A Meditation On Three 1960s Disney B-Pictures

Recently, I’ve actually sat down and watched more of the Disney Live-Action Comedies From The 1960s Or Thereabouts (The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Gnome-mobile) than most people my age. Or, rather, a lot of people my age have seen these films (and more of them!), although not so much recently. Most everyone else has seen these films when they were much, much younger, and probably on local television stations in the middle of the day, when nothing else was on. Or perhaps, they watched them on beat up videotapes rented from small video stores – the ones with the white cases and the Electric Mickey logo before the film. This is closer to how I saw them – mainly on tapes borrowed from the library (and only one of them had the Electric Mickey, along with a Disney Channel trailer after the film with a bunch of edited together clips, including Zorro and Condorman!). The library copies are probably close enough to the video-store style of obtaining these movies you might remember — just with more tracking problems.

I figure there’s probably an academic paper in comparing these sorts of movies. I suppose if anyone out there is taking film studies, and is sick of watching actually good films, or wants to examine the Studio B-Picture, they might consider this as a topic. Of course, if one were to do this, it would probably, however, involve watching these movies each a few times, and, well, I know I wouldn’t want to.

One thing I’ve noticed, even though I’ve only seen each of these films once, is that they all seem to fall apart at around the half-way point. (Oddly enough, the one that does hold up the best is Horse — the longest of the three (almost 2 hours; Gnome-mobile is about 84, and Computer‘s 91, maybe a little less). Computer is by far the worst (Disney should have been embarrassed releasing that one) and Gnome-mobile sort of goes downhill the moment they realize that they actually need some events to happen in the middle of the film so it’s not a half-hour long.

Horse would have been a lot better with more Hard-Hitting Advertising Satire and less Pretty Horsies[1], but it still holds up pretty well — there’s an actually sort of intriguing-ish subplot (that’s sort of mentioned, and only kind-of-addressed) with the Ad Man’s Daughter (Helen, played by Ellen Janov) thinking she’s unattractive[2] and wanting something to excel in to give her self-confidence around boys and such. This subplot is surprisingly handled pretty well. We only get to see one experience with a boy where she’s shy around, but he’s all Into Her (and, also, is Kurt Russell, which is just amusing), so everything seems to work out for her (it’s never really explicitly wrapped up; for some reason, she’s much more interested in her father’s love life than her own, and so Kurt doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, but hey. They do eventually get to go out on an off-screen date, and he does go with them to Washington DC (despite there being no real reason for him to), so, I guess they’re an item.). We don’t really get to see any reason why she’d fear being homely (she seems well-liked by her fellow students at the riding academy; there’s no other boys around; she’s attractive; she’s got a well-off family (minus a mother, who I assume died, but I can’t recall if it’s ever explicitly mentioned either way how she was dispatched); etc.), but maybe that’s for the best, since a lot of self-esteem issues can seemingly stem from nowhere (at least nothing that we, voyeurs for maybe 4 months of her life max, would instantly pick up on and go “Ah, this is what’s bothering her!”), so in a way, I think it’s best that we’re spared the Some Random Boy Breaking Her Heart Scene.

One odd thing about Horse[3] is the Close Of The Second Act where it is revealed that while the girl really wanted a horse, she, however, hates riding competitions and doesn’t want to do them anymore (except that she must, because she found out about the Evil Plan of getting the horse to not get her dad fired) – which, of course, makes me wonder – why the strong horse-ownership desire in the first place? I mean, she’s the Top Rider Of Her Class at the riding academy, and they’re all talking about how she should get her very own horse for said lessons at the academy, and… I don’t know, a horse seems awfully expensive to just, y’know, have. Wouldn’t you rather just have a kitty? Those don’t cost 5000 dollars in 1968 dollars, plus all of the horsey-accoutrements you need. I can see the desire for companionship, but, wouldn’t a horse, being giant and expensive require some other sort of use to make it worth the purchase? I mean, it’s not a workhorse, and horse-racing’s sort of evil (anyway, not many little girls get to be jockeys), and if you hate riding competitions, uh, what else is there to do with it? (Other than brush it and hug it and squeeze it and love it and name it Aspercel?) It just struck me as a little odd, since it just seems that she just wanted a giant pet she could ride around on. (May I suggest one of those really large dogs?) But if she didn’t hate the riding competitions, we couldn’t advance to Act III and push along the love interest between Dean “Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Jimmy Stewart” Jones and Diane Baker, the academy owner.

At least there’s fewer “Why in hell would they do that?” moments in Horse than in Gnome-Mobile or Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the latter of which is one big Why In Hell Would They Do That? Moment. Kurt Russell’s back again as a guy who happens to know a mobster, only he doesn’t know he’s a mobster and just thinks the mobster’s Cesar Romero, I guess. And Kurt’s at this bad sort of college and the Dean’s an idiot and won’t give them money for anything useful, so he finagles a computer out of the mobster. Something goes wrong and Kurt has to replace a part of the compute which leads to him somehow getting the computer zapped into his brain (instead of killed, as you’d expect if you were inexplicably holding a high-voltage plug in a puddle of water). Which, by the way, follows one of the most baffling scenes put on film: When Kurt Russell’s character Dexter drives up in his car, it’s raining hard. And is presumably outside, since it’s raining and he’s actually driving in his car – yet, somehow, and I have no idea how this works – there are CEILING LAMPS. Hanging from skyhooks, I guess.

So now he’s got the computer in him. We know this because when a doctor looks into Dexter’s eye, he sees some stock footage of computers(!) that has been edited together(!!), the stock footage being of different-looking computers, none of which seem to be the particular computer that didn’t kill his ass(!!!). Later, they put this on TV (!!!!) and then it is inter-cut with girls in bikinis, because, after all, he is a young male in college, I guess.

This is about where this film falls down. Well, to be truthful, it falls down after the catchy title sequence featuring a 60s Rock Combo doing the theme song to some crude animation showing a old-style-computer Tape Reel with legs, and then some numbers and punch-cards. This is easily the best thing in the film. But if you were to cut the intro sequence out of the film, the movie would fall apart when Dexter gets his new Computer Brain.

Strangely, though you’d probably think otherwise from the title of the movie, the point of the film at this point becomes “Don’t be smart! You’ll just make other people feel stupid! You’ll alienate your friends! Be dumb, just like everyone else!” This, of course, vaguely unsettled me. But that’s OK. So, he goes and alienates his friends, but ends up realizing that the other Thing That Sucks About Being Smart is that people will exploit you, rather than actually befriending you (therefore it is doubly better to be dumb, I guess). Anyway, some more crap happens, including something dumb which raises the anger of the Dumbest Damn Gangsters In The World, and a stupid chase scene happens when all of Dexter’s buddies break him out and escape the bad guys by doing lots of things that may slow them down briefly, but never actually do anything useful (OK: you got lots of paint canisters, which include metal lids. Your opponents are close to you in a dune buggy – why just dump out the paint? Why not dump the paint out, chuck the canister at them, and then Frisbee the lid at them, hoping to take out a windshield or head?)

But the day is saved when Dexter’s brain melts down and becomes a normal stupid human brain again, and the dumb kid ends up saving the day by answering a question, and everything’s happy again. Kids, remember, don’t be smart! People hate you, and it just leads to trouble and being exploited and/or attempts made on your life! But if you’re dumb, you’re popular and don’t have to worry about gangsters wanting
you to pick horses perfectly and then decide to kill you for no real reason even though your horse-picking-abilities are still totally aces and as such could make them loads of money.

Gnome-mobile‘s the middle one in quality. It falls down at pretty much the exact halfway point. And it’s got Walter Brennan (in two roles!), which is pretty keen, since, hey, Walter Brennan! And “TheMary Poppins Kids” (that’s how they’re credited)! And it’s based on a story by Upton Sinclair(! – not kidding on that one. It actually kind of makes sense when you see the film, since it’s pretty strongly pro-environment, but, still, it’s a little unexpected that they’d make a Disney Film out of Sinclair), so there you go.

The Plot: A lumber magnate goes to pick up his kids and takes them to the Redwood Forest (not the one you’re thinking of; this one’s on a soundstage and is made of foam and plastic). His granddaughter goes off and sees a gnome, talks to it, and finds out that its problem is that there’s no lady gnomes around. So she goes to get her grandfather to help, and they do help after getting the gnome’s grandfather, who is distrustful of most everyone. The grandfather tells the story about how all the other gnomes disappeared from the Foamwood Forest because of the timber industry, including the biggest offender, Walter Brennan, who he would kick the ass of if he had the chance (this is the funny bit, both the Grandfather Gnome and the Lumber Magnate are Brennan). Brennan the Magnate is all “Oh, no, I am totally not that guy, by which I mean you, who is also me!” and Brennan the Gnome is all “Good!” and then they go to a motel and they see a freak show guy and this is where the movie turns from sort of fun to boring.

The Freak Show guy kidnaps the gnomes (duh) and is going to put them in his show. Brennan the Magnate (who has in-between accidentally revealed his true identity to Brennan the Gnome! Mwomp-mwomp!) then decides to call his security team to help find the kidnapped Gnomes (apparently not realizing this sounds just a little bit insane) and, of course, Brennan the Magnate is promptly committed (which is just a little scary, considering this scene was basically “We’re going to trick him into showing up at an asylum and just chuck him in with no one’s say-so but his assistant from work!” and I found that sort of vaguely unsettling that there wasn’t any need for a competency hearing or even a self-committal or anything, just “Hey, off you go, Cap’n Nutjob!” But this is probably how they did things Back in the Day, which is why Back In The Day is kind of scary.)

It’s OK, though, and the committal isn’t a problem for long, because the grandson breaks Brennan the Magnate out (which is played up as Cute, but is slightly disturbing – even though he’s in there illegally, would we really want an asylum that can be defeated by an 8-year-old working from the outside?), and they go off and find the evil Freak Show Man, then they all find some other gnomes, followed a sequence that goes on WAAY TOO DAMN LONG and is actually really sort of vicious and cruel and unsettling where the gnome-bride is determined by whichever Gnomette can catch the Soaped-Up Gnome that is Jasper The Main Gnome, Despite The Fact That He Wants To Marry Violet, Whom He Just Met Two Seconds Ago, Which Is Also Vaguely Odd And Unsettling But There You Go I Guess. After Violet’s pushed down and shoved fifty thousand times, she finally gets to catch him and they’re married and Brennan The Magnate renounces his Evil Tree-Chopping Ways and then everyone is happy, and they make their way back to the Fakewood Forest.

My theory on why these films all tend to break down especially at the end is that they overestimate Exactly How Long You’re Willing To Put Up With This Crap. Horse works, because it’s a leisurely-paced film, and so you’re willing to put up with it for longer. There’s nothing too stupid or dumb getting in the way of the story (aside from the Weird Desire For A Horse), and as a result, the film is just There. It acts as a nice-enough background for something else. Computer, on the other hand, doesn’t work at all because everyone is brutally stupid. As such, you can’t really stand to put up with it for very long and you start hating the film by the, say, 20-minute mark. Gnome-mobile works when they’re setting the story up because it’s nice and leisurely; unfortunately, as soon as the padding starts, the film gets all Frenetic And Dumb[4]. And when it gets frenetic and dumb, the movie gets really bad and insufferable.

Where both Gnome-mobile and Computer use a lot of sped-up film to heighten the “comedy” and “laffs”, there is only one case of Sped Up Film in Horse – and it’s REAALLY WEIRD and out of place. In one of the first competitions, the horse sort of faults and staggers over to the side a little, and it’s this sequence that’s sped up. It’s about maybe a 5-second shot sped up to be about 3 seconds long. As far as I can tell, it’s not supposed to be Funny or Wacky or Anything. I have no idea why they did it. It looks really strange and you start wondering “Wait, is the horse going to fall down? Is that supposed to be funny?” Luckily, the horse doesn’t fall down, though there’s some other Horse Injuries if you’re for some reason into that (even though, I don’t think the film is sped up on those).

If the Disney Live-Action Films were more enjoyable I would want to see more of them to see if they fit my vague hypothesis, or to see if any of these films actually can really make it all the way to the end (Like I said, Horse comes closest, since it’s only the third act that’s a little doofy and weird), but I don’t think they can. And I think that this might even be part of the Disney formula, though I can’t really imagine why they’d do it that way.

I think there actually could be a good movie somewhere in Horse. I don’t exactly know what it is, nor would I really want to try, but I think Horse actually could be forced to work as a successful film. The others? Maybe Gnome-mobile if it were made by someone like Hayao Miyazaki. Computer? Despite what Kirk Cameron might say, NO. Ouch.[5]

And for the record, if it didn’t involve watching it again, I would see whether or not Computer Wore Tennis Shoes actually featured Real Tennis Shoes. I don’t think it did – I think the title character, even when zapped, had either sneakers or deck shoes. Perhaps a case could be made against the Walt Disney Co. for false advertising? Hey, at least it’d be some repayment for having that horrible thing thrust upon us.

[1] I know I’ve used this line before. I like it.
[2] She’s not — she’s Normal Person Pretty[2a], and quite so at that, really. If I were a 13-year-old living in the 1960s, I would have totally had a crush on her.
[2a] I don’t mean this as an insult. Anyway, I usually find “Normal Person Pretty” prettier than “Movie-Star Pretty”.
[3] Aside from the credit sequence basically implying that the film’s going to be about a horse who goes to work in an ad firm, playing off the title[3a] – this is what I thought the film was going to be as well; it’s not. The actual story is about an ad man who needs to come up with an ad campaign. He has the idea of getting the sponsor to buy a horse, giving it the product’s name, and watching as it ends up winning a bunch of competitions to solve both the problem of the ad campaign and also his daughter’s desire for a horse of her own.
[3a] It’s a pun on The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit; I tend to get references that are a lot older than I am (I think this is due to having almost every Mad Magazine from 1952-2000) – I think that particular reference is dated as hell, so perhaps there’s someone scratching their head over that one. It was a novel by Sloan Wilson about an ex-army officer who goes into business as a TV writer who ends up writing speeches for the network president; for a while, it was shorthand for “satire on media/the advertising industry”. Now, I guess it’s just barely in print. I should probably pick it up, since all of my knowledge of it is second-hand, to be honest.
[4] For example, the also-way-too-long Driving Chase Sequence[4a] or the above-mentioned Gnomettes-In-Desire-Of-A-Husband Chase Sequence which is just sort of weird.
[4a] This scene also includes the classic “You don’t like how I’m driving?!? [hands backseat-driver the wheel which has come loose from the steering column] YOU Drive then!!!” routine which is in probably like 500 bad comedy movies. Always ones for innovation, however, this instance combines the routine with the Trademark Disney Sped-Up Film.
[5] Well, perhaps Computer could also work if Miyazaki were to make it, but unlike a hypothetical Miyazaki Gnome-mobile, Miyazaki’s Computer would be wholly unrecognizable as something that once was Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.


Enhanced by Zemanta