Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The North Avenue Irregulars
In general, Walt Disney preferred to keep religion at arm’s length in the entertainments he produced. Back in 1959, his brother Roy had wanted Disney to release a Biblical epic called The Big Fisherman about Peter the Apostle. Walt didn’t want to go there but Roy released it anyway under the Buena Vista umbrella (it hasn’t been covered in this column because (A) it isn’t, strictly speaking, a Disney film and (B) it’s really hard to find). When men of the cloth did appear in a Disney movie, they were usually very minor supporting characters depicted as nosy busybodies (like Roddy McDowall in Bedknobs And Broomsticks) or tippling drunks (like Leo G. Carroll in The Parent Trap). But Walt probably would have been okay with The North Avenue Irregulars. Sure, the main characters are a minister and a bunch of church ladies. But their faith takes a back seat to two themes Walt could always make time for: community building and wacky car chases.
The movie is based on a book by Rev. Albert Fay Hill and we’re going to need to take a minute to talk about this guy because he sounds amazing. He went off to fight in World War II at the age of 18. In combat, he distinguished himself by grabbing a bazooka and taking out a Nazi tank, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Rocked by his wartime experiences, he decided to enter the ministry. He became a civil rights activist and took on the mob, which is a story we’ll get to here in a second.
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In 1962, his wife, Grace, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite having no formal scientific or medical training, Hill took it upon himself to research the disease and try to help find a cure. Grace passed away in 1969 but Hill continued his investigations and eventually came up with a theory rooted in immunology. Partnering with researchers at a Colorado medical school, Hill’s theories were tested on animals and proved surprisingly successful. Hill himself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014 and hoped to use himself as a human trial but sadly died just six weeks after receiving his diagnosis. Still, there are those in the scientific community who believe Hill was on to something and hope to continue his work. So yeah, you could probably make half a dozen movies out of Albert Fay Hill’s life.
While Hill was a minister in New Jersey, he grew frustrated with the government’s inability to protect his congregation from the insidious influence of the mob. Determined to do something about it, he recruited a group of volunteers, mostly women, to go undercover and gather evidence. This experience provided the basis for his 1968 book The North Avenue Irregulars: A Suburb Battles The Mafia. You can understand why Hollywood would be eager to adapt this story. And you can also understand why a family-oriented Presbyterian minister would allow the story to be adapted by a wholesome studio like Disney.
Hill was reportedly a little surprised at the direction Disney took his book, although he really shouldn’t have been. At this point in history, the studio had been around for about 50 years and not once had they produced a gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines drama or dark comedy. But in the end, he seemed to be cool with it, which is nice to hear. Disney’s The North Avenue Irregulars might not bear much resemblance to Hill’s real story but it’s a genuinely funny, entertaining movie in its own right.
The screenplay was written by Don Tait, whose previous Disney experience encompassed both gimmick comedies like The Shaggy D.A. and oddities like Treasure Of Matecumbe and The Castaway Cowboy (prior to Disney, he also wrote a biker movie called Chrome And Hot Leather which I can recommend to fans of the genre). The director was Bruce Bilson. Bilson was new to Disney and had worked primarily in television, winning an Emmy for his work on Get Smart. Bilson is also the father of Rachel Bilson of The O.C. and Danny Bilson, who will eventually appear in this column himself as a screenwriter.
Tait and Bilson changed quite a bit from Hill’s book. For one thing, Reverend Hill’s first name is now Michael. And instead of taking place in New Jersey, the action unfolds in the bucolic Anytown USA of New Campton, which looks a whole lot like Burbank. Hill is played by the late, great character actor Edward Herrmann. Herrmann had just begun to make a name for himself on-screen, having recently won acclaim playing FDR in the TV miniseries Eleanor And Franklin and its sequel, Eleanor And Franklin: The White House Years.
Around this same time, Herrmann also had the lead in an independent movie called Take Down, playing a high school English teacher who gets roped in to being the school’s wrestling coach. Like The Big Fisherman, Take Down is an interesting footnote in Disney history. The studio acquired Take Down for distribution, releasing it through Buena Vista and keeping the Disney name off the project. Over the years, the studio would infrequently release acquisitions in this manner. So technically, Take Down was the first Disney-released (or, at least, Disney-adjacent) movie to carry a PG rating. Also like The Big Fisherman, we won’t be covering Take Down in this column for the exact same reasons: not produced by the studio, very hard to find.
Bilson surrounded Herrmann with an all-star group of Disney women. The cast includes Barbara Harris and Patsy Kelly from Freaky Friday, Susan Clark from The Apple Dumpling Gang, Karen Valentine from Hot Lead And Cold Feet, Cloris Leachman from Charley And The Angel, and Disney newcomer Virginia Capers. Other Disney veterans include Douglas Fowley (Run, Cougar, Run), Steve Franken (Follow Me, Boys!), Marjorie Bennett (Mary Poppins and the voice of Duchess in One Hundred And One Dalmatians), Ruth Buzzi (Freaky Friday) and Ivor Francis (Superdad). Needless to say, the cast understood the assignment.
The movie opens with Reverend Hill’s arrival at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church, along with his two kids, Carmel (Melora Hardin, now probably best known as Jan Levinson on The Office, in her big-screen debut) and Dean (Bobby Rolofson, a young actor we’ll be seeing again soon). The church is abuzz with activity as the ladies are getting the place in order for Hill’s arrival. Most everyone gives him a warm welcome with the exception of church secretary Anne (Clark). Hill is taking over the ministry from her retiring father and she’s not happy with his plans to shake things up a bit to increase community involvement. He gets started immediately, placing Rose Rafferty (Kelly) in charge of the church treasury.
He comes to regret this decision before he’s able to deliver his first sermon. Rose’s husband, Delaney (Fowley), got a tip on a horse and bet all of the church’s money on this supposed sure thing. Hill and Rose jump on his motorcycle and race down to the tailor shop that serves as a front for an illegal gambling joint. The price of admission is having your pants pressed while you’re there. Hill gets there just as the race begins. When the horse loses, he explains the situation to Harry the Hat (Alan Hale, Jr. from Gilligan’s Island). Harry has the reverend kicked out of the place, forcing him to head back to the church pants-less.
Hill immediately calls the police and heads back to the tailor shop with the cops. But in the time it took to get a search warrant, the place was cleaned out. The police can’t be bothered to investigate the matter further, leaving Hill convinced that the cops are on the take. Later that evening, he’s scheduled to make an appearance on a local Sunday Sermon-type show. Instead of his prepared remarks, he goes off-script to rant about illegal gambling, police corruption and organized crime.
Hill’s TV appearance doesn’t do him any favors with the congregation or the higher-ups at the church. But it does attract the attention of two Treasury Agents, Fogleman (Michael Constantine) and Voorhies (Franken). They’ve been trying to build a case against crime boss Max Roca (Frank Campanella) but can’t make anything stick. They ask Hill to recruit some volunteers to go undercover and collect the evidence they need.
At first, Hill finds it impossible to find volunteers for the risky assignment (although he does manage to convince a garage band called Strawberry Shortcake to add their musical stylings to the choir). As a last resort, he calls in the church’s most active members, the women. In addition to Rose, there’s soccer mom Vickie (Harris), bride-to-be Jane (Valentine), flirty Claire (Leachman) and no-nonsense Cleo (Capers). Fogleman and Voorhies are reluctant to send the ladies undercover but Hill persuades them to give them a chance.
The lawmen’s concerns that the women aren’t up to the task prove to be 100% correct. Jane’s attempt to place a bet at a dive bar while dressed like a hooker goes awry when she’s spotted by her fiancé and his controlling mother. Claire tries her luck at a florist with Voorhies but blows their cover. And Rose, Cleo and Vickie sport identical spy outfits and have a mishap with their hidden tape recorder.
After such a thorough debacle, Fogleman and Voorhies are ready to pull the plug on the whole operation. But Hill wants to try another tactic. Instead of facing the crooks directly, he and the ladies set up a surveillance network, tracking money drops and tailing the bad guys. After a rocky start, the gang eventually gets the hang of it and begins making real progress. Unfortunately, they still have not mastered the fine art of discretion. After the mob boys connect the ladies to Hill and the church, Roca decides to take the gloves off. He sets a powerful explosive at the church. No one is hurt but the message is clear. Back off.
Anne, who up to this point has disapproved of Hill’s side hustle as a junior T-Man, is shaken up by the blast and decides to join the crusade. However, Hill’s time at North Avenue might be short-lived. Church officials have voted to discontinue the North Avenue ministry and declared the pulpit vacant, essentially firing Reverend Hill. A number of church representatives are sent to close up shop and tie up any loose ends. While Hill meets with Dr. Fulton (Herb Voland) at the church, Anne is sent to the airport to pick up Dr. Rheems (Buzzi) and Reverend Wainwright (Francis).
On their way back to the church, Anne spots some of the gangsters and realizes they finally have a chance to track them back to their “bank”. Anne recruits Dr. Rheems, who turns out to be an amateur CB Radio buff (it was the 70s, after all), to man the radio while Hill sends the rest of the team into action. The last-minute plan interrupts Jane’s wedding and forces Vickie to drag her kids’ entire soccer team along for the ride but eventually, everyone converges on the gangsters’ warehouse.
The bad guys try to escape but the ladies have them surrounded. In no time, an impromptu demolition derby breaks out, with cars getting smashed left, right and center. The authorities arrive to put Max and his associates behind bars. The next Sunday, Reverend Hill addresses the congregation at the fire-damaged church for what he assumes will be his last sermon. But Dr. Fulton has had a change of heart. Hill can keep his job and the church will be rebuilt! Sounds like a happy ending to me. Take it away, Strawberry Shortcake!
By this point, the Disney comedy formula was pretty well set in stone. The North Avenue Irregulars (or, as it was known overseas, Hill’s Angels) doesn’t do much to stretch the boundaries of that formula. Within the first ten minutes, we get a slapstick ballet trying to rescue Delaney when he almost falls off the roof of the church followed by a chaotic introduction to our main characters. Live-action Disney movies were always looking for an excuse to wreck cars and this one comes up with a beauty.
But there are a few things that set The North Avenue Irregulars apart from its contemporaries. While there are kids involved, they’re mostly kept to the sidelines. Hill’s own kids are all but forgotten after awhile and Vickie’s carload is essentially just a cheering section. I don’t think anyone would describe this as a violent movie. But the explosion that tears the church apart is nothing to sneeze at. Besides, the image of a church being firebombed always has some power to shock, maybe especially in a Disney movie.
At the end of the day, The North Avenue Irregulars is a lightweight trifle but it is an amusing one. Most of the jokes land and the cast, particularly Cloris Leachman, Virginia Capers and Karen Valentine, is great fun to watch. Only poor Susan Clark comes off as a bit of a stick in the mud, giving Hill a hard time before he’s even done anything to warrant such treatment. She eventually loosens up a little bit but it still would have been nice to see someone a bit more vibrant in the role.
Disney released The North Avenue Irregulars on February 9, 1979. It didn’t seem to do all that well at the box office and critics mostly dismissed it. On Sneak Previews, both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert voted “no” (this was in their pre-thumbs days). I’m not going to make the case that this is some kind of neglected masterpiece but it is funny and easy to take.
In his review, Ebert did concede that the premise of The North Avenue Irregulars wasn’t bad. I totally agree and while I hate to encourage Disney in their quest to remake everything under the sun, a less-Disneyfied version of the story that perhaps hewed somewhat closer to the facts might be a lot of fun. It doesn’t need to have Sopranos or Scorsese-levels of mob violence. Simply raising The North Avenue Irregulars from a G to a PG-13 would be enough of a difference. But as a studio, Disney wasn’t ready to make that movie yet. They would be in about five or six years. But by then, The North Avenue Irregulars was already forgotten. Too bad because it’s a movie worth revisiting.
VERDICT: Not a home run but certainly a minor Disney Plus.
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