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: 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 Happiest Millionaire

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Happiest Millionaire

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood studios pumped millions of dollars into lavish epic musical extravaganzas and when they hit, they hit big. Disney had first-hand experience with this. In 1964, Mary Poppins became a phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing film in the studio’s history and winning five Oscars. Needless to say, Walt wanted to do that again. But The Happiest Millionaire, which ended up being the last live-action film released bearing Walt Disney’s personal thumbprint, failed to recapture that old Poppins magic.

The Happiest Millionaire was based on a play by Kyle Crichton (no apparent relation to Michael Crichton, despite what IMDb may say), which was in turn based on My Philadelphia Father, a book Crichton cowrote with Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The Happiest Millionaire was not a musical when Walt acquired the rights to it. It was evidently Mary Poppins producer Bill Walsh’s idea to turn it into one. But Walt didn’t keep Walsh on the project. Instead, he turned it over to Bill Anderson, who had produced a lot of things for the studio (most recently The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin) but no musicals.

Anderson wasn’t the only one making his first musical. Screenwriter A.J. Carothers had been responsible for such non-singing-and-dancing films as Miracle Of The White Stallions and Emil And The Detectives. The closest Norman Tokar had come to directing a musical sequence was Fred MacMurray leading his boy scouts in the title song of Follow Me, Boys! That tune had been written by house songsmiths Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Once again, they’d be the ones primarily responsible for guiding the musical elements of the show.

Walt again cast his favorite leading man, Fred MacMurray, in the starring role. MacMurray was not the Shermans’ first choice (or, indeed, their second or third). They hoped to get Rex Harrison, star of My Fair Lady. But Walt had the final say on all casting decisions, so once he got his heart set on MacMurray, nobody else really stood a chance. You can understand why the Shermans might have wanted someone else. Despite his background as a saxophonist and vocalist early in his career, MacMurray wasn’t exactly known as a song-and-dance man anymore.

Second billing went to Disney newcomer Tommy Steele. Steele had become a star about a decade earlier in the UK. Considered Britain’s first rock and roll star, Tommy hit the top of the pops with songs like “Singing The Blues”. He made his movie debut (as himself) in 1957’s The Tommy Steele Story (released in this country as Rock Around The World because nobody over here had any idea who Tommy Steele was).

With his broad, toothy grin and ingratiating manner, Tommy Steele was an unlikely pop star, even by late ‘50s England standards. Still, he continued to be a big deal across the pond for a number of years. As the 1960s opened, Steele left rock ‘n’ roll behind to focus on acting. In 1963, he appeared on the West End in Half A Sixpence, a new musical developed specifically around his talents. Steele later took the show to Broadway and reprised the role again in the film version, which was made right after he finished work on The Happiest Millionaire.

Tommy Steele has a big, playing to the rafters energy that makes him an ideal musical theatre star. I’m sure seeing him live on stage was quite a treat. Heck, it may still be quite a treat. Now 84, the recently knighted entertainer was still performing as recently as 2018 in The Glenn Miller Story in London. But on the big screen, Tommy can be a lot. He’s the first character we meet in The Happiest Millionaire and his opening number, “Fortuosity”, reminds me a little bit of the “You’re Gonna Like Me” song Gabbo introduces himself with on The Simpsons.

“Fortuosity” sets the stage for everything that works and doesn’t work about The Happiest Millionaire. It’s a pretty good song that effectively sets up the story. Steele plays John Lawless, fresh off the boat from Ireland in Philadelphia, on his way to start a new job working for an elegant millionaire and his elegant family. The song is built around one of the Shermans’ favorite devices, a completely made-up word that the song defines. And Steele sells the hell out of the song, giving it all he’s worth.

It feels like the song is going to be one of those big Broadway-style opening numbers but that never really happens. Steele sings and dances all over the elaborate Main Street USA set, which is thoroughly populated by pedestrians in their best 1916 finery. But those passersby really do just pass on by. Nobody once joins in. Now in a musical, when you’ve got an energetic, effervescent guy singing and dancing up a storm, you kind of expect his enthusiasm to be contagious. But if life goes on like normal all around him, he just looks crazy.

At any rate, John arrives at the Biddle house where housekeeper Mrs. Worth (Hermione Baddeley, possibly wearing her old Mary Poppins costume) makes vague allusions to the family’s eccentricities. He gets an example of this almost immediately as patriarch Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) bursts in demanding chocolate cake and complaining that one of his alligators bit his finger. This, we soon discover, is not a euphemism. Lawless also meets the Biddle children, Cordelia or “Cordy” (Lesley Ann Warren), Tony (Paul Petersen) and Livingston (Eddie Hodges). All four are wearing identical turtlenecks emblazoned “Biddle Bible Class”, making the whole family look a bit like a cult.

Now at this point, I had to stop watching the movie to try and figure out what the hell was going on. Who are these people? Turns out, the movie is more or less based on a true story. The real Anthony J. Drexel Biddle’s family fortune gave him the freedom to focus on his passions: boxing and the Bible. He was a proponent of something called “Athletic Christianity” and considered a bit of a kook by Philadelphia’s upper crust. And he did in fact raise alligators for some reason.

Maybe if you live in Pennsylvania, the Biddles are more commonly known and you already knew this. But I had no idea and the movie makes no effort to clue us in. The movie is a bit reminiscent of Life With Father, another semi-autobiographical Broadway show depicting family life in the 1880s. But in that case, you don’t really need to know who the Day family really was because they’re presented as a fairly typical New York family of the era. The Biddles are anything but typical. The movie just throws us into the deep end with these folks and hopes we’ll figure it out as we go along, which makes the madly grinning John Lawless our guide and surrogate. Heaven help us.

Theatrical release poster for The Happiest Millionaire

The film’s primary conflict is between father and daughter, Cordy. Like her brothers, Cordy has been raised to be a fighter, which doesn’t help attract gentlemen callers. (The brothers are given one song, “Watch Your Footwork”, to size up a potential suitor, then completely disappear from the movie altogether.) Worried about Cordy’s future, Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) arranges for her to attend a private boarding school. Biddle isn’t sold on the idea but Cordy enthusiastically agrees to the arrangement.

At school, Cordy attends a dance hosted by some more rich relatives. Here, she meets Angier Buchanan Duke (played by future game show host John Davidson). “Angie” is expected to take his rightful place in the family’s tobacco business but what he really wants to do is move to Detroit and design cars. Angie and Cordy get engaged and Mr. Biddle is won over by the young man’s knowledge of jiu-jitsu. But the road to the altar hits a snag when Cordy realizes Angie won’t stand up to his domineering mother (Geraldine Page).

The wedding is called off and John Lawless, who has become a vital member of the household, follows Angie to a nearby bar. John gets him good and drunk, starting a barroom brawl that lands him in jail. Mr. Biddle comes to bail him out and, with a little reverse psychology, persuades Angie to run off to Detroit with Cordy and elope.

Now from that description, you may have noticed that The Happiest Millionaire appears to primarily be about Cordy and Angie and not so much about the top-billed stars, Fred MacMurray and Tommy Steele. This is true but both MacMurray and Steele still have plenty to do. As World War I draws near, Mr. Biddle makes repeated trips to Washington, offering to train men in the art of hand-to-hand combat. A new maid accidentally leaves a window open, freezing the alligators in blocks of ice. Somehow they manage to survive and Lawless spends several minutes trying to round the gators up. But all this business is just window dressing to the main romance.

The love story is not all that compelling in and of itself and the Shermans’ love songs, like “Are We Dancing?”, are the weakest parts of their score. If you end up caring about these people at all, it’s thanks entirely to the likable performances of Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson. Warren came to Walt’s attention after she starred in the TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Davidson also came from television, appearing in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Fantasticks and hosting The Kraft Summer Music Hall variety show. Both were making their film debuts in The Happiest Millionaire and they’ll both be back in this column before long.

Both Warren and Davidson are capable singers and dancers but the Shermans don’t do them any favors. The songs they’re given are either boring (the aforementioned “Are We Dancing?”), ridiculous (“Bye-Yum Pum Pum”, a duet between Warren and Joyce Bulifant that’s essentially a rewrite of “Feminity” from Summer Magic) or both (“Valentine Candy”, Warren’s solo lament in which she tries to decide if she’s “valentine candy or boxing gloves”).

Davidson at least gets to participate in the film’s biggest, most energetic number. “Let’s Have A Drink On It” is a rousing setpiece, led confidently by Tommy Steele. Here, finally, is the big, cinematic musical number that “Fortuosity” should have been. It comes a little late in the proceedings to solve everything but it’s a taste of what a better version of this movie might look like.

Tommy Steele is certainly a unique screen presence and it’s a little disappointing that he won’t be back in this column. After this, he only made one more Hollywood film, appearing as Og the leprechaun in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow. He then made a couple more British movies before returning to the stage for good. That was probably the right choice and it certainly seemed to work out well for him. But a part of me wishes he’d stuck around to inject more of his sugar rush energy into a few more Disney movies.

Comic book adaptation of The Happiest Millionaire

The Happiest Millionaire premiered in Hollywood on June 23, 1967. Intended as a roadshow attraction, it made its way across the country gradually with higher, reserved-seating prices. In November, it was booked at Radio City Music Hall as their Christmas attraction. But since it would be playing with a live stage show, the venue demanded that it be cut down. Twenty minutes were chopped out, bringing it from 164 minutes to 144. As the roadshow experiment faltered, the studio cut it down even further. By the time it made it into general release, the running time had been slashed to just under two hours.

One of the first things to go had been the song “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas”, sung by Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) as her husband struggles with empty nest syndrome. It’s actually one of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs in the entire movie. Fortunately, Disney has restored the complete roadshow version and that’s the one you can find on Disney+.

Casting Oscar winner Greer Garson as Mrs. Biddle must have been quite a coup for Disney. She was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, racking up seven Academy Award nominations over the course of her distinguished career. But she’d slowed down considerably in recent years, making occasional TV appearances and appearing in the Debbie Reynolds vehicle The Singing Nun. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do here, either. But “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” is a nice spotlight for her and a tender moment among all the other wacky shenanigans.

When all was said and done, The Happiest Millionaire only earned about $5 million at the box office, just about enough to break even. The movie did mange to get a single Oscar nomination for Bill Thomas’s costume designs (it lost to another mega-musical, Camelot) and Tommy Steele was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Most Promising Newcomer – Male category (he lost to an even more promising newcomer, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). But the general consensus was that The Happiest Millionaire simply didn’t work.

It’d be nice to say that the general consensus was wrong and that Walt Disney’s last live-action project is really a misunderstood gem. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. There are individual moments in The Happiest Millionaire that sparkle but the whole thing never really comes together. Walt was nothing if not ambitious. But in this case, his ambitions got away from him and ended up smothering a project that never quite figures out what it wants to be.

VERDICT: This is almost (but not quite) a Disney Plus buried inside a Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Gnome-Mobile

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Gnome-Mobile

Ask anybody to start listing off live-action Disney movies and odds are The Gnome-Mobile is not going to be the first, second or even tenth movie they mention. Hell, even if you try to help them out by having them list off live-action Disney movies about magical little people, The Gnome-Mobile will come in at least second after Darby O’Gill. As of this writing, The Gnome-Mobile has not been released on Blu-ray and it’s not available on Disney+. It doesn’t seem to have much of a cult following. Just over 1,000 people have even marked it as “seen” on Letterboxd, making it slightly less popular than Johnny Tremain. But taken on its own merits, The Gnome-Mobile is a fun little movie that, for my money, is a lot more enjoyable than some of Disney’s other late ‘60s output.

Even though The Gnome-Mobile seems like a natural and even obvious subject for a Disney picture, it still has a somewhat unusual history. The movie is based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, of all people. Sinclair was a noted left-wing political activist and the author of such books as The Jungle and Oil! (later the basis for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood).

Sinclair had a rocky history with the movie industry. He had approved of and produced the 1914 adaptation of The Jungle (a silent film now lost) and he got a big payday from Victor Fleming’s 1932 version of his book The Wet Parade. But in 1933, he was hired by movie mogul William Fox to write a hagiography of Fox Film Corporation. The resulting book, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, was a critical look at Fox’s attempt to create and control a monopoly. Needless to say, this did not endear him to Hollywood executives.

In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California as a Democrat with a Socialist-leaning platform. Every studio in town opposed him, churning out anti-Sinclair propaganda to defeat him (you may remember this being touched upon in David Fincher’s Mank). Sinclair practically went broke losing that election, so afterward he went out on a speaking tour to raise some money. The tour took him through Redwood National Park in northern California, which inspired him to write The Gnomobile, one of his only books for children.

After The Gnomobile was published in 1936, Sinclair’s friend, Rob Wagner (whose magazine, Script, had been one of Sinclair’s only defenders during his gubernatorial campaign), introduced Sinclair to Walt Disney, another former contributor to Script. Wagner and Sinclair thought The Gnomobile would make for a good cartoon. Walt thought it was better suited to live-action and promised to keep it in mind if he ever started making live-action pictures.

Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney discuss The Gnome-Mobile

Over the years, Sinclair held him to that promise, periodically checking in with Walt. By the mid-60s, a note of fatalism crept into Sinclair’s correspondence. He was getting up there in years and still hoped to see The Gnomobile turned into a movie before he died. Apparently, this worked. Walt assigned the newly-retitled The Gnome-Mobile to his A-team: director Robert Stevenson, producer James Algar and screenwriter Ellis Kadison.

(I don’t imagine Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney saw eye to eye on much of anything, especially politics, so I was very curious about how they got together. In particular, I need to thank author Ariel S. Winter, whose fascinating blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie provided a great deal of insight into their history.)

“A-team” might be a bit generous in describing Kadison who certainly had an interesting career but only worked with Disney on this one project. Like a lot of Disney writers, Kadison worked extensively in television. He’d also written, produced and directed some odd-looking, lower-budget family films like The Cat, Git!, and You’ve Got To Be Smart, which is probably what brought him to Disney’s attention. The Gnome-Mobile came toward the end of Kadison’s Hollywood career. His last major credit was writing several episodes of Sid and Marty Krofft’s psychedelic nightmare The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

Triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan (last seen around these parts as a friend of Those Calloways) stars as San Francisco-based lumber tycoon D.J. Mulrooney. He’s on his way to an important business meeting in Seattle but not before he stops at the airport in his vintage Rolls Royce to pick up his grandkids, Elizabeth and Rodney (played by those Mary Poppins kids Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber…the credits actually introduce them as “those Mary Poppins kids” to remind you that you already liked one movie these kids were in).

The Mulrooneys stop for a picnic lunch among some giant redwoods. Elizabeth goes exploring and meets a young gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell, Canoe from That Darn Cat!). Jasper has a big problem and his closest friends, a bunch of talking, animatronic forest animals, haven’t been much help. It seems that Jasper’s grandfather, Knobby (played by Brennan without his false teeth), is fading away. He’s lost the will to live since he’s become convinced that he and Jasper are the last of the gnomes.

Elizabeth convinces D.J. to give Jasper and Knobby a ride in the jauntin’ car, now dubbed the Gnome-Mobile according to the Sherman Brothers’ song, to search for other gnomes in other forests. Knobby agrees to go along with it despite his mistrust of “doo-deans” (that’s gnomish for big people), especially the loggers he refers to as “Mulrooney’s Marauders”. D.J. tries to keep his identity a secret but once the cat’s out of the bag, Knobby goes ballistic. He wants nothing to do with Mulrooney and D.J. decides he doesn’t want anything to do with the short-tempered, ingrateful gnome, either. He plans to drop them off and be rid of them at first light.

Unfortunately, Knobby’s tirade caught the attention of Horatio Quaxton (Sean McClory, Kurt Russell’s drunken dad in Follow Me, Boys!). Quaxton runs a traveling two-bit sideshow called Quaxton’s Academy of Freaks (unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of the Academy, otherwise this would likely shoot to the top of my list of favorite weirdo Disney movies). He manages to sneak into the Mulrooneys’ hotel room and kidnap the basketful of gnomes. Once the crime is discovered, D.J. calls his right-hand man, Mr. Yarby (Richard Deacon, last heard as the voice of the survival manual in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.), and orders him to get their security team on the case immediately.

As far as Yarby’s concerned, this is just a sure sign that D.J. is cracking up. He arranges to have his boss locked up in a mental institution. Rodney and Elizabeth borrow the Gnome-Mobile, rescue their grandfather and figure out where Quaxton is hiding by interrogating a pair of his disgruntled employees (played by instantly recognizable character actors Frank Cady and Ellen Corby). By the time they get to Quaxton’s cabin, Knobby has already made his escape but they’re still in time to rescue Jasper.

Meanwhile, Yarby is still on their trail accompanied by a pair of male nurses (one of whom is played by Norm Grabowski from the Merlin Jones saga). They spot the Rolls while filling up with gas and immediately take off after them, yanking the hose out of the fuel pump in the process. D.J. leads them on a cross-country chase that ends up with Yarby’s car slowly coming to pieces bit by bit.

Ultimately, they get rid of their pursuers and are reunited with Knobby, who has found a gnome colony led by the thousand-year-old Rufus (who else but Ed Wynn). Rufus assures Jasper that there are plenty of other gnomes and a surplus of unattached gnome women. Jasper is immediately attracted to a shy beauty named Violet (Cami Sebring, ex-wife of celebrity hairstylist and soon-to-be Manson Family victim Jay Sebring). But in gnomish tradition, it’s the girls who chase the eligible boy. Jasper is dunked into a sudsy bath and whoever is able to catch him and hang on to him for seven seconds wins. In the end, Violet prevails over her more aggressive rivals. She and Jasper get married and D.J. donates 50,000 acres of forestland to the gnomes.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Gnome-Mobile

It seems clear to me that The Gnome-Mobile has been overshadowed by the not-dissimilar Darby O’Gill And The Little People. It’s easy to see why. Darby O’Gill has a lot going for it that The Gnome-Mobile has not, including richer characters and young stars like Sean Connery and Janet Munro. That movie makes room for drama, suspense and romance. This one is basically just a knockabout comedy. But it’s a funny, entertaining knockabout comedy and that goes a long way.

Sinclair was inspired to write his book in the first place by the magnificent redwoods and some echoes of his conservationist message still ring through the movie. But even though it looks briefly like the film is going to be Disney’s version of The Lorax, it never quite gets there. Sure, D.J. is an obscenely rich industrialist who made his fortune by deforesting huge swaths of land but he’s not a bad guy. He seems to feel that he’s made enough money and that it’s important to protect some land for future generations. Leave it to Disney to find away to make a movie that’s simultaneously pro-capitalism and pro-environmentalism.

At any rate, it’s not as though The Gnome-Mobile is heavy with messaging of any kind. The movie exists to showcase some fun special effects, engaging comic performances and goofy slapstick. I mean, what can you really say about a movie where a fuel pump starts spewing gas everywhere and the hapless gas station attendant tries to stop it with his hands and face? You can’t take any of this too seriously. As long as you go with the flow, you’ll have a good time.

We do have to say goodbye to a couple of familiar faces with this movie. Ed Wynn, who has been a presence in this column since Alice In Wonderland, died in 1966 at the age of 79. The Gnome-Mobile, his final film, was released posthumously about a year after his death. Wynn could be a lot but Disney usually had a pretty good sense of where and when to deploy his unique energy. Rufus is a good role for him to go out on. I’ll actually miss seeing him pop up in these movies.

The Gnome-Mobile also marks the end of Matthew Garber’s brief film career. He appeared in three Disney films beginning with The Three Lives Of Thomasina, then evidently decided acting wasn’t for him and went back to school. About ten years later, he contracted hepatitis in India. He died of pancreatitis back home in London in 1977 at the age of 21. In 2004, he and his on-screen sister, Karen Dotrice, were named Disney Legends. Dotrice will eventually find her way back into this column but it’ll be awhile.

When The Gnome-Mobile was released on July 12, 1967, critics weren’t exactly blown away but a lot of them found good things to say about it. It did OK at the box office, well enough to warrant a theatrical re-release in 1976. But it’s a movie that’s left a very small cultural footprint. You don’t hear it talked about much at all, either fondly or disdainfully. As usual, that’s kind of on Disney. They’re the ones deciding what to release on Blu-ray and promote on their streaming service. They could easily start introducing The Gnome-Mobile to a new audience if they felt like it. It’s a fun little movie that deserves another chance.

VERDICT: Another Disney Plus that’s not on Disney+.  

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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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