One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

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.

Herbie Rides Again (1974)

To be absolutely clear, Herbie Rides Again is not one-tenth the film that The Love Bug is. But tell that to our son, who enjoyed it more. He laughed all the way through it, loving all the slapstick, but he especially loved “the army of punch buggies.”

He had such a ball that it would be churlish to complain much, but it really does feel like a series of badly strung together set pieces without any logic connecting them. Still, the set pieces are mostly entertaining, thanks, again, to Disney’s fantastic casting.

Helen Hayes, an actress we’ll probably see a few more times as we show Daniel more of the Disney catalog, leads the cast as the aunt of Buddy Hackett’s character of Tennessee from the earlier film. Stefanie Powers (who, coincidentally, was in an episode of Harry O that I watched this week and was made the same year as this) and Ken Berry take the young heroic parts with a romantic meet-cute. Keenan Wynn is the villain, and supporting parts are played by recognizable faces Chuck McCann, Vito Scotti, and John McIntire. Wynn does the same over-the-top authoritarian loudmouth thing he always did – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that this is the exact same character that he played in two earlier Disney films – but it’s reliably entertaining to watch.

I did laugh out loud once – a window washer gives quite specific instructions to Keenan Wynn’s office – but this movie just didn’t have the ability to charm adults that its predecessor had, even relying quite early on a lengthy flashback from that movie just to give us more Herbie action. Herbie’s world of living technology grows quite a bit in this film, and there’s more than enough slapstick, and scenes of Herbie driving where cars are not supposed to be, to keep the kids happy, which is what matters. It’s by some distance a weaker film than Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it’s much, much more likely that Daniel will want to watch this again.