Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Even if you’ve never seen a single second of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier, you know it. “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Greenest state in the land of the free / Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree / Kilt him a bar when he was only three.” This earworm, written by George Bruns and Tom Blackburn, has been getting stuck in people’s heads since the mid-50s. Thanks, guys. And now that you’ve read those lyrics, it’s probably stuck in yours. You’re welcome.

Davy Crockett did not start out as a feature film. In the early 1950s, Walt Disney once again needed money. The studio was hemorrhaging cash as a result of budget overruns on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and a pet project of Walt’s, an insane idea for an amusement park. Walt had discovered the power of television with a pair of early specials promoting Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. He realized that a weekly TV series could not only bring in some much-needed income, it could also promote the park.

He shopped it around but nobody seemed all that keen on the idea. Nobody, that is, except ABC, who was struggling to get a foothold against competitors NBC and CBS. Walt signed a deal with ABC and on October 27, 1954, Walt Disney’s Disneyland (named after his insane idea for a park) debuted coast-to-coast. I suppose there is some irony in the fact that Disney now owns ABC, but Disney has now acquired so many studios and subsidiaries that irony feels irrelevant.

Walt Disney on the cover of a 1954 issue of TV Guide.

At any rate, a weekly television series demands content. The Disney Vault already had quite a bit of content and the first seven episodes made judicious use of it. Alice In Wonderland and So Dear To My Heart made their TV debuts. Other episodes were assembled from True-Life Adventure shorts and Donald Duck and Pluto cartoons. There was also plenty of good old-fashioned hucksterism as Walt sold the public on Disneyland (which would open in July of 1955), 20,000 Leagues and Lady And The Tramp.

But Walt also wanted the series to feature all-new original programming. In particular, he wanted to produce a number of historical dramatizations based on American folk heroes. Walt had earlier considered doing an animated treatment of Davy Crockett, perhaps during the brainstorming sessions that produced the Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill segments in Melody Time. When Crockett was pitched for the TV show, Walt wasn’t completely sold on the idea. But the risk was relatively low, so the three episodes were given the go-ahead.

The project was given to two newcomers to the Disney lot. Writer Tom Blackburn started his career writing pulp western stories for dime magazines. He entered the movie business in the late 40s, still focused mainly on westerns like Colt .45 and Cattle Queen Of Montana. Director Norman Foster was a former actor who had found success helming a number of entries in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series. They divided the Crockett story into three distinct episodes: the Creek Wars of 1813-14, Davy’s tenure in Congress, and his last stand at the Alamo.

Walt now began his search for an actor to play Crockett. James Arness was recommended for the part, so Walt screened his latest picture, the monster movie Them! But instead of Arness, Walt’s eye was drawn to Fess Parker, who had a small role as a pilot sent off to the crazy house after nobody believes his story about giant ants attacking his plane.

Parker was pretty close to calling it quits when he landed the role that changed his life. He’d kicked around Hollywood as a contract player for a few years, appearing in small, frequently uncredited roles. To describe Davy Crockett as a big break for the struggling actor would be an understatement.

Another actor who had been considered to play Crockett was Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen knew a thing or two about missed opportunities. He’d been in show business since the 1920s, winning acclaim as a dancer in movies like Born To Dance. He had been cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz but was forced to drop out when the aluminum dust in the makeup made him sick. After that, MGM more or less benched him. Between his contract disputes with the studio and the outbreak of World War II, Ebsen’s career was sidelined for most of the 1940s.

Walt first hired Buddy in 1951 on something called Project Little Man. Ebsen was brought into the studio and filmed performing his signature dance moves in front of a large white grid. This reference footage was then studied by the team that soon became known as Imagineers. Their goal was to create a realistic miniature mechanical man who could move and speak. Eventually, they decided it would be easier to create full-size figures. The project was renamed Audio-Animatronics. So when you see Lincoln in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, you can thank Buddy Ebsen for his part in inspiring it.

After Fess Parker was cast as Davy Crockett, Ebsen was offered the role of Davy’s sidekick, George Russel. It was an inspired pairing. Parker and Ebsen share a natural, easy chemistry that makes it easy to believe that these two men are lifelong friends.

The guest stars include a number of solid character actors. William Bakewell appears as Tobias Norton. Basil Ruysdael plays General (later President) Andrew Jackson. Mike Mazurki, one of the most recognizable heavies of the period, is the land-grabbing Bigfoot Mason. Kenneth Tobey has a relatively small part as James Bowie. Best of all is Hans Conried, bringing some Captain Hook flavor to the role of riverboat gambler Thimblerig.

Davy also encounters a number of Native Americans on his adventures, making peace with Chief Red Stick (Pat Hogan, who actually was Native), coming to the aid of neighbor Charlie Two Shirts (Jeff Thompson, who I can’t find much information about) and defending the Alamo alongside Busted Luck (Nick Cravat, who definitely was not). Compared to a lot of other frontier westerns of the period, Davy Crockett treats the Indians with a fair amount of respect. They’re treated as equals, deserving of the same respect and fairness as anyone else. Even the warlike Red Stick is shown to be a smart, passionate leader. When he tells Davy that it’s not him, it’s the government he doesn’t trust, he’s not wrong. Davy’s more than a little naïve to think he can single-handedly guarantee their fair treatment but bless his idealistic heart for trying.

By feature standards, Davy Crockett was relatively low-budget. But for television in 1954, it looked very impressive. Walt insisted that every episode of Disneyland be shot in color, even though virtually everything was still being broadcast in black-and-white. The production has scale and scope, with big, exciting battle scenes, beautiful locations, and feature-quality matte effects by Peter Ellenshaw recreating Washington, D.C. circa 1830.

Davy was also able to encounter a wide range of wildlife, thanks in part to the True-Life Adventures series. When Davy wrestles an alligator, he’s fighting footage from the two-reel Prowlers Of The Everglades. Davy and George run across the buffalo stampede from The Vanishing Prairie, as well as a prairie dog. The footage doesn’t exactly fit together seamlessly. The gator fight in particular is a little dodgy. But it’s a cost-effective means of adding production value.

The first episode of Davy Crockett aired December 15, 1954. It was an overnight, runaway success, taking everyone involved completely by surprise. Suddenly it seemed you couldn’t step outside without hearing somebody singing “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It’s estimated that more than 40 million people watched the final episode in February. Walt and Roy Disney responded by rushing a wide range of Davy Crockett merchandise into stores. Within months, the coonskin cap became the must-have accessory of kids across America.

Walt Disney's Official Davy Crockett Indian Fighter Hat (Coonskin Cap)
Print Ad for line of Daisy Official Walt Disney Davy Crockett Products
Hey Kids! It's a real Davy Crockett Gym Set!

The show’s success did not go unnoticed by movie exhibitors. Theater owners urged Disney to release a feature version. Since the show had been filmed in color, Walt thought that sounded like a good idea. On May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier hit theaters. I’m not 100% certain whether or not this was the first time something made for TV was repurposed for theatrical exhibition but it seems likely.

The success of Davy Crockett left Disney with one problem. The series ended with Davy’s death at the Alamo, so a sequel would be a bit tricky. But a prequel was certainly a viable option, so later in 1955, the country was treated to a fourth and fifth episode of Davy Crockett. This column will get to those adventures very soon. We’ll also see a lot more of Fess Parker, who became a Disney contract player after the success of Davy Crockett. Buddy Ebsen will be back, too.

Davy Crockett made Disney a force to be reckoned with on television. The Disneyland anthology series continued to air for decades, moving back and forth between ABC, NBC and CBS. The title would change, first becoming Walt Disney Presents, then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, The Wonderful World Of Disney and so on, but the format rarely did.

In addition to airing classic films and shorts, the series continued to produce original programs. These included documentaries on science and space exploration and more Frontierland dramas with characters like Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox. The Wonderful World Of Disney banner returned as recently as this past May, with ABC’s primetime debut of Moana. If you treat all the various incarnations of the series as one show, as most do, it’s the second longest-running primetime show in America.

As successful as the series continued to be, nothing would ever match the once-in-a-lifetime popularity of Davy Crockett. It was a genuine phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of audiences of all ages. It’s hard to say why it clicked as completely and effectively as it did but the combination of Disney’s storytelling savvy with the new medium of television proved irresistible. For a little while in the 1950s, Davy Crockett was king of a whole new frontier.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!