Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Biscuit Eater
Disney didn’t invent the boy-and-his-dog movie. But with Old Yeller in 1957, they distilled it down to its purest essence. Since then, they’d returned to the genre with Big Red in 1962 and Savage Sam, the sequel to Old Yeller, in 1963. If The Biscuit Eater had come out around that same time, it would have fit right in. But by 1972, it already felt like an anachronism.
James Street’s short story had been filmed once before. Paramount’s 1940 version starred Billy Lee, who had provided the voice of The Boy in Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon. That movie had been a surprise hit in its day, although you don’t hear about it much anymore. It’s rarely screened these days and it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on home video.
The Disney version was produced by Bill Anderson. Anderson started his Disney career with Old Yeller, so he knew his way around the genre. Spin And Marty creator Lawrence Edward Watkin wrote the screenplay. Watkin was a prolific Disney contributor in the ‘50s but his name hasn’t appeared in the credits since Ten Who Dared back in 1960. That long gap adds to my suspicion that Watkin wrote The Biscuit Eater back when he was under contract and it had been gathering dust in a drawer for about a decade.
Vincent McEveety was picked to direct, making a big tonal shift from his last Disney feature, The Million Dollar Duck. Most of his cast were fairly new to Disney features, solid TV performers who hadn’t been A-list movie stars in years, if ever. Earl Holliman, for instance, had made an impression in movies like The Rainmaker and Giant. He’d previously worked with McEveety on the Wonderful World Of Disney production Smoke, another boy-and-his-dog movie with Ronny Howard as the boy.
Pat Crowley had also appeared in a few Disney TV projects. Back in 1960, she’d had a guest shot on an episode of Elfego Baca. More recently, she’d starred opposite yet another Disney dog in Boomerang, Dog Of Many Talents. She’d also played the mother of a very young Jodie Foster in the Civil War drama Menace On The Mountain, also directed by McEveety. Jodie Foster will be appearing in this column very soon.
Despite the fact that all the grown-ups get top billing, The Biscuit Eater is really about the two young boys, Lonnie McNeil and Text Tomlin. Johnny Whitaker plays Lonnie and his unkempt mop of red hair should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching TV in the late 60s and early 70s. He had just finished a five-year stint on the popular sitcom Family Affair, opposite Disney veterans Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot. Whitaker spent most of 1972 appearing in Disney features, so we’ll be seeing quite a bit of him over the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, we will not see Whitaker’s costar, George Spell, back in this column. Spell was pretty active in TV and movies around this time. He’d appeared as Sidney Poitier’s son in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, the sequels to In The Heat Of The Night, and as Bill Cosby’s son in the western Man And Boy. Spell made a few more TV appearances after The Biscuit Eater but he seems to have left acting after 1980. Whenever kid actors vanish from the business like that, I always hope everything’s OK and they just got sick of it.
The Biscuit Eater is a simple story bathed in the glow of nostalgia, even though it appears to have a more-or-less contemporary setting. Holliman plays Harve McNeil, a salt-of-the-earth man’s man who works as a dog trainer for the wealthy Mr. Ames (Lew Ayres, settling comfortably into the elder statesman/character actor phase of his career). Harve’s son, Lonnie, has taken a shine to a misfit dog and believes he can train him to be a champion bird dog. But Harve has already written him off as a no-account, egg-sucking biscuit eater, which is apparently a common dog insult that I have never encountered before now.
Harve is afraid the dog’s bad habits will rub off on his champions, so he tries to give the dog to the owner of the local gas station, Willie Dorsey (played by trailblazing comedian, actor and activist Godfrey Cambridge…you never know who’s going to pop up in a 1970s Disney flick). But Willie is second to none when it comes to horse-trading and somehow manages to get Harve to pay him three dollars to take the free dog off his hands.
Willie’s love of trading gives Lonnie an idea. He convinces his friend Text to partner up with him and get the dog back from Mr. Dorsey in exchange for some chores. They’ll keep the dog at Text’s house and train him to be a world-class bird dog. They ask Text’s mother, Charity (Beah Richards, a then-recent Oscar nominee for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), for help naming the dog. Charity gets all her names from the Bible (Text himself is literally named after the book itself), so she searches for references to dogs. Text stops her when she gets to the word “moreover”, declaring that to be the perfect name. Leave it to someone named Text to pick an adverb for a name.
Lonnie and Text do good work with Moreover and soon feel they’re ready to enter the state championship against Harve and Mr. Ames’ prizewinner, Silver Belle. Harve isn’t so sure but after his wife needles him about being scared of a little competition, he relents. Lo and behold, Moreover gives the other dogs a run for their money, placing him up against Silver Belle in the finals.
That night at the gun club, Harve and Mr. Ames are joking with the other members, drinking brandy and lighting cigars with twenty dollar bills the way rich folk do. When someone asks Mr. Ames if he’s nervous about the finals, he jokes that Harve’s the one who should be nervous ‘cause if he loses, he’s fired.
The remark is overheard by a waiter (vaudeville legend Mantan Moreland in one of his final roles). Now, you’d think the fact that everybody including Harve laughed at the joke would have been a tip-off that it wasn’t to be taken seriously. But the waiter goes back to the kitchen, where Text is busy washing dishes, complaining about those kids making trouble for a fine man like Mr. McNeil.
Text tells Lonnie the bad news and the two of them decide to throw the contest. At a crucial moment, Lonnie fights back tears and yells at Moreover, calling him the B-E-words. The poor dog’s feelings are so hurt that he runs off into the woods, earning him an instant disqualification. The next day, Mr. Ames finds out why the boys did what they did and determines to set things right. He encourages them to keep working with Moreover and try again next year.
Unfortunately, the dog has been so psychologically scarred by Lonnie’s words that he refuses to eat or hunt. The boys even ask Charity to whip up a batch of biscuits in an attempt to show Moreover that we are all biscuit eaters and let me stop you right there. Up until this point, I had been thinking that maybe “biscuit eater” is a euphemism for a dog who picks up excrement off the ground. Odd choice for the title of a Disney movie but hey, at least it makes sense. But no, I guess it really does mean delicious, home-cooked biscuits best served with honey or maybe a little country gravy. I fail to see the insult but then again, I’m not a dog. Who am I to tell Moreover how to feel?
Anyway, Moreover decides to embrace his baser instincts and sneaks off to steal some eggs from the henhouse of mean Mr. Eben (Clifton James, who really cornered the market on southern redneck stereotypes in the 1970s thanks to movies like this and his appearances as Sheriff Pepper in two James Bonds). Sorry, I haven’t mentioned Mr. Eben yet. Mr. Eben pops up periodically to warn Harve about keeping that dog out of his henhouse and to assure the audience that the consequences will be dire when that dog inevitably does get into his henhouse. Sure enough, Mr. Eben has laced the eggs with poison.
Now in Street’s original story and apparently also in the 1940 film, the dog dies. (Spoiler alerts for a couple of things you probably weren’t going to track down anyway.) But I guess the good people at Disney felt they’d killed enough dogs in their day and allowed their Moreover to pull through. Even better, the whole experience cures the dog of stealing eggs and he’s finally able to reach his full potential as a bird dog. I’m not sure there’s a lesson here unless it’s maybe don’t be mean to your dogs.
I’ll be the first to admit that movies like The Biscuit Eater are not my cup of tea. I don’t even like Old Yeller, so there was virtually no chance I was going to be into this. But I admit the movie does have some nice things going for it. Moreover, a German Wirehaired Pointer played by the excellently named Rolph Van Wolfgang, is a very good boy. You could probably edit the movie down into 30-second clips of Moreover being outstanding and watch it go viral on TikTok or whatever. There’s certainly nothing wrong with movies about dogs being dogs.
It's also worth noting that Disney, who hasn’t had a great track record when it comes to racial sensitivity so far, earns a few points here. At its core, this is a story about a friendship between a white boy and a black boy in the deep south. The movie’s a little vague on specifics. Street’s original story is set in Alabama, the 1940 movie was shot in Georgia and Disney’s website claims their version takes place in Tennessee. Wherever, it’s somewhere in the southeast. But McEveety doesn’t make a big deal about the kids’ racial identities. They’re best friends, everybody accepts each other and that’s that. Even dog-poisoning old Mr. Eben doesn’t seem to have a racist bone in his body.
Willie Dorsey and Charity are both characters that could have easily slipped into caricatures. But McEveety doesn’t let that happen. Charity is on equal footing with the McNeil family. She’s got money, her own business and a nice house. Willie’s a bit of a hustler but he’s definitely not subservient. Both Beah Richards and Godfrey Cambridge were civil rights activists in addition to being tremendous actors, so it’s unlikely they would have agreed to anything demeaning. And look, I don’t want to give The Biscuit Eater too much credit just for not being actively offensive. But I’m so used to loosening up my wincing muscles whenever any person of color shows up in a Disney movie, I’ll take my victories where I can get ‘em.
The Biscuit Eater isn’t really a bad movie but it is kind of a nothing one. There’s a place in this world for pleasant, innocuous stories about boys and their dogs. You’ll know if this movie’s for you during the opening credit sequence of Johnny Whitaker running around the open country with his dog to the tune of Shane Tatum’s folksy song “Moreover And Me”. If you think, “Aw, that’s nice,” you’ll have a fine time. But if you’re like me and you roll your eyes and go, “Oy,” things aren’t going to get better.
Unfortunately, audiences and critics in 1972 were not receptive to an unabashedly old-fashioned family movie that feels like it should be a period piece. Maybe the movie would have fared better if it had actually been one. As it is, the contemporary clothes and production design feel more like laziness than an artistic choice. Audiences pretty much ignored The Biscuit Eater and even the favorable reviews felt dismissive.
It's a little odd that Disney has made The Biscuit Eater available on Disney+ when there are so many other, better movies that are not. Maybe they were just excited to find a movie in the vault that didn’t require a disclaimer about racial stereotypes. If you’re looking for something inoffensive to plunk down in front of your dog-loving kiddos, you’ll have nothing to worry about with The Biscuit Eater. But don’t be surprised if they get bored halfway through.
VERDICT: Disney Meh
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