Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We’ve done all of the animated films, so we’re moving on to the live-action and partially-animated films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Misadventures of Merlin Jones

Year: 1964

Box office: $4,000,000

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Plot: Midvale College student Merlin Jones who is always involved with mind experiments, designs a helmet that connects to an electroencephalographic tape that records mental activity. He is brought before Judge Holmsby for wearing the helmet while driving and his license is suspended. Merlin returns to the lab and discovers accidentally that his new invention enables him to read minds.

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Judge Holmsby visits the diner where Merlin works part-time, and Merlin, through his newly found powers, learns that the judge is planning a crime. After informing the police, he is disregarded as a crackpot. Merlin and Jennifer, his girlfriend, break into Judge Holmsby’s house looking for something to prove Holmsby’s criminal intent but are arrested by the police. Holmsby then confesses that he is the crime book author, “Lex Fortis,” and asks that this identity be kept confidential.

Merlin’s next experiment uses hypnotism. After hypnotizing Stanley, Midvale’s lab chimp, into standing up for himself against Norman – the bully student in charge of caring for Stanley, Merlin gets into a fight with Norman, and is brought before Judge Holmsby again. Intrigued by Merlin’s experiments, the judge asks for Merlin’s help in constructing a mystery plot for his next book.

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Working on the premise that no honest person can be made to do anything they wouldn’t do otherwise – especially commit a crime – Merlin hypnotizes Holmsby and instructs him to kidnap Stanley. Shocked when the judge actually commits the crime, Merlin and Jennifer return the chimp, but are charged for the theft themselves. The judge sentences Merlin to jail, completely unaware of his own role in the crime. Livid at the injustice, Jennifer persuades Holmsby of his own guilt, and the good judge admits that there might be a little dishonesty in everybody.

Background: To date Disney has not officially stated whether or not this film was actually two episodes of a planned television series, but this has long been suspected to be the case, with at least one critic, Eugene Archer, of The New York Times, writing upon its release:

Movies made for television are commonplace these days, but the idea of screening television shows in movie theaters is still farfetched. Who is expected to spend the $2? Strange as it sounds, this seems to be the explanation behind Walt Disney’s latest hit, “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.” It is a pastiche of two separate stories with the same set of characters, each running less than an hour (leaving time for commercials), stitched together in the middle and released yesterday in neighborhood theaters.

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The screen credit for writing reads, “Screenplay by Tom and Helen August”, which were the pseudonyms for Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt, two writers who were blacklisted.

Cast: Tommy Kirk, Annette Funicello, Leon Ames, and Alan Hewitt return.

Stuart Erwin as Police Captain Loomis. He appeared in Mother Knows Best, Palooka, The Big Broadcast, Pigskin Parade, 1 and Our Town. Connie Gilchrist as Mrs. Gossett. She is known for her roles in the films Cry ‘Havoc’, A Letter to Three Wives, Little Women, Tripoli, Houdini, Some Came Running, and Auntie Mame.

Dallas McKennon as Detective Hutchins. He provided many character voices for Disney in Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Mary Poppins, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He also provided the voices for many Disney Attractions such as the famous Big Thunder Mountain Railroad safety spiel, a pair of laughing hyenas in the Africa Room portion of It’s a Small World, Benjamin Franklin’s voice in Epcot’s The American Adventure and the voice of Zeke in the Country Bear Jamboree. Norm Grabowski as Norman. He was a hot rod builder who became an actir. He appeared in television shows, including The Monkees, Batman and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and films such as High School Confidential, The Beat Generation, The Big Operator, Girls Town, College Confidential, Sex Kittens Go to College, Roustabout, Girl Happy, The Monkey’s Uncle, Out of Sight, Blackbeard’s Ghost, The Towering Inferno, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run.

Critical Reception:

  • Eugene Archer of The New York Times panned the film as “cheap situation comedy” and “the kind of picture usually dismissed by shrugging, ‘Well, at least the kids will like it.’ Unless that is, your children happen to be bright.”
  • A review in Variety declared, “Sad to say, it just doesn’t come off … As it plays out, there’s little high voltage in the misadventures of the title character, Tommy Kirk.”
  • Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The yarn leans toward science-fiction (I suppose we might call it semi-fantasy) but it isn’t nearly as funny as The Absent-Minded Professor or the Flubbers.
  • The Chicago Tribune called it “a kooky comedy of the type young people will enjoy thoroughly… good natured nonsense.”
  • The Monthly Film Bulletin stated, “Robert Stevenson makes heavy weather of this comedy—virtually two stories in one—which attempts without success to repeat the formula of Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor: both parts are disappointingly developed and singularly unfunny.”

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Legacy: This film led to a 1965 sequel called The Monkey’s Uncle.

 

My take: It really does seem like two episodes of a television show, and I feel like your enjoyment of the film depends upon how charming you find Tommy Kirk

Next Week: We take a Jolly Holiday with Mary Poppins