Hey Mister…I gotta go…I gotta go real bad.
Throughout your lifetime, there will be a handful of films that, for any number of reasons, will become sentimental favorites. The Apple Dumpling Gang will forever be one of mine. In a long awaited and much anticipated DVD release, Disney has given this classic screwball comedy the five star treatment.
Facts of the Case
Russell Donovan (the late Bill Bixby) is a smooth talking, quick thinking card shark making his way from California to New Orleans, where he plans to open a casino and retire to the good life. A quick stop in Quake City turns into an unexpected stay, when a half-hearted promise to an old acquaintance becomes a full-time babysitting job for three orphaned siblings—Bobby, Clovis, and Celia (Clay O'Brien, Brad Savage, Stacy Manning). While Donovan attempts to pawn the kids off on local families, this trio of troublemaking terrors gets caught underground during a tremor and stumble upon the largest gold nugget ever unearthed in the area. With newfound wealth and celebrity, every lowlife, slime, and deadbeat rises to the surface, laying claim to the kids and their fortune. Sheriff McCoy (the incomparable Harry Morgan) urges Donovan to act fast and woo Dusty (Webster's mom, Susan Clark), the town's most eligible bachelorette, to serve as a surrogate mother, before a legal hearing decides who will become the rightful guardians. Meanwhile, taking fate into their own hands, the kids are busy striking a deal with the town's most notorious dingbats, Theodore (Don Knotts) and Amos (Tim Conway), to steal the gold, squelching any interest and allowing them to stay with Donovan. What they don't realize is that other interested parties already have designs on their fortune. Take cover y'all, 'cause this one ends with a bang!
There was something special about the live action comedies the Disney Studios developed from the mid-1960s through the '70s. Despite the changing world around us (the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam, Watergate), these films perpetuated the peaceful, comedic innocence of a bygone era. Films like That Darn Cat! (1965), The Love Bug (1969), Snowball Express (1972), and Candleshoe (1977). Films starring Dean Jones, Helen Hayes, Harry Morgan, Joe Flynn, Tim Conway, and Don Knotts. Films directed by Robert Stevenson, Robert Butler, Vincent McEveety, and Norman Tokar. Even though Walt had passed away in 1966, his presence and ideology lived on through this unique period of creativity.
Arriving at the tale end of this wholesome renaissance, director Norman Tokar conceived The Apple Dumpling Gang as a timeless version of the Old West in archetypal Disney style. We have Donovan, the Cary Grant leading man, a confirmed bachelor with big plans and confidence to spare. Dusty, the hard driving, tough talking, independent Katharine Hepburn female who is immune to Donovan's charms. Theodore and Amos, part Abbott and Costello, part Three Stooges, always looking for the easy score and never fully utilizing the half a brain between them. Most importantly, we have Bobby, Clovis, and Celia, the kind hearted, mischief making Huey, Dewey, and Louie of Quake City, who want nothing more than to find a safe place they can call home. They are the unknowing catalysts whose mere presence will turn the lives of everyone around them upside down—and all for the better.
The plot laid out by author Jack Bickham (a highly respected writing teacher) and screenwriter Don Tait (no relation to Larry) is surprisingly intricate for this genre. You have Donovan looking to escape from responsibility. Three kids determined to find gold in their inherited (albeit long abandoned) mine, all the while trying to reestablish themselves as a family. Theodore and Amos trying to make a name for themselves as the Hash Knife Outfit after having been expelled from the notorious Stillwell Gang. Underneath it all is a town populated by people who, indicative of the time period, want nothing more than to get rich quick. This is not a cookie cutter comedy.
Let's face it, comedy is much more difficult to pull off than drama. Anyone can get angry or upset, but humor offered up even half a beat off will fall flat on its face every time. Tokar does an excellent job of making sure each comedic element is well established, long before the punchline is delivered. But even the most well crafted joke needs a talented actor to execute it.
By 1975, Bill Bixby was America's favorite best friend, uncle, and father. From his days as Tim O'Hara trying desperately to contain the curiosity of Ray Walston on My Favorite Martian to his turn as single dad Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Bixby exuded a charm and assuredness that was hard to resist. What better actor to bring Donovan to life. His late night comforting of a sleep-deprived Celia is enough to melt anyone's heart and his saloon tête-à-tête with a misinformed Dusty exemplifies his impeccable comic timing. Susan Clark, a well established dramatic actress, gets a chance to show off her own comedic chops by playing Magnolia "Dusty" Clydesdale as a tough as nails stage coach driver who fights to keep hidden the beautiful young woman she buried inside herself so long ago. The two of them play off each other much like ancestors to Moonlighting's Maddie Hayes and David Addison.
While Bixby and Clark receive top billing and the most screen time, the two actors who steal the film out from under everyone are Tim Conway and Don Knotts. At the time, both were celebrated comedians in their own right. Conway cut his teeth on The Steve Allen Show before gaining the respect and notoriety of his peers with the Emmy nominated portrayal of Ensign Parker on ABC's McHale's Navy and his Emmy winning run on CBS's The Carol Burnett Show. Don Knotts, who also spent the early part of his career on The Steve Allen Show, had already left to work on The Andy Griffith Show by the time Conway came on board. After six seasons and five Emmy awards for his legendary portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts went on to star in a string of highly successful comedies for Universal, most notably The Incredible Mr. Limpet and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Whoever came up with the idea of pairing these two comedic geniuses together should be given a lifetime achievement award. Every moment between the two is an absolute gem. The two went on to make several more films together, but none as successful as this. You need only watch their scene getting the ladder out of the firehouse to see how special this pairing truly is.
Like gravy on our morning biscuits, Quake City has been blessed with fine performances by a bevy of veteran character actors. Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H) as sheriff, barber, justice of the peace, and town conscience Homer McCoy. John "I'm not Ray Milland" McGiver (The Patty Duke Show) as Leonard Sharpe, Quake City's chief banker and poker champion. David Wayne (House Calls) as Colonel Clydesdale, the town most successful entrepreneur and Dusty's oft-inebriated father. Last but certainly not least, Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles) as Frank Stillwell, one of Wild West's most notorious criminal masterminds and former employer of the dynamic duo—Amos and Theodore. Theory holds that 90% of good directing is good casting, and that certainly seems to be true here.
Shot on the old Disney backlot in Burbank, the town of Quake City is the epitome of Hollywood's Old West, from the frustration of its long abandoned mining community and the promise of its enterprising stagecoach, to the town saloon's high stakes poker games and nightly brawls. The production design alone should have been nominated for an Academy Award. This is as authentic looking as a Western film gets—and a time capsule for the extraordinary family fun Disney conjured for an entire generation.
Presented in 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen, Disney has rendered yet another impressive restoration on a film print that has suffered considerably over the years. Yes, there is still the rare hint of grain or color fading, but these are few and far between. Interestingly enough, most seem to occur on the second unit footage of the stagecoach and the film's climactic chase. On the whole, the transfer has undergone a radical transformation. A full palette of color warms the screen from start to finish. Even the night shots exhibit an intimate, lantern lit glow not often seen in films today. Of course, the special effects moments pale in comparison to modern CGI, but there's something kitschy and amusing about being able to spot them. The Dolby 5.1 audio track has become a golden seal for the Vault Disney treatment, but in reality it's like putting a dress on a pig. It may look nice, but doesn't really do anything to improve its value. This is a 2.0 stereo soundtrack, plain and simple. The surround speakers and subwoofer might as well take the night off, as they won't be needed. I appreciate the effort though.
My most sincere appreciation is given to the bonus features. This is a genuine special edition in every respect. Let's examine the evidence, in order of importance…
Feature Commentary—Cast members unite on what turns out to be a cut together commentary track. Tim Conway and Don Knotts join forces to provide a sidesplitting walk down memory lane. Unfortunately, they only surface on the scenes they're in. The remaining commentary is in the form of cut-ins provided by Susan Clark and Brad Savage (Clovis) who, truth be told, don't even appear to be in the same room. In fact, there are points I wonder is Brad's commentary is a little more than an artificial response to something Susan recorded on her own. Regardless of its true origins, this is a most welcome addition to the film. Grade: B
A Look Back With the Gang (24 minutes)—Worth its weight in gold, this brand spanking new behind the scenes featurette includes interviews and remembrances by Don Knotts and Tim Conway, Susan Clark, Stacy Manning (Celia), Brad Savage (Clovis), and Clay O'Brien Cooper (Bobby). The presence of Bill Bixby is sorely missing, but this is one feature you must watch. I only wish more films included documentaries like this. Grade: A-
Conversations With Tim Conway (12 minutes)—Prepare to laugh. This is one long standup routine on Tim's life and career. Makes you wonder why he was never able to successfully carry a sitcom or variety show on his own. Grade: A
Lost Treasures: The Disney Backlot (10.5 minutes)—If you are as big a Disney junkie as I am, you will fully appreciate this look back at the old Disney Studio in Burbank, California, which is now a modern studio office complex. All of the old streets and sets have been torn down to make way for more offices, soundstages, and parking. Sad, but true. Grade: B+
1975 Disney Studio Album (3.5 minutes)—A nice idea that falls a little short on the execution. Basically a quick hit, musical montage of the films released and park attractions unveiled by Disney during 1975. Leaves you wanting to know more. Grade: C
Disney's Rootin' Tootin' Cowboys (2.5 minutes)—Remember DTV from the early days of the Disney Channel? This might have been one their music videos. This is called extemporaneous padding my friends. Grade: D
As if this wasn't enough, the disc is rounded out by a collection of production stills, in-depth cast biographies, lobby cards, posters, publicity shots, a comic book adaptation of the film, the obligatory studio trailers, and a set of really great menu designs. You can't argue with the forethought and effort that went into creating this release.
The Apple Dumpling Gang could easily be the definitive Disney western comedy. If you haven't already seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it. You'll be glad you did. If you are a longtime fan of the film and have yet to purchase this disc, what are you waiting for? Jump on Amazon.com and place that order post-haste. This film will shine in anyone's DVD collection.
The Apple Dumpling Gang is guilty of continuing to make us laugh, after all these years. This court sentences Disney to 100 years probation and must get to work immediately on creating equally impressive special editions for Candleshoe, Herbie Rides Again, Hot Lead, Cold Feet, The Treasure of Matacumbe, and Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. Just remember, Clovis don't like to be touched.
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