If you ask me (and since you’re reading this, you kind of did), Ron Miller doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to Disney history. He was related to Walt by marriage, having married Walt’s daughter Diane Disney in 1954. A former pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams, Walt offered him a job at the studio because he didn’t want the father of his grandkids getting hurt on the field. Miller could have gone into acting but Walt wanted him to learn the production side of the business. He worked his way up from second assistant to first assistant director to associate producer.
In 1980, he became president of Walt Disney Productions and CEO three years later. During his tenure at the top, Miller dragged the studio kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century. He shepherded such innovative and non-Disney-like films as TRON and The Black Hole through production. In 1984, he established Touchstone Pictures to produce the kind of adult-oriented films the studio never would have touched before. Not all of his decisions paid off right away and shareholders voted to replace him later in ’84. But at least he was willing to try something new, just like his father-in-law before him.
You can see Miller trying to gently nudge the company toward more grownup fare even in his early films as a producer. Both The Boatniks and his previous feature, Never A Dull Moment, were comedic crime movies with nary a cute animal or precocious child in sight. Sure, neither one was all that successful, either artistically or financially. But it’s still kind of a weird kick to see a G-rated Disney take on a traditionally PG-or-higher genre.
The Boatniks was written by Arthur Julian from a story by Marty Roth. Both Julian and Roth spent the vast majority of their careers in television. Roth had written several McHale’s Navy episodes among many other shows and would go on to co-create the cult Saturday morning sci-fi show Ark II. Julian was a writer, producer and sometime actor who’d worked on F Troop and Hogan’s Heroes, again among many others. He’d later become head writer on The Carol Burnett Show and would write for such sitcoms as Maude, Amen and Gimme A Break!
The prolific Norman Tokar, who has been in this column a bunch of times, most recently on the boy-and-his-racoon picture Rascal, is once again in the director’s chair. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the tenth of Tokar’s fifteen Disney pictures. Hopefully he got a free sandwich at the Disney commissary for filling out his punch-card. Tokar started his Disney career with animal adventures like Big Red and Savage Sam. But Miller must have noticed that he’d shown a knack for wacky comedies in movies like The Ugly Dachshund. From here on out, Tokar would specialize in that genre.
Today, star Robert Morse is probably best known as Bert Cooper on Mad Men. But in 1970, he was famous as the Tony Award winning star of the Broadway musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He reprised that role in the 1967 movie version, starring alongside Michele Lee from The Love Bug. He’d also starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1965 black comedy The Loved One. The Boatniks would be his last leading role in a movie but he would continue to be a major stage star and make TV appearances throughout the 70s and 80s.
Morse’s leading lady, Stefanie Powers, had been on screen since the early 60s. In 1966, she starred in the short-lived spy spin-off The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The show didn’t last but it was enough to put her on the map and today it has a cult following. We’ll be seeing Powers in this column again.
Miller surrounded his stars with an impressive array of comedic talent, including the great Phil Silvers. Silvers became a major star in the 1950s as Sgt. Bilko on the self-titled The Phil Silvers Show. He’d also appeared in such comedy classics as It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The Boatniks was Silvers’ first Disney movie but it won’t be his last.
Also appearing in the film were such familiar faces as Norman Fell, Wally Cox (seen previously in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band), and in cameos, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis and Silvers’ old costar Joe E. Ross (also seen in The Love Bug) as “Nutty Sailor”. Miller even got Don Ameche, who hadn’t done much film work since the 1940s ended, to appear as the eternally frustrated Commander Taylor. By Disney standards, this was a fairly star-studded cast.
The movie is set in and around Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula and, except for some interiors, was shot there, as well. That makes for a nice change from Disney’s usual practice of filming as much as possible within walking distance of the studio. Granted, you can drive from Burbank to Balboa in less than two hours on a good day but the change in scenery helps open things up.
Morse stars as Ensign Tom Garland, an accident-prone sailor taking over command of the Balboa Coast Guard from Lt. Jordan (Joey Forman, another Borscht Belt comic). Jordan is burnt out from dealing with the drunks and amateur sailors who descend on Balboa every weekend. Commander Taylor served with Garland’s war hero father during WW2, so at first he’s thrilled to welcome the young man. But when Garland falls off the boat mere minutes after his arrival, Taylor begins to suspect that the apple has fallen quite a ways from the tree.
Garland also meets cute with Kate Fairchild (Powers), a sailing instructor and owner of a boat rental company, by accidentally dousing her with a can of yellow paint. She gets her revenge later on when Garland’s boat runs aground during a routine rescue operation. Kate tows the stranded Coast Guardsmen back to the pier, humiliating Garland in front of the entire marina and Commander Taylor. But they fall in love later that night when they’re forced to share a table at a crowded restaurant. Hey, these things happen, right?
Amidst all this, the police are searching for three jewel thieves (Silvers, Fell and Mickey Shaughnessy, returning from Never A Dull Moment). With the roads blocked, they’re unable to drive to Mexico. So they buy a picnic basket, hide the jewels in the bread, pickles, chicken and what-not, and charter a boat from Kate with the intention of sailing south of the border. Of course, none of them has ever sailed before, so they have a hard time just getting out of the harbor.
It isn’t long before the thieves get lost in the fog and Garland accidentally sinks their ship. Garland continues to encounter them as they attempt to retrieve the picnic basket from the bottom of the ocean, growing increasingly suspicious as their schemes become more outlandish. When all else fails, the thieves contact an acquaintance in Japan to bring in a pearl diver (played by the beautiful Midori). Once she retrieves the basket, she drops the can’t-understand-English act and helps herself to a portion of the loot.
The bad guys are now free to hightail it down to Mexico and they charter a seaplane (piloted by Vito Scotti in the first of his all-purpose ethnic roles for Disney) to pick them up. But by now, Garland and Kate are convinced that these are the jewel thieves everyone’s been looking for. Their attempt to confront them in front of Commander Taylor goes badly when their opened picnic basket appears to spill out nothing more than a well-stocked (and surprisingly well-preserved, considering it spent several days underwater) lunch.
Taylor is ready to relieve Garland of his command when a pelican grabs a stray pickle and Kate discovers some of the jewels hidden inside. Garland pursues them across the crowded harbor. After a series of mishaps, the thieves end up inside a yellow submarine. The chase continues out to the seaplane. The thieves make it to the plane but it’s too heavy to take off, so they start frantically dumping whatever excess weight they can find. This ends up including the picnic basket. The thieves escape empty-handed, Garland is declared a hero and Kate gets a stolen engagement ring when she can’t pry it off her finger.
The plot of The Boatniks is inconsequential even by the standards of a live-action Disney comedy and that’s really saying something. It’s really just a framework upon which to hang gags about giant fish, sharks, pickles, poor seamanship and, most surprisingly, sex and booze. In Walt’s day, Annette Funicello wasn’t even allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit. Here, Wally Cox plays an eccentric millionaire named Jason whose yacht hosts a neverending party attended by dozens of bikini-clad babes. The times, they were a’changin’.
As for the drinking, Disney movies have never been havens of teetotaling. The pleasures of a good stiff drink have played a part in everything from The Love Bug to Rascal. Even Dumbo famously gets liquored up. But there’s a lot more of it on display in The Boatniks. One of the very first gags has Lt. Jordan responding to a distress call by asking if they have any beer on board. The lost ship replies, “Oh yeah, we’re loaded!” Turns out the boat got lost because they set a beer can next to their magnetic compass and everybody was too drunk to figure that out.
The Boatniks is most enjoyable when it diverts from Garland’s investigation to focus on these random side characters. In addition to Cox and Joe E. Ross, whose Nutty Sailor keeps crashing into things, there’s Gil Lamb (who has appeared in small parts in everything from The Ugly Dachshund to The Love Bug) as Mr. Mitchell. He’s attempting to sail solo around the world, evidently to get away from his wife and gaggle of kids. He doesn’t get far before the Nutty Sailor wrecks his boat. Pretty nutty!
Unfortunately, The Boatniks never quite finds its sea legs. For one thing, it could use more of the live-action-cartoon energy that Robert Stevenson brought to The Love Bug. Whether it’s due to budget constraints or inexperience, Tokar shies away from showing much action. We repeatedly see boats disappearing out of frame or behind an obstacle, followed by the sounds of a crash. Sometimes we don’t even get to see the aftermath of these mishaps. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always found visual gags are a lot funnier when you actually get to see something.
The other big problem is Robert Morse, who can be terrifically entertaining but never cuts loose here. Morse was a good dancer, so you’d think physical comedy should be right in his wheelhouse. But he seems reluctant to appear too foolish, which is a huge handicap if you’re playing a clumsy sailor. Jerry Lewis would have made a nine-course meal out of this role but if you didn’t want to go quite that big, Dick Van Dyke or even Dean Jones would have been more fun.
The Boatniks was Disney’s big summer release for 1970, coming out on July 1. It did pretty well, earning about $5 million that year, although critics weren’t terribly impressed. A few years later, the studio re-released it on a double bill with Song Of The South. Considering all the sexist gags and Japanese and Mexican stereotypes in this picture, that would be a wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate afternoon at the movies these days.
It would be almost a decade before another Ron Miller production would receive Disney’s first PG rating. Until then, the studio kept on making movies like this one. Too wholesome for most adults and older kids but not exactly wholesome enough for the younger crowd. It’s most likely these “problematic” elements that have kept The Boatniks off Disney+, at least for the time being. And while the movie could be a lot worse, it’s far from being a buried treasure in the Disney catalog.
VERDICT: I got a few laughs but overall it’s a Disney Meh.