Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Love Bug

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

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

Walt himself had optioned the source material that became The Love Bug, a treatment or unpublished short story called Car-Boy-Girl (or possibly Boy-Girl-Car) by Gordon Buford.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

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

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

Storybook cover of The Love Bug

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

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

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

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

The Story Of The Love Bug record album

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

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

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

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

The Love Bug comic book adaptation

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

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

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

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

The Love Bug theatrical re-release poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Blackbeard’s Ghost

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost

By February 1968, a revolution was beginning to get underway in Hollywood. The highest-grossing films of the year that had just ended were The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie And Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, and Valley Of The Dolls. Disney’s biggest moneymaker of the year, The Jungle Book, had barely managed to crack the top ten. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on February 19, Disney pictures racked up a grand total of two. That’s not two for an individual film. That’s two for the studio’s entire 1967 lineup: one for “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book and one for The Happiest Millionaire’s costume design. And that’s still two more than they’d received the year before. The times, they were a’changin’ but nobody at Disney seemed to notice or care.

After Walt’s death at the end of 1966, CEO Roy O. Disney (somewhat reluctantly) stepped in to the role of President. But he’d already had his eye on retirement and only planned to stick around until he could get Walt’s final big pet project, Walt Disney World, up and running. In 1968, Roy gave the presidency to Donn Tatum. Tatum joined the studio in 1956 and his Executive Vice President, Card Walker, had been around even longer, first hired as a traffic boy in 1938. These guys had a lot of experience making Disney films and TV shows and not much else. So while it was February 1968 at every other studio in town, in Burbank it was still December 1966. That’s how it would stay for about the next ten years.

Disney’s first release of what we’ll call the “Stay The Course” Years was the sort of gimmick comedy they’d been cranking out like clockwork since The Shaggy Dog back in 1959. Blackbeard’s Ghost was based on a 1965 novel by artist Ben Stahl, a prolific illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and countless other periodicals and ad agencies. Bill Walsh and Don DeGradi wrote the script with Robert Stevenson directing, reuniting the team from Mary Poppins.

Most of the cast was also very familiar with the Disney process. Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette were reunited for the first time since The Ugly Dachshund. Elsa Lanchester had last been seen in That Darn Cat!, also with Jones. The bad guy, Silky Seymour, was played by Joby Baker from The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, also with Pleshette. And the supporting cast was filled with such by-now familiar faces as Richard Deacon, Norm Grabowski, Elliott Reid and Kelly Thordsen. To make things even easier, most of them were simply cast in roles that were slight variations on parts they’d played before.

There was, of course, one newcomer to the Disney family in the cast. Peter Ustinov was a true renaissance man. An actor, a writer, a director, Ustinov spoke eight languages (six of them fluently) and dabbled in art and design. By the time Disney hired him to play Captain Blackbeard, he had already won two Oscars (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and was arguably one of the most overqualified actors the studio had employed for some time.

But one of the great things about Peter Ustinov was that while he took his work extremely seriously, he never took himself too seriously. There’s a twinkle in his eye when he seems to be having fun and in Blackbeard’s Ghost, he looks like he’s having a great time. More importantly, Ustinov never condescends to the material. This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov and Ustinov doesn’t treat it as such. But as far as he was concerned, something as silly as Blackbeard’s Ghost had just as much value and just as much potential to entertain as any of the classics, provided you show up and do the work.

Walt Disney Presents The Story Of Blackbeard's Ghost album cover

As usual for a Disney gimmick comedy, the plot is somewhat beside the point. But for the record, Jones stars as Steve Walker, the new track and field coach at Godolphin College on the New England coast. He arrives at Blackbeard’s Inn, a hotel haphazardly constructed out of materials salvaged from shipwrecked pirate ships, in time for an auction held by the Daughters of the Buccaneers led by Emily Stowecroft (Elsa Lanchester), a descendant of the notorious pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. It seems the mortgage is overdue and gangster Silky Seymour is lying in wait to buy the property, tear down the inn and build a casino.

Steve doesn’t care too much about any of that. His focus is solely on Jo Anne Baker (Pleshette), an attractive professor at the college who’s helping out with the auction. Hoping to impress her, Steve bids on an antique bed warmer, drawing the ire of Silky and his criminal associates. Silky strongly encourages Steve to reconsider bidding on any further items. Steve, naturally, doesn’t take kindly to bullies and gets marked as an enemy.

Mrs. Stowecroft shows Steve to his room and fills him in on the history of his new bed warmer. It was owned by Aldetha Teach, Blackbeard’s tenth wife, who had been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. With her dying breath, she cursed Blackbeard to spend eternity in Limbo until he can perform a selfless act, a statistical improbability for a murderous pirate.

Steve believes none of this until he accidentally breaks the bed warmer and discovers Aldetha’s book of spells. As a goof, he recites one of them out loud and ends up summoning Blackbeard’s ghost (Ustinov) from Limbo. Blackbeard immediately heads for the bar, eager to catch up on a lot of lost drinking time. Steve thinks he’s going crazy, which isn’t too surprising considering that Blackbeard explains that the spell has bound the two and nobody else can see or hear him. This is made abundantly clear when Blackbeard grabs the wheel of Steve’s car and takes them on a reckless joyride that lands Steve in jail on drunk driving charges.

Steve is released the next morning due to lack of evidence but he’s on thin ice at work. There’s a big track meet coming up and unless he can whip his team of misfits and losers into shape and come in first, he’s fired. Meanwhile, Steve suggests that Blackbeard could break his curse by donating his treasure to the Daughters of the Buccaneers. The only problem with that is there is no treasure. Blackbeard spent it all while he was alive. But the pirate has his own idea. He steals the money made from the auction out of Jo Anne’s purse and arranges to bet it all on Godolphin to win.

On the day of the track meet, Steve finds out about Blackbeard’s scheme. At first, he wants nothing to do with it and tries to have his team disqualified once they start winning events thanks to Blackbeard’s help. But when he realizes what a loss would mean to the old ladies, he decides to let the pirate cheat their way to victory.

When Steve and Jo Anne go to collect their winnings, Silky Seymour refuses to pay up, cancelling the bet and returning the money. But Steve has fewer compunctions about cheating at Silky’s place and gets Blackbeard to rig the roulette table to win their money back. Silky and his goons try to rough them up but Blackbeard mops the floor with them, allowing Steve and Jo Anne to escape. They make it back to the inn just in the nick of time to pay the mortgage. Before he goes, Steve has everyone recite the spell that will allow them to see Blackbeard and make a proper farewell.

Theatrical re-release poster for Blackbeard's Ghost

Needless to say, Blackbeard’s Ghost isn’t exactly breaking new ground. We’ve seen variations of the supernatural-being-nobody-else-can-see premise in movies like Darby O’Gill and The Gnome-Mobile. The climactic collegiate sporting event is a familiar trope from The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber. But even though the movie is business as usual, it’s extremely well-made business as usual.

The chemistry between Jones and Pleshette is even stronger here than in The Ugly Dachshund. Just as importantly, Jones and Ustinov make for a very engaging comedy team. Ustinov is simply a delight in this movie, guzzling rum and causing havoc. Jones gets a chance to show off his gift for physical comedy in scenes with the invisible ghost. Everyone involved seems to be having a really good time and that spirit of fun is highly contagious.  

Blackbeard’s Ghost is also one of Disney’s best-looking comedies. A lot of the studio’s comedies have a flat, TV-ready look that gets the job done and stays out of the way. But Robert Stevenson and longtime Disney cinematographer Edward Colman give Godolphin a moody, foggy feel befitting a New England town haunted by pirate ghosts. The set design by Emile Kuri (an Oscar winner for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and Hal Gausman is also top-notch, especially Blackbeard’s Inn. The only time we see the entire exterior is as a spectacular matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw but I can’t be the only one who’d love to see it done as a Lego set.

Blackbeard’s Ghost did exactly what Disney needed it to do in 1968. It earned mostly positive reviews and became a good-sized hit at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it did well enough to justify a few re-releases in the years that followed. But its biggest accomplishment was demonstrating that the studio was still capable of producing its bread-and-butter films without Walt at the helm. It was an inspiring vote of confidence that, at least for now, everything in the Magic Kingdom was going to be OK.  

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney discuss The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical re-release poster for The Gnome-Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Monkey’s Uncle

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Monkey's Uncle

It’s fair to assume that nobody at Disney ever thought they’d see Merlin Jones again, even after Walt rolled the dice and gave The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones a theatrical release. For one thing, expectations for the project were low. More importantly, Walt had fired Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones himself, after a scandal threatened to out Kirk’s homosexuality. But money talks and when Merlin Jones blew up at the box office, Walt brought Tommy, Annette and pretty much everybody else from the first film back to try and make lightning strike twice.

Merlin Jones’ original misadventure was clearly a television product inelegantly stitched together for theatrical presentation. So you’d think that the first thing returning screenwriters Helen and Alfred Lewis Levitt and director Robert Stevenson would do would be to concoct an actual storyline that would carry through the entire picture. Nope! Even though The Monkey’s Uncle was made with cinemas in mind, this still feels like two unrelated episodes of a sitcom. Both halves revolve vaguely around the threat of football being abolished at Midvale College but that’s about as far as the intricate plot machinations get.

While 99.9% of The Monkey’s Uncle is Disney business as usual, the movie shows that Stevenson and Walt had been paying attention to the outside world in at least one big way. Annette began appearing in American International Pictures’ cycle of beach movies starting with Beach Party in 1963. AIP’s movies regularly featured musical interludes performed on-camera by such artists as Dick Dale, “Little” Stevie Wonder and The Hondells. Never one to be outdone, Walt recruited the most popular surf rock band of all time, The Beach Boys, to be Annette’s backup band.

At the time of The Monkey’s Uncle’s release in August 1965, the band had already scored two number-one hits. Brian Wilson was operating near the peak of his creative powers, less than a year away from the release of Pet Sounds. But Disney being Disney, you won’t hear any Beach Boys classics like “I Get Around” or “California Girls” here. Instead, the band accompanies Annette on an original title track by the Sherman Brothers, then disappears after the opening credits. The song, which includes such lyrics as “I love the monkey’s uncle and I wish I were the monkey’s aunt”, is very catchy and very dumb. But at least the Beach Boys appear to be enjoying themselves. Well, most of them do. Mike Love gets stuck singing backup and busts out some exceptionally awkward bent-knees and swinging-arms not-quite-dance-moves. He looks like he’d rather be someplace else.

Theatrical release poster for The Monkey's Uncle

A movie like this doesn’t really need to justify its title but Stevenson and the Levitts do just that as soon as the Beach Boys have left the building. It seems that Merlin Jones, the scrambled egghead of Midvale College, has filed a petition to formally adopt Stanley, the chimpanzee from the first film. Judge Holmsby (once again played by Leon Ames) isn’t comfortable with a human caring for a chimp like a child, so he does the next best thing by making Stanley Merlin’s nephew. The Supreme Court could use more judges like Holmsby who make decisions based solely on puns and goofy jokes.

Merlin uses Stanley in his experiments with sleep-learning. Once the chimp falls asleep, a record plays instructions for Stanley to follow when he wakes up. Meanwhile, Judge Holmsby is fighting his own battles with his fellow Midvale board members. Football-hating regent Mr. Dearborne (Frank Faylen, probably best known as Ernie the cab driver in It’s A Wonderful Life but not seen in this column since his appearance all the way back in The Reluctant Dragon) wants to cancel the big game unless the jocks can pass their exams honestly. Judge Holmsby loves football but admits that the team is likely doomed if they can’t cheat. So he recruits Merlin to come up with an honest method of cheating, which turns out to be sleep-learning. If it worked on a chimp, surely it’ll work on a couple of apes like Norm Grabowski (reprising his role from the first movie) and Leon Tyler (last seen assisting Tommy Kirk in Son Of Flubber).

The scheme more or less works but in the movie’s second half, Merlin faces a more formidable challenge. Mr. Dearborne has found a potential donor to solve Midvale’s perpetual financial woes. He’s prepared to make a substantial donation if the college permanently bans football. Things look bleak until Holmsby meets eccentric millionaire Darius Green III (Arthur O’Connell). He promises an even more substantial donation if Midvale’s top scientific minds can fulfill his ancestor’s dream of inventing a human-propelled flying machine. Once again, Holmsby turns to Merlin for help.

Merlin’s flying machine works, up to a point. The problem is that people just aren’t strong enough to keep the thing aloft and land safely. So Merlin develops a strength elixir from pure adrenaline and takes over as pilot himself. The flight goes smoothly right up until some men in white coats turn up to bring “Darius Green III” back home to the funny farm. It looks like Mr. Dearborne’s dream of a football-free Midvale will come true. But it turns out that his mysterious benefactor was also the same escaped lunatic using another alias. Wocka wocka wocka!

Gold Key comic book adaptation of The Monkey's Uncle

OK, nobody expected The Monkey’s Uncle to dig deep into the tortured backstory of Merlin Jones or to see his relationship with girlfriend Jennifer blossom into a rich tapestry of complex emotion. But even by the relaxed standards of a gimmick comedy sequel, this is one lazy, pedestrian effort from all involved. Nobody brought their A-game to the set this time.

Robert Stevenson, a reliable director who had just been nominated for an Oscar thanks to Mary Poppins, could not have been less invested in this material. Stevenson was a sure-hand when it came to visual effects, whether it was Mary Poppins, the Flubber films or Darby O’Gill And The Little People. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones had largely avoided pricy effects. With a slightly higher budget to play with, Stevenson does include some fun flying effects this time out. But they’re nothing special and by the time they show up, the movie is already inching toward the finish line.

The Monkey’s Uncle is a particular waste of Annette Funicello’s time, although she later said performing with the Beach Boys was a high point of her music career. She already didn’t have much to do in the first movie. Here, she’s given two notes to play: supportive lab assistant and jealous girlfriend. First, she’s jealous of Stanley after Merlin devotes all his time to the chimp. When she finally arranges for a chimp-sitter so they can go out on a date, Merlin inexplicably forgets all about his girlfriend and starts mooning over the blonde co-ed (Cheryl Miller, who would continue to costar with animals in the film Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spin-off Daktari).

Walt hadn’t known what to do with Annette for some time now. He’d made her a huge TV and recording star but after Babes In Toyland flopped, he seemed to give up on her movie career. After The Monkey’s Uncle, she left Disney for good. She made some more beach movies and stockcar movies for AIP, then focused on raising a family for a few years. By the time I learned who she was in the mid-1970s, it was as the face of Skippy peanut butter. In 1985, she returned to the studio for the Disney Channel movie Lots Of Luck about a regular family that wins the lottery. Martin Mull and Fred Willard are also in this, so I kind of want to see it now.

Two years after Lots Of Luck, Annette reunited with Frankie Avalon for Back To The Beach. While she was promoting the film, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She went public with her condition in 1992, the same year she was inducted as a Disney Legend. A couple years later, Annette published her memoir, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes. That book was turned into a 1995 TV-movie (featuring Len Cariou as Walt) that brought in huge ratings for CBS. It also turned out to be Annette’s last movie. She passed away from complications from multiple sclerosis in 2013.

This would also be Tommy Kirk’s last Disney movie, although I’m happy to say he’s still with us. This is Tommy’s 11th appearance in this column since we first saw him back in Old Yeller. After leaving Disney, he followed Annette to AIP where he starred in Pajama Party. But late in 1964, he was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana and possession of barbiturates. The charges were soon dropped when it was shown that he had a prescription for the pills but the arrest still cost him several high-profile roles.

Tommy kept working throughout the 1960s, appearing in such non-classics as Village Of The Giants and Mars Needs Women. His drug and alcohol use worsened as he continued to appear in bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. By the mid-70s, he had decided to get sober and quit acting. He eventually opened a carpet cleaning business and lived a quiet, normal life for many years, allowing himself to be coaxed onscreen occasionally in movies like Attack Of The 60 Foot Centerfolds and Little Miss Magic for prolific B-movie auteur Fred Olen Ray. He has yet to appear in another Disney production but was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2006, alongside his Hardy Boys costar Tim Considine and frequent on-screen brother Kevin Corcoran.

Under normal circumstances, The Monkey’s Uncle wouldn’t seem all that unusual or disappointing. It’s a subpar sequel to a surprisingly successful but undeniably goofy movie. And if everybody had still been under contract, this would be a logical (if underwhelming) follow-up. But they weren’t. Walt had very explicitly fired Tommy Kirk and Annette was enjoying more success with Frankie Avalon over at AIP. So Walt had to go out of his way to make The Monkey’s Uncle.

Instead of making the extra effort worthwhile, it’s almost like he was trying to sabotage the Merlin Jones franchise by making something so forgettable that nobody would ever bother asking for another one. Whether he intended it or not, he ended up making a good example of why Walt had never liked sequels in the first place. And even though the studio would eventually return to cranking out part twos and threes, Walt would not personally oversee another sequel in his lifetime.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Mary Poppins

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Mary Poppins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical poster art for Mary Poppins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins single art

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

In the early 60s, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were Disney’s favorite screen couple, although you wouldn’t know it based solely on the films covered in this column. Annette made her big-screen debut in The Shaggy Dog, playing second fiddle to Roberta Shore as Tommy’s primary love interest. Their roles were reversed in Annette’s big-budget musical Babes In Toyland. Tommy Sands was Annette’s leading man while Tommy Kirk was stuck playing Ed Wynn’s goofy sidekick.

It was on television that Tommy and Annette finally had a chance to click. They starred together in The Horsemasters and Escapade In Florence, two Disneyland two-parters that received theatrical engagements overseas. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones was clearly intended for a similar release but, for reasons known only to Walt, it got bumped up to American movie theatres. It’s a baffling choice because this is not some widescreen Technicolor epic that demands to be seen on the silver screen.

The story was concocted by gimmick comedy maestro Bill Walsh and scripted by the husband-and-wife team Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt. The Levitts were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist who had only recently begun to find work again, credited under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August. Robert Stevenson, the prolific director behind such previous hits as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber, was recruited to bring some of that Flubber magic to the project.

For Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones was a natural extension of the roles he’d played in The Shaggy Dog and the Flubber pictures. The Shaggy Dog’s Wilby Daniels was an amateur inventor and Biff Hawk had somehow become Fred MacMurray’s assistant in Son Of Flubber. Merlin Jones is, as the Sherman Brothers’ catchy title song helpfully explains, the scrambled egghead, the campus kook of Midvale College (not to be confused with Medfield College, home of Flubber). Annette plays Merlin’s loyal and remarkably patient girlfriend, Jennifer.

In the first part of the two-act adventure, Merlin creates an EEG machine out of a football helmet with a bunch of antennas and other assorted gizmos stuck to it. An accidental electric shock supercharges his brain, giving him the power to read minds, a fact that his science professor (Alan Hewitt, another Flubber alumni) is weirdly unimpressed with.

As Merlin comes to grips with his new ability, he reads the thoughts of no-nonsense Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames, last seen in this column as Medfield College’s President Daggett) as he tries to figure out where to stash some stolen diamonds. Merlin, who has already had some run-ins with the judge, determines that Holmsby is leading a double life as a criminal mastermind. The police don’t believe him at first. Even after he demonstrates his ESP, they can’t lift a finger without real evidence. So Merlin and Jennifer break into the judge’s house and dig up the supposed diamonds. But it turns out the whole thing was just a wacky misunderstanding. Judge Holmsby is leading a double life as a writer of detective fiction under the name Lex Fortas. Everyone agrees to forget the whole thing provided they keep Holmsby’s alter ego a secret.

Merlin’s telepathy disappears just in time for the second episode half of the film. This time, Merlin is conducting experiments with hypnosis. After hypnotizing his cowardly cat into chasing a dog up a tree, he decides to help Stanley the chimp stand up to his bullying keeper, Norman (played by custom car builder turned actor Norm Grabowski). The hypnosis works a little too well and when the science lab ends up trashed, Merlin is once again dragged in front of Judge Holmsby.

Now that Merlin and Holmsby are friendly, the judge has a request. He wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime that goes against his moral code as research for his next book. Merlin commands the judge to break into the lab and steal Stanley. The plan works perfectly but Merlin is caught trying to return Stanley the next morning. He’s arrested for the crime and, unfortunately for him, the judge doesn’t remember that he was actually the guilty party.

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Even by live-action Disney comedy standards, this is some deeply silly stuff not meant to be taken seriously even for a second. The only fair way to judge something like this is whether or not the gags land. Some do. The cat chasing the dog up a tree is kind of funny. Tommy gets a cute bit in the library where he’s overwhelmed by the loud thoughts of his fellow students (including one of Walt’s favorite targets, a poetry-writing beatnik). But overall, the movie is eminently disposable. These are all supposed to be smart characters but they behave in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. I understand Judge Holmsby forgetting about the details of his crime but did he also forget that he asked Merlin to hypnotize him in the first place?

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Tommy and Annette are a pleasant team and they play off each other well. Grabowski was pushing 30 at the time and looks about 40, so he’s an odd choice to play a college jock vying for Annette’s affections. Ames and Hewitt are squarely in their comfort zones as frequently befuddled authority figures. But the movie is so inconsequential that it begins to fade from memory even as you’re watching it. It also lacks the inventive visual effects that helped elevate previous gimmick comedies. That low-rent feeling does nothing to dispel the sense that this project would have been more at home on TV.

Sadly, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones spelled the end of the line for Tommy Kirk’s Disney career. Tommy’s teen years had been miserable as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, his off-set behavior had become increasingly out of control. Alcohol and drugs began to sink their claws into him and he clashed with costars Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman on the set of Bon Voyage.

While filming Merlin Jones, Tommy started seeing a 15-year-old boy on the sly. The kid’s mother found out about the affair and contacted Disney. This was the last straw for Walt. The fact that Tommy was gay was something of an open secret that Walt could ignore as long as it remained more secret than open. He decided not to renew Tommy’s contract and cut him loose. Later in 1964, Tommy was arrested for possession. The charges were later dropped but his All-American boy reputation was irreparably damaged.

And yet, this is not the last we’ll see of Tommy Kirk in this column. Money talks and, when The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones became an out-of-left-field hit in February of 1964, Walt brought Tommy and Annette back one last time for a sequel. In the meantime, Tommy followed Annette to American International Pictures where the two costarred in Pajama Party, a spinoff/sequel to AIP’s popular Beach Party series. Tommy plays Go Go, a Martian sent to Earth on a mission of conquest, because that’s the way those movies roll.

The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones is a minor entry in the Disney catalog that inexplicably hit it big. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the Sherman Brothers song and the stop-motion animated titles by Xavier Atencio and Bill Justice (who had done similar work on The Parent Trap and The Shaggy Dog). Those are certainly the most memorable elements of the movie. But despite the fact that everything else is by the numbers, it was a shockingly popular film that even got a re-release in the 70s. Why it struck a chord is beyond me. I guess there’s just no accounting for taste.

VERDICT: Not actively bad enough to be a full-on Disney Minus but it’s borderline.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Son Of Flubber

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Son Of Flubber

Son Of Flubber was Walt Disney’s first sequel, with an asterisk. Nearly twenty years earlier, he released The Three Caballeros in response to the tremendous response to Saludos Amigos. Caballeros is every inch a follow-up to Amigos but since neither of those movies follow a narrative framework, they don’t entirely count. The same could be said of Melody Time, a spiritual sequel to Make Mine Music. Then there’s Davy Crockett And The River Pirates. It’s obviously a sequel (well, prequel) to Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. But they were originally produced for TV, not the big screen. So sure, if you take all of those sequels-but-not-really out of the equation, Son Of Flubber was first.

That’s certainly a distinction Walt himself would have made. He had explicitly stated in interviews that he didn’t like sequels. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about going back to the same well and trying to make something the same but different. But sequels, especially in those days, weren’t supposed to offer anything but more of the same. If that’s what Walt Disney’s definition of a sequel was, he absolutely delivered on it with Son Of Flubber.

The gang’s all here from The Absent-Minded Professor. Everyone from director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh on down to Fred MacMurray and Charlie the dog returned for part two. The movie picks up almost exactly where the first one left off. Professor Brainard (MacMurray) and his new assistant, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), are flying the Model T down to Washington hoping to collect some of that sweet, sweet government money they’ve been promised. Unfortunately, that’s going to take some time. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) explains the labyrinth of red tape that must be navigated in order to maximize their eventual pay-out. Why settle for less when you could get more? So Brainard and Biff are forced to return to Medfield College empty-handed, except for vague promises that it’ll all be worth it someday.

As always, the financially strapped Medfield needs the money now. The college has made plans for an elaborate new science center, Flubber Hall. When Biff’s father, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), discovers that Brainard didn’t get the money, he gleefully announces plans to bulldoze the entire campus on the first of the month unless his loan is repaid.

Meanwhile, Brainerd is having some domestic troubles with his new bride, Betsy (Nancy Olson). She’s being courted by some Madison Avenue types (led by comedian Ken Murray) who want to buy the rights to Flubber. They dazzle her with the promise of furs, pearls and a million dollar check and come armed with sample commercials for such products as Flubberoleum, a revolutionary bouncy floor guaranteed to change the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America. But once Brainard admits that his government contract prevents him from selling Flubber to anyone else, the ad men pack up and leave.

As they walk out, a man from the government (Bob Sweeney, last seen in Moon Pilot) walks in. However, the agency this government man represents is the IRS, not the Defense Department. He’s here to collect the tax on the prospective earnings reported by Brainard based on the millions he’s been promised. The fact that he hasn’t actually received any of that money yet doesn’t matter. When Brainerd tells the heartless taxman that he’d probably put his own mother in jail, Mr. Harker assures him that he already has for unreported income on her homemade jams and jellies.

In desperate need of money (and refusing to let Betsy go back to work as a secretary for his once-and-future rival, English professor Shelby Aston, again played by Elliott Reid), Brainerd gets back to work on his latest invention. Flubbergas appears to have several interesting properties but Brainerd hopes it will allow mankind to control the weather. A successful experiment made it rain inside from the steam off a boiling tea kettle. But when he tries to go bigger by aiming it at a distant cloud, it doesn’t appear to work. It does, however, shatter every last piece of glass within its reach, unbeknownst to Brainerd.

Biff, in the meantime, is working on an alternative use for Flubbergas. With his pal Humphrey (Leon Tyler, one of the basketball players from the first film) acting as guinea pig, Biff tries to create an inflatable football uniform that allows the player himself to be thrown into the end zone. His experiments aren’t entirely successful, unless his goal was to repeatedly destroy the chicken coop owned by Brainerd’s neighbor, milkman Mr. Hummel (played by Preston Sturges regular William Demarest, a couple of years before he joined the cast of MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons as Uncle Charley).

MEANWHILE meanwhile, Shelby Aston is up to his old tricks, trying to steal Betsy away from Brainard, and this time he’s brought a secret weapon. He invites Brainard’s old girlfriend, sexpot Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore), over to dinner at the Brainards. Betsy eventually becomes convinced that Desiree and Brainard have rekindled their old affair, so she leaves him, temporarily moving in with her old boss, Medfield College President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames) and his wife (Harriet MacGibbon).

As for all that broken glass, Alonzo Hawk’s insurance company has been left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in claims. He figures out that the whole thing started at Brainard’s house and proposes another crooked deal, using the Flubbergas in service of an elaborate insurance scam. Brainard refuses, of course, and Hawk threatens to bring the full force of the law down on him.

Despondent over all these setbacks, Brainard agrees to help Biff out with his project. This time, the inflatable football uniform works and Medfield trounces rival Rutland College in essentially a replay of the first film’s basketball game. Brainard has no time to savor the victory, however. Hawk makes good on his threat and the police arrive to haul Brainard off to jail.

Brainard looks to be in a tight spot until Buzz turns up at his trial with a surprise witness. It’s none other than Ed Wynn, one of the only actors from the original Absent-Minded Professor who does not reprise the same role here. Now he’s the Chief Agricultural Officer and he presents evidence that Brainard’s invention does work, just not in the way he intended. The Flubbergas has somehow supercharged the atmosphere, turning Medfield’s formerly barren farmland lush and verdant, producing giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Wynn dubs the phenomenon “dry rain”. Brainard is once again a hero and the case is dismissed, despite overwhelming evidence that he was clearly guilty of the charges he faced.

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

Believe it or not, I did not have high expectations going into Son Of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor is a fun little movie but there’s nothing about it that left me saying, “More of these characters, please.” But here’s the thing. Son Of Flubber is actually a surprisingly good, funny sequel. That is, right up to the point where, all of a sudden, it isn’t.

The first several scenes are terrific. Walsh’s screenplay takes aim at government inefficiency and absurd tax laws and lands quite a few hits. Disney had previously lobbed some softballs at Uncle Sam in Moon Pilot but the jokes here are funnier and fresher. The sequence with the ad men pitching their ludicrous products is even better. The sight of a typical suburban dad bouncing his baby off a Flubberized floor will never not be funny. This is all good stuff suggesting we’re about to get a smarter, more satirical movie than is actually coming.

The trouble starts when Walsh and Stevenson decide to refocus on Brainard’s latest experiment. From here, they seem content to simply deliver a rehash of the first film. The football game apes the rhythms and gags of the basketball game down to the second. Even Paul Lynde, making his film debut as the game’s color commentator, can’t liven things up. Once again, Brainard flies his Model T over Shelby’s car and once again, Shelby crashes into James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis, the cops from The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. This time, Brainard floods Shelby’s car with rain, which is admittedly kind of a cool effect. But the punchline to the gag is the same.

The movie’s biggest problem is its focus on Brainard and Betsy’s marital problems. Try to set aside the fact that they’re completely rooted in retrograde stereotypes. Brainard’s “no wife of mine is going to work” attitude will have modern women rolling their eyes, while modern men will (hopefully) be equally insulted by Brainard’s total inability to even feed himself without his wife. No one ever accused Disney of having progressive views on marriage.

The bigger issue is that we’ve seen all this before. The triangle between Brainard, Betsy and Shelby was already one of the weakest elements in the first film. Bringing Desiree into the mix does nothing to change that. We already know that Betsy’s willing to put up with a lot from her husband. The guy left her standing at the altar three times, for crying out loud. She ought to be smart enough to see through Shelby’s transparent attempt to wreck her marriage.

The Brainards’ marital woes are endemic of the film’s tendency to repeat itself. A love triangle was part of the first movie, so it needs to be part of the new one whether or not it makes any sense for the story or the characters. It’s also one subplot too many in a movie that’s already overstuffed with dangling plot threads. The business with the taxman is smart and funny but it’s forgotten the second Bob Sweeney leaves the picture. The same goes for the ad men and the brass down in Washington.

None of that seemed to matter much to critics and audiences in 1963. Most critics agreed that even though Son Of Flubber wasn’t as fresh and original as The Absent-Minded Professor, it still breezed by on its light, buoyant tone. Audiences turned out in droves. The movie premiered in January of 1963 and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year, behind much bigger movies like Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tom Jones and Irma la Douce. It was a bright spot in an otherwise so-so year for the studio.

I can’t end this entry without discussing the Great Flubber Fiasco of 1962-63. In the autumn of 1962, Disney teamed up with toy company Hassenfield Brothers (who would shorten their name to Hasbro by the end of the decade) to mass produce Flubber, a bouncy, stretchy glob that was more or less the same as Silly Putty.

Flubber - the Toy

Kids loved Flubber but shortly after the release of the film it was meant to promote, reports started to surface of an outbreak of skin rashes in schools nationwide. Flubber appeared to be the cause and, while nobody at Hassenfield Brothers or Disney ever stepped up to claim responsibility, the bad press was enough to doom the product. By May, Hassenfield decided to yank Flubber off the market.

This is where it gets really fun. Hassenfield Brothers now had a whole lot of potentially toxic Flubber and no idea how to get rid of it. Landfills flat out refused to accept it. Burning it produced a thick, greasy black smoke that stank up the vicinity for miles. They tried to sink it in a lake but the Flubber balls just floated right back up to the surface.

Finally, Hassenfield Bros. just did as Atari would do years later with their unwanted E.T. video game cartridges. They dug a big pit, buried the Flubber and built an employee parking lot on top of it. And supposedly, that’s where Flubber is to this day, buried beneath Delta Drive in Pawtucket, RI. Some say that on hot days, the Flubber bubbles up through cracks in the asphalt. That, along with some of the other details of the story, might be a bit of an exaggeration. But this is the kind of story where it’s more fun to print the legend.

For the time being anyway, Walt Disney was through with Flubber. The studio wouldn’t touch the stuff again until the 1988 TV remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. But we have not seen the last of Medfield College, Alonzo P. Hawk, or most of the film’s cast and crew. Almost everybody will be back in this column sooner or later. Those Disney contracts must have been written on Flubber. People keep bouncing back for more.

VERDICT: The first half is a Disney Plus but the second is a Disney Neutral at best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternate poster design for In Search Of The Castaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search Of The Castaways soundtrack album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor

Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.

When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.

The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.

Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.

Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.

Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.

Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.

To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.

Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.

MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.

The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.

There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.

Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote “The Flubber Song”, a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn’t show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.

The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.

The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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