Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Smith!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Smith!

According to the 2010 Census, Smith remains the most common surname in the United States. It’s a name most of us encounter every day. If you’re not a Smith yourself, odds are you probably know one. But even if your name is Smith, I can guarantee you’ve never heard “Smith” said as frequently as you will in the 1969 film Smith! If you made it a drinking game, you would be passed out cold within the first hour.

The addition of the exclamation point does not make Smith! a more exciting title. The movie is based on the book Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre, so I get why producer Bill Anderson, screenwriter Louis Pelletier and director Michael O’Herlihy decided to change the title. Why they chose to change it to something that sounds like a musical or a 60s spy movie, I couldn’t tell you. It certainly suggests an energy level that’s totally misaligned with the movie itself.

Paul St. Pierre was a Canadian writer and journalist who specialized in tales of British Columbia. At the time Smith! was released in 1969, he was also a Member of Parliament representing Coast Chilcotin. His political career was short-lived, however. After losing his re-election bid in 1972, he returned to writing and continued to be a popular columnist for the Vancouver Sun for many years.

A number of St. Pierre’s stories revolved around a rancher named Smith (no first name, just Smith) and his friendship with an Indian called Ol’ Antoine. St. Pierre himself had already brought Smith to the screen on the short-lived Canadian TV series Cariboo Country. David Hughes, who would later go on to appear on the Disney-adjacent Anne Of Green Gables, starred as Smith and Chief Dan George played Ol’ Antoine, a role he’d reprise in Smith! Cariboo Country was the Indigenous actor’s screen debut at the age of 65. The year after Smith! hit theatres, he’d be nominated for an Oscar thanks to his role in Little Big Man. We’ll see him again in this column.

Disney tapped screen legend Glenn Ford to star as Smith, his first and only gig for the studio. Ford wasn’t quite as big a star as he’d been at his 1950s peak. He’d started the 60s with a couple of expensive flops like Cimarron and The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. But he made a bit of a comeback with Frank Capra’s 1961 comedy Pocketful Of Miracles, on which he was also an associate producer. Ford’s genial, everyman charm is a good fit for Disney, so it’s kind of strange that he only made one picture at the studio.

As the movie opens, Smith is returning home after spending a few days rounding up some wayward cattle. His wife, Norah (Nancy Olson from Pollyanna and the Flubber saga), and son, Alpie (Christopher Shea, best known as the original voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials), have some troubling news for Smith (everybody calls him Smith, even his son). An Indian named Gabriel Jimmyboy (Colombian actor Frank Ramírez) has been accused of murdering a white man in a bar fight. Norah suspects that Ol’ Antoine has brought Gabriel to their land and is hiding out with him in an old shack near the edge of their property.

On his way out to the shack, Smith runs into sheriff’s deputy Vince Heber (Keenan Wynn, playing a rather more serious villain than Flubber’s Alonzo P. Hawk). Vince wants to go over Smith’s place with a pair of bloodhounds but Smith puts him off by demanding he get a warrant first. Smith faces Gabriel Jimmyboy unarmed and tries to persuade him to turn himself in, confident that a jury will find he acted in justifiable self-defense. Both Gabriel and Ol’ Antoine scoff at Smith’s naïve belief that an Indian could ever receive a fair trial from an all-white jury.

But it isn’t only the whites who are interested in Gabriel Jimmyboy. The police have offered a $500 reward to anyone who can bring him in. The scent of money attracts the attention of fast-talking sleazeball and part-time translator Walter Charlie (played by the great Warren Oates, who might not be the last person I expected to pop up in a Disney movie but he’s close). Walter Charlie offers to split the money with Smith but, needless to say, Smith can’t be bought.

Smith encourages Ol’ Antoine to turn in Gabriel and use the reward to hire a decent lawyer. Ol’ Antoine does collect the cash but Walter Charlie intercepts him and convinces him to buy a used convertible for $499.95 instead. As a result, Gabriel is stuck with an inexperienced public defender (Roger Ewing) who can barely communicate with his client.

At last, Gabriel Jimmyboy gets his day in court (Oscar winner Dean Jagger appears as the judge, another one-and-done Disney appearance). Everyone eagerly awaits the testimony of Ol’ Antoine with Smith serving as translator. But instead of saying anything at all about the night in question, Ol’ Antoine launches into a lengthy monologue about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War, concluding with his famous quote, “I will fight no more forever.”

It’s stirring stuff and evidently has the intended effect, as the case is soon dismissed. The only person who seems less than thrilled by this decision is our old pal Vince Heber. But instead of limiting his comments to the fact that Ol’ Antoine’s testimony seems irrelevant at best (you know you’ve made a misstep when your audience starts thinking, “Y’know, that horrible racist kind of has a point.”), he goes off on an anti-Indian tirade. Smith blows his top and decks him in open court.

The judge slaps Smith with a $50 fine and 30 days in jail. Now how will Smith get his hay crop in?! With Smith locked up, Ol’ Antoine stages a sit-in on the courthouse steps. Gabriel’s useless public defender finally decides to do something and sticks up for Smith, somehow managing to get the judge to reconsider. Finally, Smith gets out of jail and returns to the ranch where all the Indians have gathered to help with the hay and to fulfill Ol’ Antoine’s long-delayed promise to break little Alpie’s horse. You see? St. Pierre’s original title turned out to have something to do with the story after all!

Three sheet movie poster for Smith

Obviously this isn’t the first time Disney has tried to deal with Indigenous peoples in a sympathetic light. But after such well-intentioned but deeply flawed efforts like The Light In The Forest and Tonka, you can understand why I approached Smith! with some trepidation. The good news is that there’s not much here that’s overtly cringe-worthy. Sure, it’s a little hard to swallow Warren Oates as a Native American but they’re getting better in terms of representation. In addition to Chief Dan George, the cast also includes Jay Silverheels, perhaps one of the best-known Indigenous actors of his generation thanks to his lengthy tenure as Tonto opposite Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger. Hey, at least they’re trying, which is more than they were doing ten years earlier.

The problem with Smith! (well, one of the problems…there are a few) is I have no idea who this movie was even made for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a subdued, methodical approach but if this movie was any more low-key, it would fade off the screen altogether. The story’s inciting incident, Gabriel Johnnyboy’s fight with Sam Hardy, takes place before the movie even starts and we never get a really clear idea of just what went down. It’s tough to care about the outcome of a courtroom drama when you’re not given enough information to decide how you feel about the accused.

The fact that Smith! does eventually morph into a courtroom drama is a sign that O’Herlihy, Anderson and Pelletier were aiming at a somewhat older audience. Studios don’t tend to make a lot of courtroom dramas for the 10-and-under crowd. But they never fully commit to making a movie for grownups, either. Every so often, as if by royal decree, the movie checks in with Alpie and his Native American buddy, Peterpaul (Ricky Cordell). These scenes do nothing to advance the narrative. They exist solely to cater to junior Disney fans who would otherwise have absolutely nothing else to relate to.

Not that older audiences fare much better. Smith! is a contemporary western only in the sense that it takes place in the west, it’s about Native Americans and we see a few horses. There’s no action to speak of, no tense showdowns, no magnificent landscapes. The “posse” in pursuit of Gabriel Jimmyboy consists of two guys and two dogs and they end up tracking Gabriel straight back to the police station where the fugitive has already turned himself in. My, what a thrilling chase.

One of Smith!’s biggest miscalculations is Smith’s wife, Norah. In her previous Disney outings, Nancy Olson was a charming and funny presence opposite stars like Fred MacMurray and Hayley Mills. Here, Louis Pelletier’s script turns her into an unlikable harridan, eternally annoyed by her husband and practically tearing her hair out over the stress of their money woes. She’s also not a fan of Smith’s friendship with the Natives. She declares early on, “I’m so fed up with Indians!” Not a great look, Norah.

Weirdly, the movie Smith! reminded me of most was Tom Laughlin’s 1971 hit Billy Jack. Both movies attempt to reform the traditional screen image of Native Americans and both get very, very confused along the way. Try to imagine a G-rated version of Billy Jack with almost no violence and you’d end up with something like Smith! You’d also end up with a movie that most people aren’t going to want to see.

Adding to the Billy Jack feel is the title song, “The Ballad of Smith and Gabriel Jimmyboy”, written and performed by Bobby Russell. Russell was a singer-songwriter in the country-folk-pop arena who had some minor hits as a solo artist. But his best-known songs were recorded by other artists. Roger Miller (who will appear in this column eventually) had a crossover hit with “Little Green Apples”. And in 1973, Russell’s then-wife Vicki Lawrence went all the way to number one with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”.

(Vicki Lawrence would go on to do a voice in the DTV sequel The Fox And The Hound 2 and appear on multiple episodes of Hannah Montana but strangely never appeared in anything that qualifies for this column. That’s crazy to me. If anybody seems like they should have been in a live-action Disney comedy of the 70s, it’s Vicki Lawrence.)

Smith! was released to theatres on May 9, 1969, to general indifference. It would be the last Disney assignment for director Michael O’Herlihy, whose work for the studio represented his only theatrical feature films. O’Herlihy went back to TV after Smith! and never looked back. His last credit was a 1988 episode of Hunter. He passed away back home in Ireland at the age of 69 in 1997.

There’s one other person worth mentioning who was allegedly involved in the production of Smith! According to IMDb, a young Melanie Griffith made her screen debut as an extra in the film. I don’t know that I necessarily believe that. Griffith would have been around 11 years old at the time. Her parents were Tippi Hedren and former actor turned advertising executive Peter Griffith. Her stepfather was agent Noel Marshall (the family would later make the notorious Roar, which is kind of like a Disney nature movie on acid). So it’s certainly possible that Melanie was already going out for small parts in things like Smith! But no one in her family had any particular connection to Disney and Melanie wouldn’t appear on screen again until 1973’s The Harrad Experiment. At any rate, I certainly didn’t spot Melanie Griffith in Smith! and she won’t be returning to this column. Her next brush with Disney came after the formation of Touchstone Pictures.

Smith! is one of the lesser lights in the Disney back catalog. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Believe it or not, I always hope that these more obscure titles turn out to be hidden gems worthy of rediscovery. Instead, Smith! is one of those movies that makes a project like this a bit of a slog.

VERDICT!: Disney! Minus!

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit

By 1968, Dean Jones was firmly established as Walt Disney’s go-to leading man. At the same time, Kurt Russell was climbing his way up to become the studio’s favorite juvenile lead. It was inevitable that their paths would cross eventually. It’s perhaps a little surprising that it only happened once, in the now mostly forgotten comedy The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit.

Producer Winston Hibler and director Norman Tokar took the reins on this one (pun very much intended, thank you very much), reuniting the team from Russell’s Disney debut, Follow Me, Boys! Screenwriter Louis Pelletier, another Follow Me, Boys! alum, based his script on the 1965 novel The Year Of The Horse by Eric Hatch. Hatch himself had some early Hollywood success. He was nominated for an Oscar for the classic My Man Godfrey, also based on one of his books.

Jones stars as Fred Bolton, an overworked creative director at a big Madison Avenue advertising agency. Bolton’s team has prepared a huge presentation for the firm’s biggest client, a pain reliever called Aspercel. But Aspercel’s president, Mr. Dugan (Fred Clark), is unimpressed by the work, even the mechanical pill-swallowing man whipped up by Charlie Blake (Dick Van Dyke Show costar Morey Amsterdam in what is surprisingly his only Disney appearance). Dugan wants a fresh, innovative, sophisticated campaign that appeals to the jet set and he gives Fred just 24 hours to come up with one.

In addition to his trouble at work, Fred is also a single parent trying to raise his daughter, Helen (Ellen Janov), with help from his Aunt Martha (Lurene Tuttle). Helen has been taking horseback riding lessons from S.J. “Suzie” Clemens (Diane Baker) and shows real promise but worries that she won’t reach her full potential unless she has a horse of her own. Fred can barely afford to pay for her lessons, much less buy a horse. But once he hears about the high-class world of competitive equestrianism, he has a brainstorm. Get the client to buy a horse under his daughter’s name, name it Aspercel and bask in all the free publicity once Helen and her horse start collecting medals.

It takes awhile for Helen and Aspy to start winning and for Fred’s subliminal advertising gimmick to start bearing fruit. A little too long for Dugan’s taste, who soon gets frustrated by the miniscule notices the junior equestrian trials merit in the paper. But Fred guarantees that Helen and Aspy will make it to the nationals in Washington, where the real publicity is. Dugan agrees to be patient a little longer but warns that Fred’s job is on the line if he fails to deliver. Helen overhears the whole conversation from inside Aspy’s trailer and finally understands why her dad was so insistent on her competing.

Later on, Fred returns home after a business trip to find the house deserted and Aspercel out of his stable. The horse runs off and Fred chases after it across country. Aspy allows himself to be caught after Fred collapses in exhaustion. Realizing they’ve run miles, Fred decides to try and ride the horse back home, easier said than done for a novice horseman. Meanwhile, Helen and Aunt Martha have returned home and reported the horse stolen to the police. When the cops roll up with the siren blaring, the spooked horse takes off like a shot, jumping fences and walls and eventually destroying a greenhouse after sending Fred through its front door.

Aspy returns home on his own and Fred ends up behind bars. He calls Charlie to come vouch for his identity to prove he didn’t steal his own horse. But Charlie’s only interested in milking the story for headlines, so he lets Fred cool his heels for a bit. Back at home, Helen is feeling the pressure of having to compete to save her father’s job. She’s also caught the eye of Ronnie Gardner (Kurt Russell), the brother of one of her fellow equestrians. When Ronnie shows up at the house to take her on a date, Helen confides that she doesn’t even like competing in horse shows any more and is only doing it because of her dad.

When Fred gets back, Ronnie confronts him, angry that he’d force Helen to do something against her will. Fred hadn’t realized she felt that way and agrees that her happiness is the most important thing, so he decides to take her off the competition circuit. But when Suzie hears about Fred’s wild ride and Aspy clearing a seven-foot-one wall, she has an idea. Instead of the junior leagues, she’ll ride Aspy herself at the International Horse Show in the open jumping division. The only trouble is that she’ll need to bring in a trainer to get her and Aspy in shape and the most qualified one she knows just happens to be her ex-fiancé, Archer Madison (Lloyd Bochner). And just when Fred was mustering up the nerve to tell Suzie that he’s falling for her.

Suzie qualifies for the show and the whole crew heads down to Washington. I’m assuming most of the footage used in the competition montage is from the actual event itself. Eventually, the playing field is leveled down to Suzie and her closest competition, the debonair Lieutenant Mario Lorendo (Federico Piñero). You’ll get no points for guessing which horse triumphs but Tokar manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense out of the final showdown. When the dust settles, Suzie assures Fred that there’s nothing between her and Archer and Helen immediately starts planning their wedding.

The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit is no classic but it’s more enjoyable than its somewhat strained Mad Men Meets National Velvet premise might suggest. The title, of course, is a play on the 1955 novel (and 1956 Gregory Peck movie) The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit about a discontented public relations man. I’m sure that reference meant a whole lot of nothing to kids in 1968 and it’ll mean even less to kids today.

The movie works best when Tokar and company keep things light. The opening scenes in the ad agency are fast-paced and funny. There’s a recurring bit where Dean Jones keeps accidentally snagging things on the saddle he’s toting through the office and it made me laugh every time. The advertising satire isn’t quite as sharp as the marketing gags in Son Of Flubber but it’s amusing enough. Fred’s horseback ride arrives about midway through the film and it injects some needed energy at a crucial moment. Jones also gets an opportunity to spotlight his talent for physical comedy when he tries to figure out how to mount a horse.

But there’s also an overall sense that the movie just wasn’t thought all the way through before they started to roll cameras. We get zero indication of why Fred’s a single dad. It’s clear that the father-daughter relationship is meant to be the heart of the movie but it isn’t really explored after Fred realizes he’s been pushing her too hard. It’s sweet that it’s resolved happily and quickly but there’s still almost half an hour of movie left. The tentative teenage romance between Helen and Ronnie never really goes anywhere. And Fred’s attraction to Suzie never feels like more than a narrative requirement. The chemistry between them is non-existent. Even something as innocuous as Fred’s horse allergy (a gag already lifted from That Darn Cat!) is forgotten about after a while.

The movie’s biggest flaw is that it’s just too long. You could easily lose about 20 minutes and still have a fun, entertaining picture that tells the exact same story. Whenever the pacing starts to sag, the movie’s shortcomings become more obvious. Still, the movie has just enough going for it to make it worth watching.

Apart from Dean Jones and Kurt Russell, most of the main roles were filled with actors with limited Disney experience. (A few vets turn up in smaller roles, including Alan Hewitt, last seen in The Monkey’s Uncle, and Norm Grabowski, who pops up as a truck driver.) Diane Baker made her screen debut as Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, in George Stevens’ The Diary Of Anne Frank. Since then, she’d appeared in such films as Marnie and Mirage. She’s really more of a dramatic actress and never seems fully comfortable with the featherweight Disney style. The movie might have worked better with Suzanne Pleshette in the role. Baker hasn’t made another Disney movie since and she seems to have slowed down in recent years but she kept extremely busy. In 1991, she appeared in The Silence Of The Lambs as the senator whose daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. Hannibal Lecter loved her suit.

Fred Clark is one of those actors who seem like they appeared in a ton of Disney movies but really didn’t. He appeared in supporting roles, often comedic, throughout the 1950s, including The Caddy and How To Marry A Millionaire. His cigar-chomping, slow-burn comedic style is ideally suited to Disney work but The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit would be his first and last Disney movie. He died a few weeks before the movie was even released at the age of 54.

This was also the first and last film for young Ellen Janov who played Helen. She was the daughter of Arthur Janov, a psychologist whose book The Primal Scream became a 1970s fad thanks to celebrity followers like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Ellen, who was also a singer and cut a respectable cover of Cat Stevens’ “Portobello Road”, soon decided to leave show business and follow in her father’s footsteps as a practitioner of primal therapy. But her practice didn’t last long. On January 7, 1976, she died in a house fire at the tragically young age of 22.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day

When The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit was released on December 3, 1968, it brought an old friend along with it. Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, Disney’s second Winnie The Pooh short, appeared as the co-feature. The short earned Walt Disney a posthumous Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, the last of his astonishing 22 Oscar wins. They say records are made to be broken but I don’t think anybody’s even close to knocking Walt off that particular perch.

Even with an assist from Pooh Bear, The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit failed to impress critics or audiences. Today, the studio hasn’t exactly buried the movie but they aren’t going out of their way to make it accessible. It’s on DVD but it isn’t currently on Disney+ or even available to buy or rent digitally. Frankly, it deserves a little better. Sure, it’s low-key to a fault but it’s not without its charms. There are certainly a lot worse movies with the Disney name on them out there.

VERDICT: A minor Disney Plus but, just like a horse is a horse, a plus is a plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Follow Me, Boys!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Follow Me, Boys!

It should not come as a shock to learn that Walt Disney had been a Boy Scout. As an adult, he wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of an outdoorsman. But the principles of the Boy Scouts clearly resonated with him. Scout Law sounds a lot like the codes of conduct for cast members at Disney theme parks or on the Mickey Mouse Club. Like the Boy Scouts, a Mouseketeer is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Walt had to quit the Scouts when his family moved back to Chicago in 1917. In 1946, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) presented him their highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award. Other recipients that year included General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, both of whom received billing beneath Walt in the BSA’s writeup of the event. Clearly, Walt had enormous affection for the organization. However, I’m not sure that justifies a two-hour-plus valentine to the good work of the Boy Scouts of America.

Follow Me, Boys! is based on the novel God And My Country by MacKinlay Kantor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Civil War novel Andersonville. Another of Kantor’s war-themed works, the novella Glory For Me, provided the basis for the 1946 classic The Best Years Of Our Lives. Disney’s movie reunited director Norman Tokar with screenwriter Louis Pelletier, who’d written Those Calloways and Big Red. Tokar (who seemed to be competing with Robert Stevenson for the title of Disney’s Busiest Director) had recently branched out into comedy with The Ugly Dachshund. Follow Me, Boys! places him squarely back within his wheelhouse of earnest dramas.

Fred MacMurray (last seen in 1963’s Son Of Flubber) stars as Lemuel Siddons, a saxophonist with Melody Murphy’s Collegians and aspiring lawyer. Lem is getting tired of life on the road, so when the band makes a pit stop in the small town of Hickory, USA, he impulsively decides to get off the bus permanently. He gets a job at Hughes Mercantile Store and slowly wins over the locals, including Mr. Hughes himself (Charlie Ruggles in his final Disney appearance) and wealthy widow Hetty Seibert (silent film icon Lillian Gish in her only Disney gig).

One person who seems immune to Lem’s charm is Vida Downey (Vera Miles in her third Disney picture). Vida works at the local bank alongside Hetty’s nephew, Ralph Hastings (Elliott Reid, also MacMurray’s rival in the Flubber flicks). Hoping to impress her, Lem attends a town meeting on the topic of keeping Hickory’s boys off the streets and out of the pool halls. Lem spots a list of suggestions in her hand that includes Y.M.C.A., 4-H and (underlined) Boy Scouts.

Before Vida gets the chance to speak, Lem stands up and steals her idea to organize a Boy Scout troop. Unfortunately, no one is willing to be Scoutmaster, so Lem volunteers for the job. Vida is impressed by Lem’s willingness to lead the boys (especially since Ralph wants nothing to do with it) and she slowly starts warming up to him. Eventually, the two get married. I guess the secret to a happy marriage is never tell your spouse that you stole credit for her idea.

Over the next few weeks, Lem assembles a ragtag group of Scouts, including the bespectacled Hoodoo Henderson (Dean Moray), husky Beefy Smith (Keith Taylor), and cornet-playing Quong Lee (Warren Hsieh). Of course, there’s always one outsider, a tough guy with a slingshot who doesn’t go in for sissy stuff like the Boy Scouts. In Hickory, it’s Whitey and he’s played by a young actor named Kurt Russell. We’ll talk more about this promising newcomer in a moment.

Lem catches Whitey trying to steal from the general store. But instead of turning him in, Lem lets him go and turns a blind eye when he swipes a copy of the Boy Scout manual. Whitey’s intrigued and reads the book cover to cover. He secretly longs to join but he’s ashamed of his father Ed (Sean McClory), the town drunk. Eventually, Lem and the boys persuade Whitey that they really do want him to sign up and Whitey agrees, somewhat reluctantly.

When Lem runs into Ed at the store, he discovers that Whitey didn’t even invite him to the upcoming Fathers’ Night. Lem tries to repair the rift between father and son but only makes things worse. Ed shows up staggering drunk, toting a couple of melting, oversized containers of ice cream for the boys. Ed causes a scene and a thoroughly humiliated Whitey escorts his dad back home, angrily resigning from the troop.

Later on, Ed passes out and Whitey races back to Lem for help. Sure enough, Ed has finally drunk himself to death, leaving Whitey an orphan. Lem and Vida, who have recently learned they can’t have children of their own, take the boy in, finally providing him the home and family he never had.

Whitey returns to the troop and works his way up to a leadership role. He even performs a daring rescue when a younger boy falls off a cliff onto a ledge. But nothing’s good enough for the blue-nosed gossips of Hickory. To them, Whitey’s still a bad apple, the son of that no-account drunk. Furious that his boy would be treated so shabbily, Lem calls up the BSA and quits. At the same time, Whitey packs up his stuff and decides to run away from home. Lem finds him picking up camping gear at the cabin. The two of them convince each other to stick around just as the entire town shows up to show their support for Lem. It’s a big emotional finale as Troop 1 has been saved!

But guess what? It’s not the finale as Follow Me, Boys! just keeps on going. Time rolls forward several years to 1944. Lem is still Scoutmaster to a new troop of boys, taking them on an overnight camping trip. But this is wartime and the U.S. Army has scheduled a military exercise at the very same lake. Not realizing that he isn’t part of the war games, Lem is taken captive and held as a P.O.W. The MP in charge doesn’t buy his Boy Scout story because Lem can’t even tie a sheepshank. Meanwhile, the boys take cover in an abandoned bunker where they manage to take out an entire battalion and capture a tank. If you’re thinking this all sounds very random and tangential to the story that had been being told up until now, you’re not wrong.

After this very extended interlude, Lem and the boys return to their meeting house, only to find it sealed by court order. Turns out that Ralph found out that Aunt Hetty, who owns the valuable lakefront property, planned to bequeath the land over to the Scouts in her will. Fearful of losing his inheritance, Ralph argues that Hetty is getting senile and demands the court appoint a guardian. Lem, forever toting around law books but never finding the time to take the bar exam, is allowed to question Hetty in court. He proves that she’s still sharp as a tack, forcing Ralph to withdraw his petition.

Time marches on yet again and the movie flashes up to the 1950s. Whitey is now all grown up and played by Donald May (last seen in A Tiger Walks and no relation, as near as I can tell, to Synapse Films President Don May, Jr.). He served in the medical corps overseas and comes home to Hickory with a new wife, Nora (former Disney child star Luana Patten, not seen in this column since Johnny Tremain). Lem hasn’t slowed down a bit. He still serves as Scoutmaster and now owns the store since Mr. Hughes passed away. Concerns over his health force Lem to concede that it’s time for someone else to take over Troop 1. Since the newly expanded meeting house at the lake is ready to open, the BSA decides to throw a combination dedication and retirement ceremony.

The people of Hickory have one more surprise for Lem. The drive out to the lake turns into a parade as everyone gathers to celebrate Lem Siddons Day. All of the original Troop 1 boys turn out, even Hoodoo who grew up to become governor of whatever state this is. Lem cuts the ribbon opening Camp Siddons, leads everyone in one last round of Troop 1’s official marching song, “Follow Me, Boys” by the Sherman Brothers, and now the movie is finally allowed to end.

Re-release poster for Follow Me, Boys!

Follow Me, Boys! is very much the type of movie fans either adore or despise. It’s a lot and if you don’t have a taste for homespun cornball Americana, it’s easy to choke on it. This is like It’s A Wonderful Life if George Bailey had no regrets, would never dream of committing suicide and thought everything about life in Bedford Falls was A-OK all the time. Lem isn’t even bothered by the fact that he never became a lawyer. Good for him, I guess, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling or dramatic story arc.

The movie’s biggest flaw, and one I believe even its most ardent fans will agree with, is that it’s ridiculously overlong. Even the studio thought so. When they re-released it to theatres in 1976, they cut nearly half an hour out of it. There’s hardly a scene that doesn’t drag on just a little bit longer than it needs to. That’s not even counting the whole war game sequence, which comes totally out of left field and just does not know when to quit. I get why it’s here. It’s the kind of big, loud, silly setpiece that people had come to expect from live-action Disney movies. But it’s also completely extraneous and forgotten about the second it’s over.

Another problem is the casting of Fred MacMurray as Lem. Not that he doesn’t seem like a believable Scoutmaster and father figure. But he hits the same note so often that the character doesn’t seem to change or grow at all over the years. Both physically and emotionally, Lem seems like exactly the same guy at the end of the movie as he did at the beginning.

When Follow Me, Boys! was released, MacMurray was 58 years old. Looking at him, you’d think, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” So at the beginning of the movie, it’s impossible to figure out how old Lem is meant to be. He’s playing in a band called the Collegians but he remarks to his boss that they’re hardly Collegians anymore. Indeed, the other band members look just as old or older than Fred. Lem deciding to chuck it all for a job as a stockboy seems less like the impetuousness of youth than a late-game midlife crisis.

It gets even worse as Lem gets older (which is to say, closer to MacMurray’s actual age). Rather than wasting time with old-age makeup, they simply tried to put white in MacMurray’s already-dyed black hair. So he ends up with this extremely unnatural blue tint in his hair. Vera Miles, who was only about 37, doesn’t fare much better. They wrinkle her up and put some random streaks through her hair. It’s all so vague that I’d place their characters’ ages at anywhere from 60 to 100.

MacMurray and Miles also don’t make for a very appealing couple. Granted, plausible adult romance was never a strong suit of Walt Disney Pictures. Even their best relationships are pretty chaste (Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith in The Parent Trap providing one notable exception). But here, it’s hard to fathom what Miles sees in this guy. During their courtship, they have a huge fight in front of the boys after Vida prepares an elaborate picnic lunch and Lem forbids her from serving it. He wants the boys to be self-reliant. So Vida throws the whole thing into the lake out of spite. She’s prone to flying off the handle and he’s an insensitive, bullheaded tyrant. It’s a match made in heaven!

Despite the movie’s many, many flaws, lots of people really love Follow Me, Boys! Believe it or not, I can understand why they do even if I disagree with them. Clichés do not become clichés because they don’t work. It’s because they do work that makes them so effective and overused. The finale goes all out tugging shamelessly at the heartstrings. It’s hard to resist the old “ordinary guy is celebrated by all the people he’s touched over the years” routine. Would it have meant more if we actually knew something about these kids beyond their names and a single personality trait? Sure. But it works well enough as is to get the job done.

Certainly the most genuinely affecting parts of the film revolve around Kurt Russell and his dad, Sean McClory. McClory manages to avoid turning Ed into a caricature. He doesn’t seem to be an abusive or angry drunk. When he sees the shame and disappointment on his son’s face, he becomes even more disappointed in himself. This guy knows he’s letting himself and his son down but is powerless to stop it. It’s a really interesting performance with more nuance than I expected. Sean McClory had earlier done some uncredited voice work on Mary Poppins and I’m happy to say he’ll be back in this column soon.

Needless to say, we’re also going to be seeing a whole lot more of Kurt Russell. Russell began acting in the early ‘60s, appearing in the Elvis Presley movie It Happened At The World’s Fair and popping up on various TV shows. In 1963, he landed the title role on The Travels Of Jaimie McPheeters, an hour-long Western that ran on ABC opposite Walt Disney’s Wondrful World Of Color on NBC. (Dan O’Herlihy, brother of Fighting Prince Of Donegal director Michael O’Herlihy, played Kurt’s dad on the show…everything is connected.)

Jaimie McPheeters didn’t last long and Russell was back to guesting on shows like The Fugitive and Gilligan’s Island (he played Jungle Boy). After he was cast in Follow Me, Boys!, Walt knew he had his next big child star. Walt took Kurt under his wing, coming to visit him on the set and showing him bits and pieces of other projects in development. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kurt Russell would become as important to Disney as Hayley Mills had been a few years earlier.

Thanks to this chronological project, it’s very easy for me to imagine someone other than Russell playing this role. If Walt had made it earlier, it would have been Tommy Kirk or Tim Considine or David Stollery or even, God forbid, Kevin Corcoran. Some of those kids would have done just fine but none of them were Kurt Russell. It would be easy for a young actor to overplay this role. Russell can’t totally elevate the character out of the realm of cliché. Nobody could. But he does sell Whitey’s rebellious streak without being obnoxious and he plays on the audience’s sympathies without being maudlin. That’s harder than it looks, especially when you’re just starting out and the script isn’t doing you any favors.

Follow Me, Boys! was positioned as Disney’s big holiday release, coming out on December 1, 1966. Predictably, most critics were not charmed but audiences seemed to enjoy Walt’s Boy Scout Jamboree. It did reasonably well at the box office and, as mentioned earlier, warranted a rerelease in the ‘70s.

But the release of Follow Me, Boys! was quickly overshadowed by sadder news. On December 15, 1966, Walter Elias Disney died at the age of 66. The end had come quickly. He had only just been diagnosed with lung cancer in early November. His death was front-page news around the world, eventually leading to weird urban legends that his body had been cryogenically frozen (it’s not) and that his last words had something to do with Kurt Russell (again, not exactly…one of Walt’s last handwritten notes appear to be casting suggestions for a TV production called Way Down Cellar that include “Kirt” Russell and fellow Disney contract player Roger Mobley, spelling apparently not one of Walt’s strong suits).

It also left the studio that bore his name in a bit of disarray. With Walt gone, his brother Roy O. Disney became president. Roy had been with Walt from the beginning but he’d handled the business end, not the creative. Of course, the studio still had a few projects already in the pipeline that Walt had supervised but not many.

Walt’s primary focus during his last years had been EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT would remain unrealized but Roy postponed his own retirement to fulfill one of his brother’s other last projects, a second theme park in Florida that would be named Walt Disney World. But around the studio, things were about to change. Walt Disney’s innate sense of storytelling and world-building had guided the studio for decades, leaving a legacy that’s lasted generations. Now that guiding hand was gone and other people would have to learn to steer.

VERDICT: If you have fond memories of it, I’m super happy for you. But coming at it cold in 2021, it’s a Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Big Red

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Big Red

Walt Disney certainly did not invent the dog movie. Canine movie stars had been around since the silent era, including such good boys and girls as Jean the Vitagraph Dog, Strongheart and, of course, Rin-Tin-Tin, the Tom Cruise of dogs. But Walt certainly had an affinity for the genre. Once he started making them, he just wouldn’t let them go, sort of like…well, a dog with a bone.

Big Red (not to be confused, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, with Clifford the Big Red Dog, nor with the soft drink, the chewing gum or Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, for that matter) isn’t a top-shelf dog movie. But it is a kinder, gentler story than some of Walt’s previous forays into the genre. So far, we’ve seen dogs contract rabies and get shot, get lost in the Canadian wilderness and turn into savage killing machines, and keep a mournful vigil at the grave of their deceased master. By comparison, Big Red has it easy.

When we first meet Red, he’s a prize-winning Irish Setter who catches the eye of wealthy sportsman James Haggin (Walter Pidgeon in his Disney debut). Mr. Haggin buys Red for $5,000 with the intention of entering him in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. He no sooner gets Red settled into his estate when a young orphan named Rene (Gilles Payant) stops by looking for work. Haggin hires Rene to assist his dog trainer, Emile (Émile Genest, last seen terrorizing Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North).

Rene quickly bonds with Big Red, getting a little too close for Haggin’s comfort. Once he realizes that Red only responds to Rene, he separates the pair, forbidding Rene from any contact with Red until after the dog show. Rene gets it but sneaks up to the big house for one last goodbye. Overly excited at the scent of his new best friend, Red makes a break for it, leaping through a window and getting slashed to ribbons in the process.

Certain that Red will never be a champion now, Haggin orders Emile to put the dog down (people in Disney movies are always quick to have their dogs put to sleep, for some reason). Before he can do the deed, Rene smuggles Red off the estate to his late uncle’s remote cabin. Once he’s nursed Red back to health, Rene returns the dog to his rightful owner. In an attempt to recoup some of his investment, Haggin decides to sell both Red and his mate, Molly, to another dog breeder. They’re loaded on to a train but escape before they reach their destination.

Rene finds out the dogs have gone missing and tracks them down, finding Molly has given birth to a litter of puppies. Once the little family is able to travel, Rene stuffs a backpack full of puppies and starts leading the dogs back to Haggin’s place. Meanwhile, Haggin himself has ventured into the woods looking for Rene. After an encounter with a mountain lion, he’s thrown from his horse, injuring his leg. Fortunately, Big Red and company find Haggin in the nick of time. Impressed by Rene’s integrity, courage and fortitude, Haggin offers to take the boy in again, not as an employee but as his foster son.

Big Red is another Winston Hibler production. Even though humans are featured more prominently than in his previous outings, Hibler’s True-Life Adventures experience is still very much in evidence. The Canadian landscape is practically another character in the film and Red and Molly have ample opportunities to prove they don’t really need a human scene partner.

The film was based on a novel by Jim Kjelgaard, a prolific writer of young adult novels mostly about dogs and other animals. Big Red was far and away his most successful book, spawning two sequels following the adventures of Red’s sons, Irish Red and Outlaw Red. Sadly, Kjelgaard did not live to see his work adapted to the big screen. He had suffered from a myriad of health problems since childhood, causing chronic, unbearable pain. In 1959, he took his own life at the age of 48.

To adapt the book, Disney brought some new blood into the studio. TV and radio writer Louis Pelletier wrote the screenplay. We’ll see his work again in this column, as Pelletier stuck with the studio for the rest of the decade. Walt also found a new director that had honed his skill in television. Norman Tokar had been directing sitcoms and the occasional drama since the early 50s. Walt had been impressed by his work with kids on Leave It To Beaver, a show he’d directed nearly 100 episodes of.

Once Tokar set up shop on the Disney lot, he never really left. In fact, he only ever directed one feature outside the studio, the 1974 family drama Where The Red Fern Grows. But he was a solid team player for Disney, directing movies across a range of genres well into the 1970s. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Norman Tokar in this column.

We’ll also be seeing Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest again. Pidgeon wasn’t necessarily a big box office draw but he was certainly well-respected in the industry. He was a two-time Oscar nominee and former President of the Screen Actors Guild. Sci-fi nerds like yours truly probably know him best as Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet. Big Red doesn’t present much of an acting challenge to Pidgeon. The role basically requires him to be stern and aloof, which pretty much sums up his entire screen persona. He’s fine but just about anybody could have played the part and done just as well.

As for Genest, this role is the polar opposite of the sadistic dog-fighter he played in Nikki. Shorn of the mountain man beard he sported in that earlier film, he’s almost unrecognizable as the same actor. As loathsome as he was in Nikki, I never wanted to see Genest around dogs again. But he completely redeems himself here, teaching Rene the tricks of the trade and showing himself to be a loving husband and strong father figure.

One actor we won’t be seeing again is Gilles Payant. He never made another film after Big Red and I’m not entirely sure what happened to him between this movie and his death in 2012 (some sources claim he went into real estate). He’s a little bit stiff and his line readings betray the fact that English was not the Quebecois actor’s first language. But he has a solid screen presence and an easy, natural rapport with Red and the other dogs. Given time and the inclination, he probably could have developed into a decent child actor.

The only real problem with Big Red is it’s a bit of a snooze. Tensions never run particularly high, even when Haggin is being threatened by a hungry mountain lion. The movie is pleasant enough and it’s kind of a relief to see a Disney dog movie where the animals remain largely out of harm’s way. But the stakes start out low and seem to get lower and lower as the movie goes on. For a while, it seems like the movie is leading up to the big Westminster dog show but Big Red never even gets a chance to compete.

Big Red debuted in June of 1962 and it reportedly performed fairly well at the box office, outgrossing Lad: A Dog, a competing dog movie released the same day. Scraps, the Irish Setter who starred as Red, was honored by the American Humane Association with a PATSY Award (a trophy previously won by such Disney animals as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and my favorite, Toby Tyler’s Mr. Stubbs). But Walt never returned to the world of Big Red, despite the fact that there were two sequels just sitting there, waiting to be turned into movies.

There were, however, plenty of other dogs (and wolves and horses and even a cat or two) out there waiting for their moment in the Disney spotlight. Walt would have another animal movie in theatres by the end of 1962. And the year after that, he’d finally produce a sequel to his first and most popular dog movie.

VERDICT: Another one that’s not exactly a Disney Plus but slightly better than a Disney Minus. Let’s call this one a Disney Meh.

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