Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio: Snowball Express

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. 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: Snowball Express

Year: 1972

Source Materials: Chateau Bon Vivant by John O’Rear

Box office: $6,100,000

Plot: Johnny Baxter is at his corporate job when a probate attorney tells him that his recently deceased uncle, Jacob Barnesworth, has left him sole ownership of the lucrative Grand Imperial Hotel in the fictional town of Silver Hill, Colorado. Barnesworth claimed that the hotel brings in more than $14,000 per month. Baxter views this as a golden opportunity and quits his job. He moves his family to Colorado to take proprietorship of the hotel. It is an immense but ramshackle building with no heat and a colorful old codger, Jesse McCord, living in the shed. McCord offers his services as a bartender, but Baxter assigns him the job of bellhop. Local grease monkey Wally Perkins explains that the Grand Imperial sits on a huge amount of property. Baxter realizes that they can turn the hotel into a ski resort.

Baxter attempts to secure funding for his plans. Local banker Martin Ridgeway expresses great interest in Baxter’s idea, but also offers to buy the lodge, supposedly in order to convert it into a boys’ school. Baxter declines, so Ridgeway declines to give Baxter a loan, citing him as a bad collateral risk and specifically pointing out that Baxter has no experience in hotel or restaurant management. Baxter meets with a friendly banker, Mr. Wainwright, at a ski lodge. Baxter claims to be an avid skier and Wainwright takes him to a black diamond run called “Nightmare Alley.” Baxter ends up crashing into a tree.

While Baxter is recovering, Ridgeway gives him a check for $3,000. Baxter starts making a list of repairs for the lodge. Meanwhile, Wally works with McCord to repair the hot water heater. The water heater explodes, tearing a hole in the kitchen wall. Ridgeway’s check covers the repair, but leaves nothing for the ski lift Baxter had in mind. McCord pulls an old donkey engine out of mothballs, tying a rope around it, and offers it as a makeshift ski lift. When Wally dynamites a tree stump from the ground, the explosion sets off an avalanche, blocking a passing train carrying several hundred skiers. The Baxters quickly shuttle the skiers to their resort.

All goes well until Wally loses his balance and skis down a steep mountain, dangling over a ledge. Using the donkey engine and a rope to lower Baxter down the mountain to rescue Wally, McCord accidentally cause the donkey engine to slide down the mountain and plow through the hotel. All of the guests check out, leaving the Baxters out of money once again. Baxter goes back to Ridgeway, asking for an extension on his loan, which Ridgeway refuses. Baxter notices a sign for the Silver Hills Snowmobile Race, with a $5,000 prize. Baxter decides to drive in the race, with McCord as his partner. Baxter’s wife threatens to leave him over his carelessness and obsession.

Though they come close, Baxter and McCord narrowly lose the race. Ridgeway brings the deed transfer papers to the lodge for Baxter to sign. After threatening to begin the foreclosure process, he offers to buy the resort from Baxter. Ridgeway’s secretary, Miss Wigginton, tells everyone the truth: the property includes several hundred acres of timberland originally donated to the local Indian tribes by Barnesworth for as long as the tribe inhabited the land. As the tribe has moved away or died out, the land reverts to the estate. Ridgeway wants to buy the resort in order to log the timber. McCord adds that the land the town was built on was granted by Barnesworth on the condition that several buildings be erected, including a library. Baxter’s son notes that he has not seen a library, and asks why the land has not reverted to Baxter. Silver Hill is in violation of the grant, meaning that the entire town is built on land now owned by Baxter. Ridgeway agrees to loan Baxter the money necessary to repair and expand the resort.

Cast: Dean Jones, Nancy Olson, Harry Morgan, Keenan Wynn, Johnny Whitaker, Michael McGreevey, George Lindsey, Mary Wickes, and Dick Van Patten all return.

Kathleen Cody as Chris Baxter. She is best known for her role as the characters Hallie Stokes and Carrie Stokes, on the television series Dark Shadows. Cody started her daytime television career with regular long running parts on the CBS daytime soap operas The Edge of Night as Laurie Ann Karr, As the World Turns as Sally Graham, and The Secret Storm as Cecilia. David White as Mr. Fowler. He is best known for playing Darrin Stephens’ boss Larry Tate on Bewitched.He also appeared in Sgt Bilko, Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Father Knows Best , Bonanza, Have Gun – Will Travel, My Favorite Martian and Dick Tracy. He appeared in two episodes of The Twilight Zone: “I Sing the Body Electric” and “A World of Difference.” Also in 1963, he appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: as Detective Burr in “An Out for Oscar”, and as Lance Hawthorn in “The Dark Pool”. Though primarily known for television work, White had several memorable supporting feature film roles, includingin Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment, Sunrise at Campobello  and The Lawbreakers.  He later appeared on The Love Boat, Remington Steele, The Rockford Files, Columbo: Identity Crisis, What’s Happening!!, Rhoda, Quincy, M.E., Cagney & Lacey and Dallas.He played the role of J. Jonah Jameson in the pilot episode of the television series The Amazing Spider-Man. His final role came in 1986 on an episode of Dynasty. He also appeared in the movies The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, and Brewster’s Millions.

Alice Backes as Miss Ogelvie. Her films include The Twonky, I Want to Live!, It Started with a Kiss, That Touch of Mink, The Glory Guys, The Third Day, The Man from Independence, Half a House, Gable and Lombard, and The Cat From Outer Space. John Myhers as Mr. Manescue. His most notable film role was playing Bert O’Bratt in the film adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He played Robert Livingston in 1776 (he also played the role in the Broadway musical version), and also appeared in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I as the leader of the Roman Senate. Other film credits include Quo Vadis,[8] Willard, Weddings and Babies, and  and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t).Myhers also had a robust career on television, appearing on shows like Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, The Mothers-in-Law, I Dream of Jeannie, Love, American Style, Alice, The Waltons and Fantasy Island. He was also the voice of Hector Heathcote on The Hector Heathcote Show.  His last acting appearance was in 1985 on The Twilight Zone in the episode “Ye Gods”.

Critical Reception:

  • Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, “What it lacks in wit it has in wholesome, hearty chuckles. Add to this some nice, snowy backgrounds and slope activity in the Colorado ski country.”  
  • Variety reported: “Bearing all the elements audiences have come to expect in Disney product, film concentrates on fast action and visual comedic situations which should be well received in its intended market.”  
  • Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and noted, “Youngsters probably will be bored with a plot that ultimately hinges on a legal technicality involving the probate of a will, but they should enjoy the slapstick, the trick skiing sequences, and the family St. Bernard that detests cold weather.”  
  • Fredric Milsten of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Ironically titled, ‘Snowball’ is a rather slow-paced farce, which begins promisingly and then diminishes in size and effect. Its segments are rather jerkily and sloppily tacked together, and its improbabilities and illogic soon overshadow its wit.”  
  • Margaret Ford of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that “Dean Jones and a strong supporting cast do their best with the rather flat characters, and the total result is that old American favourite, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Available on Disney+?: Yes

My take: These films were mostly middle of the road, not great, but not terrible either

Next Week: The Bears and I