We’ve been doing family movie night on Saturdays, frankly it’s challenging to find something that all of us will enjoy. I often resort to movies from our childhood, and that means the 70s. Ah, movies of the 70s. Antiheroes, abandoned children, wacky background music.
This week: The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)–I think this is a good movie to show kids to show them just how cushy they have it. Three lovable scamps–Billy, Clovis, and the always peeing Celia–recently orphaned, are shipped out West to a “second uncle or something.” Said uncle hears of their coming and blows town, but not before he hints that he’s expecting a shipment of something very valuable and needs someone else to pick it up, as he’ll be out of town. His easy mark is Bill Bixby, a professional gambler who probably shouldn’t get custody of children. We know how he gets when he’s angry.
Mr. Bixby tries to refuse delivery of the children, who are RIGHT THERE WITH EARS ON. After a night of leaky roof and flaming bacon, Dusty Clydesdale (yes), the stagecoach driver, comes to the rescue with her leftover stew and natural motherliness. Bixby tries to convince her that she has a way with children and should, therefore, take these. She, being a woman, and thus somewhat feeble minded is taken in by this sweet talk even as she sees through it, and begins to fall for the drunken, gambling, child-selling Mr. Bixby. But still–probably through some notion of playing hard-to-get–she does not agree to take them off his hands. He is understandably perplexed and does what anyone would do–tries to sell them into slavery. And when that doesn’t work, he tries to pawn them off on the whorehouse. Then he takes to leaving the kids on their own while he gambles which causes them to go off to a mine, since they have heard that their dad left them one, in which there is certain to be gold. No really, there is. They’re orphans in a Disney movie. On this excursion, they get into a mine cart, which of course jumps the rails, of course goes at breakneck speed into town, of course drives through a laundry line, followed by a crate of chickens, and yes, a mirror. All in front of a really awful blue screen background that causes Julianna to call out “Photoshop!” classic.
Then we are introduced to the strangely homoerotic duo of Tim Conway and Don Knotts. They get all hunkered down, thinking they’re about to “go down in a blaze of glory.” The violins swell, Don Knotts swears he’d pitch his blanket next to that of Tim Conway. Which is pretty sweet, really. And how often do you see a man light his cigarette on another man’s flaming butt? I must say, though, in the interest of full disclosure, that Tim Conway is one heck of a physical comedian and the two of them together had me giggling, even if the kids didn’t seem to appreciate the genius. After the kids find a chunk of gold in a second mine, Knotts and Conway–failed burglers who bungle–contrive to steal the gold from the bank. Hijinks ensue. Extendable ladders provide endless comedy. It’s as sure as a runaway mine car.
Once they have gold, the children become much more desirable. That 70s flawed hero played by Bill Bixby starts to soften on the kids and seeks the advice of Col. Sherman Potter, who is the sheriff and barber. Potter suggests that he should marry Dusty so that she could have the kids (the courts couldn’t award custody to an unmarried woman) and he could get the hell out of Dodge. Initially skeptical, Bixby starts to see the light when Colonel Potter tells him that he’s seen Dusty after she “got caught in a cloudburst…and I gotta tell you…” HelLO Nurse! Bixby proposes this “marriage” to sweet, smitten Dusty. After he promises that he won’t “exercise [his] husbandly prerogative,” she agrees. She also allows Col. Potter to skip the nice parts of the wedding ceremony to “just get it over with.” It’s very touching when they are pronounced “hitched” and then shake on it. Bixby promptly goes off drinking with Col. Potter and leaves the kids with Dusty. Ah, wedded bliss. But oh HO! She finds out he bought a brass bed, which totally means he wanted to exercise those prerogatives. So they get into a bar fight. As you do. I think I went to this wedding reception…I’m looking at you, Justin. The confusion gets cleared up and all, but isn’t this a bit racy for a kids’ movie? Even in the 70s? Whores and husbandly prerogatives?
Then hey! It’s Slim Pickens!
Now all the Blazing Saddles jokes we’ve been making (you just kind of have to when it’s a crappy Western set) are even better! whee! He and his lot are the BAD bad guys. We know they’re bad b/c Slim dresses up as a priest to get information out of the guy that is going to transport the gold. And no one would EVER recognize Slim Pickens if he was wearing black. A chamelon, he is. Different in every role. Just like Harry Morgan.
Our children are at the mercy the court, and that always goes well in 70s movies, right? Everyone in the town wants them, once they find out that the kids found some gold. But of course the ne’er do well Second Uncle turns up and claims the kids. Touching scene ensues in which Dusty tells Bixby that he was a good father. Which, by 70s movie standards, I guess he was. He didn’t manage to actually sell them into slavery, after all.
Shortly before the movie ends, we get to the title and the, you know, plot. The kids decide to give the gold to Knotts and Conway and help them steal it. They’ll be The Apple Dumpling Gang! Only Slim Pickens is up to no good and he goes into the bank to steal the gold first. Bummer. Shootout, minor woundings, humorous drinking, slapsticky dynamite passing. And, god be praised, the giant mirror is broken again. Then the chase in front of the really, really lame green screen. There’s your standard fist fight on a fire truck going over the rapids. And then the kissin’. The way you can tell this is a kids’ movie is that it’s the 70s and the good guy wins.
The end scene, when the previously manly Dusty comes out all dressed up as a woman? Lily squawked “AH! CREEPY!” And off they rode into the sunset.
So: children repeated told no one wants them and this is not played as at all tragic, just the way things are. Children shopped around to various households with promises of how hard they’ll work–even at the whorehouse (“They love parties!” he said). And no mention of the actual title (or, for that matter, the actual plot) until the last 15 min of the movie. And yet…it was actually kind of good. Just like you remember.