Friday, May 18, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Snowball Express (1972)

When I was growing up my grandfather regularly took me, along with my brother and cousin, to Disney's live-action films. Some of the films we saw in the early '70s were reissues of older '60s movies like MIRACLE OF THE WHITE STALLIONS (1963); we also saw first-run films such as THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969), THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK (1971), THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971), NAPOLEON AND SAMANTHA (1972), and THE WORLD'S GREATEST ATHLETE (1973). This era wasn't known as Disney's Golden Age, but the movies were usually fun and going with my Grandpa is a happy memory.

I think Grandpa's favorite must have been SNOWBALL EXPRESS, because I vividly recall that we went and saw it twice! So it felt a little like revisiting childhood tonight, watching SNOWBALL EXPRESS for the first time since the early '70s. It held up quite well, a somewhat silly but genial film with a good cast, providing agreeable Friday night viewing at the end of a busy week.

Johnny Baxter (Disney stalwart Dean Jones) is a big city office drone. One morning a lawyer (Larry White of BEWITCHED) notifies Johnny that he's inherited a hotel in Colorado with an income of $14,000 a month. Johnny bids farewell to his obnoxious boss (Dick Van Patten, later of EIGHT IS ENOUGH) and moves wife (Nancy Olson) and kids (Johnny Whittaker, Kathleen Cody) to snowy Colorado.

The Hotel Imperial turns out to be an empty, very rundown building which comes with a cantankerous old coot (Harry Morgan) sleeping there for free. It's not the life of luxury Johnny had anticipated, but can his family rehabilitate the inn and build a new life? Incidentally, it's never explained why the lawyer told Johnny the hotel had a $14,000-a-month income!

The movie is by no means a classic, but it's amusing, with some good comedic visuals supplying a couple of laugh-out-loud moments -- my favorite such scene was when a rack of skis is knocked over and the riderless skis all start down the slopes on their own. There's also a fun shot of a raccoon family which has set up residence inside a stove.

Disney films of this era tended to use back projections which were so fake that I took notice even at the age of eight or ten. When I was a child I felt these scenes accentuated the movies' silliness, but today such shots almost make me feel nostalgic! It's a very "Disney in the '70s" look.

Another aspect of the visual entertainment is the look the movie provides at '70s fashions and furniture; the oranges of chairs, scarves, and more are almost blinding. I've recently noticed '70s colors making a comeback in the home sections of certain stores; do we really need to go there again?!

There's a reason Dean Jones made so many Disney movies; he's handsome, pleasant, and right on key playing characters who aren't too smart yet aren't too dumb, dealing with the strange situations Disney dreamed up for him in the '60s and '70s: a detective story with a cat, a duck laying golden eggs, a car with a mind of its own, a ghostly pirate, a Great Dane that thinks he's a dachshund...he dealt with them all with aplomb and made the audience believe he believed.

Like many in the cast, Nancy Olson was also a Disney veteran. She had previously starred in POLLYANNA (1960), THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961), SON OF FLUBBER (1963), and SMITH! (1969). She does a good job walking the line between being annoyed and supportive, and she manages to carry off the '70s wardrobe and hair without looking too silly.

Part of the fun of Disney movies of the era is seeing the same faces pop up over and over again; since these folks are all gone now, spending time with them again via Disney has a layer of emotion that didn't exist when the films first came out. Disney stalwarts Harry Morgan and Keenan Wynn are along for the ride in this one; Morgan, buried under a beard, plays a character a couple decades older than his real age at the time. Morgan's Disney films included THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971), CHARLEY AND THE ANGEL (1973) and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG (1975), while Keenan Wynn had appeared in all of the previously mentioned Nancy Olson titles, excepting POLLYANNA; he was later in THE SHAGGY D.A. (1974) and HERBIE RIDES AGAIN (1974).

Also in the cast are Mary Wickes, whose Disney credits included 101 DALMATIANS (1961) and NAPOLEON AND SAMANTHA (1972); and George Lindsey, who just passed away earlier this month. Lindsey was in CHARLEY AND THE ANGEL (1973) and voiced Trigger in ROBIN HOOD (1973) and Rabbit in THE RESCUERS (1977).

The movie was filmed in Crested Butte, Colorado. It runs 93 minutes. The director was Disney's Norman Tokar.

SNOWBALL EXPRESS is available on DVD and can be rented from Netflix. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.


Blogger Robby Cress said...

I've always enjoyed the Disney films from the 70s, they were simple and fun. Of course my memories are of seeing the films as a kid. I'll have to revisit them now as an adult. I'll probably still enjoy them for the nostalgic factor. I thought I saw all the Disney Dean Jones films but I don't recall ever seeing this one on television and I wasn't around to catch it in the theatre, so glad to see it is on DVD.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your comment, Robby! I'd love to read what you think when you have the chance to revisit some of the '70s films. I think SNOWBALL EXPRESS is probably one of the better Disney films from the era and hope you enjoy checking it out.

Best wishes,

9:41 AM  
Blogger James M. Ottley said...

Great blog. Do you know if hotel building was a real hotel in crested butte and still exists?

7:02 AM  

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