Saturday, February 14, 2015

Scandalous John - 1971

While Disney films from the 1970's are typically defined by goofball comedies that weren't particularly funny or memorable, there are a few exceptions. Producer Bill Walsh chose to adapt a book called Scandalous John by Richard Gardner that was a Western retelling of the classic Don Quixote. The screenplay was written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (the duo behind Mary Poppins and The Love Bug).

Robert Butler returned to direct his third film, a big departure from his other Disney work (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive). Brian Keith returned to the studio after 6 years away. This is his final Disney film, although he did return for a TV movie in 1986 called The B.R.A.T. Patrol. His sidekick Paco is played by Alfonso Arau, his first of two Disney films. The rest of the cast are mostly unknown actors, but Harry Morgan (The Barefoot Executive) is in this and would become one of the most frequently used character actors at Disney for the rest of the decade. John Ritter appears in his second and final Disney film (The Barefoot Executive) before becoming a household name on Three's Company. Famous songwriter Rod McKuen wrote the score and song "Pastures Green" for the film. Filming took place from September to December of 1970. Most of the filming was on location in Alamogordo, New Mexico, with interior scenes shot in Arizona's Old Tucson Studio. They also travelled to South Dakota to shoot the railroad scenes.

John McCanless was once a great rancher, a hero in his Western town. But after the loss of his wife, he began to lose his mind with delusions of grandeur. He hires an illegal immigrant named Paco to be his ranch hand and their adventures include trying to block a plan for a dam that would flood his property (real), fighting off an indian attack (delusional), leading a cattle drive (real... but with only one cow) and finding the legendary golden city of Quivera (delusional). They are followed by John's granddaughter Amanda, who is worried about her grandfather's health, and Barton Whitaker, the man trying to stop him from getting the money to save his ranch. In an accidental shoot out, John is fatally wounded and by poetic happenstance, it happens under a sign that reads "Quivera."

Scandalous John was released on June 22nd, 1971 in a limited release. It is unknown why the studio would want to limit the exposure of this obviously expensive film (shot on location in multiple states in Cinemascope). Even more curious for a Disney film that didn't make money in its theatrical release, Scandalous John never aired on The Wonderful World of Disney. It wasn't seen again until 1986 when it was released on home video to rental stores.

Was Disney trying to hide Scandalous John? And if so, why? It was made at a time when the story of Don Quixote had renewed interest thanks to a Broadway musical that opened in 1965 called The Man of La Mancha. By 1971, United Artists was working on a film version, so perhaps there was some agreement that Disney would limit the exposure of Scandalous John so that audiences wouldn't be tired of the story. This is all speculation on my part because I can't see a reason why Disney would make a high quality film like this and then not give it a proper release. If they were concerned about the brief racial undertones (there's a scene where Paco is almost deported), they could have easily edited those out.

Brian Keith gives his finest performance of any of his Disney work in this film. John McCanless is quite a character and his performance is consistent throughout. With his beard, accent and gruff voice, he's actually hard to recognize as the dad from The Parent Trap. The film has a slow pace, but the cast is so likable that it's easy to forgive as the story unfolds. There are also some genuinely funny moments, such as John and Paco riding horses through a Main Street full of cars and riding them into stores to shop. It's a rare gem in a decade full of mediocre and forgettable films.

Scandalous John is available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive where it is presented in its Cinemascope widescreen ratio of 2.35:1. It was released in 2009 and received a gentle restoration then, but has excessive grain. That same restoration is used for digital HD versions of the film, but for some odd reason Disney chose to crop it to a standard widescreen ratio, meaning you are missing lots of picture on the sides. It's a confusing choice that I can't understand and as a result, the DVD is the version I recommend.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Barefoot Executive - 1971

In a very short time, Kurt Russell went from being a supporting actor at Disney to being a leading man. His first headlining role was in 1969 with the first Dexter Riley film, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It was so successful that it quickly made him the studio's most bankable star. They were quick to find him another project before returning to the Dexter Riley formula. 1971's The Barefoot Executive was in the same spirit as The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and must have seemed like a guaranteed hit at the time.

Drawing even more similarities to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, both films share the same director (Robert Butler), writer (Joseph L. McEveety) and producer (Bill Anderson). The two even share a few supporting cast members, including Joe Flynn and Alan Hewitt. And the theme song, "He's Gonna Make It," was written by the same team that wrote the song for Computer (Bruce Belland and Robert F. Brunner). Heather North plays Kurt Russell's girlfriend and if her voice sounds familiar, it's because she's the voice of Daphne in Hannah Barbara's Scooby-Doo series. This is also the film debut of John Ritter, five years before becoming a household name on Three's Company. The film was mostly shot on the Disney Studio lot, with one week of location shooting in Long Beach, CA.

Steve is a mailroom clerk at UBC trying to move up, but nobody will listen to his TV ideas. When he comes to the realization that his girlfriend' Jennifer's chimp always watches the highest rated TV programs, he uses his uncanny knack for picking hit shows to climb the corporate ladder behind her back. When a jealous coworker discovers his secret and reveals it to his bosses, the network execs try to steal the chimp to edge him out. Their attempts are foiled, but when they offer Steve money to buy the chimp, he has to choose between wealth or doing what's right.

The Barefoot Executive was released on March 17th, 1971. It received mixed reviews and wasn't successful on the same level as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, despite all of the similarities. It made its Wonderful World of Disney TV debut in 1972 and was released on home video for the first time in 1985.

The best word to describe this film is "cute." All of the actors are likable and if you've seen a lot of Disney movies from the 60's and 70's, this one is full of familiar character actors. The premise is clever and fun, but isn't quite enough to fill a feature film. There's a lot of obvious filler with jokes that never really pay off. The funniest moment is a running joke about how the chimp likes to grab a beer during commercial breaks. But with so much done right, it's hard not to enjoy The Barefoot Executive. Among the programs Steve shows the chimp is a clip from Babes in Toyland. The film grew in popularity over the years thanks to Kurt Russell's star power and multiple TV airings. In 1995, Disney did a TV remake for Disney Channel.

The Barefoot Executive is currently available on DVD. It is presented in open matte fullscreen, which looks like a VHS master. The colors are over saturated and there is a lot of dust in the print. It was recently restored in HD and its available digitally through all major providers. The colors seem more natural, dust has been removed and it is presented in widescreen (1.66:1, although the correct aspect ratio would be 1.75:1).