From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973)

When I was about our son’s age, my mom would drop my brother and me at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library to see summer movies. One that has always stood out in my memory was 1973’s adaptation of a novel by E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Of course I didn’t know then what a bad print was, but my memory has always “shown” me this film as a very beat-up and faded 16mm print all covered in cigarette ash and hair.

A few years ago, the Warner Archive – no expense incurred – reissued this movie on DVD-R. I don’t mean the title, I mean the exact same print they showed us in ’79 or so. It even has the projectionists’ “change reel” burn marks in the upper corner, which was thoughtful of them, since we were telling our son about those earlier in the week.

If you click the picture, you can order this film under its later title, The Hideaways. I’m not sure why it gained that name for home video. At one point, as you can see on Wikipedia, it was doing the rounds with a cover that featured photos of Richard Mulligan and Madeline Kahn and claimed them as co-stars. These actors are maybe onscreen for a combined two and a half minutes. It’s like the home video people don’t want to admit that this is a movie starring children for children. Until the movie takes us to the house of the reclusive Mrs. Frankweiler, the real stars, Sally Prager and Johnny Doran, have delivered about 90% of its dialogue.

Critic Vincent Canby really didn’t like this film. I love this line from his NYT review: “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of those G-rated movies about children, not as they are but as they appear in television commercials for things like peanut butter and potato chips.” But while I love Canby’s wordplay, I think he’s wrong. Prager’s character, a middle-schooler named Claudia, is perfectly real and believably high-strung as middle school girls are. When she gets discouraging news, the world ends.

Claudia takes her younger brother and his money with her when she runs away to have an adventure. They set up camp in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, avoiding guards and bathing in the fountain after hours, and Claudia goes gaga over a statue that might be a Michelangelo that can’t be positively identified. It was not donated to the museum by the rich and very grouchy widow Mrs. Frankweiler, because she doesn’t donate things, but she sold it to ’em for a paltry $225. Claudia figures that a couple of days in the NYPL will positively identify the piece, but when her amateur investigations don’t turn her into Nancy Drew and her world ends, she decides that forcing the issue with Mrs. Frankweiler – played by a too-young Ingrid Bergman, I say – is the only thing she can do, but what she doesn’t expect is that some people enjoy the power of secrets.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is an amusing diversion for kids and an entertaining time capsule of design, costume and signage for grownups. (The Amtrak line from rural Jersey to Boston was $9.90 when this was filmed.) But the story is merely pleasant and incredibly convenient for its protagonists, who navigate obstacles with superhuman luck and confidence. The movie doesn’t find any teeth until we meet Mrs. Frankweiler. Bergman is hilarious, and I enjoyed watching the children upend her static and stifling existence with their intrusion, and Claudia’s demands that her own secrets stay hidden. But in the end, it’s more amusing than thrilling, and you’d kind of expect a movie about hiding from grownups to have a thrill or two.

Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

Over the last several months of writing this blog, I’ve been cross-checking actor and director credits in IMDB while also searching around for new ideas for films to watch together. If I’d ever heard of Disney’s Treasure of Matecumbe before last year, it’s news to me. Definitely one of the company’s lesser-known features, it’s a quite good family adventure film, a search for gold in 1870s America.

As befits a movie that’s flown under the radar, it’s also the victim of some considerable misinformation. It was released on DVD in 2008 under the Wonderful World of Disney label, and a few sites have stated that this was made for that long-running TV anthology. It turns out that it was not. I did one last little double-check and bit of research before writing this, thank heaven, and ran into this article at TCM, written by a friend-of-a-friend, Nathaniel Thompson, which explains that it did get a theatrical release in the US. A little more checking and it seems it debuted on July 9th of 1976, and showed up on the TV series a good eighteen months later, where it must have been edited by about fifteen minutes, because this is a packed movie, very nearly two full hours.

The young stars of the film are Johnny Doran, who had impressed me very much in that “explaining death to kids” episode of Isis, and Billy “Pop” Atmore, who was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. Among the grown-ups, a really impressive cast including Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov, and Vic Morrow. I was very amused by one little cameo. I’ve been noting how certain directors keep coming back to use actors again, and Rex Holman shows up for thirty seconds as an informer in New Orleans. Eight years before, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had used him as Morgan Earp in the one Star Trek episode I actually enjoy, “Spectre of the Gun.”

Like many of Disney’s travel movies, this one has an episodic feel to it, and about halfway through, there’s a musical interlude when the party docks at a river landing where the menfolk haven’t seen any women in heaven knows how long. I love watching movies with my son for many reasons, but a big one is that he will often appreciate something that I never could without him. If I were reviewing movies that I watch on my own, I’d grumble that this bluegrass hoedown is completely superfluous to the story and unnecessary. But it turns out that it’s perfectly timed and very welcome. He was up on his feet and dancing along and when, inevitably, people get dunked in the river, he was roaring with laughter.

This isn’t a movie with very much levity and precious little of Disney’s seventies slapstick. In fact, Morrow’s character is far more realistically evil and cruel than your typical Disney antagonist, and guns down a man early in the story. There’s even a quite surprising scene where a character is rescued from being lynched by the Klan, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in a Disney movie. And the ending has a very surprising undercurrent. I don’t think children will really understand just how grim it actually is, but this certainly isn’t Keenan Wynn getting hoist on his own petard by a Volkswagen. So when the opportunities for laughs did come, we appreciated them.

I was really impressed by the production, which took the actors on location in Kentucky, Florida, and California, and subjected them to swamps and lashing rain. There are some obvious stunt doubles and stock footage and animated swarms of insects and painfully poor rear-screen projection, but they really did throw millions of gallons of water on big name actors and stick them on boats in the Everglades. You’ll watch this and think it’s a huge shame that they only captured half the dialogue shots on location and filled in the rest in the studio.

Anyway, Ustinov plays a traveling medicine show “doctor,” and his small river boat gets blown up, which our son strangely insists was the scariest part of the movie despite looking to the grown-ups like nothing at all consequential. Then the climax, in which Morrow and his henchmen square off against an angry Everglades tribe, had him cheering and loving it, while I gulped, knowing the grisly fate that awaited the villains. You can never tell with kids, which is part of what makes this so fun. Five-nearly-six might have been a little young for this movie, but he has seen a lot of films and action-adventure TV and might be a little more mature than many viewers his age, so if you’re thinking about showing it to your own kids, bear that in mind. I’m glad that we watched it and he certainly enjoyed it.

Ark II 1.12 – Robin Hood

For a group of highly trained young people, the Ark II crew don’t know much about folklore. Little clue, guys: when somebody adopts the identity of Robin Hood to steal grain from people in uniform, with rare exception, he’s the good guy. The story’s by Len Janson and Chuck Menville, who did a lot of work for the company this year.

Now that he’s a little old enough to understand who Robin Hood was, Daniel enjoyed this episode and I’m pretty sure we can find him some other examples of the character in film and TV. As is typical in productions like this, Robin’s merry men include people named Big John and Alan, in this case played by Johnny Doran, who did an episode of Isis for Filmation the previous season.

Isis 1.7 -Lucky

It’s kind of easy from the safety of forty years’ distance to mock Filmation’s superhero shows for being slow and earnest, and being more concerned about good moral behavior than telling an exciting story. I’m writing this a few days before the release of Warner Brothers’ latest superhero movie, Suicide Squad, a film I have zero interest in watching, and if the early reviews are any indication, it, like its misbegotten DC stablemates of the last few years, is so concerned about being exciting that it hasn’t left room for any brain or heart at all.

So it was a pleasant and eyebrow-raising surprise to see this episode, which is about understanding death, and nothing more. The kid you see above is played by Johnny Doran, who had starred in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler a couple of years earlier, and he is terrific. I kind of got a sinking feeling when I realized that the kid’s beloved golden retriever was not going to run away as I predicted, but was going to die. The kid is just excellent; he really sells the despair of grief, absent-mindedly gets into trouble, and, after Isis saves him, he challenges her on why she could not save his dog’s life earlier.

Isis’s explanation is, as you might expect from a program made in 1975, steeped in Ecclesiastes by way of the Byrds, telling the kid about cycles and seasons. Doran is given a weight that most kid actors simply could not have carried off at all, and he did a simply amazing job. I also enjoyed the decision to let Joanna Cameron just be the superhero for several minutes, rather than showing up, doing something with special effects and running off. On this instance, Isis was needed for more than the usual rescue and pep talk.

Daniel handled it with concern and seriousness, and of course we talked afterward a little bit and made sure he knows to ask me or Mommy if he has any other questions. My hat’s off to director Hollingworth Morse and everyone who put this episode together. It may not have entered the popular culture’s long memory like that Sesame Street where they talked about Mr. Hooper, but for treating grief seriously and explaining death with adult honesty, this is a memorable and important episode. It certainly isn’t one I would enjoy watching again, but I’m impressed that they made it and did it so well.