Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Barefoot Executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

Quad poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Love Bug

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Love Bug

There has probably never been another producer in the history of motion pictures as concerned with the concept of legacy as Walt Disney. Walt didn’t want to make pictures that opened well or played for a few weeks or months. He wanted to make evergreens, films that could be re-released again and again forever. To accomplish this, he made animated features based on tales that had already stood the test of time. When he started producing live-action films, he focused on period pieces and historical fiction. So it’s tough to figure out what he would have thought about The Love Bug. On the one hand, it’s the most contemporary movie the studio had made to that point, firmly rooted in the late 1960s. But on the other, it worked like gangbusters, becoming the studio’s biggest hit in years and its own kind of evergreen.

Walt himself had optioned the source material that became The Love Bug, a treatment or unpublished short story called Car-Boy-Girl (or possibly Boy-Girl-Car) by Gordon Buford. Sources differ on what exactly this was, how it ended up capturing Walt’s attention or even what the exact title was and there’s almost no information about Gordon Buford out there. The only thing that seems certain is that it was a comedy about a sentient car. Shortly before Walt’s death, Dean Jones pitched him a dramatic script about race car driving. Walt wasn’t interested and told Jones he should star in Car-Boy-Girl instead.

Jones had successfully made the transition from Broadway and TV to legitimate movie star by listening to Walt’s advice, so he wasn’t about to stop now. Disney’s Mary Poppins A-team, director Robert Stevenson, co-writer and producer Bill Walsh, and co-writer Don DaGradi, were all assigned to the Car-Boy-Girl project. Walsh had written the Mickey Mouse comic strip for years and DaGradi was a former animator with experience in both shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face and features like Lady And The Tramp. Their cartoon backgrounds made them ideally suited to creating a real, sympathetic character out of an anthropomorphic car.

Interestingly enough, Buford’s original treatment didn’t specify what kind of car the film should be about. The production team held “auditions” for the role on the Disney lot, inviting the crew and staff to come inspect a dozen or so different cars. The pearl white Volkswagen Beetle won on cuteness and charm. It was the only car in the lineup that everyone reached out to pet as they walked by.

Storybook cover of The Love Bug

This was not Dean Jones’ first time appearing opposite a character named Herbie. In The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, released just a few weeks prior to The Love Bug, Jones’ Aunt Martha has a dog named Herbie. Was this a coincidence or a subtle piece of stealth marketing? It’s hard to say for sure. What is certain is that Herbie the Love Bug’s name came from co-star Buddy Hackett, the nightclub comic making his Disney debut as junkyard artist and occasional mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Hackett will be back in this column in animated form). One of Hackett’s routines was about a team of heavily accented German ski instructors named Klaus, Hans, Fritz, Wilhelm and Sandor. The punchline was, “If you ain’t got a Herbie, I ain’t going!” Hackett’s Brooklynese pronunciation of the name never failed to bring down the house. Thus, the little Volkswagen became Herbie.

David Tomlinson, who’d had the role of a lifetime as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, returned to the Disney fold to play the snobby, weaselly Peter Thorndyke, European car salesman and Jones’ rival on the racing circuit. The villainous role was the polar opposite of his paternal Mary Poppins character and Tomlinson had a field day with it. We haven’t seen the last of him in this column.

The female lead was given to a relative newcomer, Michele Lee. Lee made her film debut in 1967, reprising her Broadway role in the movie version of the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The Love Bug has been her only Disney role to date and even though she appears to be retired, I suppose that could still change. After her stint in Herbie’s passenger seat, Lee focused primarily on television, spending the entirety of the 1980s and about the first half of the 90s on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.

Even though all of Dean Jones’ Disney features had been contemporary-set comedies, they all took place in the suburbs or quaint little towns untouched by the passage of time. Even The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit spends as little time at Jones’ New York City ad agency as narratively possible. The Love Bug is different. San Francisco in 1968 is such a very specific place and time that even Disney couldn’t ignore it. Consequently, Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz is an aspiring Zen master given to lengthy reminiscences on his time with the Buddhist monks of Tibet. Some of the first people Jones encounters after discovering Herbie’s special nature are hippies, including one in a psychedelic van played by Jones himself in a fake beard, long wig and blue-tinted sunglasses. This might be our first movie to show any kind of awareness of the world outside the studio walls since the Beach Boys turned up in The Monkey’s Uncle.

The Story Of The Love Bug record album

The Love Bug has been consistently popular over the years, so its storyline probably doesn’t require a lot of summation. Still, there are a few points to take note of. Jones stars as Jim Douglas, an aging race car driver whose glory days are far behind him, if he ever experienced them at all. After losing a demolition derby, Jim finds himself without a car. His search for a cheap ride is sidetracked when he spots leggy sales associate Carole Bennett (Lee) through the window of Thorndyke’s high-end European showroom. After going inside to flirt, Thorndyke mistakes Jim for a paying customer. Jim expresses interest in the shop’s pièce de resistance, a bright yellow sportscar dubbed the Thorndyke Special. But when Thorndyke discovers that Jim’s broke, he turns the charm off like a spigot.

Jim’s presence in the shop also attracts the attention of a little Volkswagen Beetle, who rolls out of the garage and onto the showroom floor to get his attention. Jim’s not interested but he stands up for the car anyway when Thorndyke starts insulting it. The next morning, Jim wakes up to find a detective (played by fellow nightclub comic and Car 54, Where Are You? star Joe E. Ross) outside the old firehouse he shares with Tennessee. Turns out the Bug followed him home and is parked right outside. Thorndyke accuses Jim of stealing the car and has him arrested, while Jim believes Thorndyke planted the car there himself to strong-arm him into buying it.

Jim avoids jail time by agreeing to buy the car on an installment plan. But he soon discovers the car has a mind of its own when he’s literally incapable of getting on the freeway. The car seems to be out of control but Jim eventually warms up to it when he realizes that it’s going out of its way to bring him and Carole together.

It’s worth noting that the movie wisely makes no effort to explain how or why Herbie got its special powers. Tennessee offers some pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment about inanimate objects possessing hearts and minds of their own but that’s about as far as it goes. Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi understood that nobody really cares about the rationale behind fantastic events. The important thing is that the audience cares about Herbie.

The Love Bug comic book adaptation

Once Jim and Herbie start racing together, the audience really does start to invest emotionally in the little car. Thorndyke gets Herbie drunk by pouring some of Tennessee’s patented Irish coffee into the gas tank. When Jim starts hogging all the credit for their winning streak and goes out looking for a bigger car, Herbie gets jealous and runs away. In possibly the film’s strangest scene, Jim discovers Herbie about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Herbie has a more complex personality than most people in live-action Disney comedies.

During Herbie’s long dark night of the soul, he damaged a Chinatown store front owned by Tang Wu (veteran character actor Benson Fong). Jim can’t afford to pay for the damages but Tennessee (who speaks Cantonese) discovers that Wu is a racing fan and persuades him to become Herbie’s new owner and allow Jim to race in the upcoming two-day El Dorado race. If Herbie wins, Wu can keep the prize money but has to sell Herbie back to Jim for a dollar. As both a businessman and a racing buff, Wu can’t pass up a deal like that.

The race pits Team Herbie against the Thorndyke Special, driven by Thorndyke himself and assisted by his own personal Mr. Smithers, Havershaw (Joe Flynn, last seen in Son Of Flubber). Walsh and DaGradi don’t bother giving the other competitors names, much less personalities, but they’re driven by a who’s who of legendary stuntmen including Dick Warlock, Jock Mahoney and Bud Ekins. The announcers are none other than long-time L.A. Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn and legendary voice actor and announcer Gary Owens, who was also voicing Space Ghost and appearing regularly on Laugh-In at the time.

Thorndyke dives deep into The Big Book Of Dirty Tricks to ensure his victory. Herbie barely finishes the first day in a distant last place. But Thorndyke’s arrogance inspires Herbie to continue the race. On the second day, they make up for lost time but the race has taken its toll on Herbie. In the final stretch, the car splits in two, with Jim and Carole racing in the front seat and Tennessee holding on for dear life in the back. Thanks to a judging committee that seems to be making up the rules as they go along, Herbie finishes in first and third. Wu takes control of Thorndyke’s business, putting him and Havershaw to work in the garage, and Jim and Carole get married, placing their honeymoon plans in Herbie’s capable….um, tires, I guess.

The Love Bug theatrical re-release poster

Disney had been making high-concept comedies like this for quite some time, as far back as The Shaggy Dog a decade previous. But while there was no reason to doubt their ability to make a movie like The Love Bug, there was also nothing to indicate it was going to be anything special. On paper, it hews closely to the “strait-laced Dean Jones has his life turned upside down by a cat/a dog/some monkeys/a ghost/a horse” formula. But there are a few subtle tweaks to the recipe that give The Love Bug some extra juice.

First off, Jones’ Jim Douglas isn’t quite as strait-laced as his previous characters. Most of Jones’ other films cast him as either an accomplished professional, a devoted husband or father, or an ambitious young man on the way up. Jim Douglas is closest to Steve Walker in Blackbeard’s Ghost. They’re both single guys, they’re both underdogs in competitions where the odds are stacked heavily against them, and they both have to convince themselves they’re not crazy when strange things start happening. But Steve was fundamentally honest and didn’t want to take a victory his team didn’t earn. Jim obviously isn’t above taking advantage of a situation. After all, nobody else is racing with a magic car and you know damn well Jim’s not disclosing that little nugget on his entry form.

Another key difference is that Jones’ previous performances were essentially reactive. There’s an art to that too, of course, and Jones was extremely good at reacting to whatever nonsense got thrown at him, whether it was by a bunch of dogs or Peter Ustinov. But you can’t just react to a car. You have to actually act in order to sell the idea that the car is acting on its own volition. Jones is up to the task and it’s really thanks to him and Buddy Hackett that you come to believe in Herbie. Jones is somehow even able to make talking a Volkswagen off a bridge look…well, maybe not normal but certainly less ridiculous than it might.

Of course, Disney’s gimmick comedies live or die on the strength of their gags (just ask Merlin Jones). Fortunately, Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi brought their A-game to The Love Bug. This is a Disney comedy that’s not just aimed at the youngest members of the audience. Hackett and Tomlinson’s drunk scene is genuinely funny, as are the visual gags and gentle pokes at hippie culture.

The movie really shines in its slapstick special effects. Whether it’s Herbie falling to pieces, a detour through an active mine or Tomlinson discovering a live bear in his passenger seat, Stevenson does a great job creating the live-action equivalent of an animated cartoon. These effects aren’t exactly going to leave you gob-smacked, scratching your head and wondering how they could have possibly pulled off such miracles. But they are consistently fun and leave you laughing.

Contemporary audiences were certainly more than satisfied with The Love Bug. After premiering in limited release on Christmas Eve of 1968, the movie expanded on March 13, 1969. Audiences flocked to the relatively low-budget picture, eventually turning it into the second highest-grossing film of 1969, behind Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and ahead of Midnight Cowboy (needless to say, it was a weird, transitional time at the movies). It was the studio’s biggest hit since Mary Poppins.

Naturally, some critics groused about it, complaining that it was too predictable, too simple-minded and too far-fetched. These critics strike me as the sort of people who would complain that their ice cream is too cold. Of course it’s all those things. So what? All that matters is if it brings you some degree of pleasure.

The runaway success of The Love Bug all but guaranteed that Disney would stay in the Dean Jones business and vice versa. Rest assured, Jones will be back in this column before long. But it also inspired the studio to reconsider Walt’s long-standing bias against sequels. Prior to The Love Bug, only a handful of pictures had given extensions: The Absent-Minded Professor, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and, for whatever reason, Old Yeller. But The Love Bug became a phenomenon that the studio would soon become very, very interested in replicating. And so, to borrow a phrase from James Bond, Herbie will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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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 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: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Son Of Flubber

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Son Of Flubber

Son Of Flubber was Walt Disney’s first sequel, with an asterisk. Nearly twenty years earlier, he released The Three Caballeros in response to the tremendous response to Saludos Amigos. Caballeros is every inch a follow-up to Amigos but since neither of those movies follow a narrative framework, they don’t entirely count. The same could be said of Melody Time, a spiritual sequel to Make Mine Music. Then there’s Davy Crockett And The River Pirates. It’s obviously a sequel (well, prequel) to Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. But they were originally produced for TV, not the big screen. So sure, if you take all of those sequels-but-not-really out of the equation, Son Of Flubber was first.

That’s certainly a distinction Walt himself would have made. He had explicitly stated in interviews that he didn’t like sequels. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about going back to the same well and trying to make something the same but different. But sequels, especially in those days, weren’t supposed to offer anything but more of the same. If that’s what Walt Disney’s definition of a sequel was, he absolutely delivered on it with Son Of Flubber.

The gang’s all here from The Absent-Minded Professor. Everyone from director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh on down to Fred MacMurray and Charlie the dog returned for part two. The movie picks up almost exactly where the first one left off. Professor Brainard (MacMurray) and his new assistant, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), are flying the Model T down to Washington hoping to collect some of that sweet, sweet government money they’ve been promised. Unfortunately, that’s going to take some time. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) explains the labyrinth of red tape that must be navigated in order to maximize their eventual pay-out. Why settle for less when you could get more? So Brainard and Biff are forced to return to Medfield College empty-handed, except for vague promises that it’ll all be worth it someday.

As always, the financially strapped Medfield needs the money now. The college has made plans for an elaborate new science center, Flubber Hall. When Biff’s father, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), discovers that Brainard didn’t get the money, he gleefully announces plans to bulldoze the entire campus on the first of the month unless his loan is repaid.

Meanwhile, Brainerd is having some domestic troubles with his new bride, Betsy (Nancy Olson). She’s being courted by some Madison Avenue types (led by comedian Ken Murray) who want to buy the rights to Flubber. They dazzle her with the promise of furs, pearls and a million dollar check and come armed with sample commercials for such products as Flubberoleum, a revolutionary bouncy floor guaranteed to change the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America. But once Brainard admits that his government contract prevents him from selling Flubber to anyone else, the ad men pack up and leave.

As they walk out, a man from the government (Bob Sweeney, last seen in Moon Pilot) walks in. However, the agency this government man represents is the IRS, not the Defense Department. He’s here to collect the tax on the prospective earnings reported by Brainard based on the millions he’s been promised. The fact that he hasn’t actually received any of that money yet doesn’t matter. When Brainerd tells the heartless taxman that he’d probably put his own mother in jail, Mr. Harker assures him that he already has for unreported income on her homemade jams and jellies.

In desperate need of money (and refusing to let Betsy go back to work as a secretary for his once-and-future rival, English professor Shelby Aston, again played by Elliott Reid), Brainerd gets back to work on his latest invention. Flubbergas appears to have several interesting properties but Brainerd hopes it will allow mankind to control the weather. A successful experiment made it rain inside from the steam off a boiling tea kettle. But when he tries to go bigger by aiming it at a distant cloud, it doesn’t appear to work. It does, however, shatter every last piece of glass within its reach, unbeknownst to Brainerd.

Biff, in the meantime, is working on an alternative use for Flubbergas. With his pal Humphrey (Leon Tyler, one of the basketball players from the first film) acting as guinea pig, Biff tries to create an inflatable football uniform that allows the player himself to be thrown into the end zone. His experiments aren’t entirely successful, unless his goal was to repeatedly destroy the chicken coop owned by Brainerd’s neighbor, milkman Mr. Hummel (played by Preston Sturges regular William Demarest, a couple of years before he joined the cast of MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons as Uncle Charley).

MEANWHILE meanwhile, Shelby Aston is up to his old tricks, trying to steal Betsy away from Brainard, and this time he’s brought a secret weapon. He invites Brainard’s old girlfriend, sexpot Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore), over to dinner at the Brainards. Betsy eventually becomes convinced that Desiree and Brainard have rekindled their old affair, so she leaves him, temporarily moving in with her old boss, Medfield College President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames) and his wife (Harriet MacGibbon).

As for all that broken glass, Alonzo Hawk’s insurance company has been left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in claims. He figures out that the whole thing started at Brainard’s house and proposes another crooked deal, using the Flubbergas in service of an elaborate insurance scam. Brainard refuses, of course, and Hawk threatens to bring the full force of the law down on him.

Despondent over all these setbacks, Brainard agrees to help Biff out with his project. This time, the inflatable football uniform works and Medfield trounces rival Rutland College in essentially a replay of the first film’s basketball game. Brainard has no time to savor the victory, however. Hawk makes good on his threat and the police arrive to haul Brainard off to jail.

Brainard looks to be in a tight spot until Buzz turns up at his trial with a surprise witness. It’s none other than Ed Wynn, one of the only actors from the original Absent-Minded Professor who does not reprise the same role here. Now he’s the Chief Agricultural Officer and he presents evidence that Brainard’s invention does work, just not in the way he intended. The Flubbergas has somehow supercharged the atmosphere, turning Medfield’s formerly barren farmland lush and verdant, producing giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Wynn dubs the phenomenon “dry rain”. Brainard is once again a hero and the case is dismissed, despite overwhelming evidence that he was clearly guilty of the charges he faced.

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

Believe it or not, I did not have high expectations going into Son Of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor is a fun little movie but there’s nothing about it that left me saying, “More of these characters, please.” But here’s the thing. Son Of Flubber is actually a surprisingly good, funny sequel. That is, right up to the point where, all of a sudden, it isn’t.

The first several scenes are terrific. Walsh’s screenplay takes aim at government inefficiency and absurd tax laws and lands quite a few hits. Disney had previously lobbed some softballs at Uncle Sam in Moon Pilot but the jokes here are funnier and fresher. The sequence with the ad men pitching their ludicrous products is even better. The sight of a typical suburban dad bouncing his baby off a Flubberized floor will never not be funny. This is all good stuff suggesting we’re about to get a smarter, more satirical movie than is actually coming.

The trouble starts when Walsh and Stevenson decide to refocus on Brainard’s latest experiment. From here, they seem content to simply deliver a rehash of the first film. The football game apes the rhythms and gags of the basketball game down to the second. Even Paul Lynde, making his film debut as the game’s color commentator, can’t liven things up. Once again, Brainard flies his Model T over Shelby’s car and once again, Shelby crashes into James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis, the cops from The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. This time, Brainard floods Shelby’s car with rain, which is admittedly kind of a cool effect. But the punchline to the gag is the same.

The movie’s biggest problem is its focus on Brainard and Betsy’s marital problems. Try to set aside the fact that they’re completely rooted in retrograde stereotypes. Brainard’s “no wife of mine is going to work” attitude will have modern women rolling their eyes, while modern men will (hopefully) be equally insulted by Brainard’s total inability to even feed himself without his wife. No one ever accused Disney of having progressive views on marriage.

The bigger issue is that we’ve seen all this before. The triangle between Brainard, Betsy and Shelby was already one of the weakest elements in the first film. Bringing Desiree into the mix does nothing to change that. We already know that Betsy’s willing to put up with a lot from her husband. The guy left her standing at the altar three times, for crying out loud. She ought to be smart enough to see through Shelby’s transparent attempt to wreck her marriage.

The Brainards’ marital woes are endemic of the film’s tendency to repeat itself. A love triangle was part of the first movie, so it needs to be part of the new one whether or not it makes any sense for the story or the characters. It’s also one subplot too many in a movie that’s already overstuffed with dangling plot threads. The business with the taxman is smart and funny but it’s forgotten the second Bob Sweeney leaves the picture. The same goes for the ad men and the brass down in Washington.

None of that seemed to matter much to critics and audiences in 1963. Most critics agreed that even though Son Of Flubber wasn’t as fresh and original as The Absent-Minded Professor, it still breezed by on its light, buoyant tone. Audiences turned out in droves. The movie premiered in January of 1963 and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year, behind much bigger movies like Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tom Jones and Irma la Douce. It was a bright spot in an otherwise so-so year for the studio.

I can’t end this entry without discussing the Great Flubber Fiasco of 1962-63. In the autumn of 1962, Disney teamed up with toy company Hassenfield Brothers (who would shorten their name to Hasbro by the end of the decade) to mass produce Flubber, a bouncy, stretchy glob that was more or less the same as Silly Putty.

Flubber - the Toy

Kids loved Flubber but shortly after the release of the film it was meant to promote, reports started to surface of an outbreak of skin rashes in schools nationwide. Flubber appeared to be the cause and, while nobody at Hassenfield Brothers or Disney ever stepped up to claim responsibility, the bad press was enough to doom the product. By May, Hassenfield decided to yank Flubber off the market.

This is where it gets really fun. Hassenfield Brothers now had a whole lot of potentially toxic Flubber and no idea how to get rid of it. Landfills flat out refused to accept it. Burning it produced a thick, greasy black smoke that stank up the vicinity for miles. They tried to sink it in a lake but the Flubber balls just floated right back up to the surface.

Finally, Hassenfield Bros. just did as Atari would do years later with their unwanted E.T. video game cartridges. They dug a big pit, buried the Flubber and built an employee parking lot on top of it. And supposedly, that’s where Flubber is to this day, buried beneath Delta Drive in Pawtucket, RI. Some say that on hot days, the Flubber bubbles up through cracks in the asphalt. That, along with some of the other details of the story, might be a bit of an exaggeration. But this is the kind of story where it’s more fun to print the legend.

For the time being anyway, Walt Disney was through with Flubber. The studio wouldn’t touch the stuff again until the 1988 TV remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. But we have not seen the last of Medfield College, Alonzo P. Hawk, or most of the film’s cast and crew. Almost everybody will be back in this column sooner or later. Those Disney contracts must have been written on Flubber. People keep bouncing back for more.

VERDICT: The first half is a Disney Plus but the second is a Disney Neutral at best.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor

Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.

When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.

The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.

Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.

Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.

Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.

Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.

To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.

Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.

MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.

The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.

There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.

Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote “The Flubber Song”, a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn’t show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.

The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.

The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Shaggy Dog

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Since the release of Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney’s live-action division had dabbled in a variety of different but fundamentally similar genres. The boys’ adventure of Treasure Island led to historical adventure dramas like The Story Of Robin Hood and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, westerns like Davy Crockett and Westward Ho The Wagons!, family dramas like Old Yeller, and even one big budget sci-fi/fantasy in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The one thing they had not attempted was comedy. But with The Shaggy Dog, Walt hit upon a formula that would, for better or worse, come to define the studio style for the next twenty or so years.

The Shaggy Dog is based on the novel The Hound Of Florence by Felix Salten, although “based on” seems a little strong. Walt’s first adaptation of a Salten novel, Bambi, was released back in 1942. It had done poorly but was an important film to Walt. Shortly before its release, Walt picked up the movie rights to five more Salten books. Part of the reason was that Salten lived in Switzerland and Disney had money tied up overseas that, due to World War II spending restrictions, had to be spent overseas. But it was also because he didn’t want anyone else to come along and make a movie based on Salten’s sequel, Bambi’s Children.

At this point, it doesn’t seem like Walt had any real intention of filming any of these books, although he claimed to be developing at least a couple of them as cartoons. (Salten himself died shortly afterward in 1945). But then Winston Hibler had the idea to adapt Perri into a quasi-True-Life Adventure entry. Now I can’t say for certain that the experience of making Perri jogged Walt’s memory and sent him back into the Disney library to see what else he’d picked up. But it does seem an odd coincidence that suddenly Felix Salten’s name was attached to two very different movies more than 15 years after Walt originally acquired the rights.

Beyond the central idea of a boy who magically transforms into a dog, The Shaggy Dog has very little in common with Salten’s original book. The story goes that Walt originally pitched the idea to ABC as a television show. When the network passed, an insulted Walt decided to prove them wrong by turning it into a feature. Bill Walsh, the former comic strip writer who had been promoted to running Disney’s TV operations, produced and co-wrote the script with Lillie Hayward, another TV writer who had recently cowritten the screenplay for Tonka.

To direct, Walsh recruited Charles Barton from the TV side, where he’d directed episodes of Spin And Marty and Zorro (not to mention The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, an episode of Walt Disney Presents that was sort of half a mini-biopic of the composer and half a commercial for Sleeping Beauty). But it wasn’t Barton’s TV credits that made him the right man for the job. He had also directed several of Abbott and Costello’s best features, including Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Africa Screams. If there was a director in Hollywood who knew about combining fantasy and comedy, it was Barton.

Barton shot the film on a low budget using a young cast of familiar TV faces. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, the brothers from Old Yeller, starred as brothers Wilby and Moochie Daniels. This was at least the third similar-but-unrelated “Moochie” character for Corcoran, following turns as Moochie O’Hara on Spin And Marty and Moochie Morgan in Moochie Of The Little League. Tommy Kirk was cementing his position as Walt’s new favorite juvenile lead, a status that would come to an unhappy end just a few years later. We’ll get to that story in due course.

Wilby’s best frenemy, Buzz Miller, was played by Tim Considine. This would be Considine’s only appearance in a Disney feature, although he’d been a big star on TV on Spin And Marty, opposite Tommy Kirk as the Hardy Boys, and elsewhere. He’d eventually retire from acting to become a sports writer and photographer but not before starring for several seasons on the sitcom My Three Sons alongside someone we’ll get to here momentarily.

The two young female leads were Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Annettte was by far the most popular of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. She appeared in sketches, sang songs, acted in Spin And Marty and even received her own eponymous serial, Walt Disney Presents: Annette. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of her in this column.

Despite Annette’s popularity, she has a relatively small role compared to Roberta Shore. Shore had played Annette’s friend and sometime rival, Laura, on the Annette serial. Her role as the exotic new neighbor, Francesca, would be her first and last appearance in a Disney movie. Her biggest role came a few years later in a recurring part on the long-running TV western The Virginian. She also would retire from acting by the end of the 1960s, moving to Utah and devoting herself to her family and Mormon faith.

But by far Walt’s biggest get for The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. MacMurray had been a musician and singer who turned to acting in the mid-1930s. He became a star appearing in comedies like Swing High, Swing Low and The Egg And I. Occasionally, directors like Billy Wilder would cast him against his nice guy image, tapping into a darker side in movies like the film noir classic Double Indemnity. But after appearing in a string of mediocre western programmers, MacMurray’s star was on the wane by the end of the 50s.

Walt personally approached MacMurray about returning to his comedic roots. Apparently his second choice for the role was Gregory Peck, which is bizarre to think about. In any event, MacMurray agreed to star as Wilson Daniels, the retired mailman with the severe dog allergy. The role kickstarted the last and most profitable phase of his long career. Between the Disney films (he’ll make frequent appearances in this column going forward) and his role as the family patriarch on My Three Sons, MacMurray would become known as America’s Dad long before Tom Hanks could claim the title.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Shaggy Dog

The story that Walsh and Hayward concocted from Salten’s book is very much a shaggy dog story, a cluttered series of incidents and random tangents that somehow manages to amuse despite itself. Wilby Daniels is an offbeat kid who spends his spare time in his basement coming up with kooky inventions. After a homemade rocket almost destroys the house, his dad lays down the law and orders him to get rid of all his equipment.

While he’s doing this, he spots his friend Buzz picking up Allison, the neighbor girl both boys have a crush on. But pretty soon, the arrival of a new neighbor turns Allison into yesterday’s news. Francesca and her adoptive father, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby), move into the neighborhood along with Francesca’s beloved sheepdog, Chiffon. Chiffon takes an immediate liking to Wilby and the boys use the dog as an excuse to introduce themselves to Francesca.

They accompany her on an errand to the local museum, where Wilby gets separated from the group. He runs into Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who’s putting together an exhibit of artifacts from the Borgia family. Wilby accidentally knocks over a tray and ends up with a Borgia ring stuck in the cuff of his jeans. The ring bears an inscription, “In canis corpore transmute,” that Wilby reads aloud, triggering a curse that transforms him into Chiffon.

Trapped in dog form, Wilby reveals himself to his younger brother, Moochie, who is delighted at the prospect of finally getting a dog. However, the curse isn’t permanent or predictable. Wilby starts switching back and forth between boy and dog at random, inopportune times, including at a dance where Buzz tries to pull off dating both Allison and Francesca simultaneously.

Back in dog form, Wilby finds himself trapped inside Francesca’s house, where he discovers that Dr. Andrassy is part of a spy ring preparing to smuggle some highly classified something-or-other called “Section 32” out of the country. Wilby escapes and goes to his father for help. Wilson faints when he hears Wilby’s voice coming from Chiffon, so Wilby tries to go it alone. After Wilson recovers, Moochie convinces him that the stories are true, Wilby is a dog and the new neighbor’s a spy. But when Wilson goes to the police, they understandably think he’s nuts and send him to the police psychiatrist (played by prolific voice actor Paul Frees in an uncredited cameo). All this nonsense winds up in a wacky chase with Chiffon behind the wheel of Buzz’s car and Wilson, Moochie, Buzz and some disbelieving cops in pursuit.

It’s absolutely pointless to complain that a movie called The Shaggy Dog has a lot of loose ends. Of course it does. But some of the loose ends here seem like they would have been a lot of fun to explore. That whole subplot about Wilby being a boy inventor? Doesn’t really factor into the movie. The bit with Buzz trying to mack on both Allison and Francesca and ending up getting both girls vying for Wilby instead? Funny stuff that’s forgotten about pretty quickly.

What we’re left to focus on is all the Cold War spy stuff. It’s left purposely vague, which is fine. There’s no point in getting into the finer points of international espionage in a movie like this. But it’s also not as character-based as the movie’s best moments. MacMurray does a great job selling peeved, frustrated, befuddled and eventually, harmlessly hypocritical as he allows the papers to sell his image as a dog-loving hero.

Jean Hagen, the Oscar-nominated co-star of Singin’ In The Rain, has a thankless role as Wilson’s long-suffering wife, Freeda. Despite having virtually nothing to do, Hagen makes the most of it, deadpanning her way through her boys’ ridiculous antics and misadventures. She and MacMurray pair off well together. It’s too bad she’s sidelined for the movie’s second half.

The movie’s most pleasant surprise has to be the relaxed, engaging performances delivered by the kids. In Old Yeller, Kirk’s teenage petulance and Corcoran’s hyperactivity grated on my nerves. But with The Shaggy Dog, they’re in their element. Despite his character’s awkwardness, Kirk really is the all-American teenager. And Barton dials back Corcoran’s enthusiasm without losing his sense of mischief and fun. Best of all, their familiarity with each other sells the idea that they’re brothers in a way that seems a bit less forced than in Old Yeller.

Familiarity also drives home the friendship between Kirk and Considine. They have an easy, natural rapport. You buy the idea that they’d remain friends even though Buzz really takes advantage of Wilby at every turn. There’s an art to playing an arrogant showboat like Buzz without alienating your audience. Tim Considine figures it out. Even at his worst, Buzz still seems like he’d be fun to have around.

Annette doesn’t have much of a chance to shine here. She’s the ideal girl next door but that’s about it. Later films would give her more opportunities to showcase the talents that made her such a draw as a Mouseketeer. Roberta Shore is fun as the exotic Francesca, although her vaguely “foreign” accent is forgotten at the first available opportunity.

Nobody had high expectations for The Shaggy Dog. According to Walt, most people around the studio barely even noticed they were making it. The movie was released on March 19, 1959, and became a surprise blockbuster. It became the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Ben-Hur, outperforming now-classics like Some Like It Hot, North By Northwest and Pillow Talk. It was the Disney studio’s most successful film of the decade.

Success breeds imitation, so Walt wasted little time codifying the Shaggy Dog formula. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Walt would corner the market on what Leonard Maltin has described as “gimmick comedies”. The heroes are usually young and/or somewhat eccentric. Something comes along, either an invention or a discovery or a monkey or some other magical McGuffin, to cause chaos and wacky misadventures ensue. We’ll be seeing plenty of gimmick comedies in the weeks and months ahead.

We’ll also be seeing Wilby Daniels again, although not as soon as you might think. Despite the film’s popularity, Disney didn’t produce a sequel until The Shaggy D.A. some 17 years later. In 1987, the studio released a TV sequel called The Return Of The Shaggy Dog, starring Saturday Night Live’s Gary Kroeger and co-written by Paul Haggis. At the time, Haggis was known as a TV writer on sitcoms like The Facts Of Life, still many years away from Oscar-bait movies like Million Dollar Baby and Crash.

After the sequels came the remakes. In 1994, ABC debuted their version of The Shaggy Dog starring Scott Weinger (the voice of Aladdin) as Wilby Daniels and Ed Begley, Jr. as his dad. Finally (at least so far), Tim Allen starred in a 2006 remake that combined elements from both The Shaggy Dog and The Shaggy D.A. to create a movie that seemingly no one likes although it made a lot of money. Today, if it’s remembered at all, it’s as a low point for Robert Downey Jr. before his Iron Man renaissance.

(Iron Man, which predates Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, will not be appearing in this column. Neither will either of the made-for-TV Shaggy Dogs. Tim Allen’s The Shaggy Dog, God help us all, will.)

So the gimmick comedies are here to stay. Some will be good and some will be real clunkers. Eventually, they’ll start to dominate everything else at the Disney studio and be partly responsible for some of the studio’s darkest days. But with the original Shaggy Dog, you can see the genre’s appeal, both creatively and financially. It’s a genuinely amusing comedy that earned a boat-load of cash. No wonder they went back to the well again and again…and again…and again…

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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