By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Orphaned kids strike gold.
Russell (Bill Bixby) is a slick gambler living in the old West who finds that he has unwittingly become the guardian to three orphaned children ( Clay O’Brien, Brad Savage, Stacy Manning). Initially he tries to pawn them off on other people, but eventually he takes a liking to them when he realizes that they’ve inherited a mine that has gold in it, which soon makes everyone else in town want to adopt them.
This Disney film, which was based on the 1971 Jack Bickham novel of the same name, fares better than most of their other films and in fact became its biggest money maker from the 70’s. It helps that the main character of Russell isn’t as squeaky clean as the typical Disney leading man as it’s strongly implied that he cheats at the poker games that he wins and the fact that he gradually softens towards the kids through time creates a nice character arch. Susan Clark, who’s the love interest, is good here too as she plays against type for a Disney leading lady by being more tom boyish and masculine despite the fact that apparently behind-the-scenes she was scared to death of horses and every scene that required her to ride one had her instead on a mechanical one although you could never tell.
The typical Disney comical trappings are given a unique spin here too, which also helps. Instead of having another boring barroom brawl, which is so common in many western comedies, we are treated to a funny lovers spat between Clark and Bixby inside the bar where props get thrown around between the two while everyone else sits frozen and unsure of what to do. There’s no cartoonish car chase at the end either, but instead a genuinely hair-raising battle between Bixby and Slim Pickens, who plays one of the bad guys, down the white rapids of a river. The shooting was also done on-location at Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, which improves the setting from the usual studio back lot.
Even the kids are tolerable without having their cuteness or innocence get overdone even though the running joke dealing with the young girl constantly having to go pee isn’t as funny as it seems when you think about it and most likely in reality would’ve been a warning sign of a very serious medical condition instead. Also, the scene showing the kids getting trapped in the mine after an earthquake should’ve also shown how they were able to get out instead of simply cutting to the next scene with them back in town of it without any explanation as to how they got there.
The real stars of the film though are Don Knotts and Tim Conway as the comically bumbling would-be crooks. This marked the first of five film appearances that the two did together and in many ways this is probably their best effort. I always liked seeing them together because it was a rare chance for Knotts to play the smarter of the two instead of always being the dope himself although some may find Conway’s extreme ineptness more annoying than funny. In either event they help enliven the proceedings and became the stars of the sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, which will be reviewed next week.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: July 1, 1975
Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Director: Norman Tokar
Studio: Buena Vista
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube