced public defender (Roger Ewing) who can barely communicate with his client.

At last, Gabriel Jimmyboy gets his day in court (Oscar winner Dean Jagger appears as the judge, another one-and-done Disney appearance). Everyone eagerly awaits the testimony of Ol’ Antoine with Smith serving as translator. But instead of saying anything at all about the night in question, Ol’ Antoine launches into a lengthy monologue about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War, concluding with his famous quote, “I will fight no more forever.”

It’s stirring stuff and evidently has the intended effect, as the case is soon dismissed. The only person who seems less than thrilled by this decision is our old pal Vince Heber. But instead of limiting his comments to the fact that Ol’ Antoine’s testimony seems irrelevant at best (you know you’ve made a misstep when your audience starts thinking, “Y’know, that horrible racist kind of has a point.”), he goes off on an anti-Indian tirade. Smith blows his top and decks him in open court.

The judge slaps Smith with a $50 fine and 30 days in jail. Now how will Smith get his hay crop in?! With Smith locked up, Ol’ Antoine stages a sit-in on the courthouse steps. Gabriel’s useless public defender finally decides to do something and sticks up for Smith, somehow managing to get the judge to reconsider. Finally, Smith gets out of jail and returns to the ranch where all the Indians have gathered to help with the hay and to fulfill Ol’ Antoine’s long-delayed promise to break little Alpie’s horse. You see? St. Pierre’s original title turned out to have something to do with the story after all!

Three sheet movie poster for Smith

Obviously this isn’t the first time Disney has tried to deal with Indigenous peoples in a sympathetic light. But after such well-intentioned but deeply flawed efforts like The Light In The Forest and Tonka, you can understand why I approached Smith! with some trepidation. The good news is that there’s not much here that’s overtly cringe-worthy. Sure, it’s a little hard to swallow Warren Oates as a Native American but they’re getting better in terms of representation. In addition to Chief Dan George, the cast also includes Jay Silverheels, perhaps one of the best-known Indigenous actors of his generation thanks to his lengthy tenure as Tonto opposite Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger. Hey, at least they’re trying, which is more than they were doing ten years earlier.

The problem with Smith! (well, one of the problems…there are a few) is I have no idea who this movie was even made for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a subdued, methodical approach but if this movie was any more low-key, it would fade off the screen altogether. The story’s inciting incident, Gabriel Johnnyboy’s fight with Sam Hardy, takes place before the movie even starts and we never get a really clear idea of just what went down. It’s tough to care about the outcome of a courtroom drama when you’re not given enough information to decide how you feel about the accused.

The fact that Smith! does eventually morph into a courtroom drama is a sign that O’Herlihy, Anderson and Pelletier were aiming at a somewhat older audience. Studios don’t tend to make a lot of courtroom dramas for the 10-and-under crowd. But they never fully commit to making a movie for grownups, either. Every so often, as if by royal decree, the movie checks in with Alpie and his Native American buddy, Peterpaul (Ricky Cordell). These scenes do nothing to advance the narrative. They exist solely to cater to junior Disney fans who would otherwise have absolutely nothing else to relate to.

Not that older audiences fare much better. Smith! is a contemporary western only in the sense that it takes place in the west, it’s about Native Americans and we see a few horses. There’s no action to speak of, no tense showdowns, no magnificent landscapes. The “posse” in pursuit of Gabriel Jimmyboy consists of two guys and two dogs and they end up tracking Gabriel straight back to the police station where the fugitive has already turned himself in. My, what a thrilling chase.

One of Smith!’s biggest miscalculations is Smith’s wife, Norah. In her previous Disney outings, Nancy Olson was a charming and funny presence opposite stars like Fred MacMurray and Hayley Mills. Here, Louis Pelletier’s script turns her into an unlikable harridan, eternally annoyed by her husband and practically tearing her hair out over the stress of their money woes. She’s also not a fan of Smith’s friendship with the Natives. She declares early on, “I’m so fed up with Indians!” Not a great look, Norah.

Weirdly, the movie Smith! reminded me of most was Tom Laughlin’s 1971 hit Billy Jack. Both movies attempt to reform the traditional screen image of Native Americans and both get very, very confused along the way. Try to imagine a G-rated version of Billy Jack with almost no violence and you’d end up with something like Smith! You’d also end up with a movie that most people aren’t going to want to see.

Adding to the Billy Jack feel is the title song, “The Ballad of Smith and Gabriel Jimmyboy”, written and performed by Bobby Russell. Russell was a singer-songwriter in the country-folk-pop arena who had some minor hits as a solo artist. But his best-known songs were recorded by other artists. Roger Miller (who will appear in this column eventually) had a crossover hit with “Little Green Apples”. And in 1973, Russell’s then-wife Vicki Lawrence went all the way to number one with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”.

(Vicki Lawrence would go on to do a voice in the DTV sequel The Fox And The Hound 2 and appear on multiple episodes of Hannah Montana but strangely never appeared in anything that qualifies for this column. That’s crazy to me. If anybody seems like they should have been in a live-action Disney comedy of the 70s, it’s Vicki Lawrence.)

Smith! was released to theatres on May 9, 1969, to general indifference. It would be the last Disney assignment for director Michael O’Herlihy, whose work for the studio represented his only theatrical feature films. O’Herlihy went back to TV after Smith! and never looked back. His last credit was a 1988 episode of Hunter. He passed away back home in Ireland at the age of 69 in 1997.

There’s one other person worth mentioning who was allegedly involved in the production of Smith! According to IMDb, a young Melanie Griffith made her screen debut as an extra in the film. I don’t know that I necessarily believe that. Griffith would have been around 11 years old at the time. Her parents were Tippi Hedren and former actor turned advertising executive Peter Griffith. Her stepfather was agent Noel Marshall (the family would later make the notorious Roar, which is kind of like a Disney nature movie on acid). So it’s certainly possible that Melanie was already going out for small parts in things like Smith! But no one in her family had any particular connection to Disney and Melanie wouldn’t appear on screen again until 1973’s The Harrad Experiment. At any rate, I certainly didn’t spot Melanie Griffith in Smith! and she won’t be returning to this column. Her next brush with Disney came after the formation of Touchstone Pictures.

Smith! is one of the lesser lights in the Disney back catalog. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Believe it or not, I always hope that these more obscure titles turn out to be hidden gems worthy of rediscovery. Instead, Smith! is one of those movies that makes a project like this a bit of a slog.

VERDICT!: Disney! Minus!

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Love Bug

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Love Bug

There has probably never been another producer in the history of motion pictures as concerned with the concept of legacy as Walt Disney. Walt didn’t want to make pictures that opened well or played for a few weeks or months. He wanted to make evergreens, films that could be re-released again and again forever. To accomplish this, he made animated features based on tales that had already stood the test of time. When he started producing live-action films, he focused on period pieces and historical fiction. So it’s tough to figure out what he would have thought about The Love Bug. On the one hand, it’s the most contemporary movie the studio had made to that point, firmly rooted in the late 1960s. But on the other, it worked like gangbusters, becoming the studio’s biggest hit in years and its own kind of evergreen.

Walt himself had optioned the source material that became The Love Bug, a treatment or unpublished short story called Car-Boy-Girl (or possibly Boy-Girl-Car) by Gordon Buford. Sources differ on what exactly this was, how it ended up capturing Walt’s attention or even what the exact title was and there’s almost no information about Gordon Buford out there. The only thing that seems certain is that it was a comedy about a sentient car. Shortly before Walt’s death, Dean Jones pitched him a dramatic script about race car driving. Walt wasn’t interested and told Jones he should star in Car-Boy-Girl instead.

Jones had successfully made the transition from Broadway and TV to legitimate movie star by listening to Walt’s advice, so he wasn’t about to stop now. Disney’s Mary Poppins A-team, director Robert Stevenson, co-writer and producer Bill Walsh, and co-writer Don DaGradi, were all assigned to the Car-Boy-Girl project. Walsh had written the Mickey Mouse comic strip for years and DaGradi was a former animator with experience in both shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face and features like Lady And The Tramp. Their cartoon backgrounds made them ideally suited to creating a real, sympathetic character out of an anthropomorphic car.

Interestingly enough, Buford’s original treatment didn’t specify what kind of car the film should be about. The production team held “auditions” for the role on the Disney lot, inviting the crew and staff to come inspect a dozen or so different cars. The pearl white Volkswagen Beetle won on cuteness and charm. It was the only car in the lineup that everyone reached out to pet as they walked by.

Storybook cover of The Love Bug

This was not Dean Jones’ first time appearing opposite a character named Herbie. In The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, released just a few weeks prior to The Love Bug, Jones’ Aunt Martha has a dog named Herbie. Was this a coincidence or a subtle piece of stealth marketing? It’s hard to say for sure. What is certain is that Herbie the Love Bug’s name came from co-star Buddy Hackett, the nightclub comic making his Disney debut as junkyard artist and occasional mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Hackett will be back in this column in animated form). One of Hackett’s routines was about a team of heavily accented German ski instructors named Klaus, Hans, Fritz, Wilhelm and Sandor. The punchline was, “If you ain’t got a Herbie, I ain’t going!” Hackett’s Brooklynese pronunciation of the name never failed to bring down the house. Thus, the little Volkswagen became Herbie.

David Tomlinson, who’d had the role of a lifetime as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, returned to the Disney fold to play the snobby, weaselly Peter Thorndyke, European car salesman and Jones’ rival on the racing circuit. The villainous role was the polar opposite of his paternal Mary Poppins character and Tomlinson had a field day with it. We haven’t seen the last of him in this column.

The female lead was given to a relative newcomer, Michele Lee. Lee made her film debut in 1967, reprising her Broadway role in the movie version of the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The Love Bug has been her only Disney role to date and even though she appears to be retired, I suppose that could still change. After her stint in Herbie’s passenger seat, Lee focused primarily on television, spending the entirety of the 1980s and about the first half of the 90s on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.

Even though all of Dean Jones’ Disney features had been contemporary-set comedies, they all took place in the suburbs or quaint little towns untouched by the passage of time. Even The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit spends as little time at Jones’ New York City ad agency as narratively possible. The Love Bug is different. San Francisco in 1968 is such a very specific place and time that even Disney couldn’t ignore it. Consequently, Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz is an aspiring Zen master given to lengthy reminiscences on his time with the Buddhist monks of Tibet. Some of the first people Jones encounters after discovering Herbie’s special nature are hippies, including one in a psychedelic van played by Jones himself in a fake beard, long wig and blue-tinted sunglasses. This might be our first movie to show any kind of awareness of the world outside the studio walls since the Beach Boys turned up in The Monkey’s Uncle.

The Story Of The Love Bug record album

The Love Bug has been consistently popular over the years, so its storyline probably doesn’t require a lot of summation. Still, there are a few points to take note of. Jones stars as Jim Douglas, an aging race car driver whose glory days are far behind him, if he ever experienced them at all. After losing a demolition derby, Jim finds himself without a car. His search for a cheap ride is sidetracked when he spots leggy sales associate Carole Bennett (Lee) through the window of Thorndyke’s high-end European showroom. After going inside to flirt, Thorndyke mistakes Jim for a paying customer. Jim expresses interest in the shop’s pièce de resistance, a bright yellow sportscar dubbed the Thorndyke Special. But when Thorndyke discovers that Jim’s broke, he turns the charm off like a spigot.

Jim’s presence in the shop also attracts the attention of a little Volkswagen Beetle, who rolls out of the garage and onto the showroom floor to get his attention. Jim’s not interested but he stands up for the car anyway when Thorndyke starts insulting it. The next morning, Jim wakes up to find a detective (played by fellow nightclub comic and Car 54, Where Are You? star Joe E. Ross) outside the old firehouse he shares with Tennessee. Turns out the Bug followed him home and is parked right outside. Thorndyke accuses Jim of stealing the car and has him arrested, while Jim believes Thorndyke planted the car there himself to strong-arm him into buying it.

Jim avoids jail time by agreeing to buy the car on an installment plan. But he soon discovers the car has a mind of its own when he’s literally incapable of getting on the freeway. The car seems to be out of control but Jim eventually warms up to it when he realizes that it’s going out of its way to bring him and Carole together.

It’s worth noting that the movie wisely makes no effort to explain how or why Herbie got its special powers. Tennessee offers some pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment about inanimate objects possessing hearts and minds of their own but that’s about as far as it goes. Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi understood that nobody really cares about the rationale behind fantastic events. The important thing is that the audience cares about Herbie.

The Love Bug comic book adaptation

Once Jim and Herbie start racing together, the audience really does start to invest emotionally in the little car. Thorndyke gets Herbie drunk by pouring some of Tennessee’s patented Irish coffee into the gas tank. When Jim starts hogging all the credit for their winning streak and goes out looking for a bigger car, Herbie gets jealous and runs away. In possibly the film’s strangest scene, Jim discovers Herbie about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Herbie has a more complex personality than most people in live-action Disney comedies.

During Herbie’s long dark night of the soul, he damaged a Chinatown store front owned by Tang Wu (veteran character actor Benson Fong). Jim can’t afford to pay for the damages but Tennessee (who speaks Cantonese) discovers that Wu is a racing fan and persuades him to become Herbie’s new owner and allow Jim to race in the upcoming two-day El Dorado race. If Herbie wins, Wu can keep the prize money but has to sell Herbie back to Jim for a dollar. As both a businessman and a racing buff, Wu can’t pass up a deal like that.

The race pits Team Herbie against the Thorndyke Special, driven by Thorndyke himself and assisted by his own personal Mr. Smithers, Havershaw (Joe Flynn, last seen in Son Of Flubber). Walsh and DaGradi don’t bother giving the other competitors names, much less personalities, but they’re driven by a who’s who of legendary stuntmen including Dick Warlock, Jock Mahoney and Bud Ekins. The announcers are none other than long-time L.A. Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn and legendary voice actor and announcer Gary Owens, who was also voicing Space Ghost and appearing regularly on Laugh-In at the time.

Thorndyke dives deep into The Big Book Of Dirty Tricks to ensure his victory. Herbie barely finishes the first day in a distant last place. But Thorndyke’s arrogance inspires Herbie to continue the race. On the second day, they make up for lost time but the race has taken its toll on Herbie. In the final stretch, the car splits in two, with Jim and Carole racing in the front seat and Tennessee holding on for dear life in the back. Thanks to a judging committee that seems to be making up the rules as they go along, Herbie finishes in first and third. Wu takes control of Thorndyke’s business, putting him and Havershaw to work in the garage, and Jim and Carole get married, placing their honeymoon plans in Herbie’s capable….um, tires, I guess.

The Love Bug theatrical re-release poster

Disney had been making high-concept comedies like this for quite some time, as far back as The Shaggy Dog a decade previous. But while there was no reason to doubt their ability to make a movie like The Love Bug, there was also nothing to indicate it was going to be anything special. On paper, it hews closely to the “strait-laced Dean Jones has his life turned upside down by a cat/a dog/some monkeys/a ghost/a horse” formula. But there are a few subtle tweaks to the recipe that give The Love Bug some extra juice.

First off, Jones’ Jim Douglas isn’t quite as strait-laced as his previous characters. Most of Jones’ other films cast him as either an accomplished professional, a devoted husband or father, or an ambitious young man on the way up. Jim Douglas is closest to Steve Walker in Blackbeard’s Ghost. They’re both single guys, they’re both underdogs in competitions where the odds are stacked heavily against them, and they both have to convince themselves they’re not crazy when strange things start happening. But Steve was fundamentally honest and didn’t want to take a victory his team didn’t earn. Jim obviously isn’t above taking advantage of a situation. After all, nobody else is racing with a magic car and you know damn well Jim’s not disclosing that little nugget on his entry form.

Another key difference is that Jones’ previous performances were essentially reactive. There’s an art to that too, of course, and Jones was extremely good at reacting to whatever nonsense got thrown at him, whether it was by a bunch of dogs or Peter Ustinov. But you can’t just react to a car. You have to actually act in order to sell the idea that the car is acting on its own volition. Jones is up to the task and it’s really thanks to him and Buddy Hackett that you come to believe in Herbie. Jones is somehow even able to make talking a Volkswagen off a bridge look…well, maybe not normal but certainly less ridiculous than it might.

Of course, Disney’s gimmick comedies live or die on the strength of their gags (just ask Merlin Jones). Fortunately, Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi brought their A-game to The Love Bug. This is a Disney comedy that’s not just aimed at the youngest members of the audience. Hackett and Tomlinson’s drunk scene is genuinely funny, as are the visual gags and gentle pokes at hippie culture.

The movie really shines in its slapstick special effects. Whether it’s Herbie falling to pieces, a detour through an active mine or Tomlinson discovering a live bear in his passenger seat, Stevenson does a great job creating the live-action equivalent of an animated cartoon. These effects aren’t exactly going to leave you gob-smacked, scratching your head and wondering how they could have possibly pulled off such miracles. But they are consistently fun and leave you laughing.

Contemporary audiences were certainly more than satisfied with The Love Bug. After premiering in limited release on Christmas Eve of 1968, the movie expanded on March 13, 1969. Audiences flocked to the relatively low-budget picture, eventually turning it into the second highest-grossing film of 1969, behind Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and ahead of Midnight Cowboy (needless to say, it was a weird, transitional time at the movies). It was the studio’s biggest hit since Mary Poppins.

Naturally, some critics groused about it, complaining that it was too predictable, too simple-minded and too far-fetched. These critics strike me as the sort of people who would complain that their ice cream is too cold. Of course it’s all those things. So what? All that matters is if it brings you some degree of pleasure.

The runaway success of The Love Bug all but guaranteed that Disney would stay in the Dean Jones business and vice versa. Rest assured, Jones will be back in this column before long. But it also inspired the studio to reconsider Walt’s long-standing bias against sequels. Prior to The Love Bug, only a handful of pictures had given extensions: The Absent-Minded Professor, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and, for whatever reason, Old Yeller. But The Love Bug became a phenomenon that the studio would soon become very, very interested in replicating. And so, to borrow a phrase from James Bond, Herbie will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit

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.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day

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.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Never A Dull Moment

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Never A Dull Moment

The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its final episode on June 1, 1966, just about one month before Van Dyke’s second Disney movie, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., hit theatres. Since then, Van Dyke had made two more movies at other studios: Divorce American Style, which had done OK and earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, and Fitzwilly, which had not. Considering that both of Van Dyke’s Disney movies had been hits, despite the vast disparity in the quality of the two films, it’s little wonder that he decided to return to the studio one more time for Never A Dull Moment.

Never A Dull Moment was produced by Ron Miller, the former football player who was married to Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney. Since going to work for his father-in-law, Miller had specialized in broad comedies like the Merlin Jones pictures. He’d worked with Dick Van Dyke on Lt. Robin Crusoe. There’s not a lot of behind-the-scenes information about this movie out there (shocking, I know) so I’m not entirely sure where the idea to make this film came from. But my assumption is that Miller found the original novel and felt it would make a good vehicle for Dick Van Dyke.

About that novel…it was published in 1967 as an Inner Sanctum Mystery called A Thrill A Minute With Jack Albany by John Godey. Godey, the pen name of Morton Freedgood, wrote a number of crime novels including The Three Worlds Of Johnny Handsome (later filmed by Walter Hill) and The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, the basis for the classic 1974 thriller starring Walter Matthau. So I’m assuming (doing a lot of that this week) that Godey’s novel is a bit more adult-oriented than the movie.

A.J. Carothers wrote the screenplay, his last work for Disney after such films as The Happiest Millionaire and Emil And The Detectives. Carothers went on to create the TV show Nanny And The Professor. He also wrote quite a few made-for-TV movies and the feature films Hero At Large and The Secret Of My Success. Carothers seems to have retired after that last film and he passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

As with Lt. Robin Crusoe, Van Dyke appears to have used some of his clout to bring aboard a director he was familiar with but new to Disney. Jerry Paris had been Van Dyke’s costar on The Dick Van Dyke Show, appearing as the Petries’ neighbor, Jerry Helper. He started directing the show in 1963, winning an Emmy in the process. He eventually phased acting out to focus entirely on directing. Never A Dull Moment would be his only Disney gig. He continued to direct a lot of TV, including the majority of Happy Days episodes, and the occasional feature like Police Academy 2 and 3. Like Carothers, he also made a lot of made-for-TV movies including one of my favorites, the cult classic Evil Roy Slade.

Theatrical release poster for Never A Dull Moment

At first glance, Never A Dull Moment looks promising. Van Dyke is well cast as Jack Albany, an egotistical C-list actor still waiting for his big break. He’s the kind of actor who quotes reviews of his triumphant performance in Twelfth Night whenever he gets the chance. After appearing as a gangster on a TV show, Jack heads home, still in costume. But when he suspects he’s being followed, he ducks into a warehouse and runs into a low-level mob flunky named Florian (Tony Bill, who would win an Oscar a few years later for co-producing The Sting). Florian has been sent to collect a hired killer named Ace Williams and naturally assumes that Jack is Ace. Jack tries to explain the misunderstanding but once he realizes that Florian will kill him if he isn’t Ace, he decides to play along.

Florian brings Jack/Ace to the country house of powerful gangster Leo Joseph Smooth (Edward G. Robinson in one of his last gangster roles). Smooth may be a high-ranking mafioso but he’s neither famous nor infamous. In an attempt to secure his place in history, he’s planned an art heist. His crew will steal the 40-foot-long painting “Field of Sunflowers” after a museum benefit. He then intends to give the masterpiece back to the museum in his will, along with a sizable donation if they agree to name the museum after him.

To pull the job, Smooth has assembled a crack team of professional criminals, including communications expert Bobby Macoon (Richard Bakalyan, who had an uncredited appearance as an umpire in Follow Me, Boys! and is about to become a very familiar face in this column), Cowboy Schaeffer (Slim Pickens, making his first Disney appearance since Savage Sam), and stone-faced killer Frank Boley (the awesome Henry Silva who unfortunately did not become a Disney regular). Frank’s the only one who doesn’t believe Jack is the real Ace Williams, which automatically makes him the sharpest tool in a dull shed.

To make sure nothing goes wrong, Smooth informs everyone that they’ll all be staying at the house until it’s time for the benefit the next day. This ends up including Smooth’s art instructor, a civilian named Sally Inwood (Dorothy Provine, returning to the Disney fold for the first time since That Darn Cat!). Jack thinks he and Sally might be able to help each other out of this mess but has a hard time getting alone with her. Part of the problem is Jack is continually waylaid by Smooth’s wife, Melanie (Joanna Moore, last seen in Son Of Flubber), a lonely ex-burlesque dancer eager to share memories of the stage with Jack.

Eventually, the real Ace Williams (played by the wonderful Jack Elam and he’ll be back in this column, too) turns up at the house. Turns out that Ace was mugged on his way to the meet-up, so he doesn’t have anything to prove he’s the real McCoy. Neither does Jack, so the crew decides that the only way to find the real Ace Williams is to lock them both in a room and have it out. Two men enter, one man leaves and that man must be the real killer. Fortunately for Jack, Sally just happens to be hiding out in the room chosen for the fight. She knocks Ace unconscious and agrees to work with Jack to figure a way out of this mess. Ace is locked in the basement and Jack has no choice but to go along with the heist.

The next day, Jack heads out with the crew to infiltrate the museum disguised as caterers. Meanwhile, Sally is left alone with Ace in the basement and Joe Smooth’s tough-guy valet, Francis (Mickey Shaughnessy), guarding her. As Sally tries to outwit the bad guys, Jack is forced to go into action and play his part. He tries explaining to the guard what’s going on in a whisper but, for reasons that are literally never explained, the guard suddenly collapses in a heap, dead as a doornail.

The rest of the crew is very impressed by this but Jack suddenly decides he’s had enough. He refuses to steal the painting and leads the crew on a chase through the museum. Along the way, Jack finds the second guard, who ALSO dies the second Jack touches him. The chase doesn’t climax so much as peter out when the police suddenly turn up. Seems that Sally was able to escape and call the cops after all. They all go round up Smooth at the rendezvous point and Jack and Sally, who think they’ve fallen in love for some reason, live happily ever after.

Theatrical re-release poster for Never A Dull Moment

So, there are a whole lot of problems with Never A Dull Moment but my biggest question when I was finished with all this was, “How did the author of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three come up with such a boring heist?” It turns out he didn’t. In the book, the bad guys are planning to kidnap the mayor of New York City. That certainly sounds a whole lot more interesting than stealing one painting from a museum, no matter how oversized the canvas.

The title Never A Dull Moment is clearly a suggestion, not a guarantee. The movie is often shockingly, staggeringly dull. Over half of the movie takes place in that house. While we’re there, Dick Van Dyke spends a lot of time pretending to be drunk (which is one of those gags that’s funny the first time but gets old quick), Edward G. Robinson goes on and on about art and legacy and overexplains the logistics of this very basic heist, Dorothy Provine behaves as though this threat against her life is a mid-level inconvenience, and Slim Pickens mangles the pronunciation of “horse doovers”.

Things don’t improve much at the museum. The climactic chase goes through various wings of the museum, which seems ripe for comedy. But for the most part, those opportunities are squandered. Even potentially dated and problematic humor is largely absent. I was ready to cringe when they entered the “Primitive Art” wing but, apart from referring to it as “primitive”, the sequence mostly avoids outdated stereotypes.

The “Pop Art” wing primarily just goes for the low-hanging fruit of “isn’t modern art weird?” At one point, the chase passes an oversized Roy Lichtenstein-like mural that was actually done by longtime Mickey Mouse cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson. You don’t get to see much of it in the movie but I thought it was cool. However, I don’t want you to have to sit through this whole movie just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Gottfredson piece, so here it is:

Floyd Gottfredson's Astro Pooch comic strip as seen in Never A Dull Moment

Whatever else you might say about Never A Dull Moment, the cast really isn’t to blame. Dick Van Dyke has a plum role here, it just needed to be drastically rewritten. He does the best he can with what he’s got to work with. The same goes for Robinson, Provine, Moore and that murderers’ row of killer character actors. But you can’t make something from nothing and Never A Dull Moment surrounds its cast with a whole lot of nothing.

The movie was released on June 26, 1968. Reviews were middling to negative and it ended up earning considerably less money than Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. Dick Van Dyke’s next feature would be more successful. Released in December of 1968, it was a family-fantasy-musical set in England, not unlike Mary Poppins, that reunited him with the Sherman Brothers. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was not a Disney movie, although trailers sure tried to make it look like one. Within a few years, Dick Van Dyke would decide he was through with movies for awhile and return to television for most of the 1970s and 80s. It’ll be quite some time before he returns to this column.

Even though Never A Dull Moment wasn’t a home run by any definition, it still served its purpose. It helped establish the heist comedy as another go-to genre for Disney. The studio played on the fringes of this sandbox in earlier films like That Darn Cat! and Emil And The Detectives. But this time, there were no kids, no animals and no gimmicks. Just a relatively straight-forward case of mistaken identity and some crooks doing a job. It wouldn’t be long before Disney found its way back to this well.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

A movie’s journey from preproduction to release is rarely a short one, especially when you’re in the business of making crowd-pleasers. So even though Walt Disney had been dead for more than a year, there were still a few titles in the pipeline that he’d signed off on, even if they didn’t start shooting until after his death. This helps explain why, in 1968, Disney released another slice of turn-of-the-century Americana, one of Walt’s favorite subgenres, with the marquee-busting title The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

Walt had acquired the rights to Laura Bower Van Nuys’ 1961 memoir (published under the equally unwieldy title The Family Band, From The Missouri To The Black Hills, 1881-1900) with an eye toward adapting it for television. Since the word “band” was in the title, he asked the Sherman Brothers to come up with a couple original tunes. The Shermans landed on a carnival barker approach to the title song, elongating it into its current form. Once he heard it, Walt decided the project should be a big-screen musical.

Robert B. Sherman, at least, did not think that was such a great idea. He thought the story was, well, a little thin to support a feature film. Robert B. Sherman was not wrong. In comparison, Summer Magic, the Shermans’ 1963 musical dud, looks like a labyrinth of intricate plotting and complex characterizations. But Walt always had the final word, so the Shermans dutifully composed eleven new songs for the project.

The Shermans worked with screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley to figure out where to place the songs. Hawley had been with the studio for over a decade, writing such films as Swiss Family Robinson, Babes In Toyland and, most recently, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band would be his final Disney credit. After Walt died, Hawley retired completely from show business, spending his remaining years with his family before his own passing in 2003 at the ripe old age of 94.

Michael O’Herlihy, director of The Fighting Prince Of Donegal and a bunch of TV stuff for Disney and other studios, was brought back for his second feature. As always, Walt had the final say on casting. For the most part, he didn’t look much farther than his usual talent roster. Walter Brennan, seen most recently in The Gnome-Mobile, was cast as bandleader Grandpa Bower. This would be Brennan’s third and last Disney picture. The show business veteran kept right on working to the end, though, continuing to appear in movies and TV shows (mostly westerns) until his death in 1974 at 80.

For his romantic leads, Walt tapped Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson, who just a few months earlier ignited (or, at least, singed) the screen with their G-rated chemistry in The Happiest Millionaire. They too would leave Disney behind after this film and move on to very different careers. Warren spent much of the 1970s on television (including an appearance as Lois Lane in the 1975 TV broadcast of the musical It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman!) before really coming into her own as an actor in the 1980s, starting with an Oscar-nominated performance in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria. John Davidson found his niche on television and on stage thanks to regular appearances on game shows like The Hollywood Squares and one-man shows in Las Vegas, Branson, and his own club in Sandwich, New Hampshire (called, I kid you not, Club Sandwich).

Unfortunately, Walt’s cast didn’t entirely come together as he’d envisioned it. Before his death, Walt approved the casting of his old polo buddy Bing Crosby as patriarch Calvin Bower. But the studio couldn’t come to terms with Crosby’s team, so Der Bingle dropped out. Instead, Disney veteran Buddy Ebsen returned for the first time since traipsing around the wild frontier with Davy Crockett. Buddy’s stock had gone way up since his days as George Russel. Since 1962, he had been starring as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the most popular sitcoms in the country. The One And Only And So On And So Forth gave him an opportunity to return to his roots as a song-and-dance man.

Considering how many child actors have worked for Disney over the years, it’s a little surprising that most of the Bower kids were one-and-done at the studio (with one obvious exception, who we’ll get to in a moment). Pamelyn Ferdin played Laura, who grows up to write the book this is based upon. She had been in the business since the early 1960s and went on to a busy career as a child star. She voiced some prominent non-Disney animated characters, including Lucy in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, several TV specials and commercials and Fern in Charlotte’s Web (which also had songs by the Sherman Brothers). In live-action, she appeared in the terrific Clint Eastwood movie The Beguiled and the grindhouse classic The Toolbox Murders. And yet somehow, this remained her only Disney credit. These days, she’s a prominent animal rights activist.

A couple of the Brower kids, like Heidi Rook and Debbie Smith, only had brief flirtations with show business. Bobby Riha, who played Mayo Bower, guested on some TV shows and had a recurring part on the short-lived Debbie Reynolds Show in 1969. Smith “Smitty” Wordes (Nettie Bower) went on to an impressive career as a dancer and choreographer. You can see her dancing with Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal” video and in the Disney theme park attraction Captain EO (which, unfortunately, does not qualify for this column). Sadly, she passed away in 2020 after battling cancer. She was 65.

There are two Bower kids who will return to this column. One is Jon Walmsley, who played Quinn. The same year The One And Only Etc. debuted, Walmsley took over as the voice of Christopher Robin for the short Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day. In 1971, he’d make his first appearance as Jason Walton in the TV-movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which led to the long-running family drama The Waltons. Walmsley continued to reprise the role as recently as the 1997 reunion film A Walton Easter. But apart from Waltons work, Walmsley mostly left acting to focus on his career as a musician.

Of course, the Bower kid who stuck around the Disney lot the longest was none other than Kurt Russell. Since making his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys!, Russell had starred in the Wonderful World Of Color two-parter Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders, presumably because the American title seems designed to make British schoolboys giggle). We’re about to start seeing a whole lot more Kurt Russell around these parts, so I hope you like him. (That’s a rhetorical statement, of course. Who doesn’t like Kurt Russell?)

Original Cast Soundtrack album for The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

Even with all this talent on board, Robert Sherman was right to be concerned about the material. The story opens in Missouri, where the Bower Family Band is awaiting a representative from President Grover Cleveland’s re-election campaign. Grandpa Bower, a lifelong Democrat, has written a campaign song and hopes to win the family an invitation to perform at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Alice Bower (Warren) is nervous to finally meet her long-distance beau, Joe Carder (Davidson), a newspaper publisher and diehard Republican from Dakota Territory.

Cleveland’s delegate is blown away by Grandpa’s song, “Let’s Put It Over With Grover”, and announces that he’d be thrilled to host the Bowers in St. Louis. (Incidentally, Cleveland’s campaign man is played by legendary voiceover artist William Woodson, narrator of countless sci-fi movies, TV shows and cartoons, including Super Friends.) Unfortunately, Joe Carder arrives in town with a very convincing song of his own, “Dakota”. Pretty soon, everyone is filled with Dakota Fever and the Bowers are no exception. They pack up their homestead and hit the trail to Rapid City.

The Bowers arrive in town just in time to see Carder leading a rally in support of Cleveland’s opponent, Senator Benjamin Harrison. One of Harrison’s campaign promises is statehood for Dakota. Not just one, but two new states, North and South Dakota, which would presumably mean four new Republican Senators, tipping the balance of Congress.

That is exactly the kind of no-account, dishonest chicanery that a good Democrat like Grandpa abhors, so he leads the band in a reprise of “Let’s Put It Over With Grover”. A few of the townsfolk are won over by the catchy tune but most of their overwhelmingly Republican neighbors are immediately suspicious of the rabble-rousing Bowers. Joe Carder insists they’re good people and he and Grandpa bet a wheelbarrow ride, the height of 1880s humiliation apparently, on the outcome of the election.

This causes a problem for Alice, who’s due to start her new job as the town’s schoolteacher (a job she is literally handed without a single question by mayor Richard Deacon the second she arrives in town). While she meets with the school board to answer the questions she probably should have been asked before being offered the job, Grandpa is sent to dismiss the children. He tries but is moved by the tears of a little girl who memorized a whole poem for the first day and is crestfallen that it was all for nothing. So Gramps hauls the kids back inside where, after little Edna recites her poem, he gives them a little history lesson on the War Between The States.

Now don’t forget, this all takes place back when Republicans were the party of Lincoln and Democrats were still trying to unify their own party after the Civil War. So Grandpa’s service in the Confederate Army is sort of waved away by his song, “Drummin’ Drummin’ Drummin’”, which shows he’s willing to admit he made a mistake and everyone should let bygones be bygones. Anyway, Grandpa’s lesson is brought on by a surly little boy named Johnny (played by Eddie Munster hisownself, Butch Patrick!) who has the audacity to challenge’s Grandpa’s teaching credentials. The school day comes to a close with Grandpa urging the kids to stand up for their rights and get out there and make a difference.

Having inspired a pee-wee rebellion, Grandpa’s in real trouble. Calvin (Ebsen), a Republican himself, forbids his father from discussing politics ever again. Grandpa would rather die homeless than have his freedom of speech interfered with, so he hits the road, stopping briefly at a town meeting to urge the school board to let Alice keep her job. Calvin is so impressed that Grandpa managed to shut the hell up about politics for five damn minutes that he asks him to come home. When Grandpa refuses, he reminds him of that bet he made with Joe Carder. He’d look like a welsher if he left before Election Day, so Grandpa stays.

Election Night arrives, along with a big production number, “West O’ The Wide Missouri”. This is easily the most energetic and fun number in the movie, partly because of a vivacious young woman named Goldie Jeanne Hawn making her big-screen debut as “Giggly Girl”. Goldie doesn’t really interact at all with her future partner but they share the screen a few times and it’s fun to see Goldie Hawn giving her all to a big dance number while Kurt Russell stands on stage behind her awkwardly pretending to play a drum.

Anyway, the votes trickle in and it appears that Cleveland has won re-election. Grandpa gets ready for his victory ride in the wheelbarrow when the telegraph operator comes rushing in with some late-breaking news. Although Cleveland won the popular vote, Harrison won the Electoral College and anybody who was around for the 2000 or 2016 presidential elections knows what that means. Benjamin Harrison is the new President of the United States. Grandpa and the other Democrats take this poorly and some G-rated Disney rioting breaks out (yes, cake is involved).

Eventually, Calvin’s cooler head prevails and he has the family band strike up a rendition of “America”. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, Calvin urges. At the end of the day, we’re all Americans and that’s all that really matters. Well sir, apparently we just needed to have Buddy Ebsen around last January because his words of wisdom do the trick. Everybody calms down, agrees to put politics aside and march forward into a bold new future as one. It is, indeed, a sweet land of liberty.

Lobby card for The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

So in case it wasn’t clear, let me just say, for the record, this movie is bananas. When I sat down to watch The One And Only Yada Yada Yada, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I absolutely was not expecting a musical that revolves around partisan politics, gerrymandering, a contentious presidential election and the Electoral College. Maybe in 80 years, Disney will mount a remake updating it to the Trump era and it’ll be every bit as simplistic and weird as this. Look, I can understand Disney wanting to make a musical about a family band just before the turn of the century. But the decision to focus on this particular point in time and these events is downright baffling.

The bizarre subject matter would matter less if the songs themselves were more engaging. But with few exceptions, these are also-rans in the Sherman songbook. “Ten Feet Off The Ground” isn’t bad, although Louis Armstrong’s cover version is a lot better than the one in the movie, and “Let’s Put It Over With Grover” does have a banjo riff that’ll lodge itself in your head for days. But the title song is sheer cacophony and the love songs “The Happiest Girl Alive” and “’Bout Time” are tough to take despite the best efforts of Warren and Davidson.

The cast is certainly game. Walter Brennan seems like he’s having fun and it’s nice to see Buddy Ebsen in a musical again. Both Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson bring their musical theatre kid energy to the table. But the rest of the cast is given very little to do. Poor Janet Blair has a thankless role as Bower family matriarch, Katie. Her sole defining characteristic is her refusal to allow political talk in her house. As for the Bower kids, they’re forgotten about for long stretches. None of them even turn up in the school scene, which seems odd. Don’t these kids have to go to school, too?

The studio seemed to lose faith in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band almost as soon as the cameras stopped rolling. The premiere was set for the end of March, 1968, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The venue, as they had just done with The Happiest Millionaire, asked Disney to cut about 20 minutes from the film’s 156-minute run time. The studio was only too happy to oblige. Over the protests of the Sherman Brothers and producer Bill Anderson, they ended up dropping about 45 minutes, including two entire musical numbers, bringing it down to 110 minutes. Unlike with The Happiest Millionaire, Disney has to date made no effort to restore the missing footage. And frankly, as near as I can tell, no one has made much demand that they do so.

In the end, nobody was particularly impressed by TOAOGOFB. Critics mostly hated it and audiences stayed away. The back-to-back failures of The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (and am I happy to be done typing that title) resulted in Disney shying away from musicals for awhile. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman would be back but they were no longer exclusive with the studio. Their next major project would be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for producer Albert R. Broccoli, a reunion with their Mary Poppins star Dick Van Dyke. Live-action musicals had always been risky, hit-or-miss propositions at Disney. From now on, the studio would hedge their bets with the genre.    

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Blackbeard’s Ghost

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost

By February 1968, a revolution was beginning to get underway in Hollywood. The highest-grossing films of the year that had just ended were The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie And Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, and Valley Of The Dolls. Disney’s biggest moneymaker of the year, The Jungle Book, had barely managed to crack the top ten. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on February 19, Disney pictures racked up a grand total of two. That’s not two for an individual film. That’s two for the studio’s entire 1967 lineup: one for “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book and one for The Happiest Millionaire’s costume design. And that’s still two more than they’d received the year before. The times, they were a’changin’ but nobody at Disney seemed to notice or care.

After Walt’s death at the end of 1966, CEO Roy O. Disney (somewhat reluctantly) stepped in to the role of President. But he’d already had his eye on retirement and only planned to stick around until he could get Walt’s final big pet project, Walt Disney World, up and running. In 1968, Roy gave the presidency to Donn Tatum. Tatum joined the studio in 1956 and his Executive Vice President, Card Walker, had been around even longer, first hired as a traffic boy in 1938. These guys had a lot of experience making Disney films and TV shows and not much else. So while it was February 1968 at every other studio in town, in Burbank it was still December 1966. That’s how it would stay for about the next ten years.

Disney’s first release of what we’ll call the “Stay The Course” Years was the sort of gimmick comedy they’d been cranking out like clockwork since The Shaggy Dog back in 1959. Blackbeard’s Ghost was based on a 1965 novel by artist Ben Stahl, a prolific illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and countless other periodicals and ad agencies. Bill Walsh and Don DeGradi wrote the script with Robert Stevenson directing, reuniting the team from Mary Poppins.

Most of the cast was also very familiar with the Disney process. Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette were reunited for the first time since The Ugly Dachshund. Elsa Lanchester had last been seen in That Darn Cat!, also with Jones. The bad guy, Silky Seymour, was played by Joby Baker from The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, also with Pleshette. And the supporting cast was filled with such by-now familiar faces as Richard Deacon, Norm Grabowski, Elliott Reid and Kelly Thordsen. To make things even easier, most of them were simply cast in roles that were slight variations on parts they’d played before.

There was, of course, one newcomer to the Disney family in the cast. Peter Ustinov was a true renaissance man. An actor, a writer, a director, Ustinov spoke eight languages (six of them fluently) and dabbled in art and design. By the time Disney hired him to play Captain Blackbeard, he had already won two Oscars (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and was arguably one of the most overqualified actors the studio had employed for some time.

But one of the great things about Peter Ustinov was that while he took his work extremely seriously, he never took himself too seriously. There’s a twinkle in his eye when he seems to be having fun and in Blackbeard’s Ghost, he looks like he’s having a great time. More importantly, Ustinov never condescends to the material. This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov and Ustinov doesn’t treat it as such. But as far as he was concerned, something as silly as Blackbeard’s Ghost had just as much value and just as much potential to entertain as any of the classics, provided you show up and do the work.

Walt Disney Presents The Story Of Blackbeard's Ghost album cover

As usual for a Disney gimmick comedy, the plot is somewhat beside the point. But for the record, Jones stars as Steve Walker, the new track and field coach at Godolphin College on the New England coast. He arrives at Blackbeard’s Inn, a hotel haphazardly constructed out of materials salvaged from shipwrecked pirate ships, in time for an auction held by the Daughters of the Buccaneers led by Emily Stowecroft (Elsa Lanchester), a descendant of the notorious pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. It seems the mortgage is overdue and gangster Silky Seymour is lying in wait to buy the property, tear down the inn and build a casino.

Steve doesn’t care too much about any of that. His focus is solely on Jo Anne Baker (Pleshette), an attractive professor at the college who’s helping out with the auction. Hoping to impress her, Steve bids on an antique bed warmer, drawing the ire of Silky and his criminal associates. Silky strongly encourages Steve to reconsider bidding on any further items. Steve, naturally, doesn’t take kindly to bullies and gets marked as an enemy.

Mrs. Stowecroft shows Steve to his room and fills him in on the history of his new bed warmer. It was owned by Aldetha Teach, Blackbeard’s tenth wife, who had been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. With her dying breath, she cursed Blackbeard to spend eternity in Limbo until he can perform a selfless act, a statistical improbability for a murderous pirate.

Steve believes none of this until he accidentally breaks the bed warmer and discovers Aldetha’s book of spells. As a goof, he recites one of them out loud and ends up summoning Blackbeard’s ghost (Ustinov) from Limbo. Blackbeard immediately heads for the bar, eager to catch up on a lot of lost drinking time. Steve thinks he’s going crazy, which isn’t too surprising considering that Blackbeard explains that the spell has bound the two and nobody else can see or hear him. This is made abundantly clear when Blackbeard grabs the wheel of Steve’s car and takes them on a reckless joyride that lands Steve in jail on drunk driving charges.

Steve is released the next morning due to lack of evidence but he’s on thin ice at work. There’s a big track meet coming up and unless he can whip his team of misfits and losers into shape and come in first, he’s fired. Meanwhile, Steve suggests that Blackbeard could break his curse by donating his treasure to the Daughters of the Buccaneers. The only problem with that is there is no treasure. Blackbeard spent it all while he was alive. But the pirate has his own idea. He steals the money made from the auction out of Jo Anne’s purse and arranges to bet it all on Godolphin to win.

On the day of the track meet, Steve finds out about Blackbeard’s scheme. At first, he wants nothing to do with it and tries to have his team disqualified once they start winning events thanks to Blackbeard’s help. But when he realizes what a loss would mean to the old ladies, he decides to let the pirate cheat their way to victory.

When Steve and Jo Anne go to collect their winnings, Silky Seymour refuses to pay up, cancelling the bet and returning the money. But Steve has fewer compunctions about cheating at Silky’s place and gets Blackbeard to rig the roulette table to win their money back. Silky and his goons try to rough them up but Blackbeard mops the floor with them, allowing Steve and Jo Anne to escape. They make it back to the inn just in the nick of time to pay the mortgage. Before he goes, Steve has everyone recite the spell that will allow them to see Blackbeard and make a proper farewell.

Theatrical re-release poster for Blackbeard's Ghost

Needless to say, Blackbeard’s Ghost isn’t exactly breaking new ground. We’ve seen variations of the supernatural-being-nobody-else-can-see premise in movies like Darby O’Gill and The Gnome-Mobile. The climactic collegiate sporting event is a familiar trope from The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber. But even though the movie is business as usual, it’s extremely well-made business as usual.

The chemistry between Jones and Pleshette is even stronger here than in The Ugly Dachshund. Just as importantly, Jones and Ustinov make for a very engaging comedy team. Ustinov is simply a delight in this movie, guzzling rum and causing havoc. Jones gets a chance to show off his gift for physical comedy in scenes with the invisible ghost. Everyone involved seems to be having a really good time and that spirit of fun is highly contagious.  

Blackbeard’s Ghost is also one of Disney’s best-looking comedies. A lot of the studio’s comedies have a flat, TV-ready look that gets the job done and stays out of the way. But Robert Stevenson and longtime Disney cinematographer Edward Colman give Godolphin a moody, foggy feel befitting a New England town haunted by pirate ghosts. The set design by Emile Kuri (an Oscar winner for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and Hal Gausman is also top-notch, especially Blackbeard’s Inn. The only time we see the entire exterior is as a spectacular matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw but I can’t be the only one who’d love to see it done as a Lego set.

Blackbeard’s Ghost did exactly what Disney needed it to do in 1968. It earned mostly positive reviews and became a good-sized hit at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it did well enough to justify a few re-releases in the years that followed. But its biggest accomplishment was demonstrating that the studio was still capable of producing its bread-and-butter films without Walt at the helm. It was an inspiring vote of confidence that, at least for now, everything in the Magic Kingdom was going to be OK.  

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Happiest Millionaire

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood studios pumped millions of dollars into lavish epic musical extravaganzas and when they hit, they hit big. Disney had first-hand experience with this. In 1964, Mary Poppins became a phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film in the studio’s history and winning five Oscars. Needless to say, Walt wanted to do that again. But The Happiest Millionaire, which ended up being the last live-action film released bearing Walt Disney’s personal thumbprint, failed to recapture that old Poppins magic.

The Happiest Millionaire was based on a play by Kyle Crichton (no apparent relation to Michael Crichton, despite what IMDb may say), which was in turn based on My Philadelphia Father, a book Crichton cowrote with Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The Happiest Millionaire was not a musical when Walt acquired the rights to it. It was evidently Mary Poppins producer Bill Walsh’s idea to turn it into one. But Walt didn’t keep Walsh on the project. Instead, he turned it over to Bill Anderson, who had produced a lot of things for the studio (most recently The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin) but no musicals.

Anderson wasn’t the only one making his first musical. Screenwriter A.J. Carothers had been responsible for such non-singing-and-dancing films as Miracle Of The White Stallions and Emil And The Detectives. The closest Norman Tokar had come to directing a musical sequence was Fred MacMurray leading his boy scouts in the title song of Follow Me, Boys! That tune had been written by house songsmiths Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Once again, they’d be the ones primarily responsible for guiding the musical elements of the show.

Walt again cast his favorite leading man, Fred MacMurray, in the starring role. MacMurray was not the Shermans’ first choice (or, indeed, their second or third). They hoped to get Rex Harrison, star of My Fair Lady. But Walt had the final say on all casting decisions, so once he got his heart set on MacMurray, nobody else really stood a chance. You can understand why the Shermans might have wanted someone else. Despite his background as a saxophonist and vocalist early in his career, MacMurray wasn’t exactly known as a song-and-dance man anymore.

Second billing went to Disney newcomer Tommy Steele. Steele had become a star about a decade earlier in the UK. Considered Britain’s first rock and roll star, Tommy hit the top of the pops with songs like “Singing The Blues”. He made his movie debut (as himself) in 1957’s The Tommy Steele Story (released in this country as Rock Around The World because nobody over here had any idea who Tommy Steele was).

With his broad, toothy grin and ingratiating manner, Tommy Steele was an unlikely pop star, even by late ‘50s England standards. Still, he continued to be a big deal across the pond for a number of years. As the 1960s opened, Steele left rock ‘n’ roll behind to focus on acting. In 1963, he appeared on the West End in Half A Sixpence, a new musical developed specifically around his talents. Steele later took the show to Broadway and reprised the role again in the film version, which was made right after he finished work on The Happiest Millionaire.

Tommy Steele has a big, playing to the rafters energy that makes him an ideal musical theatre star. I’m sure seeing him live on stage was quite a treat. Heck, it may still be quite a treat. Now 84, the recently knighted entertainer was still performing as recently as 2018 in The Glenn Miller Story in London. But on the big screen, Tommy can be a lot. He’s the first character we meet in The Happiest Millionaire and his opening number, “Fortuosity”, reminds me a little bit of the “You’re Gonna Like Me” song Gabbo introduces himself with on The Simpsons.

“Fortuosity” sets the stage for everything that works and doesn’t work about The Happiest Millionaire. It’s a pretty good song that effectively sets up the story. Steele plays John Lawless, fresh off the boat from Ireland in Philadelphia, on his way to start a new job working for an elegant millionaire and his elegant family. The song is built around one of the Shermans’ favorite devices, a completely made-up word that the song defines. And Steele sells the hell out of the song, giving it all he’s worth.

It feels like the song is going to be one of those big Broadway-style opening numbers but that never really happens. Steele sings and dances all over the elaborate Main Street USA set, which is thoroughly populated by pedestrians in their best 1916 finery. But those passersby really do just pass on by. Nobody once joins in. Now in a musical, when you’ve got an energetic, effervescent guy singing and dancing up a storm, you kind of expect his enthusiasm to be contagious. But if life goes on like normal all around him, he just looks crazy.

At any rate, John arrives at the Biddle house where housekeeper Mrs. Worth (Hermione Baddeley, possibly wearing her old Mary Poppins costume) makes vague allusions to the family’s eccentricities. He gets an example of this almost immediately as patriarch Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) bursts in demanding chocolate cake and complaining that one of his alligators bit his finger. This, we soon discover, is not a euphemism. Lawless also meets the Biddle children, Cordelia or “Cordy” (Lesley Ann Warren), Tony (Paul Petersen) and Livingston (Eddie Hodges). All four are wearing identical turtlenecks emblazoned “Biddle Bible Class”, making the whole family look a bit like a cult.

Now at this point, I had to stop watching the movie to try and figure out what the hell was going on. Who are these people? Turns out, the movie is more or less based on a true story. The real Anthony J. Drexel Biddle’s family fortune gave him the freedom to focus on his passions: boxing and the Bible. He was a proponent of something called “Athletic Christianity” and considered a bit of a kook by Philadelphia’s upper crust. And he did in fact raise alligators for some reason.

Maybe if you live in Pennsylvania, the Biddles are more commonly known and you already knew this. But I had no idea and the movie makes no effort to clue us in. The movie is a bit reminiscent of Life With Father, another semi-autobiographical Broadway show depicting family life in the 1880s. But in that case, you don’t really need to know who the Day family really was because they’re presented as a fairly typical New York family of the era. The Biddles are anything but typical. The movie just throws us into the deep end with these folks and hopes we’ll figure it out as we go along, which makes the madly grinning John Lawless our guide and surrogate. Heaven help us.

Theatrical release poster for The Happiest Millionaire

The film’s primary conflict is between father and daughter, Cordy. Like her brothers, Cordy has been raised to be a fighter, which doesn’t help attract gentlemen callers. (The brothers are given one song, “Watch Your Footwork”, to size up a potential suitor, then completely disappear from the movie altogether.) Worried about Cordy’s future, Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) arranges for her to attend a private boarding school. Biddle isn’t sold on the idea but Cordy enthusiastically agrees to the arrangement.

At school, Cordy attends a dance hosted by some more rich relatives. Here, she meets Angier Buchanan Duke (played by future game show host John Davidson). “Angie” is expected to take his rightful place in the family’s tobacco business but what he really wants to do is move to Detroit and design cars. Angie and Cordy get engaged and Mr. Biddle is won over by the young man’s knowledge of jiu-jitsu. But the road to the altar hits a snag when Cordy realizes Angie won’t stand up to his domineering mother (Geraldine Page).

The wedding is called off and John Lawless, who has become a vital member of the household, follows Angie to a nearby bar. John gets him good and drunk, starting a barroom brawl that lands him in jail. Mr. Biddle comes to bail him out and, with a little reverse psychology, persuades Angie to run off to Detroit with Cordy and elope.

Now from that description, you may have noticed that The Happiest Millionaire appears to primarily be about Cordy and Angie and not so much about the top-billed stars, Fred MacMurray and Tommy Steele. This is true but both MacMurray and Steele still have plenty to do. As World War I draws near, Mr. Biddle makes repeated trips to Washington, offering to train men in the art of hand-to-hand combat. A new maid accidentally leaves a window open, freezing the alligators in blocks of ice. Somehow they manage to survive and Lawless spends several minutes trying to round the gators up. But all this business is just window dressing to the main romance.

The love story is not all that compelling in and of itself and the Shermans’ love songs, like “Are We Dancing?”, are the weakest parts of their score. If you end up caring about these people at all, it’s thanks entirely to the likable performances of Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson. Warren came to Walt’s attention after she starred in the TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Davidson also came from television, appearing in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Fantasticks and hosting The Kraft Summer Music Hall variety show. Both were making their film debuts in The Happiest Millionaire and they’ll both be back in this column before long.

Both Warren and Davidson are capable singers and dancers but the Shermans don’t do them any favors. The songs they’re given are either boring (the aforementioned “Are We Dancing?”), ridiculous (“Bye-Yum Pum Pum”, a duet between Warren and Joyce Bulifant that’s essentially a rewrite of “Feminity” from Summer Magic) or both (“Valentine Candy”, Warren’s solo lament in which she tries to decide if she’s “valentine candy or boxing gloves”).

Davidson at least gets to participate in the film’s biggest, most energetic number. “Let’s Have A Drink On It” is a rousing setpiece, led confidently by Tommy Steele. Here, finally, is the big, cinematic musical number that “Fortuosity” should have been. It comes a little late in the proceedings to solve everything but it’s a taste of what a better version of this movie might look like.

Tommy Steele is certainly a unique screen presence and it’s a little disappointing that he won’t be back in this column. After this, he only made one more Hollywood film, appearing as Og the leprechaun in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow. He then made a couple more British movies before returning to the stage for good. That was probably the right choice and it certainly seemed to work out well for him. But a part of me wishes he’d stuck around to inject more of his sugar rush energy into a few more Disney movies.

Comic book adaptation of The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire premiered in Hollywood on June 23, 1967. Intended as a roadshow attraction, it made its way across the country gradually with higher, reserved-seating prices. In November, it was booked at Radio City Music Hall as their Christmas attraction. But since it would be playing with a live stage show, the venue demanded that it be cut down. Twenty minutes were chopped out, bringing it from 164 minutes to 144. As the roadshow experiment faltered, the studio cut it down even further. By the time it made it into general release, the running time had been slashed to just under two hours.

One of the first things to go had been the song “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas”, sung by Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) as her husband struggles with empty nest syndrome. It’s actually one of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs in the entire movie. Fortunately, Disney has restored the complete roadshow version and that’s the one you can find on Disney+.

Casting Oscar winner Greer Garson as Mrs. Biddle must have been quite a coup for Disney. She was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, racking up seven Academy Award nominations over the course of her distinguished career. But she’d slowed down considerably in recent years, making occasional TV appearances and appearing in the Debbie Reynolds vehicle The Singing Nun. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do here, either. But “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” is a nice spotlight for her and a tender moment among all the other wacky shenanigans.

When all was said and done, The Happiest Millionaire only earned about $5 million at the box office, just about enough to break even. The movie did mange to get a single Oscar nomination for Bill Thomas’s costume designs (it lost to another mega-musical, Camelot) and Tommy Steele was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Most Promising Newcomer – Male category (he lost to an even more promising newcomer, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). But the general consensus was that The Happiest Millionaire simply didn’t work.

It’d be nice to say that the general consensus was wrong and that Walt Disney’s last live-action project is really a misunderstood gem. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. There are individual moments in The Happiest Millionaire that sparkle but the whole thing never really comes together. Walt was nothing if not ambitious. But in this case, his ambitions got away from him and ended up smothering a project that never quite figures out what it wants to be.

VERDICT: This is almost (but not quite) a Disney Plus buried inside a Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

As long as Walt Disney was alive, nature films had a place at his studio. The genre had evolved over the years, from short films to feature-length True-Life Adventures to fictional narratives with animal protagonists. They weren’t always blockbusters but Walt liked them and they were usually inexpensive enough to turn a reliable profit.

But by late 1967, Walt had been gone for almost a year and the nature pictures were on their way out. Winston Hibler, Disney’s long-time writer and narrator of the True-Life Adventures, kept the tradition alive. But most of the nature shows had migrated to television. These days, animals were more likely to costar with established stars like Brian Keith (in A Tiger Walks) or Dean Jones (in The Ugly Dachshund or Monkeys, Go Home!…or most of the movies Jones had appeared in so far, come to think of it). Animals hadn’t been the whole show since The Incredible Journey back in 1963.

This might help explain the somewhat unusual release of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar. Honestly, I struggled with whether or not to even include Charlie in this column. The movie was released concurrently with The Jungle Book, playing in most markets as a double bill. Clocking in at 75 minutes, it’s too long to be considered a short but it’s certainly not a very long feature (The Jungle Book itself is only 78 minutes). It feels like a TV production. As a matter of fact, it somehow managed to get an Emmy nomination when it aired on The Wonderful World Of Disney a couple years later. But Disney itself includes it on their list of Disney Films and that makes it official enough for me.

Theatrical release poster for the double bill release of The Jungle Book and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

Most sources, including IMDb, Letterboxd and Wikipedia, credit Winston Hibler as the director of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar. I’m not entirely sure how they came to that conclusion as the movie itself does not have a directing credit. Regardless, he definitely produced the film and cowrote it with Jack Speirs, a longtime staff writer who had been writing Walt’s Disneyland TV introductions since the ‘50s.

If anyone other than Hibler could make a claim to directing the picture, it’s field producer, cinematographer, and animal supervisor Lloyd Beebe. Beebe had been working with Disney since the ‘50s, training and housing animal actors from his ranch in Sequim, Washington. In 1972, Beebe received permission from the studio to open his facility, Disney’s Wild Animal Ranch, to the public. It’s still open to this day, now operating as the Olympic Game Farm. You might even be able to meet a descendent of Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar up there.

Beebe and his team, including collaborators Charles L. Draper, Ford Beebe and William Bacon III, are most responsible for what makes Charlie memorable. He has a knack for staging animal action, whether it’s cute and adorable or fraught with danger. This isn’t necessarily the most thrilling of the Disney nature movies but Charlie does have a very winning personality and that goes a long way.

Rex Allen, who had previously lent his familiar voice to The Incredible Journey, The Legend Of Lobo and several shorts, returns as narrator. Allen would continue to narrate educational films and TV productions for Disney but this will be his last appearance in this column. He kept on doing voice work, narrating the 1973 animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web and countless commercials, for many years until his death in 1999.

We first meet Charlie at the height of his lonesomeness, a kitten without a mother to look after him. Yes, it’s another orphaned Disney animal but at least this time, we’re spared having to watch the traumatizing event. Charlie is soon discovered by Jess Bradley (Ron Brown), a forester employed by a logging company in the Pacific Northwest. Jess knows Charlie doesn’t stand a chance on his own, so he takes the young cat home with him.

Charlie grows up fast and most everyone at the logging camp seems to love having a pet cougar wandering around. His only enemy is Chainsaw, the excellently-named dog of camp cook Potlatch (Brian Russell, who would later write for such TV shows as The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams and Greatest Heroes Of The Bible). Their feud ends up causing a commotion during the launch of the big river drive. Charlie ends up scaring the cook off the big floating kitchen, so Jess leaps on board to rescue the supplies. With the cook back on shore, the boss enlists Jess to take his place and Charlie becomes the team mascot.

Their time on the river comes to a bad end when Charlie accidentally sends the kitchen floating downstream while Jess is napping. The float is destroyed and Charlie is banned from the camp. Jess builds an enclosure for him but starts spending less time around the house after he meets a new girlfriend. Lonesome once again, Charlie escapes and finds a girl-cougar of his own. Sadly, their relationship is doomed once they get hungry. The semi-domesticated Charlie is unable to fend for himself and, cougars being cougars, his new gal pal is disinclined to share her prey.

Charlie decides to head back to Jess’ place but has become hopelessly lost in the mountains. Over the next few months, Charlie slowly learns to fend for himself, not unlike Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. Eventually, one of his misadventures leads him to a log flume which he rides back to the camp. He heads back to Potlatch’s kitchen by instinct but ends up trapped inside by Chainsaw.

The next morning, Potlatch finds a hungry, scared, full-grown cougar locked in his pantry. The men corner Charlie in a freight elevator and just as the boss is about to shoot him, Jess turns up, sure that Charlie will remember him. Jess wins that bet and soon, he and his new fiancée bring Charlie to a wildlife sanctuary high up in the mountains, free to reconnect with his lady friend (or, if not that, another, virtually identical female cougar). Ain’t love grand?

Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar does not stray far from the established pattern for films of this type. If you’ve enjoyed the adventures of Lobo, Nikki, Perri, or any of Disney’s other critter stars, you’ll probably like this one, too. Hibler, Beebe and the rest of the team use a bit more movie trickery than usual to accomplish sequences like Charlie’s flume ride. But there’s still plenty of legit animal action to enjoy. Charlie’s participation in a log-rolling contest against a lumberjack was real, included after Beebe discovered one of his cougars had a knack for it.

Beebe also captured some exciting footage of historical interest. The log drive was shot on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. This had been a vital and spectacular part of the logging industry since 1920. Beebe ended up filming one of the last river drives in America. In 1971, the Clearwater floated its last logs as the Dworshak Dam closed the North Fork. Beebe’s footage is a genuinely thrilling sight, vividly depicting an authentic log drive as it happened.

But if you’re not into logs or cougars or cougars that roll logs, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen before. Almost all Disney movies are formulaic to some extent but the nature movies are particularly cookie-cutter. That’s not to say this is a bad example of the genre. It’s certainly a whole lot more enjoyable than The Legend Of Lobo, for instance. But by 1967, Disney’s nature formula was beginning to be a bit stale.

VERDICT: There’s just enough here to make it a very minor Disney Plus if you’re a fan of these movies.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Jungle Book

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Jungle Book

In many ways, The Jungle Book marks the end of a journey that began all the way back in 1921 when Walt Disney founded the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. Walt didn’t invent animation by any stretch of the imagination. But he had revolutionized the format many times over since those early days back in Kansas. As the last animated feature Walt Disney had a hand in, The Jungle Book automatically earns a special place in history.

Of course, the studio had gone through some major changes since their first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Back then, the entire operation revolved around nothing but animation. Walt was personally involved in every aspect of production, poring over every cel and story beat until it was just right.

By the time work began on The Jungle Book in the mid-‘60s, animation was a small fraction of the studio’s output and Walt was trusting his staff to make most of the major decisions. It’s a testament to Walt’s love of animation that the studio was even continuing to make cartoons. The animation division had been on the chopping block more than once during economic lean times. Animation was expensive and time-consuming and Walt certainly didn’t need the extra work. Most of his attention was now devoted to live-action films, television production, Disneyland and his ambitious new Florida venture, EPCOT.

There had once been an entire department devoted to story development. Story meetings could turn into raucous affairs with Walt and his team acting out entire films. For the last several years, Bill Peet had been a one-man story department. After proving himself on One Hundred And One Dalmatians, Peet had been entrusted with The Sword In The Stone. It was Peet’s idea to develop a feature based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Walt thought that sounded like a swell idea and Peet went off to work his magic.

But The Sword In The Stone hadn’t quite turned out the way Walt had hoped, so he decided to get a bit more involved with The Jungle Book. He looked at Peet’s treatment and storyboards, which were heading in a very dark and dramatic direction, and essentially told him to lighten up. Peet strongly disagreed, arguing that it went against Kipling’s original stories (he wasn’t wrong about that). Walt didn’t really care. He wanted to make a movie everybody could enjoy, not just members of the Kipling Society. When Walt continued to insist on significant changes to the script, Peet quit, a bad end to a relationship that stretched back to the 1930s.

With Bill Peet gone, Walt turned The Jungle Book over to Larry Clemmons. Clemmons started with the studio as an assistant animator back in the ‘30s but left when World War II broke out. He came into his own as a writer working for Bing Crosby’s radio shows. When he returned to the Disney studio in the 1950s, it was as a writer and producer for the Disneyland and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows.

Clemmons struggled with the assignment at first. Kipling’s book was so episodic that he couldn’t find an actual story to hang his hat on. Walt advised him not to worry about it and instead focus on the characters and their personalities. He also brought in the Sherman brothers, whose songs had helped shape Mary Poppins’ story. They would be replacing Terry Gilkyson, a folksinger who had written several original songs for Peet’s abandoned, darker version of the film. Gilkyson was no stranger to the Disney studio. He’d contributed songs to Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam, The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, The Three Lives Of Thomasina, and The Moon-Spinners.

By all accounts, everyone was having a hard time wrapping their minds around what Walt envisioned for The Jungle Book until he suggested casting jazzman and radio star Phil Harris as Baloo the bear. Harris had been the bandleader on Jack Benny’s program. His appearances were so popular that he eventually got his own show, headlining with his wife, Alice Faye. Everyone knew Harris’ voice and it was nobody’s idea of what a Rudyard Kipling character should sound like. Even Harris didn’t think he was the right man for the job. Once he got to the studio, he was uncomfortable delivering the lines as written and asked to permission to just do it “his way”. All of a sudden, Baloo came to life as a fully-formed character, albeit one that didn’t have much to do with Kipling.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

After that epiphany, things seemed to click for The Jungle Book crew. The character designers and animators were inspired by the vocal performances. Once Harris joined the cast, someone (I’ve seen multiple people take credit for it) had the idea to cast Louis Prima, another instantly recognizable voice from the jazz and swing world, as King Louie the orangutan. Disney legend Sterling Holloway was cast against type as the villainous snake, Kaa, another of Walt’s suggestions. And to lend at least a little British authenticity, Sebastian Cabot was tapped to play Bagheera the panther and the great George Sanders was cast as Shere Khan, the man-hating tiger. Cabot had previously done voice work on The Sword In The Stone and appeared in Johnny Tremain, while Sanders was previously seen menacing Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways.

This wasn’t the first time Disney had relied on celebrity vocal performances. Bing Crosby was near the peak of his popularity when he voiced his half of The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. Even Cliff Edwards was a known commodity when he was cast as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. But this was certainly the starriest cast Disney had assembled to date and not everyone was happy about it. You can draw a straight line from Phil Harris’ improvised performance as Baloo to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Today, there is absolutely an over-reliance on celebrity voices in animation. But young audiences discovering The Jungle Book for the first time have no idea who Phil Harris, Louis Prima, George Sanders or any of these people are (you’ll be doing them a kindness if you continue to expose your kids to these talents after they watch this). I was born just a couple years after The Jungle Book was released and this was certainly my introduction to them. A voice either works or it doesn’t work, regardless of how famous the face attached to it might be. There’s no denying that the voices in The Jungle Book are absolutely spot-on.

That extends to the youngest members of the cast. Bruce Reitherman, son of director Wolfgang Reitherman, got the part of Mowgli after the original actor’s voice changed midway through. Woolie Reitherman also battled puberty on The Sword In The Stone, cycling through no less than three kids (including two more sons, Richard and Robert) as Wart. Bruce had already performed the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree, so he knew his way around a studio. He was also young enough to make it through production without a voice change.

Bruce wasn’t the only young Winnie The Pooh alum in the cast. Clint Howard, the voice of Roo, provides the voice of the young elephant. Howard made his screen debut at the ripe old age of 2 on The Andy Griffith Show and he’s been busy ever since. Around this same time, he was guesting on shows like Star Trek and starring in Gentle Ben, which premiered just a few months before The Jungle Book. Clint will be back in this column before long, alongside his older brother, Ronny.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The Sherman Brothers ended up contributing five original songs to The Jungle Book, the best of which is unquestionably “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. Louis Prima is a perfect fit for the song. His signature style sounds nothing like any Disney song that had come before. It’s one of the biggest indications so far that Disney could change with the times, even if that change came slowly.

The Shermans’ other songs are honestly not up to the same level. Kaa’s “Trust In Me (The Python’s Song)”, which recycles a melody from an abandoned Mary Poppins song, isn’t bad and it’s imaginatively animated. But it doesn’t stay with you. “Colonel Hathi’s March”, on the other hand, does stick with you and not in a good way. It’s an annoying military-style earworm, so of course that’s the song that gets a reprise.

Probably the biggest miscalculation is “That’s What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)”, a barbershop quartet number performed by four vultures modeled after The Beatles. It was originally meant to be performed as a rock & roll song until Walt got cold feet, worried that the style would date the picture. So naturally the Shermans changed it to that most timeless of styles, barbershop. That never gets old.

This is one of those rare times that Walt’s usually unerring sense of what will or will not stand the test of time failed him. For one thing, rock & roll has proven to be a whole lot more enduring than Walt predicted. Certainly more than barbershop, a time machine back to the days of vaudeville and straw boaters.

More importantly, the musical style certainly wouldn’t date the movie any more or less than the fact that the vultures are physically and vocally modeled after The Beatles. Two of their voices were even provided by Lord Tim Hudson, a Los Angeles DJ with a dubious claim to being a friend of the Fab Four, and Chad Stuart of the British Invasion pop duo Chad & Jeremy (the others were J. Pat O’Malley and Digby Wolfe). So now you’ve got The Beatles singing a barbershop quartet, a reference that’s both dated and incongruous.

Ironically, the one song from The Jungle Book to receive an Academy Award nomination and arguably its most popular number overall was the one that almost got cut. Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” survived from Bill Peet’s abandoned version. If Walt had his way, it also would have ended up on the cutting room floor. When he brought the Shermans on board, he wanted to eliminate all of Gilkyson’s songs and start fresh. The animators fought for the song and Walt eventually relented.

Today, it’s impossible to imagine The Jungle Book without “The Bare Necessities”. It’s one of the best, most iconic numbers in the Disney Songbook. Plenty of classic Disney songs failed to win Oscars but Gilkyson really got robbed. The Oscar went to “Talk To The Animals” from the overstuffed musical Doctor Dolittle. Terry Gilkyson never quite became one of Disney’s go-to songwriters but he’ll be back in this column at least once more.

The Jungle Book is a hard movie to dislike. Walt instructed his team to focus on character and personality and they followed his mandate to the letter. Everybody remembers Baloo, King Louie, Shere Khan and the rest. They’re vivid, fun, highly entertaining characters that pop off the screen.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The movie’s biggest flaw is Mowgli himself. Everything revolves around him and our investment in the story depends on us believing that Baloo and Bagheera really love this little man cub. But he’s a total blank slate. His only goal is a negative. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he only knows that he does not want to go to the man-village. And for a kid who was raised for years by wolves in the jungle, he displays virtually no wolf-like characteristics. The wolves, not so coincidentally, are also the animals we spend the least amount of time with. They’re theoretically his family, right? If anybody should care about Mowgli leaving the jungle, you’d think it would be them.

Walt didn’t want his team getting too hung up on story but it would have been nice if they’d put a little bit more effort into it. The movie ends up turning into a series of encounters that don’t necessarily feed into one another. Even the threat of Shere Khan feels underbaked. When the final showdown does arrive, it’s difficult to feel like the stakes are too high. Walt continues to keep things light and jaunty up to the end, even when a tiger is trying to eat a little boy. It’s one of the most tension-free climaxes in Disney history.

The movie comes to a rather abrupt end when Mowgli sees a girl fetching some water by the river. He’s instantly smitten, shrugs his shoulders and follows her into the man-village as Baloo and Bagheera bop back into the jungle. The Blu-ray release storyboards an “alternate ending” from Peet’s version that’s really more like an alternate second half. Here, Mowgli is reunited with his birth parents and runs afoul of a treasure-seeking hunter. The movie is probably better without this lengthy digression. The quick pace allows The Jungle Book’s strengths to come into clearer focus. If the choice is between the movie slowly petering out or just stopping all of a sudden, I suppose I prefer the latter.

The Jungle Book was released on October 18, 1967, not quite a year after Walt Disney’s death. Critics and audiences alike were very pleased with Walt’s farewell animation. It was the studio’s highest-grossing film of 1967 and the 9th highest-grossing movie of the year overall, ahead of Camelot and just behind Thoroughly Modern Millie. Over the years, re-releases have added to its total both at home and overseas. According to a 2016 Hollywood Reporter article, it’s the biggest movie of all-time in Germany, ahead of Avatar, Titanic or any of those other also-rans.

More Jungle Book album cover

In 1968, Disney tested the sequel waters, bringing back Phil Harris and Louis Prima for the book-and-record set More Jungle Book. The album didn’t do well and The Jungle Book went back on the shelf for awhile. In the 1990s, Disney brought the characters to television, first on the show TaleSpin and later on Jungle Cubs. Not long after, the studio brought Baloo and company back to theatres, in animation, in live-action and in whatever you want to call the CGI hybrid style employed by Jon Favreau. This column will be getting to many of those eventually.

Disney’s original The Jungle Book continues to have a place in the hearts of fans around the world. Walt had made better, more important animated features before and the studio that still bears his name has made better movies since. But it’s hard to argue against a movie with no ulterior motive other than showing its audience a good time. It’s fun, breezy and as easy to swallow as sweet tea on a hot day. It really does provide the bare necessities of what you want out of a Disney movie.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

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