By Scott Ross
Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?
What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.
I first encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (and which also more than holds up) on the weekly Disney television showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar. A year or two later, I greatly enjoyed reading Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingly sketched illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than, as in the movie, his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.
The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849; the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion; the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score; the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman, whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”; and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character — and a performer — we only wish had a larger role in the proceedings.
Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years, I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)
Karl Malden, an actor for whom I generally have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.
And while she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her standard delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused at as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.
As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects along with a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of a hilariously underpowered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.
The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutesy-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross