Disney Plus-Or-Minus: No Deposit, No Return
Disney’s decision to sign Don Knotts to a multi-picture contract began to pay off immediately. His first film for the studio, The Apple Dumpling Gang, became the tenth highest-grossing film of 1975, a bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty dismal year. For a follow-up, the studio put him in something more contemporary, the crime comedy No Deposit, No Return. Knotts received third billing but the bumbling sidekick role gave him plenty of opportunities to go full Knotts.
The story was credited to Disney veteran Joe McEveety, although his main inspiration would appear to be thumbing through a book of O. Henry stories and mashing two of them together. The first, The Ransom Of Red Chief, had already been adapted several times for film and television. The movie also borrows its climax from A Retrieved Reformation, a slightly more obscure story that had been in vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century thanks to a play adaptation called Alias Jimmy Valentine. The play’s success led to three official movies, both silents and talkies, and a radio show. Of course, O. Henry’s name is nowhere to be found in the credits for No Deposit, No Return. So maybe McEveety just coincidentally came up with a story that sounds a lot like two unrelated O. Henry stories.
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McEveety and producer Ron Miller assigned the project to a new writing team, Arthur Alsberg and Don Nelson. Like so many Disney writers, Alsberg and Nelson cut their teeth in radio and television. Nelson was the brother of Ozzie Nelson and he’d been a writer and producer on The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet. He and Alsberg, a veteran comedy writer who’d worked for Danny Thomas, Milton Berle and others, started working together in the late 60s on sitcoms like The Doris Day Show. No Deposit, No Return would be the first of several Disney assignments for the pair.
Unfortunately, it would be one of the last completed projects for McEveety, who had been working at the studio in various capacities since 1957. He died on October 15, 1976, eight months after the release of No Deposit, No Return. He was just 50 years old. McEveety will make one more appearance in this column, receiving a posthumous writing credit on another Don Knotts comedy.
The project reunited Knotts with his Apple Dumpling Gang director, Norman Tokar. Tokar had started off making animal pictures like Big Red and nostalgic period pieces such as Follow Me, Boys! Now he had become the studio’s go-to guy for big, broad contemporary comedies like The Boatniks and Snowball Express. The trouble is he really wasn’t as good at comedy as he was with drama. Even so, No Deposit, No Return fit squarely within the round hole Disney kept trying to stuff him into.
The Apple Dumpling Gang had created a new comedy team with Knotts and Tim Conway. This time, Knotts’ partner was the somewhat unlikelier Darren McGavin. These days, McGavin’s deft handling of comedic material is well-established, thanks in no small part to annual marathons of A Christmas Story. But in 1976, he wasn’t exactly known for family movies. He’d done a lot of work on stage and television in series that typically didn’t last long. At the time, he was just coming off the latest of these, the short-lived but now extremely beloved Kolchak: The Night Stalker. McGavin had already done some TV work for Disney, starring in 1968’s Boomerang, Dog Of Many Talents and 1972’s The High Flying Spy on The Wonderful World Of Disney. He must not have had a problem with the studio. We’ll see him again.
But the marquee name on No Deposit, No Return is David Niven. Niven had lived a lot of lives by 1976. He’d come to America in 1933 after a few years of military service in England left him bored and restless. Starting in films as an extra, he worked his way from bit player to supporting actor to leading man. His movie career was interrupted by a return home to England, rejoining the British Army to serve with distinction in World War II. After the war, his acting career faltered a bit but he eventually became a bigger star than ever starring as Phileas Fogg in the megahit Around The World In 80 Days. At 66, Niven was settling comfortably into the Debonair Raconteur phase of his career, publishing books and charming talk show hosts with stories like the time a streaker interrupted his presentation live at the Academy Awards.
Niven was cast as J.W. Osborne, the ultrarich grandfather of Tracy (Kim Richards from Escape To Witch Mountain) and Jay Osborne (Brad Savage from The Apple Dumpling Gang). Tracy and Jay spend most of their year at an elite Connecticut boarding school. Their Easter vacation gets off to a rocky start when their nanny, Miss Murdock (Ruth Manning), picks them up and informs them their magazine editor mother is unable to get away from work in Hong Kong. Worse yet, Miss Murdock is about to start her own vacation in Bermuda. So the kids and Jay’s pet skunk, Duster, are deposited on a flight to Los Angeles to spend two weeks with their irascible grandfather.
Osborne is no happier about the arrangement than the kids, prepping for the visit by instructing his butler Jameson (John Williams, the British character actor, not the composer) to crate up all the fine China, irreplaceable statues and Ming vases to keep them safe while Jay and Tracy wreak havoc. He, Jameson and chauffeur Peter (Bob Hastings, last seen as a reporter in Charley And The Angel and later the voice of Commissioner Gordon on Batman: The Animated Series) head to the airport like men prepared to fight a battle they know they’ll lose.
Also on their way to the airport that night are safecracker Duke (McGavin) and his wheelman, Bert (Knotts). Duke has a reputation as one of the best safecrackers in the business. He’s also one of the unluckiest, as every job fails to provide even a modest payday. Duke’s trying to go straight but his garage is failing and he owes thousands to gangster Big Joe (Vic Tayback, soon to reprise his role as diner owner Mel Sharples on Alice, the sitcom adaptation of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). With that in mind, Duke has dusted off his safecracking kit to try for one last score.
On the plane, Tracy uses the in-flight magazine to map out an alternative to staying in their grandfather’s gilded cage. From LA, they should be able to hop a flight to Honolulu and from there, go on to Hong Kong as a big surprise for mom. The only obstacle in their way is the price of the tickets (and, presumably, the fact that they’re a couple of unaccompanied minors traveling without passports but hey, one thing at a time). But before they’re able to set their plan in action, Jay discovers that Duster has gotten loose on board the plane. The threat of a wild skunk sends the passengers stampeding toward the exit, causing chaos at the gate.
Meanwhile, Duke’s luck looks like it’s about to change. For once, he’s picked a winner. The airport safe is loaded with cash. But an alarm triggered by the skunk hysteria currently gripping the airport causes Duke and Bert to panic. The door to the safe slams shut before they can lift so much as a dollar. Quickly shedding their disguises, they hightail it out of the office, assuming the swarming cops and security guards are looking for them.
In fact, they’re trying to hunt down Tracy and Jay, who have recaptured Duster and are doing their best to avoid being spotted by either Jameson or their grandfather. They don’t realize that Osborne is sitting comfortably in his limousine, watching the madness from afar. He sees the kids get into the back of a taxi at the same time as Duke and Bert, whose VW Bug has been towed after Bert parked in a loading zone. Rather than lift a finger to collect the children, Jameson instructs Peter to follow the cab at a discreet distance.
They arrive at Duke’s garage where Tracy guilts the two crooks into letting them spend the night. Since the kids seem fine, Osborne posts Peter as a lookout and heads home, glad to have a reprieve before the little hellions descend on his house. Upstairs, Duke and Bert are welcomed by Big Joe, there to collect his $9,000. But thanks to interest and fees (you can’t argue with the computer, clickety-click, clickety-click), Duke now owes 11 grand. Big Joe gives him 72 hours to come up with the dough or else.
That night, Tracy has an idea that could solve everyone’s problems. She mails a ransom note to her grandfather, maintaining that she and Jay have been kidnapped by desperate criminals and demanding $100,000 for their release. Duke wants no part of this plan. But Tracy argues that since the kids kidnapped themselves, Duke and Bert should be able to avoid felony charges.
Osborne receives the letter and immediately realizes who sent it. He intends to do absolutely nothing about it other than enjoy the peace and quiet. When the money fails to materialize at the appointed time, Tracy turns up the heat by calling the police. Realizing they’re a part of this scheme now whether they want to be or not, Duke sends another ransom note to Osborne, lowering the asking price.
The cops assign the case to Sgt. Turner (Herschel Bernardi) and his Academy-educated junior partner, Longnecker (Charles Martin Smith, then still credited as “Charlie”, in his Disney debut). Turner doesn’t want the case. He’s devoted years to hunting down that unlucky safecracker and he’s convinced the airport job was pulled by the same guy. When Longnecker suggests that the safecracker could be involved with the kidnapping, Turner waves the idea away as speculative nonsense.
Tracy’s police call has one other unintended consequence. The cops notify the kids’ mom, Carolyn (Barbara Feldon from Get Smart), who immediately flies home from Hong Kong. This is a particular inconvenience for Osborne, who not only has to start pretending he cares what happens to the kids, he has to lie about the fact that he’s known exactly where they are this whole time.
Turner has what he believes is a foolproof plan to catch the crooks. Disguised in a latex David Niven mask (whose nose has to be torn off to accommodate his own enormous schnoz), he and Longnecker arrive at the pier where the swap is to take place. But Duke smells a rat when the real Osborne shows up and Carolyn leaps into their car. If you think that means it’s time for another Elaborate Disney Car Chase, then you’ve seen a few of these before, haven’t you?
While Duke, Bert and Carolyn try to escape and Turner and Longnecker’s car is slowly but steadily demolished bit by bit, the kids have problems of their own. Big Joe saw a news report on the kidnapping, recognized Tracy and Jay, and has decided to re-kidnap them. Fortunately, Jay has taken precautionary steps of his own. Concerned over Duke and Bert’s lack of security, he’s rigged the apartment with a series of Home Alone-style booby traps. Big Joe and his thug are soon left dangling from the ceiling and the kids hightail it over to their grandfather’s house. Meanwhile, Osborne’s decided this has gone far enough and heads over to Duke’s garage himself to retrieve the kids. Sure enough, he also lands in one of Jay’s traps.
The kids arrive at Osborne’s estate and discover the wall safe has been left open. Not realizing their mom is already in town, they head inside to grab enough cash for their trip to Hong Kong and to pay off Duke’s debts. While they’re in there, Jameson returns to the study and locks the safe, sealing them inside with a limited air supply.
Duke, Bert, Carolyn and Sgt. Turner have also tracked the kids down to Osborne’s place (thanks to a Chinese restaurant owner played by the great James Hong!). When they discover Duster in the house, they follow him back to the safe. While the safe is a tough one, Duke thinks he might be able to open it. But not without revealing who he is to the increasingly suspicious Turner. With no other options, Turner swallows Duke’s lie about having once worked for a safe company and encourages him to go to work. Once the kids are rescued, Turner turns a blind eye to Duke’s past misdeeds, agreeing that the master safecracker he’d spent years pursuing must have retired.
In the end, all’s well that ends well. Carolyn realizes she’s put too much focus on her career and vows to slow down and spent more time with her kids. Tracy negotiates a loan from her grandfather for Duke that saves the garage. There are intimations that Duke and Carolyn might have a future together. And even Osborne lightens up, shooting model rockets through the house and giving judo lessons to Jay.
This will come as a total shock but I did not have high hopes going in to No Deposit, No Return. So maybe chalk it up to low expectations but I kind of enjoyed this one. It sounds weird to say this about a G-rated Disney movie from 1976 but it had an ever-so-slightly darker edge than I was expecting. It reminded me a bit of a later, Disney-adjacent variation on The Ransom Of Red Chief, the R-rated comedy Ruthless People from Touchstone. Obviously No Deposit, No Return doesn’t go nearly as far as that later movie. But it’s still surprising and fun to see David Niven cavalierly playing a grandfather who’s in no hurry to get his grandkids back from kidnappers. In a way, that’s a harder act to pull off. We’re used to seeing married couples fight but grandparents are supposed to dote on their grandkids’ every move, especially in Disney movies. Niven being Niven, he can pull off a role like this without coming across as instantly despicable.
In Niven’s defense, these kids are a lot, ignoring most of the boundaries set by their ineffectual guardians. Richards and Savage don’t seem much like brother and sister, especially compared to their Witch Mountain and Apple Dumpling siblings, so the pairing comes across as a particularly random example of Disney’s Mix & Match approach to casting. Savage comes perilously close to a Kevin Corcoran level of irritation at times but, for the most part, both he and Richards stay at a reasonable level of precociousness.
McGavin and Knotts aren’t exactly a comedy team for the ages but the oddball combination works. McGavin’s beaten-down, hangdog demeanor contrasts well with Knotts’ livewire energy and nervousness. Tokar also creates a few slapstick setpieces that showcase Knotts’ gift for physical comedy, especially an extended sequence with Bert and Jay climbing all over a building and a neighboring construction site after Duster tries to escape.
Tokar has improved as a comedy director, although he still hasn’t learned when to say enough is enough. The chase after the skunk feels even longer than it is, partly because the sequence literally has nothing to do with the rest of the story and also because this is not the first or last time everybody ends up chasing after Duster. The car chase also feels long but it’s a little more forgivable thanks to the sheer absurdity of the destruction.
No Deposit, No Return opened on February 11, 1976. Critics were far from enthusiastic about it but relatively few seemed to outright hate it. But audiences did not show up in the same numbers as they had for Knotts’ previous Disney outing. The film sank into obscurity quickly, despite being an above-average example of its type. Even so, the studio wasn’t about to lose faith in Don Knotts. He’ll be back in this column almost immediately.
VERDICT: I had enough fun with it that I’ll call it a minor Disney Plus.
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Beverly Hills Brats has a similar plot, with Peter Billingsley hiring Burt Young to kidnap him, hoping the ransom will get the attention of father Martin Sheen. Brats makes No Deposit look like Citizen Kane.