Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes - 1969

Disney was known for zany comedies, but it seemed that all of their college-based films were guaranteed hits. The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey's Uncle made a ton of money for the studio. So it's hard to believe that almost five years passed before they would make another similar film. The reason may be that they were waiting for a star at the studio to reach the right age.

With three Disney films under his belt, plus three TV movies for The Wonderful World of Color, Kurt Russell's star was on the rise and Disney was eager to test his marketability as a leading actor. A lesser-known talent at the studio, Joe McEveety, started as an assistant director in 1958 on Zorro and carried the same title on the Merlin Jones films. He began his writing career with this original story, written with Russell in mind to play Medfield College (of Absent-Minded Professor fame) student Dexter Riley. This production may have started with TV as the end goal, evidenced perhaps by TV director Robert Butler, who had never directed a feature film before. Joe Flynn from The Love Bug plays Dean Higgins. Other familiar faces include Richard Bakalyan (Never a Dull Moment), Cesar Romero (Zorro) and John Provost (Timmy on Lassie - non-Disney). Famous voice actor Frank Welker, most famous as the voice of Fred from Scooby-Doo, also stars in this and its sequels.

Filming took place almost entirely on the Disney Studio lot. Interiors were built on the sound stages. The studio buildings, which Walt had designed to look like a college campus, doubled as Medfield College. The same backdrop used in Walt's tapings of the Disneyland series in out of his office window is used in Medfield's interior shots. Theses buildings represented college campuses before in the Merlin Jones series. Robert Brunner and Bruce Belland wrote the title song for the opening credits. A technical engineer who was working on building Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL named Ko Suzuki was brought in to create digital graphs and equipment used in the computer scenes.

The film begins with an animated opening credits featuring computer bleeps and tennis shoes to the song "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes." Dean Higgins of Medfield College can't afford to buy a computer for the school, to the detestation of Dexter Riley and his fellow students. Dexter is able to convince his old employer A. J. Arno to donate an old computer to the college, however Arnold is a crook who had his staff developing a computer to predict gambling outcomes. During a storm, Dexter sneaks into the computer lab to use the computer to help him cheat on a test and ends up getting an electric shock through the computer. During his test, Dexter discovers that he can dish out all of the answers at an extremely high rate, like a computer would. Dean Higgins has him checked out by a doctor who determines that he has become a human computer. Higgins forces him to compete on a game show to gain attention for the school. Dexter wins and becomes highly celebrated, catching the attention of A. J. Arno, who uses the old code in him to predict gambling bets. Dexter eventually gets kidnapped by one of Arnold's cronies and it's up to his friends to rescue him in the nick of time before a big game show that could win Medfeild $100,000. However during the rescue chase, Dexter bumped his head and in the middle of the competition, he begins to lose the computer's information and becomes normal Dexter Riley again. However, one of Dexter's friends on the team knows the final answer and wins the money for the school.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was released on December 31st, 1969, making it the last film of the decade by a single day. It was critically bashed for being predictable and inaccessible to adults. But it was a huge box office success, leading Disney to produce two sequels (the first Disney trilogy). It premiered on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1972 prior to the sequel's theatrical release (Now You See Him, Now You Don't) and it was released on home video in 1985.

I grew up in a world where owning a personal computer was normal, but my parents and educators always told stories of how they grew up knowing of a computer as a giant machine that filled a whole room. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes must have a lot of sentimental value for people who grew up during the 60's and 70's. I was first exposed to the story in 1995 with the Kirk Cameron remake on Disney Channel and didn't see the original until I was in high school. The film is your typical fun Disney comedy, with less laughable moments than classics like The Absent-Minded Professor, but enough charm to hold its own. It is clear that much of the films' success can be attributed to Kurt Russell, who is so charming and likable as Dexter Riley that makes that character so memorable. Fans of Summer Magic may recognize the old yellow house with a bright 70's paint job during the rescue scenes towards the end of the film. There are a few references to this film at Walt Disney World in the Journey into Imagination attraction. There's a door in the queue with Dean Higgins' name on it and in the ride, there's a computer room with a sign that says "No Tennis Shoes." There's also a Medfield jacket on a char in the room.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is currently available on DVD. The VHS master was used, presenting the film in fullscreen and with excess grain and dust. There aren't any bonus features, but you can buy the film individually or in a 4-movie collection with both sequels (Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World) plus another Kurt Russell film, The Barefoot Executive. Disney recently did a full restoration on the film, which is available digitally in HD on both Amazon and iTunes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rascal - 1969

Walt Disney Productions continued operating without Walt in much the same fashion as it did when he was alive, sticking to a formula that worked. Based on the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by famed newspaper editor Sterling North in 1963, the studio was inspired to adapt it into an uplifting animal film. An who better to make it than the same team behind the other great Disney films of it's ilk.

Norman Tokar, who started his Disney career directing another animal movie called Big Red, was chosen to direct. Harold Swanton adapted the screenplay after doing Willie the Yank for The Wonderful World of Color. Bill Mumy was cast as Sterling, having previously stared in Disney's TV movie Sammy, the Way Out Seal. John Fiedler, voice of Piglet, plays their gardening neighbor in his first on-screen role for Disney. Steve Forrest plays his father in his first of two Disney roles. Jonathan Daly also begins his Disney career here as Reverend Griffith. Character actress Elsa Lanchester plays a picky housekeeper in her final disney role (most memorable as Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins). Famous actor Walter Pidgeon narrates as sixty-year-old Sterling Holloway. The film was shot on soundstages and the backlot at the Disney Studios in Burbank, as well as nearby Golden Oak for outside shots. Matte paintings help convince that audience that this is Wisconsin at the turn of the century.

The film begins with young Sterling North walking with his dog and a raccoon as the narrator recalls back to his boyhood and the most unique friend he ever made. A series of vignettes are depicted during the credits of the boy and his raccoon riding bikes, eating ice cream, etc... The film then flashes back to before Sterling met his funny friend on the last day of school. When his dad picks him up from school, they have a heart-to-heart about the recent death of Sterling's mother. When their dog Wowser chases a raccoon away from her home, her babies follow... except for one. Feeling sorry for the little fellow, Sterling's dad takes him in and they name him Rascal. When his father and sister leave Sterling home with a housekeeper who abandons him, he fends for himself and lives happily with Wowser and Rascal. He occupies his summer building a canoe while his teacher and reverend express their concerns about how much time the boy spends without adult supervision. Summer ends with a race between a horse-drawn carriage and a motor car. The story flashes to Thanksgiving when Sterling's sister comes home for a visit with her fiance. When she finds out that Sterling spent most of the summer alone, she gets furious and resumes household duties and cancels the marriage. Her dad is able to convince her that he will stop being an absent father and stay home. When Rascal fights to get out of the house and Sterling tries to stop him, Rascal bites him. He realizes that he can't keep him forever. Sterling takes Rascal out in his finished canoe and sets him free in the forrest, where he meets a girl raccoon. They are quickly chased by a bobcat, but Sterling witnesses Rascal defeating the beast and knows he will be fine. The film ends with Sterling sailing away and giving his dear friend a goodbye wave.

Rascal was released on June 11th, 1969. It got mixed reviews, praised for the performances but bashed for being overly sentimental. It wasn't much of a box office draw and debuted on TV a short time later in 1973. It didn't make its home video debut until 2002, when it arrived simultaneously on DVD and VHS.

I first enjoyed Rascal during it's home video release. Growing up in Wisconsin and being a fan of period films at the turn of the century, I really connected to Rascal. To me, it feels like the first scene of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress expanded into a film. Bill Muny is so likable and the animal actors are so appealing that it's hard to not enjoy it. When Sterling and Rascal say goodbye at the end, you get the same sense of melancholy cultivated at the end of The Fox and the Hound. There's also a lot of hidden gems to make Disney fans keep their eyes peeled. The neighborhood the Holloway's live in is the same Residential Street used in the filming of classics like The Absent-Minded Professor and That Darn Cat. It was common practice for studios to reuse props and set pieces in other productions. Viewers with a keen eye will notice some items in the Holloway home from Pollyanna. Rascal was the first film professionally reviewed by Gene Siskel, who gave it a thumb down.

Rascal is still available on DVD, with a transfer that was marginally restored, but with room for improvement. The film was presented there in pan & scan fullscreen, but the film was theatrically release with a widescreen aspect ratio 1.78:1. There aren't any bonus features on the DVD. The film is now available on iTunes, where it can be purchased in widescreen (1.66:1, gaining some image on the top and bottom that wouldn't have been seen in theaters). The HD restoration is flawless, making the film look like it could have been produced today.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Smith! - 1969

Walt Disney had a lot of success with Westerns on TV, but his theatrical efforts had previously disappointed. Films like Westward Ho, the Wagons and Ten Who Dared were critical and box office failures. But with the studio still making films the way Walt would have, under the leadership of his brother Roy O. Disney, it was inevitable that the genre would be revisited. The source material was a book called Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre.

Michael O'Herlihy directs his third and final Disney film. Louis Pelletier adapted the screenplay, his final theatrical film for Disney. Iconic film star Glenn Ford was signed on for his only Disney film to play the lead role. Nancy Olson returns to the studio, after memorable roles in Pollyanna and The Absent-Minded Professor. Her costar from Professor, Keenan Wynn (son of Ed Wynn) also returns for this film. Two songs in the film are written and performed by Bobby Russell.

The film begins with a song about Smith set to Native American drawings on a wooden board depicting the story. Smith arrives at his farm after a disappointing hunt for meat. His wife tells him that she suspects the murderer Jimmy Boy is living with their Native American friend Antoine in his shack nearby. His wife is upset that Smith gives so much of their stuff to their neighbors, but Smith says if he doesn't nobody else will. Antoine is hiding Jimmy Boy and asks Smith to sneak him to Canada, but Smith convinces him to stay and wait for a trial. When a reward of $500 is offered for Jimmy Boy's capture, Antoine turns him in and collects the cash, since Jimmy Boy was going to willingly go to trial anyway. He buys a car with the money, but the breaks are shot and he quickly gets in a wreck. He is thrown in jail after accidentally pleading guilty to being drunk, meaning he won't be able to testify for Jimmy Boy. Smith has to borrow money from his wife to pay the $10 bail. A translator is present at Jimmy Boy's trial, but Antoine is uncomfortable and Smith ends up substituting midway through the prosecution. Following the trial, Smith is placed in jail for thirty days for getting into a fight with the sheriff. When Antoine reveals to the judge that he can speak English, he is able to convince the judge to let Smith go free. The film ends with Smith's friends arriving to help him cut his hay crop, a gesture of true kindness and friendship.

Smith! was released on March 21st, 1969. Released during a time when Native American rights were a hot button issue and shortly after congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, Disney was quiet with their marketing efforts. Critics ignored the film and so did audiences, making it a box office failure. Surprisingly, Disney chose not to air it on their weekly series and it wasn't made available again until 1987 when it made its home video debut.

This film breaks Disney traditions in many ways. It's a story about racism and one man passionate enough to speak out in favor of freedom for all. It's about corruption in a small town where those in power refuse to recognize new laws. It's a much better film than the title would suggest and holds up as a unique entry in the catalogue of Disney films. Producer Bill Anderson was striving to attract a more adult audience with this film, recognizing the importance of appealing to more than just kids or families. This was years before the studio would add a division for that very purpose with the creation of Touchstone in 1984. The original working title was A Man Called Smith.

Smith! is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club exclusive. A nice restoration was done and the film is presented in widescreen, but there aren't any bonus features. It is also available digitally exclusively on amazon, where it can be purchased in HD on select devices (amazon does not allow HD on iOS devices).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Love Bug - 1969

When Dean Jones brought Walt Disney a script in the mid-1960's about the first sports car in America that he was interested in making, Walt told him he had a better car story for him. The story that Walt had in mind was Boy/Car/Girl by Gordon Bufford. After Walt's passing, a committee was formed that would pick projects based on what Walt might have done. Bill Walsh adapted Boy/Car/Girl into the classic film we know today as The Love Bug.

Disney's top director, Robert Stevenson, was assigned as director. Dean Jones was attached to the film from its inception, but the toughest casting choice was the car itself. They had a casting call that included a Toyota, Fiat, Volvo, MG, and a Volkswagen. The VW Beetle got the role because studio employees that passed by it would pet it. Buddy Hacket was cast when Bill Walsh saw him performing in Las Vegas. In that same act, Buddy had a story about a French ski instructor named Herbie, which inspired the name of the car. David Tomlinson returns to the studio as the villain after his memorable role as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Joe Flynn makes his Disney debut, best remembered for his role as Snoops in The Rescuers and Dean Higgins in the Dexter Riley series. Iris Adrian has a small role as the carhop, who would become one of the most memorable side character actresses at Disney in the 1970's.

The movie begins with a drag race as the credits play. One of the losers, Jim Douglas, heads home defeated to find his eccentric roommate Tennessee making a sculpture out of his wrecked car parts. While shopping for a new car, he sees a pretty girl named Carole and walks into the upscale dealership, owned by Peter Thorndyke. About to be shown the door, a Volkswagen Beetle rolls in from the back and bumps him in the leg. The little car follows him home, causing him to get in trouble for allegedly stealing the car. If Jim will pay for the car, Thorndyke won't press any charges. On his drive home, the car forces him off the freeway and hides under a bridge. He takes it back to return it and Carole joins him for a drive to validate that the car works properly. When they start to argue, the car starts driving itself and takes them to a drive-in, where it locks them in the car and forces them on a date. When Carole offers to refund him for the car, he decides to keep it after seeing how fast it can go. Tennessee believes the car has a spirit and is alive, but Jim dismisses it and does some maintenance to race it. After winning his first race, Thorndyke offers to buy it back. Carole suggests a deal where Thorndyke will bet the remaining payments Jim owes against Jim's shares of the car. Whichever driver wins gets to keep it. Meanwhile, Tennessee has named the car Herbie as Jim goes on believing that his driving is what is winning the races. After buying a real race car with the winnings from the races, Jim agrees to sell Herbie to Thorndyke, causing the depressed car to run away and attempt suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jim tries to stop him and almost falls, causing Herbie to backup and save him. On the drive, Herbie destroyed a Chinese restaurant and the owner wants the car as payment. Jim makes a deal where the car belongs to him, but Jim gets to drive him in the next race. If Jim wins, the man gets the money and has to sell Herbie back for a $1. During the race, Thorndyke tries to sabotage Jim by replacing their gas with water and spraying oil on the road. Herbie is able to overcome these hurdles with some amazing tricks, including tearing himself apart to win the race and stay with Jim. The owner of the Chinese Restaurant had made a deal with Thorndyke to get the car from him if Jim lost the race, but in the fine print of the contract Thorndyke had to hand over his dealership if they lost. The film ends with Carole and Jim getting in a restored Herbie for their honeymoon.

The Love Bug premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater on March 13th, 1969, where valet parking was exclusive to attendees in Volkswagens. The studio wasn't expecting the massive success of the film, which went on to become the highest grossing film of 1969, and the second highest grossing film in Disney history at the time, second to Mary Poppins. It made $17 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1979 and premiered on home video in 1980.

Herbie has an undeniable charm and it's easy to see why this was such a big hit. It follows the basic Disney formula for successful comedies, but has a freshness that makes it feel new. Of the Disney films made in the 1960's, this one represents the unique qualities of the era the best. Optional titles included ThunderBug, The Magic Volksy, and Beetlebomb before they decided on The Love Bug. Dean Jones plays another character in the film, the memorable hippy at the drive-in. Eight different bugs were used to play Herbie, each built to perform different tricks. In pre-production, Herbie was going to be red, but was switched to pearl white. The iconic scene with Herbie skipping across the pond was shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. To promote the film, Disneyland had a Love Bug day, where guests would bring their Beetles to the park dressed up for a parade. Dean Jones presenting the winner with an award. The number 53 came from Bill Walsh's favorite baseball player, Don Drysdale of the LA Dodgers.

The Love Bug has inspired more follow-up projects than any other live-action Disney film property. Four direct sequels were made: Herbie Rides Again in 1974, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo in 1977, Herbie Goes Bananas in 1980, and Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005. In 1982, Disney attempted a TV series starring Dean Jones that only laster 5 episode on CBS called Herbie: The Love Bug. In 1997 Disney made a TV movie also called The Love Bug, a modern take on the story loosly inspired by the original film that also had a Dean Jones cameo. In 1999, Walt Disney World opened the All Star Movies resort, which features a Love Bug wing.

The Love Bug is currently available on DVD in a 2-disc set, which includes a making-of feature, commentary, and vintage promotional material. The film is presented in widescreen with a decent restoration and while it doesn't advertise it as such, this is a Vault Disney DVD release. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection paired with the first 3 sequels, but you lose the second disc and therefore most of the bonus features. It is also available on iTunes, where it can be purchased in HD, but without bonus features.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit - 1968

After Walt Disney's death in 1966, the studio still had a few films in production and pre-production to get them through the next couple of years. These films would still be marketed the same as when he was alive, with "Walt Disney Presents" above the title. The first film marketed a different way, with "Walt Disney Productions Presents" was The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, based on the book The Year of the Horse by Eric Hatch.

With the studios' biggest star Dean Jones attached, they assigned Norman Tokar to direct. The two worked together on The Ugly Dachshund. The screenplay was adapted by Louis Pelletier, who did several Disney films before it including Follow Me, Boys!. Winston Hibler, famous as an animation writer and animal film producer, filled producer duties. Disney's rising star Kurt Russell appears here in his third Disney film, shortly before taking Dean Jones' title as the biggest star at the studio. Alan Hewitt returns to the studio, having appeared in both Absent-Minded Professor films, who would be paired with Russell in the upcoming Dexter Riley film series. Character actor Norman Grabowski makes his final Disney appearance here, best known as the dumb jock in the Merlin Jones series.

After an animated credit sequence, we are introduced to advertising agent Fred Bolton, who is working on marketing a digestive pill called Aspercel. While at work, he receives a big bill for his daughter's horse riding lessons that makes his head spin. After the boss is unimpressed with their campaign, he gives the team 24 hours to create a new one. When Fred picks up his daughter Helen from her lessons, he settles the bill with her pretty riding instructor, who had suggested to Helen that if she had her own horse, her riding would improve and she could compete in big races. In a stroke of insanity, he pitches the idea to his boss of having a show horse named Aspercel to subliminally bring the product to a higher class market, which gets him promoted to vice president. After Helen loses the first competition, Fred takes advice from Ronnie, the brother of another competitor. He has Helen's instructor increase training to every day because if Helen and Aspercel don't make it to the finals in Washington, he will be fired. After hearing her father argue with his boss before a show, she gets under a lot of pressure even though she is consistently winning. When Aspercel runs away and Fred chases after him, Helen reports the horse stolen. Their ride turns into a police chase and Fred gets locked up in jail, but the story gets media attention which pleases his boss. When Ronnie arrives to take Helen on a date, she stands him up to practice and has an emotional breakdown under the pressure of competing. After finding out that Aspercel jumped a 7 foot wall during the chase, the trainer decides to enter the horse in the open jumper championship, which could land them bigger media attention. With the trainer riding, the pressure is off Helen. When Aspercel wins, Fred realizes he is in love with Helen's instructor and they get engaged.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit was released on December 20th, 1968, paired with the second Pooh short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. It earned $3.3 million during its box office run, about half of what Dachshund earned and not quite a success. It premiered on TV in 1971 and was first released on home video in 1986.

While the title and marketing suggest this is a zany Disney comedy, it actually has a lot more heart than what appears on the surface. There are also a lot of deeper themes, such as gender inequalities of the 1960's, the importance of family over careers, and the psychological trauma of children who support their family. The film offers fun, classic Disney charm with great performances from all of the actors. The only faults I can give it are inconsistent pace. It starts out fast paced and exciting, but quickly becomes slow paced once Aspercel starts competing. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. The title is a joke on a popular novel and film from the 50's called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Fred's dog is named Herbie, possibly an intentional nod to the next Dean Jones Disney comedy, The Love Bug.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen. The original theatrical ratio was 1.75:1 widescreen. They used the VHS master from the 1998 release to make the DVD and there aren't any bonus features. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection of Kurt Russell films where it is paired with Now You See Him, Now You Don't, The Strongest Man in the World, and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Never a Dull Moment - 1968

When Walt Disney was alive, he had formed a friendship with Dick Van Dyke, a comedic actor who believed in clean family entertainment. He signed him to a film contract and was looking for another project for him before passing away. That project would be a book called Never a Dull Moment by John Godey.

Jerry Paris was hired to direct his only Disney film because he was a leading director (and costar) of The Dick Van Dyke show. The production team felt that he would be capable of bringing out the best performance from Van Dyke. AJ Carothers adapted the screenplay, his last for Disney. For Van Dyke, this would be his final Disney branded film (although he was in Touchstone's Dick Tracy in 1990). Gangster film icon Edward G. Robinson plays the head of the mob. Dorothy Provine returns to the studio one final time after a memorable role in That Darn Cat. Slim Pickens also returns to the studio after Savage Sam and Disney TV westerns. Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller produced this, his first film with full producer credit (he co-produced several films including Summer Magic).

The film begins with two crooks and a hostage in a surrounded building when the one crook kills the other. It turns out these are actors in a TV show and the killed crook is a bit-part actor named Jack Albany. While still in costume on his way home, he gets mixed up with a mob who think he's Ace Williams, one of the leading gangsters in the world. When he meets the head of the mob Joe Smooth, he is receiving art lessons from a pretty girl who recognizes him from TV. The crime he is to assist in performing is to steal a 40 foot famous painting from the Manhattan art museum. When Sally the art instructor stumbles into the meeting, she is forced to stay the night along with the rest of the mob involved in the heist. That night, the real Ace shows up. Unsure who is the real one, Joe Smooth locks them both in a room alone and decides that whoever comes out alive must be the real Ace. It just so happens that Sally was hiding in the same room and she knocks the real Ace out. After a short discussion, Sally convinces Jack that the best way to save their lives is for him to keep pretending to be Ace and hope to break free at the museum. When he is discovered as a phony at the museum, a mad cap chase includes with a climax on a giant spinning mobile. After setting off the fire alarm, their plan is foiled and the gangsters are arrested. Jack and Sally get their happy ending, with Jack leaving to call his agent as he is about to make headlines for his good deed.

Never a Dull Moment was released on June 26th, 1968. In its original release, it was paired with the classic short The Three Little Pigs. Critics bashed the over-the-top acting and noted the lack of comedic moments in this Disney comedy. It made $4 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1977 packaged with The Three Caballeros and made its TV debut in 1979. It was first released on video in 1985.

If you're a Dick Van Dyke fan and enjoyed Lt. Robin Crusoe, then I recommend Never a Dull Moment as a follow up. While there are a few highlights in the film and I enjoy the performances, especially Dorothy Provine, this film doesn't measure up to the more well known Disney comedies of its era. Also for a film called Never a Dull Moment, there sure is an awful lot of sitting around and talking with long breaks between key action sequences. In the early scenes where Jack is acting on TV, you can see the interior walls of the Disney soundstage where the scene was filmed. This film features some amazing matte paintings to double local LA and the Disney Studio for New York City. Director Jerry Paris from The Dick Van Dyke Show makes a brief cameo as a police officer towards the end of the film.

Never a Dull Moment is currently available on DVD where it is presented in widescreen. The original theatrical trailer is included as a bonus feature. It is also available on iTunes, where it is offered in HD.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band - 1968

The Happiest Millionaire was a big budget live action musical flop that struggled to get released, not playing to general audiences until the end of 1967. However it was Walt's belief that Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson were the next big onscreen couple, so before his death he had found another project for them.. It would be their last film together. Originally intended as a two-part TV special, the studio developed the autobiography of Laura Bower Van Nuys called The Family Band into the much longer titled film, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

The book was adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and was his final screenplay (other works include Swiss Family Robinson and Babes in Toyland). TV director Michael O'Herlihy directs his only Disney film. Walter Brennan makes his final Disney appearance as Granda Bower. Disney Legend Buddy Ebson also returns to the studio for the last time. Kurt Russell (Follow Me, Boys!) has a small roll in this film, shortly before his rise to fame at Disney. One of the children, John Walmsley, was also the voice of Christopher Robin in the short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. The Sherman Brothers wrote ten original songs for the film, eight of which made it into the film.

The film begins in 1888 with the Bower family rehearsing a song in their barn. A man arrives from the Democratic National Committee to ask Grandpa Bower to have the family perform their campaign song at the St. Louis Convention. They give him a demonstration performance and get an invitation to perform at the reelection campaign for Grover Cleveland. While the family is dancing and celebrating, the man the eldest daughter Alice has been writing to arrives and she gets embarrassed, but he finds it charming. He's in town to find fellow Republicans to move to the Black Hills of Dakota, which causes a fight with Democratic grandfather. The family decides to move, with Alice becoming the town's school teacher. After the family sings their Grover Cleveland song in public, the family becomes outcasts and school is canceled on Alice's first day. Joe sings to her about his love for her to cheer her up. Meanwhile grandpa went to tell the kids to go home but unintentionally gave the kids a history lesson. This causes a bigger fight in the family and grandpa decides to leave. Shortly after, grandpa returns to find that the family hasn't been practicing for their big performance. They beg him to come back and lead them. When Cleveland loses to Benjamin Harrison, the whole town is reunited when Cleveland announces he will make the Dakota's states before he leaves office. The film ends with closing credits as the town celebrates with a parade.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band premiered on March 21st, 1968 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Like Millionaire before it, it was a critical and commercial failure. It made it's TV debut in 1972 and the title was shortened to just The Family Band. It was one of the first Disney films released for video rental in 1981 and was released for sale in 1985.

I really enjoyed The Happiest Millionaire, but find Family Band to be a fairly weak follow up. It has a few highlight moments, mostly when the Sherman songs liven things up. I tend to really enjoy films set in the Victorian era with a slow pace, but this film is a little bit too slow. When the decision was made to make it a feature film instead of a two-part TV special, the Sherman Brothers were resistant because they didn't feel the story was strong enough to warrant more songs or a theatrical release. Two songs were cut from the film and Richard Sherman claims the original runtime was 156 minutes (the only version ever released is 110 minutes long). Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russel's life partner, makes her feature film debut as a dancer in this film. It was their first meeting, but sparks didn't fly between the two until more than a decade later.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in pan & scan fullscreen. The original theatrical release was widescreen 1.75:1. This presentation has some excess grain and artifacts. The DVD release surprisingly has bonus features, which include an audio commentary and a retrospective featurette with the cast. A newer restoration was done and is available on iTunes in widescreen and HD, but without any bonus features.