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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Candleshoe
From a 2023 perspective, Jodie Foster may seem like the unlikeliest of Disney stars. We know her today as the Oscar-winning actress of such very un-Disney movies as The Silence Of The Lambs and The Accused. But in many ways, she represented the platonic ideal of what Disney wanted out of their young stars. She grew up on camera, she was smart and charismatic, she was genuinely talented, she was level-headed, she honored her commitments and she stayed blessedly free of controversy, even when she played a teen prostitute in a Martin Scorsese picture. The studio brass probably wished they had a dozen more just like her.
Candleshoe would be Jodie Foster’s fourth and last Disney feature. Freaky Friday had demonstrated that she was just as comfortable with a high-concept gimmick comedy as the Kurt Russells and Tommy Kirks of the world. Candleshoe placed her into another favorite Disney genre: the juvenile caper, a mix of larceny and laughs (just like it says on the poster!). It was the right fit for her tomboy with an attitude persona.
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The screenplay was by Disney veteran David Swift and Rosemary Anne Sisson of Ride A Wild Pony, based on the novel Christmas At Candleshoe by Michael Innes. (There isn’t a trace of Christmas in the movie, by the way. Evidently Swift and Sisson made quite a few changes from the book but the time of year apparently wasn’t one of them. Either way, I have no intention of reading it to find out what the title refers to. If you know, leave a comment down below.) The movie was intended to be Swift’s return to Disney, his first directorial work for the studio in over a decade. But he bowed out after disagreeing with producer Ron Miller about using Jodie Foster, who he felt was wrong for the role of Casey.
Now, David Swift knew a thing or two about working with young women after ideally casting Hayley Mills in Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. But he missed the boat on this one. This would be his last credit on a Disney film until the remake of The Parent Trap in 1998. He spent most of his remaining career in television, both writing and directing. He passed away at the age of 82 on the last day of 2001.
After Swift left the project, Norman Tokar stepped in. Tokar’s previous Disney film had been another juvenile caper, No Deposit, No Return. One of the stars of that movie, David Niven, was tapped to appear in Candleshoe as Priory the butler. Niven’s biggest challenge on No Deposit had been to avoid looking too ridiculous. Candleshoe presented a higher level of difficulty with Priory appearing in a variety of disguises throughout the film. It might not have been a meatier role but it certainly looks like it was a lot more fun.
This would also be the last film for the legendary Helen Hayes, whose Disney career was…um, certainly unexpected. Who could have predicted that the First Lady of American Theatre would become the First Lady of Herbie Rides Again and One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing? Hayes would continue to pop up on television into the 1980s, including appearances as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in a pair of TV-movies. But she primarily devoted the rest of her life to writing and philanthropic causes before passing away in 1993 at the age of 92.
The story begins in Los Angeles where Casey Brown (Foster) leads a ragtag group of delinquents on a mini-reign of terror. They steal a basketball from a bunch of older kids, literally give them the slip by dumping a barrel of oil in an active garage, then casually throw the ball away, its purpose served. They tear through a department store, stealing anything they can lay their hands on. Worst of all, Casey tosses a banana peel into a mailbox, ignoring the trash can directly next to it. She’s a born hellraiser, our Casey.
She returns home to the seedy apartment she shares with her foster parents, only to discover a pair of anonymous tough guys waiting for her. She assumes they’re cops, come to haul her back to juvie. Instead, they pay off her uncaring guardians and whisk her off to a luxury hotel where she’s ordered to take a bath and change into a new dress. So far, this could be the Disney prequel to Taxi Driver.
Instead of Harvey Keitel, her new benefactor/abductor/potential new accomplice is Leo McKern as Harry Brundage, a British private detective with a sideline as a con man (or maybe that should be the other way around). Harry tells Casey she bears a striking resemblance to the Honourable Margaret St. Edmund, the long-lost granddaughter of Lady Gwendolyn St. Edmund (Hayes). He intends to pass Casey off as Margaret and although no reward has been offered for her safe return, Harry has a secret plan.
His sister, Clara Grimsworthy (Vivian Pickles), had been employed at Candleshoe, the St. Edmund estate, until she was sacked for stealing. While there, she came into possession of the first of four clues supposedly leading to a pirate’s treasure. He needs Casey to embed herself at Candleshoe and seek out the remaining clues. Casey has no problem with the plan but only agrees to go along with it for a cut of the profits and the promise of a brand-new red Ferrari.
Over in England, Clara drills Casey on everything she needs to know about Miss Margaret (which is a surprisingly large amount considering the girl was only 4 when she disappeared). When Harry finally delivers Casey to Candleshoe, the initial meeting is cordial but frosty, with both Lady St. Edmund and her butler, Priory, naturally suspicious of the girl. Casey does her job well but seems to blow it by confessing pretty much the whole scam. Her reverse psychology does the trick. After Priory finds a music box hidden in the fireplace where Casey had hinted it might be, he calls her back in. Carla’s training allows Casey to identify the music box’s tune. That’s all it takes to convince Lady St. Edmund that Casey is the real deal.
Casey is a little surprised to find out she’s not the only kid at Candleshoe. Over the years, Lady St. Edmund has opened her home to a number of orphans. Four of them stay there full-time: Peter (Ian Sharrock), Cluny (Veronica Quilligan), Anna (Sarah Tamakuni) and Bobby (David Samuels). Only Bobby, the youngest, accepts Casey at face value. The rest are deeply suspicious and resentful, especially when Casey refuses to lift a finger to help around the estate.
Turns out that everybody is expected to pull their own weight around Candleshoe. Lady St. Edmund is flat broke and has been for quite some time. Priory and the kids have kept things going by letting the rest of the staff go, opening the estate to public tours and taking care of everything themselves. And because no one has the heart to break the news to the dear old lady, Priory keeps up the illusion that everything is just as it once was by disguising himself as former employees like Gipping, the cranky gardener, and John Henry, the chauffeur.
At first, Casey is unmoved by the sorry state of affairs at Candleshoe. She forges ahead with the plan, discovering the second clue in the library at sunrise. She brings the information to Harry and, later that evening, she, Harry and Clara find the third clue in Candleshoe’s graveyard. But she’s begun to have second thoughts about the whole deal. An altercation with Cluny impresses just how much the old lady and the estate mean to everyone. She learns that Priory and the kids are trying to raise enough money to cover the estate’s back taxes, else Lady St. Edmund will lose everything and end up in a nursing home.
The next day, Casey joins the gang at the farmer’s market, another of Priory’s income generators. When she sees them struggling to move their merchandise, she slips into her street-smart hustler persona. Everyone gets in on the act and they end up selling more than enough to cover the entire tax balance. Casey heads home early while Priory and the others pack up. She stashes the money but Harry is lying in wait.
Harry grabs the cash and makes a run for it, with Casey hot on his heels. She ends up badly injured and hospitalized for several days. The tax deadline passes and Lady St. Edmund is forced to sell all of Candleshoe’s antiques and furnishings. She also lets Priory know she was wise to his disguises from the beginning. When Casey recovers, she reveals everything to the kids and promises to help them find the treasure and save Candleshoe.
Lady St. Edmund easily deciphers the remaining clues but Harry and his thugs are already back at the estate, ransacking the place. A slapstick face-off between the two groups inevitably ensues, which at least gives David Niven an excuse to engage in a little swordplay. Eventually, the bad guys are subdued and the treasure is discovered in probably the most obvious place: a literal treasure chest that was part of a statue that loomed above the great hall.
Casey tries to quietly sneak back to L.A. but Lady St. Edmund stops her at the train station. The folks at Candleshoe are the closest thing to a family Casey’s ever known and Lady St. Edmund would love for her to stay. Casey’s worried about what might happen if the real Margaret should turn up someday but Lady St. Edmund waves it away, insinuating that maybe Casey really is Margaret.
As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t read the book Christmas At Candleshoe. But from what I’ve been able to tell, it must have been Disney that decided to turn the book into a modern-day variation on the Anastasia story. If the idea of a girl impersonating the long-lost heir to a crumbling estate exists in the book at all, Swift and Sisson must have gravitated toward it and pulled it to the forefront. Wherever it came from, it was a good idea. It’s a great story open to all sorts of interpretations, from historically accurate to pure fairy tale (just ask former Disney animator Don Bluth).
Candleshoe mostly uses Anastasia as an inspirational jumping-off point. The rest of it is pure Disney, from the pirate’s treasure (if only there were as much hidden treasure in the world as there is in Disney movies) to the free-for-all denouement, with a group of hardened criminals fought off by a bunch of kids and their elderly friends, to Niven’s fun, if ultimately pointless, parade of disguises and accents. Does any of this add up to much? Not really. But it’s all easy to take and fun in the moment.
Disney opened Candleshoe on December 16, 1977, for a one-week engagement in Los Angeles to qualify for the Academy Awards. This seems hopelessly optimistic but hey, stranger things, right? Anyway, it received a grand total of zero nominations and went wide on February 10, 1978. A number of critics were charmed by the film but that wasn’t enough to make it a hit. It earned less at the box office than any of the studio’s other releases of the year.
After Candleshoe, Jodie Foster took a break from filmmaking. She returned to the screen in 1980 with Carny and Foxes, two very good movies light years away from anything Disney had ever produced. Today, it might be hard to see how Foster’s tenure at the studio impacted her later career choices. But in interviews, she always speaks fondly of Disney. And I’d argue that Freaky Friday and Candleshoe helped focus her talent and give her the confidence necessary to anchor a film. Disney didn’t have a lot going for it in the 1970s but it did have Jodie Foster. And they were lucky to have her.
VERDICT: Disney Plus
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