Monday, December 15, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #7

Matt at asks a rhetorical question in his Weekly Mishmash column: “By the way, surely I cannot be the only person on earth who is excited about Turner Classic Movies’ month-long live action Disney film fest, right?” So I gave him a rhetorical answer in his comments section, assuring him that he wasn’t. (And kudos to me for the restraint in not cracking an “And-don’t-call-me-Shirley” joke.)

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) – The first of Disney’s critically-acclaimed (okay, I may be exaggerating a tad) “Dexter Riley” trilogy (though it’s spelled “Reilly” in Computer), Kurt Russell stars as a slacker college student who convinces the respectable-businessman-who’s-really-a-two-bit-hood (Cesar Romero) into donating a $20,000 computer to the Science department at financially-strapped Medfield College. Russell tries to install a part during a thunderstorm (he’s dripping wet, and there’s water on the floor where the computer is located—I’m guessing Medfield was his “safe school” choice) and before you can say “Positively shocking” he’s managed to absorb the entire memory bank of the machine, turning him into a human brainiac and a method to infuse some much-needed cash into Medfield’s coffers—but when he blurts out secret information about Romero’s illicit activities on national television you know there’s going to be a slapstick car chase in this boy’s future.

The Dexter Riley films are among my favorites in the Disney live-action coterie; they’re silly and have plot holes big enough to drive a Ryder rental truck through but the consistent casting—Russell as Dexter, Romero as the corrupt A.J. Arno, Joe Flynn as the eternally exasperated Dean Eugene Higgins, William Schallert as Professor Quigley (though he’s missing from the second picture), Michael McGreevey as Richard Schuyler, Dexter’s idiot best friend, Richard Bakalyan as Arno’s equally intellectually-stunted sidekick (referred to as “Chillie” in the first entry and “Cookie” in all the others)—and cartoon-like goofiness are perfect entertainment for anyone who just wants to put their brain in neutral and be entertained without contemplating the movies’ redeeming social value. Cartoon voice artist supreme Frank Welker plays one of the students in this one, as does Jon “Timmy” Provost; other notable character faces and TV performers include Pat “Schneider” Harrington, Jr., Ed Begley, Jr….and OTR stalwarts Howard Culver and Olan Soulé.

The Strongest Man in the World (1975) – For some odd reason, TCM didn’t show the second film in the Dexter Riley series—Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972)—opting instead for the third and final installment…which isn’t too much to get worked up about, since I think Strongest Man is the funniest of the three. We’re back at the ivy-covered halls of Medfield College…where they still need money and need it in thirty days or the Board of Regents is going to send Dean Higgins and every one else in the series packing. A freak accident in the chemistry lab produces a “strength formula” that is sampled in a bowl of cereal by our hero Dexter—giving Higgins the idea to sell it to cereal magnate Eve Arden, whose nephew (Dick Van Patten) in turns hires A.J. Arno and Cookie to steal it for the competition (headed up by the always enjoyable Phil Silvers). Again, since this is a Disney film a climactic slapstick car chase is pretty much a given, but even though you can see the wires and trickery some of the physical comedy stunts (Russell lifts a hefty student seated in a chair off the floor) it’s still a lot of fun (there’s a nod to The Nutty Professor when one of Medfield’s students tries to lift a barbell and his arms end up dangling close to the floor). Included in the “Hey! That’s so-and-so!” cast are Harold Gould, Benson Fong, James Gregory, Roy Roberts, Fritz Feld (complete with his trademark mouth-pop), Ronnie Schell, Raymond Bailey, Kathleen Freeman, Mary Treen, Burt Mustin, Larry J. Blake and Lennie Weinrib.

The AbsentMinded Professor (1961) – Before Dexter Riley and Company matriculated at good ol’ Medfield, the school was the bailiwick of Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray)—an instructor who’s supposed to be marrying fiancée Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson) but is so wrapped up in his latest experiment it completely slips his mind. (The fact that this is the third time this has happened does not bode well for Neddie’s future marital relations.) Nevertheless, he’s got bigger fish to fry: his experiment has yielded a sort of “flying rubber,” which he dubs “flubber” and uses to make an old Model-T fly and Medfield’s basketball team (in one of the funniest physical comedy sequences in Disney live-action history) beat their rivals at Rutland College in a crucial game. (Note: Wally Brown plays Medfield’s basketball coach, and while it would have been both great and symmetrical to have Alan Carney—who’s also in the film—play the rival coach he’s stuck with the role of the referee; Gordon “Green Hornet” Jones does the honors instead.) This was the first time I’d seen Professor, and while I think some of it could have been trimmed (the “Cold War/UFO” sequence at the end brings the proceedings to a screeching halt for me) it’s tremendously entertaining and a dictionary example of a “family film.” Acting honors also go out to Keenan Wynn (who plays the despicable villain, Alonzo Hawk—and would do so not only in Professor’s sequel but 1974’s Herbie Rides Again), Tommy Kirk (Disney’s geek-in-residence who plays Wynn’s lunkhead son), Leon Ames, OTR vet Elliott Reid (as MacMurray’s smarmy rival for Olson’s affections) and a splendid cameo from Keenan’s old man, Ed—who as head of the town’s fire department wears a hat that says “Chief”…and even tells a spectator: “I’m the Chief!” (“Tonight the program’s going to be different…”) Even James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are in attendance, as the same cops they played in The Shaggy Dog (1959)!

Son of Flubber (1963) – This follow-up to Professor was the first sequel to a Disney film and while Flubber scores a lot of points for retaining much of the original’s cast—MacMurray, Olson, Wynn (both Keenan and Ed—though Ed plays a different character), Kirk, Ames, Reid, Edward Andrews, Jones, Carney (Wally Brown passed away in 1962 and he’s replaced here by Stu Erwin), Westerfield and Lewis—it doesn’t offer anything new that wasn’t explored in the first film (Brainard’s latest invention is “flubbergas,” which allows him to create thunderclouds and propel Medfield’s football team to a win over rival Rutland). Still, you can’t say the Disney folks didn’t try—among the newcomers: Charlie Ruggles, Ken Murray, William Demarest (a pre-My Three Sons appearance as MacMurray’s next-door neighbor), Paul Lynde (as a smarmy—what a stretch!—sportscaster), Bob Sweeney (a funny turn as a plain-talking IRS agent…and none of the talk is good), Joanna Moore and Jack Albertson. Now, to tie Flubber to the earlier Dexter Riley material—this was Joe Flynn’s first appearance in a Disney feature; he appears uncredited as a spokesman in a commercial that also features Harvey Korman and Beverly Wills, daughter of Joan Davis.

I also watched the TCM documentary The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics alongside these four films, and while it’s not practically perfect (in a Mary Poppins way)—I think that once Walt is laid to rest in the Big Frigidaire, they rush through the remaining films—it’s fun to see such faces as Dean Jones, Tim Considine (he’s older and grayer but still looks in better shape than Tommy Kirk or the bane of my Disney existence, Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran), Glynis Johns (and my heart goes pitter-pat), Karen Dotrice, James MacArthur, Kim Richards (who is still a stone fox) and director Ken Annakin. Plus, I learned these interesting tidbits:

1) The reason why so many of the early Disney live-action films (Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose) have such a British flavor is that Disney had a lot of money stashed away in U.K. coffers—money that, by the law, he couldn’t withdraw and exchange for that good ol’ Yankee dollah. So he spent it on filmmaking.

2) Dean Jones agreed to appear in as many Disney films as he did after attending a sneak preview of That Darn Cat! (1965) and being awestruck at the audience’s enthusiastic response. (Cat remains one of my mother’s favorite Disney films.)

3) Walt Disney was originally loathe to do television but when the American Broadcasting Company offered the money he needed to finish the Disneyland theme park he jumped at the chance. (Later, he would learn the value of having a weekly TV series to plug the heck out of his upcoming projects.)

4) The Buena Vista studios had the best commissary of them all.

5) Dick Van Dyke is still unable to explain away that wretched Cockney accent of his in Mary Poppins. (For a funny tale of a young Catholic school kid—and no, it’s not me—check out Vince Keenan’s anecdote about seeing Van Dyke’s notorious Disney stinker, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. [1966].)

Next Sunday, I’ll finally get to see the first half-hour of Escape from Witch Mountain (1975)—weather permitting, of course—and TCM will run two of Jodie Foster’s Disney vehicles: Freaky Friday (1976) and Candleshoe (1977). If you haven’t seen the Age of Believing doc yet, it will be repeated at 11:45pm. (Shouldn’t those kids be in bed?)


Scott C. said...

The early live action Disneys were big on the drive-in circuit, where is where I saw them as a kid -- in my pajamas, from the back seat of our '66 powder blue Mustang -- until my dad put his foot down (during a screening of "Never a Dull Moment," surely the most ironically titled picture of all time) and swore he wouldn't watch another "damn Disney" for the rest of his life (a vow he kept until his dying day).

I actually remember liking Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN the best, after The Absent-Minded Professor, because while the latter had a flying jalopy, the former boasted menacing natives and a cool fort inside a giant tiki idol. At least, that's how I remember it (I was 4 at the time, and haven't seen it since).

I met Kim Richards in the ladies hosiery department of Saks Fifth Avenue in 1985 or so -- just before the release of Tuff Turf, the James Spader vehicle in which she attempted to negotiate the transition from pre-pubescent waif to high school hottie roles. We were waiting for the cashier -- it was around Christmas, as I recall -- and I made some joke to my girlfriend, which Kim, in line behind us, laughed at. She was quite friendly and chatty and cute as a button, and said she was in town to visit her sister; I assume she meant Kathy, who by that point had married into the Hilton family and was busy spawning Paris and Nicky. Which is why I have to avoid sites like Go Fug Yourself or TMZ, because whenever I see Paris Hilton, I get the theme song from "Nanny and the Professor" stuck in my head.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for the Richards anecdotes, Scott -- both of them made my day.

I had thought originally about inserting my defense of Never a Dull Moment in this post because I may be the only individual who thinks it's better than the current critical opinion. I base this solely on the presence of Edward G. Robinson and his running gag of slapping Tony Bill around...and then asking: "Why are you always bleeding, boy?" (This is another one of those Disney flicks that I saw years after its first release and yet was convinced was brand-spanking-new to theaters.)