Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Scandalous John

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Scandalous John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quad poster for Scandalous John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Wild Country

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Wild Country

In their 2021 book The Boys: A Memoir Of Hollywood And Family, brothers Ron and Clint Howard dedicate the better part of an entire chapter to the summer they spent in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filming The Wild Country. It was a formative experience for them both and their memories of the summer of ’69 are warm and fond. It’s a good book. You should check it out. But I think it’s fair to say that the Howard Brothers have spent more time thinking about The Wild Country over the past 50 years than most of us. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty good. But it’s definitely one of the deeper cuts in this column.

The Wild Country had actually been in development at the studio for quite a while. Disney bought the rights to Ralph Moody’s book Little Britches, the first in a popular series of autobiographical stories, back in the late 1950s. Now this is pure conjecture on my part, so don’t sic Leonard Maltin on me if I’m wrong. But at that time, The Wild Country almost certainly would have been being developed as a vehicle for Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The personalities of and dynamic between brothers Virgil and Andy Tanner is exactly like roles played by Kirk and Corcoran in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and many others. But Kirk started to be on the outs with the studio around the time he and Corcoran made Bon Voyage! in 1961. Between that and the disappointing reception to the Old Yeller sequel, Savage Sam, it’s little wonder that The Wild Country ended up on the shelf.

Producer Ron Miller dusted off Moody’s book and brought on board a whole bunch of TV people. Screenwriters Calvin Clements Jr. and Paul Savage had both worked on the TV western Gunsmoke, as had director Robert Totten. Of course, Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons, so odds are everybody involved with The Wild Country worked on Gunsmoke sooner or later in some capacity.

Clements later wrote a few Wonderful World Of Disney episodes, including Justin Morgan Had A Horse and The Flight Of The Grey Wolf. He was later a writer and producer on such series as Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Matt Houston and Walker, Texas Ranger. Savage also continued to work in television on shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Murder, She Wrote. He returned to the studio years later writing an installment of the late 80s revival of Davy Crockett for The Magical World Of Disney.

As for Robert Totten, he had directed dozens of TV episodes but few feature films. He’d made an independent war movie in 1963 called The Quick And The Dead that starred Victor French and Star Trek fixture Majel Barrett. His next movie was Death Of A Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. Widmark hated Totten and had him fired, bringing in Don Siegel to finish the picture. Siegel refused to put his name on it, since Totten only had about a week left to shoot when he was let go. But Totten didn’t want his name on it, either, so Death Of A Gunfighter became the first movie directed by the pseudonymous Allen Smithee.

In The Boys, Ron Howard describes Totten as a Peckinpah-like figure who aspired to make tough, independent movies but never quite got the breaks he needed. For Disney, he’d already made a couple of TV two-parters like Ride A Northbound Horse and he’d do a couple more after The Wild Country, including The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. He was also a bit of a mentor to young Ronny, who even then wanted to be a director. Totten was encouraging and took the time to explain his methodology to Howard, who was 15 at the time. Howard says Totten was the first director who didn’t treat him like a kid. That’s a lot better legacy than simply being remembered as the original Allen Smithee.

The artist formerly known as Ronny Howard was squarely in the awkward teen years of child stardom in the summer of ’69. In 1967, Howard made his Disney debut in A Boy Called Nuthin’, a two-parter for Wonderful World Of Color. The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968. Since then, he’d popped up in a few guest spots on shows like (surprise, surprise) Gunsmoke and his little brother Clint’s show, Gentle Ben. But The Wild Country was his highest profile project since the Opie days.

Clint Howard first made his way to Disney via animation. He’d been the voice of Roo in the Winnie The Pooh shorts and the young elephant in The Jungle Book. This wasn’t the first time Clint and Ron had worked together but I believe it is the first and possibly only time they played brothers on-screen. Their dad, Rance Howard, also appears in The Wild Country as a cowhand on the bad guy’s ranch.

The boys’ on-screen father was played by Steve Forrest, the thick-haired, mustachioed single father from Rascal. When I wrote that column, I was under the impression that Forrest only made one Disney feature, which just goes to show how far under the radar this film has flown. I’d clocked the title on Forrest’s filmography but had assumed The Wild Country was a TV production. Anyway, I like Forrest, so I’m glad to see him back. I’m pretty sure this really will be Forrest’s only other appearance in this column but I’ve been wrong before.

The Wild Country was Vera Miles’ fourth Disney movie, following A Tiger Walks, Those Calloways and Follow Me, Boys! She’d already appeared as Clint’s mom in Gentle Giant, the 1967 movie that begat Gentle Ben. Miles’ concerned mom roles for Disney were all fairly similar and pretty thankless. Nevertheless, she must have enjoyed working for the studio. We’ll be seeing her a couple more times.

We’ve seen rugged tales of the frontier in this column before and you can rest assured we’ll be seeing them again. In its broad strokes, The Wild Country isn’t too dissimilar from earlier Disney westerns. The Tanner family arrives in Wyoming full of hope for the future, having left Pittsburgh for reasons that are never made entirely clear but are apparently irreversible. Jim Tanner (Forrest) has purchased a farm at a rock-bottom price from his fast-talking cousin Phil (Dub Taylor, last seen here in The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin). The Tanners don’t know a whole lot about farming but they’re determined to make it work.

They’re in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the property to discover that their fixer-upper farm needs a lot more fixer-uppering than Cousin Phil let on. Their second surprise is finding a trapper named Thompson (Jack Elam, making his first Disney western feature after the crime comedy Never A Dull Moment, although he’d appeared on a few episodes of Zorro) and his pet wolf sleeping in their house. Thompson roams the country with his Indian buddy, Two Dog (Frank DeKova, last seen impersonating a Native American in Those Calloways), and they’ll prove helpful in the months ahead.

Thompson warns Jim to head back to Pittsburgh now and save his family the trouble of trying to work this land. The Tanners aren’t the first people to work this farm. The problem is that all the water comes from the land above owned by a real piece of work named Ab Cross (Morgan Woodward, not seen around these parts since making his film debut in The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho, The Wagons!). Even though Jim’s deed plainly states that he’s entitled to all the water above a certain mark on Ab’s dam, he routinely shuts off the supply come summer.

After Ab’s cattle trespasses on to the Tanner farm and destroys Kate’s garden, Jim and Virgil decide to pay a neighborly call on Ab and work things out in a civilized manner. When Jim threatens to get the law involved, Ab and his gang of roughnecks laugh in his face. Seems there ain’t no law in Jackson’s Hole, a fact that local shopkeeper Jensen (Karl Swenson) later backs up. Since the nearest marshal is in Cheyenne, Jim writes him a letter and bides his time.

This was not the outcome Ab was hoping for. When he and the boys run into the Tanners at the general store, Ab tries to get Jim to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Jim doesn’t want to get sucked into a fight in front of his wife and kids but Ab leaves him no choice. It’s a brutal fight, especially by Disney standards, and even though both men are left reeling, Ab gets the worst of it. Humiliated in front of his men, Ab shuts off the water supply completely.

Jim decides to ride to Cheyenne himself but before he can go, Virgil sneaks up to Ab’s property and tries to unblock the dam. Jim rides after him, preferring to let the law run its slow, natural course. But when Ab finds the Tanners trespassing on his dam, he comes out firing, shooting Jim in the leg.

Temporarily beaten, the Tanners return home so Jim can recover. But it isn’t long before a tornado tears through, devastating the farm and wiping out what little progress the Tanners have made. This is one calamity too many for Kate, who finally decides enough is enough. The family is going back to Pennsylvania. Jim lets her have her say, then quietly but firmly takes her aside to let her know they’re not going anywhere. I’m sure this is meant to come across as a positive message about the resilience of family but given everything that’s happened, it comes across as borderline abusive.

While Jim is reminding Kate who wears the pants, the Marshal finally shows up (and he’s played by Larry D. Mann, probably best known as the voice of Yukon Cornelius in the Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer!). They head on up to Ab’s place, who petulantly agrees to get the water flowing again. That should be the end of it but because Ab Cross is such an unrepentant asshole, you know the Tanners aren’t out of the woods yet, right?

That night, the Tanners are celebrating their victory when Andy goes outside to find their barn in flames. While they scramble to put out the fire, Ab skulks out from the shadows and shoots Jim again! In the back! Kate wallops him with a two by four and does her best to fend him off. But just as Ab is about to finish Jim off, Virgil emerges from the house with a rifle and kills Ab. The next day, Ab’s men come to collect the body and, with much apologetic hand-wringing, admit their boss went a smidge too far. They vow to pitch in and get the Tanners back on their feet.

Alternate theatrical poster for The Wild Country

Considering that The Wild Country evokes memories of several earlier Disney westerns, none of which were all that great to begin with, it’s a little surprising that this movie works as well as it does. Clint Howard’s character, Andy, is very much cut from the Kevin Corcoran cloth. He spends most of the movie attempting to trap various animals, including a skunk, a porcupine and a hawk, to keep as pets, all of which he names Ralph. But Clint’s not as uncontrollably manic as Kevin was and his antics don’t overshadow the rest of the movie. He’s also effective in dramatic scenes, like when he breaks down over the prospect of his mom heading back to Pittsburgh.

The movie’s biggest problem, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, is that it feels more like an extended episode of a TV show than a movie. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of all the Gunsmoke alumni. Part of that is the very episodic story. There’s another subplot about Virgil accidentally shooting at a wild horse that turns out to be pregnant. He misses her but she injures herself in a fall. Thompson and Two Dog are summoned to help deliver the filly (which is actually shown on camera), who Andy of course names Ralph. The whole sequence feels like a Very Special Episode of The Wild Country.

The movie might feel more cinematic if Disney treated it with more respect. The Wild Country is not currently available on Disney+ and the only way you can see it at all is in an old-school TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Frank Phillips seems to do a lovely job capturing the Wyoming landscape. It’d be nice if we could actually see his work the way he intended it to be shown.

Robert Totten may never have become the next Sam Peckinpah but he knows his way around a camera and stacks his cast with great character actors from the golden age of westerns. Dub Taylor is a lot of fun in his small role and it’s always a treat to see Jack Elam. Morgan Woodward is eminently hissable as the bad guy. Whenever one of these old pros is on the screen, which is most of the time, the movie always has something fun to offer.

The weakest link in the cast is probably Ronny Howard. At this point in his career, he had a tendency to go big at the slightest provocation. Totten reels him in when it counts, like in the tense climax, but there are still plenty of moments where you wish he’d dial it back a notch or three. Kurt Russell was a little too old to play Virgil in 1970 but if the movie had been made a few years earlier, he’d have been better suited to the role.

Interestingly enough, Howard admits in The Boys that he was hoping the movie would be a flop before it premiered. He was actively trying to distance himself from his goody-two-shoes Opie Taylor image and he knew that The Wild Country would only cement it. As it happens, Howard got his wish. The Wild Country received some decent reviews but barely made a dent at the box office.

The same year he filmed The Wild Country, Ron Howard also performed a voice on the record The Story And Song From The Haunted Mansion, released to coincide with the opening of the Disneyland attraction. Later in 1970, he appeared in the boy and his dog drama Smoke, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney. And for a while, that seemed to mark the end of his association with the studio. A few years later, George Lucas cast him in American Graffiti and from there, he went on to Happy Days. Howard would eventually return to Disney as a director and his return launched a whole new era for the studio. But it’s a little surprising we won’t be seeing Ron Howard the actor in this column again. Clint, on the other hand, will be back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

Quad poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

A movie’s journey from preproduction to release is rarely a short one, especially when you’re in the business of making crowd-pleasers. So even though Walt Disney had been dead for more than a year, there were still a few titles in the pipeline that he’d signed off on, even if they didn’t start shooting until after his death. This helps explain why, in 1968, Disney released another slice of turn-of-the-century Americana, one of Walt’s favorite subgenres, with the marquee-busting title The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

Walt had acquired the rights to Laura Bower Van Nuys’ 1961 memoir (published under the equally unwieldy title The Family Band, From The Missouri To The Black Hills, 1881-1900) with an eye toward adapting it for television. Since the word “band” was in the title, he asked the Sherman Brothers to come up with a couple original tunes. The Shermans landed on a carnival barker approach to the title song, elongating it into its current form. Once he heard it, Walt decided the project should be a big-screen musical.

Robert B. Sherman, at least, did not think that was such a great idea. He thought the story was, well, a little thin to support a feature film. Robert B. Sherman was not wrong. In comparison, Summer Magic, the Shermans’ 1963 musical dud, looks like a labyrinth of intricate plotting and complex characterizations. But Walt always had the final word, so the Shermans dutifully composed eleven new songs for the project.

The Shermans worked with screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley to figure out where to place the songs. Hawley had been with the studio for over a decade, writing such films as Swiss Family Robinson, Babes In Toyland and, most recently, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin. The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band would be his final Disney credit. After Walt died, Hawley retired completely from show business, spending his remaining years with his family before his own passing in 2003 at the ripe old age of 94.

Michael O’Herlihy, director of The Fighting Prince Of Donegal and a bunch of TV stuff for Disney and other studios, was brought back for his second feature. As always, Walt had the final say on casting. For the most part, he didn’t look much farther than his usual talent roster. Walter Brennan, seen most recently in The Gnome-Mobile, was cast as bandleader Grandpa Bower. This would be Brennan’s third and last Disney picture. The show business veteran kept right on working to the end, though, continuing to appear in movies and TV shows (mostly westerns) until his death in 1974 at 80.

For his romantic leads, Walt tapped Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson, who just a few months earlier ignited (or, at least, singed) the screen with their G-rated chemistry in The Happiest Millionaire. They too would leave Disney behind after this film and move on to very different careers. Warren spent much of the 1970s on television (including an appearance as Lois Lane in the 1975 TV broadcast of the musical It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman!) before really coming into her own as an actor in the 1980s, starting with an Oscar-nominated performance in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria. John Davidson found his niche on television and on stage thanks to regular appearances on game shows like The Hollywood Squares and one-man shows in Las Vegas, Branson, and his own club in Sandwich, New Hampshire (called, I kid you not, Club Sandwich).

Unfortunately, Walt’s cast didn’t entirely come together as he’d envisioned it. Before his death, Walt approved the casting of his old polo buddy Bing Crosby as patriarch Calvin Bower. But the studio couldn’t come to terms with Crosby’s team, so Der Bingle dropped out. Instead, Disney veteran Buddy Ebsen returned for the first time since traipsing around the wild frontier with Davy Crockett. Buddy’s stock had gone way up since his days as George Russel. Since 1962, he had been starring as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the most popular sitcoms in the country. The One And Only And So On And So Forth gave him an opportunity to return to his roots as a song-and-dance man.

Considering how many child actors have worked for Disney over the years, it’s a little surprising that most of the Bower kids were one-and-done at the studio (with one obvious exception, who we’ll get to in a moment). Pamelyn Ferdin played Laura, who grows up to write the book this is based upon. She had been in the business since the early 1960s and went on to a busy career as a child star. She voiced some prominent non-Disney animated characters, including Lucy in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, several TV specials and commercials and Fern in Charlotte’s Web (which also had songs by the Sherman Brothers). In live-action, she appeared in the terrific Clint Eastwood movie The Beguiled and the grindhouse classic The Toolbox Murders. And yet somehow, this remained her only Disney credit. These days, she’s a prominent animal rights activist.

A couple of the Brower kids, like Heidi Rook and Debbie Smith, only had brief flirtations with show business. Bobby Riha, who played Mayo Bower, guested on some TV shows and had a recurring part on the short-lived Debbie Reynolds Show in 1969. Smith “Smitty” Wordes (Nettie Bower) went on to an impressive career as a dancer and choreographer. You can see her dancing with Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal” video and in the Disney theme park attraction Captain EO (which, unfortunately, does not qualify for this column). Sadly, she passed away in 2020 after battling cancer. She was 65.

There are two Bower kids who will return to this column. One is Jon Walmsley, who played Quinn. The same year The One And Only Etc. debuted, Walmsley took over as the voice of Christopher Robin for the short Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day. In 1971, he’d make his first appearance as Jason Walton in the TV-movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which led to the long-running family drama The Waltons. Walmsley continued to reprise the role as recently as the 1997 reunion film A Walton Easter. But apart from Waltons work, Walmsley mostly left acting to focus on his career as a musician.

Of course, the Bower kid who stuck around the Disney lot the longest was none other than Kurt Russell. Since making his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys!, Russell had starred in the Wonderful World Of Color two-parter Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders, presumably because the American title seems designed to make British schoolboys giggle). We’re about to start seeing a whole lot more Kurt Russell around these parts, so I hope you like him. (That’s a rhetorical statement, of course. Who doesn’t like Kurt Russell?)

Original Cast Soundtrack album for The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

Even with all this talent on board, Robert Sherman was right to be concerned about the material. The story opens in Missouri, where the Bower Family Band is awaiting a representative from President Grover Cleveland’s re-election campaign. Grandpa Bower, a lifelong Democrat, has written a campaign song and hopes to win the family an invitation to perform at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Alice Bower (Warren) is nervous to finally meet her long-distance beau, Joe Carder (Davidson), a newspaper publisher and diehard Republican from Dakota Territory.

Cleveland’s delegate is blown away by Grandpa’s song, “Let’s Put It Over With Grover”, and announces that he’d be thrilled to host the Bowers in St. Louis. (Incidentally, Cleveland’s campaign man is played by legendary voiceover artist William Woodson, narrator of countless sci-fi movies, TV shows and cartoons, including Super Friends.) Unfortunately, Joe Carder arrives in town with a very convincing song of his own, “Dakota”. Pretty soon, everyone is filled with Dakota Fever and the Bowers are no exception. They pack up their homestead and hit the trail to Rapid City.

The Bowers arrive in town just in time to see Carder leading a rally in support of Cleveland’s opponent, Senator Benjamin Harrison. One of Harrison’s campaign promises is statehood for Dakota. Not just one, but two new states, North and South Dakota, which would presumably mean four new Republican Senators, tipping the balance of Congress.

That is exactly the kind of no-account, dishonest chicanery that a good Democrat like Grandpa abhors, so he leads the band in a reprise of “Let’s Put It Over With Grover”. A few of the townsfolk are won over by the catchy tune but most of their overwhelmingly Republican neighbors are immediately suspicious of the rabble-rousing Bowers. Joe Carder insists they’re good people and he and Grandpa bet a wheelbarrow ride, the height of 1880s humiliation apparently, on the outcome of the election.

This causes a problem for Alice, who’s due to start her new job as the town’s schoolteacher (a job she is literally handed without a single question by mayor Richard Deacon the second she arrives in town). While she meets with the school board to answer the questions she probably should have been asked before being offered the job, Grandpa is sent to dismiss the children. He tries but is moved by the tears of a little girl who memorized a whole poem for the first day and is crestfallen that it was all for nothing. So Gramps hauls the kids back inside where, after little Edna recites her poem, he gives them a little history lesson on the War Between The States.

Now don’t forget, this all takes place back when Republicans were the party of Lincoln and Democrats were still trying to unify their own party after the Civil War. So Grandpa’s service in the Confederate Army is sort of waved away by his song, “Drummin’ Drummin’ Drummin’”, which shows he’s willing to admit he made a mistake and everyone should let bygones be bygones. Anyway, Grandpa’s lesson is brought on by a surly little boy named Johnny (played by Eddie Munster hisownself, Butch Patrick!) who has the audacity to challenge’s Grandpa’s teaching credentials. The school day comes to a close with Grandpa urging the kids to stand up for their rights and get out there and make a difference.

Having inspired a pee-wee rebellion, Grandpa’s in real trouble. Calvin (Ebsen), a Republican himself, forbids his father from discussing politics ever again. Grandpa would rather die homeless than have his freedom of speech interfered with, so he hits the road, stopping briefly at a town meeting to urge the school board to let Alice keep her job. Calvin is so impressed that Grandpa managed to shut the hell up about politics for five damn minutes that he asks him to come home. When Grandpa refuses, he reminds him of that bet he made with Joe Carder. He’d look like a welsher if he left before Election Day, so Grandpa stays.

Election Night arrives, along with a big production number, “West O’ The Wide Missouri”. This is easily the most energetic and fun number in the movie, partly because of a vivacious young woman named Goldie Jeanne Hawn making her big-screen debut as “Giggly Girl”. Goldie doesn’t really interact at all with her future partner but they share the screen a few times and it’s fun to see Goldie Hawn giving her all to a big dance number while Kurt Russell stands on stage behind her awkwardly pretending to play a drum.

Anyway, the votes trickle in and it appears that Cleveland has won re-election. Grandpa gets ready for his victory ride in the wheelbarrow when the telegraph operator comes rushing in with some late-breaking news. Although Cleveland won the popular vote, Harrison won the Electoral College and anybody who was around for the 2000 or 2016 presidential elections knows what that means. Benjamin Harrison is the new President of the United States. Grandpa and the other Democrats take this poorly and some G-rated Disney rioting breaks out (yes, cake is involved).

Eventually, Calvin’s cooler head prevails and he has the family band strike up a rendition of “America”. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, Calvin urges. At the end of the day, we’re all Americans and that’s all that really matters. Well sir, apparently we just needed to have Buddy Ebsen around last January because his words of wisdom do the trick. Everybody calms down, agrees to put politics aside and march forward into a bold new future as one. It is, indeed, a sweet land of liberty.

Lobby card for The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band

So in case it wasn’t clear, let me just say, for the record, this movie is bananas. When I sat down to watch The One And Only Yada Yada Yada, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I absolutely was not expecting a musical that revolves around partisan politics, gerrymandering, a contentious presidential election and the Electoral College. Maybe in 80 years, Disney will mount a remake updating it to the Trump era and it’ll be every bit as simplistic and weird as this. Look, I can understand Disney wanting to make a musical about a family band just before the turn of the century. But the decision to focus on this particular point in time and these events is downright baffling.

The bizarre subject matter would matter less if the songs themselves were more engaging. But with few exceptions, these are also-rans in the Sherman songbook. “Ten Feet Off The Ground” isn’t bad, although Louis Armstrong’s cover version is a lot better than the one in the movie, and “Let’s Put It Over With Grover” does have a banjo riff that’ll lodge itself in your head for days. But the title song is sheer cacophony and the love songs “The Happiest Girl Alive” and “’Bout Time” are tough to take despite the best efforts of Warren and Davidson.

The cast is certainly game. Walter Brennan seems like he’s having fun and it’s nice to see Buddy Ebsen in a musical again. Both Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson bring their musical theatre kid energy to the table. But the rest of the cast is given very little to do. Poor Janet Blair has a thankless role as Bower family matriarch, Katie. Her sole defining characteristic is her refusal to allow political talk in her house. As for the Bower kids, they’re forgotten about for long stretches. None of them even turn up in the school scene, which seems odd. Don’t these kids have to go to school, too?

The studio seemed to lose faith in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band almost as soon as the cameras stopped rolling. The premiere was set for the end of March, 1968, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The venue, as they had just done with The Happiest Millionaire, asked Disney to cut about 20 minutes from the film’s 156-minute run time. The studio was only too happy to oblige. Over the protests of the Sherman Brothers and producer Bill Anderson, they ended up dropping about 45 minutes, including two entire musical numbers, bringing it down to 110 minutes. Unlike with The Happiest Millionaire, Disney has to date made no effort to restore the missing footage. And frankly, as near as I can tell, no one has made much demand that they do so.

In the end, nobody was particularly impressed by TOAOGOFB. Critics mostly hated it and audiences stayed away. The back-to-back failures of The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (and am I happy to be done typing that title) resulted in Disney shying away from musicals for awhile. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman would be back but they were no longer exclusive with the studio. Their next major project would be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for producer Albert R. Broccoli, a reunion with their Mary Poppins star Dick Van Dyke. Live-action musicals had always been risky, hit-or-miss propositions at Disney. From now on, the studio would hedge their bets with the genre.    

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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