Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Biscuit Eater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Meh

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 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: The Barefoot Executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

Quad poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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: 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: The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

In the pantheon of Disney stars, Roddy McDowall’s name does not loom as large as Fred MacMurray or Dean Jones. Beginning with That Darn Cat!, McDowall appeared in four Disney pictures and lent his voice to a couple more. But unlike MacMurray or Jones, Roddy McDowall was always more of a character actor than a leading man. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin suggests that maybe the studio should have given him more starring roles.

Roddy McDowall was nine years old when he received his first screen credit on the 1938 British mystery Murder In The Family (Glynis Johns, another future Disney star, played his sister). His family came to America in the early days of World War II. He was cast almost immediately upon his arrival in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. That Oscar-winning film turned McDowall from a child actor into a child star. Throughout the 1940s, he starred in such films as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home.

As McDowall grew older, he evaded the pitfalls of most child stars by taking control of his career. By 1948, he began producing some of his own films including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, another future Disney project. He moved to New York to take acting classes and focus on the stage. His performances in shows like Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, erased the child star image.

By the time Disney cast him in That Darn Cat!, McDowall had gone back to Hollywood. In addition to regular TV appearances, he joined the ensembles of such big-budget epics as Cleopatra and The Longest Day. In 1967 alone, the year The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was released, he also starred in the films The Cool Ones and It!, had a supporting role in a TV production of the play Saint Joan, guest starred on an episode of The Invaders, and voiced the cricket in the Rankin/Bass holiday cartoon Cricket On The Hearth. And that was pretty much the pace he kept up for the rest of his life. Nobody ever accused Roddy McDowall of resting on his laurels.

Like a lot of these lesser-known live-action entries, there’s not a whole lot out there about the making of The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. I can’t say if the project was developed specifically with McDowall in mind or if he was cast later. Either way, the role suits the actor perfectly. It isn’t exactly a challenging role and no doubt other actors could have done well with it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else having as much fun as McDowall appears to be having here.

Lowell S. Hawley, whose last Disney film had been the odd but still kind of enjoyable A Tiger Walks, based his screenplay on the excellently titled book By The Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman. Fleischman was a former journalist who started out writing novels inspired by his own experiences in the Navy stationed in the Pacific. One of those books provided the basis for the John Wayne movie Blood Alley, with a script by Fleischman himself. In 1962, he turned his attention to children’s books, many of which incorporate stage magic, a childhood passion of his. Fleischman went on to write countless books for young readers, including the Bloodhound Gang adventures from the PBS series 3-2-1 Contact.

This would be the last Disney feature for director James Neilson. Neilson’s time at the studio showed him to be a pretty schizophrenic director. He was capable of terrific work, like the TV production Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. But he was also responsible for two of the studio’s worst, the sci-fi misfire Moon Pilot and the strained European shenanigans of Bon Voyage! Based on those two duds, I was prepared to say that comedy just wasn’t his forte. But The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is genuinely funny, so either he was keeping this talent a secret or even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

Our story opens in 1848 Boston as Arabella Flagg (Suzanne Pleshette) and her younger brother, Jack (Bryan Russell, last seen in Emil And The Detectives), discover that their late father has left them flat broke. Determined to rebuild the family fortune, Jack stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco. The family butler, Griffin (McDowall), tries to bring him home but the ship departs before they can get back ashore.

En route to San Francisco, Griffin and Jack meet Quentin Bartlett (Richard Haydn, the voice of the Caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland). Bartlett has a map to a gold mine and agrees to partner up with the two newcomers. But before they even make it to port, the map is stolen by wily crook Judge Higgins (Karl Malden, light years away from his role as the kindly Reverend Ford in Pollyanna).

The west proves to be as wild wild as promised and the gold hunters soon run afoul of a burly thug named Mountain Ox (perennial Hollywood tough guy Mike Mazurki, not seen in this column since Davy Crockett). Griffin knocks him out with a slug from a glove filled with gold nuggets, earning him the nickname “Bullwhip”. Sam Trimble (Harry Guardino), the owner of the local saloon, offers Griffin a big payday to go head-to-head with the Ox in the boxing ring. Not wanting to risk a rematch, the team hits the road to pursue Judge Higgins.

What follows is not a plot so much as an extremely episodic and convoluted series of events. Our heroes find the map, then lose the map, then find the map’s been damaged. They find gold, then lose it all to Judge Higgins, who then loses it himself. Higgins dons an array of disguises and almost ends up getting hung but manages to escape. Transitions between scenes are accomplished through charming, old-timey animations by Ward Kimball. It all feels pretty random but it’s never less than amusing.

Bullwhip and Jack eventually make their way back to San Francisco, where they find Arabella has taken a job dancing (and singing some mildly saucy Sherman Brothers songs) at Sam Trimble’s saloon. Sam reminds Griffin that his offer to fight Mountain Ox still stands. Broke and wanting to protect Arabella’s virtue, Griffin agrees. While Bullwhip and Ox essentially turn into live-action cartoons for the fight, Judge Higgins disguises himself yet again to rob the saloon. Bullwhip manages to eke out a victory but a fire breaks out when someone tries to apprehend Higgins. The money is recovered, Griffin and Arabella fall in love and all is right with the world.

Needless to say, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is absolutely, 100%, top-to-bottom ridiculous. If you’re looking for a compelling, historically accurate look at the California Gold Rush, keep on moving. If you want a movie that’s completely devoid of racial stereotypes, it ain’t this one. Its portrayal of Mexicans and especially Chinese is indefensible. The version currently available on Disney+ notes that it has been edited for content, so apparently this is the less offensive version. But the tone is so light and James Neilson does such a good job keeping the story bouncing along, none of that really matters.

This is the kind of movie that lives or dies on the strength of its cast. Neilson assembled a top-notch group more than capable of putting this over. Roddy McDowall is first-rate. He’s very funny as the straightlaced, exceedingly proper English butler. Somehow, he manages to keep that reserve throughout the movie. Even when he’s literally bouncing around the boxing ring, he never seems to be overacting or mugging for the camera. He strikes just the right balance.

Karl Malden appears to be having a real hoot as the villainous Judge Higgins. Growing up, I always had this image of Malden as a very serious actor known for playing working-class stiffs and making American Express sound like the only thing standing between you and chaos. It’s always a pleasure to see him let loose and have some fun. Unfortunately, this will be his last appearance in this column. Karl Malden was a terrific actor but his two Disney performances tend to be dismissed as silly trifles. They were but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. They show different sides of his personality than he was usually asked to deliver and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the rest of his impressive body of work.

My biggest complaint with The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is that it could have used more Suzanne Pleshette. Arabella gives her a bit more to do than her role in The Ugly Dachschund. She gets to sing and dance and assert her independence a little (not a lot, this is still 1967 Disney we’re talking about). But she’s basically absent for the movie’s long middle stretch. Bullwhip’s adventures would have been a lot more fun if Arabella had been part of them. Not to worry, though. We’ll be seeing Pleshette back in this column again real soon.

Neilson fills out his cast with plenty of familiar, reliable Disney faces including Hermione Baddeley (Mary Poppins), Cecil Kellaway (The Shaggy Dog), Alan Carney (Monkeys, Go Home!), Parley Baer (Follow Me, Boys!), and Arthur Hunnicutt (A Tiger Walks). Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Bryan Russell. He isn’t bad or actively annoying like some Disney child stars. He just doesn’t pop on screen the way somebody like Kurt Russell (no relation) might have. Half the time, I forgot he was even there.

Evidently, Bryan Russell’s heart wasn’t really in show business anyway. The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin was his last film, not just for Disney but for anyone. I’m not sure what exactly became of him after that. I know he got married, had a couple kids, and passed away in 2016 but that’s about it. If anybody has more information, I’d love to hear it.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin is on Disney+ even in what I’m guessing is a mildly censored form. Critics weren’t crazy about it, although a few liked it, including a young Roger Ebert who had just started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. It wasn’t a hit at the box office, either. But it does seem to have a little bit of a cult following, which I suppose I would now consider myself a part of. This is a fun, goofy movie that’s hard to dislike. It should have made Roddy McDowall as big a Disney star as Dean Jones.    

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

When Walt Disney first started producing live action features, his favored genre was the historical adventure. This was mostly out of necessity. Since the studio was obligated to film in the United Kingdom, movies like The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue took advantage of the local scenery and talent. But swashbucklers had fallen out of favor, both at the studio and at the box office. Disney still occasionally filmed overseas but the studio hadn’t made an adventure picture since Kidnapped back in 1960.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released on October 1, 1966, but it’s virtually indistinguishable from those other adventure movies released over a decade earlier. Robert Westerby, the screenwriter of Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives Of Thomasina, based his script on the novel Red Hugh: Prince Of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly. Hugh O’Donnell was a real Irish nobleman who fought the British in the sixteenth century, making this very much an Irish cousin to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue.

Making his Disney debut was director Michael O’Herlihy, brother of the actor Dan O’Herlihy whom you should recognize from such films as RoboCop and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Michael O’Herlihy ended up working mostly in television, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-O, The A-Team and many others. If you watched TV at all during the 60s, 70s and 80s, you’ve seen his work. But The Fighting Prince Of Donegal kicked off a brief stint at Disney working on both television and feature productions. O’Herlihy will be back in this column.

As the movie opens, Red Hugh (Peter McEnery) receives word that his father has died, making him head of Clan O’Donnell. An old prophecy says that when Hugh succeeds Hugh, the Clans of Ireland will unite to stand against the British. This seems like a weirdly specific prophecy to me. I can imagine that the elder Hugh felt like he didn’t need to do much since the prophecy just has him waiting to die. Anyway, Red Hugh takes this all very seriously and immediately gets to work on this whole uniting the Clans business.

He first pays a visit to Lord McSweeney (Andrew Keir), a boisterous, hard-drinking man who pledges the aid of Clan McSweeney. Hugh also has his eye on McSweeney’s daughter, Kathleen (Susan Hampshire, last seen as the so-called “witch” in The Three Lives Of Thomasina). This annoys another would-be suitor, Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams), who decides to drag his feet before pledging the loyalty of Clan O’Neill. But after Hugh defeats him in an impromptu wrestling match, the two men become best of frenemies.

Before they can meet with more Clansmen, McSweeney and Hugh accept the invitation of a British merchant anchored just offshore. Once they’re on board the ship, they fall into a trap to arrest Hugh. It seems the British had heard about that prophecy too and managed to crack the code to figure out who the troublemaker was. Hugh is sent to a Dublin prison where he makes a powerful enemy in Captain Leeds (Gordon Jackson) after Leeds needlessly picks a quarterstaff fight with him and suffers a humiliating defeat in front of the other prisoners.

Sentenced to solitary confinement, Hugh escapes with the help of fellow prisoner Sean O’Toole (Donal McCann). He doesn’t get far before Leeds’ men pick him up and toss him back in. McSweeney and O’Neill attempt to buy his freedom with a treaty but Leeds rejects it and arrests O’Neill. With Hugh about to be transferred to the Tower of London, they enlist the help of a sympathetic waterboy to attempt a second escape, this time through the storm drains beneath the castle.

Leeds has had enough and decides to attack the O’Donnell castle and hold Kathleen and O’Donnell’s mother hostage. As John Belushi once pointed out, you should never mess with an Irishman’s mother. Hugh organizes the various Clans and attacks his own castle, soundly defeating the British and taking Leeds prisoner until a treaty can be ratified. The Clans are united and everyone celebrates in traditional Irish fashion, drinking a lot and fighting among themselves.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal isn’t terrible but I definitely had a feeling of déjà vu while watching it. All of those British historical dramas started to blend together after awhile and this is very much cut from the same cloth. The fight sequences are active without ever feeling too dangerous or exciting. Everyone looks like they’re costumed for a renaissance fair and all the castles are Peter Ellenshaw matte paintings. If you’ve seen one of these swashbucklers, you really kind of have seen them all.

Maybe it would have been better if the fighting prince himself had been more inspiring. Peter McEnery made his Disney debut as Hayley Mills’ leading man in The Moon-Spinners. He was perfectly fine as a fired banker suspected of being a jewel thief. He has an everyman quality that lends itself to the light Hitchcockian thrills of The Moon-Spinners but doesn’t exactly make him a leader of men. With his shock of messy red hair, it’s kind of like trying to picture Ron Weasley in Braveheart.

Comic book adaptation of The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

This would end up being the final Disney roles for both McEnery and Susan Hampshire. Peter McEnery went on to a very distinguished career on the London stage, as well as roles in such films as Negatives and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Susan Hampshire found her greatest success on television, winning three Emmy Awards for her roles in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Vanity Fair. They’re both still with us, so there’s always a chance they could pop up in another Disney project.

The most entertaining performances come from Andrew Keir as McSweeney, Gordon Jackson as the villainous Captain Leeds, and Tom Adams as Henry O’Neill. Around the same time The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released, Adams starred as superspy Charles Vine in a trilogy of 007 knockoffs. Here, he’s saddled with an atrocious Prince Valiant wig but enough charm comes through that you can see why he’d be cast as an imitation James Bond. Tom Adams will not be back in this column. He died in 2014.

This’ll also be the last time we see Gordon Jackson, who last turned up as the farmer in Greyfriars Bobby. Like Susan Hampshire, Jackson also became a prominent TV actor. He won an Emmy for his role on Upstairs, Downstairs (which was as big as Downton Abbey in its day) and starred in the cult crime series The Professionals. Gordon Jackson passed away in 1990.

Andrew Keir also had a small role in Greyfriars Bobby. Between Disney gigs, he appeared in a number of Hammer Films. In 1967, he landed his most prominent role as Professor Bernard Quatermass in Quatermass And The Pit. He returned to the role shortly before his death on the BBC radio drama The Quatermass Memoirs. Around that same time, he also appeared in the non-Disney Rob Roy with Liam Neeson. Andrew Keir died in 1997.

The middling box office returns for The Fighting Prince Of Donegal confirmed that audiences weren’t all that interested in movies like this from Disney. So in some ways, this marks the end of an era but it’s difficult to feel too nostalgic for it. When people think of Disney movies from the 1950s and 60s, a very specific type of film comes to mind. Silly, perhaps even goofy movies with a song or three and maybe a fantasy element to it. Movies like this don’t fit that mold. It’s interesting that the studio directed so many of its resources toward serious-minded adventures rooted in history. If only they had done more to distinguish them from one another.

VERDICT: The movie’s overall been-there-done-that feeling prevents it from being a Disney Plus. Let’s put it on the high end of the Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Moon-Spinners

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Moon-Spinners

On April 18, 1964, Hayley Mills turned 18. This might have caused a bit of a problem. Walt Disney did not have a great track record when it came to transitioning his child stars to young adulthood. Former contract players like Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten and even Tommy Kirk found themselves cut loose from the studio as they aged out of their original roles. But Hayley Mills was by far the biggest star Walt had ever discovered and he wanted to keep her in the family. He took some baby steps toward a more mature Hayley Mills by introducing some innocent romance to her last Disney film, Summer Magic. But with The Moon-Spinners, Hayley got her first (almost) grown-up role.

The Moon-Spinners reunites Hayley with her Summer Magic director, James Neilson. Michael Dyne, a former actor turned prolific television writer, adapted his script from a novel by Mary Stewart. In the 1970s, Stewart switched to the fantasy genre, writing a series of books called The Merlin Chronicles and a handful of books for younger readers. Her book The Little Broomstick provided the basis for the Japanese animated feature Mary And The Witch’s Flower. But in 1964, Stewart was “the Queen of Suspense”, a popular author of romantic thrillers with plucky and resourceful young heroines. In other words, young women a lot like Hayley Mills.

Hayley wasn’t quite old enough to play Nicola Ferris, a secretary at the British Embassy on the Greek island of Crete. So Dyne’s script turns Nicola into Nikky Ferris, a young tourist traveling with her Aunt Frances (Joan Greenwood in her only Disney appearance). They arrive at an inn called The Moon-Spinners run by Sophia (legendary Greek actress Irene Papas, another one-and-done Disney star). The inn is hosting a massive wedding and, at first, Sophia refuses to rent rooms to the newcomers. But her young son, Alexis (Michael Davis), soon talks her in to giving them a place to stay.

This is not good news to Alexis’ uncle, Stratos (Eli Wallach, another unlikely Disney star). Stratos doesn’t want anybody staying at the inn and is highly suspicious of any new guests. This includes a young man named Mark Camford (Peter McEnery, who will actually be back in this column) who spends a great deal of time out on the Bay of Dolphins. Nikky quickly develops a crush on Mark, so when he invites her out for a swim the next morning, she’s only too happy to agree.

Unfortunately, Mark isn’t able to make that date. When Stratos goes out for a little night fishing on the Bay of Dolphins, Mark follows him on shore, just as Stratos hoped he would. Mark ends up getting shot by Stratos’ henchman, Lambis (Paul Stassino, soon to appear as one of the bad guys in Thunderball). Mark vanishes underwater and Stratos and Lambis leave him for dead.

The next day, Nikky is told that Mark caught an early bus and checked out, so she goes exploring on her own. While visiting an old church, she finds a trail of blood that leads her to Mark, weak but alive. Nikky naturally has a lot of questions but Mark refuses to answer any of them, ostensibly for her own safety. Mark sends her back to the inn in search of supplies, including a first aid kit and a bottle of brandy.

A bit later, Aunt Frances discovers her first aid kit and other things are missing. She accuses Stratos of stealing them, which makes sense since he’s been nothing but antagonistic and shifty this whole time. Stratos finds Nikky and figures out where Mark’s been hiding. But Mark has already fled the church, so Stratos kidnaps Nikky for insurance and ties her up in a windmill. Don’t forget, at this point we still have no real idea what any of these people are doing or why they’re doing it.

Alexis hears Nikky’s calls for help and rescues her by grabbing ahold of the wooden sails, riding it around and climbing up into the single window. Once he gets Nikky down the same way, she and Mark take refuge in the ruins of an old temple overrun with cats. Here, he finally explains what all this is about. Turns out that Mark was a bank employee in London who was fired after he failed to follow security protocol and allowed some priceless jewels to be stolen on his watch. The bank and police suspected he was in on the job but Mark knows he’s innocent. He suspects Stratos is the thief and followed him to Crete to gather some proof and clear his name.

After spending the night in the ruins, Nikky and Mark are awakened by Anthony Gamble (John Le Mesurier), the British Consul. Gamble promises to help and takes them back to his house where his wife, Cynthia (Sheila Hancock), looks after Mark’s injuries. Everything seems fine until Cynthia gets drunk and raises suspicions with some very undiplomatic dinner conversation. As it happens, Gamble is actually Stratos’ partner. They plan on selling the stolen jewels to Madame Habib (legendary silent film star Pola Negri), an eccentric millionaire who travels the world on her yacht with her pet cheetah because why not.

To get him out of the way, the Gambles drug Mark and arrange to send them all back to Athens. In a hearse. During a massive street festival. Because again, why not. Nikky manages to separate herself from the others, steals a boat and heads out to Madame Habib’s yacht. She tells Madame Habib the whole story and begs her not to buy the stolen jewels from Stratos. Eventually, everybody converges on the yacht, including the police who arrest Stratos and the other bad guys. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a satisfying ending but at least it’s an ending.

Theatrical release poster for The Moon-Spinners

If last week’s film, A Tiger Walks, played out like Preston Sturges Lite, The Moon-Spinners is 100% Hitchcock Lite. The exotic location, the breathless chases and the quirky characters all feel ripped directly from the Master’s playbook. But James Neilson is no Hitchcock. The biggest problem is pacing. There’s more to building a mystery than just having everyone give each other side-eye and withholding information. We’re practically an hour into the movie before we learn what any of this is about. It’s difficult to care about a mystery when you don’t have the first clue why people are behaving mysteriously. It’s like trying to solve a Mad Libs riddle. When the mystery could be literally anything, it’s easy to assume it’ll turn out to be nothing.

On the plus side, Neilson does stage some very impressive setpieces, especially that windmill escape. It’s a whirl of vertiginous camera angles and movement, cut together quickly enough to mostly mask the dodgy process shots and obvious use of stunt doubles. It’s one of the coolest pure action sequences I’ve yet seen in a live-action Disney feature. It also helps that Neilson leans into the absurdity of all this and keeps ramping it up as the movie goes along. By the time we arrive at Madame Habib’s yacht, it somehow feels inevitable that this would all culminate with a cheetah roaming around an ornate stateroom on a boat.

As usual, Hayley Mills acquits herself nicely, bringing her trademark effervescence to a more mature role. This time around, she’s allowed to behave flirtatiously with McEnery and even gets in a kiss or two. In her funniest scene, Madame Habib makes her drink some brandy to warm up and Hayley quickly overdoes it. The sight of a drunk Hayley Mills trying to rattle off the convoluted plot of this movie is almost worth the price of admission on its own.

Walt gave Hayley a big vote of confidence this time around by surrounding her with distinguished character actors instead of his usual company of stock players. Eli Wallach was already a respected founding member of the Actors Studio who had appeared in such adult fare as Baby Doll and The Misfits. He may have considered The Moon-Spinners to be below his pay grade, as he seems faintly bored throughout. Still, his presence lends some gravitas to the proceedings.

Joan Greenwood and John Le Mesurier were both prolific on the British stage and screen. Greenwood had appeared in several classic Ealing comedies, including Kind Hearts And Coronets. Le Mesurier had appearances in some Peter Sellers movies like Waltz Of The Toreadors and The Pink Panther. These consummate professionals fulfill their roles admirably, adding a light touch to the danger and suspense.

But Walt’s biggest get for the film was easily Pola Negri. In 1922, she made headlines becoming the first European film star to sign a Hollywood contract. By the end of the decade, she had become one of the most popular and wealthiest actresses in the industry. She’d had a remarkable career but retired in 1943. Billy Wilder had attempted to coax her back to the screen, offering her the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but she turned him down. Walt, who was always an amazing salesman, succeeded where Wilder failed.

The casting is quite a coup for the movie. Even if you have no idea who Pola Negri is, you know she’s someone of great importance the second she appears on screen. Her regal bearing and exotic looks had not noticeably diminished since she’d last appeared on screen. Supposedly the cheetah was her idea. The Moon-Spinners turned out to be Pola Negri’s final film. After its release, she re-retired, turning down offers of roles from Vincente Minnelli and (again) Billy Wilder. She died of pneumonia in 1987.

The Moon-Spinners premiered July 2, 1964. It was not met with enthusiasm. Critics were lukewarm at best, noting that it was essentially a watered-down Hitchcock thriller, too juvenile for grownups and too grownup for kids. Audiences also preferred seeing Hayley Mills in more traditional Disney fare. The movie only grossed about $3.5 million, not enough to cover its budget. Hayley was nearing the end of her Disney contract anyway but it was becoming increasingly clear that if she wanted to develop as an actress, Disney wasn’t going to be the place to do it.  

VERDICT: Overall it’s a Disney Minus but the scattered Disney Plus moments make it a worthwhile watch.

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