Tag Archives: slim pickens

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A couple of months ago, I checked out The Aristocats from the library to show our son. Before the film, there was an ad for other Disney selections and our son hooted. “I want to see that cowboy movie,” he yelled. Well, if we must, I said.

I don’t know how I’ve never seen this movie, but I guess I never did. Between HBO showing all sorts of live-action Disney movies and the public library having summers of films, I thought I must have seen this and forgotten, but I didn’t recognize a frame of it. I guess I must’ve seen the sequel!

For more than an hour, I figured I’d write something brief and possibly dismissive about this silly movie. It’s cute, but it didn’t raise much more than a chuckle. However, that wouldn’t be entirely true. Honesty compels me to report that John McGiver delivers a line about how stupid Theodore and Amos are that, a full minute later, had me gasping for air, I laughed so hard. I mean, you miss a minute of a movie from laughing, you can’t call it a bad movie.

McGiver’s just a small piece of a terrific cast. I’ll always make time for a seventies Disney live-action film because they’re full of great character actors. Everybody seems to think of this as a vehicle for Don Knotts and Tim Conway, but they’re actually providing supporting roles to a story led by Bill Bixby as a hapless gambler suddenly burdened by three orphans. He thinks that a marriage of convenience to a stagecoach driver played by Susan Clark might give the kids a home as well as a chance to nip out and play some poker, but things get complicated when the children, who own a deed to a mine everybody thinks is worthless, unearth a giant gold nugget valued at more than $87,000. Suddenly everybody wants to be part of these kids’ lives. Harry Morgan tries to keep order as the town’s sheriff, judge, and barber, with supporting roles for McGiver, David Wayne, and Slim Pickens.

But Conway and Knotts do walk away with the proceedings in one perfectly-timed slapstick scene after another. They play criminals so incompetent that the sheriff just lets them wander around freely, because bad guys who can’t afford the bullets to “throw lead” don’t present much of a danger to the public. I can imagine that, in lesser hands, stopping a movie’s narrative for a full five minutes to watch two characters steal a ladder might be an indulgence, but darned if our son didn’t spend every second of them chuckling and giggling. This is perfectly judged comedy for seven year-olds. It ends with a chase and everybody getting dunked in the river, inevitably, but our kid whooped that this was the greatest “chase montage” he’s ever seen, and the “boat fire truck” that Bixby and Pickens find themselves on in the end was his favorite part of the movie.

I’m not entirely sure I need to watch the sequel. Or Million Dollar Duck, if there’s an ad for that hiding on some other DVD at the library. Fingers crossed.

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The Black Hole (1979)

I don’t know why in the world I never saw Disney’s The Black Hole in theaters as a kid, but I had about thirty of the bubblegum cards and convinced myself it was going to be one of the all-time greatest movies ever. The film eventually showed up on HBO and chunks of it kept me satisfied enough to watch it again and again.

To modern eyes, there’s a little less to recommend it. On the plus side, if you like music, there’s one of John Barry’s very best scores, and if you like set design, there’s a fair amount here to pop your eyes out of your head. Otherwise…

This is a movie where people talk way too freaking much. Worse, they are forced to deliver some really stilted and awkward dialogue. Early on, Ernest Borgnine is forced to say “How that must have galled Doctor Hans Reinhart!” Nothing else that comes out of anybody’s mouth is much better. It’s a hundred minute exercise in what Orson Welles once called “things that are only correct because they’re grammatical, but they’re tough on the ear.” I couldn’t even focus on the silly story because these terrific actors – Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Roddy McDowell, Slim Pickens, Robert Forster in what would have been the Joseph Cotton role in other hands – are forced to deliver such painful lines.

But watch this with a kid and you can ignore a lot of it. Our son was curious and fascinated at first, spent several agonizing minutes worried and concerned about the creepiness of the gigantic Cygnus, somehow locked in stationary orbit around a black hole, and then exploded with excitement once the gunfights began. And to be sure: they’re pretty darn good gunfights for kids.

The iconography is, of course, straight from Star Wars. This has cute robots, quasi-stormtroopers, and a great big, menacing brute of a Vader Villain in the form of the Satanic red Maximilian. The robot is silent; it communicates with its power saws. It really is a great design for a robot. As V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly identifiable as heroes – and why Disney hasn’t been selling V.I.N.CENT toys in its stores, I’ll never understand – then Maximilian just silently screams evil. It’s a real shame he’s not in a better movie than this.

As our son jumped up and down, thrilled by the faux-troopers losing their laser gun battles, I wished this could have been better. I dislike how the movie drops science-sounding words into the narrative, like “event horizon” and “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” without considering how a movie that actually paid attention to science could have been a much, much better experience. Instead, a character mentions Dante’s Inferno early on, and that’s where this film wants to go, leading to one of the downright stupidest endings in movie history.

Shortly before the meteor storm whizzes through the Cygnus’s anti-gravity field, I whispered to my wife “You’ve never seen this? Dr. Science will be very upset with the ending.” She grumbled “Dr. Science is already upset.”

No, this isn’t a good film, but the music is terrific, and V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly charming and wonderful. I love their design and their characters. They are among my favorite of all the many R2-D2 clones in film and TV. The special effects are an interesting mix of then-state of the art computer-controlled motion control, traditionally animated lasers and rocket exhaust, and the wire work that Disney’s team had mastered on the Witch Mountain features, meaning your heart breaks whenever you see a string onscreen. It’s good enough to thrill and frighten children, but it should have been good enough to do the same for grownups.

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