Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Barefoot Executive
As we’ve seen repeatedly in this column, Walt Disney loved relying on successful formulas but he was not a fan of direct sequels. He only produced a handful, like Son Of Flubber, during his lifetime. So maybe it was a respectful nod to what Walt would have wanted when producer Bill Anderson, writer Joseph L. McEveety and director Robert Butler decided to follow the very successful Kurt Russell comedy The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes with The Barefoot Executive instead of another Dexter Riley adventure. It’s as good an explanation as any for this deeply weird movie.
Like most of Disney’s gimmick comedies, The Barefoot Executive is more an elevator pitch than an actual story. Russell stars as Steven Post, an ambitious kid hustling in the mailroom of third-place TV network UBC who becomes an overnight success thanks to a chimpanzee named Raffles who can pick hit shows. But unlike other gimmick comedies like The Love Bug and The Shaggy Dog, that quick synopsis isn’t very satisfying. Yes, I can see how a movie about a kid who turns into a dog or a sentient Volkswagen could be entertaining. A movie about a chimp who likes TV? Maybe not so much.
McEveety wrote the screenplay to The Barefoot Executive but the story is credited to Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn and Stewart C. Billett. Garrett and Kahn were TV veterans who’d worked together on such shows as Get Smart and Bewitched. My guess is their original story was a more satirical look at the industry that lost its edge in the process of Disneyfication. Otherwise, I can’t figure out how two people with years of TV experience could be involved with a movie that seems to have no idea how television actually works.
Raffles enters Steven’s life through some needlessly complex machinations. Raffles’ original owners, the Bernaduccis, lived next door to Steven’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Heather North, best known as the voice of Daphne on Scooby-Doo). When the Bernaduccis move to San Francisco, they have to give Raffles up because apparently it’s too cold up there. You might think it would be difficult to rehome a chimp but the Bernaduccis don’t have any problem foisting Raffles off on the nearest warm body.
That first night, Steven is annoyed that Raffles freaks out any time he tries to change the channel. But the next day, he discovers that the shows Raffles watched were the highest-rated shows of the night. (Incidentally, one of the shows Steven scoffed at is called Mother Carey’s Chickens, which was a book Disney had filmed years earlier as Summer Magic. Disney was really a pioneer in the fine art of Easter Eggs.)
Realizing this could all just be a fluke, Steven tests the chimp’s ability by spending the next several nights watching TV with him. He even goes so far as to sneak into Jen’s apartment and swap Raffles out with another chimp so he can spend more time with him at his own place. I didn’t realize chimps were so common that you could just run down to the pet store and pick one up. At any rate, Steven is eventually convinced that Raffles is indeed a TV savant and begins figuring out how to capitalize on his discovery.
Fortunately for Steven, network president E.J. Crampton (Harry Morgan, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of) is flying in from New York. Steven slips a note containing Raffles’ picks from the night before to Mertons the chauffeur (Wally Cox, last seen in The Boatniks, in his final Disney appearance). When Steve is proven right, Crampton is impressed enough to invite him to drop by the screening room later that evening to check out a couple of pilots.
Steven “disguises” Raffles as the world’s tiniest plumber and manages to sneak him into the projection booth. Crampton has high hopes for a show called The Happy Harringtons but Raffles has other ideas. The chimp prefers Devil Dan, a program Crampton and his vice president, Wilbanks (perennial Kurt Russell foil Joe Flynn), have already decided is dead on arrival. When Steve goes to bat for Devil Dan, Crampton and Wilbanks declare him an idiot and put The Happy Harringtons on the schedule.
Convinced that Raffles knows best, Steve pulls a switcheroo, putting the Devil Dan reel into the Happy Harringtons film canister. Because UBC is such a crappy network that nobody bothers to look at the material they’re broadcasting or even knows how to use a “technical difficulties” slide, Devil Dan goes out in its entirety nationwide. Wilbanks fires Steve but the overnight ratings prove that Raffles was right. Devil Dan is a hit and the network is praised for its innovative stunt programming.
Nothing succeeds like success, so Crampton changes his tune and proclaims Steve to be a boy wonder, making him the youngest programming executive in the industry. He moves on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, tastefully decorated with a random carousel horse and a bunch of high-tech burglar alarms to keep visitors out of his secret monkey room. Raffles picks hit after hit and before you know it, Steve is winning the coveted and definitely real Television Man of the Year Emmy Award. Apparently the Television Academy also gives out new cars with this honor? I don’t know, this must be one of the categories they don’t televise.
At any rate, Crampton and Wilbanks begin to get a wee bit resentful of their young protégé’s success. So they send Wilbanks’ sycophantic nephew, Roger, to uncover Steve’s secret. (John Ritter makes his big-screen debut as Roger. We’ll be seeing him again in this column very soon.) Roger dresses up like a bad guy in one of those DePatie-Freleng Inspector cartoons and sneaks into Steve’s apartment. Raffles attacks him before he learns much, other than Steve seems to really, really like bananas.
Jen, on the other hand, finally figures out that Steve stole her chimp and confronts him. Steve confesses everything, along with a declaration of love and a vague semi-proposal of marriage. That’s apparently all she needed to hear because she’s fine with it. Hey, remember that other chimp that Steve stuck her with? Really? Because the filmmakers don’t. I guess Jen just resigned herself to life with a mystery chimp.
Back at the studio, Roger overhears Tom, Steve’s buddy in the projection booth, ask whatever happened to that monkey plumber Steve used to bring in. (That’s Jack Bender making his Disney debut as Tom. We’ll see him again, too. Later on, Bender left acting and became an Emmy-winning producer and director for such shows as Lost and Game Of Thrones. I guess he learned a lot about the TV business from The Barefoot Executive.) Roger puts all his circumstantial evidence together and reaches the inevitable conclusion that the chimp is the one picking the shows. Sounds air-tight to me.
Roger drags Crampton, Wilbanks (and Mertons, for some reason) over to Steve’s building to spy on him. When Raffles gets up during the commercials to grab a beer, everyone is convinced. Crampton decides he must have that chimp! This leads to an interminable sequence with Wilbanks and Mertons stuck on a ledge outside Steve’s penthouse apartment. It goes on. And on. And on. Honest to God, I feel like I could have made and eaten an entire Thanksgiving dinner while they were stuck on that ledge.
Wilbanks eventually falls and is caught in a fireman’s net. Since everyone thought he was suicidal and he’s raving about chimpanzees, he’s carted off to the looney bin. But Mertons explains everything, more or less. The revelation that the top-rated TV network in the country has been programmed by a chimp causes a huge scandal. At a huge meeting of network executives, sponsors and government officials, it’s decided that the best course of action is to buy Raffles from Steve and air-drop him into a remote jungle. Sure. Why not.
At first, Steve assures Jen that he has no intention of selling Raffles. Which is nice of him considering he stole the chimp from her to begin with. But the offer of a million dollars proves too much to resist. Again, THERE’S A SECOND CHIMP! Maybe give that one to Crampton and Steve, Jen and Raffles can take the million and live happily ever after? No? OK, fine. Whatever.
Crampton and Wilbanks board a plane to take Raffles away, putting the chauffeur in charge seemingly for the sole purpose of pissing off Roger. But once they’re over the drop zone, Raffles opens the rear hatch and all the executives and reporters are sucked out into the abyss. Rather than attempting a rescue, the pilot turns around and brings Raffles back home. Steve returns the money (that he definitely could have kept if he’d just remembered he had access to a second chimp) and he, Jen and Raffles ride off into the sunset on Steve’s motorcycle.
OK, so where to start with this thing? First off, I admit there is the germ of a funny idea here. Movies love taking pot-shots at TV and the premise of a chimp programming the highest-rated shows on the air sounds like a logical addition to the “TV Sucks” subgenre. But the problem is that it’s never clear how we’re supposed to feel about these shows. Is Raffles actually picking better shows than his human counterparts? Or are they terrible shows that just happen to be enormously popular?
The Barefoot Executive isn’t concerned with questions like that. And honestly, you can’t tell if it’s because the filmmakers think everything on TV is lousy or if it’s because they think it’s all fine. You can’t really satirize something without expressing your opinion about it. We also never get to see much of the shows Raffles likes or dislikes, so we’re unable to draw our own conclusions. The most we’re shown is a few seconds of the animated opening to Devil Dan, which honestly looks pretty cool. We aren’t even told what Devil Dan is supposed to be about but I’d watch a show that opens with that cartoon devil. Based on that, I’d say let the chimp pick the shows. He seems to have good taste.
It's pointless to complain about the fact that The Barefoot Executive makes zero sense. Most of Disney’s gimmick comedies are like that and everybody involved knew it. But you can only turn a blind eye to that as long as you’re laughing and too few of the gags in this movie really land. John Ritter is fun to watch and there’s a clever bit with Kurt Russell pitching his idea for a surefire hit show called Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. But everything is dragged out much longer than necessary. I already mentioned the ledge sequence, which is clearly the worst offender. But even in Russell’s pitch, you want to yell at the screen for everyone to stop saying the words Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Just because something is funny once doesn’t mean it’s still funny the sixth or seventh time.
The other big problem with The Barefoot Executive is our so-called hero. Kurt Russell was only about 20 when he made this movie and he already had a knack for playing charming connivers. But Steven Post is nowhere near as likable as Dexter Riley. He whines a lot. He’s a terrible friend to both people and chimps. He’s barely interested in the girl he supposedly wants to marry. He has no ideas of his own. He even stole the Lincoln idea from a guest speaker at his night school. Sorry Steve, you’re just not a fun guy to be around.
The Barefoot Executive also echoes The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in its title music. Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland learned one lesson from that movie and did not try to write a song called “The Barefoot Executive”. Instead, they came up with a generic, go-get-‘em-tiger tune called “He’s Gonna Make It”. The only lyric that sounds specific to this movie is a random bass voice at the end of the chorus singing, “And his little bitty barefoot friend.” It sounds like it was designed to allow other films to remove that one line and replace it with their own rewritten words. Stick in “and his little bitty love bug friend” and you could put it in a Herbie movie.
Released March 17, 1971, The Barefoot Executive received some better-than-expected reviews and did fairly well at the box office, albeit not quite at the level of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Which is not to say it hasn’t had a legacy of its own. It aired frequently on television and a lot of people seem to have fond memories of it. I’m not quite sure why but hey, whatever floats your boat.
In 1995, when Disney went through a phase of remaking a lot of their live-action comedies for TV, the studio hired Susan Seidelman of all people to reboot The Barefoot Executive. Jason London stepped into the Kurt Russell role, just a few years after his breakthrough in Dazed And Confused. The cast included such familiar faces as Chris Elliott, Julia Sweeney, Ann Magnuson, Kathy Griffin, Jay Mohr and Tenacious D’s own Kyle Gass. It sounds like an improvement but from what I’ve seen, it’s not, although it is kind of weird seeing those actors in a movie like this.
After five movies and a handful of television appearances, Disney was officially in the Kurt Russell business. But for his next movie, Russell took a short hiatus from the studio to appear opposite James Stewart, George Kennedy and Strother Martin as a young ex-con named Johnny Jesus in the movie Fools’ Parade. But he’d be back in Burbank before long. And this time, the studio would be throwing Walt’s “no sequels” rule out the window.
VERDICT: Disney Minus