In honor of Baby New Year, this month we discuss movies about youth and starring youth.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Based on a novel by Jack M Bickham, The Apple Dumpling Gang tells the story of a gambler that gets tricked into adopted a trio of precocious orphans that are the heirs to a gold mine. The kids, known as the Apple Dumpling Gang, because that’s what they like to eat, naturally, find a giant gold nugget in the dried up mine, and become the target for unscrupulous townspeople, including a pair of inept criminals played by Don Knotts and Tim Conway.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: You would think that a Disney movie would be the perfect place to find cute and talented kids who went on to have big careers in the movie business. I was underwhelmed by the kids in this movie. The two boys (Clay O'Brien and Brad Savage) were passable, though charmless, partly because the script gave the spotlight to little Stacy Manning, who was so awkward and dull that she never made another movie. In one scene, she is dancing around a dining room, showing off her new white dress. Suddenly a hoard of greedy people run in, trying to take her for their own so they can get a piece of the giant gold nugget she and her siblings have found. When they're chased away, her new dress is in tatters, a scene that should have an emotional impact, but it loses all hope of those heights in her indifferent utterance of, "They ripped my beautiful dress."
RB: The film was directed by Norman Tokar, who knew his way around directing kids. A former child actor on radio (he played Henry Aldrich for a season while Ezra Stone was in the army) and author (he also wrote a big ol’ bunch of Aldrich episodes), Tokar directed many of the best episodes of Leave It To Beaver, so it’s difficult to blame him for the blandness of the kids. He certainly knew how to handle this kind of material, so I’m not going to pin the blame of the mediocrity of these proceedings on him.
SG: Another scene that should have been more potent is the collapse of the mine. The kids are planning to dig for gold in the abandoned mine left to them when an earthquake hits. Support structures are falling, they lose the light in their lantern, dust is shooting into their faces, and yet they are somewhat passive through the ordeal.
RB: There’s no potency or suspense in any of these proceedings. It all just lies there like a wet washrag. Things happen for, it appears, simply the sake of them happening. It’s telling that the viewer doesn’t really care that much about the situations that the ‘gang’ finds themselves in. Everything is handled in such a deadpan manner that none of it really matters.
SG: The reason this movie is worth watching is the many character actors in the cast. Conway and Knotts mug their way through in a way that degrades the seriousness that Bill Bixby tries to give it. Knotts is the straight man to Conway's buffoon, but they're both idiots. There is a great "courtroom" scene where Harry Morgan condemns the would-be thieves swiftly and succinctly.
RB: Morgan is good in his role. I’ll give you that. However, I’d argue that the entire cast, especially Conway and Knotts are wasted here. There is a disappointing lack of expected frantic energy here. Knotts, in his biography, stated that the film was difficult to do because of the frequent hilarious adlibs on the part of Conway, and I found myself wondering how many, if any, of those actually made the cut in the film. Even Iris Adrian and Olan Soule are wasted in throwaway bit parts. When Iris Adrian doesn’t make an impression, you know you’re in trouble.
SG: I can't see John McGiver in a movie without also hearing Gilbert Gottfried's brilliant impression of him prattling on about running "a tight ship." Speaking of Gilbert and his raucous sense of humor, is the sheriff's utterance of "See you next Tuesday" in the barbershop an intentional veiled swear?
RB: That would be hilarious, and if so, and probably the funniest thing in the movie. McGiver is one of the few character actors trotted across the screen whose performance actually comes across relatively unscathed. Always enjoyable, even in this clunker.
SG: There is a groan-inducing gag when the saloon-keeper orders a melodeon, insisting that nothing happen to it after its long journey. We see its destruction at the hands of the children coming from a mile away, but it is cool to see the novelty instrument.
RB: What about the hilarity of one of the kids having to go to the bathroom all the time? That’s the kind of nonsense that passes for humor in this film. Reviewers at the time understood the flaws in the film, calling it “indistinguishable as rice pudding” (New York Times) noting that the “formulas are sorely in need of rejuvenation” (Washington Post).
SG: And somehow there was a sequel! In 1979, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again was released. Granted, the only returning players were Conway, Knotts and Morgan, but who thought continuing this story without the title characters was a good idea?
This movie would have been better with stronger chemistry between Bixby and Susan Clark and more precocious kids. Without a strong core story, the window dressing, AKA the characters, must carry the story, and they're too flamboyant and unbelievable to sustain the viewer for an hour and forty minutes. 2 stars.
RB: I found myself watching this movie and becoming resentful that I had to endure it. At one point, my wife walked in the room and asked me why I was in a bad mood, and I had to admit that it was because I was watching this dumb movie. For my generation, there is some nostalgia around this film. It was one of the first movies that Disney released on VHS in the early home video days, and I recall it as a staple on the shelves of our local video stores growing up. I never picked it up though. If I had, I may have a different outlook of this disastrous movie. As it stands, this is a one and a half star dud that wastes its cast and director. What a shame.