Beginning with The Shaggy Dog in 1959, Fred MacMurray and Walt Disney enjoyed a mutually beneficial working relationship. MacMurray’s Disney work gave his career a much-needed jolt. As for Walt, he identified with MacMurray and liked him personally, although I don’t know that they were necessarily close friends. But Walt went to bat for MacMurray more than once, as when he insisted on casting him in The Happiest Millionaire over the objections of the Sherman Brothers.
Because Walt and Fred were so closely connected, it wasn’t surprising when the actor stepped away from the studio after Walt’s death in 1966. Instead, he focused his attention on My Three Sons, the hit sitcom that had been on the air so long that the sons had all grown up, gotten married and had kids of their own. CBS finally decided to cancel the show after its 12th season. The final episode aired April 13, 1972.
The series made Fred MacMurray very rich. MacMurray’s savvy investments and the fact that he was a legendary tightwad made him even richer. So after My Three Sons went off the air, he didn’t really need to work anymore. Nevertheless, producer Bill Anderson was able to lure him back to the studio one last time with Charley And The Angel. Maybe MacMurray felt he owed it to the studio. Or maybe he just wasn’t ready to stop collecting paychecks yet.
Roswell Rogers, the TV writer responsible for the screenplay of The Million Dollar Duck, based his script on The Golden Evenings Of Summer, a nostalgic collection of semiautobiographical stories by humorist Will Stanton. Vincent McEveety is back in the director’s chair for the third time after working on Million Dollar Duck and The Biscuit Eater. We’ll be seeing his name more and more frequently in this column.
MacMurray stars as Charley Appleby, a hardware store owner in “Midwest U.S.A.”. The year is 1933 and Charley is obsessed with keeping the wolves of the Great Depression as far as possible from his business and his family. But he’s so concerned with the almighty dollar that he’s estranged from his wife, Nettie (the great Cloris Leachman in her Disney debut). Charley dismisses her wish for a trip to Chicago to visit the World’s Fair as a frivolous, expensive waste of time and money.
Charley’s relationship with his kids is in even worse shape. He thinks his daughter, Leonora (Kathleen Cody, back from Snowball Express), is engaged to an upstanding young man named Derwood Moseby (a quintessential Ed Begley Jr. character name that is unfortunately wasted on what amounts to a silent cameo). But she’s really attracted to Ray Ferris, an unemployed good-for-nothing proto-slacker played by the king of good-for-nothing proto-slackers, Kurt Russell. Russell, you may recall, made his Disney debut alongside Fred MacMurray in Follow Me, Boys!, so it’s fun to see them reunited seven years later.
As for Charley’s sons, Willie and Rupert, they’ve pretty much given up on their dad taking an active interest in their lives. They don’t even bother asking for help when attempting to assemble a homemade kite based on the rambling instructions of their favorite radio host. Charley finds out how bad things are later when they sing a “Happy Father’s Day” song to the dad of the kid next door and ask to borrow a couple bucks to chip in on a present for him. That’s cold, kids.
Vincent Van Patten and Scott Kolden play Willie and Rupert. Future tennis pro and World Poker Tour commentator Van Patten made a couple more TV appearances for Disney, including The High Flying Spy and The Boy And The Bronc Buster, but this was his only Disney feature. We’ll see a lot more of his dad, Dick Van Patten, who already popped up once in Snowball Express. Kolden’s acting career didn’t last long. He went on to costar in the nightmare factory Sigmund And The Sea Monsters opposite Disney alum Johnny Whitaker, his costar in the Disney TV-movie The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. Kolden left acting completely in 1979, eventually resurfacing as an Emmy-nominated sound effects editor. I don’t know why but I really love it when child stars decide acting isn’t their bag and find success behind the scenes.
Charley heads to work and doesn’t seem to notice the unusually large number of near-miss accidents he keeps narrowly avoiding. I had a hard time noticing it myself, to be honest. McEveety rushes through this sequence so indifferently that most of the gags fail to register. After he swerves to avoid hitting a truck in a narrow alley, an older gentleman (Harry Morgan) in a white suit and a black bowler hat materializes on the hood of his car. He claims to be an angel sent to escort him to the great beyond. Having seen how little Charley has done with the gift of life, he assumes death will come as a sweet relief.
Naturally, Charley requires a little convincing that this guy, who can’t remember what his name used to be at first but eventually recalls that it’s Roy Zerney, is really an angel. But not too much. Roy just has to levitate in midair clad in the traditional angel’s uniform of white robe and harp to show Charley he’s the real deal. Roy can’t tell Charley how or when it’s going to happen but his time is definitely up.
Charley blows off his usual lodge meeting and goes straight home, determined to be a better husband and father. Nettie is touched by the flowers and the kids are pretty sure something’s wrong but everyone’s pleasantly surprised by the new Charley. But he’s turned over a new leaf just a little too late. When he suggests a family outing to the movies, no one is willing to change their plans for the night. Even Willie and Rupert, who were going to the movies anyway, would rather go with their pal next door and his dad than with Charley.
Everything Charley does to make things right with his family just makes things worse. He decides to sell the store to make sure Nettie has enough money to live on after he’s gone. But since he hasn’t told anyone about his impending demise, Nettie thinks he’s being crazy. Her suspicions deepen after she catches him talking to Roy. Since nobody can see or hear the angel apart from Charley, Nettie thinks he’s really gone off the deep end.
Things go from bad to worse when Leonora elopes with Ray. Charley tries to get some cash to cover his mounting expenses but a run on the banks causes Ernie the banker (Edward Andrews in his final Disney feature) to close his doors and freeze his assets. When he finds out that Nettie has loaned a hundred dollars to Pete the handyman (George “Goober” Lindsey’s third Disney appearance), he begins to worry that he won’t be able to get his affairs in order before it’s too late.
Burdened with financial worries, Charley has a heart-to-heart with his sons about the value of a dollar and the virtues of earning an honest living. Heeding his advice, the boys get jobs at a junk yard. They’re unaware that the owner, Felix (Larry D. Mann, last seen in Scandalous John), has a side hustle as a bootlegger. He acts as a middleman between the mob and local roadhouse owners like Sadie (Barbara Nichols, whose picture should appear in the dictionary next to the word “floozy”).
While the boys are working in the yard, Felix’s driver, Buggs (if there’s a gangster in a Disney movie, you know it’s gotta be Richard Bakalyan), shows up. The cops have seen through his “cooking oil deliveryman” disguise and he needs to stash the hooch. Felix isn’t about to lose a sale, though. He recruits Willie and Rupert to drive an old junker Model T over to Sadie’s place and deliver the “cooking oil”, figuring the cops would never pull over a couple of little kids who are way too young to drive. I’m not sure Felix’s reasoning is altogether sound but it turns out he’s right and the boys embark on a lucrative new career.
The kids find out what they’ve really been delivering when tough guy Frankie Zuto (Mills Watson from The Wild Country) arrives from Chicago. At the same time, the police have let Charley know that they’ve heard a rumor that Willie and Rupert are delivering booze to Sadie. Why is Charley talking to the police? Because he’d heard that Ray had taken Leonora to Sadie’s, gone out there to find her and ended up in jail after the cops raided the joint. I’m getting a lot of this out of order but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a lot of sense while it’s happening, either.
The upshot of all this is that Charley heads to the junk yard to get his kids just as the police are descending on Frankie Zuto. Frankie and Buggs take the boys hostage in the Model T. Charley winds up chasing them in Frankie’s car but gets knocked out, so Roy the angel takes the wheel, giving Disney another excuse to trot out the old self-driving car gag. Charley is arrested a second time when the cops stop the car and figure he must be a bootlegger since he’s in the bootlegger’s car.
With the town closed off by roadblocks, Frankie and Buggs force the kids to bring them home so they can lie low until the heat cools. Meanwhile in jail, Roy lets Charley know that the heavenly committee has reviewed his case and made their decision. They appreciate Charley’s efforts to be a better person but it hasn’t been enough. Tonight’s the night Charley will die.
It isn’t long before everyone has gathered at the Appleby house and I do mean everyone. Charley gets out of jail, Leonora and Ray return home after Ray’s out-of-town job offer falls through, even Pete the handyman pops his head in. Everyone pulls together to defeat the gangsters but in the midst of the scuffle, a shot rings out that seems to narrowly miss Charley. But in the end, the good guys prevail in a big way. The Applebys collect a big cash reward for capturing Frankie Zuto, Pete repays the hundred bucks he owes (with interest), the bank reopens, and the townsfolk even chip in an extra thank-you for some reason: an all-expense paid trip to Chicago and tickets to the World’s Fair. As for that bullet that was meant for Charley, Roy decided to cut him a break and intercept it. Apparently low-level angels are allowed to make their own judgment calls in Disney movies.
Charley And The Angel is an odd duck of a movie. Imagine It’s A Wonderful Life if Clarence was sent to visit Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey, sort of It’s A Miserable Life. Nobody seems to like Charley very much. Even Roy thinks everyone including Charley will be much happier after he’s dead. And this is the guy we’re stuck with for the duration of the picture.
For a time, I thought Charley And The Angel would turn out to be a riff on A Christmas Carol, where the threat of his impending death inspires Charley to be a better person. Sure enough, that’s Charley’s first impulse after hearing the news. But unlike Scrooge, who learns it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf, Charley finds out his ship has sailed and his family has moved on without him. That’s a more realistic life lesson. Sometimes it really is too late. But it’s a little bleak for a Disney movie.
If the movie focused on Charley learning how badly his inattention has damaged his family, it might have been a small gem. Fred MacMurray is just the guy to play a stern, stand-offish husband and father and he expresses some real hurt when his family rebuffs his attempts to reconnect with them. But the earnest, emotional core of the movie is awkwardly surrounded by some of the laziest broad comedy imaginable. After the kids start working for the gangsters, it becomes clear that nobody has the slightest idea what the movie’s even supposed to be about.
Charley And The Angel opens with a groovy new graphic, announcing the film as a 50th Anniversary presentation from Walt Disney Productions. The studio had undeniably come a long way since the Alice Comedies in 1923. But Charley And The Angel is an underwhelming way to celebrate this milestone. Everything about it says it’s just another live-action Disney comedy destined to be forgotten.
That’s pretty much exactly what happened. Charley And The Angel wasn’t a huge success at the box office and critics weren’t enthusiastic. Cloris Leachman somehow managed to snag a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) out of it. She’d won an Oscar a couple years earlier for The Last Picture Show, so maybe she was still riding on the collective good will generated by that film. She’s fine but really doesn’t have much to do in Charley And The Angel. In any case, she lost the award to Glenda Jackson, who also won the Oscar that year for A Touch Of Class.
Charley And The Angel marked the end of Fred MacMurray’s long association with Disney. Afterward, MacMurray appeared in two TV-movies and made one last big-screen appearance as part of the all-star ensemble threatened by killer bees in Irwin Allen’s The Swarm. He retired after that film and suffered from various health issues, including throat cancer, leukemia and a stroke. He recovered from most of these scares but eventually passed away from pneumonia on November 5, 1991. He was 83 years old.
Not all of Fred MacMurray’s Disney movies were gems. Even Walt himself didn’t always make the best use of his talents. Follow Me, Boys! and The Happiest Millionaire both would have benefited from a different leading man. But it’s impossible to imagine Disney without him. With movies like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor, he helped set a tone and style for live-action Disney comedies that the studio would follow for years. It’s too bad that Charley And The Angel couldn’t have been a victory lap for Fred MacMurray. But then again, if it had ventured too far from what audiences had come to expect, it wouldn’t be Disney. In a way, it makes complete sense that Fred MacMurray’s final Disney movie in 1973 feels like it could just as easily have been his first back in 1959.
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