Sunday 14 September 2008

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

We're in Quake City, CA in 1878, a gold mining town that's all played out of gold. Reasonably new in town is a gentleman called Russel Donovan and during a poker game he gets paid (and promptly loses) five bucks by John Wintle to pick up something valuable from the Butterfly Stage. Apparently Wintle is on his way to San Francisco and can't be there himself, but next morning Donovan finds out he's been hoodwinked or whatever the equivalent term was in 1878. Given that this is a live action Disney movie, you know kids are going to turn up sooner or later and sure enough, the valuable package turns out to three orphans to whom he is now the nearest relative.

Naturally Donovan doesn't want them but the sheriff was in that poker game and holds him to his responsibilities. Naturally he does everything he possibly can to pawn them off on someone else but that doesn't pan out either. And because this is a Disney film, naturally what does pan out is the mine where a little quake enables the three little orphans to find a nugget of gold worth $87,000. Suddenly the town has completely different opinions on the kids and the two inept local gangsters want to get their hands on the nugget.

These two are Don Knotts and Tim Conway, well known American comedians to anyone who grew up on American network TV. However I didn't grow up on American network TV so I don't have the same background with them that my wife does, for instance. I've come across Don Knotts here and there in films like Pleasantville or It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and by catching odd episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. However I haven't seen The Carol Burnett Show or McHale's Navy and I don't watch SpongeBob SquarePants, so I only know Tim Conway through stories.

They're the Hash Knife Outfit, after being kicked out of the Stilwell Gang for shooting Frank Stilwell in the leg. Stilwell turns up later, in the form of no less a presence than Slim Pickens in a leg brace. This level of comedic talent isn't enough for this film though: we're also blessed with Harry Morgan as Homer McCoy, the Quake City sheriff, justice of the peace, judge and barber, and he's the best thing about this film to my eyes. There's David Wayne as the eccentric owner of the Butterfly line and Bill Bixby and Susan Clark as the most prominent players, Donovan and Dusty Clydesdale, who drives the stage. The kids who comprise the Apple Dumpling gang are Stacy Manning, who did precisely nothing else; Clay O'Brien, who didn't do much; and Brad Savage who did quite a lot. He opened his career with this one and ended it with Red Dawn.

They're all players in the game though. What this is all about is the Disney family friendly formula done pretty well. I've seen a few of the live action Disney classics lately and they've often disappointed me a little because they sacrifice any semblance of reality or common sense to rely on their formula. I don't have a problem with stretching credence, especially as most of these films are fantasies anyway, but there's a difference between stretching credence and sacrificing reality.

This one very much follows the formula (kids winning out over adults, who are either too dumb to know better, too naive to notice or too unfocused to have a clue) but the only thing that really goes beyond credence stretching is the comedic double act of Knotts and Conway, and they're too endearing to get upset about. It's a wild fun ride and it's another part to the underline in my thought that the Disney live action films I've never heard of are usually better than the Disney live action films that I have.

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