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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Napoleon And Samantha
In 1988, Michael Douglas won his first Academy Award for acting in the Oliver Stone film Wall Street (he’d already won one as a producer on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). A year later, Jodie Foster won her first Oscar for her work in the movie The Accused. So if you’d asked me a week ago if Michael Douglas and Jodie Foster had ever appeared in a film together, I’d have said sure, probably. They were both A-list stars who hit the upper echelons of their profession around the same time and continue to be huge to this day. I would not have guessed their paths crossed only once and very early on in the bizarro nature movie Napoleon And Samantha.
Napoleon And Samantha appears to be the brainchild of screenwriter Stewart Raffill. Raffill started his career as an animal supervisor. In that capacity, we’ve seen his work in this column before in movies like Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. and Monkeys, Go Home! In 1971, Raffill made his writing and directing debut with The Tender Warrior, an independently made animal adventure starring a pre-Grizzly Adams Dan Haggerty. It’s pretty lousy but Haggerty’s later fame ensured that it hung around kiddie matinees, school auditoriums and gymnasiums, and church basements for much of the 1970s.
Raffill was able to interest Disney and producer Winston Hibler in his script but evidently couldn’t convince them to let him direct (although he did get an associate producer credit). That job went to Bernard McEveety, whose younger brothers Joseph and Vincent have already appeared in this column a few times. Bernard was mainly a TV guy and always would be. He directed episodes of Gunsmoke, Combat, Trapper John M.D., Knight Rider and countless others. But for a few years in the early 70s, he followed his brothers into a brief theatrical detour at Disney. We’ll see his work again.
The Disney Machine has always worked in mysterious ways, so it’s difficult to retrace all the steps a relatively obscure movie like this made on its way to the screen. But Vincent McEveety had just directed The Biscuit Eater starring Johnny Whitaker. Whitaker probably had a three-picture contract at Disney. His next movie just so happened to be Napoleon And Samantha, directed by Bernard McEveety. If I had to guess, I’d assume Johnny was assigned to the picture first. Maybe Hibler tried to get Vincent to direct and he recommended his brother. I don’t know the exact chain of events but I’d be shocked if it was a coincidence. It’s a small world but it ain’t that small.
Regardless of how it worked out, Winston Hibler and Bernard McEveety were able to assemble an impressive cast for this oddity. Michael Douglas was obviously born into show business but he hadn’t been acting all that long when he was cast in Napoleon And Samantha and movies like Hail, Hero!, Adam At 6 A.M. and Summertree weren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Napoleon And Samantha probably didn’t do a whole lot for his career, either. His breakthrough role came a few months later on the hit cop show The Streets Of San Francisco. Douglas also would have been in the early stages of putting Cuckoo’s Nest together around this time, which is kind of fun to imagine.
Jodie Foster would have been about 9 years old when she made Napoleon And Samantha and she’d already been in the business for more than half her life. She made her Disney debut in Menace On The Mountain, a 1970 two-parter on The Wonderful World Of Disney directed by Vincent McEveety. Napoleon And Samantha was her first feature film after amassing a lengthy resume of TV and commercial credits. She’ll be back in this column several times.
Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster play the title characters but they’re billed beneath Douglas and Will Geer. Geer had a long, fascinating career dating back to the 1930s when he was on tour with folk singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and fellow Disney alum Burl Ives. His activism made him a target for the House Committee on Un-American Activities and he was blacklisted for a time in the ‘50s. Like Michael Douglas, Geer also found fame on a TV show that premiered in September 1972, starring as Grandpa Walton on The Waltons, a role he’d play until his death in 1978.
Coincidentally, Grandma Walton also appears in Napoleon And Samantha. Ellen Corby was a familiar character actress who’d been Oscar nominated for her role in 1948’s I Remember Mama. Since then, she’d turned up in dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows including Disney’s The Gnome-Mobile. The Waltons became one of those transformative shows that overshadow everything else the cast has ever done. Corby suffered a stroke in 1976 but recovered and returned to the show just before Geer’s death. She’d continue to play Grandma Walton until her own death in 1999.
Napoleon and Samantha are best friends who live in an idyllic small town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Napoleon lives with his grandfather (Geer), who regales him with tall tales of his adventures. Samantha’s parents are frequently absent, so she’s cared for by the family’s housekeeper, Gertrude (Corby). They spend their afternoons stealing empty bottles from the general store that they immediately return to the shopkeeper (Henry Jones from Rascal) for the deposit money.
One evening, Napoleon and his grandfather go to the movies (Disney’s Treasure Island is playing, naturally). On their way home, they encounter an aging clown camped out with the remnants of his circus. (That’s Vito Scotti, last heard from as Italian Cat in The AristoCats, as Dimitri the clown.) The circus has closed and Dimitri plans on going home to the old country but can’t take Major the lion with him.
Napoleon remembers that Grandpa once told him that he used to be a lion tamer and volunteers to take Major off Dimitri’s hands. Grandpa tries to get out of it (without actually admitting that he made the whole thing up) but Dimitri assures him that Major is tame as a kitten. Besides, he won’t cost much to feed since his teeth are so bad that he only drinks milk. Unable to think of a single reason why they shouldn’t accept a full-grown lion from a random clown they just met in the woods, Grandpa and Napoleon bring Major home and set him up in the chicken coop.
Things are OK for a little while until Grandpa reveals that he’s dying. He writes a letter to Napoleon’s only other living relative, an uncle in New York, and prepares the boy as best he can. But before you know it, the old man has passed away. Worse yet, his letter has been returned as undeliverable. Faced with the prospect of being sent to an orphanage and having Major taken away, Napoleon decides to keep his grandfather’s death a secret.
At this point, you might want to grab yourself a drink because from here on, things get weird. That’s right, stumbling across a clown and a lion in the middle of nowhere is not the weird part of this movie.
Napoleon wants to bury his grandfather up on the hill where they used to watch the sunset. But Samantha points out there’s no way two small children will be able to drag a six-foot corpse all the way up a hill, much less bury him. She suggests Napoleon go down to the employment office and hire somebody to help. That’s our Samantha. A real problem-solver, that one.
Down at the employment office, Napoleon meets Danny (Douglas), a freedom-loving poli-sci major who isn’t interested in steady work. He really just wants to earn enough to buy a five-dollar textbook. Napoleon’s got that much, so the two of them strike a bargain. Danny doesn’t seem too phased by having to bury an old man and hold a funeral for a couple of kids and a lion. But he’s not totally irresponsible because he doesn’t want to leave until he knows Napoleon will be taken care of. Samantha says he can come stay at her place and that’s good enough for Danny! He’s out the door and back up to his remote cabin in the woods with a “Hey, stop by if you’re ever in the area!”
Fooled ya, Danny! Napoleon has no intention of staying at Samantha’s house. He keeps on keeping on until old Amos the shopkeeper grows suspicious of the copious amounts of milk and candy Napoleon’s been buying. When Amos promises to stop by and check on his grandfather, Napoleon resolves to join Danny up at his cabin, taking the long way across the mountains. Samantha wants to make sure they’re OK, so she joins the perilous cross-country trek. The journey also gives Raffill a chance to show off a few more of his animals, including a mountain lion and a bear to wrestle with Major.
After a few days, Napoleon, Samantha and Major finally stumble across Danny sitting in the middle of a field reading a book, surrounded by goats. Danny is thrilled to see his new friends again. Really, words cannot express how happy he is. I wish someone would make a gif that really shows the sheer elation he’s feeling in this moment. Oh, wait! Somebody did!
Yeah, so anyway…after the initial thrill wears off, Danny’s a little mad that Napoleon lied to him. He tries to persuade him that the orphanage won’t be such a bad place and says that if he goes, Major can stay at the cabin with Danny. While Napoleon is mulling it over, Danny drives to town to let Gertrude know Samantha’s safe and sound. Of course, it wouldn’t be safe to leave the kids alone in the cabin (or just take them home, it seems) but not to worry. Danny’s new friend Mark the drifter (Rex Holman, presciently cosplaying as Jeffrey Dahmer) can take care of things!
The next day, Danny blithely knocks on Gertrude’s front door. Naturally, she calls the cops the second she sees who it is. The police haul Danny off to jail and Gertrude leads a mini-mob of gossiping locals after them. Between this and A Tiger Walks, there’s just something about big cats that brings out the worst in Disney townies. Danny, who is weirdly confident that this is all just a big misunderstanding for a guy who helped get rid of a body only a week ago, loses his cool when he spots Mark the drifter’s face on a wanted poster. Turns out, Mark is an escapee from a nearby insane asylum, which is something most people probably would have guessed the second they caught him creeping around outside their cabin peering in the window.
Danny is unable to convince the police chief (Arch Johnson) that he asked an escaped lunatic to babysit the kids. So he busts out of jail, steals a motorcycle and leads the cops on a chase back to the cabin. They arrive in the nick of time and even though Napoleon and Samantha are sad their little tie-up game was interrupted, they understand that the doctors have come to help Mark the drifter get better. Thanks, helicopter doctors!
All would seem to be well that ends well. Except that Napoleon’s thought things over and decided he and Major will be better off going to find a tribe of Indians to live with. Danny points out that they’ll be in for quite a hike since there aren’t any Indians left in the area (I mean, I’m sure there are but not in the romanticized sense Napoleon means, so point taken, Danny). After one more speech about the importance of family and more reassurance that Major can live with Danny in the cabin (and hopefully protect him from any more escaped mental patients), Napoleon agrees to go back home with Samantha.
Since I started this project, there have been a handful of movies that just kind of left me gobsmacked, wondering what the hell I had just watched. A Tiger Walks, Moon Pilot, even to some extent Perri and Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North have all been head-scratchers to some degree. Napoleon And Samantha may have them all beat. There just aren’t that many movies, Disney or otherwise, that have an adult hippie aiding and abetting two children in the disposal of a dead body in front of an ex-circus lion. Add in Michael Douglas, a preteen Jodie Foster, two Waltons and a probable child molester and you’ve got a recipe for wackiness.
It's hard to even say what McEveety and Raffill were going for with this movie. Raffill’s background would suggest that the focus should be on Major the lion and their incredible journey across country. But a relatively small portion of the film is dedicated to the trek. And there’s no reaction to a boy with an unusual pet the way there is in Rascal. Most people never even find out there is a lion. They’re only concerned about the alleged child abductions.
That said, Major (or Zamba, the lion who plays Major) is an impressive beast. He wrestles a bear, allows chickens to crawl all over him, drinks gallon after gallon of milk and even gives rides to Johnny and Jodie. He’s a huge, magnificent cat and every single time he was on screen, I tensed up a little bit, even though I knew this was a Disney movie and nothing was really going to happen.
As a matter of fact, something did happen. After one take, Zamba turned on Jodie and grabbed her, shaking her around like a rag doll. The animal supervisor, presumably Raffill, got Zamba to “drop it” and she was rushed to the hospital. Jodie Foster has lion scars on her back and stomach to this day thanks to Zamba. Nevertheless, she was right back at work as soon as she was able. Nobody has ever accused Jodie Foster of not being a true professional.
Napoleon And Samantha ended up being Stewart Raffill’s last Disney picture, though not necessarily because one of his lions almost killed Jodie Foster. He went back to independent pictures and, in 1975, wrote and directed The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family. That movie was a surprise hit and he followed it with the very similar Across The Great Divide. In the 1980s, Raffill directed The Ice Pirates, The Philadelphia Experiment and Paul Rudd’s favorite movie, the E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac And Me. In 1998, he made the Disney-adjacent The New Swiss Family Robinson, which I might cover in an upcoming installment of Disney Plus-Or-Minus+.
Released on July 5, 1972, Napoleon And Samantha wasn’t a huge hit with either critics or audiences. And yet, it still managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Buddy Baker’s original score. It was a peculiar year for that category and not just because Baker’s pleasant but forgettable music was in the mix. One of the five nominations, Nino Rota’s The Godfather, was withdrawn after the score was ruled ineligible. It was replaced by John Addison’s Sleuth, which is a better score than Napoleon And Samantha, if you ask me. In the end, Baker, Addison, and John Williams (nominated for both Images and The Poseidon Adventure) all lost to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, a film that had been made 20 years earlier but was able to compete because it had never played theatrically in Los Angeles until its 1972 re-release. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how Napoleon And Samantha stood out enough to get a nomination in this crowded and confusing landscape.
Napoleon And Samantha is a weird little movie and I know full well that things are only going to get stranger as Disney plunges deeper into the 1970s. The studio didn’t want to stray far from the established genres they were known for: gimmick comedies, the occasional animated effort, and nature movies were all forms they knew inside and out. But their attempts at making something the same but different occasionally resulted in flailing, misguided efforts like this one. It might not be a very good movie but hey, at least nobody got hurt. Except for Jodie Foster, of course, but hey, she’s fine.
VERDICT: Disney WTF?