Saturday, September 23, 2006

Back To Medfield College

Made curious by this week's earlier encounter with Robert Stevenson's THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936), I've decided to stage an impromptu return to Medfield College (the site of numerous Stevenson comedies for Disney, from THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR to the Dexter Riley trilogy starring Kurt Russell) and some of Stevenson's other work.

When they were new, live action Disney films of the 1960s were anathema to young people of my age. The trailers showed us that they were silly and unsophisticated and, somehow worst of all, wholesome; we didn't need to see them to know they would be bland and insufferable. But now that I'm older, I'm feeling a curiosity about some of these matinee pictures I missed. (I said "some" -- I still have no interest in seeing LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N., for example, but I'm keen to see THE GNOME MOBILE and BLACKBEARD'S GHOST.) I decided to begin with a personal double-feature of THAT DARN CAT! (the Hayley Mills version, directed by Stevenson but not set at Medfield) and THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (the first of the Dexter Riley films, set at Medfield College but not directed by Stevenson).

THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969) is an amusing idea that falls victim to mishandling. In short, middling Medfield student Dexter Riley happens to be in physical contact with a computer recently donated to the school's science department during an electrical storm, which drains the computer of all data and transfers all its storage files and analytic ability to him. Dexter begins to excel in tests and science teacher William Schallert deduces what has happened (he proves this to Medfield dean Joe Flynn by aiming some sort of viewing device through Dexter's ear, which makes stock footage of the computer visible inside his head!); rather than do something to return the kid to normal, Medfield takes advantage of their advantage and includes Dexter in a national academics competition. Things get hairy when it's discovered that the computer was presented to Medfield by a local business leader (Cesar Romero) with big ties to organized gambling, and that Dexter's fund of knowledge includes a good deal of incriminating evidence. Richard Bakalyan is on hand as Romero's stooge, and the inimitable Alan Hewitt (memorable in other roles in earlier Medfield movies) is back as the dean of Medfield's rival college. As with the Flubber movies, COMPUTER builds to a madcap road chase and a climax involving a scoreboard, with the winning point scored by someone other than the scientifically-assisted.

What's odd about the film is that Kurt Russell, ostensibly the star here, is given very few close-ups by director Robert Butler and the Dexter Riley character is so flatly written that he has few opportunities to make an impression. It doesn't help that he's always surrounded by other teen actors (including LASSIE's Jon Provost) to the point of being overwhelmed onscreen. Speaking of Russell's co-stars, the film perversely casts a number of capable young people with impossible-to-ignore facial flaws; one actor has a badly bruised eye, and another not only has a serious complexion problem but a large boil on his neck! I'm all for giving the part to the right actor, but there's a reason why casting directors keep faces like these off the screen: they're distracting. Schallert is a welcome presence and he does his best, but to see him teach a science class is a crash course in appreciation for the snap, crackle and pop that Fred MacMurray could bring to such scenes. In retrospect, it's hard to see why this lackluster movie spawned a series, but it would continue with the invisibility comedy NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (1972) and the super-strength fantasy THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975). THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was also remade for television in 1995, with Kirk Cameron as Dexter Riley. It tanked.

THAT DARN CAT! (1965) casts Hayley Mills and Dorothy Provine as two grown sisters of curiously disparate ages, left alone by vacationing parents, whose pesky Siamese cat D.C. discovers a kidnappers' hide-out during his nightly wanderings. When D.C. brings home a wristwatch etched with the word "Help!," placed around his neck by the abductee (Grayson Hall, of all people), Hayley somehow deduces its correct origin and involves FBI agent Dean Jones, who assigns a group of other agents to shadow the cat's night walks in hopes of learning the whereabouts of criminals Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin.

Based on a children's book by The Gordons, this is an overlong (nearly two hours) but attractive movie with a cool Bobby Darin theme song, heard under a main title sequence of genuinely comic scenes and atmospheric suburban matte paintings. The opening scenes with Gorshin, Brand and Hall are surprisingly rough for Disney family fare, and the Bill Walsh script manages to insert some subversive social satire in a vein similar to his and Stevenson's earlier SON OF FLUBBER, this time poking fun at Disney's chief competitor for the youth market, American International, and their "Beach Party" pictures. (Hayley's boyfriend Canoe, engagingly played by Tom Lowell, takes her to so many surfing movies at the drive-in that she comes home sea-sick.) Provine tries to explain the British lilt of Mills' voice by doing an impression of her in some scenes, but in others, Mills seems to be imitating Provine's American accent. This confusion aside, everyone's in pretty good form, with Jones particularly appealing as the supple-voiced hero. There are also some supporting players whose shenanigans alone are worth the price of a rental: Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and William Demerest. (The DVD includes a tinny-sounding French audio track, and you owe it to yourself to sample at least one of Lanchester and Demerest's scenes as Hayley's nosy neighbors in French. The dialogue is amazingly well synchronized to the actors' lip movements, and Demerest comes across like Jean Gabin!)

Hardly the "film classic" described by the box, THAT DARN CAT! is no embarrassment to Robert Stevenson's filmography; it's a slick and pleasing evening's entertainment with more than its share of laughs. Having finally seen it on DVD, I kind of wish that I also had it as a childhood memory, which probably would have sweetened the experience a bit more. THAT DARN CAT! was remade in 1997 as a theatrical feature starring Christina Ricci, which featured Dean Jones in a minor role.

These Walt Disney Video DVDs, which first streeted in 2003, feature no-frills, standard ratio presentations with excellent, full-bodied audio. Both features were shot in the 1.66:1 screen ratio, so they are not badly compromised by the cropping, but it is occasionally noticeable.

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