Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition. The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We have reviewed all of the animated films, so we are moving on to the live-action and partially animated ones. 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 Apple Dumpling Gang

Year: 1975

Source materials: The novel of the same name by Jack Bickham.

Box office: $36,853,000

Plot: In 1879, a slick gambler named Russell Donovan comes to the town of Quake City. He meets his old associate, John Whintle, who asks Donovan to sign for valuables coming in on tomorrow’s stagecoach. Donovan accepts a down payment and promises to pick up the valuables.


The next day, Donovan realizes he has been duped into taking care of three little orphans, Bobby, Clovis, and Celia Bradley. The stagecoach driver Magnolia “Dusty” Clydesdale explains that Whintle is in fact the children’s relative and their de facto legal guardian. With their relative gone and Donovan promising to care for the “valuables”, they are now wards of Donovan.


The town’s sheriff, barber, Justice of the Peace, and judge Homer McCoy tells Donovan that he is legally obligated unless he can have someone else take custody of the children. The Bradleys wreak havoc in Quake City while riding in an old mine cart destroying much private property. The town’s citizens demand that Donovan pay for the damages, losing him most of his funds for his trip to New Orleans.

As soon as Donovan arrived in Quake City, he is the target of the “Hashknife Outfit”. The Outfit consists of two ne’er do well former members of the Stillwell Gang, Amos Tucker and Theodore Ogelvie. They were once very threatening, until they were ousted by their former boss, Frank Stillwell, for shooting him in the leg. Amos and Theodore continuously try to rob Donovan during his stay in town to miserable results.

Bobby, Clovis, and Celia decide to help their guardian make money by going to the gold mine that they inherited. They come across Amos and Theodore at their hideout and become acquainted. They direct the kids to the mine after mistaking them for a posse. The Bradley children end up finding a massive gold nugget. This incentivizes many people to adopt the children as it would give them access to the gold. Fearing that the people would not have the children’s interests at heart, Donovan has arranged a sham marriage with Dusty so she can keep custody of the Bradley children while he goes to New Orleans.

However, things become complicated when Whintle returns. Whintle has heard of the gold and schemes to get the children back. His attorney has a court order demanding immediate return of the Bradleys. McCoy is forced to adhere to Whintle’s demands. At the same time, Amos and Theodore attempt to steal the Bradleys’ gold from the local bank and escape to Mexico. The Hashknife Outfit proves unsuccessful when they try to enter the skylight and wrap themselves up in their rope used for rapelling down. McCoy finds them guilty and orders death warrants for them, causing the two to retreat to their hideout.

The Stillwell Gang enters town and plans to steal the nugget. Frank impersonates a priest to gain more information about the transportation of the gold from Colonel T. R. Clydesdale. The children, who have grown attached to Donovan and Dusty, go to Theodore and Amos and allow them to steal the gold. If the gold goes missing, Whintle will have no more desire for the children and will return custody.

The next day, the Stillwell Gang enters the bank and takes the nugget. Simultaneously, the kids help the Hashknife Outfit rob the bank. Amos and Theodore are recognized by Frank and almost killed. They are saved when one of the Stillwell Gang starts a shootout with the lawmen and distracts Frank. Frank decides to leave the gold and escape, taking Celia as a hostage. Donovan saves her from Stillwell with the help of Dusty. Amos and Theodore retreat to the bank’s safe to escape gunfire. Their unstable dynamite is shot, obliterating the bank and the gold nugget gets blown into many smaller nuggets. Whintle renounces his guardianship and leaves town.


Stillwell’s bounty is awarded to Donovan, giving him enough money for New Orleans. He instead buys a ranch for himself, Dusty, and the Bradley children. While on their way to the ranch, a reformed Amos and Theodore catch up with the newfound family asking for work as farmhands, to which Donovan agrees.

Music: The song “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, as heard in the opening and closing credits, was composed by Shane Tatum and was sung/performed by Randy Sparks and The Back Porch Majority.

Cast: We profiled Don Knotts a while back. He plays Theodore Ogelvie.

Bill Bixby as Russell Donovan. He is known for his roles as Tim O’Hara in My Favorite Martian, Tom Corbett in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and stage illusionist Anthony Blake in the series The Magician, but is perhaps best known for his role as scientist Dr. David Banner in the series The Incredible Hulk. Susan Clark as Magnolia Dusty Clydesdale. She starred in the TV movie, Babe, in which she played Babe Didrikson Zaharias, winning her an Emmy in 1976. Films include Coogan’s Bluff, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, Valdez Is Coming, Showdown, Night Moves, Airport 1975, City on Fire, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Porky’s, Emily of New Moon, Trapped, and Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story.

Tim Conway as Amos Tucker. He portrayed the inept Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy, was a regular cast member on The Carol Burnett Show. With Don Knotts, he appeared in The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes. He provided the voice of Barnacle Boy in the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants. He is also known for portraying the character of Dorf. David Wayne as Col. T.R. Clydesdale. Wayne’s first major Broadway role was Og the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, for which he won the Theatre World Award and the first ever Tony for Actor, Supporting or Featured (Musical). was awarded a second Tony for Best Actor for The Teahouse of the August Moon and was nominated as Best Actor (Musical) for The Happy Time. [4] He originated the role of Ensign Pulver in the classic stage comedy Mister Roberts and also appeared in Say, Darling; After the Fall; and Incident at Vichy. He appeared in Adam’s Rib, M, As Young as You Feel, We’re Not Married, O. Henry’s Full House, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Tender Trap.

Slim Pickens as Frank Stillwell. He started out as a rodeo performer before appearing in films including Rocky Mountain, Old Oklahoma Plains, Down Laredo Way, Tonka, One-Eyed Jacks, Dr. Strangelove, Major Dundee, Never a Dull Moment, The Cowboys, The Getaway, Ginger in the Morning, Blazing Saddles, Poor Pretty Eddie, Rancho Deluxe, Tom Horn, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, An Eye for an Eye, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1941, and The Howling. He provided the voice of B.O.B. in The Black Hole. Harry Morgan as Homer McCoy. Morgan’s major television roles included Pete Porter in both December Bride and Pete and Gladys, Officer Bill Gannon on Dragnet (a role he reprised for the movie), Amos Coogan on Hec Ramsey and his starring role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter in M*A*S*H and AfterMASH. Morgan appeared in more than 100 films, including The Ox-Bow Incident, Wing and a Prayer, A Bell for Adano, Dragonwyck, The Gangster, The Big Clock, High Noon, Bend of the River, Thunder Bayl The Glenn Miller Story, The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, Inherit the Wind, How the West Was Won, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, Frankie and Johnny, The Flim Flam Man, Support Your Local Sheriff!, Support Your Local Gunfighter!, Snowball Express,The Shootist, and The Wild Wild West Revisited.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote that the film was “In a lot of ways … a throwback to the Disney productions of two or three years ago, a period of overwhelming banality in the studio’s history. More recently, Disney has given us some genuinely inventive entertainments, especially ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’ and ‘Island at the Top of the World.’ With ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang,’ we’re back to assembly line plots about the adventure of squeaky-clean kids.”.
  • Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film one star out of four and called it “the latest piece of treacle from the Walt Disney sitcom kitchen. The recipe is well-known: Mix smiling moms and pops with the dash of villains, fold in saccharine children, and beat with slapstick. The resulting cinematic mush is so predictable, it’s a wonder that more youngsters don’t tell the Disney folks to ‘bake off.'”
  • Richard Eder of The New York Times called it “as cheerful and indistinguishable as rice pudding.”
  • Variety called the film “an engaging gentle-humored comedy melodrama … Don Tait’s screenplay based on the book by Jack M. Bickham would benefit by some sharp editing of certain Knotts-Conway routines but otherwise picture generally is a fast-paced situation caper.”
  • Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it “a pleasant and funny Disney family comedy” that was “a bit long but amiable enough to get away with overstaying its welcome.”
  • Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it “the summer’s second consecutive stale confection from the Disney organization, whose comedy formulas are solely in need of rejuvenation.”

Legacy: In 1979, Knotts and Conway reprised their roles in the unsuccessful sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Bill Bixby, Susan Clark, and the rest of the cast did not appear. Harry Morgan was the only other member of the cast to appear in the sequel, although he plays a different character.


In January 1982, Disney aired Tales of the Apple Dumpling Gang, a television film remake starring John Bennett Perry in the Bixby role, Ed Begley Jr. in the Conway role and Arte Johnson in the Knotts role. One year later saw the premiere of a television series, Gun Shy, with a completely different cast, including Barry Van Dyke in the Bixby role. Six episodes were produced.

My take: The whole point of this film is to watch Knotts and Conway consistently screw up. The sequence where they try to steal a ladder is hysterical.

Next Week: Don Knotts returns in No Deposit, No Return