If Disney’s live action comedies prove anything, it’s that the line between predictability and familiarity lies entirely within the eye of the beholder. To the jaded critic, the studio’s reliance on formulaic stories and a stable of stars that are rarely allowed to venture out of their comfort zones can give the films a cookie-cutter sameness that dulls the senses. But those same qualities can be tremendously comforting to kids and nostalgic adults. The comfort of the familiar goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of Snowball Express.
There has been no shortage of familiar faces in this column. In fact, it’s rare for a Disney movie released between, say, 1960 and 1980 to feature a completely fresh cast of newcomers. Snowball Express is probably the biggest showcase for the Disney Repertory Players so far. Practically every single person on screen has appeared in this column before, many of them on multiple occasions. And since Disney actors were never really required to stretch or challenge themselves, you can rest assured that everyone slides into their roles as easily as a favorite pair of slippers. There’s no confusion or ambiguity in Disney. Dean Jones is always the slightly befuddled good guy. Keenan Wynn is always the corrupt bad guy. So it was written, so it shall be.
Snowball Express is based on a book called Chateau Bon Vivant by Frankie and Johnny O’Rear. The book is actually a memoir about a couple with no experience in the hospitality industry trying to run a Canadian ski lodge. Screenwriters Don Tait, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin seemingly ignored everything about the book except the most basic premise. More than anything, the movie resembles Monkeys, Go Home!, another movie where Dean Jones inherits a dilapidated property from a relative he never knew and upends his life to pursue a difficult career he’s never attempted before.
By the way, all three of those screenwriters were essentially TV guys. Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin had worked together on such sitcoms as The Andy Griffith Show and they’d adapted Neil Simon’s play Star Spangled Girl into a movie starring Disney alum Sandy Duncan. Don Tait had written a lot of westerns, including Maverick and The Virginian. Tait stayed at Disney through the end of the 1970s. We’ll see his name again soon. Parker and Margolin didn’t continue at Disney or even as a writing team much longer but they both remained active, mostly in television, for years.
Producer Ron Miller brought back director Norman Tokar, who hadn’t made a movie at the studio since The Boatniks in 1970. In the interim, he’d directed a few episodes of The Doris Day Show and Dean Jones’ failed sitcom, The Chicago Teddy Bears, as well as several unsold pilots. Tokar would briefly leave Disney again after Snowball Express to direct the movie version of Wilson Rawls’ Where The Red Fern Grows. But he’d be back at his old stomping grounds soon enough.
In Monkeys, Go Home!, Jones played a bachelor attempting to run his great uncle’s olive grove in France. Here, Jones plays Johnny Baxter, a happily married father of two attempting to run his great uncle’s hotel in Silver Hill, Colorado. Nancy Olson appears as Johnny’s wife, Sue, in the last of her five Disney features (not counting her uncredited cameo in 1997’s Flubber, a nod to her role in the original Flubber pictures). Olson got saddled with a lot of thankless girlfriend/wife/mother roles at Disney and Snowball Express is no exception. She’s around to be a supportive helpmate and her character tends to vanish whenever anything fun is happening.
The Baxter kids, Richard and Chris, are played by red-headed scamp Johnny Whitaker and Kathleen Cody. This was Cody’s first Disney movie, coming off a stint on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, but she’ll be back in this column soon. Whitaker, on the other hand, will not. After his three Disney features, he appeared in one more TV production, The Mystery In Dracula’s Castle. His next non-Disney project was the title role in Tom Sawyer, a big-screen musical with songs by the Sherman brothers and featuring his Napoleon And Samantha costar, Jodie Foster. He went back to TV after that, starring on Sid and Marty Krofft’s mind-warping Sigmund And The Sea Monsters. Whitaker left acting behind in the 1980s to attend college, perform missionary work overseas, and overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol. He’s still around and occasionally pops up on screen, as in Amazon Prime’s 2017 reboot of Sigmund.
Johnny (Baxter, not Whitaker) learns he’s inherited the Grand Imperial Hotel and immediately quits his job at a high-tech New York insurance company. (His boss, Mr. Carruthers, is played by Dick Van Patten in the first of many Disney appearances.) Nobody else in the family seems to think this is such a hot idea but since Johnny has left them no alternative, they begrudgingly pack up and move to Colorado.
Once they’ve arrived, none of the local yokels (led by George Lindsey, the voice of Lafayette in The AristoCats) have any idea where this so-called luxury hotel would be. Eventually they figure out Johnny must mean old Crazy Jake’s place and give him directions out toward the boondocks. The locals’ confusion seems a little disingenuous. Sure, the location is off the beaten path and the building is a bit run down but it’s still recognizably a hotel with its name in stained glass.
Despite the fact that the hotel isn’t the turn-key operation he’d hoped for, Johnny resolves to get rid of the bats and raccoons, clean the place up and open for business. That night, his first “guest” turns up in his kitchen. Jesse McCord (Harry Morgan, having a lot more fun than in either The Barefoot Executive or Scandalous John) is an old coot who was friends with Johnny’s uncle. Crazy Jake would let Jesse stay at the hotel free of charge if it wasn’t busy (and it rarely was). Johnny’s ready to kick Jesse out into the cold but his family asks him to think twice before sending an old man to freeze to death in a blizzard. Since Johnny is all heart, Jesse’s allowed to stay under the condition that he help get the hotel up and running.
In need of a small business loan to cover expenses, Johnny goes to visit local banker Martin Ridgeway (Keenan Wynn, naturally). The hotel is too great a risk for Ridgeway to approve a loan but he is willing to buy the place outright. Ridgeway claims he wants to turn the hotel into a home for orphans, but the eye-rolling of his secretary, Miss Wigginton (Disney veteran and professional eye-roller Mary Wickes, last seen in Napoleon And Samantha), suggests he has a less benevolent purpose in mind.
Johnny and Sue stroll around the property and run into Wally Perkins (played by Dexter Riley’s buddy Schuyler, Michael McGreevey), a young man nursing a crush on the Baxters’ daughter, Chris. Johnny, who apparently doesn’t understand how real estate works, is stunned to learn that not only does he own the hotel, his property extends as far as the eye can see. After thinking about it for way too long, Johnny has the revolutionary idea to open a ski lodge in Colorado. Of course, Johnny doesn’t know the first thing about skiing but figures he can pick it up as he goes along.
To avoid dealing with Ridgeway, he sets a meeting with a banker from the next town over. The banker loves Johnny’s idea but pulls out after Johnny lies about his skiing prowess and makes a disastrous run down Nightmare Alley, one of the area’s most dangerous slopes. When the incident makes the papers, Ridgeway has a change of heart. Claiming that the free publicity might give the Grand Imperial a fighting chance, he agrees to loan Johnny $3,000 to get started.
Johnny has big plans for that money but is forced to cut back when Wally and Jesse blow up the ancient water heater and destroy the kitchen. Instead of installing a new ski lift, Jesse fixes up an old steam engine to rig up a rope-tow. Working together, the crew manages to get the hotel ready for opening night. But despite their efforts, the debut looks like a disaster until an avalanche (inadvertently triggered by Wally) traps a train full of tourists bound for the more established ski resort. Riding to the rescue, the Baxters soon have a full house.
Things go well for awhile until, in time-honored Disney comedy fashion, they go spectacularly wrong. Wally, the newly anointed ski instructor, tumbles off a cliff and ends up hanging to a tree for dear life. Johnny is able to use the rope-tow to save him but a hot log burns through one of the support ropes, sending Jesse, Johnny and several tons of active steam engine careening down the mountain and through the hotel. Somehow nobody gets hurt, except for Wally who broke an arm when he fell off the cliff. Even so, the tourists all decide to spend the rest of their vacation in a hotel with intact walls.
Naturally this leaves Johnny unable to keep up with his payments to Ridgeway. Rather than sell, Johnny pins all his hopes on winning Silver Hill’s annual snowmobile race. The third place prize alone would cover what he owes, so Johnny figures he doesn’t even have to win to save the hotel. That would be a great plan if there were only three entrants. But considering that Johnny has no more experience on a snowmobile than he does in any other winter sport and the fact that he and Jesse are driving a beat-up old machine Wally Frankensteined together from past losers AND the fact that Ridgeway always wins, the odds are not stacked in his favor.
Sure enough, after a lengthy, Love Bug-esque race over, under and through the mountains, Johnny comes in dead last. He’s ready to admit defeat and sell to Ridgeway when Miss Wigginton finally reveals the reason for all her furious eye-rolling. Years ago, Johnny’s great uncle donated hundreds of acres of prime timberland to the local Indians for as long as they occupied the land. Since the last of them either died out or moved on years ago, all that land has reverted to the estate and Ridgeway intends to clearcut the whole thing.
Jesse adds another bit of local history, pointing out that the entire town sits on land donated by Uncle Jacob with a provision in the town charter that the founders would build a church, two hospitals (one for people and one for critters) and a library. Richard points out that, just as there’s no basement at the Alamo, there’s no library in Silver Hill. And while nobody’s 100% sure if that means Johnny now owns the entire town, the mere possibility is enough to get Ridgeway to change his tune. He extends Johnny’s line of credit and vows to do whatever it takes to get the Grand Imperial up and running again.
Needless to say, Snowball Express is not one of Disney’s most intricately plotted narratives. Neither is it a penetrating character examination of a marriage tested by the husband’s impulsive decisions, although what I wouldn’t give to see the Ingmar Bergman version of Snowball Express. No, this is just a silly movie about silly adventures in the snow. Sometimes that’s enough. Here, it’s almost enough.
First the good news. Unlike Monkeys, Go Home!, which took place in France but was shot in Burbank, Tokar actually took his cast and crew to Colorado. The movie was shot in Crested Butte and the Rocky Mountain scenery adds a lot of flavor. It’s the kind of setting you can’t replicate on a backlot, no matter how much fake snow you pump in.
The movie is really built around three main slapstick setpieces: Dean Jones’ out-of-control run down Nightmare Alley, the runaway steam engine, and the snowmobile race. They’re undeniably the highlights of the film and Tokar pulls them off nicely. The winter setting and cold weather gear also helps mask the stunt doubles for Jones, Harry Morgan, Keenan Wynn and George Lindsey, making the action sequences feel a lot more seamless than usual.
But whenever the movie isn’t hurtling down a mountain at breakneck speed, things begin falling apart. The opening scene at Johnny’s office is interminable, taking far too long to introduce a two-sentence premise. Once they get to Colorado, the hotel really doesn’t seem to be in that bad a condition but it still takes a lot of steps to get to opening night. And the less said about estate law, small business loans and town charters the better, right? Not according to Snowball Express, which brings these riveting topics up again and again.
Despite its flaws, Snowball Express was fun and charming enough to receive fairly positive reviews from critics upon its release on December 22, 1972. This was the same day Disney re-released The Sword In The Stone to theatres for the first time since 1963. I’m not sure if they were released together as a double feature or if they were competing against each other. Considering that the original campaign manual for Snowball Express makes no mention of Sword In The Stone, I’m guessing they played separately. The film made over $6 million at the box office. Not a blockbuster but pretty good for a live-action Disney movie at the time.
Snowball Express is a minor entry in the Disney catalog. I don’t think it’s a favorite of many people but it’s likable. It’s the sort of movie you don’t think about unless something actively reminds you of it and you say, “Oh, yeah. I kind of liked that when I was a kid.” Then you go find it on Disney+ and forget all about it again until the next time you need a nostalgic little jolt from your childhood. To borrow a phrase from another Disney movie, it’s the streaming circle of life.
VERDICT: It’s just enough fun to end up on the Disney Plus side but don’t push it. It is what it is.