Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Million Dollar Duck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternate poster for Million Dollar Duck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Scandalous John

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Scandalous John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quad poster for Scandalous John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Barefoot Executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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