Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Barefoot Executive

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Barefoot Executive

As we’ve seen repeatedly in this column, Walt Disney loved relying on successful formulas but he was not a fan of direct sequels. He only produced a handful, like Son Of Flubber, during his lifetime. So maybe it was a respectful nod to what Walt would have wanted when producer Bill Anderson, writer Joseph L. McEveety and director Robert Butler decided to follow the very successful Kurt Russell comedy The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes with The Barefoot Executive instead of another Dexter Riley adventure. It’s as good an explanation as any for this deeply weird movie.

Like most of Disney’s gimmick comedies, The Barefoot Executive is more an elevator pitch than an actual story. Russell stars as Steven Post, an ambitious kid hustling in the mailroom of third-place TV network UBC who becomes an overnight success thanks to a chimpanzee named Raffles who can pick hit shows. But unlike other gimmick comedies like The Love Bug and The Shaggy Dog, that quick synopsis isn’t very satisfying. Yes, I can see how a movie about a kid who turns into a dog or a sentient Volkswagen could be entertaining. A movie about a chimp who likes TV? Maybe not so much.

McEveety wrote the screenplay to The Barefoot Executive but the story is credited to Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn and Stewart C. Billett. Garrett and Kahn were TV veterans who’d worked together on such shows as Get Smart and Bewitched. My guess is their original story was a more satirical look at the industry that lost its edge in the process of Disneyfication. Otherwise, I can’t figure out how two people with years of TV experience could be involved with a movie that seems to have no idea how television actually works.

Raffles enters Steven’s life through some needlessly complex machinations. Raffles’ original owners, the Bernaduccis, lived next door to Steven’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Heather North, best known as the voice of Daphne on Scooby-Doo). When the Bernaduccis move to San Francisco, they have to give Raffles up because apparently it’s too cold up there. You might think it would be difficult to rehome a chimp but the Bernaduccis don’t have any problem foisting Raffles off on the nearest warm body.

That first night, Steven is annoyed that Raffles freaks out any time he tries to change the channel. But the next day, he discovers that the shows Raffles watched were the highest-rated shows of the night. (Incidentally, one of the shows Steven scoffed at is called Mother Carey’s Chickens, which was a book Disney had filmed years earlier as Summer Magic. Disney was really a pioneer in the fine art of Easter Eggs.)

Realizing this could all just be a fluke, Steven tests the chimp’s ability by spending the next several nights watching TV with him. He even goes so far as to sneak into Jen’s apartment and swap Raffles out with another chimp so he can spend more time with him at his own place. I didn’t realize chimps were so common that you could just run down to the pet store and pick one up. At any rate, Steven is eventually convinced that Raffles is indeed a TV savant and begins figuring out how to capitalize on his discovery.

Fortunately for Steven, network president E.J. Crampton (Harry Morgan, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of) is flying in from New York. Steven slips a note containing Raffles’ picks from the night before to Mertons the chauffeur (Wally Cox, last seen in The Boatniks, in his final Disney appearance). When Steve is proven right, Crampton is impressed enough to invite him to drop by the screening room later that evening to check out a couple of pilots.

Steven “disguises” Raffles as the world’s tiniest plumber and manages to sneak him into the projection booth. Crampton has high hopes for a show called The Happy Harringtons but Raffles has other ideas. The chimp prefers Devil Dan, a program Crampton and his vice president, Wilbanks (perennial Kurt Russell foil Joe Flynn), have already decided is dead on arrival. When Steve goes to bat for Devil Dan, Crampton and Wilbanks declare him an idiot and put The Happy Harringtons on the schedule.

Convinced that Raffles knows best, Steve pulls a switcheroo, putting the Devil Dan reel into the Happy Harringtons film canister. Because UBC is such a crappy network that nobody bothers to look at the material they’re broadcasting or even knows how to use a “technical difficulties” slide, Devil Dan goes out in its entirety nationwide. Wilbanks fires Steve but the overnight ratings prove that Raffles was right. Devil Dan is a hit and the network is praised for its innovative stunt programming.

Nothing succeeds like success, so Crampton changes his tune and proclaims Steve to be a boy wonder, making him the youngest programming executive in the industry. He moves on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, tastefully decorated with a random carousel horse and a bunch of high-tech burglar alarms to keep visitors out of his secret monkey room. Raffles picks hit after hit and before you know it, Steve is winning the coveted and definitely real Television Man of the Year Emmy Award. Apparently the Television Academy also gives out new cars with this honor? I don’t know, this must be one of the categories they don’t televise.

At any rate, Crampton and Wilbanks begin to get a wee bit resentful of their young protégé’s success. So they send Wilbanks’ sycophantic nephew, Roger, to uncover Steve’s secret. (John Ritter makes his big-screen debut as Roger. We’ll be seeing him again in this column very soon.) Roger dresses up like a bad guy in one of those DePatie-Freleng Inspector cartoons and sneaks into Steve’s apartment. Raffles attacks him before he learns much, other than Steve seems to really, really like bananas.

Jen, on the other hand, finally figures out that Steve stole her chimp and confronts him. Steve confesses everything, along with a declaration of love and a vague semi-proposal of marriage. That’s apparently all she needed to hear because she’s fine with it. Hey, remember that other chimp that Steve stuck her with? Really? Because the filmmakers don’t. I guess Jen just resigned herself to life with a mystery chimp.

Back at the studio, Roger overhears Tom, Steve’s buddy in the projection booth, ask whatever happened to that monkey plumber Steve used to bring in. (That’s Jack Bender making his Disney debut as Tom. We’ll see him again, too. Later on, Bender left acting and became an Emmy-winning producer and director for such shows as Lost and Game Of Thrones. I guess he learned a lot about the TV business from The Barefoot Executive.) Roger puts all his circumstantial evidence together and reaches the inevitable conclusion that the chimp is the one picking the shows. Sounds air-tight to me.

Roger drags Crampton, Wilbanks (and Mertons, for some reason) over to Steve’s building to spy on him. When Raffles gets up during the commercials to grab a beer, everyone is convinced. Crampton decides he must have that chimp! This leads to an interminable sequence with Wilbanks and Mertons stuck on a ledge outside Steve’s penthouse apartment. It goes on. And on. And on. Honest to God, I feel like I could have made and eaten an entire Thanksgiving dinner while they were stuck on that ledge.

Wilbanks eventually falls and is caught in a fireman’s net. Since everyone thought he was suicidal and he’s raving about chimpanzees, he’s carted off to the looney bin. But Mertons explains everything, more or less. The revelation that the top-rated TV network in the country has been programmed by a chimp causes a huge scandal. At a huge meeting of network executives, sponsors and government officials, it’s decided that the best course of action is to buy Raffles from Steve and air-drop him into a remote jungle. Sure. Why not.

At first, Steve assures Jen that he has no intention of selling Raffles. Which is nice of him considering he stole the chimp from her to begin with. But the offer of a million dollars proves too much to resist. Again, THERE’S A SECOND CHIMP! Maybe give that one to Crampton and Steve, Jen and Raffles can take the million and live happily ever after? No? OK, fine. Whatever.

Crampton and Wilbanks board a plane to take Raffles away, putting the chauffeur in charge seemingly for the sole purpose of pissing off Roger. But once they’re over the drop zone, Raffles opens the rear hatch and all the executives and reporters are sucked out into the abyss. Rather than attempting a rescue, the pilot turns around and brings Raffles back home. Steve returns the money (that he definitely could have kept if he’d just remembered he had access to a second chimp) and he, Jen and Raffles ride off into the sunset on Steve’s motorcycle.

OK, so where to start with this thing? First off, I admit there is the germ of a funny idea here. Movies love taking pot-shots at TV and the premise of a chimp programming the highest-rated shows on the air sounds like a logical addition to the “TV Sucks” subgenre. But the problem is that it’s never clear how we’re supposed to feel about these shows. Is Raffles actually picking better shows than his human counterparts? Or are they terrible shows that just happen to be enormously popular?

The Barefoot Executive isn’t concerned with questions like that. And honestly, you can’t tell if it’s because the filmmakers think everything on TV is lousy or if it’s because they think it’s all fine. You can’t really satirize something without expressing your opinion about it. We also never get to see much of the shows Raffles likes or dislikes, so we’re unable to draw our own conclusions. The most we’re shown is a few seconds of the animated opening to Devil Dan, which honestly looks pretty cool. We aren’t even told what Devil Dan is supposed to be about but I’d watch a show that opens with that cartoon devil. Based on that, I’d say let the chimp pick the shows. He seems to have good taste.

It’s pointless to complain about the fact that The Barefoot Executive makes zero sense. Most of Disney’s gimmick comedies are like that and everybody involved knew it. But you can only turn a blind eye to that as long as you’re laughing and too few of the gags in this movie really land. John Ritter is fun to watch and there’s a clever bit with Kurt Russell pitching his idea for a surefire hit show called Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. But everything is dragged out much longer than necessary. I already mentioned the ledge sequence, which is clearly the worst offender. But even in Russell’s pitch, you want to yell at the screen for everyone to stop saying the words Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Just because something is funny once doesn’t mean it’s still funny the sixth or seventh time.

The other big problem with The Barefoot Executive is our so-called hero. Kurt Russell was only about 20 when he made this movie and he already had a knack for playing charming connivers. But Steven Post is nowhere near as likable as Dexter Riley. He whines a lot. He’s a terrible friend to both people and chimps. He’s barely interested in the girl he supposedly wants to marry. He has no ideas of his own. He even stole the Lincoln idea from a guest speaker at his night school. Sorry Steve, you’re just not a fun guy to be around.

The Barefoot Executive also echoes The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in its title music. Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland learned one lesson from that movie and did not try to write a song called “The Barefoot Executive”. Instead, they came up with a generic, go-get-‘em-tiger tune called “He’s Gonna Make It”. The only lyric that sounds specific to this movie is a random bass voice at the end of the chorus singing, “And his little bitty barefoot friend.” It sounds like it was designed to allow other films to remove that one line and replace it with their own rewritten words. Stick in “and his little bitty love bug friend” and you could put it in a Herbie movie.

Released March 17, 1971, The Barefoot Executive received some better-than-expected reviews and did fairly well at the box office, albeit not quite at the level of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Which is not to say it hasn’t had a legacy of its own. It aired frequently on television and a lot of people seem to have fond memories of it. I’m not quite sure why but hey, whatever floats your boat.

In 1995, when Disney went through a phase of remaking a lot of their live-action comedies for TV, the studio hired Susan Seidelman of all people to reboot The Barefoot Executive. Jason London stepped into the Kurt Russell role, just a few years after his breakthrough in Dazed And Confused. The cast included such familiar faces as Chris Elliott, Julia Sweeney, Ann Magnuson, Kathy Griffin, Jay Mohr and Tenacious D’s own Kyle Gass. It sounds like an improvement but from what I’ve seen, it’s not, although it is kind of weird seeing those actors in a movie like this.

After five movies and a handful of television appearances, Disney was officially in the Kurt Russell business. But for his next movie, Russell took a short hiatus from the studio to appear opposite James Stewart, George Kennedy and Strother Martin as a young ex-con named Johnny Jesus in the movie Fools’ Parade. But he’d be back in Burbank before long. And this time, the studio would be throwing Walt’s “no sequels” rule out the window.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Wild Country

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Wild Country

In their 2021 book The Boys: A Memoir Of Hollywood And Family, brothers Ron and Clint Howard dedicate the better part of an entire chapter to the summer they spent in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filming The Wild Country. It was a formative experience for them both and their memories of the summer of ’69 are warm and fond. It’s a good book. You should check it out. But I think it’s fair to say that the Howard Brothers have spent more time thinking about The Wild Country over the past 50 years than most of us. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty good. But it’s definitely one of the deeper cuts in this column.

The Wild Country had actually been in development at the studio for quite a while. Disney bought the rights to Ralph Moody’s book Little Britches, the first in a popular series of autobiographical stories, back in the late 1950s. Now this is pure conjecture on my part, so don’t sic Leonard Maltin on me if I’m wrong. But at that time, The Wild Country almost certainly would have been being developed as a vehicle for Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The personalities of and dynamic between brothers Virgil and Andy Tanner is exactly like roles played by Kirk and Corcoran in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and many others. But Kirk started to be on the outs with the studio around the time he and Corcoran made Bon Voyage! in 1961. Between that and the disappointing reception to the Old Yeller sequel, Savage Sam, it’s little wonder that The Wild Country ended up on the shelf.

Producer Ron Miller dusted off Moody’s book and brought on board a whole bunch of TV people. Screenwriters Calvin Clements Jr. and Paul Savage had both worked on the TV western Gunsmoke, as had director Robert Totten. Of course, Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons, so odds are everybody involved with The Wild Country worked on Gunsmoke sooner or later in some capacity.

Clements later wrote a few Wonderful World Of Disney episodes, including Justin Morgan Had A Horse and The Flight Of The Grey Wolf. He was later a writer and producer on such series as Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Matt Houston and Walker, Texas Ranger. Savage also continued to work in television on shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Murder, She Wrote. He returned to the studio years later writing an installment of the late 80s revival of Davy Crockett for The Magical World Of Disney.

As for Robert Totten, he had directed dozens of TV episodes but few feature films. He’d made an independent war movie in 1963 called The Quick And The Dead that starred Victor French and Star Trek fixture Majel Barrett. His next movie was Death Of A Gunfighter starring Richard Widmark. Widmark hated Totten and had him fired, bringing in Don Siegel to finish the picture. Siegel refused to put his name on it, since Totten only had about a week left to shoot when he was let go. But Totten didn’t want his name on it, either, so Death Of A Gunfighter became the first movie directed by the pseudonymous Allen Smithee.

In The Boys, Ron Howard describes Totten as a Peckinpah-like figure who aspired to make tough, independent movies but never quite got the breaks he needed. For Disney, he’d already made a couple of TV two-parters like Ride A Northbound Horse and he’d do a couple more after The Wild Country, including The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. He was also a bit of a mentor to young Ronny, who even then wanted to be a director. Totten was encouraging and took the time to explain his methodology to Howard, who was 15 at the time. Howard says Totten was the first director who didn’t treat him like a kid. That’s a lot better legacy than simply being remembered as the original Allen Smithee.

The artist formerly known as Ronny Howard was squarely in the awkward teen years of child stardom in the summer of ’69. In 1967, Howard made his Disney debut in A Boy Called Nuthin’, a two-parter for Wonderful World Of Color. The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968. Since then, he’d popped up in a few guest spots on shows like (surprise, surprise) Gunsmoke and his little brother Clint’s show, Gentle Ben. But The Wild Country was his highest profile project since the Opie days.

Clint Howard first made his way to Disney via animation. He’d been the voice of Roo in the Winnie The Pooh shorts and the young elephant in The Jungle Book. This wasn’t the first time Clint and Ron had worked together but I believe it is the first and possibly only time they played brothers on-screen. Their dad, Rance Howard, also appears in The Wild Country as a cowhand on the bad guy’s ranch.

The boys’ on-screen father was played by Steve Forrest, the thick-haired, mustachioed single father from Rascal. When I wrote that column, I was under the impression that Forrest only made one Disney feature, which just goes to show how far under the radar this film has flown. I’d clocked the title on Forrest’s filmography but had assumed The Wild Country was a TV production. Anyway, I like Forrest, so I’m glad to see him back. I’m pretty sure this really will be Forrest’s only other appearance in this column but I’ve been wrong before.

The Wild Country was Vera Miles’ fourth Disney movie, following A Tiger Walks, Those Calloways and Follow Me, Boys! She’d already appeared as Clint’s mom in Gentle Giant, the 1967 movie that begat Gentle Ben. Miles’ concerned mom roles for Disney were all fairly similar and pretty thankless. Nevertheless, she must have enjoyed working for the studio. We’ll be seeing her a couple more times.

We’ve seen rugged tales of the frontier in this column before and you can rest assured we’ll be seeing them again. In its broad strokes, The Wild Country isn’t too dissimilar from earlier Disney westerns. The Tanner family arrives in Wyoming full of hope for the future, having left Pittsburgh for reasons that are never made entirely clear but are apparently irreversible. Jim Tanner (Forrest) has purchased a farm at a rock-bottom price from his fast-talking cousin Phil (Dub Taylor, last seen here in The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin). The Tanners don’t know a whole lot about farming but they’re determined to make it work.

They’re in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the property to discover that their fixer-upper farm needs a lot more fixer-uppering than Cousin Phil let on. Their second surprise is finding a trapper named Thompson (Jack Elam, making his first Disney western feature after the crime comedy Never A Dull Moment, although he’d appeared on a few episodes of Zorro) and his pet wolf sleeping in their house. Thompson roams the country with his Indian buddy, Two Dog (Frank DeKova, last seen impersonating a Native American in Those Calloways), and they’ll prove helpful in the months ahead.

Thompson warns Jim to head back to Pittsburgh now and save his family the trouble of trying to work this land. The Tanners aren’t the first people to work this farm. The problem is that all the water comes from the land above owned by a real piece of work named Ab Cross (Morgan Woodward, not seen around these parts since making his film debut in The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho, The Wagons!). Even though Jim’s deed plainly states that he’s entitled to all the water above a certain mark on Ab’s dam, he routinely shuts off the supply come summer.

After Ab’s cattle trespasses on to the Tanner farm and destroys Kate’s garden, Jim and Virgil decide to pay a neighborly call on Ab and work things out in a civilized manner. When Jim threatens to get the law involved, Ab and his gang of roughnecks laugh in his face. Seems there ain’t no law in Jackson’s Hole, a fact that local shopkeeper Jensen (Karl Swenson) later backs up. Since the nearest marshal is in Cheyenne, Jim writes him a letter and bides his time.

This was not the outcome Ab was hoping for. When he and the boys run into the Tanners at the general store, Ab tries to get Jim to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Jim doesn’t want to get sucked into a fight in front of his wife and kids but Ab leaves him no choice. It’s a brutal fight, especially by Disney standards, and even though both men are left reeling, Ab gets the worst of it. Humiliated in front of his men, Ab shuts off the water supply completely.

Jim decides to ride to Cheyenne himself but before he can go, Virgil sneaks up to Ab’s property and tries to unblock the dam. Jim rides after him, preferring to let the law run its slow, natural course. But when Ab finds the Tanners trespassing on his dam, he comes out firing, shooting Jim in the leg.

Temporarily beaten, the Tanners return home so Jim can recover. But it isn’t long before a tornado tears through, devastating the farm and wiping out what little progress the Tanners have made. This is one calamity too many for Kate, who finally decides enough is enough. The family is going back to Pennsylvania. Jim lets her have her say, then quietly but firmly takes her aside to let her know they’re not going anywhere. I’m sure this is meant to come across as a positive message about the resilience of family but given everything that’s happened, it comes across as borderline abusive.

While Jim is reminding Kate who wears the pants, the Marshal finally shows up (and he’s played by Larry D. Mann, probably best known as the voice of Yukon Cornelius in the Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer!). They head on up to Ab’s place, who petulantly agrees to get the water flowing again. That should be the end of it but because Ab Cross is such an unrepentant asshole, you know the Tanners aren’t out of the woods yet, right?

That night, the Tanners are celebrating their victory when Andy goes outside to find their barn in flames. While they scramble to put out the fire, Ab skulks out from the shadows and shoots Jim again! In the back! Kate wallops him with a two by four and does her best to fend him off. But just as Ab is about to finish Jim off, Virgil emerges from the house with a rifle and kills Ab. The next day, Ab’s men come to collect the body and, with much apologetic hand-wringing, admit their boss went a smidge too far. They vow to pitch in and get the Tanners back on their feet.

Alternate theatrical poster for The Wild Country

Considering that The Wild Country evokes memories of several earlier Disney westerns, none of which were all that great to begin with, it’s a little surprising that this movie works as well as it does. Clint Howard’s character, Andy, is very much cut from the Kevin Corcoran cloth. He spends most of the movie attempting to trap various animals, including a skunk, a porcupine and a hawk, to keep as pets, all of which he names Ralph. But Clint’s not as uncontrollably manic as Kevin was and his antics don’t overshadow the rest of the movie. He’s also effective in dramatic scenes, like when he breaks down over the prospect of his mom heading back to Pittsburgh.

The movie’s biggest problem, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, is that it feels more like an extended episode of a TV show than a movie. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of all the Gunsmoke alumni. Part of that is the very episodic story. There’s another subplot about Virgil accidentally shooting at a wild horse that turns out to be pregnant. He misses her but she injures herself in a fall. Thompson and Two Dog are summoned to help deliver the filly (which is actually shown on camera), who Andy of course names Ralph. The whole sequence feels like a Very Special Episode of The Wild Country.

The movie might feel more cinematic if Disney treated it with more respect. The Wild Country is not currently available on Disney+ and the only way you can see it at all is in an old-school TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Frank Phillips seems to do a lovely job capturing the Wyoming landscape. It’d be nice if we could actually see his work the way he intended it to be shown.

Robert Totten may never have become the next Sam Peckinpah but he knows his way around a camera and stacks his cast with great character actors from the golden age of westerns. Dub Taylor is a lot of fun in his small role and it’s always a treat to see Jack Elam. Morgan Woodward is eminently hissable as the bad guy. Whenever one of these old pros is on the screen, which is most of the time, the movie always has something fun to offer.

The weakest link in the cast is probably Ronny Howard. At this point in his career, he had a tendency to go big at the slightest provocation. Totten reels him in when it counts, like in the tense climax, but there are still plenty of moments where you wish he’d dial it back a notch or three. Kurt Russell was a little too old to play Virgil in 1970 but if the movie had been made a few years earlier, he’d have been better suited to the role.

Interestingly enough, Howard admits in The Boys that he was hoping the movie would be a flop before it premiered. He was actively trying to distance himself from his goody-two-shoes Opie Taylor image and he knew that The Wild Country would only cement it. As it happens, Howard got his wish. The Wild Country received some decent reviews but barely made a dent at the box office.

The same year he filmed The Wild Country, Ron Howard also performed a voice on the record The Story And Song From The Haunted Mansion, released to coincide with the opening of the Disneyland attraction. Later in 1970, he appeared in the boy and his dog drama Smoke, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney. And for a while, that seemed to mark the end of his association with the studio. A few years later, George Lucas cast him in American Graffiti and from there, he went on to Happy Days. Howard would eventually return to Disney as a director and his return launched a whole new era for the studio. But it’s a little surprising we won’t be seeing Ron Howard the actor in this column again. Clint, on the other hand, will be back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Boatniks

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Boatniks

If you ask me (and since you’re reading this, you kind of did), Ron Miller doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to Disney history. He was related to Walt by marriage, having married Walt’s daughter Diane Disney in 1954. A former pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams, Walt offered him a job at the studio because he didn’t want the father of his grandkids getting hurt on the field. Miller could have gone into acting but Walt wanted him to learn the production side of the business. He worked his way up from second assistant to first assistant director to associate producer.

In 1980, he became president of Walt Disney Productions and CEO three years later. During his tenure at the top, Miller dragged the studio kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century. He shepherded such innovative and non-Disney-like films as TRON and The Black Hole through production. In 1984, he established Touchstone Pictures to produce the kind of adult-oriented films the studio never would have touched before. Not all of his decisions paid off right away and shareholders voted to replace him later in ’84. But at least he was willing to try something new, just like his father-in-law before him.

You can see Miller trying to gently nudge the company toward more grownup fare even in his early films as a producer. Both The Boatniks and his previous feature, Never A Dull Moment, were comedic crime movies with nary a cute animal or precocious child in sight. Sure, neither one was all that successful, either artistically or financially. But it’s still kind of a weird kick to see a G-rated Disney take on a traditionally PG-or-higher genre.

The Boatniks was written by Arthur Julian from a story by Marty Roth. Both Julian and Roth spent the vast majority of their careers in television. Roth had written several McHale’s Navy episodes among many other shows and would go on to co-create the cult Saturday morning sci-fi show Ark II. Julian was a writer, producer and sometime actor who’d worked on F Troop and Hogan’s Heroes, again among many others. He’d later become head writer on The Carol Burnett Show and would write for such sitcoms as Maude, Amen and Gimme A Break!

The prolific Norman Tokar, who has been in this column a bunch of times, most recently on the boy-and-his-racoon picture Rascal, is once again in the director’s chair. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the tenth of Tokar’s fifteen Disney pictures. Hopefully he got a free sandwich at the Disney commissary for filling out his punch-card. Tokar started his Disney career with animal adventures like Big Red and Savage Sam. But Miller must have noticed that he’d shown a knack for wacky comedies in movies like The Ugly Dachshund. From here on out, Tokar would specialize in that genre.

Today, star Robert Morse is probably best known as Bert Cooper on Mad Men. But in 1970, he was famous as the Tony Award winning star of the Broadway musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He reprised that role in the 1967 movie version, starring alongside Michele Lee from The Love Bug. He’d also starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1965 black comedy The Loved One. The Boatniks would be his last leading role in a movie but he would continue to be a major stage star and make TV appearances throughout the 70s and 80s.

Morse’s leading lady, Stefanie Powers, had been on screen since the early 60s. In 1966, she starred in the short-lived spy spin-off The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The show didn’t last but it was enough to put her on the map and today it has a cult following. We’ll be seeing Powers in this column again.

Miller surrounded his stars with an impressive array of comedic talent, including the great Phil Silvers. Silvers became a major star in the 1950s as Sgt. Bilko on the self-titled The Phil Silvers Show. He’d also appeared in such comedy classics as It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The Boatniks was Silvers’ first Disney movie but it won’t be his last.

Also appearing in the film were such familiar faces as Norman Fell, Wally Cox (seen previously in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band), and in cameos, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis and Silvers’ old costar Joe E. Ross (also seen in The Love Bug) as “Nutty Sailor”. Miller even got Don Ameche, who hadn’t done much film work since the 1940s ended, to appear as the eternally frustrated Commander Taylor. By Disney standards, this was a fairly star-studded cast.

UK Quad poster for The Boatniks

The movie is set in and around Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula and, except for some interiors, was shot there, as well. That makes for a nice change from Disney’s usual practice of filming as much as possible within walking distance of the studio. Granted, you can drive from Burbank to Balboa in less than two hours on a good day but the change in scenery helps open things up.

Morse stars as Ensign Tom Garland, an accident-prone sailor taking over command of the Balboa Coast Guard from Lt. Jordan (Joey Forman, another Borscht Belt comic). Jordan is burnt out from dealing with the drunks and amateur sailors who descend on Balboa every weekend. Commander Taylor served with Garland’s war hero father during WW2, so at first he’s thrilled to welcome the young man. But when Garland falls off the boat mere minutes after his arrival, Taylor begins to suspect that the apple has fallen quite a ways from the tree.

Garland also meets cute with Kate Fairchild (Powers), a sailing instructor and owner of a boat rental company, by accidentally dousing her with a can of yellow paint. She gets her revenge later on when Garland’s boat runs aground during a routine rescue operation. Kate tows the stranded Coast Guardsmen back to the pier, humiliating Garland in front of the entire marina and Commander Taylor. But they fall in love later that night when they’re forced to share a table at a crowded restaurant. Hey, these things happen, right?

Amidst all this, the police are searching for three jewel thieves (Silvers, Fell and Mickey Shaughnessy, returning from Never A Dull Moment). With the roads blocked, they’re unable to drive to Mexico. So they buy a picnic basket, hide the jewels in the bread, pickles, chicken and what-not, and charter a boat from Kate with the intention of sailing south of the border. Of course, none of them has ever sailed before, so they have a hard time just getting out of the harbor.

It isn’t long before the thieves get lost in the fog and Garland accidentally sinks their ship. Garland continues to encounter them as they attempt to retrieve the picnic basket from the bottom of the ocean, growing increasingly suspicious as their schemes become more outlandish. When all else fails, the thieves contact an acquaintance in Japan to bring in a pearl diver (played by the beautiful Midori). Once she retrieves the basket, she drops the can’t-understand-English act and helps herself to a portion of the loot.

The bad guys are now free to hightail it down to Mexico and they charter a seaplane (piloted by Vito Scotti in the first of his all-purpose ethnic roles for Disney) to pick them up. But by now, Garland and Kate are convinced that these are the jewel thieves everyone’s been looking for. Their attempt to confront them in front of Commander Taylor goes badly when their opened picnic basket appears to spill out nothing more than a well-stocked (and surprisingly well-preserved, considering it spent several days underwater) lunch.

Taylor is ready to relieve Garland of his command when a pelican grabs a stray pickle and Kate discovers some of the jewels hidden inside. Garland pursues them across the crowded harbor. After a series of mishaps, the thieves end up inside a yellow submarine. The chase continues out to the seaplane. The thieves make it to the plane but it’s too heavy to take off, so they start frantically dumping whatever excess weight they can find. This ends up including the picnic basket. The thieves escape empty-handed, Garland is declared a hero and Kate gets a stolen engagement ring when she can’t pry it off her finger.

Alternate theatrical poster for The Boatniks

The plot of The Boatniks is inconsequential even by the standards of a live-action Disney comedy and that’s really saying something. It’s really just a framework upon which to hang gags about giant fish, sharks, pickles, poor seamanship and, most surprisingly, sex and booze. In Walt’s day, Annette Funicello wasn’t even allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit. Here, Wally Cox plays an eccentric millionaire named Jason whose yacht hosts a neverending party attended by dozens of bikini-clad babes. The times, they were a’changin’.

As for the drinking, Disney movies have never been havens of teetotaling. The pleasures of a good stiff drink have played a part in everything from The Love Bug to Rascal. Even Dumbo famously gets liquored up. But there’s a lot more of it on display in The Boatniks. One of the very first gags has Lt. Jordan responding to a distress call by asking if they have any beer on board. The lost ship replies, “Oh yeah, we’re loaded!” Turns out the boat got lost because they set a beer can next to their magnetic compass and everybody was too drunk to figure that out.

The Boatniks is most enjoyable when it diverts from Garland’s investigation to focus on these random side characters. In addition to Cox and Joe E. Ross, whose Nutty Sailor keeps crashing into things, there’s Gil Lamb (who has appeared in small parts in everything from The Ugly Dachshund to The Love Bug) as Mr. Mitchell. He’s attempting to sail solo around the world, evidently to get away from his wife and gaggle of kids. He doesn’t get far before the Nutty Sailor wrecks his boat. Pretty nutty!

Unfortunately, The Boatniks never quite finds its sea legs. For one thing, it could use more of the live-action-cartoon energy that Robert Stevenson brought to The Love Bug. Whether it’s due to budget constraints or inexperience, Tokar shies away from showing much action. We repeatedly see boats disappearing out of frame or behind an obstacle, followed by the sounds of a crash. Sometimes we don’t even get to see the aftermath of these mishaps. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always found visual gags are a lot funnier when you actually get to see something.

The other big problem is Robert Morse, who can be terrifically entertaining but never cuts loose here. Morse was a good dancer, so you’d think physical comedy should be right in his wheelhouse. But he seems reluctant to appear too foolish, which is a huge handicap if you’re playing a clumsy sailor. Jerry Lewis would have made a nine-course meal out of this role but if you didn’t want to go quite that big, Dick Van Dyke or even Dean Jones would have been more fun.

The Boatniks was Disney’s big summer release for 1970, coming out on July 1. It did pretty well, earning about $5 million that year, although critics weren’t terribly impressed. A few years later, the studio re-released it on a double bill with Song Of The South. Considering all the sexist gags and Japanese and Mexican stereotypes in this picture, that would be a wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate afternoon at the movies these days.

It would be almost a decade before another Ron Miller production would receive Disney’s first PG rating. Until then, the studio kept on making movies like this one. Too wholesome for most adults and older kids but not exactly wholesome enough for the younger crowd. It’s most likely these “problematic” elements that have kept The Boatniks off Disney+, at least for the time being. And while the movie could be a lot worse, it’s far from being a buried treasure in the Disney catalog.

VERDICT: I got a few laughs but overall it’s a Disney Meh.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

The shared cinematic universe is usually considered a relatively recent concept even though studios like Universal and Toho started hosting all-star monster jamborees decades ago. Even Disney dropped some shared universe Easter eggs in their early days, like bringing a live-action Bambi into 1957’s Perri. With The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Disney went back to Medfield College, birthplace of Flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor.

A few things have changed at dear old Medfield since the Flubber days. Fred MacMurray’s Professor Brainard has evidently retired, presumably flush with Flubber cash. The great character actor William Schallert is the new all-purpose teacher, Professor Quigley. (I assume Medfield must have additional faculty but these movies only ever seem to focus on one.) The college also has a new dean, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn, last seen as David Tomlinson’s flunky in The Love Bug).

But perhaps the biggest difference between The Absent-Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is its protagonist. The Flubber movies treated the student body like an afterthought, nameless bodies to toss around the basketball court and the football field, keeping the focus on Professor Brainard. Computer shares a little DNA with The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones (which surprisingly did not take place at Medfield) by promoting a student to the lead role. But unlike Merlin Jones, Dexter Riley is no brainiac inventor. As played by Kurt Russell, Dexter is the typical all-American underachiever, more interested in having a good (albeit G-rated) time than academics.

Russell had worked steadily since his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys! three years earlier. In addition to his feature appearances, he’d done plenty of TV including guest shots on non-Disney shows like Daniel Boone with former Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. Now 18, Russell had earned the chance to show what he could do with a starring role.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Medfield’s dire financial straits. Alonzo P. Hawk may not be around anymore to call in the school’s loan but Medfield is still hemorrhaging money. By the way, Keenan Wynn will eventually be back in this column as Alonzo P. Hawk, bringing another Disney franchise into the Medfield-verse.

During a budget meeting with the board of regents, Professor Quigley argues that the school desperately needs to get with the times and buy a computer. Unfortunately, the budget is stretched thin and Dean Higgins shoots down the request. Besides, the regents believe modernization is overrated. Higgins is more concerned with weeding out Medfield’s worst students, a long list that includes Dexter and his friends. Quigley sticks up for them. He believes they’re good kids, just in need of a little extra motivation.

Those troublemaking kids were smart enough to plant a listening device in the conference room and they’ve overheard the whole thing. Wanting to do something nice for Quigley, they decide to go visit Dexter’s old boss, tycoon A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero, who had previously appeared in a few episodes of Disney’s Zorro). He seems to be in possession of the only computer in town and the kids hope to persuade him to donate it to the school.

Arno is surprisingly open to the idea except for one thing. He already donates $20,000 a year to Medfield, so he isn’t about to toss in a $10,000 computer on top of that. But if the school is willing to forego their annual gift, maybe they can work something out. This sounds like a good deal to the kids (obviously not math majors) and they set to work crating up the tons of components that make up a late-60s computer.

It’s surprising that Arno is so willing to part with the computer because we soon find out he keeps it in a secret room behind a hidden panel. The computer’s primary function is keeping track of Arno’s many illegal gambling clubs. Now you might think that Arno would need a valuable piece of equipment like that. At the very least, perhaps he should consider erasing all the incriminating evidence stored in the computer’s memory banks. Nope! Take it away, boys! He just saved 20,000 big ones and he’s a happy man.

Anyway, the computer gets set up at Medfield but Quigley’s demonstration hits a snag when a part shorts out. Dexter volunteers to make the 70-mile drive for a replacement, even though he should really be studying for the upcoming standardized test. Later that night, he gets back to the lab during a torrential rainstorm. He foolishly decides to switch out the part while he’s dripping wet and standing in a small lake of rainwater. As you might expect, Dexter is zapped with about a zillion volts of electricity and instantly dies.

The end.

Quad poster for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

No, no, of course not. The computer dies but Dexter seems just fine. Sure, he wakes up his roommate later that night, beeping electronically and reciting the coded data about Arno’s gambling joints. And yeah, when his friend asks him about it, Dexter has no idea what he’s talking about. But still, he’s fine.

Dean Higgins and Professor Quigley don’t have much time to be upset about the $20,000 boondoggle because the next day is the big standardized test. Students have an hour to complete the test and, in the opposite of a pep talk, are told that nobody in the history of Medfield has ever finished it. Dexter is surprised to find himself whipping through the whole thing in less than five minutes. Quigley and Higgins are even more surprised to discover that he aced it, getting the first perfect score in the history of the college.

A thorough medical check-up solves the mystery. As so often happens, the accident caused Dexter to absorb the properties of the computer. A quick glimpse inside his ear reveals flashing lights, spinning magnetic tape and all the other hallmarks of a 1969 computer. As long as he doesn’t run out of punch cards, Dexter Riley is the smartest man on Earth.

Quick to capitalize on his human computer, Dean Higgins organizes a nationwide tour for Dexter. As his fame grows, he drifts apart from his girlfriend, Annie (Debbie Paine), and buddies like Pete Oatzel (Frank Webb, who was tragically killed in a car accident just a few years later at the age of 26). He also attracts the attention of Dean Collingsgood (Alan Hewitt, seen most recently in The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit) who hopes to lure Dexter over to Medfield’s arch-rival, State University.

Dexter’s new celebrity status does not pass unnoticed by Arno, either. He may have lost his computer but thinks having a human computer on his payroll sounds even better, especially after Dexter consistently picks winners in horse races. Arno sends his flunky, Chillie Walsh (Richard Bakalayan, who played a similar gangster role in Never A Dull Moment), to give Dexter a taste of the good life. Unfortunately, the club they visit is raided by the cops and Dexter winds up in jail, along with Walsh and the two Deans, who’d been following him.

When Dexter’s friends pool their money to bail him out, Dexter realizes what a heel he’s become. He turns down Arno’s offer and reaffirms his loyalty to Medfield by captaining a quiz bowl team alongside three of his dimmest friends. Dexter leads them to victory and a championship match against State. One Day At A Time’s future Schneider, Pat Harrington, hosts the quiz bowl and Spinal Tap’s future John “Stumpy” Pepys, Ed Begley Jr., makes his big screen debut as one of the State students. We’ll be seeing Begley again in this column.

On one of his College Knowledge appearances, Dexter correctly answers a question with “Applejack”. That just so happens to be Arno’s code name for his illegal businesses, prompting Dexter to start rattling off information about Arno’s gambling joints on live TV. Arno shuts down the exposed locations and sends Walsh to kidnap Dexter the night before the finals.

Pete and Annie track him down and come up with an elaborate plan to rescue him. Disguised as house painters (Merlin Jones used a similar scheme…it seems house painters were given carte blanche to go wherever they pleased in the 60s), the kids search the building and manage to smuggle him out in a trunk. There’s a big chase back to the TV studio with gallon after gallon of paint thrown at the pursuing gangsters. Dexter rejoins his team but the rough handling in the trunk seems to have knocked a few circuits loose. His answers get slower and slower until he finally crashes completely.

Dexter wakes up in time for the final question about the geographic center of the United States but has no idea what the answer could be. He’s back to being a normal, below-average student. The team has been relying on Dexter for so long that everyone’s shocked when Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) realizes he actually knows the answer. He has family in Lebanon, Kansas, and that is the correct response. Medfield wins the day and Arno and his goons end up in jail.

I vaguely remember watching and enjoying the Dexter Riley movies as a kid, so I was looking forward to revisiting this one. Unfortunately, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was not the comedic powerhouse I remembered. So far, I’ve been making fun of the movie’s leaps of logic and Mariana Trench-sized plot holes but they’re not really the problem. The issue is that most of this just isn’t that funny.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was the first screenplay by longtime Disney employee Joseph L. McEveety. McEveety joined the studio in 1957 as an assistant director, working on movies like Moon Pilot, Mary Poppins and, yes, Merlin Jones. He knew the Disney house style backward and forward but comedy wasn’t exactly in his blood. Previous Disney comedies relied heavily on slapstick but Computer’s story doesn’t allow for any until its madcap finale. As a result, the first half can get pretty dull and repetitive. The movie desperately needs more verbal humor or, at the very least, a few jokes.

Director Robert Butler also made his Disney feature debut with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Butler had directed a ton of TV, including Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage”, and multiple episodes of shows like The Untouchables, Batman, The Fugitive, and countless others. For Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, he and Norman Tokar codirected Kilroy, a four-part serial, in 1965. Earlier in 1969, he directed Kurt Russell in the three-part Secret Of Boyne Castle, released theatrically overseas as Guns In The Heather. He knows exactly what’s expected of him here and keeps the tone light and the story moving as best he can. But even so, the movie gets bogged down often enough that it’s hard to not get impatient.

Like most Disney comedies, the action is preceded by a colorful animated title sequence and a peppy title song. Visual effects artist Alan Maley (who went on to win an Oscar for his work on a movie we’ll be getting to soon) designed the abstract titles and they’re pretty cool. The song, by Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland, isn’t quite as successful. To be fair, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is an unwieldy title. Even the Sherman brothers would have a hard time making it work in a song. Brunner’s and Belland’s solution was basically to shout the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible. It’s one of the more aggressively unpleasant Disney songs.

The only reason any of this works on any level is thanks to Kurt Russell. In his earlier Disney appearances, Russell definitely had something but nobody had quite figured out what his strengths were yet. Now we begin to see the charismatic movie star he would become. Russell always brings a little twinkle of fun to every role but here, he’s given his first opportunity to go all in on a broad comedic part. When Dexter’s central processor starts to crash, Russell fully commits to the gag. That’s a genuinely funny scene. I only wish the movie had more like it.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was Disney’s last theatrical release of the 1960s. It was a decently sized hit, particularly in relation to its cost, and most critics gave it a pass. The movie certainly did well enough to inspire Disney to bring Dexter Riley and friends back for more wacky adventures at Medfield.

TV Promo Art for The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1995)

Disney also produced a TV remake in 1995 with Kirk Cameron stepping into Dexter’s tennis shoes (a style of footwear Kurt Russell never dons once, by the by). That version had an interesting supporting cast, including comedian Larry Miller as the Dean, Jeff Garlin and Eddie Deezen as FBI agents, Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson hisownself) and Disney veteran Dean Jones playing against type as Miller’s rival Dean. Peyton Reed, who would eventually return to the Disney fold via Marvel’s Ant-Man, made his feature debut as director.

Revisiting The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was a good lesson in tempering your expectations for childhood favorites. I had high hopes for this one. And while it wasn’t a complete waste of time, it definitely wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. They’ll have plenty more chances to impress us, though. Practically everybody involved will be back in this column in some way, shape or form.

VERDICT: Not quite a Disney Minus but nowhere near a Disney Plus, this is a Disney Neutral.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Smith!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Smith!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three sheet movie poster for Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT!: Disney! Minus!

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Never A Dull Moment

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Never A Dull Moment

The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its final episode on June 1, 1966, just about one month before Van Dyke’s second Disney movie, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., hit theatres. Since then, Van Dyke had made two more movies at other studios: Divorce American Style, which had done OK and earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, and Fitzwilly, which had not. Considering that both of Van Dyke’s Disney movies had been hits, despite the vast disparity in the quality of the two films, it’s little wonder that he decided to return to the studio one more time for Never A Dull Moment.

Never A Dull Moment was produced by Ron Miller, the former football player who was married to Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney. Since going to work for his father-in-law, Miller had specialized in broad comedies like the Merlin Jones pictures. He’d worked with Dick Van Dyke on Lt. Robin Crusoe. There’s not a lot of behind-the-scenes information about this movie out there (shocking, I know) so I’m not entirely sure where the idea to make this film came from. But my assumption is that Miller found the original novel and felt it would make a good vehicle for Dick Van Dyke.

About that novel…it was published in 1967 as an Inner Sanctum Mystery called A Thrill A Minute With Jack Albany by John Godey. Godey, the pen name of Morton Freedgood, wrote a number of crime novels including The Three Worlds Of Johnny Handsome (later filmed by Walter Hill) and The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, the basis for the classic 1974 thriller starring Walter Matthau. So I’m assuming (doing a lot of that this week) that Godey’s novel is a bit more adult-oriented than the movie.

A.J. Carothers wrote the screenplay, his last work for Disney after such films as The Happiest Millionaire and Emil And The Detectives. Carothers went on to create the TV show Nanny And The Professor. He also wrote quite a few made-for-TV movies and the feature films Hero At Large and The Secret Of My Success. Carothers seems to have retired after that last film and he passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

As with Lt. Robin Crusoe, Van Dyke appears to have used some of his clout to bring aboard a director he was familiar with but new to Disney. Jerry Paris had been Van Dyke’s costar on The Dick Van Dyke Show, appearing as the Petries’ neighbor, Jerry Helper. He started directing the show in 1963, winning an Emmy in the process. He eventually phased acting out to focus entirely on directing. Never A Dull Moment would be his only Disney gig. He continued to direct a lot of TV, including the majority of Happy Days episodes, and the occasional feature like Police Academy 2 and 3. Like Carothers, he also made a lot of made-for-TV movies including one of my favorites, the cult classic Evil Roy Slade.

Theatrical release poster for Never A Dull Moment

At first glance, Never A Dull Moment looks promising. Van Dyke is well cast as Jack Albany, an egotistical C-list actor still waiting for his big break. He’s the kind of actor who quotes reviews of his triumphant performance in Twelfth Night whenever he gets the chance. After appearing as a gangster on a TV show, Jack heads home, still in costume. But when he suspects he’s being followed, he ducks into a warehouse and runs into a low-level mob flunky named Florian (Tony Bill, who would win an Oscar a few years later for co-producing The Sting). Florian has been sent to collect a hired killer named Ace Williams and naturally assumes that Jack is Ace. Jack tries to explain the misunderstanding but once he realizes that Florian will kill him if he isn’t Ace, he decides to play along.

Florian brings Jack/Ace to the country house of powerful gangster Leo Joseph Smooth (Edward G. Robinson in one of his last gangster roles). Smooth may be a high-ranking mafioso but he’s neither famous nor infamous. In an attempt to secure his place in history, he’s planned an art heist. His crew will steal the 40-foot-long painting “Field of Sunflowers” after a museum benefit. He then intends to give the masterpiece back to the museum in his will, along with a sizable donation if they agree to name the museum after him.

To pull the job, Smooth has assembled a crack team of professional criminals, including communications expert Bobby Macoon (Richard Bakalyan, who had an uncredited appearance as an umpire in Follow Me, Boys! and is about to become a very familiar face in this column), Cowboy Schaeffer (Slim Pickens, making his first Disney appearance since Savage Sam), and stone-faced killer Frank Boley (the awesome Henry Silva who unfortunately did not become a Disney regular). Frank’s the only one who doesn’t believe Jack is the real Ace Williams, which automatically makes him the sharpest tool in a dull shed.

To make sure nothing goes wrong, Smooth informs everyone that they’ll all be staying at the house until it’s time for the benefit the next day. This ends up including Smooth’s art instructor, a civilian named Sally Inwood (Dorothy Provine, returning to the Disney fold for the first time since That Darn Cat!). Jack thinks he and Sally might be able to help each other out of this mess but has a hard time getting alone with her. Part of the problem is Jack is continually waylaid by Smooth’s wife, Melanie (Joanna Moore, last seen in Son Of Flubber), a lonely ex-burlesque dancer eager to share memories of the stage with Jack.

Eventually, the real Ace Williams (played by the wonderful Jack Elam and he’ll be back in this column, too) turns up at the house. Turns out that Ace was mugged on his way to the meet-up, so he doesn’t have anything to prove he’s the real McCoy. Neither does Jack, so the crew decides that the only way to find the real Ace Williams is to lock them both in a room and have it out. Two men enter, one man leaves and that man must be the real killer. Fortunately for Jack, Sally just happens to be hiding out in the room chosen for the fight. She knocks Ace unconscious and agrees to work with Jack to figure a way out of this mess. Ace is locked in the basement and Jack has no choice but to go along with the heist.

The next day, Jack heads out with the crew to infiltrate the museum disguised as caterers. Meanwhile, Sally is left alone with Ace in the basement and Joe Smooth’s tough-guy valet, Francis (Mickey Shaughnessy), guarding her. As Sally tries to outwit the bad guys, Jack is forced to go into action and play his part. He tries explaining to the guard what’s going on in a whisper but, for reasons that are literally never explained, the guard suddenly collapses in a heap, dead as a doornail.

The rest of the crew is very impressed by this but Jack suddenly decides he’s had enough. He refuses to steal the painting and leads the crew on a chase through the museum. Along the way, Jack finds the second guard, who ALSO dies the second Jack touches him. The chase doesn’t climax so much as peter out when the police suddenly turn up. Seems that Sally was able to escape and call the cops after all. They all go round up Smooth at the rendezvous point and Jack and Sally, who think they’ve fallen in love for some reason, live happily ever after.

Theatrical re-release poster for Never A Dull Moment

So, there are a whole lot of problems with Never A Dull Moment but my biggest question when I was finished with all this was, “How did the author of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three come up with such a boring heist?” It turns out he didn’t. In the book, the bad guys are planning to kidnap the mayor of New York City. That certainly sounds a whole lot more interesting than stealing one painting from a museum, no matter how oversized the canvas.

The title Never A Dull Moment is clearly a suggestion, not a guarantee. The movie is often shockingly, staggeringly dull. Over half of the movie takes place in that house. While we’re there, Dick Van Dyke spends a lot of time pretending to be drunk (which is one of those gags that’s funny the first time but gets old quick), Edward G. Robinson goes on and on about art and legacy and overexplains the logistics of this very basic heist, Dorothy Provine behaves as though this threat against her life is a mid-level inconvenience, and Slim Pickens mangles the pronunciation of “horse doovers”.

Things don’t improve much at the museum. The climactic chase goes through various wings of the museum, which seems ripe for comedy. But for the most part, those opportunities are squandered. Even potentially dated and problematic humor is largely absent. I was ready to cringe when they entered the “Primitive Art” wing but, apart from referring to it as “primitive”, the sequence mostly avoids outdated stereotypes.

The “Pop Art” wing primarily just goes for the low-hanging fruit of “isn’t modern art weird?” At one point, the chase passes an oversized Roy Lichtenstein-like mural that was actually done by longtime Mickey Mouse cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson. You don’t get to see much of it in the movie but I thought it was cool. However, I don’t want you to have to sit through this whole movie just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Gottfredson piece, so here it is:

Floyd Gottfredson's Astro Pooch comic strip as seen in Never A Dull Moment

Whatever else you might say about Never A Dull Moment, the cast really isn’t to blame. Dick Van Dyke has a plum role here, it just needed to be drastically rewritten. He does the best he can with what he’s got to work with. The same goes for Robinson, Provine, Moore and that murderers’ row of killer character actors. But you can’t make something from nothing and Never A Dull Moment surrounds its cast with a whole lot of nothing.

The movie was released on June 26, 1968. Reviews were middling to negative and it ended up earning considerably less money than Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. Dick Van Dyke’s next feature would be more successful. Released in December of 1968, it was a family-fantasy-musical set in England, not unlike Mary Poppins, that reunited him with the Sherman Brothers. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was not a Disney movie, although trailers sure tried to make it look like one. Within a few years, Dick Van Dyke would decide he was through with movies for awhile and return to television for most of the 1970s and 80s. It’ll be quite some time before he returns to this column.

Even though Never A Dull Moment wasn’t a home run by any definition, it still served its purpose. It helped establish the heist comedy as another go-to genre for Disney. The studio played on the fringes of this sandbox in earlier films like That Darn Cat! and Emil And The Detectives. But this time, there were no kids, no animals and no gimmicks. Just a relatively straight-forward case of mistaken identity and some crooks doing a job. It wouldn’t be long before Disney found its way back to this well.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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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: 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: 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: That Darn Cat!

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's That Darn Cat!

Over the years, Walt Disney signed plenty of actors to multi-picture contracts. But he wasn’t always great at maintaining relationships with his talent. Bobby Driscoll, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk all left the studio under less than cordial circumstances. That wasn’t the case with his number one star, Hayley Mills. Over the course of six pictures, Walt and Hayley enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Walt made Hayley a huge star, showcasing her talents for comedy, music and drama. In return, Hayley made Walt a whole lot of money.

That Darn Cat! would be Hayley Mills’ final Disney feature and, like most of her other movies for the studio, it was a big hit. It was the 6th highest-grossing film of 1965, behind The Sound Of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Great Race, on a budget that was a fraction of those epics. The role is comfortably within Hayley’s wheelhouse, stirring up trouble and innocently deflecting responsibility when it threatens to come back on her. After a couple of underwhelming efforts like The Moon-Spinners and Summer Magic, it’s nice that Hayley was able to leave Disney on a high note.

The movie is based on the novel Undercover Cat by the Gordons. Gordon and Mildred Gordon were a husband-and-wife writing team who specialized in crime fiction like FBI Story. They’d already enjoyed some success adapting their work for movies and TV, notably with the 1962 thriller Experiment In Terror directed by Blake Edwards. Undercover Cat was a bit lighter than the Gordons’ usual work, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Disney optioned the rights. However, the studio did necessitate changing the cat’s name, D.C., from “Damn Cat” to “Darn Cat”.

Bill Walsh, still flying high after Mary Poppins’ runaway success, co-produced with Ron Miller and took a pass at the Gordons’ script, probably adding more slapstick gags. Prolific director Robert Stevenson had taken an unfortunate detour back to Midvale College with The Monkey’s Uncle but shows a steadier hand guiding That Darn Cat! Old Yeller demonstrated that Stevenson could get convincing performances from his animal actors. But it’s one thing to make a sentimental drama about a dog. It’s quite another to turn a Siamese cat into a comedic lead.

D.C. was played by multiple feline actors, including an established Disney star. Syn Cat had appeared a couple years earlier in The Incredible Journey. The cat (or cats, as the case may be) is very much the star of the show, appearing in most scenes and even getting a smooth Sherman Brothers theme song crooned by Bobby Darin. While some of D.C.’s performance is attributable to the skillful editing of Cotton Warburton (who had just won an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins), there’s also no denying that these are some remarkably well-trained cats.

Theatrical release poster for That Darn Cat

As the movie opens, we follow D.C. as he makes his nightly rounds through the Anytown U.S.A. section of the Disney backlot, stealing food from neighborhood dogs and begging for handouts. At the local deli, he catches the scent of salmon as its bought by Iggy (Frank Gorshin, about a year away from scoring his iconic role as the Riddler on TV’s Batman). D.C. follows Iggy back to his flophouse apartment where he’s hiding out with Dan (Neville Brand) after the pair robbed a bank and kidnapped a teller (Grayson Hall, about two years away from her most famous role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on TV’s Dark Shadows). The hostage sees an opportunity and replaces D.C.’s collar with her wristwatch, scratching an incomplete “HELP” on the back and sending the cat on his way.

D.C. heads home where he finds Patti Randall (Hayley) just getting in from a date with pipe-smoking surfer Canoe (Tom Lowell in the first of his three Disney features). A little later, Patti’s older sister, Ingrid (Dorothy Provine…we’ll see her again, too), arrives with their fussbudget neighbor, Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall…you’d better believe we’ll be seeing a lot more of him). Greg and Ingrid share a carpool but Greg’s trying to take their relationship to the next level by inviting her over for a duck dinner with his mother. As soon as D.C. hears about the duck, he hightails it over to the Benson house and steals the bird off their front porch.

While trying to pry the duck out of D.C.’s paws, Patti finally notices the watch around his neck. She leaps to the conclusion that it must belong to the kidnapped bank teller in the news. The next morning, she brings her suspicions to FBI Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones…we’ll get to him in a moment). Both Kelso and his supervisor (Richard Eastham, last seen here as the circus owner in Toby Tyler) agree it’s a longshot but that Patti might be on to something. So Kelso is assigned surveillance duty on D.C. (now dubbed Informant X-14), despite having an allergy so severe he can’t even say the word “cat” without sneezing.

Now if the rest of the movie was nothing more than the slapstick shenanigans of a team of FBI agents attempting to tail a cat, it’d probably be fine. But Walsh and the Gordons pile on all manner of other complications. The Randall sisters live next door to a nosy neighbor (Elsa Lanchester, last seen fleeing the Banks house in Mary Poppins) whose suspicions are raised every time a man sets foot on the premises. Kelso asks to keep the FBI’s presence on the down-low, so both Gregory and Canoe start snooping around trying to figure out what’s what. When the FBI threatens to pull Kelso off the cat detail, Patti convinces local jeweler Mr. Hofstedder (Ed Wynn) to backup a phony tip that confirms the watch belonged to the bank teller.

Eventually D.C. does lead Kelso and Patti to the bank robbers, just as they’re about to get rid of their hostage. Part of what makes That Darn Cat! stand out from other Disney comedies is the scenes with the bad guys. Gorshin, Brand and particularly Grayson Hall play these scenes straight. Gorshin’s a funny guy, so he can’t help but score a few laughs, especially opposite a scene-stealer like Iris Adrian as the gossipy landlady. But Brand is a menacing heavy and he brings a sense of legitimate danger when Kelso and Patti turn up. As for Grayson Hall, she apparently didn’t get the memo that she was appearing in a slapstick comedy for Walt Disney. She projects legitimate fear and proves herself to be braver and more resourceful than your typical damsel in distress, even without many lines. Hall sells the idea that this really is a life-and-death situation.

The really broad comedy is wisely kept separate from the hostage situation. Stevenson stages a funny and elaborate sequence in a drive-in movie theatre, with Richard Deacon of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame as the beleaguered manager. This was the first of many Disney features for Deacon, although he had already appeared as Uncle Archie on the Mickey Mouse Club serial Annette. The drive-in sequence also allows Walt to take a few jabs at the surfing movies Canoe is such a big fan of (and that Annette Funicello herself was now churning out by the score over at AIP).

That Darn Cat! finds everyone involved firing on all cylinders, from outgoing marquee star Hayley Mills, delightful as usual, to incoming marquee star Dean Jones. Jones had been working his way up through small parts on stage, in movies and on TV for a few years. In 1962, he got a big break starring as the title character on the military sitcom Ensign O’Toole. Ensign O’Toole aired Sunday nights at 7 on NBC, right before Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. Naturally, Walt wanted to know who the network had leading in to his show. Walt checked out Ensign O’Toole and Jones’ latest feature, Under The Yum Yum Tree, and liked what he saw. We’re going to be seeing a whole lot more of Dean Jones in this column.

That Darn Cat paper dolls featuring Hayley Mills and D.C.

Unfortunately, this is the last we’ll be seeing of Hayley Mills. For a number of years, Hayley had a hard time shaking her Disney image. She appeared as a rebellious teen in a Catholic girls’ school in The Trouble With Angels and made a number of films back home in England, often with her father, John Mills. Hayley and John costarred with another former Disney star, James MacArthur, in The Truth About Spring. John directed Hayley (opposite future Deadwood star Ian McShane!) in Sky West And Crooked, from a story written by Hayley’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell.

In 1966, Hayley took her most adult role to date as a young newlywed opposite Hywell Bennett in The Family Way. The movie got a lot of press, partly because it featured an original score by Paul McCartney but mostly because Hayley Mills did a tasteful nude scene and became romantically involved with and eventually married the film’s director, Roy Boulting. Boulting and Mills made a couple more movies together, including Twisted Nerve (which is probably more famous since Quentin Tarantino appropriated its Bernard Herrmann music for Kill Bill), before divorcing in 1977.

After that, Hayley Mills took a few years off to raise her kids. When she returned to acting, it was mostly on television. In 1986, she finally returned to the Disney studio with The Parent Trap II for the Disney Channel. That movie was popular enough to earn two more sequels in 1989. Between Parent Traps, she also starred in her own Disney Channel sitcom, Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Hayley starred as a junior high school teacher in charge of such students as Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Lisa (Lark Voorhies) and Screech (Dustin Diamond).

The Disney Channel pulled the plug on Good Morning, Miss Bliss after 13 episodes and Mills walked away from the show. NBC then decided to give it one more chance, giving it a complete makeover and renaming it Saved By The Bell. That version did pretty well for itself. Hayley Mills has also continued to do pretty well for herself, appearing mostly on stage and TV, being inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998 and winning a battle with breast cancer back in 2012. She’s currently 75 years old and her memoir, Forever Young, will be published on September 7 of this year. She seems to be going strong, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she may yet make another appearance in this column.

Hayley Mills was unquestionably one of Disney’s most significant stars. She excelled in period melodramas like Pollyanna, contemporary comedies like The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat!, and adventures and thrillers like In Search Of The Castaways and The Moon-Spinners. As much as anyone, her winning screen presence helped set the tone for the studio in the 1960s. We’ll see a lot of other young stars in this column in the weeks and months ahead. In some ways, all of them will be aspiring to be the next Hayley Mills.

The audiences who flocked to see That Darn Cat! at Christmas of 1965 probably didn’t realize they were watching Hayley’s last Disney movie. Back then, the specifics of actors’ contracts with studios weren’t front-page news the way they can be today. As far as they were concerned, this was just a return to form for Hayley Mills and Disney. The movie became a huge hit and, in 1997, the studio took a shot at a remake that I suppose we’ll have to deal with in this column eventually. But let’s not worry about that for now. Today, let’s just take a moment and bask in the sunshine of Hayley Mills. This column would have been a lot less fun without her.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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