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: 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: The Ugly Dachshund

When Walt Disney decided to hire Dean Jones, he really went all in. The Ugly Dachshund, Jones’ second film for the studio, opened February 16, 1966, just two months after his first, That Darn Cat! I guess having shown he could work with cats, Walt wanted to make sure Jones could handle dogs as well.

The Ugly Dachshund was based on a book by G.B. Stern, an extremely prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, biographies, literary criticism and even the occasional screenplay. Not this one, though. Disney assigned the project to Albert Aley, a radio and TV writer who’d written a few animal-oriented shorts for the studio like The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon. The Ugly Dachshund would be Aley’s only feature credit and his last Disney credit. He continued to work in television, writing and producing such shows as Ironside and The Paper Chase before retiring and eventually passing away in 1986.

By now, co-producer Winston Hibler and director Norman Tokar were old hands at making dog pictures. They’d made such adventure dramas as Big Red and Savage Sam. Their last film had been the heartfelt Those Calloways. But they hadn’t really taken a crack at comedy before now. This kind of wacky slapstick was usually the work of folks like Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh. But with comedies rapidly becoming Disney’s most popular and profitable commodity, everybody would have to learn how to stage a pratfall.

Dean Jones stars as Mark Garrison, a commercial artist who lives with his wife, Fran (Suzanne Pleshette), and her prized, pregnant dachshund, Danke. Danke births a litter of three puppies that Fran hopes to train into prize-winning show dogs. But when Mark goes to pick the dogs up from kindly veterinarian Dr. Pruitt (Charlie Ruggles, last seen as the judge in Son Of Flubber), he gets a surprise. Turns out that a Great Dane also gave birth to a big litter of puppies. Too big, as a matter of fact. The mother has rejected the littlest one because she doesn’t have enough milk. Danke, on the other hand, has too much since her litter was too small. Do you think, maybe…?

Well, Mark doesn’t need too much convincing, especially since he’s always wanted a big male dog instead of all these little females. At first, Fran thinks the pup is just an ugly dachshund born after the others and Mark does nothing to dissuade her of this idea. But as the weeks go by, Fran figures out something’s amiss. She’s no dummy. Maybe it’s the fact that the puppy, now named Brutus, is twice as large as the others and looks nothing like a dachshund. Or maybe it’s that Mark is obsessively drawing pictures of Great Danes everywhere. Who can say what subtle clues she picked up on?

The rest of the movie follows a fairly strict pattern. Every so often, Tokar stops everything to stage an elaborate slapstick sequence wherein the three dachshunds are the primary agents of chaos while poor Brutus is an innocent bystander or victim who ends up shouldering the blame. Fran will get fed up, sometimes with good reason and sometimes not, and insist they return Brutus to Doc Pruitt. But a change of heart inevitably brings the big dog back into their lives.

Admittedly, Tokar’s three big setpieces are pretty funny. The first has the dachshunds tearing around the living room with multiple balls of yarn and creating an elaborate maze. The second is even more impressive as the animals completely destroy Mark’s studio, creating a slick, multicolored slide out of one of his commissions and a can of paint thinner. They’re not unlike live-action versions of the animated showdowns between Pluto and Chip and Dale.

The biggest one is also the weakest. Fran decides to throw an elaborate house party for their friends and neighbors because that’s what you did in 1966. The party has an “Oriental” theme and is catered by Mr. Toyama (Robert Kino) and his assistant Kenji (Mako, soon to be Oscar nominated for The Sand Pebbles), two very broad Asian stereotypes. Whenever Brutus appears, they shriek “Rion!” (‘cause, y’know, they think it’s a lion) and Mr. Toyama plays dead, lying flat on the ground and becoming stiff as a board. Sigh. I guess it could be worse. At least they cast actual Japanese actors instead of Mickey Rooney but that’s a super-low bar to cross.

Anyway, things go sideways when Chloe, Fran’s best hope for a show dog, steals a bone from Brutus. He chases after her and wackiness ensues. Kenji gets hit in the face with several cakes and takes a ride on a trolley. Everyone crowds on to a small bridge over a pond and ends up in the drink, including Fran. It’s your garden-variety big dog gets loose at a fancy event sequence you’ve seen a zillion times.

At the party, Doc Pruitt convinces Mark to secretly enter Brutus into the dog show. Mark’s always been somewhat contemptuous of Fran’s interest in dog shows but agrees partly to train the dog but mostly out of spite. As they work with Brutus, Mark realizes that the Great Dane actually believes he’s a dachshund. Whenever he sees one, he’ll try to mimic it by stretching out and walking low to the ground.

This delusion almost costs Brutus a championship when he starts walking like a dachshund in front of the judge. Fortunately, Brutus catches the eye of a female Great Dane. Wanting to impress her, he stands tall and proud, ultimately winning the blue ribbon. Mark hurries off to rub this victory in Fran’s face but has a change of heart when he sees that Chloe only managed to come in second. But Fran’s not jealous. She’s proud and happy that they now have multiple prize-winning show dogs in the family. But the Garrisons agree it’s time to put all this competition behind them. They decide to quit the dog show circuit so Mark can concentrate on his work and Fran can focus on keeping house and being a good wife. Seriously. That’s the compromise they arrive at. Ugh.

There’s one other sort-of subplot worth mentioning, if only because it never amounts to anything. In the opening scene, Mark has a run-in with Officer Carmody (Kelly Thordsen, who appeared in The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and will be back in this column several times, usually as a cop). Carmody tries to escort the Garrisons to the hospital but ends up citing Mark on a number of traffic violations when he finds out that it was the dog who was pregnant and not Fran.

Carmody shows up again later warning Mark that a cat burglar has been spotted in the neighborhood. Now if you’re thinking that this sounds like an opportunity for Brutus to prove himself by scaring off the cat burglar, you’re half right. What actually happens is Mark gets locked out of the house later that night just as Carmody drives past. Carmody thinks Mark might be the cat burglar, so he gets out to investigate. Then Brutus shows up and scares Carmody off, chasing him up a tree where he spends the night. The actual cat burglar never shows up and Carmody disappears entirely from the story after this. As with most things in The Ugly Dachshund, the stakes couldn’t be lower.

Putting aside the movie’s regressive gender and racial stereotypes (which, I understand, can be a big ask), The Ugly Dachshund’s biggest flaw is simply that it’s uninspired. Which is not to say that it can’t be watchable. Dean Jones continues to demonstrate a knack for physical comedy. But he isn’t quite charming enough to pull off everything required of him. In the birthday scene where Fran surprises him with a dachshund-centric evening at home, he just comes across as petulant, even though he has a right to be pissed off.

Part of the problem is that he’s being mean to Suzanne Pleshette, who has Dean Jones beat in the charm department. Stunningly beautiful and gifted with a smooth bourbon voice, Pleshette had been a theatre actress who made a big impression in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. While The Ugly Dachshund was her first actual Disney project, she’d earlier costarred with Tony Curtis in the 1962 comedy 40 Pounds Of Trouble, the first film to shoot on location in Disneyland. This was such a big deal at the time that Universal advertised the fact on the poster, like Disneyland was a featured actor.

Theatrical release poster for 40 Pounds Of Trouble

The Ugly Dachshund doesn’t provide Pleshette with one of her best roles. Fran alternates between acting selfish and frivolous or turning into a complete doormat who’ll put up with any indignity or inconvenience. The fact that the audience likes her at all is entirely thanks to Pleshette’s winning personality. Suzanne Pleshette, I’m happy to report, will be back in this column several times.

Critics were not enthusiastic about The Ugly Dachshund but audiences ate it up. The movie brought in over $6 million at the box office. Give them credit for this much, Disney knew how to put movies like this together. Cute dogs plus attractive costars plus colorful slapstick comedy equals money in the bank.

Of course, there might have been another reason for the movie’s success. In 1966, Disney was still in the habit of attaching short subjects to their feature presentations and The Ugly Dachshund was no exception. On its original release, moviegoers were treated to an all-new animated short: Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree.

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree

This quickly became one of Disney’s most popular cartoons, re-released several times over the next few years. Eventually, Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree would be edited into the feature-length film The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh. This column will have a lot more to say about Pooh and his many friends when we get there. For now, let’s just acknowledge that The Ugly Dachshund wasn’t alone when audiences were flocking to see it back in ’66.

Even on its own modest terms, The Ugly Dachshund isn’t much of a movie. At its best, it’s an undemanding sitcom-level comedy that might raise a chuckle or two from kids. At worst, it’s a rambling mess with some stuff that has aged so poorly you’ll get yanked right out of the picture. You might have some fun with it but I guarantee you won’t have enough fun to make it worth your while.    

VERDICT: 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: A Tiger Walks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's A Tiger Walks

When you see the words “Walt Disney Presents” at the beginning of a film, you probably have certain expectations about what you’re going to get. If there is comedy, it will be broad. If there is danger, it won’t be particularly threatening. The virtues of small-town American life will be extolled and a warm feeling of sentimental nostalgia will cover everything like a down comforter. Almost every single one of those expectations goes unmet in the deeply odd 1964 film A Tiger Walks.

Director Norman Tokar, who joined the studio with Big Red and Savage Sam, moves from dogs to cats with this one. Lowell S. Hawley, who most recently had written In Search Of The Castaways, based his screenplay on a novel by Scottish author Ian Niall. Hawley transports the action from Wales to the US but apart from that change, I don’t know how closely the film follows Niall’s book. But Niall isn’t really known as a children’s or young adult writer, so I’m guessing A Tiger Walks wasn’t necessarily intended for young readers.

Our story takes place in the remote little town of Scotia located in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest, although the state itself goes unnamed. A traveling circus passes through and the truck carrying the tigers gets a flat tire. The local service station doesn’t stock tires that size, so while they’re waiting, the two tiger handlers Josef Pietz (Theodore Marcuse) and Ram Singh (Sabu in what ended up being his final role before his unexpected death at the age of 39) head over to the hotel bar for an early happy hour.

Pietz ends up getting good and drunk, so when he returns to find a crowd of children hanging around clamoring for a peek at the tigers, he’s only too happy to oblige. He jabs the big cats with a stick, riling them up. When he foolishly opens the cage a crack, Raja, the male tiger, makes a break for it. The kids scatter and Raja corners two of them, the sheriff’s daughter Julie (Pamela Franklin) and her friend Tom (Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran), in a dead-end alley. But rather than attacking, Raja leaps a fence and makes for the hills with Pietz and Mr. Singh in hot pursuit.

Sheriff Pete Williams (Disney regular Brian Keith) returns to organize a search party before dense fog moves into the area. They haven’t gone far before one of the men literally stumbles over the mutilated body of Josef Pietz. This is too much for most of the posse and they head for the safety of their homes.

Meanwhile, a local aspiring journalist (Doodles Weaver) has contacted the editor of the area’s biggest newspaper. By the time Sheriff Pete makes it back to town, a media circus has descended on the hotel determined to milk the story for all its worth. While the sheriff tries to prevent a panic, the hotel’s owner (Una Merkel) is charging reporters and other curiosity seekers double her normal rates. She even rents her office to the sheriff as a temporary headquarters. No wonder she glides around the place singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” while everybody else is barricading their doors and windows.

Temporarily stymied by the fog, the reporters decide to capture some human interest shots of Julie and Tom feeding the baby tigers. During her interview, Julie speaks out of turn and says her father has promised to capture Raja alive. Word gets back to the governor (Edward Andrews, one of Disney’s favorite avatars of ineffectual authority), who happens to be up for reelection. One of his advisers (Jack Albertson) convinces him that the sheriff is bungling the job, so the governor orders the National Guard to take over.

The sheriff asks the guardsmen to wait until the fog has lifted but the trigger-happy soldiers are eager to start their tiger hunt. Sure enough, it isn’t long before one of them accidentally shoots an old man (Arthur Hunnicutt). He had spotted Raja by his place, ran off the road in the fog and was coming down the mountain on foot to bring the news. Not wanting to risk another accident, the soldiers retreat to wait out the fog.

By this point, Julie’s impromptu press conference has become a children’s crusade thanks to a TV host named Uncle Harry (Harold Peary) who bears a slight resemblance to one Walter Elias Disney. Kids across the country are staging “Save That Tiger” demonstrations and sending in cash donations to purchase the tigers from the circus. Neither Sheriff Pete or the governor are pleased by this turn of events but the sheriff swears he’ll do his best, borrowing a tranquilizer gun from a nearby school.

Eventually the fog lifts and the soldiers spot the tiger from a helicopter. While the soldiers move in from the front, Mr. Singh figures that the noise will drive Raja further up the hill so they move to outflank him with nets. Julie and Tom arrive at the last minute with the tranquilizer rifle. Raja leaps and mauls Pete’s shoulder but not before the sheriff gets a dart in him. The soldiers arrive too late but the governor still wants them to pump a few bullets into the now harmless tiger. Pete intervenes, the tigers are donated to the zoo and the governor loses his bid for reelection, while Sheriff Pete is elected to another term.

There’s just a whole lot going on in this movie and none of it is your typical Disney fare. The cynical look at all the opportunists looking to exploit the situation comes across as Preston Sturges Lite. It’s not as clever or biting as Sturges would have been but it’s pretty sharp for Disney. This is one of Walt’s few films to depict smalltown America in anything less than glowing terms. Most of the folks who live in Scotia are quick to panic and only too happy to take advantage of out-of-towners.

This all plays out against the suspense of tracking down the loose tiger and those scenes are deadly serious. Tokar and cinematographer William E. Snyder make great use of shadows and fog. When Raja stalks the old farmer in his barn, the scene feels like something out of a horror movie. The juxtaposition works surprisingly well and A Tiger Walks could have been a minor classic if it had been produced by anybody other than Walt Disney. The Disney touch softens everything just enough to turn this into a curiosity piece.

Walt attracted an impressive cast of familiar faces and newcomers to this oddity. We’ve obviously seen Brian Keith in this column before and we’ll see him again. The great Vera Miles made her Disney debut as Keith’s wife. She’ll also be back soon. Pamela Franklin had only made a few film and TV appearances, including a role in the Wonderful World Of Color production The Horse Without A Head. A Tiger Walks was her only Disney feature. She’d go on to win acclaim in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and as a scream queen in such horror classics as And Soon The Darkness and The Legend Of Hell House.

This would be the last major film appearance for Kevin Corcoran, who has been a near constant presence and frequent source of irritation here since Old Yeller. And yet, he will be back in this column. After A Tiger Walks, he graduated high school and went to college, where he majored in theatre arts. After graduation, he went back to Disney to work behind the scenes. The next time Moochie appears in this column, it will be as an assistant director and producer in the 1970s. Later in life, he’d be a producer on the TV shows The Shield and Sons Of Anarchy, which is kind of wild to think about.

A Tiger Walks came out on March 12, 1964. Critics greeted it with confusion, trying to figure out who exactly this picture was aimed at. That question remained a mystery as audiences stayed away for the most part. The budget probably wasn’t high enough to make it an outright bomb but it certainly didn’t make much of a dent at the box office. Even today, A Tiger Walks is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s not available on Disney+ and the studio has never released it on Blu-ray. You can only get it on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. It isn’t a great movie but for the curious, it’s worth a look. It’s certainly unlike any other Disney movie from the era.

VERDICT: I’m glad I watched it, so let’s call it a minor Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Savage Sam

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Savage Sam

For years, Walt Disney had been an outspoken opponent to the very idea of sequels. But apparently pulling the trigger on Son Of Flubber, the follow-up to The Absent-Minded Professor, convinced Walt that sequels weren’t such a bad idea after all. Within six months of Flubber’s release, Walt had another sequel in theaters. Perversely, he decided to make a sequel to the one movie that seemed uniquely resistant to continuation.

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, a sequel to Old Yeller makes perfect sense. Fred Gipson’s novel was an award-winning modern classic. Walt’s movie adaptation had been even bigger, an indelible cinematic experience that marked a generation. So when Gipson published his sequel, Savage Sam, Walt understandably snatched up the movie rights immediately.

But narratively, you really have to question the need to continue this story. Setting aside the fact that the title character is shot dead by the end of the picture, Old Yeller is fundamentally a coming-of-age story about young Travis Coates (played in both films by Tommy Kirk). By the movie’s end, Travis does in fact appear to have come of age. His character arc has reached its natural conclusion. How many more dogs does this kid have to shoot before he can be considered a man?

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker couldn’t be persuaded to return to their roles as Katie and Jim Coates. In Parker’s case, I’d wager that Walt didn’t even bother to try. The two men hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms when Parker left the studio. McGuire, on the other hand, had recently starred in Swiss Family Robinson and will soon be back in this column. Without Parker, they probably just figured it made more sense to eliminate both parents altogether.

Jim and Katie are in San Francisco, tending to a sick grandmother, leaving the boys at home to tend to the Coates homestead. Travis is in charge and it’s going about as well as you’d expect, since younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran, of course) is still an obnoxious little hellion. If anything, he’s even worse now, pouting and whining and throwing rocks at his brother whenever things don’t go his way. The boys have a new dog, Sam, the son of Old Yeller although he doesn’t look anything like the puppy we were introduced to at the end of the first film. Sam is almost as uncontrollable as Arliss but at least he’s got a more pleasant personality.

The boys haven’t been left completely on their own. Their previously unmentioned Uncle Beck (Brian Keith, making his fourth appearance in this column) stops by now and again to look in on them. And their neighbor, professional mooch Bud Searcy (Jeff York, his sixth) is on hand to help himself to a plate of beans. Meanwhile, Bud’s tagalong daughter, Lisbeth, still seems to be nursing a mostly unrequited crush on Travis.

Marta Kristen steps into the role of Lisbeth, replacing Beverly Washburn. Kristen was just starting out in the business. A few years after Savage Sam, she’d be cast as Judy Robinson in Lost In Space, starring Disney’s former Zorro, Guy Williams, as her father. Beverly Washburn would also become a cult star with roles on the original Star Trek and in the unhinged drive-in classic Spider Baby. Apparently the role of Lisbeth Searcy is a young actress’ ticket to cult stardom.

The story doesn’t really kick in until Sam and Arliss chase after a pesky bobcat that’s been sneaking around the homestead. Travis and Lisbeth go looking for them, finding them still harassing the now cornered and harmless cat. Travis tries dragging Arliss away and while they’re squabbling, a riding party of Apache horse thieves happens by. They capture the kids and knock Sam unconscious, leaving him for dead.

The Apache admire Arliss’ spirit and decide to make him one of their own. Lisbeth is presumably meant to be turned into an “Indian squaw”. As for Travis…well, he’s kind of useless, so when he falls off a horse, the Indians don’t bother going back to pick him up. Fortunately, Uncle Beck and Bud have rounded up a posse (including Dewey Martin, who had starred in Disney’s Daniel Boone TV show, Slim Pickens and Royal Dano, his granite face sculpted into a permanent scowl) to rescue the kids. Sam has also recovered, so the posse follow his lead as he tracks Arliss’ scent across country.

You can probably see where all this is headed. The posse stays on the trail, despite some hardships and bickering. Dano’s character is presented as the most virulent Indian hater of the group. And while Keith patiently explains that he’s got a good reason to hate (Indians slaughtered his entire family), he’s also quick to cut him off after they rescue the kids and Dano’s still out for blood. So you see, not everybody is down to start indiscriminately murdering every Indian they meet. Just those who have a really, really good excuse.

Look, there are obviously many stories of Native Americans capturing white women and kids and either raping and killing them or raising them on their own. Those tales form the basis of one of the best Westerns of all time, John Ford’s The Searchers. Walt himself already explored the subject with more nuance and sensitivity five years earlier with The Light In The Forest. The thing is, The Light In The Forest is not a particularly nuanced or sensitive film. But compared to Savage Sam, it’s downright enlightened.

Savage Sam simply takes a handful of characters the audience is theoretically fond of and plunks them down into a standard issue Cowboys & Injuns picture. And I say “Injuns” because these are not Indigenous Peoples or Native Americans or even “Indians”. These are cartoon characters, presented with zero subtlety or respect, and played primarily by actors without a drop of Native ancestry. One notable exception was Pat Hogan, a member of the Oneida Nation who had previously appeared in Davy Crockett and Ten Who Dared.

The only halfway sympathetic Indian is a peace-loving Comanche who rides along with the Apache played by Dean Fredericks. Fredericks had the sort of ambiguously ethnic look that led to him playing a wide range of inappropriate roles. His most famous part came when he dyed his hair blond to play the title role in the TV adaptation of Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon. The Comanche helps the kids out a little bit, even if that usually just means he’s not actively participating in their abuse. He certainly doesn’t factor into their rescue all that much.

Theatrical release poster for Savage Sam

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Old Yeller. But I can appreciate what others see in it, even if I don’t personally enjoy it. The same can’t be said for Savage Sam. This is a coarse, ugly movie that has virtually nothing in common with its predecessor. Director Robert Stevenson had at least been able to instill Old Yeller with some charm and pathos. Norman Tokar, who had previously demonstrated his ability to work with dogs and kids in Big Red, focuses instead on rote action sequences. He isn’t able to give Sam the same winning personality as Yeller. If there’s any kind of silver lining to it at all, at least Sam’s still alive at the end of the picture.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of the real-life inspiration for Sam and maybe some of the film’s unpleasantness can be explained by the events surrounding its creation. Walt hired author Fred Gipson to write the screenplay for Savage Sam in collaboration with William Tunberg, just as he’d done with Old Yeller. But Gipson was fighting a losing battle against alcoholism by this time. One weekend while working on Savage Sam, Gipson’s son, Mike, came home from college. He found their dog, who Sam was based on, chained up in the backyard and beaten to death. Mike went back to school and committed suicide. Not long after that, Gipson’s wife filed for divorce.

Savage Sam would be the last book Fred Gipson published in his lifetime, although he continued writing up to his death in 1973. A third Coates family adventure, Little Arliss, was published posthumously in 1978 and was turned into a 1984 TV special, although not by Disney.

Critics and audiences agreed that Savage Sam was one of Disney’s weaker efforts when it premiered in June 1963. It earned less than half of Old Yeller’s box office take. Compared to Son Of Flubber, which made nearly as much as The Absent-Minded Professor, it had to be considered a major disappointment. The fallout obviously hit Fred Gipson hardest but the movie’s failure also had repercussions for Tommy Kirk. This would be his last dramatic role at Disney. We’ll see him in this column again but when he returns, it’ll be back to comedies. And for Tommy Kirk, it’ll also be the beginning of the end.  

VERDICT: Disney Minus  

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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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