Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
In one of my favorite episodes of the now Disney-owned The Simpsons (a phrase that causes my soul to die a little every time I type it), Homer succinctly sums up the week’s events as “just a bunch of stuff that happened”. I can think of no better description for The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, the final Disney outing for the homegrown comedy team of Tim Conway and Don Knotts. And while it would be nice to say the boys went out in a blaze of glory, it would not be entirely accurate.
The Apple Dumpling Gang had been a surprise hit for Disney back in 1975, so a sequel was inevitable, especially since the studio no longer had any compunctions about churning out follow-ups to their most popular flicks. But apart from Conway and Knotts, none of the other members of the gang saddled up for round two. Bill Bixby was busy on Marvel’s TV sensation, The Incredible Hulk. Susan Clark had moved over to The North Avenue Irregulars. And two of the three kids, Clay O’Brien and Stacy Manning, had left acting altogether. The third, Brad Savage, had recently appeared in Return From Witch Mountain and was currently starring as Danny Glick in Tobe Hooper’s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
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The absence of Donovan, Dusty and the kids is waved away early on. It seems the makeshift family has settled down on a farm, living an idyllic life that bores the tears out of Amos Tucker (Conway) and Theodore Ogilvie (Knotts). So the pair climbed aboard Amos’s faithful mule, Clarice, and have ridden off to find their fortune. How they intend to do that isn’t entirely clear, since they’ve also declared their intention to go straight. But long-term planning was never Amos and Theodore’s strong suit.
Behind the scenes, nothing much had changed. Don Tait, Disney’s current go-to writer of wacky comedies, was once again responsible for the screenplay. Vincent McEveety took over directing duties from Norman Tokar. Tokar actually passed away a few months before the release of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, but I think that’s just a coincidence and not the reason for his absence. McEveety had directed Knotts in Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo and both Knotts and Conway in Gus, albeit not as a comedy team. Regardless, he was as well-suited as anyone at Disney to take the reins for the Apple Dumpling Gang.
Amos and Theodore arrive in Junction City, a flourishing little town presided over by the flamboyant and preening Marshal Woolly Bill Hitchcock (Kenneth Mars of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Young Frankenstein). After picking out some new duds and posing for a portrait (during which time Clarice destroys the photographer’s studio), they decide to open an account at the local bank. Unfortunately, they walk in on a robbery in progress. The thieves get away and Hitchcock assumes Amos and Theodore are responsible when he arrives. Through sheer dumb luck (which is the only kind of luck in these movies), the boys accidentally shoot the pistols out of Hitchcock’s hands.
Meanwhile, Amos and Theodore are not the only newcomers in town. Private Jeff Reed (a mustachioed Tim Matheson in what I feel would have been the Chevy Chase part if Disney could have afforded Chevy Chase in 1979) has been dispatched from the nearby Cavalry fort to pick up Miss Millie Gaskill (Elyssa Davalos), the daughter of commanding officer Major Gaskill. Major Gaskill is played by Harry Morgan, who played a different character in the original film. This would be Morgan’s last Disney outing, a career that stretched back to The Barefoot Executive in 1971 and encompassed every possible combination of facial hair styles. He’s been a comforting presence in his seven films and I’m sorry to see him go.
Gaskill has had his hands full lately dealing with a series of supply holdups that may or may not be the work of Indians. But Millie is arriving to announce her engagement to Gaskill’s second-in-command, Lt. Jim Ravencroft. Ravencroft is played by another familiar face making his final Disney movie, Robert Pine from One Little Indian and The Bears And I. When The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again came out in 1979, Pine was about a year away from welcoming his second child, the future captain of the Starship Enterprise, Chris Pine. And if this column makes it all the way up to the 21st century, we’ll be seeing Chris here, too.
Reed is instantly attracted to Millie and she is just as instantly infuriated by him. He saves her from being trampled by the bank robber’s horse but she’s just upset that he got her new dress muddy in the process. Needless to say, these two star-crossed lovers are destined to get together.
In their haste to get away, the bank robbers tied some of their excess cash to Clarice. When Amos and Theodore find her wandering around, they decide to do the honorable thing and return the money. But since they don’t want to get caught, they rig a long rope to swing the bag into the bank from across the street. They end up injuring Hitchcock yet again and sealing their fate. Hitchcock becomes obsessed with tracking down the Apple Dumpling Gang and having his vengeance.
Desperate for a place to hide, Amos and Theodore climb into the back of Reed’s cart, which happens to be loaded full of champagne for the upcoming engagement party. Reed makes the ride back to the fort as bumpy and uncomfortable as possible to annoy Millie, causing most of the champagne to explode. By the time they reach the fort, Amos and Theodore are thoroughly drunk. Gaskill turns them over to his drill sergeant, Sergeant Slaughter (Richard X. Slattery from Herbie Rides Again) to induct them into the army.
While the boys are adjusting to the second act of
the film their lives, Reed is caught sneaking around and pilfering evidence related to the supply robberies. Gaskill demands to know if he’s involved with the crimes but Reed refuses to say a word. He’s led off to the guardhouse to await court-martial.
The next night is the big engagement party and Amos and Theodore are given KP duty, set to work peeling a truly heroic mountain of potatoes. But the chef (Stu Gilliam, last seen floating in midair as the security guard in Return From Witch Mountain) has the bad judgment to ask them to transport the world’s biggest punch bowl into the party. While they’re struggling with the punch, Hitchcock turns up, guns drawn, having tracked them down by following Clarice. Chaos erupts and a fire breaks out, burning down the entire fort. Reed seizes the opportunity to escape, kidnapping Millie on the way out.
Amos and Theodore are drummed out of the service and sent to prison, while Hitchcock goes totally off the deep end. At the prison, Theodore decides their best course of action is to act like hardcases and demand an audience with the biggest, baddest prisoner in the joint. This turns out to be Big Mac (Jack Elam, back to terrorize Don Knotts again after Hot Lead And Cold Feet). Big Mac is also the one behind the supply robberies, running a criminal empire from the tunnels beneath the prison. After Amos and Theodore stumble into their secret lair, Mac accepts them into the gang and invites them along on their next heist.
Meanwhile, Reed has taken Millie to an old friend of his, Martha Osten (played by the great film noir star Audrey Totter), a blind woman who lives alone in the woods. Reed reveals himself as an undercover agent for army intelligence working to crack the supply case. Martha vouches for his character and Millie, as we knew she would, begins to see him in a different light.
Back at the robbery, the real inside man at the cavalry unit is revealed to be Lt. Ravencroft, who’s been feeding inside information to Big Mac in exchange for a cut of the take. Their next target promises to be their biggest yet: an entire payroll from a train. Amos and Theodore are sent on ahead to meet the others at a saloon. Unable to slip quietly out the back, they disguise themselves as chorus girls. This is already a bad plan but it’s made worse when they run into the two guys who robbed the bank in Junction City. Also in the house is Woolly Bill Hitchcock, now a broken shell of a man thanks to the Apple Dumpling Gang.
Somehow they make it out alive and onto the train, wrapping themselves in Indian blankets to hide their chorus girl outfits. Big Mac’s gang makes their move but Reed is there to put a stop to it. When one of the villains tries to sneak up on Reed, Millie is there to put a stop to him. The whole thing comes to a head with Amos and Theodore in full drag helping Reed get the drop on Mac and company, leading to the arrests of the bad guys (including Ravencroft) and full pardons for Amos and Theodore, who decide they’ve had enough fortune-hunting and return to Donovan’s farm.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again is every inch a sequel stuck in neutral, spinning its wheels. The movie literally ends where it began, with Amos and Theodore on Clarice’s back on the road to nowhere. They’ve learned nothing, earned nothing and their characters have not changed a scintilla from the opening frame. You could say it’s just more of the same from the first film but Knotts and Conway were only supporting characters in the original. Moving them front and center just demonstrates how passive these characters are. Even as agents of chaos, they mostly just allow things to happen to them rather than causing anything to transpire. The movie truly is just a bunch of stuff that happened.
To be fair, some of that stuff is kind of funny. I like the idea that Amos and Theodore are actively trying to go straight but keep getting in trouble anyway. Even better is giving them their own arch-nemesis. Woolly Bill Hitchcock is pretty clearly modeled after Chief Inspector Dreyfus, the oft-injured superior to Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. Kenneth Mars is a lot of fun in the role and the movie probably would have been better if it had simply focused on Hitchcock’s attempts to bring the gang to justice. As it is, Hitchcock peaks early, ending up in a straitjacket while there’s still a lot of movie left to unspool.
Apart from Mars, Conway and Knotts, everything and everyone else in the movie is pretty humdrum. Ruth Buzzi appears, doing a variation on her purse-wielding Gladys Ormphby character from Laugh-In only with dodgier old-age makeup. The “love story” between Reed and Millie is a non-starter. Tim Matheson seems faintly bored, while Elyssa Davalos overplays her southern belle character like an overeager high schooler who just landed the lead in the senior year production of The Glass Menagerie. As for Audrey Totter as the blind widow, she seems to be appearing in a completely different movie than everybody else.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again was released on June 27, 1979. It did reasonably well at the box office but it came out the week after The Muppet Movie, which did better. It also came out shortly after the forgotten prequel Butch And Sundance: The Early Days, which helps explain why several contemporary reviews compared it favorably to that film. It was the only other western basis of comparison in theatres. These days, saying a movie is better than Butch And Sundance: The Early Days means even less than it did back then. Rest assured, it’s faint praise.
Nevertheless, Disney probably would have been only too happy to remain in the Apple Dumpling business. But Tim Conway and Don Knotts had decided to take their show on the road. Later in 1979, New World Pictures released The Prize Fighter, a low-budget comedy starring the dynamic dopes as a punchy ex-boxer and his manager. A year later, they followed it up with The Private Eyes, another hit for New World. Conway cowrote both of those films, giving them a lot more creative freedom than they likely would have ever received at Disney. Their final on-screen team-up came in 1984, cameoing as a pair of California Highway Patrol officers in Cannonball Run II.
Don Knotts will eventually be back in this column as a voice actor but this will probably be the last we see of Tim Conway. In 1998, Conway starred in the sequel Air Bud: Golden Receiver and he continued to be a part of the franchise’s bizarrely popular Buddies offshoots as a voice actor. But since those are mostly direct-to-video titles, we won’t have to wrestle with the likes of Santa Buddies and Spooky Buddies here.
As for Disney, they were gearing up to make a big shift away from movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Producer Ron Miller was on the verge of being named President of Walt Disney Productions and he knew movies like this were not part of the studio’s future. If Conway and Knotts had wanted to make another movie for Disney, I’m sure Miller would have been thrilled to have them. At least, for a little while. But that window was about to close.
VERDICT: Not a total wash but a movie this aimless can’t be anything higher than a Disney Neutral.
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