Candleshoe (1977)

Here’s something you don’t know about me: I am Earth’s most gullible person. Years ago, when Daniel’s older brother and sister were smaller, we hosted family movie nights at our old house in Georgia twice a month for our friends. We were watching Candleshoe, which is a very, very good Disney film from 1977, and my friend David leaned over and whispered “That tall fellow on the left? You know he played bass for the Undertones, right?” If he hadn’t fessed up that he was pulling my leg, I’d still believe it.

Many of the films from Disney’s 1970s catalog are fantasy-oriented in some fashion, but Candleshoe really only has its high-slapstick fight scene at the end to be completely unreal. It’s a mostly down-to-earth story about a juvenile delinquent in Los Angeles who’s recruited by a London-based con-artist to scam a sweet old lady whose granddaughter vanished thirteen years before, and who lives in a large country estate called Candleshoe. Jodie Foster is mostly playing to type as her usual 1970s saucy tomboy character, and Helen Hayes, in her last movie role, is the very kind Lady St Edmund.

What the con artists don’t realize is that Lady St Edmund is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and that her butler, played by David Niven, and four orphans whom they have taken into Candleshoe, are running a scam of their own to bring in enough money to pay the high taxes without her ladyship realizing. Apart from discreetly selling off the antique furnishings and replacing them with copies, this involves Niven posing as the crotchety Scottish gardener, the cockney chauffeur, and a local retired colonel, because the butler can’t actually pay anybody any wages, and the visits from “the colonel” bring some needed life to Lady St Edmund’s waning days.

All could be well if some pirate treasure hidden centuries before by Lady St Edmund’s privateer ancestor could be uncovered, but the butler and the orphans know nothing of it, so the question, which won’t tax you very long, is whether Jodie Foster will turn out to have a heart of gold and be won over by this oddball family, or whether she’ll find the treasure and give it to Leo McKern in exchange for 10% and a Ferrari.

The script is by longtime Disney vet David Swift and by newcomer-to-Disney Rosemary Anne Sisson, from a novel by Michael Innes. I first saw it on HBO around 1980 and was completely charmed by it, and it’s been one of my favorite films in this genre ever since. It’s a fabulous film for eight and nine year-olds, but five is honestly a bit too young. The plot is just a little more complicated than Daniel could understand without several pauses during the first half to explain. He got the whole “search for pirate treasure” via clues, but overall, we probably should have waited a couple of years for this one.

That said, he still really liked the slapstick. It was directed by Norman Tokar, who would next helm The Cat From Outer Space for Disney, and he knew how to stage ridiculous and safe fight scenes to excite kids of all ages. It opens with a chase through the streets of Los Angeles, is punctuated by a brawl between Foster and one of the orphans, and climaxes with a big skirmish between all the heroes and McKern’s gang of ruffians. McKern and Niven go at each other with as many ceremonial swords, axes, and maces, pulled from Candleshoe’s walls, as you can imagine. Does Niven end up with a bladeless wooden pole that gets sliced ever-and-ever smaller by McKern’s weapon? Of course he does.

David Niven was always one of those actors where you couldn’t tell whether he was enjoying a role or not, since he acted with such reserve, but he’s really funny as his fake characters, and the inevitable scene where his masquerade is revealed is just incredibly sweet. As I write this, I realize that practically everything about this film is actually completely inevitable, but it’s done with such style that it doesn’t matter. Helen Hayes is so wonderfully sweet that she brightens every scene, and McKern was also a real actor’s actor. I’d watch him in just about anything. That said, the film surprised me ten years ago, and did again this morning, by ending on an ambiguous note. Audiences will certainly expect a “you’re my real granddaughter!” revelation, but the finale is more intelligent than that.

Maybe that’s why this movie’s so darn good. The creators knew what they were doing, and, even though they didn’t do anything new, right at the end, they gave a nice little wink to thank the grown-ups in the theater for bringing their kids and playing along. It’s a very good film, and I’ll reintroduce Daniel to it when he is a little older.