Need a respite from the noise and excessive drama of modern culture? Grab some buttery popcorn and curl up on the couch with classic Disney films.
There is a certain attraction to retro culture, especially in the things that remind us of simpler times. Among such cultural “artifacts” are the Walt Disney films from the ’60s to the ’70s. The works were funny, sweet, hopeful, and, best of all, devoid of vulgarity and violence. The stories are a testimony to the power of great screenwriting because they are told without special effects, without constantly shifting camera frames, and without an overabundance of distracting, almost irrelevant subplots … all tools used by contemporary Hollywood writers to hold the viewer’s interest. In all of the Disney classics, the bad guys are dangerous, often even threatening the lives of one or more of the characters, but they are never sinister or savage. There’s no interest in “shock” in these films. But they are far from boring!
Another thing that I like about the Disney classics is their role as a window into American culture of the not-too-distant past. I like to look for the signs of the times embedded in the productions, elements like hair styles, lingo, cars, and clothes. And because the Disney studio had a cadre of actors working under long-term contracts, the same familiar faces often show up across their films, from the stars to the B actors to the extras. Such collectives hark back to the early days of film.
The Disney classics are timeless films that can be thoroughly enjoyed by the whole family. So shift your cinematic gears and get ready for some great fun!
In That Darn Cat, you will find yourself laughing out loud – like we were when we watched it recently on one of the snowy “the world is shut down” days that have been a signature of this winter. A Siamese cat with a mysterious watch as a collar becomes the only key to finding jewel thieves who have kidnapped a woman. Patti Randle (Mills) is convinced that her cat can find them, and she cleverly enlists the help of the F.B.I. to follow DC (“that Darn Cat”) using the latest in surveillance equipment and undercover work. Now add an F.B.I. agent in charge that is allergic to cats, a nosy neighbor spying on everyone’s every move, another neighbor intent on getting rid of the cat, and a jealous boyfriend who loves surf movies… can you go wrong here? I suggest not!
In The Parent Trap, identical twins Sharon and Susan are separated at birth by their divorcing parents. One lives with the mother on the east coast and the other with the father on the west coast. Chance brings the twins back together when they go to the same summer camp where after a hilarious series of revelations, they decide to switch places. Hayley Mills plays both Sharon and Susan in this brilliant and heartwarming comedy about the children of divorce and their desire to reunite their parents.
It’s pretty clear that people and their pets was a repeating Disney theme. In The Cat from Outer Space (1978), Jake, an extraterrestrial cat, finds himself stranded on Earth when he is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Thankfully a good-hearted physicist (played by Ken Berry, a favorite compatriot of Andy Griffith and Carol Burnett ) finds Jake and tries to help him rendezvous with his fellow outer space felines so that he can get home. The plot thickens when the government tries to seize Jake. Sandy Duncan, Harry Morgan, and Roddy McDowall round out the cast of this funny film.
The Million Dollar Duck (1971) is another favorite in my house. It stars famous Disney leading man Dean Jones as a finanically-struggling scientist married to the sweet but spacey Sandra Duncan. A strange set of circumstances magically transforms an ordinary duck into one that lays golden eggs, and Albert Dooley (Jones) thinks his worries are over. Quack, is he wrong!
As a child, after seeing The Love Bug (1969), I had to wave to every Volkswagon Beetle we saw on the road just in case it was Herbie, a VW that ranks among the most famous cars in cinema history. Dean Jones stars as a down-on-his-luck race car driver who reluctantly teams up with a suprising racing superstar, Herbie the Love Bug. When Douglas (Jones) believes his recent winning streak is due only to his own driving skill, and tosses Herbie aside, you may find yourself heartbroken … but no need to worry, Herbie, and love, triumph in the end. This film was based on the book Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford.
In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Russell plays Medfield College student Dexter Riley. Dexter is not known for his academic prowess until he transforms into a human computer because of a strange electric shock that hits him in the science/computer lab. Suddenly, Dexter finds himself the center of attention, but that attention turns dangerous when “bad guy” gamblers realize Dexter knows more about their business than he should. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is among the funniest of all of the Disney classics and is a source of too many one-liners in our house.
In The Strongest Man in the World, Dexter Riley returns as a Medfield College science student. His lab work unknowingly produces a formula (mistakenly slipped into a bowl of cereal) that gives the consumer super-human strength. College president Dean Higgins (played by Joe Flynn, Captain Binghamton of McHale’s Navy fame), facing budget shortfalls and desperate to save his job, first fires the science professor for the outlandish cost of his students’ experiments. But his subsequent discovery of Dexter’s super-human cereal treatment sends him to the cereal company with a PR plan to make money for the college. When the cereal maker’s competitor finds out, havoc ensues!
The Barefoot Executive finds Russell as Steven Post, an ambitious mailroom clerk for a TV network. He has many great new ideas to reverse the network’s sagging ratings but the boss won’t listen. Then his girlfriend adopts a chimpanzee who has a flawless ability to select what will be the next network smash hit. Covertly using the chimpanzee as a secret weapon, Steven rapidly climbs the corporate ladder … but can he keep the chimp’s powers a secret? And what if the American public learned that a chimpanzee was picking their TV programming? Of course, life may truly imitate art, because with all of the reality shows on the air today, it almost makes you wonder if this is a real-life story!
The Shaggy Dog (1959) and the Shaggy D.A. (1976) will definitely have you laughing. In The Shaggy Dog, a magical ring accidentally transforms Wilson Daniels’ teenage son Wilby into a shaggy sheepdog. Can Wilson break the spell and foil a team of international spies? And in the Shaggy D.A., Wilby is all grown-up and running for district attorney. Once again, the magical ring shows up, transforming Wilby into a sheepdog. When his corrupt opponent gets possession of the ring, things only get worse … and more funny.
There you have it – enough films for several snow days, or to put on your list of family films for those togetherness Saturday nights. Enjoy a nutritious snack and serve up some laughs mixed with sweetness and optimism. Just what we all need.
Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library and likes sweetness in life without the calories.