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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
The shared cinematic universe is usually considered a relatively recent concept even though studios like Universal and Toho started hosting all-star monster jamborees decades ago. Even Disney dropped some shared universe Easter eggs in their early days, like bringing a live-action Bambi into 1957’s Perri. With The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Disney went back to Medfield College, birthplace of Flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor.
A few things have changed at dear old Medfield since the Flubber days. Fred MacMurray’s Professor Brainard has evidently retired, presumably flush with Flubber cash. The great character actor William Schallert is the new all-purpose teacher, Professor Quigley. (I assume Medfield must have additional faculty but these movies only ever seem to focus on one.) The college also has a new dean, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn, last seen as David Tomlinson’s flunky in The Love Bug).
But perhaps the biggest difference between The Absent-Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is its protagonist. The Flubber movies treated the student body like an afterthought, nameless bodies to toss around the basketball court and the football field, keeping the focus on Professor Brainard. Computer shares a little DNA with The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones (which surprisingly did not take place at Medfield) by promoting a student to the lead role. But unlike Merlin Jones, Dexter Riley is no brainiac inventor. As played by Kurt Russell, Dexter is the typical all-American underachiever, more interested in having a good (albeit G-rated) time than academics.
Russell had worked steadily since his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys! three years earlier. In addition to his feature appearances, he’d done plenty of TV including guest shots on non-Disney shows like Daniel Boone with former Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. Now 18, Russell had earned the chance to show what he could do with a starring role.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Medfield’s dire financial straits. Alonzo P. Hawk may not be around anymore to call in the school’s loan but Medfield is still hemorrhaging money. By the way, Keenan Wynn will eventually be back in this column as Alonzo P. Hawk, bringing another Disney franchise into the Medfield-verse.
During a budget meeting with the board of regents, Professor Quigley argues that the school desperately needs to get with the times and buy a computer. Unfortunately, the budget is stretched thin and Dean Higgins shoots down the request. Besides, the regents believe modernization is overrated. Higgins is more concerned with weeding out Medfield’s worst students, a long list that includes Dexter and his friends. Quigley sticks up for them. He believes they’re good kids, just in need of a little extra motivation.
Those troublemaking kids were smart enough to plant a listening device in the conference room and they’ve overheard the whole thing. Wanting to do something nice for Quigley, they decide to go visit Dexter’s old boss, tycoon A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero, who had previously appeared in a few episodes of Disney’s Zorro). He seems to be in possession of the only computer in town and the kids hope to persuade him to donate it to the school.
Arno is surprisingly open to the idea except for one thing. He already donates $20,000 a year to Medfield, so he isn’t about to toss in a $10,000 computer on top of that. But if the school is willing to forego their annual gift, maybe they can work something out. This sounds like a good deal to the kids (obviously not math majors) and they set to work crating up the tons of components that make up a late-60s computer.
It's surprising that Arno is so willing to part with the computer because we soon find out he keeps it in a secret room behind a hidden panel. The computer’s primary function is keeping track of Arno’s many illegal gambling clubs. Now you might think that Arno would need a valuable piece of equipment like that. At the very least, perhaps he should consider erasing all the incriminating evidence stored in the computer’s memory banks. Nope! Take it away, boys! He just saved 20,000 big ones and he’s a happy man.
Anyway, the computer gets set up at Medfield but Quigley’s demonstration hits a snag when a part shorts out. Dexter volunteers to make the 70-mile drive for a replacement, even though he should really be studying for the upcoming standardized test. Later that night, he gets back to the lab during a torrential rainstorm. He foolishly decides to switch out the part while he’s dripping wet and standing in a small lake of rainwater. As you might expect, Dexter is zapped with about a zillion volts of electricity and instantly dies.
No, no, of course not. The computer dies but Dexter seems just fine. Sure, he wakes up his roommate later that night, beeping electronically and reciting the coded data about Arno’s gambling joints. And yeah, when his friend asks him about it, Dexter has no idea what he’s talking about. But still, he’s fine.
Dean Higgins and Professor Quigley don’t have much time to be upset about the $20,000 boondoggle because the next day is the big standardized test. Students have an hour to complete the test and, in the opposite of a pep talk, are told that nobody in the history of Medfield has ever finished it. Dexter is surprised to find himself whipping through the whole thing in less than five minutes. Quigley and Higgins are even more surprised to discover that he aced it, getting the first perfect score in the history of the college.
A thorough medical check-up solves the mystery. As so often happens, the accident caused Dexter to absorb the properties of the computer. A quick glimpse inside his ear reveals flashing lights, spinning magnetic tape and all the other hallmarks of a 1969 computer. As long as he doesn’t run out of punch cards, Dexter Riley is the smartest man on Earth.
Quick to capitalize on his human computer, Dean Higgins organizes a nationwide tour for Dexter. As his fame grows, he drifts apart from his girlfriend, Annie (Debbie Paine), and buddies like Pete Oatzel (Frank Webb, who was tragically killed in a car accident just a few years later at the age of 26). He also attracts the attention of Dean Collingsgood (Alan Hewitt, seen most recently in The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit) who hopes to lure Dexter over to Medfield’s arch-rival, State University.
Dexter’s new celebrity status does not pass unnoticed by Arno, either. He may have lost his computer but thinks having a human computer on his payroll sounds even better, especially after Dexter consistently picks winners in horse races. Arno sends his flunky, Chillie Walsh (Richard Bakalayan, who played a similar gangster role in Never A Dull Moment), to give Dexter a taste of the good life. Unfortunately, the club they visit is raided by the cops and Dexter winds up in jail, along with Walsh and the two Deans, who’d been following him.
When Dexter’s friends pool their money to bail him out, Dexter realizes what a heel he’s become. He turns down Arno’s offer and reaffirms his loyalty to Medfield by captaining a quiz bowl team alongside three of his dimmest friends. Dexter leads them to victory and a championship match against State. One Day At A Time’s future Schneider, Pat Harrington, hosts the quiz bowl and Spinal Tap’s future John “Stumpy” Pepys, Ed Begley Jr., makes his big screen debut as one of the State students. We’ll be seeing Begley again in this column.
On one of his College Knowledge appearances, Dexter correctly answers a question with “Applejack”. That just so happens to be Arno’s code name for his illegal businesses, prompting Dexter to start rattling off information about Arno’s gambling joints on live TV. Arno shuts down the exposed locations and sends Walsh to kidnap Dexter the night before the finals.
Pete and Annie track him down and come up with an elaborate plan to rescue him. Disguised as house painters (Merlin Jones used a similar scheme…it seems house painters were given carte blanche to go wherever they pleased in the 60s), the kids search the building and manage to smuggle him out in a trunk. There’s a big chase back to the TV studio with gallon after gallon of paint thrown at the pursuing gangsters. Dexter rejoins his team but the rough handling in the trunk seems to have knocked a few circuits loose. His answers get slower and slower until he finally crashes completely.
Dexter wakes up in time for the final question about the geographic center of the United States but has no idea what the answer could be. He’s back to being a normal, below-average student. The team has been relying on Dexter for so long that everyone’s shocked when Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) realizes he actually knows the answer. He has family in Lebanon, Kansas, and that is the correct response. Medfield wins the day and Arno and his goons end up in jail.
I vaguely remember watching and enjoying the Dexter Riley movies as a kid, so I was looking forward to revisiting this one. Unfortunately, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was not the comedic powerhouse I remembered. So far, I’ve been making fun of the movie’s leaps of logic and Mariana Trench-sized plot holes but they’re not really the problem. The issue is that most of this just isn’t that funny.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was the first screenplay by longtime Disney employee Joseph L. McEveety. McEveety joined the studio in 1957 as an assistant director, working on movies like Moon Pilot, Mary Poppins and, yes, Merlin Jones. He knew the Disney house style backward and forward but comedy wasn’t exactly in his blood. Previous Disney comedies relied heavily on slapstick but Computer’s story doesn’t allow for any until its madcap finale. As a result, the first half can get pretty dull and repetitive. The movie desperately needs more verbal humor or, at the very least, a few jokes.
Director Robert Butler also made his Disney feature debut with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Butler had directed a ton of TV, including Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage”, and multiple episodes of shows like The Untouchables, Batman, The Fugitive, and countless others. For Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, he and Norman Tokar codirected Kilroy, a four-part serial, in 1965. Earlier in 1969, he directed Kurt Russell in the three-part Secret Of Boyne Castle, released theatrically overseas as Guns In The Heather. He knows exactly what’s expected of him here and keeps the tone light and the story moving as best he can. But even so, the movie gets bogged down often enough that it’s hard to not get impatient.
Like most Disney comedies, the action is preceded by a colorful animated title sequence and a peppy title song. Visual effects artist Alan Maley (who went on to win an Oscar for his work on a movie we’ll be getting to soon) designed the abstract titles and they’re pretty cool. The song, by Robert F. Brunner and Bruce Belland, isn’t quite as successful. To be fair, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is an unwieldy title. Even the Sherman brothers would have a hard time making it work in a song. Brunner’s and Belland’s solution was basically to shout the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible. It’s one of the more aggressively unpleasant Disney songs.
The only reason any of this works on any level is thanks to Kurt Russell. In his earlier Disney appearances, Russell definitely had something but nobody had quite figured out what his strengths were yet. Now we begin to see the charismatic movie star he would become. Russell always brings a little twinkle of fun to every role but here, he’s given his first opportunity to go all in on a broad comedic part. When Dexter’s central processor starts to crash, Russell fully commits to the gag. That’s a genuinely funny scene. I only wish the movie had more like it.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was Disney’s last theatrical release of the 1960s. It was a decently sized hit, particularly in relation to its cost, and most critics gave it a pass. The movie certainly did well enough to inspire Disney to bring Dexter Riley and friends back for more wacky adventures at Medfield.
Disney also produced a TV remake in 1995 with Kirk Cameron stepping into Dexter’s tennis shoes (a style of footwear Kurt Russell never dons once, by the by). That version had an interesting supporting cast, including comedian Larry Miller as the Dean, Jeff Garlin and Eddie Deezen as FBI agents, Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson hisownself) and Disney veteran Dean Jones playing against type as Miller’s rival Dean. Peyton Reed, who would eventually return to the Disney fold via Marvel’s Ant-Man, made his feature debut as director.
Revisiting The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was a good lesson in tempering your expectations for childhood favorites. I had high hopes for this one. And while it wasn’t a complete waste of time, it definitely wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. They’ll have plenty more chances to impress us, though. Practically everybody involved will be back in this column in some way, shape or form.
VERDICT: Not quite a Disney Minus but nowhere near a Disney Plus, this is a Disney Neutral.