The late 60s and early 70s were an unusual time for Disney’s live-action division. While still ranking out the polished, family friendly productions tailor-made for their Sunday night Disneyland/Wonderful World of Disney slot, the sheer number of films being produced led to a few oddities slipping through the gates. What would a modern audience make of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which featured both witchcraft *and* Nazis? It certainly freaked me out a bit as a kid, when I would lap up the various odd and unexpected Disney films like Condorman, The Devil and Max Devlin and – later – Mr. Boogedy, with great enthusiasm.
But my favorite live-action Disney film as a child really had no controversial elements at all. In fact, it’s so light and predictable and practically unremarkable in every way that it’s hard to describe why I took a shine to it. But the fact is that I kept a copy of 1967’s The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin on VHS for much longer than I had any right to – and I would regularly pop it in to re-watch the rather meager tale of a British butler becoming a wild west folk hero simply for the joy and comfort it would bring me. I had no love for wild west tales at the time, but the stiff-upper-lip loyalty of a British butler did hold some appeal to me reaching back to Cadbury in the old Richie Rich comics. There was just something about the series of coincidences, the setting and the performances that hit me right in my sweet spot; and that affection still remained during a recent re-watch.
Really, the great appeal of Bullwhip Griffin for me comes from a one-two punch of great performances, which imbue life into what could have been rather bland characterizations. First is the late, great Roddy McDowell as Bullwhip, an impossibly competent and reserved gentleman who wears a bowler hat and seems prepared for every situation – except those that involve romance. Even better is Griffin’s foil “Judge” Higgins played by the amazing Karl Malden, who walks away with the film as a slimy con-man who is continually getting himself – and Griffin – into unfortunate scrapes. The rest of the main cast is less inspiring, with the requisite precocious kid (Bryan Russell) and love interest (a pre-Bob Newhart Show Suzanne Pleshette) doing little of note, but there are plenty of recognizable faces in the supporting cast – including brief appearances from Dub Taylor and Doodles Weaver.
The plot is adapted from the 1965 children’s novel By the Great Horn Spoon! (which I’ve never read) and takes place in late 19th century Boston, where the uptight butler Griffin discovers that his late employer has left his family – including Jack (Russell) and his older sister Arabella (Pleshette) almost penniless. Obsessed with the gold rush, young Jack runs off to catch a boat to California with Griffin in close pursuit – but the ship leaves before the two can get off. Cooking for the captain to make their way, the pair run into Shakespearean actor Quentin Bartlett, Richard Haydn in a role originally meant for Tony Hancock who reveals that he has a treasure map within his possession. After the map is the nefarious shyster Judge Higgins (Karl Malden), who continually finds himself foiled by Griffin – particularly after they reach California, where an accidental confrontation turns the newly christened “Bullwhip” Griffin into a legend.
It’s all great, colorful fun thanks to the reliable direction by James Neilson, who a few years earlier had tackled the great Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (with Patrick McGoohan!). It has that Disney gloss to everything, but despite a few musical numbers (which don’t involve characters just bursting into song), it’s thankfully devoid of a lot of the more tiresome schmaltz that plague a lot of the family-friendly films of the time. Of course you’ll get your happy ending with the evil being appropriately punished, but it’s pleasantly meandering and never takes itself very seriously. While hardly a classic, it’s a fine, fun piece of cinema that deserves rediscovery for fans of Disney and – especially – fans of Roddy McDowell or Karl Malden.