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: King Of The Grizzlies

Hey there, Mouseketeers! Before we get to this week’s movie, I’d like to get some feedback from you. For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a paid tier to the regular Disney Plus-Or-Minus columns (sort of a Disney Plus-Or-Minus+ if you will). This would cover things that fall outside the Disney Plus-Or-Minus umbrella: TV productions, shorts, even Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures eventually.

My first question, obviously, is would this be interesting enough for you to spend a couple bucks a month on it? Secondly, how much sounds like a reasonable amount to charge? Finally, what platform would be best for everyone? Substack? Patreon? Something else I haven’t thought of yet?

Let me know your thoughts either in the comments down below, on the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre Facebook page, on Twitter (@DrAdamJahnke) or however else you might think a message could reach me. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and your continued support of this increasingly ambitious project! And now, we return to our regularly scheduled program.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's King Of The Grizzlies

By 1970, it had been a decade since Disney pulled the plug on the long-running True-Life Adventures series. In the years since, writer/narrator Winston Hibler had become a producer and most of the movies he’d worked on involved animals. Movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar used True-Life Adventures techniques in a fictional setting. King Of The Grizzlies pushed that style even farther. It’s the most documentary-like of Disney’s fictional animal features since Perri.

The movie was based on the book The Biography Of A Grizzly by Boy Scouts co-founder Ernest Thompson Seton. Eight years earlier, James Algar, another True-Life Adventures vet, adapted another Seton book as The Legend Of Lobo. The screenplay was by Jack Speirs (writer of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar), TV writer Rod Peterson, and Norman Wright, who’d been working for Disney since the Fantasia days.

This would be Canadian filmmaker Ron Kelly’s one and only Disney film as a director. He’d continue to focus on local interest stories in his home country into the 1980s. Once again, Hibler utilized Lloyd Beebe and Cangary Limited to produce the nature footage. Director of photography Reginald Morris had a long history of shooting documentary shorts. He’d later become Bob Clark’s go-to cinematographer, shooting films like Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

The star of the film is Big Ted, a 1,300-pound grizzly bear who worked for marshmallows, but the movie does include a handful of human actors who were presumably paid actual money. John Yesno plays Moki, a Cree who feels a spiritual connection to the bear he names Wahb. Yesno didn’t appear in a lot of movies but he did have a distinguished career as a broadcaster and activist in Canada.

Chris Wiggins costars as The Colonel, Moki’s former commanding officer and owner of the ranch Moki works at as foreman. Wiggins did a lot of voice work over the years, although none of it was for Disney. He voiced a number of different characters on Marvel’s animated shows of the 1960s, including Thor, Hawkeye and, appropriately enough in this context, Kraven the Hunter. Horror fans may recognize him as occult expert Jack Marshak from Friday The 13th: The Series. Wiggins and Yesno would also both appear in the 1980 Canadian TV-movie The Courage Of Kavik The Wolf Dog (John Candy, who will eventually appear in this column, also turned up in that one).

But Yesno, Wiggins and the other two-legged performers are definitely supporting players in this drama. We first meet the cub who would be king when he’s just a few months old, scampering around the mountains with his sister and Mama Bear. After more than 10 minutes of cute-baby-bears-being-cute footage, we encounter Moki. Moki was raised to respect the bear and even has a bear paw tattooed on his hand. So he’s not exactly a great first line of defense when the bear family meets up with the Colonel’s cattle.

Young Wahb starts the trouble when he finds a wayward calf (Hibler’s folksy narration assures us that Wahb’s intentions are strictly friendly). The resulting commotion attracts the attention of the Colonel, who shoots and kills Wahb’s mother and sister. Wahb himself manages to get away after tumbling off a cliff into the river below. In a switch from Disney’s usual anthropomorphic manipulation, the death of Wahb’s family isn’t played for pathos. Hibler lets us know that animals have blessedly short memories for such trauma and Wahb is back on his feet in no time.

A little later, Moki happens across the little bear cub, scared out of his wits up a tree. He rescues Wahb, straps him on to his horse, and rides off. But unlike humans in other Disney nature dramas, he doesn’t bring him home to raise him like a pet. Instead, he takes Wahb up the mountain to the site of his own coming-of-age ritual, far from the ranch. He lets the cub go, wishes him luck and heads for home, figuring they’ll probably never see each other again.

Wahb spends the rest of the year looking for food and meeting his new neighbors. An encounter with a black bear at a honey tree goes from bad to worse when an adult male grizzly decides to show everyone who’s boss. Poor little Wahb barely hangs on while the grizzly tries knocking over the tree he’s climbed. It’s a hard-knock life for Wahb. Winter arrives and Wahb returns to his birth den for hibernation, fighting off a couple of wolverines for squatter’s rights.

The story picks up four years later with Wahb finding a wolfpack circling a slab of meat hanging above a bunch of traps. Wahb springs the traps and heads back into the woods, seemingly none the worse for wear. But those traps were laid by Moki, who recognizes Wahb’s distinctive four-toed track. He finally tells the Colonel about rescuing the cub years earlier. Needless to say, this news doesn’t go over well.

Later on, one of the Colonel’s laziest ranch hands, Shorty (Hugh Webster, who appears in another movie this column will get to eventually), decides to catch forty winks while laying some fence posts. Out for some fun, Wahb knocks over the posts and wakes up Shorty. He manages to escape but the Colonel is now convinced that his ranch is on the verge of turning into a freakin’ country bear jamberoo. He demands Moki set bear traps around the property and to hell with his people’s sacred traditions.

Years later (this movie is big on time jumps), Moki comes face-to-face with Wahb, now a massive seven feet tall. Rather than firing his gun, Moki speaks to him in the language of the Cree. The words soothe Wahb and he leaves Moki alone, satisfied that the two of them are kindred spirits.

Unfortunately, he heads straight to the Colonel’s camp where he once again wakes up Shorty (so lazy), destroys the chuckwagon and chases Slim the cook (Jack Van Evera) up a tree. The Colonel decides that eight years of intermittent bear sightings is enough and heads out to take care of Wahb once and for all.

The Colonel stumbles around the woods for a while, finally catching up with Wahb just as he’s winning a rematch with his old rival grizzly from the honey tree. The newly crowned king of the grizzlies attacks, sending the Colonel tumbling into a ravine. Moki turns up and again speaks to Wahb in Cree, calming him down and sending him on his way. Moki helps the Colonel and they watch the bear marking his territory from a safe distance. The Colonel still isn’t convinced that Wahb won’t be back and raises his rifle to shoot but Moki has already removed the bullets. Finally persuaded that this bear really, truly means a lot to his friend, the Colonel agrees to let Wahb go and live his life in peace.

Theatrical release poster for King Of The Grizzlies

King Of The Grizzlies isn’t the best Disney nature adventure but it’s far from the worst, either. On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot. Practically every frame showcases a stunning Canadian landscape suitable for framing in your finest ranger stations and fire lookout towers. The animals are pretty great, too. Some of these movies can get a little sleepy and pastoral but this one at least keeps things moving.

The movie is on shakier ground whenever it goes back to its human costars. The relationship between Moki and the Colonel is probably pretty interesting but nobody seems all that interested in exploring it. Rather than trusting the actors to do their jobs, Hibler’s pushy narrator tells us whatever details he decides are relevant. It’s like no one had the heart to tell him that his services would be required less in a movie about people.

The film also appears to have been shot MOS (that’s without synchronized sound, for those of you who didn’t go to film school). What little dialogue there is was added in post-production, which gives those scenes the feel of a late-period Godzilla sequel. You never really feel any connection between Moki and Wahb. You just have to take Hibler’s word for it that it exists. It feels like there’s an interesting movie to be made from this material. But Hibler and his team of writers never quite find it.

King Of The Grizzlies was Disney’s first release of the 1970s, hitting theatres on February 11, 1970. It did…well, I don’t really know how it did at the box office, to be honest with you. I can’t find any receipts listed on the usual box office tabulating sites. But considering that it isn’t currently available on Disney+ or Blu-ray and I’ve never met any ravenous King Of The Grizzlies superfans, I doubt it packed ‘em in.

By now, the True-Life Fantasy format had already run its course but Disney wasn’t quite ready to give up on the hybrid subgenre. The 1970s were very much the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” decade at the studio, returning time and again to previously successful formulas that Walt liked with increasingly diminishing returns. Both Winston Hibler and screenwriter Jack Speirs will be back in this column and they’ll be bringing some more animals along with them. Prepare accordingly.

VERDICT: Despite some redeeming features, this teeters into Disney Minus territory.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rascal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rascal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rascal quad poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney discuss The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical re-release poster for The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Monkey’s Uncle

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Monkey's Uncle

It’s fair to assume that nobody at Disney ever thought they’d see Merlin Jones again, even after Walt rolled the dice and gave The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones a theatrical release. For one thing, expectations for the project were low. More importantly, Walt had fired Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones himself, after a scandal threatened to out Kirk’s homosexuality. But money talks and when Merlin Jones blew up at the box office, Walt brought Tommy, Annette and pretty much everybody else from the first film back to try and make lightning strike twice.

Merlin Jones’ original misadventure was clearly a television product inelegantly stitched together for theatrical presentation. So you’d think that the first thing returning screenwriters Helen and Alfred Lewis Levitt and director Robert Stevenson would do would be to concoct an actual storyline that would carry through the entire picture. Nope! Even though The Monkey’s Uncle was made with cinemas in mind, this still feels like two unrelated episodes of a sitcom. Both halves revolve vaguely around the threat of football being abolished at Midvale College but that’s about as far as the intricate plot machinations get.

While 99.9% of The Monkey’s Uncle is Disney business as usual, the movie shows that Stevenson and Walt had been paying attention to the outside world in at least one big way. Annette began appearing in American International Pictures’ cycle of beach movies starting with Beach Party in 1963. AIP’s movies regularly featured musical interludes performed on-camera by such artists as Dick Dale, “Little” Stevie Wonder and The Hondells. Never one to be outdone, Walt recruited the most popular surf rock band of all time, The Beach Boys, to be Annette’s backup band.

At the time of The Monkey’s Uncle’s release in August 1965, the band had already scored two number-one hits. Brian Wilson was operating near the peak of his creative powers, less than a year away from the release of Pet Sounds. But Disney being Disney, you won’t hear any Beach Boys classics like “I Get Around” or “California Girls” here. Instead, the band accompanies Annette on an original title track by the Sherman Brothers, then disappears after the opening credits. The song, which includes such lyrics as “I love the monkey’s uncle and I wish I were the monkey’s aunt”, is very catchy and very dumb. But at least the Beach Boys appear to be enjoying themselves. Well, most of them do. Mike Love gets stuck singing backup and busts out some exceptionally awkward bent-knees and swinging-arms not-quite-dance-moves. He looks like he’d rather be someplace else.

Theatrical release poster for The Monkey's Uncle

A movie like this doesn’t really need to justify its title but Stevenson and the Levitts do just that as soon as the Beach Boys have left the building. It seems that Merlin Jones, the scrambled egghead of Midvale College, has filed a petition to formally adopt Stanley, the chimpanzee from the first film. Judge Holmsby (once again played by Leon Ames) isn’t comfortable with a human caring for a chimp like a child, so he does the next best thing by making Stanley Merlin’s nephew. The Supreme Court could use more judges like Holmsby who make decisions based solely on puns and goofy jokes.

Merlin uses Stanley in his experiments with sleep-learning. Once the chimp falls asleep, a record plays instructions for Stanley to follow when he wakes up. Meanwhile, Judge Holmsby is fighting his own battles with his fellow Midvale board members. Football-hating regent Mr. Dearborne (Frank Faylen, probably best known as Ernie the cab driver in It’s A Wonderful Life but not seen in this column since his appearance all the way back in The Reluctant Dragon) wants to cancel the big game unless the jocks can pass their exams honestly. Judge Holmsby loves football but admits that the team is likely doomed if they can’t cheat. So he recruits Merlin to come up with an honest method of cheating, which turns out to be sleep-learning. If it worked on a chimp, surely it’ll work on a couple of apes like Norm Grabowski (reprising his role from the first movie) and Leon Tyler (last seen assisting Tommy Kirk in Son Of Flubber).

The scheme more or less works but in the movie’s second half, Merlin faces a more formidable challenge. Mr. Dearborne has found a potential donor to solve Midvale’s perpetual financial woes. He’s prepared to make a substantial donation if the college permanently bans football. Things look bleak until Holmsby meets eccentric millionaire Darius Green III (Arthur O’Connell). He promises an even more substantial donation if Midvale’s top scientific minds can fulfill his ancestor’s dream of inventing a human-propelled flying machine. Once again, Holmsby turns to Merlin for help.

Merlin’s flying machine works, up to a point. The problem is that people just aren’t strong enough to keep the thing aloft and land safely. So Merlin develops a strength elixir from pure adrenaline and takes over as pilot himself. The flight goes smoothly right up until some men in white coats turn up to bring “Darius Green III” back home to the funny farm. It looks like Mr. Dearborne’s dream of a football-free Midvale will come true. But it turns out that his mysterious benefactor was also the same escaped lunatic using another alias. Wocka wocka wocka!

Gold Key comic book adaptation of The Monkey's Uncle

OK, nobody expected The Monkey’s Uncle to dig deep into the tortured backstory of Merlin Jones or to see his relationship with girlfriend Jennifer blossom into a rich tapestry of complex emotion. But even by the relaxed standards of a gimmick comedy sequel, this is one lazy, pedestrian effort from all involved. Nobody brought their A-game to the set this time.

Robert Stevenson, a reliable director who had just been nominated for an Oscar thanks to Mary Poppins, could not have been less invested in this material. Stevenson was a sure-hand when it came to visual effects, whether it was Mary Poppins, the Flubber films or Darby O’Gill And The Little People. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones had largely avoided pricy effects. With a slightly higher budget to play with, Stevenson does include some fun flying effects this time out. But they’re nothing special and by the time they show up, the movie is already inching toward the finish line.

The Monkey’s Uncle is a particular waste of Annette Funicello’s time, although she later said performing with the Beach Boys was a high point of her music career. She already didn’t have much to do in the first movie. Here, she’s given two notes to play: supportive lab assistant and jealous girlfriend. First, she’s jealous of Stanley after Merlin devotes all his time to the chimp. When she finally arranges for a chimp-sitter so they can go out on a date, Merlin inexplicably forgets all about his girlfriend and starts mooning over the blonde co-ed (Cheryl Miller, who would continue to costar with animals in the film Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spin-off Daktari).

Walt hadn’t known what to do with Annette for some time now. He’d made her a huge TV and recording star but after Babes In Toyland flopped, he seemed to give up on her movie career. After The Monkey’s Uncle, she left Disney for good. She made some more beach movies and stockcar movies for AIP, then focused on raising a family for a few years. By the time I learned who she was in the mid-1970s, it was as the face of Skippy peanut butter. In 1985, she returned to the studio for the Disney Channel movie Lots Of Luck about a regular family that wins the lottery. Martin Mull and Fred Willard are also in this, so I kind of want to see it now.

Two years after Lots Of Luck, Annette reunited with Frankie Avalon for Back To The Beach. While she was promoting the film, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She went public with her condition in 1992, the same year she was inducted as a Disney Legend. A couple years later, Annette published her memoir, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes. That book was turned into a 1995 TV-movie (featuring Len Cariou as Walt) that brought in huge ratings for CBS. It also turned out to be Annette’s last movie. She passed away from complications from multiple sclerosis in 2013.

This would also be Tommy Kirk’s last Disney movie, although I’m happy to say he’s still with us. This is Tommy’s 11th appearance in this column since we first saw him back in Old Yeller. After leaving Disney, he followed Annette to AIP where he starred in Pajama Party. But late in 1964, he was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana and possession of barbiturates. The charges were soon dropped when it was shown that he had a prescription for the pills but the arrest still cost him several high-profile roles.

Tommy kept working throughout the 1960s, appearing in such non-classics as Village Of The Giants and Mars Needs Women. His drug and alcohol use worsened as he continued to appear in bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. By the mid-70s, he had decided to get sober and quit acting. He eventually opened a carpet cleaning business and lived a quiet, normal life for many years, allowing himself to be coaxed onscreen occasionally in movies like Attack Of The 60 Foot Centerfolds and Little Miss Magic for prolific B-movie auteur Fred Olen Ray. He has yet to appear in another Disney production but was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2006, alongside his Hardy Boys costar Tim Considine and frequent on-screen brother Kevin Corcoran.

Under normal circumstances, The Monkey’s Uncle wouldn’t seem all that unusual or disappointing. It’s a subpar sequel to a surprisingly successful but undeniably goofy movie. And if everybody had still been under contract, this would be a logical (if underwhelming) follow-up. But they weren’t. Walt had very explicitly fired Tommy Kirk and Annette was enjoying more success with Frankie Avalon over at AIP. So Walt had to go out of his way to make The Monkey’s Uncle.

Instead of making the extra effort worthwhile, it’s almost like he was trying to sabotage the Merlin Jones franchise by making something so forgettable that nobody would ever bother asking for another one. Whether he intended it or not, he ended up making a good example of why Walt had never liked sequels in the first place. And even though the studio would eventually return to cranking out part twos and threes, Walt would not personally oversee another sequel in his lifetime.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: A Tiger Walks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's A Tiger Walks

When you see the words “Walt Disney Presents” at the beginning of a film, you probably have certain expectations about what you’re going to get. If there is comedy, it will be broad. If there is danger, it won’t be particularly threatening. The virtues of small-town American life will be extolled and a warm feeling of sentimental nostalgia will cover everything like a down comforter. Almost every single one of those expectations goes unmet in the deeply odd 1964 film A Tiger Walks.

Director Norman Tokar, who joined the studio with Big Red and Savage Sam, moves from dogs to cats with this one. Lowell S. Hawley, who most recently had written In Search Of The Castaways, based his screenplay on a novel by Scottish author Ian Niall. Hawley transports the action from Wales to the US but apart from that change, I don’t know how closely the film follows Niall’s book. But Niall isn’t really known as a children’s or young adult writer, so I’m guessing A Tiger Walks wasn’t necessarily intended for young readers.

Our story takes place in the remote little town of Scotia located in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest, although the state itself goes unnamed. A traveling circus passes through and the truck carrying the tigers gets a flat tire. The local service station doesn’t stock tires that size, so while they’re waiting, the two tiger handlers Josef Pietz (Theodore Marcuse) and Ram Singh (Sabu in what ended up being his final role before his unexpected death at the age of 39) head over to the hotel bar for an early happy hour.

Pietz ends up getting good and drunk, so when he returns to find a crowd of children hanging around clamoring for a peek at the tigers, he’s only too happy to oblige. He jabs the big cats with a stick, riling them up. When he foolishly opens the cage a crack, Raja, the male tiger, makes a break for it. The kids scatter and Raja corners two of them, the sheriff’s daughter Julie (Pamela Franklin) and her friend Tom (Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran), in a dead-end alley. But rather than attacking, Raja leaps a fence and makes for the hills with Pietz and Mr. Singh in hot pursuit.

Sheriff Pete Williams (Disney regular Brian Keith) returns to organize a search party before dense fog moves into the area. They haven’t gone far before one of the men literally stumbles over the mutilated body of Josef Pietz. This is too much for most of the posse and they head for the safety of their homes.

Meanwhile, a local aspiring journalist (Doodles Weaver) has contacted the editor of the area’s biggest newspaper. By the time Sheriff Pete makes it back to town, a media circus has descended on the hotel determined to milk the story for all its worth. While the sheriff tries to prevent a panic, the hotel’s owner (Una Merkel) is charging reporters and other curiosity seekers double her normal rates. She even rents her office to the sheriff as a temporary headquarters. No wonder she glides around the place singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” while everybody else is barricading their doors and windows.

Temporarily stymied by the fog, the reporters decide to capture some human interest shots of Julie and Tom feeding the baby tigers. During her interview, Julie speaks out of turn and says her father has promised to capture Raja alive. Word gets back to the governor (Edward Andrews, one of Disney’s favorite avatars of ineffectual authority), who happens to be up for reelection. One of his advisers (Jack Albertson) convinces him that the sheriff is bungling the job, so the governor orders the National Guard to take over.

The sheriff asks the guardsmen to wait until the fog has lifted but the trigger-happy soldiers are eager to start their tiger hunt. Sure enough, it isn’t long before one of them accidentally shoots an old man (Arthur Hunnicutt). He had spotted Raja by his place, ran off the road in the fog and was coming down the mountain on foot to bring the news. Not wanting to risk another accident, the soldiers retreat to wait out the fog.

By this point, Julie’s impromptu press conference has become a children’s crusade thanks to a TV host named Uncle Harry (Harold Peary) who bears a slight resemblance to one Walter Elias Disney. Kids across the country are staging “Save That Tiger” demonstrations and sending in cash donations to purchase the tigers from the circus. Neither Sheriff Pete or the governor are pleased by this turn of events but the sheriff swears he’ll do his best, borrowing a tranquilizer gun from a nearby school.

Eventually the fog lifts and the soldiers spot the tiger from a helicopter. While the soldiers move in from the front, Mr. Singh figures that the noise will drive Raja further up the hill so they move to outflank him with nets. Julie and Tom arrive at the last minute with the tranquilizer rifle. Raja leaps and mauls Pete’s shoulder but not before the sheriff gets a dart in him. The soldiers arrive too late but the governor still wants them to pump a few bullets into the now harmless tiger. Pete intervenes, the tigers are donated to the zoo and the governor loses his bid for reelection, while Sheriff Pete is elected to another term.

There’s just a whole lot going on in this movie and none of it is your typical Disney fare. The cynical look at all the opportunists looking to exploit the situation comes across as Preston Sturges Lite. It’s not as clever or biting as Sturges would have been but it’s pretty sharp for Disney. This is one of Walt’s few films to depict smalltown America in anything less than glowing terms. Most of the folks who live in Scotia are quick to panic and only too happy to take advantage of out-of-towners.

This all plays out against the suspense of tracking down the loose tiger and those scenes are deadly serious. Tokar and cinematographer William E. Snyder make great use of shadows and fog. When Raja stalks the old farmer in his barn, the scene feels like something out of a horror movie. The juxtaposition works surprisingly well and A Tiger Walks could have been a minor classic if it had been produced by anybody other than Walt Disney. The Disney touch softens everything just enough to turn this into a curiosity piece.

Walt attracted an impressive cast of familiar faces and newcomers to this oddity. We’ve obviously seen Brian Keith in this column before and we’ll see him again. The great Vera Miles made her Disney debut as Keith’s wife. She’ll also be back soon. Pamela Franklin had only made a few film and TV appearances, including a role in the Wonderful World Of Color production The Horse Without A Head. A Tiger Walks was her only Disney feature. She’d go on to win acclaim in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and as a scream queen in such horror classics as And Soon The Darkness and The Legend Of Hell House.

This would be the last major film appearance for Kevin Corcoran, who has been a near constant presence and frequent source of irritation here since Old Yeller. And yet, he will be back in this column. After A Tiger Walks, he graduated high school and went to college, where he majored in theatre arts. After graduation, he went back to Disney to work behind the scenes. The next time Moochie appears in this column, it will be as an assistant director and producer in the 1970s. Later in life, he’d be a producer on the TV shows The Shield and Sons Of Anarchy, which is kind of wild to think about.

A Tiger Walks came out on March 12, 1964. Critics greeted it with confusion, trying to figure out who exactly this picture was aimed at. That question remained a mystery as audiences stayed away for the most part. The budget probably wasn’t high enough to make it an outright bomb but it certainly didn’t make much of a dent at the box office. Even today, A Tiger Walks is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s not available on Disney+ and the studio has never released it on Blu-ray. You can only get it on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. It isn’t a great movie but for the curious, it’s worth a look. It’s certainly unlike any other Disney movie from the era.

VERDICT: I’m glad I watched it, so let’s call it a minor Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

In the early 60s, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were Disney’s favorite screen couple, although you wouldn’t know it based solely on the films covered in this column. Annette made her big-screen debut in The Shaggy Dog, playing second fiddle to Roberta Shore as Tommy’s primary love interest. Their roles were reversed in Annette’s big-budget musical Babes In Toyland. Tommy Sands was Annette’s leading man while Tommy Kirk was stuck playing Ed Wynn’s goofy sidekick.

It was on television that Tommy and Annette finally had a chance to click. They starred together in The Horsemasters and Escapade In Florence, two Disneyland two-parters that received theatrical engagements overseas. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones was clearly intended for a similar release but, for reasons known only to Walt, it got bumped up to American movie theatres. It’s a baffling choice because this is not some widescreen Technicolor epic that demands to be seen on the silver screen.

The story was concocted by gimmick comedy maestro Bill Walsh and scripted by the husband-and-wife team Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt. The Levitts were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist who had only recently begun to find work again, credited under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August. Robert Stevenson, the prolific director behind such previous hits as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber, was recruited to bring some of that Flubber magic to the project.

For Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones was a natural extension of the roles he’d played in The Shaggy Dog and the Flubber pictures. The Shaggy Dog’s Wilby Daniels was an amateur inventor and Biff Hawk had somehow become Fred MacMurray’s assistant in Son Of Flubber. Merlin Jones is, as the Sherman Brothers’ catchy title song helpfully explains, the scrambled egghead, the campus kook of Midvale College (not to be confused with Medfield College, home of Flubber). Annette plays Merlin’s loyal and remarkably patient girlfriend, Jennifer.

In the first part of the two-act adventure, Merlin creates an EEG machine out of a football helmet with a bunch of antennas and other assorted gizmos stuck to it. An accidental electric shock supercharges his brain, giving him the power to read minds, a fact that his science professor (Alan Hewitt, another Flubber alumni) is weirdly unimpressed with.

As Merlin comes to grips with his new ability, he reads the thoughts of no-nonsense Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames, last seen in this column as Medfield College’s President Daggett) as he tries to figure out where to stash some stolen diamonds. Merlin, who has already had some run-ins with the judge, determines that Holmsby is leading a double life as a criminal mastermind. The police don’t believe him at first. Even after he demonstrates his ESP, they can’t lift a finger without real evidence. So Merlin and Jennifer break into the judge’s house and dig up the supposed diamonds. But it turns out the whole thing was just a wacky misunderstanding. Judge Holmsby is leading a double life as a writer of detective fiction under the name Lex Fortas. Everyone agrees to forget the whole thing provided they keep Holmsby’s alter ego a secret.

Merlin’s telepathy disappears just in time for the second episode half of the film. This time, Merlin is conducting experiments with hypnosis. After hypnotizing his cowardly cat into chasing a dog up a tree, he decides to help Stanley the chimp stand up to his bullying keeper, Norman (played by custom car builder turned actor Norm Grabowski). The hypnosis works a little too well and when the science lab ends up trashed, Merlin is once again dragged in front of Judge Holmsby.

Now that Merlin and Holmsby are friendly, the judge has a request. He wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime that goes against his moral code as research for his next book. Merlin commands the judge to break into the lab and steal Stanley. The plan works perfectly but Merlin is caught trying to return Stanley the next morning. He’s arrested for the crime and, unfortunately for him, the judge doesn’t remember that he was actually the guilty party.

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Even by live-action Disney comedy standards, this is some deeply silly stuff not meant to be taken seriously even for a second. The only fair way to judge something like this is whether or not the gags land. Some do. The cat chasing the dog up a tree is kind of funny. Tommy gets a cute bit in the library where he’s overwhelmed by the loud thoughts of his fellow students (including one of Walt’s favorite targets, a poetry-writing beatnik). But overall, the movie is eminently disposable. These are all supposed to be smart characters but they behave in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. I understand Judge Holmsby forgetting about the details of his crime but did he also forget that he asked Merlin to hypnotize him in the first place?

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Tommy and Annette are a pleasant team and they play off each other well. Grabowski was pushing 30 at the time and looks about 40, so he’s an odd choice to play a college jock vying for Annette’s affections. Ames and Hewitt are squarely in their comfort zones as frequently befuddled authority figures. But the movie is so inconsequential that it begins to fade from memory even as you’re watching it. It also lacks the inventive visual effects that helped elevate previous gimmick comedies. That low-rent feeling does nothing to dispel the sense that this project would have been more at home on TV.

Sadly, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones spelled the end of the line for Tommy Kirk’s Disney career. Tommy’s teen years had been miserable as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, his off-set behavior had become increasingly out of control. Alcohol and drugs began to sink their claws into him and he clashed with costars Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman on the set of Bon Voyage.

While filming Merlin Jones, Tommy started seeing a 15-year-old boy on the sly. The kid’s mother found out about the affair and contacted Disney. This was the last straw for Walt. The fact that Tommy was gay was something of an open secret that Walt could ignore as long as it remained more secret than open. He decided not to renew Tommy’s contract and cut him loose. Later in 1964, Tommy was arrested for possession. The charges were later dropped but his All-American boy reputation was irreparably damaged.

And yet, this is not the last we’ll see of Tommy Kirk in this column. Money talks and, when The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones became an out-of-left-field hit in February of 1964, Walt brought Tommy and Annette back one last time for a sequel. In the meantime, Tommy followed Annette to American International Pictures where the two costarred in Pajama Party, a spinoff/sequel to AIP’s popular Beach Party series. Tommy plays Go Go, a Martian sent to Earth on a mission of conquest, because that’s the way those movies roll.

The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones is a minor entry in the Disney catalog that inexplicably hit it big. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the Sherman Brothers song and the stop-motion animated titles by Xavier Atencio and Bill Justice (who had done similar work on The Parent Trap and The Shaggy Dog). Those are certainly the most memorable elements of the movie. But despite the fact that everything else is by the numbers, it was a shockingly popular film that even got a re-release in the 70s. Why it struck a chord is beyond me. I guess there’s just no accounting for taste.

VERDICT: Not actively bad enough to be a full-on Disney Minus but it’s borderline.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Summer Magic

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Summer Magic

One of Hayley Mills’ greatest strengths as a young actor was her earnestness. There was no artifice to her performance. What you saw was what you got. When she delivered a line, you felt like she truly believed it. Only someone like Hayley Mills could have taken the reheated corn of Pollyanna and turned it into something palatable, if not exactly fresh.

Her English accent was a key element in that image. Summer Magic marks her fourth appearance in this column and so far, we’ve seen her play a bona fide British citizen exactly once, in the Jules Verne adventure In Search Of The Castaways. Every other character she’s played has been born and bred right here in the good old U S of A. But she never once attempts to hide her accent. The movies themselves make no effort at explaining or justifying it. It just is what it is. She’s not trying to pretend to be something she’s not. And even when playing characters as deeply American as the twins in The Parent Trap, nobody in the audience ever seems to mind.

Summer Magic is the first time that accent sounds out of place. At first glance, there’s no reason it should. The movie finds us squarely back in one of Walt’s favorite genres, the early 20th century nostalgia piece, just like Pollyanna. But this time she’s got a family: widowed mother Margaret (played by Dorothy McGuire, Disney matriarch of Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson), brothers Gilly (Eddie Hodges) and Peter (Jimmy Mathers, younger brother of Leave It To Beaver star Jerry Mathers), and cousin Julia (Deborah Walley). Not a one of these people seems like they could be related to the others.

This disconnect starts to make sense when you realize that Summer Magic was never intended to star Hayley Mills in the first place. The movie was based on the 1911 novel Mother Carey’s Chickens (you can see why they changed the name) by Mary Douglas Wiggin and adapted for the screen by Sally Benson, whose semiautobiographical stories had formed the basis of the similarly nostalgic 1944 MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis.

Walt began developing the project as a starring vehicle for his star Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello. But Annette had grown tired of waiting around the Disney lot. She was a huge TV and recording star but Walt had only cast her in two features: a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog and the big-budget musical boondoggle Babes In Toyland. Sick of waiting for her Disney ship to come in, Annette took a role opposite Frankie Avalon in the American International Pictures teen comedy Beach Party. Miffed that his star had taken another gig, Walt scratched her from Summer Magic and brought in Hayley Mills.

Beach Party came out about a month after Summer Magic and was a surprise hit, so AIP quickly signed Annette up for more. Eventually, she would be joined at AIP by her once and future Disney costar, Tommy Kirk. But for now, both Annette and Tommy were still under contract to Walt, so they’ll be back in this column.

Summer Magic might have worked a little bit better with Annette since it is essentially a musical with seven original songs by the Sherman brothers. It’s not that Hayley Mills couldn’t sing. She certainly proved she could carry a tune in her previous films. But Annette was a more natural musical performer who had already had some success with songs written for her by the Shermans. The movie feels tailor-made to Annette’s strengths a lot more than Hayley’s.

Comic book adaptation of Summer Magic

Personality is important here because there isn’t a whole lot of plot driving this story. The movie opens in Boston as the Carey family prepares to move out of their longtime home after the death of the patriarch. But Nancy Carey (Mills) remembers an idyllic vacation the family once spent in the small town of Beulah, Maine, particularly a vacant yellow house that her father loved. Nancy writes to Beulah’s postmaster, exaggerating the direness of their situation, and finds that the owner of the yellow house, Tom Hamilton, has been away in China for years, leaving the local postmaster/chief constable in charge of his affairs. He’s willing to rent the Careys the house for just $60 a year.

Upon arriving in Beulah, the postmaster, Osh Popham (Burl Ives, returning to the Disney fold for the first time since the 1948 nostalgia-fest So Dear To My Heart) immediately discovers that he’s rented the house under false pretenses. But rather than being annoyed, he’s charmed and delighted by the new arrivals and bends over backward to help out. Osh also runs the general store and he sells the Careys whatever supplies they need to fix up the house below cost. He provides free labor just so he can have some folks to chat with. Osh’s son, Digby (amusingly played by Michael J. Pollard, of all people), is getting ready to leave for the Big City, so Osh offers Digby’s job as delivery driver to Gilly. He even volunteers his daughter, Lallie Joy (Wendy Turner), to generally make herself available to help the Careys with whatever they may need. Osh Popham is more generous than Santa Claus.

The only voice of reason in all this is Osh’s disapproving wife (Una Merkel, last seen as Brian Keith’s housekeeper in The Parent Trap). She’s pretty sure that Osh hasn’t bothered to ask for Mr. Hamilton’s permission to rent the house and knows full well that he hasn’t told the Careys about it. But whenever she tries to tell them the truth, old Osh comes up with some distraction to prevent it.

When Osh discovers that the Careys are essentially broke, he claims that Mr. Hamilton is so happy with all the improvements being done that he’s refused to accept any more rent. The only stipulation is that the Careys hang a portrait of Mr. Hamilton’s “mother” in a place of honor. Of course, there is no such picture. Osh rummages around in a storage room and finally finds a portrait of a stern temperance leader to pass off as Mrs. Hamilton.

The Careys plan a big open house/unveiling ceremony for Halloween. But who should arrive back in town the day of the party but Tom Hamilton (Peter Brown), who turns out to be a lot younger and handsomer than we’d thought. Osh confesses everything, telling Tom that both he and Nancy have been writing but Osh never bothered to send the letters, assuming that Tom would never get them anyway. Tom’s not entirely happy about the situation but thinks Nancy is a charming, sweet girl, so at the very least, he won’t ruin her party.

The movie ends with Tom and Nancy dancing and most of the family still in the dark about his real identity. Osh reminds his wife that he knew everything would turn out all right in the end and, in a way, he’s right. I guess every story has a happy ending if you stop telling it before you get to the part where people are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.

That isn’t quite all there is to Summer Magic but it’s pretty close. The arrival of Nancy’s spoiled cousin, Julia, upsets the family dynamic for a little bit but she eventually comes around and the two girls grow close. That sisterly bond is tested when they’re both smitten by the handsome new schoolteacher, played by James Stacy. Fortunately, the teacher only has eyes for the older Julia and the movie sidesteps any messy hints of romance between him and Nancy.

Even so, Stacy’s own troubled history makes any scenes between he and the girls a little cringey. In 1995, the actor was sentenced to a six-year prison term for molesting an 11-year-old girl. This is not the kind of guy you want to see hanging around our sweet, innocent Hayley Mills. Stacy will actually be back in this column eventually but he’ll look a lot different when he does. A 1973 motorcycle accident cost him an arm and a leg, literally. He made a bit of a comeback after his recovery until his arrest and conviction put an end to his acting career for good. He died in 2016 and later turned up as a character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, played by Timothy Olyphant.

Compared to James Stacy, the other members of the cast had far less turbulent post-Summer Magic careers. Deborah Walley made her Disney debut in Bon Voyage! (also directed by Summer Magic‘s James Neilson). She would soon join Annette Funicello in defecting to the AIP camp, appearing alongside Frankie and Annette in Beach Blanket Bingo. While Summer Magic would be her last appearance in a Disney feature, she would later do some voice work for Chip ‘N’ Dale Rescue Rangers.

Eddie Hodges, who plays aspiring musician Gilly, became a star on Broadway, originating the role of Winthrop in The Music Man. His first film, A Hole In The Head, saw him perform the song “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra. He continued to act in movies like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and sing, landing a hit record in 1961 with “I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door” when he was 14. Considering Hodges’ musical background, it’s a little surprising that he isn’t given his own song in Summer Magic instead of being relegated to Mills’ duet partner. Hodges’ show-business career was essentially over by the end of the decade but he’ll be back in this column before he retires.

Summer Magic soundtrack LP

As for the songs themselves, they aren’t exactly peak Sherman Brothers. Some of them, like “Pink of Perfection” and “Femininity”, are kind of fun and they all have that same trademark lilting bounce that the Shermans did so well. But with very few exceptions, they don’t grow organically out of the story. They’re just a bunch of random songs that the movie occasionally stops in its tracks to accommodate.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Ugly Bug Ball”. Burl Ives sings this nonsense ditty to young Jimmy Mathers, accompanied by what appears to be stock footage of insects left over from the True-Life Adventures series. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything and overstays its welcome by a solid minute-and-a-half.

Summer Magic was released in July 1963 to mixed revies and indifferent audiences. Its box office take was a fraction of what Mills’ previous Disney vehicles had brought in. Hayley Mills herself would later say it was the worst of her six Disney films. And yeah, it’s not great. But it’s such a harmless, innocuous little trifle that it’s hard to call it a bad movie. I could certainly understand if some people have a soft spot in their heart for it. On the other hand, I would find it very hard to believe that Summer Magic is anybody’s favorite Disney movie.

VERDICT: Who am I to argue with Hayley Mills? It’s a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Toby Tyler

It was the dawn of a new decade but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll around the Disney lot. Granted, the aesthetic of the 1950s would remain firmly entrenched around most of the country for at least the first few years of the 60s. But as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it would linger around the conservative, family-friendly Disney studio even longer. But Walt wasn’t just trying to stop time. He was trying to turn it back. Once again, he was trying to recapture his boyhood in Marceline and another of his youthful obsessions: the circus.

Toby Tyler was originally a serial by prolific kid-lit author James Otis that ran in the pages of Harper’s Young People in 1877. It was collected as a book in 1881 and followed by a pair of sequels. Otis’s book falls squarely in the tradition of mischievous youth novels like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy. It was a childhood favorite of several future literary giants, including William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and Carl Sandburg.

The book had been filmed once before as the 1923 Jackie Coogan vehicle Circus Days. (Good luck tracking that one down. The film had been considered lost until recently and it still hasn’t been made available to the general public.) Whether Walt had read the book or seen the movie or both, it’s hardly surprising that it ended up on his radar. The 1880s setting and depiction of small-town Americana puts it right in his wheelhouse.

Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward, who had previously collaborated on The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s biggest hit of 1959, reunited to adapt the book. They lightened the tone considerably, softening Toby’s character and making him more sympathetic. They also got rid of the book’s bleak ending in favor of something a lot happier. To direct, producer Walsh brought back another Shaggy Dog alum, Charles Barton.

As usual, casting was a relatively simple matter of assigning roles to the usual batch of contract players. For Kevin Corcoran, this was finally a chance at the spotlight after being teamed up with Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. In those previous outings, Corcoran wasn’t required to do much other than act precocious. But he’s in almost every scene as Toby and he’s surprisingly up to the challenge. He even gets to do some impressive trick horse riding. Sure, you can see the safety wire but so what? When I was his age, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do those stunts, even with a wire.

Walt also cast a pair of actors from the Zorro TV series that were sitting idle while a contract dispute between Disney and ABC played out. Henry Calvin, Zorro’s bumbling Sergeant Garcia, appeared as circus strongman and Toby’s reluctant protector Ben Cotter. Mime Gene Sheldon, who played Zorro’s mute companion Bernardo, had a rare speaking role as clown Sam Treat. Since this column is following the American theatrical release order, we haven’t quite made it up to Zorro but we will very soon. Here, both Calvin and Sheldon have an easy, natural rapport with Corcoran, imbuing their characters with real humanity that goes beyond mere caricature.

The cast included another longtime Disney employee. Composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the pre-Snow White days, makes his acting debut as the bandleader. In a nice touch, the then-72-year-old gets the on-screen credit, “and introducing Ollie Wallace”. Oddly enough, Wallace did not do the score for Toby Tyler. That job went to a relatively new hire, Buddy Baker. Baker had been hired by another staff composer, George Bruns, to work on TV projects like Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club. Toby Tyler was his first feature credit but far from his last. Baker would stay with the studio until the early 1980s. He’ll be back in this column and if you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve heard plenty of his work.

The movie hits most of the book’s major points, albeit through Disneyfied glasses. Toby is a poor orphan sent to live with his child-hating aunt and uncle (played by veteran character actors Edith Evanson and Tom Fadden) on their hardscrabble dirt farm. In the book, Toby lives in an orphanage and runs off to join the circus to escape the constant abuse. Here, Toby’s relations are far from loving but that isn’t why he leaves. Instead, Toby feels guilty that his indolent ways have made him such a burden, so he joins the circus temporarily with plans to return home once he’s earned enough money.

Toby’s new career path puts him in the employ of shifty concessionaire Harry Tupper (the very funny Bob Sweeney, who will be back in this column). Harry apparently has a reputation around the circus for mistreating his assistants, so Ben warns that he’ll be keeping an eye on him. The specifics of that reputation go unsaid, so you can feel free to read as much or as little into that as you’re comfortable with.

Toby has a little trouble fitting in at first but soon begins making friends like the warm and friendly Sam, gruff but lovable Ben, child equestrian Mademoiselle Jeanette (Barbara Beaird) and mischievous chimpanzee Mr. Stubbs. On one of their parades through town, Ben’s wagon capsizes and Mr. Stubbs gets loose, making his way into local sheriff’s office where he gets his paws on a loaded gun. As Mr. Stubbs fires wildly and the lawmen dive for cover, Toby bravely enters the jail and disarms the chimp. This causes a sensation and the circus owner (Richard Eastham) immediately tries to capitalize on Toby and Mr. Stubbs’ new fame.

Toby’s star continues to rise when Jeanette’s partner, Monsieur Ajax (Dennis Olivieri, then credited as Dennis Joel) hurts himself while trying to show off practicing without a safety line. Toby had told Jeanette about his old horse back on the farm, so she suggests he take Ajax’s place. But Toby failed to mention that he had never actually ridden that horse, so Ben and Sam team up to give him a crash course in trick riding.

Just as he’s about to make his big debut, Mr. Stubbs shows Toby a bunch of letters he’s received from his aunt and uncle. Turns out they’ve been writing him all along and Harry’s been hiding them from him. Uncle Daniel’s doing poorly and they desperately want Toby to come home.

Toby sets out for home, followed by Mr. Stubbs. They’re making their way through the woods when a hunter (James Drury, who we’ll see again in this column and went on to star on the long-running TV western The Virginian) accidentally shoots Mr. Stubbs out of a tree. Things don’t look good for the little guy as Harry shows up and drags Toby back to the circus where Toby’s family is waiting.

Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are overjoyed to see Toby again. They promise things will be better if he comes home. Just when things can’t seem much rosier, Jim the hunter shows up with Mr. Stubbs, who has made a miraculous recovery. Everyone gathers under the big top to watch Toby and Jeanette triumphantly perform their trick riding act, now with a grand finale appearance by Mr. Stubbs! Even Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are impressed and it’s unclear at the end of the movie if Toby goes back to his drab homelife or if he stays and becomes a big-time circus star. One would assume the latter but Uncle Daniel seems prone to wild mood swings, so who knows.

It’s been a long time since the days of “everybody loves the circus”. These days we’re more likely to see clowns in horror movies and circuses in news reports about either alleged animal cruelty or businesses you didn’t realize were still a thing. At this point, I’d wager that most people have never even been to a circus, at least not one without the words “du soleil” in its name. That’s too bad because a heaping dose of nostalgia for (or at least interest in) the golden age of the circus is needed to truly enjoy Toby Tyler.

I have a passing interest in circus culture, so I can appreciate both the atmosphere and the genuine circus performers whose acts are immortalized on film. It’s fun to see actual Ringling Brothers clowns, the Flying Viennas trapeze artists and the Marquis Family Chimps (especially Mr. Stubbs, who is awesome). Walt even acquired and restored some authentic period circus wagons, which are now on display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Like all of Walt’s period pieces, Toby Tyler succeeds at capturing an idealized time that never really existed except in memory.

But if you’re not into circuses and clowns, I don’t think Toby Tyler is going to change your mind. Toby’s ten weeks on the road certainly look more appealing than what he had going on back home but compared to other boy’s adventures, they’re kind of low-key. For some, that’ll be part of the movie’s charm and appeal. Others may be left rolling their eyes.

If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in luck because you’re not very likely to stumble across it accidentally. It’s not currently streaming on Disney+, presumably because of all the scenes involving chimps and guns. The fact that there actually are multiple scenes that can be described this way should tell you something. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to pick it up on DVD or digitally, where there is a nice HD print.

On the other hand, if this flavor of cotton candy appeals to you, Toby Tyler is worth seeking out. Kevin Corcoran finally demonstrates some of the charm that Walt presumably saw in him from the get-go. The supporting cast is a lot of fun. And you’ve got a chimp shooting up a jail! What more could you ask for?

VERDICT: Disney Plus, if only for Mr. Stubbs.

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