When he was in college, Judge Bill Gibron never had to put up with a crusty old dean like Eugene Higgins. Then again, he never tried to turn the campus into a hotbed of sci-fi silliness like that kooky collegian Dexter Riley.
Three times the sci-fi farce fun!
In 1959, the Disney Corporation decided to shake things up in its live-action film division. Previously, the successful animation house had concentrated on action-adventures (Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson) and occasionally sappy family fare (Old Yeller, The Light in the Forest). However, with The Shaggy Dog, the House of Mouse tried something different, meshing the crazy cartoon comedy style of their celebrated short subjects with elements of magic, fantasy, and fun. The result was a hit, sparking an entire sub-genre of film that featured outrageous speculative gimmicks as part of their otherwise ordinary frivolity. Many of these newfangled films centered around a fictional university setting. The Merlin Jones movies featured an eccentric boy inventor (played by an Uncle Walt favorite, Tommy Kirk), who made life at Midvale College a decidedly trying experience. Over at Medfield, two generations of scientific savants were testing the patients of faculty and administration alike. The absent-minded Professor Ned Brainard took his invention, flying rubber (or Flubber), and turned it into two hit films.
Then there was baffling boy genius Dexter Riley. Ambitious to a fault, but occasionally complicating his situation with bumbling bad ideas, the eternal college kid stumbled upon breakthroughs that turned him into a super-intelligent phenomenon, found him gifted with the ability to make himself invisible, and, toward the end of his university tenure, made himself a weightlifting wonder. Played by another Disney contract actor, the soon-to-be-superstar Kurt Russell, Dexter and his pals, including redheaded halfwit Robert Schuyler, were always out to save Medfield, soften up the irascible Dean, and help out the science department whenever possible. Over the course of three fascinating films—The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't, and The Strongest Man in the World, Dexter and his humorous histrionics more-or-less defined the Disney live-action experience. Now some three decades later, this trio of titles still offers untold entertainment riches.
Facts of the Case
Poor Medfield College. This pathetic private institution of higher learning is loaded with debt and can't seem to find a way out of it. Under the awkward auspicies of the most aggravated Dean in all of secondary education, Eugene Higgins (Joe Flynn) and constantly falling within the fiscal influence of local crooked businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero) and his right-hand "muscle" Chilli/Cookie (Richard Bakalyan), the college just can't compete with its snooty State rival. Even when he looks over his sloppy student body, including regular troublemaker Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell), he comes to the conclusion that all is rather hopeless. The kids don't care. They're too busy running ridiculous lab experiments that almost always result in some manner of sensational, special superpower. Over the course of three jovial jaunts, we see the selfless, if scattered, undergraduates get into the following comic mischief:
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972)
The Strongest Man in the World (1975)
You probably think this review is going to focus on Kurt Russell, right? You're thinking that, with so much material to work with, from his pre-Disney days as a child star (remember his turn as the Jungle Boy on Gilligan's Island) to his post-House of Mouse work for John Carpenter (Escape from New York, The Thing), this criminally underrated actor will be the sole reason to discuss the three sci-fi-ish films made during his tenure as a contract player. The truth is, that rascal Russell is just one of several significant reasons why the Dexter Riley trilogy works so well and remains a popular representation of Disney's dying live-action artistry. Indeed, though two of the films (Computer and Strongest) find him off-screen a great deal of the time, his amiable adolescent personality (Russell was 18 when the first movie was made) really carries these crackerjack fantasies. While The Barefoot Executive is probably the ultimate defining film in Russell's Uncle Walt world, these efforts confirmed his leading-man status. Still, Executive did give him his meatiest role, as well as a chance to work with a TV-loving chimp. If that's not a recipe for sensational cinema, then you don't know your simian showcases.
No, this introduction to the evidence will focus primarily on two actors whose tenure under Mickey's management more or less goes unrecognized today. The Dexter Riley films would be nothing without Joe Flynn's fabulously flustered Dean Higgins and Michael McGreevey's sensational sidekick, Richard Schuyler. Both men made indelible marks on these cornball comedies, stealing scenes as easily as they became part of the overall ensemble. And that's no mean feat, considering Cesar Romero was always around, stuck in post-Joker mode as the ever over-the-top mobster A. J. Arno. Without Flynn and McGreevey, these films wouldn't have their wackiness or their weirdness. Schuyler was the anti-Dexter, a determined dimbulb who painted himself as accomplished and skilled, but all throughout the three films involving Medfield and its miseries, McGreevey is fascinating, a clueless creep who seems too immature for college, yet too old for a playpen. Whether it's panicking during a quiz show, fretting over his rusted-out VW, or cuddling with his cowardly dog, Schuyler is the salt to Dexter's determined sweetness.
Flynn, on the other hand, is the perfect foil. Oblivious to the point of needing mental contact lenses, his desperate Dean Higgins is like Andy Griffith's Floyd the Barber with a sheepskin up his keister. Delivering all his dialogue in a breathy, baffled manner that suggests frustration mixed with far too many martinis, he's a throwback to the days when authority figures were capable but confused. Flynn's Dean is still in charge of Medfield, managing to keep his job even after numerous brushes with bankruptcy and bad guys. If he's not yelling at the lax student body, he's making unknowingly underhanded deals with the local mobsters. Arno is of course the serpent in Higgins's garden of educational Eden, the fly in this easily flustered administrator's ointment. If Flynn played him as nothing but obnoxiousness, all fury and very little soundness, we'd tune out immediately, but Dean Higgins is hilarious, overreacting to everything in a stream-of-consciousness whimpering that sounds like a rabbit about to be ravaged by a falcon. Still, he is not to be taken lightly. Weak-kneed but strong-willed, Higgins hopes to achieve his ends and is not about to be concerned over the means or who gets hurt by them. In some ways, he's a true scoundrel. Most of the time, he's simply frantic and dense.
Along with the reliable Russell, the Dexter Riley movies need all their components to successfully motor along. Find yourself missing one or two and you end up with something less than solid, derivative instead of delightful. Luckily, such stumbles happen very rarely over the course of these three films. Individually, we can address other concerns that come up during these otherwise luminous light comedies. Let's start the discussion with our first visit to Professor Quigley's science lab:
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
Jumping right out of the box with narrative legs in a full slapstick sprint, the first movie in the Dexter Riley trilogy tries a little too hard to be everything for everyone. It offers kooky comedy, some scientific mumbo jumbo, minor social relevance (Dean Higgins mentions how hard it is, during these "unsettled" times, to manage a college), a heaping helping of interpersonal soul-searching, and a lot of convoluted car chases. Still, this is the movie that lays down the Riley formula—moments of solid exposition surrounded by big, overblown action/humor set pieces. The overriding premise is, perhaps, the most awkward of all. It's easier to believe in an invisible man or a super-strong student than a guy who has been given a computerized brain—especially one that still remembers gambling information from a previous owner's unlawful activity. It's hilarious to watch Russell mimic the robotic drone of the mainframe (complete with mandatory mechanical beeps) and he really sells the smarty-pants aspect of the story. In fact, in the beginning, when Dexter is in regular-guy mode, he seems a little vacant, lacking the randy rapscallion nature he'll have in the other two films.
Of course, everything rides on the conflict and the situation here is interesting, if not dire. Dean Higgins needs cash, but isn't screeching about it like he will in the next two films, and A.J. Arno has yet to be a convicted criminal, so he's a little more swaggering than sinister. Besides, since this is a Disney film, we know that the white hats will whip the bumbling black caps every single time, saving the day while rendering justice to those who deserve it. It's one of the House of Mouse's favorite live-action themes. So it's not the conclusion we care about so much as how we reach it and this is where The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes lurches a bit. The scenes prior to Dexter's national tour are terrific, especially a test where a newly-intelligent Riley rattles off the answers before digging into the noisiest sandwich in the world. The College Bowl sequences are also engaging, since the questions are so gosh-darned difficult. Once Arno discovers Dexter's data storage abilities, it's all cloying cops and robbers—and the blue-screen car chases leave a lot to be desired. Still, the ending is suspenseful, if only to see if Russell will ever spit out the answers (he responds in long, drawn-out pauses that make for as much aggravation as anxiety). With a tiny twist that leaves us sated and smiling, Computer paved the way for its far-better sequel, a true rarity in cinematic series.
Now You See Him, Now You Don't
Oddly enough, this is probably the strongest of the trilogy titles. It has the proper balance of Russell, gimmick, and goofiness, all topped off with another winning whine-a-thon from the dyspeptic Dean Higgins. Here, William Schallert's Quigley is replaced by William Windom's Professor Lufkin and the change is for the better. Windom is far more fiery than Schallert, who always seems stabilized by a healthy does of Midwestern malaise. When Lufkin goes to bat for the kids, he seems like a truly dedicated educator, not just some scholar who's going along for the ride. It also makes the showdowns with Higgins that much more memorable. Even the newly sprung A.J. Arno (naturally, he was caught at the end of Computer) seems reborn in this sequel, full of larcenous intent and just looking for a way to make it pay off. Turning the college into a casino is a clever idea, as is the sequence where Dexter and Schuyler sneak into Arno's office to discover the fiendish plot. Using the same state-of-the-art effects that won Disney an Oscar for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the invisibility material is handled exceptionally well. Expertly incorporated into the narrative (including a particularly hilarious golf match), the unseen element really adds to the story's science-fiction foundation. Watching Russell and McGreevey run around with half-hands (you have to see them for yourself) makes for one fresh, funny fantasy.
Sure, it all gets a little convoluted in the end (the final chase scene centers on an invisible car, after all) and post-modern mentalities will balk at all the blue-screen effects used to realize the visuals. Still, it's hard to hate a movie that tries as hard as this one. Director Robert Butler, who helmed both Computer and Russell's previous Disney delight, The Barefoot Executive, is back again, and with success came the ability to experiment a bit. Here he's not afraid to let certain sections (the golf match) go on too long while giving others (the bank robbery subplot) substantial short shrift. Russell obviously warmed to Butler, delivering his first fully-accomplished turn as Dexter. Gone are the lost looks of Computer. Instead, we have a three-dimensional protagonist. In the previous film, Riley was on the outside looking in, unaware of the trouble his new talents could cause. Here, he is utilizing his unusual traits to find information, swing deals, and undermine the more nefarious elements circling the school. With Jim Backus along for a nice, nuanced turn as the head of the science fair and Schuyler sobbing over his beloved Bug, Now/Now is one of the many Disney family films that older generations remember fondly. It offered simplistic satisfaction with tightly-scripted thrills.
The Strongest Man in the World
To call this a Kurt Russell vehicle would be disingenuous toward what's good in this final film of the Riley series. Indeed, Joe Flynn and Michael McGreevey have so much more screen time than their far-more-famous co-star that you'd swear the filmmakers forgot to keep Russell on the call sheet. Granted, at this point, the actor was looking to break out of his goody-two-shoes roles. As a matter of fact, in the same years as Strongest, Russell would star as deranged Texas sniper Charles Whitman in the terrific TV movie The Deadly Tower. Four years later, he would be nominated for his turn as Elvis in John Carpenter's brilliant biopic. So we can cut Kurt some slack, especially since he's sincere and stoic in the segments where his character is featured. Yet it's safe to say that Dexter Riley is a secondary character to Flynn's Higgins (who does the strength demonstration for a cautious cereal company board of directors), McGreevey's Schuyler (who is hypnotized via acupuncture), and Phil Silvers's crazy baron of breakfast, Mr. Krinkle. As a matter of fact, there is more mugging in this movie than in a typical '70s stroll through Central Park.
If you can forgive its lack of Dexter, this is really a wonderful film. Once again, the effects are handled exceptionally well. Though we know there are wires and stunt doubles involved, it's still a gas to see Flynn flying around like an aged acrobat during his demonstration. Even viable vaudevillian Silvers can't muster the same slapstick silliness as his comic counterpart. Equally intriguing, for decidedly different reasons, is Schuyler's kidnapping and Chinese brainwashing. In a relatively bold move for a mid-'70s movie, the Asian actors are portrayed realistically and get rather annoyed at the politically-incorrect references tossed around by Arno and visiting police chief James Gregory. Perhaps the standout performance arrives from cast newcomer Dick Van Patten. Playing a corporate executive as double-crossing crook, Van Patten manages to be both menacing and moronic at the same time. His clever phone calls with Silvers are loaded with ersatz espionage gold and his well-earned comeuppance at the hands of Russell makes for a nice resolution. The finale, focusing on a weightlifting competition, is very surreal, since the Medfield team looks like refugees from a foreign nation, while the State "students" are the cream of the Muscle Beach crop. With Dexter required to lift 1,100 pounds to win, the ridiculousness factor is cranked up several strange notches. Still, this second sequel is on par with its partners. It's a shame then that Disney decided to drop the series. Even without Russell, there was probably some life in the Medfield movies yet.
Looking back at this trio of dated delights, it's interesting to note that they barely reflect the era in which they were made. The clothes look right and the cars are all stylistically sound, but the late '60s and early '70s saw a counterculture revolution on college campuses all over the country. They were places of protest, politics, and peril. Yet Medfield is never plagued by sit-ins, hassled by hippies, or deterred by drugs. They just don't exist in Dexter's frame of reference, nor do they turn up at regular rival State. Sure, Walt wouldn't have wanted his fluffy family comedies drenched in sociopolitical or pop-culture realities, but such an Establishment aura renders some of the realism moot. Additionally, the constant connection between college and criminals must have some thematic resonance for the House of Mouse screenwriters. Nowadays, such a suspicion would be scholastic blasphemy, but since Medfield is a private institution of higher learning, such a link to unlawfulness is obviously not a problem. Perhaps the most puzzling element of all, however, is the fact that Dexter is never given a real, steady love interest. Oh sure, there is arm candy in all three films (Debbie Paine, Joyce Menges, and Ann Marshall all share Russell's rudimentary affections throughout the course of the series), but unlike Merlin Jones, who got to groove with Annette Funicello, Dexter is a regular eunuch. Disney should have paired him up with some hot honey. It would have made the character that much more identifiable.
It may have even made the movies more timeless. Indeed, part of the problem with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World is that they hark back to a time when films were formulated as product. Disney, which had a weekly TV series to fill, could release these lightweight comedies, get a few box-office receipts, and then send the leftovers to Sunday nights on NBC for a little (or a lot of) replay value. While still very funny and loaded with memorable moments (you'll never think of the description "crusty old Dean" without picturing Flynn once you've seen these films), they feel like half-hearted efforts, carried for the most part by their cleverness and their cast. The House of Mouse obviously thought they were interchangeable entertainments—they even went so far as to remake Computer in 1995 as a vehicle for mega-Christian Kirk Cameron. Truth be told, many will disregard them all together, the Kurt Russell novelty factor not enough to warrant consideration. Unfortunately, that's a big motion-picture mistake. The Dexter Riley Trilogy is devilish, dopey fun, and along with The Barefoot Executive, these movies represent a real transitional period in the career futures of our soon to be Snake Plissken. Russell could have had the same trouble as most child stars during their awkward teen years. Disney made the evolution as celebrated and smooth as possible.
This makes the way the company treats these titles on DVD all the more maddening. Those who follow Mickey's marketing and merchandising believe that, as long as the manufactures make available these digital versions of their parental pacifiers, they've done their job. Screw remasters. Screw bonus features. Screw original aspect ratios. Instead of being placated, fans like this critic are livid over the lackluster transfers and dearth of added content given to these glorified aluminum babysitters. Both The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man in the World are currently only available in shoddy, full-screen images. Even with the "Film Classics" tag on the cover, Computer looks horrible. The stock footage sticks out as faded and flat, while the movie itself is filled with scratches and dirt. Strongest is slightly better, though the lack of a true OAR renders the opening credits—and a couple of action sequences—very poorly framed. Some argue that these movies were originally made for TV, so such open matte offerings are perfectly acceptable. However, one look at the gorgeous, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image for Now You See Him, Now You Don't should shut them up for good. The visuals are so strong and the colors so crisp, the film looks practically brand-new. That's more that can be said for its preceding and proceeding partners. On the sound side, this is plain old Dolby Digital Mono, nothing more or less.
Where Disney consistently drops the ball (or, if you're of a more cynical mind, purposely holds back for latter double dips) is in the area of extras. While Russell may not be ready to revisit his Dexter Riley past, there are lots of other actors who made these movies click and it would be nice to hear them dish some behind-the-scenes dirt. In addition, director Robert Butler is apparently still around. Wouldn't a commentary track discussing the Disney way of making these far-out farces be a wonderful or necessary bit of studio oral history? Even better, get Leonard Maltin to chime in with a featurette. A longtime scholar of Mickey's magic, he has written several books on the Disney oeuvre and has some special insights to offer about how the company went about making movies. He could definitely add some necessary context. The sooner this entertainment giant realizes that they are soiling the memories of film fans worldwide, the quicker their fortunes as preservers of their own heritage will skyrocket.
The story of how Disney went from popular powerhouse to Tinseltown laughing stock and back to the bank once again, is something best left for the cinematic scholars to tackle. It's fairly obvious that with Walt's passing, the company was creatively rudderless and couldn't find its way out of a fog of formulaic fare. Tragically, many consider the Dexter Riley films as further proof of the once-mighty Mouse's dwindling aesthetic. Instead, they should be viewed as the last little gasps of the company's artistic power. None of the movies are masterpieces, and they tend to get by in our current callous psyche thanks in no small part to their friendly and hospitable nature. Still, they argue for a kind of narrative nimbleness and filmic focus that very few modern comedies can approach. Kurt Russell should never be ashamed of his efforts here. They represent some of the last bastions of unforced fun the family motion picture would manage for a long time to come. So settle back with the sneaker-wearing brainiac, the ingratiating invisible college kid, and the student with superhuman strength. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't, and The Strongest Man in the World are symbols of a simpler cinematic time. And there's really nothing wrong with such basic motion-picture pleasures.
Not guilty. Dexter and his determined pals are free to go. Disney, on the other hand, is held in contempt for their slapdash treatment of these terrific titles. Sentencing is withheld pending further investigation by the Court.
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Scales of Justice, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
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Scales of Justice, Now You See Him, Now You Don't
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Distinguishing Marks, Now You See Him, Now You Don't
Scales of Justice, The Strongest Man In The World
Perp Profile, The Strongest Man In The World
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