Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Love Bug

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Love Bug

There has probably never been another producer in the history of motion pictures as concerned with the concept of legacy as Walt Disney. Walt didn’t want to make pictures that opened well or played for a few weeks or months. He wanted to make evergreens, films that could be re-released again and again forever. To accomplish this, he made animated features based on tales that had already stood the test of time. When he started producing live-action films, he focused on period pieces and historical fiction. So it’s tough to figure out what he would have thought about The Love Bug. On the one hand, it’s the most contemporary movie the studio had made to that point, firmly rooted in the late 1960s. But on the other, it worked like gangbusters, becoming the studio’s biggest hit in years and its own kind of evergreen.

Walt himself had optioned the source material that became The Love Bug, a treatment or unpublished short story called Car-Boy-Girl (or possibly Boy-Girl-Car) by Gordon Buford. Sources differ on what exactly this was, how it ended up capturing Walt’s attention or even what the exact title was and there’s almost no information about Gordon Buford out there. The only thing that seems certain is that it was a comedy about a sentient car. Shortly before Walt’s death, Dean Jones pitched him a dramatic script about race car driving. Walt wasn’t interested and told Jones he should star in Car-Boy-Girl instead.

Jones had successfully made the transition from Broadway and TV to legitimate movie star by listening to Walt’s advice, so he wasn’t about to stop now. Disney’s Mary Poppins A-team, director Robert Stevenson, co-writer and producer Bill Walsh, and co-writer Don DaGradi, were all assigned to the Car-Boy-Girl project. Walsh had written the Mickey Mouse comic strip for years and DaGradi was a former animator with experience in both shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face and features like Lady And The Tramp. Their cartoon backgrounds made them ideally suited to creating a real, sympathetic character out of an anthropomorphic car.

Interestingly enough, Buford’s original treatment didn’t specify what kind of car the film should be about. The production team held “auditions” for the role on the Disney lot, inviting the crew and staff to come inspect a dozen or so different cars. The pearl white Volkswagen Beetle won on cuteness and charm. It was the only car in the lineup that everyone reached out to pet as they walked by.

Storybook cover of The Love Bug

This was not Dean Jones’ first time appearing opposite a character named Herbie. In The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, released just a few weeks prior to The Love Bug, Jones’ Aunt Martha has a dog named Herbie. Was this a coincidence or a subtle piece of stealth marketing? It’s hard to say for sure. What is certain is that Herbie the Love Bug’s name came from co-star Buddy Hackett, the nightclub comic making his Disney debut as junkyard artist and occasional mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Hackett will be back in this column in animated form). One of Hackett’s routines was about a team of heavily accented German ski instructors named Klaus, Hans, Fritz, Wilhelm and Sandor. The punchline was, “If you ain’t got a Herbie, I ain’t going!” Hackett’s Brooklynese pronunciation of the name never failed to bring down the house. Thus, the little Volkswagen became Herbie.

David Tomlinson, who’d had the role of a lifetime as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, returned to the Disney fold to play the snobby, weaselly Peter Thorndyke, European car salesman and Jones’ rival on the racing circuit. The villainous role was the polar opposite of his paternal Mary Poppins character and Tomlinson had a field day with it. We haven’t seen the last of him in this column.

The female lead was given to a relative newcomer, Michele Lee. Lee made her film debut in 1967, reprising her Broadway role in the movie version of the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The Love Bug has been her only Disney role to date and even though she appears to be retired, I suppose that could still change. After her stint in Herbie’s passenger seat, Lee focused primarily on television, spending the entirety of the 1980s and about the first half of the 90s on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.

Even though all of Dean Jones’ Disney features had been contemporary-set comedies, they all took place in the suburbs or quaint little towns untouched by the passage of time. Even The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit spends as little time at Jones’ New York City ad agency as narratively possible. The Love Bug is different. San Francisco in 1968 is such a very specific place and time that even Disney couldn’t ignore it. Consequently, Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz is an aspiring Zen master given to lengthy reminiscences on his time with the Buddhist monks of Tibet. Some of the first people Jones encounters after discovering Herbie’s special nature are hippies, including one in a psychedelic van played by Jones himself in a fake beard, long wig and blue-tinted sunglasses. This might be our first movie to show any kind of awareness of the world outside the studio walls since the Beach Boys turned up in The Monkey’s Uncle.

The Story Of The Love Bug record album

The Love Bug has been consistently popular over the years, so its storyline probably doesn’t require a lot of summation. Still, there are a few points to take note of. Jones stars as Jim Douglas, an aging race car driver whose glory days are far behind him, if he ever experienced them at all. After losing a demolition derby, Jim finds himself without a car. His search for a cheap ride is sidetracked when he spots leggy sales associate Carole Bennett (Lee) through the window of Thorndyke’s high-end European showroom. After going inside to flirt, Thorndyke mistakes Jim for a paying customer. Jim expresses interest in the shop’s pièce de resistance, a bright yellow sportscar dubbed the Thorndyke Special. But when Thorndyke discovers that Jim’s broke, he turns the charm off like a spigot.

Jim’s presence in the shop also attracts the attention of a little Volkswagen Beetle, who rolls out of the garage and onto the showroom floor to get his attention. Jim’s not interested but he stands up for the car anyway when Thorndyke starts insulting it. The next morning, Jim wakes up to find a detective (played by fellow nightclub comic and Car 54, Where Are You? star Joe E. Ross) outside the old firehouse he shares with Tennessee. Turns out the Bug followed him home and is parked right outside. Thorndyke accuses Jim of stealing the car and has him arrested, while Jim believes Thorndyke planted the car there himself to strong-arm him into buying it.

Jim avoids jail time by agreeing to buy the car on an installment plan. But he soon discovers the car has a mind of its own when he’s literally incapable of getting on the freeway. The car seems to be out of control but Jim eventually warms up to it when he realizes that it’s going out of its way to bring him and Carole together.

It’s worth noting that the movie wisely makes no effort to explain how or why Herbie got its special powers. Tennessee offers some pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment about inanimate objects possessing hearts and minds of their own but that’s about as far as it goes. Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi understood that nobody really cares about the rationale behind fantastic events. The important thing is that the audience cares about Herbie.

The Love Bug comic book adaptation

Once Jim and Herbie start racing together, the audience really does start to invest emotionally in the little car. Thorndyke gets Herbie drunk by pouring some of Tennessee’s patented Irish coffee into the gas tank. When Jim starts hogging all the credit for their winning streak and goes out looking for a bigger car, Herbie gets jealous and runs away. In possibly the film’s strangest scene, Jim discovers Herbie about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Herbie has a more complex personality than most people in live-action Disney comedies.

During Herbie’s long dark night of the soul, he damaged a Chinatown store front owned by Tang Wu (veteran character actor Benson Fong). Jim can’t afford to pay for the damages but Tennessee (who speaks Cantonese) discovers that Wu is a racing fan and persuades him to become Herbie’s new owner and allow Jim to race in the upcoming two-day El Dorado race. If Herbie wins, Wu can keep the prize money but has to sell Herbie back to Jim for a dollar. As both a businessman and a racing buff, Wu can’t pass up a deal like that.

The race pits Team Herbie against the Thorndyke Special, driven by Thorndyke himself and assisted by his own personal Mr. Smithers, Havershaw (Joe Flynn, last seen in Son Of Flubber). Walsh and DaGradi don’t bother giving the other competitors names, much less personalities, but they’re driven by a who’s who of legendary stuntmen including Dick Warlock, Jock Mahoney and Bud Ekins. The announcers are none other than long-time L.A. Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn and legendary voice actor and announcer Gary Owens, who was also voicing Space Ghost and appearing regularly on Laugh-In at the time.

Thorndyke dives deep into The Big Book Of Dirty Tricks to ensure his victory. Herbie barely finishes the first day in a distant last place. But Thorndyke’s arrogance inspires Herbie to continue the race. On the second day, they make up for lost time but the race has taken its toll on Herbie. In the final stretch, the car splits in two, with Jim and Carole racing in the front seat and Tennessee holding on for dear life in the back. Thanks to a judging committee that seems to be making up the rules as they go along, Herbie finishes in first and third. Wu takes control of Thorndyke’s business, putting him and Havershaw to work in the garage, and Jim and Carole get married, placing their honeymoon plans in Herbie’s capable….um, tires, I guess.

The Love Bug theatrical re-release poster

Disney had been making high-concept comedies like this for quite some time, as far back as The Shaggy Dog a decade previous. But while there was no reason to doubt their ability to make a movie like The Love Bug, there was also nothing to indicate it was going to be anything special. On paper, it hews closely to the “strait-laced Dean Jones has his life turned upside down by a cat/a dog/some monkeys/a ghost/a horse” formula. But there are a few subtle tweaks to the recipe that give The Love Bug some extra juice.

First off, Jones’ Jim Douglas isn’t quite as strait-laced as his previous characters. Most of Jones’ other films cast him as either an accomplished professional, a devoted husband or father, or an ambitious young man on the way up. Jim Douglas is closest to Steve Walker in Blackbeard’s Ghost. They’re both single guys, they’re both underdogs in competitions where the odds are stacked heavily against them, and they both have to convince themselves they’re not crazy when strange things start happening. But Steve was fundamentally honest and didn’t want to take a victory his team didn’t earn. Jim obviously isn’t above taking advantage of a situation. After all, nobody else is racing with a magic car and you know damn well Jim’s not disclosing that little nugget on his entry form.

Another key difference is that Jones’ previous performances were essentially reactive. There’s an art to that too, of course, and Jones was extremely good at reacting to whatever nonsense got thrown at him, whether it was by a bunch of dogs or Peter Ustinov. But you can’t just react to a car. You have to actually act in order to sell the idea that the car is acting on its own volition. Jones is up to the task and it’s really thanks to him and Buddy Hackett that you come to believe in Herbie. Jones is somehow even able to make talking a Volkswagen off a bridge look…well, maybe not normal but certainly less ridiculous than it might.

Of course, Disney’s gimmick comedies live or die on the strength of their gags (just ask Merlin Jones). Fortunately, Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi brought their A-game to The Love Bug. This is a Disney comedy that’s not just aimed at the youngest members of the audience. Hackett and Tomlinson’s drunk scene is genuinely funny, as are the visual gags and gentle pokes at hippie culture.

The movie really shines in its slapstick special effects. Whether it’s Herbie falling to pieces, a detour through an active mine or Tomlinson discovering a live bear in his passenger seat, Stevenson does a great job creating the live-action equivalent of an animated cartoon. These effects aren’t exactly going to leave you gob-smacked, scratching your head and wondering how they could have possibly pulled off such miracles. But they are consistently fun and leave you laughing.

Contemporary audiences were certainly more than satisfied with The Love Bug. After premiering in limited release on Christmas Eve of 1968, the movie expanded on March 13, 1969. Audiences flocked to the relatively low-budget picture, eventually turning it into the second highest-grossing film of 1969, behind Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and ahead of Midnight Cowboy (needless to say, it was a weird, transitional time at the movies). It was the studio’s biggest hit since Mary Poppins.

Naturally, some critics groused about it, complaining that it was too predictable, too simple-minded and too far-fetched. These critics strike me as the sort of people who would complain that their ice cream is too cold. Of course it’s all those things. So what? All that matters is if it brings you some degree of pleasure.

The runaway success of The Love Bug all but guaranteed that Disney would stay in the Dean Jones business and vice versa. Rest assured, Jones will be back in this column before long. But it also inspired the studio to reconsider Walt’s long-standing bias against sequels. Prior to The Love Bug, only a handful of pictures had given extensions: The Absent-Minded Professor, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and, for whatever reason, Old Yeller. But The Love Bug became a phenomenon that the studio would soon become very, very interested in replicating. And so, to borrow a phrase from James Bond, Herbie will return.

VERDICT: Disney 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 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 Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: An unexpected but very welcome Disney Plus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Monkeys, Go Home!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Monkeys, Go Home!

Monkeys, Go Home! was released on February 2, 1967, not quite two months after the death of Walt Disney. Walt probably didn’t have a whole lot to do with the movie. It’s a project of little importance, just another live-action comedy shot on the Burbank backlot, and Walt would have been focused on EPCOT and the Florida project at the time. But he definitely would have been aware of it, so you have to wonder just what exactly the appeal was. Maybe Walt just needed something to keep his new star, Dean Jones, busy.

The movie is based on the novel The Monkeys by G.K. Wilkinson. I can’t find much information about either the book or its author. Wilkinson’s only other book appears to be something called Nick The Click. The British paperback of Nick The Click comes with the tagline, “He’s Soho’s top porn-broker.” Needless to say, Disney didn’t option that one.

Screenwriter Maurice Tombragel had written a LOT of Disney TV productions, including Texas John Slaughter, Elfego Baca, and The Adventures Of Gallegher, as well as the 1962 feature Moon Pilot. Monkeys, Go Home! would be his only other theatrical project at the studio but he’d continue working on the television side for another year or two.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen was new to Disney but he’d built up an impressive resume elsewhere. The son of the great character actor Victor McLaglen, Andrew worked his way up through the ranks as an assistant director. As a director, he’d helmed a lot of television, including a massive number of Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel episodes. On the big screen, he’d directed John Wayne in McLintock! and James Stewart in Shenandoah, both of which had been extremely popular. This would be McLaglen’s only Disney movie although he’d return to the studio for some TV work in the 1970s.

Dean Jones makes his third Disney appearance as Hank Dussard, an American who inherits his uncle’s olive grove in Provence, France. The local priest, Father Sylvain (Maurice Chevalier), is welcoming but cautions Hank against trying to operate the place on his own. Most of the olive groves in the region are run by families with lots of kids, whose small hands are ideally suited for picking olives. As a bachelor, Hank would have to either hire laborers, which isn’t cost-effective for such a small grove, or hurry up, get married and start having kids.

Hank has a different idea. Before coming to France, Hank had been an animal trainer in the Air Force, training chimpanzees for space travel. Now that the space program has started sending humans into space, the astrochimps are retired. So Hank pulls a few strings to get four of the chimps sent to France, where he gives them all French names and sets to work training them to pick olives. By the way, for those of you keeping score this is at least the third Disney movie to somehow revolve around astrochimps, following Moon Pilot and Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. I guess somebody at Disney read an article in Life magazine and really loved the idea of space chimps.

Hank wants to keep the monkeys a secret but news travels fast in a small town. First, his neighbor Maria (Yvette Mimieux) pops by. She’s delighted by the little migrant workers but thinks the all-girl team needs a boy monkey for a little r and r. Hank doesn’t want the chimps distracted but does allow Maria to dress them in her sisters’ hand-me-down dresses and nightgowns (“To a girl, appearance is most important, especially chimpanzee!” I’m not sure I follow Maria’s logic there but sure).

Next, Emile, the local lawyer (Clément Harari), drives by to spy on Hank’s progress. He wants the land and is hopeful that Hank will quickly give up, sell out and go home. When he sees the monkeys, he enlists the aid of Marcel the butcher (Bernard Woringer). Marcel also wants Hank gone before any seeds of romance can blossom between he and Maria. The butcher and the lawyer hold a town meeting where Marcel warns that Hank’s capitalist scheme will inevitably lead to chimps taking over every sector of the workforce.

The next day, Marcel has blanketed the entire village with anti-monkey slogans. Hank visits the mayor (Marcel Hillaire) who advises him to fight fire with fire. The next morning, Hank and Father Sylvain ring the church bell and the townsfolk wake up to see the monkeys parading around with little picket signs and painting their own pro-monkey slogans on storefronts. The villagers are so delighted by the sight of seeing monkeys in people clothes and doing people things that the anti-monkey hysteria evaporates.

But Emile still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Hank returns home after a town festival to find a redhead named Yolande (Yvonne Constant) who claims to be his cousin. Emile tracked her down to inform her that half the property and all its profits belong to her. Hank doesn’t see a solution to this problem but Maria decides to use the chimps to scare Yolande away. She leaves the farm and runs straight to Father Sylvain, where she confesses that she’s not really Hank’s cousin.

Hank tells Marcel that Emile’s been playing him for a sap. Emile doesn’t care about workers’ rights or who Maria ends up with. All he wants is the land. This apparently was not obvious to Marcel from the get-go and he confronts Emile in the street. This leads to an all-out brawl/food fight in the town square that only ends when the winds begin to blow, signaling it’s time to harvest the olives.

The whole town gathers to see the chimps in action. Unfortunately, Maria picks this exact moment to reveal her big surprise. She’s finally managed to track down a boy chimp for the girls. Hank’s prediction comes true and the distracted monkeys abandon their olive-picking duties. Everybody laughs at Hank’s failure but Father Sylvain chastises them, shaming the townsfolk into picking the olives themselves. That’s right. In the end, this movie about monkeys learning to pick olives includes almost no footage of monkeys picking olives.

Monkeys Go Home quad poster

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to make an entertaining movie about monkeys learning to pick olives. Actually, I take that back. I am saying that. Why on earth would anybody look at this script and think, “Now there’s a crackerjack idea! Monkeys AND olives? Where do I sign?” Maybe everybody thought they’d at least be getting a trip to France out of the deal but nope! This was shot right at home in the good old U S of A. The town square was just the old Zorro set with French signage in place of the old Spanish ones. The olive trees were planted right next to the Animation Building. Everybody was probably back home by 6 every night.

Dean Jones eventually became one of Disney’s most reliable stars but he hadn’t quite hit his stride in Monkeys, Go Home! He seems faintly embarrassed at having to play second fiddle to a bunch of chimps. Because of that, he isn’t remotely believable as a professional animal trainer. Yvette Mimieux seems a lot more comfortable around the animals than he does.

As a side note, the actual animal trainer on Monkeys, Go Home! was Stewart Raffill. Raffill’s had an interesting career, starting out as an animal supervisor on movies like this and Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. Eventually he moved into writing and directing. He’s done a lot of animal-centric projects like The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family but he’s also directed movies like The Ice Pirates, The Philadelphia Experiment and the bizarro E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac And Me. We’ll see Raffill’s work in this column again.

We’ll also see Yvette Mimieux again but not for awhile. By 1967, Mimieux had been in the business nearly a decade. She’d appeared in such films as The Time Machine, Where The Boys Are and Toys In The Attic. Monkeys, Go Home! isn’t much of a showcase for her talents. It isn’t even much of a showcase for the monkeys, to be honest. But she gets through it like a trouper. She’ll have a much better role the next time we see her.

Maurice Chevalier previously appeared in In Search Of The Castaways alongside Hayley Mills. He doesn’t get to have nearly as much fun this time. He’s mostly around to be a comforting presence and lead a children’s choir in a boring new Sherman Brothers song, “Joie De Vivre”. I get it. If you’ve got Maurice Chevalier in your movie, you want him to sing. But this song feels like leftovers from the Castaways sessions. The Shermans were brilliant songwriters but they were more than capable of phoning it in when they felt like it.

Monkeys, Go Home! ended up being Chevalier’s final film performance. He retired in 1968 following a farewell tour. In 1971, Chevalier, who had suffered from depression all his life, attempted suicide. He pulled through but the overdose took its toll on his liver and kidneys. Later in the year, he stopped responding to dialysis treatments. Doctors attempted surgery but Chevalier went into cardiac arrest shortly after the procedure. He died on January 1, 1972, at the age of 83. But even though this was his last film, this column still isn’t quite through with Maurice Chevalier. He’ll be back one last time.

Most of the rest of the cast was one-and-done with Disney. Marcel Hillaire, the mayor, previously appeared as the tour guide who loses track of Fred MacMurray in the Parisian sewers in Bon Voyage! Alan Carney, the grocer, was a referee in the two Flubber movies and he’ll be back again. So will Maurice Marsac, who later cornered the market on playing snooty French waiters and maître d’s in movies like The Jerk. And Darleen Carr, who duets with Chevalier on “Joie De Vivre”, will lend her voice to an upcoming animated feature.

Monkeys, Go Home! is nobody’s favorite Disney movie. Today, it’s another live-action footnote that you probably didn’t even realize isn’t available on Disney+ (although it is a Disney Movie Club exclusive Blu-ray, for the Dean Jones completists out there). Even at the time, reviews tended to be dismissive, and audiences had a similar reaction. It wasn’t exactly a box office flop but it sure wasn’t a hit. Disney still hadn’t exactly figured out what to do with Dean Jones yet. But they were getting close.  

VERDICT: Oh, it’s every inch a Disney Minus, all right.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

When Walt Disney first started producing live action features, his favored genre was the historical adventure. This was mostly out of necessity. Since the studio was obligated to film in the United Kingdom, movies like The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue took advantage of the local scenery and talent. But swashbucklers had fallen out of favor, both at the studio and at the box office. Disney still occasionally filmed overseas but the studio hadn’t made an adventure picture since Kidnapped back in 1960.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released on October 1, 1966, but it’s virtually indistinguishable from those other adventure movies released over a decade earlier. Robert Westerby, the screenwriter of Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives Of Thomasina, based his script on the novel Red Hugh: Prince Of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly. Hugh O’Donnell was a real Irish nobleman who fought the British in the sixteenth century, making this very much an Irish cousin to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue.

Making his Disney debut was director Michael O’Herlihy, brother of the actor Dan O’Herlihy whom you should recognize from such films as RoboCop and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Michael O’Herlihy ended up working mostly in television, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-O, The A-Team and many others. If you watched TV at all during the 60s, 70s and 80s, you’ve seen his work. But The Fighting Prince Of Donegal kicked off a brief stint at Disney working on both television and feature productions. O’Herlihy will be back in this column.

As the movie opens, Red Hugh (Peter McEnery) receives word that his father has died, making him head of Clan O’Donnell. An old prophecy says that when Hugh succeeds Hugh, the Clans of Ireland will unite to stand against the British. This seems like a weirdly specific prophecy to me. I can imagine that the elder Hugh felt like he didn’t need to do much since the prophecy just has him waiting to die. Anyway, Red Hugh takes this all very seriously and immediately gets to work on this whole uniting the Clans business.

He first pays a visit to Lord McSweeney (Andrew Keir), a boisterous, hard-drinking man who pledges the aid of Clan McSweeney. Hugh also has his eye on McSweeney’s daughter, Kathleen (Susan Hampshire, last seen as the so-called “witch” in The Three Lives Of Thomasina). This annoys another would-be suitor, Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams), who decides to drag his feet before pledging the loyalty of Clan O’Neill. But after Hugh defeats him in an impromptu wrestling match, the two men become best of frenemies.

Before they can meet with more Clansmen, McSweeney and Hugh accept the invitation of a British merchant anchored just offshore. Once they’re on board the ship, they fall into a trap to arrest Hugh. It seems the British had heard about that prophecy too and managed to crack the code to figure out who the troublemaker was. Hugh is sent to a Dublin prison where he makes a powerful enemy in Captain Leeds (Gordon Jackson) after Leeds needlessly picks a quarterstaff fight with him and suffers a humiliating defeat in front of the other prisoners.

Sentenced to solitary confinement, Hugh escapes with the help of fellow prisoner Sean O’Toole (Donal McCann). He doesn’t get far before Leeds’ men pick him up and toss him back in. McSweeney and O’Neill attempt to buy his freedom with a treaty but Leeds rejects it and arrests O’Neill. With Hugh about to be transferred to the Tower of London, they enlist the help of a sympathetic waterboy to attempt a second escape, this time through the storm drains beneath the castle.

Leeds has had enough and decides to attack the O’Donnell castle and hold Kathleen and O’Donnell’s mother hostage. As John Belushi once pointed out, you should never mess with an Irishman’s mother. Hugh organizes the various Clans and attacks his own castle, soundly defeating the British and taking Leeds prisoner until a treaty can be ratified. The Clans are united and everyone celebrates in traditional Irish fashion, drinking a lot and fighting among themselves.

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal isn’t terrible but I definitely had a feeling of déjà vu while watching it. All of those British historical dramas started to blend together after awhile and this is very much cut from the same cloth. The fight sequences are active without ever feeling too dangerous or exciting. Everyone looks like they’re costumed for a renaissance fair and all the castles are Peter Ellenshaw matte paintings. If you’ve seen one of these swashbucklers, you really kind of have seen them all.

Maybe it would have been better if the fighting prince himself had been more inspiring. Peter McEnery made his Disney debut as Hayley Mills’ leading man in The Moon-Spinners. He was perfectly fine as a fired banker suspected of being a jewel thief. He has an everyman quality that lends itself to the light Hitchcockian thrills of The Moon-Spinners but doesn’t exactly make him a leader of men. With his shock of messy red hair, it’s kind of like trying to picture Ron Weasley in Braveheart.

Comic book adaptation of The Fighting Prince Of Donegal

This would end up being the final Disney roles for both McEnery and Susan Hampshire. Peter McEnery went on to a very distinguished career on the London stage, as well as roles in such films as Negatives and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Susan Hampshire found her greatest success on television, winning three Emmy Awards for her roles in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Vanity Fair. They’re both still with us, so there’s always a chance they could pop up in another Disney project.

The most entertaining performances come from Andrew Keir as McSweeney, Gordon Jackson as the villainous Captain Leeds, and Tom Adams as Henry O’Neill. Around the same time The Fighting Prince Of Donegal was released, Adams starred as superspy Charles Vine in a trilogy of 007 knockoffs. Here, he’s saddled with an atrocious Prince Valiant wig but enough charm comes through that you can see why he’d be cast as an imitation James Bond. Tom Adams will not be back in this column. He died in 2014.

This’ll also be the last time we see Gordon Jackson, who last turned up as the farmer in Greyfriars Bobby. Like Susan Hampshire, Jackson also became a prominent TV actor. He won an Emmy for his role on Upstairs, Downstairs (which was as big as Downton Abbey in its day) and starred in the cult crime series The Professionals. Gordon Jackson passed away in 1990.

Andrew Keir also had a small role in Greyfriars Bobby. Between Disney gigs, he appeared in a number of Hammer Films. In 1967, he landed his most prominent role as Professor Bernard Quatermass in Quatermass And The Pit. He returned to the role shortly before his death on the BBC radio drama The Quatermass Memoirs. Around that same time, he also appeared in the non-Disney Rob Roy with Liam Neeson. Andrew Keir died in 1997.

The middling box office returns for The Fighting Prince Of Donegal confirmed that audiences weren’t all that interested in movies like this from Disney. So in some ways, this marks the end of an era but it’s difficult to feel too nostalgic for it. When people think of Disney movies from the 1950s and 60s, a very specific type of film comes to mind. Silly, perhaps even goofy movies with a song or three and maybe a fantasy element to it. Movies like this don’t fit that mold. It’s interesting that the studio directed so many of its resources toward serious-minded adventures rooted in history. If only they had done more to distinguish them from one another.

VERDICT: The movie’s overall been-there-done-that feeling prevents it from being a Disney Plus. Let’s put it on the high end of the Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Almost nobody got away with making just one movie for Walt Disney. Whether you were a newcomer like Hayley Mills or an established star like Fred MacMurray, if Walt liked you and you brought money into the studio, Walt was going to try to get you to stick around. So after Mary Poppins became Disney’s biggest hit in years, it must have irked him that Julie Andrews was suddenly too busy to make a return engagement. Her first musical after Poppins, The Sound Of Music, exploded at the box office and earned her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination. Ms. Andrews’ dance card was going to be full for the foreseeable future.

Dick Van Dyke, on the other hand, was ready, willing and able to work for Walt. Post-Poppins, he returned to his eponymous sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. But his follow-up feature, The Art Of Love co-starring James Garner (who will eventually appear in this column), failed to bring in Mary Poppins-size (or even Merlin Jones-size) numbers. So when Walt pitched him on a contemporary comic retelling of Robinson Crusoe, it’s easy to understand why Van Dyke was eager to sign up. After all, a good portion of Crusoe is essentially a one-man show.

I say Walt pitched the project to Dick Van Dyke because Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Walt’s idea in the first place. In fact, for the first and only time in his long career, Walt took a writing credit on a feature film. Sort of. For a guy who served as the face of his company, whose name was always first in the credits and most prominently featured on posters, and had already named one theme park after himself, Walt was surprisingly modest about taking specific credits. So the story for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is credited to “Retlaw Yensid”. You don’t exactly need an Enigma machine to crack that code.

Walt had Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh, the now Oscar-nominated screenwriters of Mary Poppins, flesh out his general idea into a screenplay. Odds are nobody involved spent too much time reviewing Daniel Defoe’s original novel. Apart from the name and the general premise of a castaway on a deserted island, any similarity between the book and the movie is purely coincidental.

Since this was shaping up to be a Mary Poppins reunion, you might expect director Robert Stevenson or the Sherman Brothers to be involved. But Dick Van Dyke wielded some influence of his own to get Byron Paul to direct. Paul and Van Dyke were old friends who first met in the Air Force back in the ‘40s. Since then, Paul had become Van Dyke’s manager. He’d also produced and directed a number of television productions including For The Love Of Willadean, The Tenderfoot and The Adventures Of Gallegher for Disney. Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. would be Paul’s only feature credit but he and Dick Van Dyke continued to work together in television through the 1970s.

As for the Shermans, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. has no original songs. The film’s score was written by Robert F. Brunner, a composer who Disney hired in 1964. His first full credit as composer had been That Darn Cat! Brunner will stick around this column for quite some time. It’s interesting that Robin Crusoe went songless since Van Dyke had acquitted himself quite well musically in Mary Poppins. I’m not sure if the plan was to make this a non-musical all along and therefore the Shermans’ services weren’t required or if the Shermans were busy and that’s why they decided to go the non-musical route.

Theatrical release poster for Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe had been a young man who becomes a sea merchant against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to be a lawyer. Disney’s Crusoe (who is referred to as “Robin” exactly once…usually it’s “Rob”, probably to remind audiences of Rob Petrie, Van Dyke’s character on TV) is a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He’s on a routine mission when his plane malfunctions, forcing him to bail out somewhere over the Pacific.

With his life raft inflated, Rob takes stock of his situation by consulting the official naval guidebook Survival At Sea And Like It. In another nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show, the survival manual is read in voiceover by Richard Deacon, the manager of the drive-in in That Darn Cat! and Van Dyke’s TV costar. Rob seems to be in relatively good shape until an aggressive shark comes along and causes him to lose most of his supplies.

Days later, Rob finally washes ashore on a seemingly uninhabited island. After tending to his basic survival needs, he explores the island and discovers the wreck of a Japanese submarine. On board, he meets a fellow Navy officer and castaway: Astrochimp Floyd (played by Dinky the Chimp), whose space capsule washed ashore years earlier. Either this island is in the Bermuda Triangle or the Navy is really lax about tracking down missing personnel.

Rob and Floyd salvage a bunch of material from the sub and construct an island estate that would make the Swiss Family Robinson envious. One day while out golfing, Rob spots another set of footprints. He tracks them to a large native idol where he discovers a native girl (Nancy Kwan) praying. At first, she seems dead set on killing Rob but eventually calms down enough to explain, mostly in charades although she soon reveals that she speaks English, why she’s there. Her father, Chief Tanamashu, has sent her to be sacrificed to Kaboona, the big idol, because she refuses to submit to an arranged marriage. Rob agrees that women should have the right to marry whomever they please. He apparently does not believe that women have the right to keep their given names because he decides to call her Wednesday. Of course.

Before long, Wednesday’s sisters and cousins turn up, more potential sacrifices to Kaboona. Wednesday wants to fight back and she convinces Rob to train them into a giggly military unit. When Rob finds out that Tanamashu claims that only he can hear the voice of Kaboona, he comes up with a plan to outwit the primitive natives by booby trapping parts of the island and rigging up the idol with lights and a sound system off the submarine.

Tanamashu and his men arrive and while the plan doesn’t go off without a hitch, Rob and the girls still manage to win the day. At the celebratory feast, Wednesday asks Rob to dance. Tanamashu thinks this is hilarious because she’s tricked him into performing a ceremonial wedding dance. (“Tanamashu not lose daughter! Tanamashu gain wise guy son!”) Rob runs for his life and spots a passing Navy helicopter just in the nick of time. They airlift Rob and Floyd off the island to safety and a gala reception on an aircraft carrier. For Floyd. It seems that nobody even noticed Rob was missing.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. movie tie-in book

So yeah, Cast Away this ain’t. In fact, it frequently struggles to rise to the level of Gilligan’s Island. Dick Van Dyke is a very gifted and funny performer but this is not the showcase he was hoping it would be. Rather than traditional voice-over narration, the story is told through Rob’s letters back to his fiancée. Which is fine, except that…Van Dyke…reads them…very…slowly…so we…can…understand…that…he is…writing. Honestly, if he just read the letters in a normal cadence, it would probably shave five minutes off this unnecessarily long movie.

Van Dyke has a real gift for physical comedy and you’d think that’s where this movie would shine. But for the first 20 or 30 minutes, he’s either trapped in the cockpit of a plane or stuck splashing around on a rubber life raft. There’s only so much you can do under those conditions. Things don’t improve much on land. The slapstick is either too restrained or too unimaginative. DaGradi and Walsh call on their animation background a bit in the grand finale but not enough.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was Nancy Kwan’s first and only Disney movie. Kwan shot to stardom as the title character in The World Of Suzie Wong. That role got her a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer, an award she shared with Hayley Mills for Pollyanna. She followed that up with the even more popular Flower Drum Song. But by the time Disney came along, she’d already begun having a hard time finding roles in American movies. As the years went on, she’d make more and more films in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong.

If Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is indicative of the kinds of roles Kwan was being offered, no wonder she went abroad. This is one of those only-in-the-60s movies that thinks it’s making a stand for equal rights by arguing against arranged marriage while accepting marriage as a woman’s natural, inevitable fate. Wednesday and the rest of her sister cousins don’t really want any other rights. They ask to be trained but spend most of their time giggling and serving fruit to Rob (or, as they call him, “Admiral Honey”). As soon as Rob rejects her, Wednesday is out for blood, leading an angry mob of women and throwing spears. It’s dispiriting to see someone as vibrant as Nancy Kwan stuck in a movie like this. She’s a fascinating person and a genuine trailblazer for Asian performers in Hollywood’s modern era. She deserves better.

Wednesday’s father, Chief Tanamashu, is played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor who is decidedly not Asian. Tamiroff was an Armenian actor who emigrated to America from Russia in 1927. He’d worked steadily in Hollywood since the 1930s, earning two Oscar nominations and working with such greats as Preston Sturges and Orson Welles. This would be Tamiroff’s only Disney appearance and he goes waaaaay over the top with it. His performance could almost be considered offensive if it was more specific. As it is, there’s no real way of telling what exactly he thinks he’s doing. He’s certainly not trying to do an impression of a stereotypical Chinese or Japanese or even Polynesian accent. It’s just his own goofy voice delivering a lot of pidgin English gobbledygook. Some of it’s a little amusing but a little goes a long way.

Even though nothing about this movie seems particularly special, Walt Disney had a lot of confidence in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. It was positioned as the studio’s big summer release of 1966, opening just a few weeks after The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its final episode on June 1. The studio held a gala premiere on board the USS Kitty Hawk in San Diego, the same aircraft carrier featured in the film, attended by such Disney all-stars as Fred MacMurray, Annette Funicello, Dean Jones and, of course, Dick Van Dyke. Most critics rolled their eyes at the movie but audiences turned it into a decent-sized hit. It was no Mary Poppins. Few movies were. But it did well enough to get a theatrical re-release in 1974.

Today, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is a footnote in Disney history, a fate it more than deserves. This is just not a good movie. At nearly two hours, it’s a real drag that quickly overstays its welcome. It borrows less from Robinson Crusoe than from Swiss Family Robinson but with less excitement and fewer laughs. Even Dick Van Dyke’s drunk scene falls flat. If you can’t milk a couple of chuckles out of a drunk Dick Van Dyke and a chimpanzee, you’ve got serious problems. Nevertheless, Dick Van Dyke will be back in this column. As will the chimpanzee, for that matter.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Mary Poppins

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

When Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles on August 27, 1964, Walt Disney was riding high on some of the most enthusiastic reactions of his career. The only trouble was they weren’t for his films. On April 22, the New York World’s Fair opened and four Disney exhibits quickly became must-sees for every visitor: Carousel Of Progress, Ford’s Magic Skyway, it’s a small world, and Walt’s passion project and personal favorite, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. These were groundbreaking feats of engineering and entertainment. The Audio-Animatronics developed by WED Enterprises’ team of “Imagineers” were the toast of the fair. As the first fair season came to a close in October, almost five million guests had visited the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion to get the song “It’s A Small World (After All)” stuck in their heads.

But back in Hollywood, the name “Walt Disney” had lost a little bit of its magic. Sure, people were still buying merchandise, watching the TV show and visiting Disneyland. But the studio barely made cartoons anymore. Their last animated feature, The Sword In The Stone, was noticeably different from earlier classics in both style and tone and the response to it had been lukewarm. And while the studio was still capable of putting out a sizable hit, they weren’t exactly the kinds of movies that brought invitations to the Academy Awards. Walt certainly wasn’t embarrassed by movies like Son Of Flubber or The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones. But even though audiences ate them up, they weren’t quite what Walt had in mind when he branched out into live-action.

The one movie that he had wanted to make for years was an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. It had been a particular favorite of Walt’s daughters. He first tried to obtain the rights back in 1938 as part of his post-Snow White shopping spree, only to be turned down flat by Mrs. Travers. But Walt Disney was nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After years of flattery and cajoling (and presumably an increased need for cash on Mrs. Travers’ side), he finally got her to say yes.

The behind-the-scenes drama between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is legendary, so much so that the studio made a whole self-mythologizing movie about it that will eventually appear in this column. Suffice it to say for now that Travers disagreed with almost every choice Walt and his team made, from the cast to the music to the animation. Especially the animation. P.L. Travers lived to be 96 years old, dying in 1996, and while she had come to terms with some parts of the film, she still hated cartoons.

Travers’ disapproval had to sting a little bit since Walt really had assigned his best people to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Co-producer and co-writer Bill Walsh had been responsible for some of the studio’s biggest recent hits, including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Co-writer Don DaGradi came from the animation side. He’d been a background and layout artist, an art director and a story man on a long list of Disney projects from Dumbo to Sleeping Beauty. He crossed over to live-action in 1959, first consulting on special sequences for films like Darby O’Gill And The Little People and The Parent Trap before moving on to cowrite Son Of Flubber with Walsh. They made a good team with DaGradi’s visual sense complimenting Walsh’s way with words.

Robert Stevenson had become one of Walt’s most reliable directors since joining the studio on Johnny Tremain. He’d been responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Old Yeller and the Flubber pictures. He was also adept with visual effects, as evidenced by his work on Darby O’Gill And The Little People. He’d never directed a musical before. But Walt hired the then-married choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to handle the dance sequences and had the Sherman Brothers in charge of the songs, so the music was in good hands.

Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, had been on the Disney payroll since around 1960. Walt met them through their association with Annette Funicello, whom they’d written several songs for. Since then, they’d written plenty of tunes, mostly title songs and incidental tracks designed to bridge scenes in movies like The Parent Trap or In Search Of The Castaways. But so far, their best public showcase had been the World’s Fair. Songs like “It’s A Small World (After All)” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” were simple, catchy earworms that have had a global reach that boggles the mind. Even so, they hadn’t had much of a chance to show what they could do on a bigger canvas.

The closest the Shermans had come to writing full-on musicals had been Summer Magic and The Sword In The Stone, neither of which really captured them at their best. None of the songs in Summer Magic were staged as production numbers. They were just songs to sing around a piano or on the porch between dialogue scenes. The Sword In The Stone came a bit closer but these were mostly tuneless, rhythm-based character songs. An audience couldn’t really sing along to them very well, much less hum or whistle them. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for its music. But that went to George Bruns’ score, not to the Sherman Brothers’ songs.

But the Shermans had been working on Mary Poppins pretty much from the beginning of their association with the studio. Walt finally secured the rights to the book right around the same time he met Robert and Richard. They were two of the first people he brought on board and they were very important in shaping the finished film. The Sherman Brothers knew this was a huge opportunity and they made the most of it.

Theatrical poster art for Mary Poppins

The cast was a good blend of Disney newcomers and returning veterans. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber may have been a bit young to be considered “veterans”. But their performances in The Three Lives Of Thomasina impressed Walt enough to cast them in the key roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Glynis Johns, who had co-starred in two of Disney’s early British productions, The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, returned to the studio as Banks matriarch and suffragette Winifred Banks. And Disney stalwart Ed Wynn was given the role he was born to play, Uncle Albert, an eccentric kook whose uncontrollable fits of laughter sends him floating to the ceiling.

Walt couldn’t have found an actor more ideally suited to the role of the repressed, emotionally withholding George Banks than David Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a consummate professional who’d been acting in British films and on stage since the early 1940s, interrupted only by his RAF service during World War II. He was the very image of a British gentleman and he’d toy with that stereotype throughout his career.

Dick Van Dyke was a somewhat more unconventional choice to play Bert, the cockney jack-of-all-trades. Van Dyke was a newly minted TV star thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show but was relatively untested in films. The fact that the Missouri-born entertainer was distinctly not British did not seem to be a concern. Despite what Van Dyke himself would later refer to as “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”, the movie serves as a terrific showcase for his talents as a song-and-dance man and a physical comedian. Those skills are underlined with Van Dyke’s virtually unrecognizable second role as the elderly Mr. Dawes. Revealing the gag in the end credits by unscrambling the name “Navckid Keyd” is a nice touch.

Of course, the most iconic bit of casting in the film is Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins herself. Andrews had been a sensation on London’s West End and Broadway in such shows as The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Jack Warner had bought the film rights to My Fair Lady and a lot of folks, including Andrews herself, were hoping she’d make her film debut as Eliza Doolittle. Warner had other ideas. He wanted a bankable star in the picture, so he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. Andrews was pregnant when Walt first offered her the part of Mary Poppins. She turned him down but Walt promised to hold off on production until she was ready.

He was right to wait. Julie Andrews delivers a performance for the ages that seems effortless but is very much not. On paper, the character seems impossible to play. She’s magical but prim and proper. She’s warm and loving but not outwardly demonstrative. I don’t think she even gives anyone so much as a hug once in the entire picture. She’s also a world-champion gaslighter, constantly telling the children she has no idea about the magical adventure she just made happen.

Mary Poppins’ magic all comes from the inside out. It’s seen in the twinkle of Andrews’ eyes, the playful smile that only occasionally breaks into a dazzling display of teeth, and her matter-of-fact body language even as she’s literally walking on air. This performance defines Mary Poppins in the popular imagination. Other actresses have played the role on stage and Emily Blunt starred in the belated sequel that I suppose we’ll have to talk about in this column eventually. But they’re all filtering their performance through Andrews’ work here. Not only does the work defy anyone else’s attempt to put their own spin on it, most audiences don’t want to see another spin on it. The measure of success is how closely you can come to replicating the original.

Theatrical poster art for the 30th anniversary re-release of Mary Poppins

In supporting roles, Walt recruited a parade of venerable character actors. Former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester pops in briefly as the last in the Banks’ long line of ex-nannies. Reginald Owen, who had played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Ebenezer Scrooge, is great fun as the Banks’ neighbor, Admiral Boom. Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, makes what would be her final film appearance as The Bird Woman. And if you know where to look, you can spot several Disney voice actors in the cast, including Don Barclay (as Admiral Boom’s first mate, Mr. Binnacle), Marjorie Bennett (as the owner of Andrew the dog) and Cruella de Vil herself, Betty Lou Gerson (as the creepy old lady who scares the hell out of the kids after they run away from the bank).

I was never a big fan of Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was a pleasant surprise to revisit it and find that I had severely underrated it. The Sherman Brothers are clearly the MVPs here. As a musical, Mary Poppins holds its own with anything that was on Broadway at the time, including My Fair Lady. The Shermans won Oscars for both Best Substantially Original Score (beating out Henry Mancini’s equally iconic The Pink Panther) and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. It’s interesting the Academy chose to honor that one since nearly every song has gone on to become a classic. The titles alone will get the songs playing in your head: “A Spoonful Of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (and yes, I copied and pasted that title).

In addition, Mary Poppins looks and feels like a big-screen movie. So many of Walt’s live-action films, especially from the 60s, look right at home on TV. In the 50s, Walt could get away with releasing made-for-TV productions theatrically because his production values were higher than normal for television. But as other studios made their movies bigger to compete with TV, Disney’s mostly stayed where they were. Mary Poppins was the exception. The sets, the costumes, the gorgeous matte paintings and other visual tricks were all state-of-the-art.

As enchanting as it is, Mary Poppins is not practically perfect in every way. P.L. Travers’ complaint about the animation isn’t wholly off-base. This was certainly Walt’s most ambitious blend of live-action and animation since Song Of The South. Technically, it’s extremely impressive and often lovely. It also goes on forever. They could have lost about half of it and no one would have been the wiser.

The “Jolly Holiday” song that takes up the first half of the sequence is one of the few times the narrative loses sight of the Banks family. Jane and Michael run off to explore the cartoon world while Bert serenades Mary Poppins and dances with some penguin waiters. A little goes a long way, especially since this doesn’t do anything to advance the story. Whatever weird past and/or present relationship Bert and Mary may or may not have had remains just as much a mystery. By the end of it, we haven’t learned a single new thing about either of these characters.

Overlength is probably the single biggest problem that plagues the film in general. Almost every scene, no matter how enjoyable, could probably be trimmed. “Step In Time” is an awesome production number but it feels like it’s never going to stop. I love the song “Stay Awake”, but the movie probably didn’t need two lullabies. And since “Feed The Birds” is a richer, more resonant song, “Stay Awake” feels like filler in comparison.

Mary Poppins single art

If critics or audiences shared these concerns back in 1964, they didn’t seem to care all that much. The press went nuts over Mary Poppins, praising it as Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Audiences adored it. Walt may have suspected he had a hit but even he had to be surprised at how big a hit it became. Not only did Mary Poppins become the highest-grossing film of 1964, it became the Disney studio’s biggest moneymaker ever.

When Academy Award nominations were announced on February 23, 1964, Mary Poppins led the pack with 13 including Best Picture, a first for any Walt Disney feature. The ceremony pitted Mary Poppins against My Fair Lady and, in many ways, Jack Warner’s film came out on top. In most categories where the two films went head-to-head, My Fair Lady won (one exception being Best Adapted Screenplay, which both lost to Becket). But Mary Poppins still took home five trophies including two for the Sherman Brothers’ music, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing (the one category where Mary Poppins triumphed over My Fair Lady).

The sweetest victory had to have been Julie Andrews’ win for Best Actress. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady, leaving Andrews to take home an Oscar for her very first film. A few weeks earlier, Andrews had been in direct competition with Hepburn and won at the Golden Globes. Accepting her award, Andrews cheekily thanked Jack Warner “for making all this possible”.

Mary Poppins must have been a pleasant experience for everyone involved, since nearly everyone in front of or behind the camera will be back in this column sooner or later. That includes Julie Andrews, although it’ll be quite some time before she returns. She’d go on to additional Oscar nominations (for The Sound Of Music and Victor/Victoria), a storied career on film, TV and stage, and a long marriage to filmmaker Blake Edwards. In 1981, she parodied her Disney image with a role in Edwards’ hilarious and tragically underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B. The next time we see Julie Andrews in this column, she’ll be Dame Julie Andrews, DBE.

Decades later, Mary Poppins has emerged as an enduring classic and one of Disney’s crown jewels. After its release, Walt would focus his attention on other projects, notably the ongoing work of his Imagineers and what would eventually become Walt Disney World. He’d be less hands-on with film, animation and TV production, with only a few projects capturing his imagination. And perhaps that’s understandable. Mary Poppins was the culmination of his life’s work, a magically entertaining synthesis of everything he’d learned about animation, storytelling and live-action filmmaking. After this, Walt Disney had nothing left to prove.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: In Search Of The Castaways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's In Search Of The Castaways

In 1962, Hayley Mills was on top of the world. Her first two Disney films, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, had been huge hits. The latter movie even netted her a hit single, “Let’s Get Together” by the Sherman Brothers. After The Parent Trap, Disney allowed her to return to England to make Whistle Down The Wind, based on a novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell. Whistle Down The Wind was another hit and Mills scored a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress. Stanley Kubrick offered her the title role in Lolita but her father, John Mills, nixed that idea. Walt himself probably also played a part in keeping Hayley out of Kubrick’s film. After all, his contract players were typically kept on a very short leash.

Hayley Mills was by far the most bankable box office star Walt had ever had under contract. Up to this point, his biggest live-action hit had been his 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. So it isn’t difficult to piece together how In Search Of The Castaways came about. The combination of Hayley Mills with the spectacle of another Jules Verne fantasy adventure must have seemed like a license to print money.

Robert Stevenson, who had proven himself equally adept with drama (Old Yeller), adventure (Kidnapped) and comedy (The Absent-Minded Professor), was assigned to direct. Lowell Hawley, the screenwriter of Swiss Family Robinson and Babes In Toyland, adapted Verne’s novel, originally titled Captain Grant’s Children.

Associate producer Hugh Attwooll had a somewhat unusual arrangement with Disney. He’d been working in the British film industry since he was a teenager, steadily working his way up through the ranks. His career was briefly interrupted by World War II and he spent a little while in Hollywood, working mostly for RKO, before heading back to England and Pinewood Studios. In 1959, Disney hired him to work on Kidnapped, beginning a long association with the studio. But unlike most other Disney crew members, Attwooll was never under contract. The studio simply liked his work and continued to hire him to as a producer for nearly everything they shot in England. His final credit was 1981’s Condorman, so we’ll be seeing a lot more from Hugh Attwooll.

Walt ran into a couple of small hiccups when it came to casting the film. He wanted Hayley Mills’ younger brother, Jonathan, to play her on-screen brother. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the time off school and wasn’t able to follow in his sister’s footsteps. The role instead went to Keith Hamshere, who was then appearing on the West End in the musical Oliver!

In Search Of The Castaways ended up being Hamshere’s only big movie role but it was still a formative experience for him. At the time, he was interested in photography as a hobby and spent much of his downtime hanging out with the film’s stills photographer, John Jay. Jay encouraged Hamshere’s passion and gave him lessons. A few years later, Jay hired Hamshere to work as his assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (a surprising number of Kubrick connections to this movie). After that, Hamshere had a new career. He went on to become a much-celebrated stills photographer in his own right, working behind-the-scenes on such films as Barry Lyndon, Superman II, and a whole bunch of James Bond movies. He makes a cameo in License To Kill as, what else, a wedding photographer.

Walt also cast Charles Laughton as Lord Glenarvan, the shipping magnate who leads the titular search. But Laughton was forced to drop out of the picture after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on December 15, 1962, just a few days before In Search Of The Castaways had its American premiere. Laughton was replaced by Wilfrid Hyde-White, the delightful British character actor.

The other two marquee names in the cast were Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders. Chevalier started his career in Parisian music halls before coming to America in the 1920s. He was a huge star in Hollywood throughout the 30s before a contract dispute sent him back to France. He had only recently begun making American films again with a role in Billy Wilder’s Love In The Afternoon in 1957. He followed that up with Gigi, an enormous hit and winner of multiple Oscars including Best Picture. In Search Of The Castaways would be his first collaboration with Disney but not his last. He’ll be back.

So will George Sanders, the great Oscar-winning star of All About Eve. Sanders was one of those rare actors who moved effortlessly between leading roles and supporting character parts. Sanders’ career (and life) had some tumultuous ups and downs but in 1962, he was still doing reasonably well. Two years earlier, he’d played the lead in Village Of The Damned, a low-budget horror movie that seemed to surprise everyone by becoming a sleeper hit. Between Village and Castaways, Sanders appeared in four more films and a few TV episodes, so he was certainly busy.

Alternate poster design for In Search Of The Castaways

Our story opens in 1858 Glasgow as Mary and Robert Grant (Mills and Hamshere) along with eccentric Professor Paganel (Chevalier) attempt to crash a bon voyage party hosted by Lord Glenarvan. Mary and Robert’s father vanished without a trace when his ship, one of Glenarvan’s fleet, went down. But Paganel recently found a bottle with a note in it that appears to have been written by Captain Grant. It isn’t entirely legible but Paganel and the kids believe it contains enough clues to be track Grant’s location.

At first, Glenarvan refuses to believe any of it. But his son, John (played by Michael Anderson Jr., the son of director Michael Anderson, who had himself filmed a Jules Verne adaptation, Around The World In 80 Days), started crushing on Mary the second he laid eyes on her. He persuades his father to mount an expedition. After some deliberation, Paganel decides that Grant’s most likely location is South America.

Up to this point, director Robert Stevenson has been setting us up for a relatively straight-forward adventure like Swiss Family Robinson. But once the searchers arrive in South America, Stevenson changes course and steers his ship toward Wackytown. The adventurers spend the night high up on a mountain in an area prone to earthquakes. When the quake hits, their rock shelf splits off, sending them careening down the mountainside and through a spectacular ice cavern on a stone toboggan. At the end of the ride, a giant condor appears and plucks Robert out of the snow, carrying him off to his aerie. Things look grim for Robert until a well-placed shot from a passing Indian, Chief Thalcave (Antonio Cifariello, continuing the tradition of Italians passing for Indians), rescues the lad.

Thalcave says he knows where the castaways are being held prisoner and agrees to lead the group. But before they get there, they decide to camp for the night by an enormous tree in a flood plain (these folks don’t use the best judgment when selecting campsites). Sure enough, a tidal wave floods the area, stranding the adventurers in the tree. Thalcave goes for help. While they’re awaiting rescue, a jaguar arrives to menace the group and a lightning storm threatens to burn down the tree.

They are eventually rescued by Thalcave but when they arrive at the village, it turns out that these aren’t the men they’re looking for. Paganel finally admits he was wrong about South America. They should be looking in Australia, which was where Lord Glenarvan wanted to go in the first place. So this entire trip (and basically the whole first half of the movie) has been a complete waste of time.

Off they go to Australia, where they encounter Thomas Ayerton (Sanders), who also claims to know where Grant’s ship went down off the coast of New Zealand. Turns out that Ayerton is actually a gunrunner. He and his men took over Grant’s ship, setting him adrift, and now intends to do the same thing to Glenarvan and his crew.

Glenarvan and company reach shore where they’re promptly taken prisoner by a tribe of Maori cannibals. They’re thrown into a hut with Bill Gaye (Wilfrid Brambell, best known, depending on where you’re from, as either Steptoe on the long-running British sitcom Steptoe And Son or as Paul McCartney’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night). Bill Gaye was a shipmate of Captain Grant and has been planning to escape and rejoin him. But his plan depends on squeezing through a small window, just big enough for a boy Robert’s size.

They manage to escape the Maori, losing them by hotfooting it across an active volcano. Finally, they find Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim, who will always be Poseidon from Clash Of The Titans to me) dealing with the treacherous Ayerton. With Glenarvan’s ship left relatively unguarded, they recapture the vessel and rescue Captain Grant. All’s well that ends well.

In Search Of The Castaways soundtrack album

If Walt’s goal was to recapture the magic of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he didn’t quite succeed. This is an unrepentantly goofy and amiable film. It doesn’t have a strong presence like James Mason at its center. The action sequences are treated with all the gravity and realism of a Donald Duck cartoon. The songs by the Sherman Brothers are silly little tunes with little to no bearing on what’s actually happening on screen. But if you can get on the movie’s wavelength, it offers some minor pleasures.

The cast certainly appears to be having a good time. Chevalier and Hyde-White are both a lot of fun, reacting to various life-or-death perils as if they’re minor inconveniences. Hayley Mills continues to be a charming screen presence. If she fails to generate many sparks with her romantic lead, that can probably be forgiven considering she was all of 15 or 16 years old at the time. And Keith Hamshere manages to avoid the Kevin Corcoran trap of overly precocious child actors.

The movie’s light touch works against it in some ways. It’s hard to become too invested in the search when every character sings a jaunty song in the face of mortal danger. And the midway revelation that they’ve been looking in the wrong place elicits groans more than anything else. It’s easy for the audience to check out at this point. If nothing we’ve seen so far has actually mattered, why should we expect that to change in the second half?

The film also borrows liberally from other Disney films. The search for castaways feels like it could be the flip side to Swiss Family Robinson. The oversized bird that captures Robert feels like an attempt to outdo some of the giant creatures from 20,000 Leagues. And the third act appearance of Bill Gaye brings to mind Treasure Island’s Ben Gunn, another long-haired, half-crazed sailor. They even have the same initials. But despite the film’s many flaws, it’s a hard movie to dislike. It coasts by on charm and spectacle, even as you find yourself rolling your eyes at some of its more unbelievable aspects.

In Search Of The Castaways was Disney’s big Christmas release for 1962. Critics weren’t exactly rapturous in their praise but most admitted that it was harmless fun, if nothing else. Audiences, on the other hand, seemed to love it. It became one of the highest-grossing films of the year in both the US and the UK. Hayley Mills’ winning streak wasn’t over yet. Neither was Robert Stevenson’s. He’ll be back in this column almost immediately.  

VERDICT: I had enough fun with it to make it a minor Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Darby O’Gill And The Little People

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill And The Little People

As a rule, Walt Disney did not spend nearly as much time developing his live-action features as he did his animations. He’d settle on a subject, assign it to a writer, assemble a cast, shoot the thing and get it out to theatres in a relatively short period of time. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea posed some technical challenges that lengthened the production period but Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer still put the script together quickly. The project that evolved into Darby O’Gill And The Little People was an exception, with over a decade elapsing between Walt’s original concept and its eventual release in June 1959.

Walt made his first trip to Ireland in 1947. While there, he got in touch with his family’s Irish roots (tenuous and distant as they may have been) and decided he wanted to make a movie about leprechauns. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s UK productions of the early 50s, produced a script called Three Wishes which would have combined live-action and animation. By 1956, it had turned into The Three Wishes Of Darby O’Gill, based on the stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. Walt and Watkin returned to Ireland, soaking up the atmosphere and researching Irish folklore. By early 1958, casting was underway on the newly retitled Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

Originally, Walt wanted Barry Fitzgerald, the Oscar-winning Irish star of Going My Way, to play both Darby O’Gill and Brian, King of the Leprechauns. But Fitzgerald felt he was getting too old to take on such a challenging workload and passed. In his place, Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby. He’d seen Sharpe perform in the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow and kept him in mind as a backup in case Fitzgerald turned him down. But Sharpe had essentially retired by the time Walt got around to making the movie and had to be talked into doing the role. He’d appear in one more film, the 1960 caper movie The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, before retiring for good.

For King Brian, Walt abandoned the dual-role gimmick and cast Jimmy O’Dea, a popular star of Irish stage and radio. O’Dea was most famous for his character Mrs. Biddy Mulligan, a working-class street vendor, who he performed on stage and a series of records. After Darby O’Gill, O’Dea had the opportunity to immortalize the Biddy Mulligan character on camera for his sketch comedy TV special, The Life And Times Of Jimmy O’Dea, before his death in 1965.

Amusingly, Walt tried to sell audiences on the idea that he had cast actual leprechauns in the film. The movie opens with a personal note that reads, “My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.” He’d take the gag a step further with I Captured The King Of The Leprechauns, an episode of Walt Disney Presents promoting the movie. In the episode, Walt travels to Ireland to personally meet with O’Dea (as King Brian) and persuade him to appear in the picture. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Walt credit for finding fun and novel ways to sell his empire.

Although the film would be shot in southern California, casting took place in London. It was there that Walt spotted Janet Munro, an ingenue in her early 20s. Munro had appeared in a couple of films, including the B-horror movie The Trollenberg Terror (better known in the States as The Crawling Eye), but had mostly worked in television. Walt saw her on an episode of ITV Television Playhouse and called her in for a screen-test. Munro has a wide, infectious smile and a no-nonsense attitude that makes her perfect for the role of Darby’s daughter, Katie O’Gill. Walt liked her so much that he made her part of the Disney Repertory Players, signing her to a five-year contract. She’ll be back in this column.

Walt did not offer a contract to Munro’s leading man, a tall Scotsman named Sean Connery. Connery had been trying to break into the movies for a few years, landing mostly bit parts in forgettable thrillers like No Road Back and Action Of The Tiger. His biggest role to date had been in the 1958 melodrama Another Time, Another Place opposite Lana Turner. That movie made him the target of Turner’s jealous gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, but didn’t do much for his career. When the Darby O’Gill offer came along, Connery was in no position to pass it up, even though it required him to sing, which he was not excited about, and attempt to transform his Scottish accent into an Irish brogue.

There are rumors that Connery’s and Munro’s singing voices were dubbed by others. That’s certainly possible. That practice was commonplace back in the 50s and 60s. But Connery also sings a little bit in Dr. No and his voice sounds identical in that movie as it does here, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His Irish brogue, however, is less convincing. The next time he played an Irishman, in his Oscar-winning role in The Untouchables, he wisely didn’t even bother trying.

Connery was not the breakout star of Darby O’Gill. That honor went to Janet Munro, who won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer. Connery was described as “merely tall, dark and handsome” by The New York Times and the film’s “weakest link” by Variety. But his performance did catch the eye of producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had recently acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Broccoli liked Connery and brought his wife, Dana, to another screening of Darby O’Gill to get her opinion. Dana wholeheartedly believed that Connery had the right stuff to be Bond and the rest is history. So even though Connery didn’t land a Disney contract, things seemed to work out all right for him.

Rerelease poster for Darby O'Gill And The Little People

The director was Robert Stevenson, making the third of his many Disney features following Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller. Darby O’Gill required a lighter touch than had his previous films for the studio and Stevenson acquits himself well. The pub sequences with Darby regaling the townsfolk with tales of his adventures with King Brian are full of character and warmth. Stevenson doesn’t bother with a lot of traditional exposition. Rather, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks and get to know the characters and their relationships to one another in our own time.

This was also the most technically challenging film Stevenson had attempted to date. Convincingly bringing the leprechauns to life required a combination of practical effects and visual trickery courtesy of the great Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw and cinematographer Winton Hoch employed forced perspective to create the illusion that Darby was interacting with the 22-inch-tall King Brian. Disney’s Imagineers had been using similar tricks with forced perspective throughout Disneyland. It’s the technique that makes Sleeping Beauty’s Castle appear to be a whole lot bigger than it really is.

The Disney studio only had one soundstage big enough to accommodate the oversized sets and enormous lights the work required. But Stage 2 was in constant use by the TV division, so Disney constructed a massive new soundstage, Stage 4. (Stage 3 and its water tank had been built a few years earlier for 20,000 Leagues.) In 1988, it would be divided in two, Stage 4 and Stage 5, where it would become the home of various TV shows like Home Improvement.

All the new construction and work paid off. The illusion of the leprechauns is completely convincing to this day. Even when you know how it was done, there are shots of Darby sharing the screen with the leprechauns that have you blinking your eyes in disbelief. That’s the difference between special effects and optical illusions. You can dissect a special effects shot and see how it was built. Optical illusions are seamless no matter how many times you’ve seen them.

The leprechauns aren’t the only characters from Irish folklore brought to life by special effects. Darby’s horse transforms into a púca. Later on, the banshee appears and summons the death coach to claim Katie. These optical effects haven’t aged as well but they work beautifully within the context of the film. When I was a kid, the banshee scared the bejeezus out of me. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the banshee.

Stevenson allows the story to unfold at the leisurely, rambling pace of a good yarn spun in a warm and inviting Irish pub. The heart of the story is the relationship between Darby and King Brian. It’s an equally matched battle of wits. They’re both clever, a little conniving and fond of a nip from the jug now and again. In a lot of ways, it’s Disney’s first buddy comedy.

The love story between Munro and Connery isn’t quite as convincing. Munro does her part, lighting up the screen with her smile and gradually warming to the young man in line to take her father’s job as caretaker. But Connery doesn’t seem all that interested in her. He does a great job early on as he wonders what exactly he’s gotten himself into by accepting this gig. But his attraction to Munro happens in an instant, like a switch has been pulled.

The supporting characters are a lot of fun, especially Estelle Winwood as the Widow Sugrue and Kieron Moore as her son, Pony. The widow aims to install Pony in Darby’s old job and as Katie’s husband. Winwood’s great juggling her two-faced nature. One moment she’s too sweet and too helpful. The next, she’s hustling into town to give Pony his marching orders. This would be Winwood’s only Disney film in a long career that reached back to the 1930s. She’d later have memorable appearances in The Producers and Murder By Death before her death in 1984 at the age of 101.

The bullying, somewhat dense Pony always does exactly what his sainted mother tells him to do, even though he doesn’t fully believe that things are going to work out the way she thinks. Moore is kind of like a flesh-and-blood version of Gaston in Beauty And The Beast. He’d go on to appear in such films as The Day Of The Triffids and Son Of A Gunfighter before becoming a documentarian and social rights activist in the early 1970s.

Darby O’Gill And The Little People did reasonably when it came out but it wasn’t a huge hit. Compared to the millions raked in by the low-budget The Shaggy Dog, the lavish Darby O’Gill was considered a disappointment. But in the years since, it has become something of a cult movie. Its ingenious special effects and the winning performances of Sharpe, O’Dea, Munro, Moore and the early star-making turn by the legendary Sean Connery have all kept it alive in the memories of its fans. It’s just a little bit darker and a little bit more grown-up than some of Disney’s other live-action productions but not so much that people don’t feel comfortable sharing it with their kids.

So far, Disney has resisted the urge to produce a sequel or a remake of Darby O’Gill. Good. This is by no means a perfect movie but it is a perfectly charming one. Replicating the unique magic that makes it special would require a very careful hand. Disney’s current filmmaking-by-committee approach to most of its reboots does not suggest they’d be capable of such a task. Better to leave Darby O’Gill And The Little People in Walt’s imagined SoCal Ireland.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Dedicated to Sir Sean Connery

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