Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Blackbeard’s Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical re-release poster for Blackbeard's Ghost

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Happiest Millionaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for The Happiest Millionaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic book adaptation of The Happiest Millionaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 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 Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Ugly Dachshund

When Walt Disney decided to hire Dean Jones, he really went all in. The Ugly Dachshund, Jones’ second film for the studio, opened February 16, 1966, just two months after his first, That Darn Cat! I guess having shown he could work with cats, Walt wanted to make sure Jones could handle dogs as well.

The Ugly Dachshund was based on a book by G.B. Stern, an extremely prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, biographies, literary criticism and even the occasional screenplay. Not this one, though. Disney assigned the project to Albert Aley, a radio and TV writer who’d written a few animal-oriented shorts for the studio like The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon. The Ugly Dachshund would be Aley’s only feature credit and his last Disney credit. He continued to work in television, writing and producing such shows as Ironside and The Paper Chase before retiring and eventually passing away in 1986.

By now, co-producer Winston Hibler and director Norman Tokar were old hands at making dog pictures. They’d made such adventure dramas as Big Red and Savage Sam. Their last film had been the heartfelt Those Calloways. But they hadn’t really taken a crack at comedy before now. This kind of wacky slapstick was usually the work of folks like Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh. But with comedies rapidly becoming Disney’s most popular and profitable commodity, everybody would have to learn how to stage a pratfall.

Dean Jones stars as Mark Garrison, a commercial artist who lives with his wife, Fran (Suzanne Pleshette), and her prized, pregnant dachshund, Danke. Danke births a litter of three puppies that Fran hopes to train into prize-winning show dogs. But when Mark goes to pick the dogs up from kindly veterinarian Dr. Pruitt (Charlie Ruggles, last seen as the judge in Son Of Flubber), he gets a surprise. Turns out that a Great Dane also gave birth to a big litter of puppies. Too big, as a matter of fact. The mother has rejected the littlest one because she doesn’t have enough milk. Danke, on the other hand, has too much since her litter was too small. Do you think, maybe…?

Well, Mark doesn’t need too much convincing, especially since he’s always wanted a big male dog instead of all these little females. At first, Fran thinks the pup is just an ugly dachshund born after the others and Mark does nothing to dissuade her of this idea. But as the weeks go by, Fran figures out something’s amiss. She’s no dummy. Maybe it’s the fact that the puppy, now named Brutus, is twice as large as the others and looks nothing like a dachshund. Or maybe it’s that Mark is obsessively drawing pictures of Great Danes everywhere. Who can say what subtle clues she picked up on?

The rest of the movie follows a fairly strict pattern. Every so often, Tokar stops everything to stage an elaborate slapstick sequence wherein the three dachshunds are the primary agents of chaos while poor Brutus is an innocent bystander or victim who ends up shouldering the blame. Fran will get fed up, sometimes with good reason and sometimes not, and insist they return Brutus to Doc Pruitt. But a change of heart inevitably brings the big dog back into their lives.

Admittedly, Tokar’s three big setpieces are pretty funny. The first has the dachshunds tearing around the living room with multiple balls of yarn and creating an elaborate maze. The second is even more impressive as the animals completely destroy Mark’s studio, creating a slick, multicolored slide out of one of his commissions and a can of paint thinner. They’re not unlike live-action versions of the animated showdowns between Pluto and Chip and Dale.

The biggest one is also the weakest. Fran decides to throw an elaborate house party for their friends and neighbors because that’s what you did in 1966. The party has an “Oriental” theme and is catered by Mr. Toyama (Robert Kino) and his assistant Kenji (Mako, soon to be Oscar nominated for The Sand Pebbles), two very broad Asian stereotypes. Whenever Brutus appears, they shriek “Rion!” (‘cause, y’know, they think it’s a lion) and Mr. Toyama plays dead, lying flat on the ground and becoming stiff as a board. Sigh. I guess it could be worse. At least they cast actual Japanese actors instead of Mickey Rooney but that’s a super-low bar to cross.

Anyway, things go sideways when Chloe, Fran’s best hope for a show dog, steals a bone from Brutus. He chases after her and wackiness ensues. Kenji gets hit in the face with several cakes and takes a ride on a trolley. Everyone crowds on to a small bridge over a pond and ends up in the drink, including Fran. It’s your garden-variety big dog gets loose at a fancy event sequence you’ve seen a zillion times.

At the party, Doc Pruitt convinces Mark to secretly enter Brutus into the dog show. Mark’s always been somewhat contemptuous of Fran’s interest in dog shows but agrees partly to train the dog but mostly out of spite. As they work with Brutus, Mark realizes that the Great Dane actually believes he’s a dachshund. Whenever he sees one, he’ll try to mimic it by stretching out and walking low to the ground.

This delusion almost costs Brutus a championship when he starts walking like a dachshund in front of the judge. Fortunately, Brutus catches the eye of a female Great Dane. Wanting to impress her, he stands tall and proud, ultimately winning the blue ribbon. Mark hurries off to rub this victory in Fran’s face but has a change of heart when he sees that Chloe only managed to come in second. But Fran’s not jealous. She’s proud and happy that they now have multiple prize-winning show dogs in the family. But the Garrisons agree it’s time to put all this competition behind them. They decide to quit the dog show circuit so Mark can concentrate on his work and Fran can focus on keeping house and being a good wife. Seriously. That’s the compromise they arrive at. Ugh.

There’s one other sort-of subplot worth mentioning, if only because it never amounts to anything. In the opening scene, Mark has a run-in with Officer Carmody (Kelly Thordsen, who appeared in The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and will be back in this column several times, usually as a cop). Carmody tries to escort the Garrisons to the hospital but ends up citing Mark on a number of traffic violations when he finds out that it was the dog who was pregnant and not Fran.

Carmody shows up again later warning Mark that a cat burglar has been spotted in the neighborhood. Now if you’re thinking that this sounds like an opportunity for Brutus to prove himself by scaring off the cat burglar, you’re half right. What actually happens is Mark gets locked out of the house later that night just as Carmody drives past. Carmody thinks Mark might be the cat burglar, so he gets out to investigate. Then Brutus shows up and scares Carmody off, chasing him up a tree where he spends the night. The actual cat burglar never shows up and Carmody disappears entirely from the story after this. As with most things in The Ugly Dachshund, the stakes couldn’t be lower.

Putting aside the movie’s regressive gender and racial stereotypes (which, I understand, can be a big ask), The Ugly Dachshund’s biggest flaw is simply that it’s uninspired. Which is not to say that it can’t be watchable. Dean Jones continues to demonstrate a knack for physical comedy. But he isn’t quite charming enough to pull off everything required of him. In the birthday scene where Fran surprises him with a dachshund-centric evening at home, he just comes across as petulant, even though he has a right to be pissed off.

Part of the problem is that he’s being mean to Suzanne Pleshette, who has Dean Jones beat in the charm department. Stunningly beautiful and gifted with a smooth bourbon voice, Pleshette had been a theatre actress who made a big impression in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. While The Ugly Dachshund was her first actual Disney project, she’d earlier costarred with Tony Curtis in the 1962 comedy 40 Pounds Of Trouble, the first film to shoot on location in Disneyland. This was such a big deal at the time that Universal advertised the fact on the poster, like Disneyland was a featured actor.

Theatrical release poster for 40 Pounds Of Trouble

The Ugly Dachshund doesn’t provide Pleshette with one of her best roles. Fran alternates between acting selfish and frivolous or turning into a complete doormat who’ll put up with any indignity or inconvenience. The fact that the audience likes her at all is entirely thanks to Pleshette’s winning personality. Suzanne Pleshette, I’m happy to report, will be back in this column several times.

Critics were not enthusiastic about The Ugly Dachshund but audiences ate it up. The movie brought in over $6 million at the box office. Give them credit for this much, Disney knew how to put movies like this together. Cute dogs plus attractive costars plus colorful slapstick comedy equals money in the bank.

Of course, there might have been another reason for the movie’s success. In 1966, Disney was still in the habit of attaching short subjects to their feature presentations and The Ugly Dachshund was no exception. On its original release, moviegoers were treated to an all-new animated short: Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree.

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree

This quickly became one of Disney’s most popular cartoons, re-released several times over the next few years. Eventually, Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree would be edited into the feature-length film The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh. This column will have a lot more to say about Pooh and his many friends when we get there. For now, let’s just acknowledge that The Ugly Dachshund wasn’t alone when audiences were flocking to see it back in ’66.

Even on its own modest terms, The Ugly Dachshund isn’t much of a movie. At its best, it’s an undemanding sitcom-level comedy that might raise a chuckle or two from kids. At worst, it’s a rambling mess with some stuff that has aged so poorly you’ll get yanked right out of the picture. You might have some fun with it but I guarantee you won’t have enough fun to make it worth your while.    

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: That Darn Cat!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's That Darn Cat!

Over the years, Walt Disney signed plenty of actors to multi-picture contracts. But he wasn’t always great at maintaining relationships with his talent. Bobby Driscoll, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk all left the studio under less than cordial circumstances. That wasn’t the case with his number one star, Hayley Mills. Over the course of six pictures, Walt and Hayley enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Walt made Hayley a huge star, showcasing her talents for comedy, music and drama. In return, Hayley made Walt a whole lot of money.

That Darn Cat! would be Hayley Mills’ final Disney feature and, like most of her other movies for the studio, it was a big hit. It was the 6th highest-grossing film of 1965, behind The Sound Of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Great Race, on a budget that was a fraction of those epics. The role is comfortably within Hayley’s wheelhouse, stirring up trouble and innocently deflecting responsibility when it threatens to come back on her. After a couple of underwhelming efforts like The Moon-Spinners and Summer Magic, it’s nice that Hayley was able to leave Disney on a high note.

The movie is based on the novel Undercover Cat by the Gordons. Gordon and Mildred Gordon were a husband-and-wife writing team who specialized in crime fiction like FBI Story. They’d already enjoyed some success adapting their work for movies and TV, notably with the 1962 thriller Experiment In Terror directed by Blake Edwards. Undercover Cat was a bit lighter than the Gordons’ usual work, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Disney optioned the rights. However, the studio did necessitate changing the cat’s name, D.C., from “Damn Cat” to “Darn Cat”.

Bill Walsh, still flying high after Mary Poppins’ runaway success, co-produced with Ron Miller and took a pass at the Gordons’ script, probably adding more slapstick gags. Prolific director Robert Stevenson had taken an unfortunate detour back to Midvale College with The Monkey’s Uncle but shows a steadier hand guiding That Darn Cat! Old Yeller demonstrated that Stevenson could get convincing performances from his animal actors. But it’s one thing to make a sentimental drama about a dog. It’s quite another to turn a Siamese cat into a comedic lead.

D.C. was played by multiple feline actors, including an established Disney star. Syn Cat had appeared a couple years earlier in The Incredible Journey. The cat (or cats, as the case may be) is very much the star of the show, appearing in most scenes and even getting a smooth Sherman Brothers theme song crooned by Bobby Darin. While some of D.C.’s performance is attributable to the skillful editing of Cotton Warburton (who had just won an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins), there’s also no denying that these are some remarkably well-trained cats.

Theatrical release poster for That Darn Cat

As the movie opens, we follow D.C. as he makes his nightly rounds through the Anytown U.S.A. section of the Disney backlot, stealing food from neighborhood dogs and begging for handouts. At the local deli, he catches the scent of salmon as its bought by Iggy (Frank Gorshin, about a year away from scoring his iconic role as the Riddler on TV’s Batman). D.C. follows Iggy back to his flophouse apartment where he’s hiding out with Dan (Neville Brand) after the pair robbed a bank and kidnapped a teller (Grayson Hall, about two years away from her most famous role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on TV’s Dark Shadows). The hostage sees an opportunity and replaces D.C.’s collar with her wristwatch, scratching an incomplete “HELP” on the back and sending the cat on his way.

D.C. heads home where he finds Patti Randall (Hayley) just getting in from a date with pipe-smoking surfer Canoe (Tom Lowell in the first of his three Disney features). A little later, Patti’s older sister, Ingrid (Dorothy Provine…we’ll see her again, too), arrives with their fussbudget neighbor, Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall…you’d better believe we’ll be seeing a lot more of him). Greg and Ingrid share a carpool but Greg’s trying to take their relationship to the next level by inviting her over for a duck dinner with his mother. As soon as D.C. hears about the duck, he hightails it over to the Benson house and steals the bird off their front porch.

While trying to pry the duck out of D.C.’s paws, Patti finally notices the watch around his neck. She leaps to the conclusion that it must belong to the kidnapped bank teller in the news. The next morning, she brings her suspicions to FBI Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones…we’ll get to him in a moment). Both Kelso and his supervisor (Richard Eastham, last seen here as the circus owner in Toby Tyler) agree it’s a longshot but that Patti might be on to something. So Kelso is assigned surveillance duty on D.C. (now dubbed Informant X-14), despite having an allergy so severe he can’t even say the word “cat” without sneezing.

Now if the rest of the movie was nothing more than the slapstick shenanigans of a team of FBI agents attempting to tail a cat, it’d probably be fine. But Walsh and the Gordons pile on all manner of other complications. The Randall sisters live next door to a nosy neighbor (Elsa Lanchester, last seen fleeing the Banks house in Mary Poppins) whose suspicions are raised every time a man sets foot on the premises. Kelso asks to keep the FBI’s presence on the down-low, so both Gregory and Canoe start snooping around trying to figure out what’s what. When the FBI threatens to pull Kelso off the cat detail, Patti convinces local jeweler Mr. Hofstedder (Ed Wynn) to backup a phony tip that confirms the watch belonged to the bank teller.

Eventually D.C. does lead Kelso and Patti to the bank robbers, just as they’re about to get rid of their hostage. Part of what makes That Darn Cat! stand out from other Disney comedies is the scenes with the bad guys. Gorshin, Brand and particularly Grayson Hall play these scenes straight. Gorshin’s a funny guy, so he can’t help but score a few laughs, especially opposite a scene-stealer like Iris Adrian as the gossipy landlady. But Brand is a menacing heavy and he brings a sense of legitimate danger when Kelso and Patti turn up. As for Grayson Hall, she apparently didn’t get the memo that she was appearing in a slapstick comedy for Walt Disney. She projects legitimate fear and proves herself to be braver and more resourceful than your typical damsel in distress, even without many lines. Hall sells the idea that this really is a life-and-death situation.

The really broad comedy is wisely kept separate from the hostage situation. Stevenson stages a funny and elaborate sequence in a drive-in movie theatre, with Richard Deacon of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame as the beleaguered manager. This was the first of many Disney features for Deacon, although he had already appeared as Uncle Archie on the Mickey Mouse Club serial Annette. The drive-in sequence also allows Walt to take a few jabs at the surfing movies Canoe is such a big fan of (and that Annette Funicello herself was now churning out by the score over at AIP).

That Darn Cat! finds everyone involved firing on all cylinders, from outgoing marquee star Hayley Mills, delightful as usual, to incoming marquee star Dean Jones. Jones had been working his way up through small parts on stage, in movies and on TV for a few years. In 1962, he got a big break starring as the title character on the military sitcom Ensign O’Toole. Ensign O’Toole aired Sunday nights at 7 on NBC, right before Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. Naturally, Walt wanted to know who the network had leading in to his show. Walt checked out Ensign O’Toole and Jones’ latest feature, Under The Yum Yum Tree, and liked what he saw. We’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of Dean Jones in this column.

That Darn Cat paper dolls featuring Hayley Mills and D.C.

Unfortunately, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Hayley Mills. For a number of years, Hayley had a hard time shaking her Disney image. She appeared as a rebellious teen in a Catholic girls’ school in The Trouble With Angels and made a number of films back home in England, often with her father, John Mills. Hayley and John costarred with another former Disney star, James MacArthur, in The Truth About Spring. John directed Hayley (opposite future Deadwood star Ian McShane!) in Sky West And Crooked, from a story written by Hayley’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell.

In 1966, Hayley took her most adult role to date as a young newlywed opposite Hywell Bennett in The Family Way. The movie got a lot of press, partly because it featured an original score by Paul McCartney but mostly because Hayley Mills did a tasteful nude scene and became romantically involved with and eventually married the film’s director, Roy Boulting. Boulting and Mills made a couple more movies together, including Twisted Nerve (which is probably more famous since Quentin Tarantino appropriated its Bernard Herrmann music for Kill Bill), before divorcing in 1977.

After that, Hayley Mills took a few years off to raise her kids. When she returned to acting, it was mostly on television. In 1986, she finally returned to the Disney studio with The Parent Trap II for the Disney Channel. That movie was popular enough to earn two more sequels in 1989. Between Parent Traps, she also starred in her own Disney Channel sitcom, Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Hayley starred as a junior high school teacher in charge of such students as Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Lisa (Lark Voorhies) and Screech (Dustin Diamond).

The Disney Channel pulled the plug on Good Morning, Miss Bliss after 13 episodes and Mills walked away from the show. NBC then decided to give it one more chance, giving it a complete makeover and renaming it Saved By The Bell. That version did pretty well for itself. Hayley Mills has also continued to do pretty well for herself, appearing mostly on stage and TV, being inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998 and winning a battle with breast cancer back in 2012. She’s currently 75 years old and her memoir, Forever Young, will be published on September 7 of this year. She seems to be going strong, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she may yet make another appearance in this column.

Hayley Mills was unquestionably one of Disney’s most significant stars. She excelled in period melodramas like Pollyanna, contemporary comedies like The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat!, and adventures and thrillers like In Search Of The Castaways and The Moon-Spinners. As much as anyone, her winning screen presence helped set the tone for the studio in the 1960s. We’ll see a lot of other young stars in this column in the weeks and months ahead. In some ways, all of them will be aspiring to be the next Hayley Mills.

The audiences who flocked to see That Darn Cat! at Christmas of 1965 probably didn’t realize they were watching Hayley’s last Disney movie. Back then, the specifics of actors’ contracts with studios weren’t front-page news the way they can be today. As far as they were concerned, this was just a return to form for Hayley Mills and Disney. The movie became a huge hit and, in 1997, the studio took a shot at a remake that I suppose we’ll have to deal with in this column eventually. But let’s not worry about that for now. Today, let’s just take a moment and bask in the sunshine of Hayley Mills. This column would have been a lot less fun without her.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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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: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

By 1965, Walt Disney had perfected the art of making two very specific types of live-action pictures. His True-Life Adventures team, including writer, producer and narrator Winston Hibler, found their documentary skills transferred well to dramatic animal movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. At the same time, Walt continued to indulge his love of Americana with nostalgic period pieces like Pollyanna set in his favorite era, the early 1900s. Those Calloways gave him an opportunity to combine the two. The results are surprisingly effective.

Those Calloways is based on the novel Swiftwater by Paul Annixter, a prolific writer of young adult fiction primarily about nature and animals. Louis Pelletier, who had recently written Big Red, wrote the screenplay, reteaming him with Big Red’s director, Norman Tokar. Hibler produced the film, bringing along several True-Life Adventure veterans. Dick Borden, who had shot some of The Vanishing Prairie, captured the wild geese footage in the film. The other animal unit was run by Lloyd Beebe and William R. Koehler, fresh off their work on The Incredible Journey.

The animals are important to Those Calloways but they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, this is a slice-of-life drama depicting a year in the life of the title family, husband Cam (Disney regular Brian Keith), wife Liddy (Vera Miles, last seen as Keith’s wife in A Tiger Walks) and son Bucky (Brandon De Wilde). They live up in the mountains outside the little New England town of Swiftwater, where they’re viewed as local eccentrics. Cam was raised by the Mi’kmaq Indians (and as soon as you heard that bit of news, you could probably figure out why Disney+ slapped its standard “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on this). His upbringing has given him a deep affinity for nature, especially the wild geese considered to be a totem of the Mi’kmaq. This marks Cam as a bit of an outsider in a town where most everyone else hunts geese for food and/or sport.

Now before you get all excited and retroactively nominate Those Calloways for a PETA Award, be aware that Cam earns his living as a fur-trapper. And if you watch the movie through 2021 goggles, that dichotomy is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for you. Just keep in mind that conservationism was not an all-or-nothing proposition back in the 1910s. Living off the land very much included hunting, fishing and trapping in order to survive. You can do all that and still be against hunting for sport without being considered a hypocrite.

Cam has big plans for this trapping season, heading out to untapped land that the Mi’kmaq believe holds bad energy. They seem to have a point about that. Cam and Bucky are only on their first preliminary scouting expedition when Cam falls and breaks his leg. With his dad out of commission, Bucky heads out on his own. After the first day, he discovers a wolverine is killing all the game along his trapping line. Bucky and his faithful dog, Sounder, track the wolverine back to its den underneath an enormous treefall. After some intense close-quarters combat, Bucky manages to kill the wolverine with a hatchet, salvaging the season.

Despite a record haul of furs (including enough to make Liddy an ermine wrap as a surprise Christmas present), the market bottoms out. The furs go for less than five hundred bucks, which Liddy assumes will go toward paying off their mortgage. But Cam can’t let go of his dream of building a sanctuary for the geese and spends the entire sum on a down payment for a piece of land with a lake. Liddy is understandably upset but when push comes to shove and the Calloways are evicted from their home, she stands by her man, encouraging him to build a bigger, better cabin by the lake.

A lack of money means that work on the new house and sanctuary proceeds slowly at first (there’s even some shades of Swiss Family Robinson in the Calloways’ makeshift shelter by the lake). But soon traveling salesman Dell Fraser (Philip Abbott of Miracle Of The White Stallions) turns up, claiming to be a fellow nature-lover. He offers Cam some literal seed money to plant the corn Cam believes will bring the geese down to the lake. In reality, Dell represents an investor who plans on turning Swiftwater into a sportsman’s paradise, providing Cam’s plan guarantees that the geese will stop every year.

Not everyone in town has ulterior motives. The other villagers band together and volunteer for a community roof-raising, complete with a couple original songs by the Sherman Brothers! With the Calloways’ new home finished, everything looks on track for a happy ending. But then the geese come back, along with Dell and his entourage of wealthy hunters. When Cam gets wise to what’s happening, he burns down the corn and confronts the hunters, accidentally ending up with a bellyful of buckshot. A town meeting is arranged and while Cam recovers from his wounds, the townsfolk vote to reject Dell and his slick, out-of-town friends. Now you can have your happy ending.

I’ll be honest with you. I had very little expectation of enjoying Those Calloways. And for a while, it looked as though I wouldn’t. With a run time of over two hours, the film is leisurely to a fault and crams in a whole lot of extraneous business. I haven’t even mentioned the burgeoning romance between Bucky and shopkeeper’s daughter, Bridie Mellott (future Dynasty star Linda Evans, making her only Disney appearance). Or the rivalry between Bucky and mechanic Whit Turner (future Nostromo captain Tom Skerritt, who would later romance Hayley Mills in the made-for-TV The Parent Trap II). Or the semi-domesticated bear who hibernates in the Calloways’ root cellar. Or Cam’s occasional struggles with alcohol. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in Those Calloways.

But this is a movie that sneaks up on you and before I knew it, I was invested in these characters. It’s an uneven movie but its high points cover up a lot of sins. For instance, Tokar does a great job staging the wolverine sequence. The claustrophobic cinematography by Edward Colman and tight editing by Grant K. Smith creates a sense of real danger. It’s so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s preceded by several banal minutes of Sounder just scampering through the snow, chasing after weasels and other woodland critters.

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

The film’s stars work overtime bringing the audience into the story. Brian Keith and Vera Miles make for a compelling, believable couple. There’s a lot that goes unsaid between them but the way they look at each other speaks volumes. In their first scene together, Keith seems to be apologizing for an earlier fight. We never learn the details of what happened between them but it’s enough to tell us that things aren’t always easy between these two.

Those Calloways offers Vera Miles a much better showcase than her largely unnecessary role in A Tiger Walks. She has several terrific moments but the Christmas scene is by far the most moving. Even before she opens her gift, she takes her time admiring the wrapping and speculating what might be inside. When Cam and Bucky try to hurry her up, she refuses to be rushed. She’s not getting another present until next year, so she wants to savor the moment. When she sees the ermine wrap, she breaks down sobbing, overcome with emotion. Is this all a little bit corny? You bet. Does it work anyway? Absolutely. Miles sells it for all she’s worth. She’ll be back in this column before too long.

Brandon De Wilde was a somewhat unusual choice for a Disney star in that he was already famous by the time Walt signed him. He’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the movie Shane when he was just 11 years old, making him one of the youngest nominees in a competitive category ever. Since then he’d worked steadily in film and television. Walt hired him to star opposite Brian Keith in The Tenderfoot, a Wonderful World Of Color three-parter released theatrically overseas.

De Wilde’s a good actor and a natural Disney star. He’s good-looking, earnest and capable of handling the physical stuff, even when the just-barely-adequate fight choreography lets him down. But he never made another Disney film after Those Calloways. He stayed busy on stage and television but struggled to establish himself in movies, in part because he looked young for his age even by Disney standards. He harbored aspirations to break into music, becoming close friends with Gram Parsons. But in 1972, Brandon De Wilde was killed in a car accident in Colorado. He was just 30 years old.

De Wilde had also worked with costar Walter Brennan before. Brennan was a three-time Academy Award winner now in the autumn years of his career. Those Calloways marked his first Disney project but it won’t be his last. We’ll also see Ed Wynn again, whose performance as the slightly deaf Ed Parker is downright restrained by Ed Wynn standards.  

One name we won’t be seeing in this column again is composer Max Steiner. Steiner was a Hollywood legend having composed the scores to such classics as King Kong, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and countless others. He had never worked for Disney before but in a way, his rendezvous with Walt seems inevitable. Critics of Steiner’s old-fashioned style of film music consistently accuse him of “Mickey Mousing”, the overly-precise synchronization of on-screen movement to music. Like a glissando to accompany throwing an object or a descending scale when a character walks down a flight of stairs. Steiner’s Those Calloways score largely avoids those pitfalls. And if it doesn’t rank among his best work, it’s still a fine score. Unfortunately, it would end up being his last before his death in 1971.

Those Calloways struggled to find an audience in 1965 and critics were split. Quite honestly, I don’t blame them one bit. This is a long, imperfect movie that squeezes all of its best stuff into the middle. It takes a little too long to get going and then a lot longer than necessary to wrap things up. But it’s a rewarding picture for those who can meet it halfway with some beautiful cinematography, excellent performances and real heart. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you and I get it. But if you’re on the fence, give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

VERDICT: Despite its flaws, this is a Disney Plus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Mary Poppins

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

When Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles on August 27, 1964, Walt Disney was riding high on some of the most enthusiastic reactions of his career. The only trouble was they weren’t for his films. On April 22, the New York World’s Fair opened and four Disney exhibits quickly became must-sees for every visitor: Carousel Of Progress, Ford’s Magic Skyway, it’s a small world, and Walt’s passion project and personal favorite, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. These were groundbreaking feats of engineering and entertainment. The Audio-Animatronics developed by WED Enterprises’ team of “Imagineers” were the toast of the fair. As the first fair season came to a close in October, almost five million guests had visited the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion to get the song “It’s A Small World (After All)” stuck in their heads.

But back in Hollywood, the name “Walt Disney” had lost a little bit of its magic. Sure, people were still buying merchandise, watching the TV show and visiting Disneyland. But the studio barely made cartoons anymore. Their last animated feature, The Sword In The Stone, was noticeably different from earlier classics in both style and tone and the response to it had been lukewarm. And while the studio was still capable of putting out a sizable hit, they weren’t exactly the kinds of movies that brought invitations to the Academy Awards. Walt certainly wasn’t embarrassed by movies like Son Of Flubber or The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones. But even though audiences ate them up, they weren’t quite what Walt had in mind when he branched out into live-action.

The one movie that he had wanted to make for years was an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. It had been a particular favorite of Walt’s daughters. He first tried to obtain the rights back in 1938 as part of his post-Snow White shopping spree, only to be turned down flat by Mrs. Travers. But Walt Disney was nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After years of flattery and cajoling (and presumably an increased need for cash on Mrs. Travers’ side), he finally got her to say yes.

The behind-the-scenes drama between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is legendary, so much so that the studio made a whole self-mythologizing movie about it that will eventually appear in this column. Suffice it to say for now that Travers disagreed with almost every choice Walt and his team made, from the cast to the music to the animation. Especially the animation. P.L. Travers lived to be 96 years old, dying in 1996, and while she had come to terms with some parts of the film, she still hated cartoons.

Travers’ disapproval had to sting a little bit since Walt really had assigned his best people to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Co-producer and co-writer Bill Walsh had been responsible for some of the studio’s biggest recent hits, including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Co-writer Don DaGradi came from the animation side. He’d been a background and layout artist, an art director and a story man on a long list of Disney projects from Dumbo to Sleeping Beauty. He crossed over to live-action in 1959, first consulting on special sequences for films like Darby O’Gill And The Little People and The Parent Trap before moving on to cowrite Son Of Flubber with Walsh. They made a good team with DaGradi’s visual sense complimenting Walsh’s way with words.

Robert Stevenson had become one of Walt’s most reliable directors since joining the studio on Johnny Tremain. He’d been responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Old Yeller and the Flubber pictures. He was also adept with visual effects, as evidenced by his work on Darby O’Gill And The Little People. He’d never directed a musical before. But Walt hired the then-married choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to handle the dance sequences and had the Sherman Brothers in charge of the songs, so the music was in good hands.

Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, had been on the Disney payroll since around 1960. Walt met them through their association with Annette Funicello, whom they’d written several songs for. Since then, they’d written plenty of tunes, mostly title songs and incidental tracks designed to bridge scenes in movies like The Parent Trap or In Search Of The Castaways. But so far, their best public showcase had been the World’s Fair. Songs like “It’s A Small World (After All)” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” were simple, catchy earworms that have had a global reach that boggles the mind. Even so, they hadn’t had much of a chance to show what they could do on a bigger canvas.

The closest the Shermans had come to writing full-on musicals had been Summer Magic and The Sword In The Stone, neither of which really captured them at their best. None of the songs in Summer Magic were staged as production numbers. They were just songs to sing around a piano or on the porch between dialogue scenes. The Sword In The Stone came a bit closer but these were mostly tuneless, rhythm-based character songs. An audience couldn’t really sing along to them very well, much less hum or whistle them. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for its music. But that went to George Bruns’ score, not to the Sherman Brothers’ songs.

But the Shermans had been working on Mary Poppins pretty much from the beginning of their association with the studio. Walt finally secured the rights to the book right around the same time he met Robert and Richard. They were two of the first people he brought on board and they were very important in shaping the finished film. The Sherman Brothers knew this was a huge opportunity and they made the most of it.

Theatrical poster art for Mary Poppins

The cast was a good blend of Disney newcomers and returning veterans. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber may have been a bit young to be considered “veterans”. But their performances in The Three Lives Of Thomasina impressed Walt enough to cast them in the key roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Glynis Johns, who had co-starred in two of Disney’s early British productions, The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, returned to the studio as Banks matriarch and suffragette Winifred Banks. And Disney stalwart Ed Wynn was given the role he was born to play, Uncle Albert, an eccentric kook whose uncontrollable fits of laughter sends him floating to the ceiling.

Walt couldn’t have found an actor more ideally suited to the role of the repressed, emotionally withholding George Banks than David Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a consummate professional who’d been acting in British films and on stage since the early 1940s, interrupted only by his RAF service during World War II. He was the very image of a British gentleman and he’d toy with that stereotype throughout his career.

Dick Van Dyke was a somewhat more unconventional choice to play Bert, the cockney jack-of-all-trades. Van Dyke was a newly minted TV star thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show but was relatively untested in films. The fact that the Missouri-born entertainer was distinctly not British did not seem to be a concern. Despite what Van Dyke himself would later refer to as “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”, the movie serves as a terrific showcase for his talents as a song-and-dance man and a physical comedian. Those skills are underlined with Van Dyke’s virtually unrecognizable second role as the elderly Mr. Dawes. Revealing the gag in the end credits by unscrambling the name “Navckid Keyd” is a nice touch.

Of course, the most iconic bit of casting in the film is Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins herself. Andrews had been a sensation on London’s West End and Broadway in such shows as The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Jack Warner had bought the film rights to My Fair Lady and a lot of folks, including Andrews herself, were hoping she’d make her film debut as Eliza Doolittle. Warner had other ideas. He wanted a bankable star in the picture, so he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. Andrews was pregnant when Walt first offered her the part of Mary Poppins. She turned him down but Walt promised to hold off on production until she was ready.

He was right to wait. Julie Andrews delivers a performance for the ages that seems effortless but is very much not. On paper, the character seems impossible to play. She’s magical but prim and proper. She’s warm and loving but not outwardly demonstrative. I don’t think she even gives anyone so much as a hug once in the entire picture. She’s also a world-champion gaslighter, constantly telling the children she has no idea about the magical adventure she just made happen.

Mary Poppins’ magic all comes from the inside out. It’s seen in the twinkle of Andrews’ eyes, the playful smile that only occasionally breaks into a dazzling display of teeth, and her matter-of-fact body language even as she’s literally walking on air. This performance defines Mary Poppins in the popular imagination. Other actresses have played the role on stage and Emily Blunt starred in the belated sequel that I suppose we’ll have to talk about in this column eventually. But they’re all filtering their performance through Andrews’ work here. Not only does the work defy anyone else’s attempt to put their own spin on it, most audiences don’t want to see another spin on it. The measure of success is how closely you can come to replicating the original.

Theatrical poster art for the 30th anniversary re-release of Mary Poppins

In supporting roles, Walt recruited a parade of venerable character actors. Former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester pops in briefly as the last in the Banks’ long line of ex-nannies. Reginald Owen, who had played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Ebenezer Scrooge, is great fun as the Banks’ neighbor, Admiral Boom. Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, makes what would be her final film appearance as The Bird Woman. And if you know where to look, you can spot several Disney voice actors in the cast, including Don Barclay (as Admiral Boom’s first mate, Mr. Binnacle), Marjorie Bennett (as the owner of Andrew the dog) and Cruella de Vil herself, Betty Lou Gerson (as the creepy old lady who scares the hell out of the kids after they run away from the bank).

I was never a big fan of Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was a pleasant surprise to revisit it and find that I had severely underrated it. The Sherman Brothers are clearly the MVPs here. As a musical, Mary Poppins holds its own with anything that was on Broadway at the time, including My Fair Lady. The Shermans won Oscars for both Best Substantially Original Score (beating out Henry Mancini’s equally iconic The Pink Panther) and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. It’s interesting the Academy chose to honor that one since nearly every song has gone on to become a classic. The titles alone will get the songs playing in your head: “A Spoonful Of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (and yes, I copied and pasted that title).

In addition, Mary Poppins looks and feels like a big-screen movie. So many of Walt’s live-action films, especially from the 60s, look right at home on TV. In the 50s, Walt could get away with releasing made-for-TV productions theatrically because his production values were higher than normal for television. But as other studios made their movies bigger to compete with TV, Disney’s mostly stayed where they were. Mary Poppins was the exception. The sets, the costumes, the gorgeous matte paintings and other visual tricks were all state-of-the-art.

As enchanting as it is, Mary Poppins is not practically perfect in every way. P.L. Travers’ complaint about the animation isn’t wholly off-base. This was certainly Walt’s most ambitious blend of live-action and animation since Song Of The South. Technically, it’s extremely impressive and often lovely. It also goes on forever. They could have lost about half of it and no one would have been the wiser.

The “Jolly Holiday” song that takes up the first half of the sequence is one of the few times the narrative loses sight of the Banks family. Jane and Michael run off to explore the cartoon world while Bert serenades Mary Poppins and dances with some penguin waiters. A little goes a long way, especially since this doesn’t do anything to advance the story. Whatever weird past and/or present relationship Bert and Mary may or may not have had remains just as much a mystery. By the end of it, we haven’t learned a single new thing about either of these characters.

Overlength is probably the single biggest problem that plagues the film in general. Almost every scene, no matter how enjoyable, could probably be trimmed. “Step In Time” is an awesome production number but it feels like it’s never going to stop. I love the song “Stay Awake”, but the movie probably didn’t need two lullabies. And since “Feed The Birds” is a richer, more resonant song, “Stay Awake” feels like filler in comparison.

Mary Poppins single art

If critics or audiences shared these concerns back in 1964, they didn’t seem to care all that much. The press went nuts over Mary Poppins, praising it as Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Audiences adored it. Walt may have suspected he had a hit but even he had to be surprised at how big a hit it became. Not only did Mary Poppins become the highest-grossing film of 1964, it became the Disney studio’s biggest moneymaker ever.

When Academy Award nominations were announced on February 23, 1964, Mary Poppins led the pack with 13 including Best Picture, a first for any Walt Disney feature. The ceremony pitted Mary Poppins against My Fair Lady and, in many ways, Jack Warner’s film came out on top. In most categories where the two films went head-to-head, My Fair Lady won (one exception being Best Adapted Screenplay, which both lost to Becket). But Mary Poppins still took home five trophies including two for the Sherman Brothers’ music, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing (the one category where Mary Poppins triumphed over My Fair Lady).

The sweetest victory had to have been Julie Andrews’ win for Best Actress. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady, leaving Andrews to take home an Oscar for her very first film. A few weeks earlier, Andrews had been in direct competition with Hepburn and won at the Golden Globes. Accepting her award, Andrews cheekily thanked Jack Warner “for making all this possible”.

Mary Poppins must have been a pleasant experience for everyone involved, since nearly everyone in front of or behind the camera will be back in this column sooner or later. That includes Julie Andrews, although it’ll be quite some time before she returns. She’d go on to additional Oscar nominations (for The Sound Of Music and Victor/Victoria), a storied career on film, TV and stage, and a long marriage to filmmaker Blake Edwards. In 1981, she parodied her Disney image with a role in Edwards’ hilarious and tragically underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B. The next time we see Julie Andrews in this column, she’ll be Dame Julie Andrews, DBE.

Decades later, Mary Poppins has emerged as an enduring classic and one of Disney’s crown jewels. After its release, Walt would focus his attention on other projects, notably the ongoing work of his Imagineers and what would eventually become Walt Disney World. He’d be less hands-on with film, animation and TV production, with only a few projects capturing his imagination. And perhaps that’s understandable. Mary Poppins was the culmination of his life’s work, a magically entertaining synthesis of everything he’d learned about animation, storytelling and live-action filmmaking. After this, Walt Disney had nothing left to prove.

VERDICT: 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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