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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Million Dollar Duck
There’s a reason there’s not a lot of movies based on Aesop’s Fables and you probably don’t have to be a film major to figure it out. The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs, the fable that provides the jumping off point for The Million Dollar Duck, is all of three paragraphs long. Four if you consider the moral to be its own thing. Not that it really matters in this case, since the folks behind Million Dollar Duck decided to cut the moral and just leave the eggs. As a result, this is a movie that literally has no point.
The Million Dollar Duck was written by Roswell Rogers from a story by Ted Key. Key started his career as a cartoonist, creating the single-panel gag cartoon Hazel for the Saturday Evening Post. He also worked for Jay Ward, creating the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments for The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show. One of the other segments on that show was Aesop And Son, one of the few sustained adaptations of Aesop’s Fables in pop culture. As far as I know, Aesop And Son never tackled The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs. Did The Million Dollar Duck start off as an unused Rocky And Bullwinkle concept? I don’t know for sure but it would make sense.
Producer Bill Anderson gave the film to director Vincent McEveety. This was the first of a dozen movies McEveety would direct at Disney over the next decade. He’d started out as an assistant director, working on Westward Ho, The Wagons!, Zorro and other TV productions. Since then, he’d built an extensive TV resume, helming multiple episodes of Star Trek, Gunsmoke and many others. Practically the entire McEveety family worked at Disney at one point or another. Vincent’s brother, Joseph L. McEveety, was also an assistant director who turned to screenwriting with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. His other brother, Bernard, will be in this column soon.
This was Dean Jones’s first movie back at Disney since the massive success of The Love Bug in 1968. In the meantime, he’d gone off to Italy to make the gimmick comedy knock-off Mr. Superinvisible. That movie was released in the States by K-Tel, who proved to be better at selling records and Veg-O-Matics than movies. It was an inauspicious attempt at kick starting his non-Disney career. You can see why Jones opted to return to Burbank.
Jones’s leading lady was a rising star named Sandy Duncan. Like a lot of Disney stars, Duncan had made a name for herself on Broadway, winning Tony nominations for her performances in the musicals Canterbury Tales and The Boy Friend. The Million Dollar Duck was only Duncan’s first movie but Hollywood really wanted to make her a big star. That same year, she also starred in the Neil Simon movie Star Spangled Girl and got her own sitcom, Funny Face (which would be retooled and retitled The Sandy Duncan Show for the 1972 season).
But Sandy Duncan also had to deal with her share of hardship in 1971. That fall, she had surgery to remove a brain tumor from behind her left eye. The procedure was successful but left her blind in that eye (contrary to urban legend, she does not have a glass eye). Fortunately, she recovered quickly and went on to more Tony nominations and TV appearances, including the epic “Return Of Bigfoot” crossover episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Well, epic to me in 1976, anyway. At any rate, Sandy Duncan will be back in this column.
Tony Roberts, the other actor making his film debut this week, also costarred with Sandy Duncan in Star Spangled Girl. But he won’t be back in this column. In 1972, he starred alongside Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. He’d appear in several more films as Woody’s best friend, which probably saved him from spending the 1970s playing Dean Jones’s best friend.
One of the things I’ve consistently enjoyed about Disney’s gimmick comedies are the frequently playful and innovative opening title sequences. Movies like The Shaggy Dog and The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones not only kept the animation department busy, it allowed them to experiment with different styles like stop-motion. The Million Dollar Duck opens with hand-drawn opening credits by Ward Kimball and Ted Berman, which sounds great in theory. The fact that they’re so utterly pedestrian is the first sign that this is not going to be one of the studio’s best efforts.
Playing against a blue background, the titles show an animated duck crossing back and forth along the bottom of the screen, slowly building a row of six eggs. At the end, he adds a dollar sign, a 1 and a couple of commas, transforming the eggs into “$1,000,000”. That’s it. I mean, come on. This is Disney, for Pete’s sake! The best you could come up with was about five seconds of animation flipped and repeated six times? I get the feeling nobody is bringing their A-game to this project.
Jones stars as Albert Dooley, a professor and researcher in animal behavior at an unnamed university that might just as well be Medfield College. Dooley was once voted most likely to succeed by his graduating class but now he’s struggling to make ends meet. His finances are so bad that he has to deny his son Jimmy’s request to adopt a puppy. Lee Montgomery also makes his film debut as Jimmy. A year later, he’d be best friends with a rat in Ben, the sequel to Willard. And in a 1974 Easter Egg that probably meant very little to audiences at the time, he played a kid named Steve Spelberg in an episode of Colombo.
Dooley’s wife, Katie (Duncan), is doing her part to help out by making her own homemade applesauce. Katie’s too dim to realize that you shouldn’t put garlic, curry powder and mustard in applesauce and Albert’s too polite to mention it tastes like garbage, so he’s sent off to work with a tub full of the toxic sludge. This applesauce is actually a plot point later on, so I hope you’re paying attention.
Albert arrives at the lab, where a chimp tries to steal his lunch. Even the chimp won’t eat the applesauce, so he pawns it off on his neighbor, the duck. The duck happily scarfs it down, just before failing another battery of simple tests designed by Albert’s boss, Dr. Gottlieb (Jack Kruschen). Gottlieb’s had it up to here with this furshlugginer duck and orders it out of the lab for good. The duck wanders into the radiation lab across the hall where it’s bombarded with science rays. Albert retrieves the bird and decides to take the radioactive idiot duck home to his son.
Now a duck’s not the same as a puppy but Jimmy is so desperate for a pet of any kind that he names his new friend Charlie. (Like Clint Howard in The Wild Country, Jimmy’s one of those kids that give every animal the same name for whatever reason.) Albert’s not too thrilled about that. He had planned on giving the duck to a local farmer or something. But Katie cautions him against widening the “generation gap” on the whole pet issue. Gotta love it when Disney tries using zeitgeisty buzz words.
While Albert and Katie are hashing this out, Charlie gets into the next-door neighbor’s pool. Joe Flynn plays the neighbor, Finlay Hooper, adding uptight treasury agent to his repertoire of uptight deans and uptight network executives. Hooper’s dog barks repeatedly at the duck, causing Charlie to lay an egg every time. Katie’s ready to whip up an omelet but Albert, briefly remembering that the duck is radioactive, puts the kibosh on that idea. He tells her he’ll bury the eggs in the backyard under cover of darkness. As one does, I suppose.
That night, Albert accidentally cracks one of the eggs and discovers what appears to be a solid gold yolk. The next day, he has the yolk analyzed and sure enough, it is gold, albeit with some peculiar imperfections like pectin from apple peels. A quick consult with Dr. Gottlieb provides all the pseudo-science Albert needs to go into the golden egg business with his best friend, lawyer Fred Hines (Roberts).
Albert and Fred want to go about this the right way, setting up a corporation and making sure not to spend so much that they’d call attention to themselves. But a call from the bank about some bounced checks rattles Katie. When Charlie lays another egg, she takes it straight to the bank and tries to deposit it. The bank manager advises her to take it to a refinery instead. She cashes in the egg, squares her account at the bank, and buys herself a swell new hat as a reward.
At first, Albert’s mad that Katie just waltzed into a bank with a hunk of gold. But Fred thinks she may be on to something. Basically, Katie is such a guileless idiot that she can go anywhere with a pocketful of golden egg yolks and cash them in. Even if she’s questioned, she can just tell the truth and nobody’s going to believe her anyway. It’s the “don’t ask me, I’m just a girl” theory of scams, crimes and petty larcenies.
Fred’s plan doesn’t work quite as well as he’d hoped, however. Even though Katie spreads the gold around town, people do start wondering where all these egg-shaped gold nuggets are coming from. The Treasury Department, under pressure from President Nixon himself (or at least a guy who vaguely resembles him from behind), launches an investigation. Unfortunately, their only lead is the list of aliases Katie’s used at the different refineries. Except they’re not aliases. They’re all variations of her actual name. But that’s too tough a nut for the T-Men to crack. All except Hooper, of course, who lives right next door to the perpetrators. He decides to engage in a little old-fashioned snooping to figure out what’s going on.
But all is not well at the Dooley household. Albert’s been so obsessed with egg production that he’s failing as a father. Things are so bad that Jimmy and Charlie have started hanging out with dune buggy-driving slackers Arvin and Orlo (Jack Bender from The Barefoot Executive and Billy Bowles). The egg scheme isn’t going according to plan, either. So far, Albert has resisted the temptation to spend money but Fred has swooped in and picked up a sporty yellow convertible. The very car Albert had his eye on, of course.
Hooper finally tricks Jimmy into showing him how Charlie lays golden eggs. Even though Katie manages to snatch the egg away from him, Hooper still reports what he’s learned to his boss, Mr. Rutledge (James Gregory). Rutledge leads a raid on the Dooleys but Jimmy runs away with Charlie and we all know what that means, don’t we? Yep, it’s time for the Wacky Disney Car Chase of the Week (sponsored by Big Al’s Auto Body of Burbank). This one involves a garbage truck, the convertible, Arvin’s dune buggy, a cherry picker, a parking garage and, as always, wet paint. Albert saves Jimmy from falling to his death and realizes that his family is more important than mutant duck gold.
Albert is arrested for violating the Gold Reserve Act. But when Hooper tries to get Charlie to lay an egg on the stand, he’s unable to duplicate the trick. Albert volunteers to show the court how it’s done, even though he could have done nothing and let everyone believe Hooper was crazy. When Charlie lays a perfectly ordinary egg (evidently all the radiation and applesauce has worn off), the case is dismissed for lack of evidence. Hooper points out that the defendants have thousands and thousands of unexplained dollars in the bank but the judge says there’s no law against getting rich, as long as you pay your taxes.
For the record, the moral of Aesop’s fable is, “Those who have plenty want more and so lose all they have.” The moral of The Million Dollar Duck appears to be, “There’s no law against getting rich, as long as you pay your taxes.” Personally, I think the original is more universally applicable but there’s nothing like that here. Albert doesn’t lose the duck out of hubris or because he’s trying to get more than the duck can produce. It just stops working. Plus, he gets to keep everything he made up to that point and fix his relationship with his son. Sounds like Albert came out ahead all around on this deal.
Gene Siskel admitted to walking out on a screening of The Million Dollar Duck, one of only three movies he couldn’t make it through in his professional career. His future partner, Roger Ebert, presumably made it to the end but referred to it as “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t wrong but let’s face it. A lot of these Disney gimmick comedies are pretty dumb. That can be forgiven if they’re also funny. This one ain’t.
Throughout his Disney career, Dean Jones was frequently stuck with animal costars. Cats, dogs, monkeys, horses, you name it. He could be a lot of fun in these movies but it seems as though the stars had to align perfectly for them to work. If he’s just a little too arrogant or too dense, you get something like The Ugly Dachshund or Monkeys, Go Home! or this movie. Albert doesn’t seem smart enough to be a scientist and his rocky relationship with his wife and son makes him tough to root for on a personal level. You know a character is unlikable when you hope that he’ll lose his battle with the IRS.
As for Sandy Duncan, she’s saddled with the unenviable task of playing a character so pathologically stupid that it’s a wonder she’s able to make it through the day. It would be one thing if she was simply ditzy or scatterbrained but Katie appears to be a genuine moron. She’s really difficult to take but I can’t entirely blame Duncan for that. I’m hard-pressed to think of any actress who would have fared better with this material.
The Million Dollar Duck came out June 30, 1971, and most critics seemed to agree with Siskel and Ebert. The movie was not well-loved and it did so-so business at the box office. It did somehow manage to snag a couple of Golden Globe nominations. Sandy Duncan was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer – Female, which kind of makes sense if you take the rest of her work that year into consideration. Ironically, she lost to Twiggy in Ken Russell’s film of The Boy Friend, one of the shows that brought Sandy to prominence in the first place. (Incidentally, the other nominees were Cybill Shepherd for The Last Picture Show, Janet Suzman for Nicholas And Alexandra, and Delores Taylor for Billy Jack. What a weird year.)
Dean Jones, on the other hand, was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. He was up against Bud Cort in Harold And Maude, Walter Matthau in Kotch, Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and the eventual winner, Topol in Fiddler On The Roof. In a career full of silly Disney comedies, this was the one Dean Jones performance singled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press as worthy of a Golden Globe nomination. I don’t know, maybe there just weren’t a lot of comedies and musicals in 1971.
In any event, Dean Jones’s return to Disney gave him a little bit more freedom to pursue outside projects. Later in 1971, he produced and starred in a Prohibition-era sitcom called The Chicago Teddy Bears. It only ran three months before CBS yanked the low-rated show off the air. Naturally, Jones bounced back from that by heading back to the House of Mouse. Dean Jones will return.
VERDICT: Disney Minus