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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Apple Dumpling Gang
Don Knotts was 50 years old when he made his Disney debut in The Apple Dumpling Gang. He had already won five Emmy Awards for his role as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. He’d also successfully made the transition to feature films with movies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet and The Ghost And Mr. Chicken. But by 1975, he’d reached a bit of an impasse. His return to television, as host of the comedy/variety show The Don Knotts Show, fizzled out after a single season. And an attempt at reaching a more adult audience with the comedy The Love God? had been a major flop. So if Don Knotts was going to be stuck making family films anyway, why not go to the studio that was synonymous with family entertainment?
I’m not sure who exactly had the idea to team Don Knotts up with Tim Conway. Conway had made his Disney debut a few years earlier in The World’s Greatest Athlete. The Apple Dumpling Gang was produced by Bill Anderson and directed by Norman Tokar, back at Disney after briefly defecting to make Where The Red Fern Grows for producer Lyman Dayton. Neither of them had anything to do with The World’s Greatest Athlete as far as I can tell but even so, let’s assume it was one of those guys. Knotts had made a guest appearance on a fourth season episode of Conway’s star-making sitcom McHale’s Navy (also featuring Disney star Joe Flynn) so it’s not like they’d never met before. But The Apple Dumpling Gang was their real debut as a comedic duo. The combination worked. They went on to appear in several films together both at Disney and independently.
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The screenplay by Don Tait (most recently responsible for The Castaway Cowboy) was based on a 1971 novel by Jack M. Bickham. Bickham was a prolific writer of westerns, mysteries and nonfiction works on the craft of fiction writing. His novel Baker’s Hawk became a movie in 1976 directed by the aforementioned Lyman Dayton, who was apparently trying very hard to elbow his way into the G-rated western business during the 1970s.
Don Knotts and Tim Conway are easily the most memorable actors in The Apple Dumpling Gang but they’re not the stars of the show. Bill Bixby had become a TV star on such shows as My Favorite Martian and The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father (not to mention the cult favorite The Magician). The Apple Dumpling Gang was not only Bixby’s only appearance in a Disney film, it would prove to be one of his last feature film credits period. But his career thrived on television both as an actor (most notably on The Incredible Hulk) and director. In 1982, he returned to Disney to direct a few episodes of the short-lived TV series Herbie, The Love Bug. Sadly, Bixby passed away in 1993 from prostate cancer at the much-too-young age of 59.
Susan Clark was a Canadian actress who got her start on British television. In 1967, she made her Hollywood debut in Banning, a drama set against the thrilling backdrop of the PGA Tour. Since then, she’d bounced back and forth between TV and movies, appearing in films like Coogan’s Bluff with Clint Eastwood and Airport 1975 with just about everybody else. The Apple Dumpling Gang was Clark’s first Disney film but it won’t be her last. She’ll be back in this column.
Bixby stars as Russell Donovan, a professional gambler (though seemingly not a very good one since we see him lose several times) who stops in Quake City, a mining town whose supply of gold seems to have run dry, on his way to New Orleans. He’s on a losing streak at the card table when someone he knows walks in. John Wintle (Don Knight) is about to skip town and head to San Francisco but first, he needs a favor. He’s expecting a delivery of some “valuables” on the next day’s stagecoach. If Donovan agrees to pick them up, Wintle promises to share the wealth and gives him five dollars on account. Desperate for the five-spot, Donovan agrees.
The next morning, Donovan meets the stage, driven by Magnolia Dusty Clydesdale (Clark). It turns out that Wintle’s valuables are three orphan kids, Bobby (Clay O’Brien from One Little Indian), Clovis (Brad Savage in his first of several Disney films), and Celia (Stacy Manning, who never made another movie after this). Donovan argues that Wintle didn’t say anything about kids but Sheriff and local barber Homer McCoy (Harry Morgan, shaving down his Snowball Express beard to a stylish handlebar mustache) holds him to the deal he struck.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Donovan proves to be spectacularly ill-suited at taking care of children. But after his attempts to hire them out (or possibly sell them outright) to various townsfolk fail, he decides to simply let them roam freely while he spends his days playing cards at the local saloon.
On one of their outings, the kids find the abandoned mine owned by their late father. While they’re exploring, the mine is struck by one of the area’s frequent earthquakes. The cave-in temporarily traps them but it also exposes a massive gold nugget. The gold turns out to be worth a fortune. Suddenly, the kids nobody wanted are the most popular folks in town.
Meanwhile, on the fringes of all this we have bumbling outlaws Theodore Ogelvie (Knotts) and Amos Tucker (Conway). Former members of the notorious Stillwell Gang, Theodore and Amos have been trying to rob Donovan ever since he rode into town. But when the kids deposit their gold in the bank’s safe, they set their sights higher. Unfortunately, their attempt at breaking and entering leaves them trussed up and dangling from the skylight. McCoy quickly finds them guilty and orders them to be sure and report back to be hung the next day, simultaneously fearing that they might actually be stupid enough to do just that.
News of a major gold discovery travels fast and reaches the ears of John Wintle. He returns to Quake City to claim the kids and their gold. Donovan has grown slightly fond of the orphans and, at McCoy’s suggestion, marries Dusty so they can formally adopt them. But the fact that Wintle is a blood relative carries more weight and the kids have no choice but to make plans to leave with him.
There’s also a third party interested in the gold: Frank Stillwell himself (welcome back, Slim Pickens!). Stillwell, who still carries a grudge against Amos for accidentally shooting him in the leg, disguises himself as a priest to find out when the gold will be moved from Dusty’s drunken father, Colonel Clydesdale (David Wayne). Stillwell takes this information back to his gang and prepares for what he assumes will be an easy job.
However, the kids have come up with a plan of their own. They find Theodore and Amos in their hideout and ask them to steal the gold. There’s theoretically no risk since the gold belongs to them in the first place. If they want to give it to Theodore and Amos, that’s their prerogative. All they need to do is get it out of the bank and it’s theirs.
Things start going wrong quickly as the kids spot Stillwell strong-arming the bank manager. Not wanting to attract the attention of the sheriff, Stillwell and his gang grab the kids and hustle them inside the bank. Just as Stillwell is about to grab the gold, Theodore and Amos come in the back. Stillwell is ready to get even with his old associates but when Clovis kicks his bad leg, things escalate quickly.
The grand finale follows the by-now familiar Disney template, albeit with more guns than usual. Stillwell takes Celia hostage and makes a break for it but Donovan and Dusty are able to rescue her and capture the bad guy. Meanwhile, Theodore and Amos find themselves trapped in the bank with a volatile stick of dynamite, targeted by the posse who think they’re members of the Stillwell Gang. The dynamite explodes, destroying both the bank and the gold but not Amos and Theodore, who locked themselves in the safe for protection.
In the end, Donovan and Dusty decide to stay married and move to New Orleans with the kids. On their way out of town, they run into Theodore and Amos, who ask if they can tag along. Even by Disney standards, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience being happy that these seven people found each other and formed some kind of quasi-family. But these movies have to end somewhere and I guess that’s as good a place as any.
Without Tim Conway and Don Knotts, The Apple Dumpling Gang would be just another in a very long line of forgettable Disney westerns. It seems clear that Tokar figured that out early on. There are a number of scenes, including their introductory attempt at robbing Donovan, that feel like they were added later. Several critics at the time felt the Knotts/Conway shenanigans should have been trimmed down. These critics are insane. Without the shenanigans, there is no movie here.
Bill Bixby is a fine, affable actor and there’s nothing wrong with his work here. I’ve also enjoyed Susan Clark’s work and she’s fun to watch, especially in scenes that allow her to cut loose. But the two of them have no chemistry either with each other or with the kids. Nobody cares if Donovan and Dusty get together and nobody really cares what happens to the kids.
As for the kids themselves, screenwriter Don Tait didn’t put a whole lot of effort into their characters. Each of them seems to have exactly one defining character trait. Celia needs to go to the bathroom a lot. Clovis kicks people because he doesn’t like to be touched. And Bobby…well, Bobby’s the oldest. It’s hard to make a meal out of soup this thin.
The problem isn’t that the characters are barely two-dimensional. It’s that there’s too many of them. The movie would be a lot snappier without Donovan and Dusty. Let’s just have Theodore and Amos get stuck with the kids and see how they deal with them. The movie doesn’t need less Knotts and Conway. It needs more. They’re a genuinely funny team and the movie only sparks when they’re front and center.
Whatever other shortcomings The Apple Dumpling Gang may have, Tim Conway and Don Knotts are amusing enough to make it a pleasant and memorable watch. Audiences certainly enjoyed it, regardless of the reviews. The movie opened in early July 1975 and went on to be Disney’s highest grossing film of the year. That was both good news and bad news for the studio. On the plus side, it was a low-budget film that (barely) cracked the list of the ten highest grossing movies of the year. Its success ensured that we’d be seeing Don Knotts and Tim Conway together again.
But the number one movie that year was Jaws and it made a lot, lot, LOT more than The Apple Dumpling Gang. Disney’s movie didn’t do much better than its nearest competitor for the family market, The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family, an independent film cowritten and directed by Stewart Raffill of Napoleon And Samantha. Increasingly, filmmakers were taking pages from Disney’s playbook and either beating them at their own game or coming awfully close. Eventually, even Don Knotts and Tim Conway would jump ship and do the same. But not yet. Knotts and Conway will ride again.
VERDICT: It’s not great but hey, it’s gonna be a minute before we see another great movie in this column, so let’s say it’s Disney Plus-ish.
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