Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Smith!
According to the 2010 Census, Smith remains the most common surname in the United States. It’s a name most of us encounter every day. If you’re not a Smith yourself, odds are you probably know one. But even if your name is Smith, I can guarantee you’ve never heard “Smith” said as frequently as you will in the 1969 film Smith! If you made it a drinking game, you would be passed out cold within the first hour.
The addition of the exclamation point does not make Smith! a more exciting title. The movie is based on the book Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre, so I get why producer Bill Anderson, screenwriter Louis Pelletier and director Michael O’Herlihy decided to change the title. Why they chose to change it to something that sounds like a musical or a 60s spy movie, I couldn’t tell you. It certainly suggests an energy level that’s totally misaligned with the movie itself.
Paul St. Pierre was a Canadian writer and journalist who specialized in tales of British Columbia. At the time Smith! was released in 1969, he was also a Member of Parliament representing Coast Chilcotin. His political career was short-lived, however. After losing his re-election bid in 1972, he returned to writing and continued to be a popular columnist for the Vancouver Sun for many years.
A number of St. Pierre’s stories revolved around a rancher named Smith (no first name, just Smith) and his friendship with an Indian called Ol’ Antoine. St. Pierre himself had already brought Smith to the screen on the short-lived Canadian TV series Cariboo Country. David Hughes, who would later go on to appear on the Disney-adjacent Anne Of Green Gables, starred as Smith and Chief Dan George played Ol’ Antoine, a role he’d reprise in Smith! Cariboo Country was the Indigenous actor’s screen debut at the age of 65. The year after Smith! hit theatres, he’d be nominated for an Oscar thanks to his role in Little Big Man. We’ll see him again in this column.
Disney tapped screen legend Glenn Ford to star as Smith, his first and only gig for the studio. Ford wasn’t quite as big a star as he’d been at his 1950s peak. He’d started the 60s with a couple of expensive flops like Cimarron and The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. But he made a bit of a comeback with Frank Capra’s 1961 comedy Pocketful Of Miracles, on which he was also an associate producer. Ford’s genial, everyman charm is a good fit for Disney, so it’s kind of strange that he only made one picture at the studio.
As the movie opens, Smith is returning home after spending a few days rounding up some wayward cattle. His wife, Norah (Nancy Olson from Pollyanna and the Flubber saga), and son, Alpie (Christopher Shea, best known as the original voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials), have some troubling news for Smith (everybody calls him Smith, even his son). An Indian named Gabriel Jimmyboy (Colombian actor Frank Ramírez) has been accused of murdering a white man in a bar fight. Norah suspects that Ol’ Antoine has brought Gabriel to their land and is hiding out with him in an old shack near the edge of their property.
On his way out to the shack, Smith runs into sheriff’s deputy Vince Heber (Keenan Wynn, playing a rather more serious villain than Flubber’s Alonzo P. Hawk). Vince wants to go over Smith’s place with a pair of bloodhounds but Smith puts him off by demanding he get a warrant first. Smith faces Gabriel Jimmyboy unarmed and tries to persuade him to turn himself in, confident that a jury will find he acted in justifiable self-defense. Both Gabriel and Ol’ Antoine scoff at Smith’s naïve belief that an Indian could ever receive a fair trial from an all-white jury.
But it isn’t only the whites who are interested in Gabriel Jimmyboy. The police have offered a $500 reward to anyone who can bring him in. The scent of money attracts the attention of fast-talking sleazeball and part-time translator Walter Charlie (played by the great Warren Oates, who might not be the last person I expected to pop up in a Disney movie but he’s close). Walter Charlie offers to split the money with Smith but, needless to say, Smith can’t be bought.
Smith encourages Ol’ Antoine to turn in Gabriel and use the reward to hire a decent lawyer. Ol’ Antoine does collect the cash but Walter Charlie intercepts him and convinces him to buy a used convertible for $499.95 instead. As a result, Gabriel is stuck with an inexperienced public defender (Roger Ewing) who can barely communicate with his client.
At last, Gabriel Jimmyboy gets his day in court (Oscar winner Dean Jagger appears as the judge, another one-and-done Disney appearance). Everyone eagerly awaits the testimony of Ol’ Antoine with Smith serving as translator. But instead of saying anything at all about the night in question, Ol’ Antoine launches into a lengthy monologue about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War, concluding with his famous quote, “I will fight no more forever.”
It's stirring stuff and evidently has the intended effect, as the case is soon dismissed. The only person who seems less than thrilled by this decision is our old pal Vince Heber. But instead of limiting his comments to the fact that Ol’ Antoine’s testimony seems irrelevant at best (you know you’ve made a misstep when your audience starts thinking, “Y’know, that horrible racist kind of has a point.”), he goes off on an anti-Indian tirade. Smith blows his top and decks him in open court.
The judge slaps Smith with a $50 fine and 30 days in jail. Now how will Smith get his hay crop in?! With Smith locked up, Ol’ Antoine stages a sit-in on the courthouse steps. Gabriel’s useless public defender finally decides to do something and sticks up for Smith, somehow managing to get the judge to reconsider. Finally, Smith gets out of jail and returns to the ranch where all the Indians have gathered to help with the hay and to fulfill Ol’ Antoine’s long-delayed promise to break little Alpie’s horse. You see? St. Pierre’s original title turned out to have something to do with the story after all!
Obviously this isn’t the first time Disney has tried to deal with Indigenous peoples in a sympathetic light. But after such well-intentioned but deeply flawed efforts like The Light In The Forest and Tonka, you can understand why I approached Smith! with some trepidation. The good news is that there’s not much here that’s overtly cringe-worthy. Sure, it’s a little hard to swallow Warren Oates as a Native American but they’re getting better in terms of representation. In addition to Chief Dan George, the cast also includes Jay Silverheels, perhaps one of the best-known Indigenous actors of his generation thanks to his lengthy tenure as Tonto opposite Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger. Hey, at least they’re trying, which is more than they were doing ten years earlier.
The problem with Smith! (well, one of the problems…there are a few) is I have no idea who this movie was even made for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a subdued, methodical approach but if this movie was any more low-key, it would fade off the screen altogether. The story’s inciting incident, Gabriel Johnnyboy’s fight with Sam Hardy, takes place before the movie even starts and we never get a really clear idea of just what went down. It’s tough to care about the outcome of a courtroom drama when you’re not given enough information to decide how you feel about the accused.
The fact that Smith! does eventually morph into a courtroom drama is a sign that O’Herlihy, Anderson and Pelletier were aiming at a somewhat older audience. Studios don’t tend to make a lot of courtroom dramas for the 10-and-under crowd. But they never fully commit to making a movie for grownups, either. Every so often, as if by royal decree, the movie checks in with Alpie and his Native American buddy, Peterpaul (Ricky Cordell). These scenes do nothing to advance the narrative. They exist solely to cater to junior Disney fans who would otherwise have absolutely nothing else to relate to.
Not that older audiences fare much better. Smith! is a contemporary western only in the sense that it takes place in the west, it’s about Native Americans and we see a few horses. There’s no action to speak of, no tense showdowns, no magnificent landscapes. The “posse” in pursuit of Gabriel Jimmyboy consists of two guys and two dogs and they end up tracking Gabriel straight back to the police station where the fugitive has already turned himself in. My, what a thrilling chase.
One of Smith!’s biggest miscalculations is Smith’s wife, Norah. In her previous Disney outings, Nancy Olson was a charming and funny presence opposite stars like Fred MacMurray and Hayley Mills. Here, Louis Pelletier’s script turns her into an unlikable harridan, eternally annoyed by her husband and practically tearing her hair out over the stress of their money woes. She’s also not a fan of Smith’s friendship with the Natives. She declares early on, “I’m so fed up with Indians!” Not a great look, Norah.
Weirdly, the movie Smith! reminded me of most was Tom Laughlin’s 1971 hit Billy Jack. Both movies attempt to reform the traditional screen image of Native Americans and both get very, very confused along the way. Try to imagine a G-rated version of Billy Jack with almost no violence and you’d end up with something like Smith! You’d also end up with a movie that most people aren’t going to want to see.
Adding to the Billy Jack feel is the title song, “The Ballad of Smith and Gabriel Jimmyboy”, written and performed by Bobby Russell. Russell was a singer-songwriter in the country-folk-pop arena who had some minor hits as a solo artist. But his best-known songs were recorded by other artists. Roger Miller (who will appear in this column eventually) had a crossover hit with “Little Green Apples”. And in 1973, Russell’s then-wife Vicki Lawrence went all the way to number one with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”.
(Vicki Lawrence would go on to do a voice in the DTV sequel The Fox And The Hound 2 and appear on multiple episodes of Hannah Montana but strangely never appeared in anything that qualifies for this column. That’s crazy to me. If anybody seems like they should have been in a live-action Disney comedy of the 70s, it’s Vicki Lawrence.)
Smith! was released to theatres on May 9, 1969, to general indifference. It would be the last Disney assignment for director Michael O’Herlihy, whose work for the studio represented his only theatrical feature films. O’Herlihy went back to TV after Smith! and never looked back. His last credit was a 1988 episode of Hunter. He passed away back home in Ireland at the age of 69 in 1997.
There’s one other person worth mentioning who was allegedly involved in the production of Smith! According to IMDb, a young Melanie Griffith made her screen debut as an extra in the film. I don’t know that I necessarily believe that. Griffith would have been around 11 years old at the time. Her parents were Tippi Hedren and former actor turned advertising executive Peter Griffith. Her stepfather was agent Noel Marshall (the family would later make the notorious Roar, which is kind of like a Disney nature movie on acid). So it’s certainly possible that Melanie was already going out for small parts in things like Smith! But no one in her family had any particular connection to Disney and Melanie wouldn’t appear on screen again until 1973’s The Harrad Experiment. At any rate, I certainly didn’t spot Melanie Griffith in Smith! and she won’t be returning to this column. Her next brush with Disney came after the formation of Touchstone Pictures.
Smith! is one of the lesser lights in the Disney back catalog. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Believe it or not, I always hope that these more obscure titles turn out to be hidden gems worthy of rediscovery. Instead, Smith! is one of those movies that makes a project like this a bit of a slog.
VERDICT!: Disney! Minus!