Sunday, August 21, 2016

Republicans vs. Democrats in a Disney Musical?

Walter Brennan as Grandpa Bower.
You could call it the Mary Poppins Syndrome. That's the "disease" that convinced Walt Disney Studios that it could harvest box office gold with lavish, lengthy family musicals. The result was a trio of flops: The Happiest Millionaire (1967); The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968); Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), the most blatantly Poppinsesque. None of these ambitious endeavors have improved with age, though I know a handful of fans who champion Millionaire and Broomsticks. Perhaps, someone will come to the defense of the film we're reviewing today.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (hence referred to as Family Band) starts out well enough with an introduction to the Bower family, which consists of Calvin, Katie, their nine children, and Calvin's father. Grandpa (Walter Brennan) wants to get the musical family to St. Louis to perform at the Democratic Convention in 1888. In fact, he has even written a song about President Grover Cleveland ("Let's Put It Over with Grover"). 

Lesley Ann sings about love.
Meanwhile, the eldest daughter, Alice (Lesley Ann Warren) is preparing to meet her pen pal boyfriend Joe (John Davidson). Joe is a stout Republican, so he and Grandpa butt heads almost immediately when they meet. Joe sings a rousing song about Dakota (which still awaits statehood) and pretty soon the whole family is moving there. Other than a desire to be near their daughter, I couldn't fathom why Calvin and Katie would want to move their brood.

Once in Dakota, it's a battle royale between the town's Republicans and Democrats--with Alice caught in the middle between Grandpa and Joe. There are more forgettable songs and, after what seems like a very long time, the plot climaxes with the town's residents learning the outcome of the election between Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. (It's actually a fascinating piece of political history, since Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the election because Harrison had more electoral votes. Moreover, Cleveland later became the only U.S. president to return to office for a second term after a defeat.) 

John Davidson at age 27.
I'm not sure why the Disney Studios thought a musical built around politics and a bland romance between two young adults would appeal to children. Brothers Richard and Robert Sherman composed some unforgettable songs during their tenure at Disney. However, their score for Family Band may very well be their worst. The only highlights are a decent solo number by Lesley Ann Warren ("The Happiest Girl Alive") and a pleasant duet between John Davidson and her ("Bout Time"). This was the second teaming of the two, following The Happiest Millionaire.

Janet Blair and Buddy Ebsen.
Walter Brennan, who excelled in supporting roles during his long career, gets thrust into the lead role and struggles to carry the film. Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair are sadly wasted. If the latter's name doesn't sound familiar, then check out her excellent performance in the creepy 1962 witchcraft classic Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn). She also once played Peter Pan in a local theatre production with Vincent Price as Captain Hook (would have loved to have seen that!).

According to some sources, the original cut of Family Band was 156 minutes. It was edited to 110 minutes for its theatrical release. Songs by Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair were left on the cutting room floor.

Goldie with John Davidson.
It's interesting to note that Family Band co-stars Kurt Russell as one of the Bower kids and Goldie Jeanne Hawn (as she was billed) as another girl romanced by Davidson. Sixteen years later, Russell and Hawn reconnected when they starred in Swing Shift. They have been together ever since and have a son named Wyatt.

Finally, in July 2015, I interviewed Pamelyn Ferdin--who played little Laura Bower. I should have asked her about Family Band, but instead I focused on her more notable roles in the Peanuts specials (as Lucy), the Clint Eastwood Western The Beguiled (1971), and on the original Star Trek TV series.


  1. REALLY interesting. Thank you for this article. I've long wanted to know more about that Disney movie. I had no idea Walter Brennan had starred in two movie musicals that had him as a Democrat squabbling with Republicans. The other was 20th Century Fox's CENTENNIAL SUMMER, a 1946 release set in 1876 Philadelphia. It was a Fox response to MGM's hit, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

    1. I've still got two of those Gulf LP collections of Disney songs! Hadn't thought about that in years.

  2. These big movies show the studio had a knack for gathering talent, but then didn't know what to do with them. A shame. Perhaps it would play better on the TV show, presented in parts. Perhaps.

    1. You know, I wonder if it was broadcast on the Disney TV show. I don't remember it, so probably not--but that would have made sense.

  3. I love Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Angela Lansbury is everyrhing!

  4. Thank you for this interesting review of an obscure and bland and rightfully forgotten Disney musical. I actually use a clip from it when I speak about the election of Grover Cleveland. ("Let's Put It over for Grover ")

    One of the great ironies of the film is casting Walter Brennan as a kindly Democrat. In real life he was a racist, far right John Birch society supporter who's views were so extreme that they were shunned by mainstream Republicans!

  5. This is a timely piece about a much less than stellar Disney work. But you still made it a fun article to read, Rick. And Kurt and Goldie look cute as can be, too.

  6. I'm one of those fans who champion Bedknobs and Broomsticks ( I actually think it holds up much better than Mary Poppins ). Family Band has some good songs ( the ones you mentioned stand out ) and what I like about it a lot is the autumn setting and location scenery. We re-watch the movie every two years or so. However, I can see how the movie would be boring as hell to children. One critic stated that the problem with Happiest Millionaire was it was too childish for adults and too mature for children.....he nailed it on the head. The same statement could be applied to this film.