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Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

This morning, we enjoyed Disney’s 1972 film Napoleon and Samantha, which I’d never seen before. It’s a surprisingly heavy film for something that the company, these days, promotes as a nice, light, and breezy part of their back catalog. It stars Johnny Whitaker, one of the biggest child actors of the day, along with a rising star named Jodie Foster. Wonder what happened to her?

In the movie, Johnny plays Napoleon, a ten year-old kid who lives with his ailing grandpa in a small town. They take ownership of an old lion from a retiring clown (Vito Scotti!), which is a bit contrived, but you have to make allowances to get the plot going. Grandpa dies, and Napoleon asks an unemployed “hippie” named Danny to help bury him on a hill. Danny is played by an amazingly young Michael Douglas. If you thought he looked like a baby in The Streets of San Francisco, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Facing the orphanage, Napoleon and his friend Samantha leash up the old lion and undertake one of those “incredible journeys” that were common in the era, hiking up and down a few mountains looking for Danny’s cabin. They’re naive enough to think they won’t be missed, and that they won’t get into trouble. There’s a tumble off a high mountain peak, a cougar, and a bear to contend with on the way.

About which: I was conflicted about some of the events of the movie, but that wrestling match between the lion and the bear was downright impressive. Would any filmmaker today try anything like that? Even understanding that was a pretty old lion and a big crew of wranglers must have been right behind the camera, wild animals can be really dangerous. Just ask Foster: she was mauled, and permanently scarred across her back, by one of the old lion’s younger stand-ins!

But we were expecting a lighthearted adventure, and while the middle of the movie provides that, the first and last third of the film were each quite heavy. Will Geer’s grandpa character is marked for death right from the beginning, and it’s a huge weight on the tone. Last month, we watched an episode of Isis that dealt with death and I mentioned how, in tune with the times, the explanations were built around a discussion of seasons, calling it “Ecclesiastes by way of the Byrds.” Well, before he goes, Grandpa specifically talks about seasons, and at his small funeral on the hillside, Danny recites Ecclesiastes. It was the seventies, man.

But the climax is what really surprised me. Danny leaves the kids in the care of a friend at his cabin and hikes back to town to explain to everybody where the children are. Samantha’s family housekeeper fingers him as the weird hippie with whom the missing Napoleon had been seen, and he’s arrested by policemen who do not want to listen to him. Awaiting the police chief, Danny spots a wanted flier in the station. His friend is a dangerous criminal on the loose, who’s escaped from a mental institution.

It’s typical in Disney films of the seventies to have a climactic chase, with goofball cops having safe but hilarious accidents. But bizarrely, the director chose to keep Napoleon and Samantha completely offscreen, so Danny’s escape and race back to his cabin, with cops in pursuit, is a chase in the dark, a race against time. And sure, we know perfectly well that in a ’72 Disney film the children will be perfectly safe, but the director elected to ratchet the tension and desperation off the chart, and the wacky motorcycle stunts aren’t funny when the tone is deadly serious.

Our son was a good deal squirmier than usual, in part because he was looking forward to a late morning swim, but I think he felt the weight of this movie. He enjoyed it and thought it was “pretty cool,” and I enjoyed it and was intrigued by the wildly varying tone. It’s an uneven film, but I’m glad we gave it a try.

Some neat casting notes: Whitaker and Foster were reunited the following year in United Artist’s Tom Sawyer. His next film, however, was another one for Disney called Snowball Express, which also featured Mary Wickes, an actress who had a small three-line role here. After Express, Whitaker made a TV movie for Disney called The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle with his friend Scott Kolden. In 1973, Sid and Marty Krofft scooped up Whitaker, Kolden, and Wickes to star as the humans in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. And you just know that they must have wanted Jodie Foster for the recurring part that Pamelyn Ferdin ended up playing!

Aggravatingly, The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle does not appear to have ever been released on home video. There’s another thing I’d like to watch with my son for this blog but can’t.

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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.

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Freaky Friday (1976)

Wow, is this movie ever dated! Smoking moms, electric typewriter class, male chauvinist pigs… was this really made forty years ago, or four hundred and forty? It’s really entertaining, but is it ever a time capsule, and not just in society’s attitudes toward women, but back to those days when men’s careers in TV and movie entertainment were forever on the brink of disaster for fear of blustery, easily-displeased clients and bosses. You recall how every single episode of Bewitched featured Derwin – I mean, Darrin – perpetually skating between a successful sale and Larry Tate spontaneously combusting? The dad in this movie, played by John Astin, is similarly between the Scylla and Charybdis.

And with that world of crazy white-collar suburbia comes the life where Dad needs a new freshly-pressed suit for three important gigs a day and Mom is scrambling between catering for two dozen at no notice, pressing silk shirts (with Jon Pertwee-frilled fronts), and seeing that the drapes and curtains are regularly cleaned by professionals. The oil change and detailing place does to-your-garage delivery for $14.50 (about $63 in today’s currency, but this was California, after all), but at least you don’t have to drive your thirteen year-old daughter to the orthodontist, because she goes there herself on the city bus.

And looking back, yes, I do kind of recall the 1970s being kind of like that for my parents. Mom’s days included constant trips to the dry cleaners because men wore three-piece suits in every profession the other side of soda jerk, and I swear we must have had an expense account at the package store for all the evening entertaining they did. So yeah, once she got done ironing blouses and shirts, and having conferences at the school, she’d enjoy a quick break with Days of Our Lives before heading to the cleaners and the salon and probably the package store before taking my brother and me to the pediatrician or the dentist or the barber shop, and really only somebody as naive as a thirteen year-old could possibly want to swap places with a “stay-at-home mom” in the 1970s.

As a teenaged actress, Jodie Foster was omnipresent in the 1970s. This was the first of two Disney live-action films that she made, and far better-remembered than Candleshoe, which is also really entertaining. Astonishingly, she made Freaky Friday the same year that she made Taxi Driver, which I expect the PR people at Buena Vista did not mention. She’s fun as Annabel, but she doesn’t seem to be having half the fun that Barbara Harris, who plays her mother Ellen, does. Harris gets to chew gum and skateboard and dance and own the neighborhood baseball diamond and throw boomerangs while making goo-goo eyes at teenaged neighbors.

The water skiing stuff is all stunt doubles and rear-screen projection, of course, but the fun comedy of errors, which mainly involves lots of slow-burns in the classroom as Mom-in-Jodie Foster’s-body has no idea how to fit in, slowly gives way to more slapstick and a car chase happening at the same time as the water skiing tomfoolery.

Daniel was kind of restless during the movie, but did he ever come alive at the climax. It’s really entertaining, with Harris’s stunt double creating all kinds of skiing chaos while Foster leads police on a wild chase across Los Angeles landmarks. I’m almost positive they take the family’s red VW bug down the same staircase that David Janssen’s stunt double went down on a motorcycle in the Harry O pilot a couple of years earlier. Then they invariably end up in the concrete-channeled Los Angeles River, where they successfully avoid running into any model shoots or giant ants and the funniest thing that Daniel has ever seen happens: one of the police cars gets squashed triangular by one of the tunnels.

Almost immediately, this gag became the second-funniest thing he’d ever seen, because the final remaining police car gets cleaved in half when it runs into a concrete fork in the river, the driver’s side running up the left channel, and the passenger side running up the right. I have never heard this kid laugh so hard. When he’s old enough for me to let him hear Jackie Gleason swearing for a hundred minutes, he is going to die laughing over Smokey & the Bandit.

Perhaps it’s a bit wrong for Foster, Harris, and Astin – never mind a pretty deep bench of recognizable supporting players including Ruth Buzzi, Sorrell Booke, Marc McClure, Dick Van Patten, Alan Oppenheimer, and Al Molinaro – to get totally upstaged by stunt drivers and gimmick cars, but he is only four, dear readers!

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