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 Blu-Ray as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. This disc features a recent restoration that is well done, exhibiting great detail and accurate colors. The alternative is the DVD release, which features the VHS master in fullscreen with excess grain and scratches in the print. The high definition restoration is also available digitally from all major providers.

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).