Thursday, August 15, 2013

Repost :: When Disney Went to College :: Kurt Russell Lives the Life of Reilly in the Medfield Universe.

There's an apocryphal story that says back in the 1960's, when producers Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff cast America's favorite Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello, for the lead in William Asher's Beach Party, the legend gushes over how Uncle Walt plumb blew a gasket and harangued American International's brass for ruining her wholesome image. Rumor also has it that Arkoff told Disney to go screw himself and allow the girl to grow up. In the end, as the fabled story continues, Arkoff did make one concession and promised Funicello would not appear in a bikini. She didn't, a two-piece, yes, but not an actual bikini. Either way, her days as Disney's golden girl were officially over. 

Now, if you jump ahead to the end of the next decade, we see the same familiar pattern with another Magic Kingdom mainstay. 

Aside from maybe Bruce Campbell's Ash, I don't think there's been a more popular, cocky, anti-hero/bad-ass icon amongst the B-Movie Brethren than Kurt Russell's Jack Burton or Snake Plissken. One wonders, however, how many of them actually realize how before he was a lean, mean, and morally suspect quipping machine our boy in question was a slightly chubby and cherubic teen idol who cut his acting teeth in a string of vanilla comedies for Walt Disney? See, the 1970s were an odd time for the Disney studios. And when they weren't making films about precious metal pooping water fowl, sentient Volkswagens, or cats from outer space, they were offering their own brand of teenage/young adult comedies, most of them set at mythical Medfield College (-- home of The Absent Minded Professor), which centered around the comical misadventures of one particular pupil: Dexter Reilly. 

In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, when our boy Reilly (Russell) is involved in a freak electrical accident, where the resultant surge in voltage super-charges his brain, he becomes a walking encyclopedia. The story begins when the always cash-strapped Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) refuses to fund a much needed computer for Medfield's science department. But always the entrepreneur, Dexter manages to talk local business tycoon and all-around no-goodnik A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero) into donating one. Arno does, a relic, en lieu of a promised $20000 contribution to the college coffers. And it's while trying to repair this temperamental contraption that Dexter gets zapped, transferring all the computer's stored data into his brain. 

A whirlwind world tour soon follows as the Dean exploits Dexter's new abilities as a windfall for the college. Of course, Dex's ego soon matches his inflated I.Q., but, this being a Disney movie and all, down comes the Clown-Hammer of Morality; and he soon sees the error of his ways and returns to his girl, Abbie (Debbie Paine), his bestest bud Schuyler (Mike McGreevy), and good old Medfield U. Of course, the school is still in dire financial straits, but a solution is found by using Dexter as a ringer in a series of collegiate quiz-bowls. Things go well until the semi-finals, when the effects of the accident appear to be wearing off, and then one of the answers, "applejack," triggers an involuntary avalanche of regurgitated names and numbers from Dexter. No one knows what to make of it -- except for Arno and his hired muscle, Cookie (Dick Bakalyan), who recognize the blathering as part of their highly illegal bookmaking operation (-- that was stored on the old computer, 'natch). So it isn't much of a surprise, then, that on the day of the finals, Dexter turns up missing. Not to worry, Annie figures it out, engineers a rescue, and then, needless to say, hijinks ensue... 

Personally, I was introduced to the Medfield Universe and its denizens on the small screen when Tennis Shoes showed up on The Wonderful World of Disney. But the sequel, Now You See Him, Now You Don't was one of the first films I remember seeing in a theater. I recall seeing all kinds of Disney fair when I was a kid, getting dropped off at the old Strand or Rivoli theaters with my siblings while my folks did whatever folks did in town when they didn't want their brood underfoot: Black Beard's Ghost, The Boatniks, The Gnome-Mobile, and an old William Castle movie about a house haunted by three ghosts, who murdered each other with meat-cleavers, which have all been expounded upon elsewhere. And we're here to talk about Dexter Reilly, anyways, right? Right. 

Okay, then, almost all of the old Medfield gang returned for Now You See Him, Now You Don't, where the rascally Reilly strikes again; this time accidentally inventing a substance that, when applied like paint, can turn things invisible (-- and can be easily removed with plain old H20). Once again, budget woes have Dean Higgins moaning to the Board of Trustees. And once again, enter A.J. Arno -- who must have beat the kidnapping and racketeering rap from the first film -- who takes over the school's debt. He claims his motives are altruistic, but Reilly and his gang don't buy it. And, using his latest invention, our hero sneaks into Arno's office to find out what he's really up to. Sure enough, Arno plans to shut the school down and turn it into a giant gambling resort. 

Then, things get kind of convoluted when they take the evidence to the Dean, whose solution is to get a grant to pay off Arno before he can foreclose on the property. And to do this, he must win a golf tournament. (Don't ask.) Win it he does, with Reilly's unseen help, but they've got bigger problems: Arno has figured out the invisibility ruse and has stolen what's left of the formula for his own nefarious purposes. More hijinks ensue... 

When viewed today, the matte F/X used to pull off the vanishing act doesn't hold up very well. But back when I was three, when Dexter sticks his fingers into the goo and pulls his hand back to reveal his missing fingers I nearly crapped out my Milk Duds, thinking they had been burned off by something caustic. 

Two years later, I was back in the same theater -- probably in the same balcony seat -- for the conclusion of the Medfield trilogy, The Strongest Man in the World, where once again, Reilly inadvertently creates a super-strength serum while mucking around the science lab. (And if you're thinking what I'm thinking at this point, yeah, I'm beginning to suspect Reilly was the illegitimate son of Ned Brainard, too.) With dollar signs flashing in his eyes, Dean Higgins wants to quickly cash in by selling the formula to Harriet Crumpley (Eve Arden) for her Crumply Crunch Breakfast cereal. His presentation is a smash, mostly for the furniture, but there's a snake lurking in the grass by the name of Harry (Dick Van Patten), who happily offers to sell the secret formula to the rival Krinkle Krunch cereal -- owned by none other than A.J. Arno. (And whatever he's paying his lawyers, it ain't enough.) Things come to a head when Crumply challenges Arno to a weightlifting competition fueled by their rival cereals. 

Of course, Arno brings in a bunch of ringers but the Medfield team has their own secret surprise -- or do they? Is Arno one step ahead of them again? And one last time, hijinks ensue ... 

Now hold on, some of you say. Wasn't there another one with a monkey? And you'd be absolutely correct. Russell was in The Barefoot Executive but that film takes place outside the Medfield Universe -- a parallel universe, to be sure, because even though it's different everything feels exactly the same. Here, Russell plays Steven Post, a lowly page at the UBC Network with big dreams that soon come to fruition when he starts picking out sure-fire hits that score high in the ratings. Flynn returns as the cranky station manager, Wilbanks, who promotes him to programming director; and John Ritter plays his nefarious nephew, Roger, who will stop at nothing to find out the secret to his rival's success; that secret being Post basing all of his programming decisions on the whim of his girlfriend's (Jennifer Scott) pet chimpanzee. Seems that whenever the monkey claps the show will be a hit, and when he blows a raspberry, the show's a flop. (Well, at least he wasn't flinging his scat at the screen.) Hijinks -- you get the picture. And if you're recalling another movie where Russell's a track star then your wires are a little crossed. That was Jan Michael Vincent in The World's Greatest Athlete

With that, we officially close out our slightly surreal and bluntly corny sojourn into the wild world of Dexter Reilly. And honestly, sometimes corn is what you crave and this franchise delivers it straight from the cob. Disney mainstay Joseph McEveety produced and provided all the scripts, Robert Butler did all the directing, and Hans Metz, Eustace Lycett and Danny Lee provided the familiar looking F/X when needed. All in all it's G-rated harmless, and Russell does nothing to embarrass himself and was already showing some of the smooth charisma and snarky bravado that would soon become his stock in trade. So how did Russell go from clean-cut Dexter Riley to the less than scrupulous Rudy Russo in Used Cars? Could it be that the very same year The Strongest Man in the World came out he played infamous mass-murderer Charles Whitman in The Deadly Tower? Oh yeah, I think Uncle Walt's head just took a spin in the cryogenic chamber. Goodbye Dexter Reilly. Hello Snake Plissken. 

Other points of interest:

The newspaper ads for Now You See Him, 


Jerry Beck said...

Great post. You do realize that the Disney Medfield College movies begin with THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963) and continue with Tommy Kirk (as Merlin Jones) in THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES (1963) and THE MONKEY'S UNCLE (1965)! And was most recently used in Robin William's film, FLUBBER (1997)!

W.B. Kelso said...

I had honestly forgotten that Dr. Brainard worked at Medfield College until digging up info and art for this update. I will never understand Disney's fascination with the complete and utter-destruction of a sporting even by introducing some kind of mutant X-factor into the game, but I thank him for the results.

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