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IN MEMORIAM: THE DEAN OF DISNEY

September 3, 2015

If you grew up in the 1970’s like I did, then I would be willing to bet you spent many Sunday nights watching THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY. It was pretty much a tradition in my house. For those of you who are too young, WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY usually aired classic films from the Disney library in shortened 60 minute installments. Sometimes they would show Disney cartoons revolving around a theme. In any event, you could count on one of several things Sundays at 7, you’d either see a nature film, the aforementioned cartoons, or one of the movies, sometimes starring Kurt Russell (yes, that Kurt Russell), playing his bumbling genius character of Dexter Riley, or you would see the man I am here to pay my respects to today, the loveable and talented Dean Jones.

Rather than review his extensive resume, which you can do at imdb.com, I’d like to use this post to remember my favorite movies that stared Mr. Jones. The best place to begin, I think you will agree, is with THE LOVE BUG movies. Here, Dean played Jim Douglas, a down-on-his-luck race car driver, who rescues the legendary VW Ragtop Beetle from a ruthless car salesman. Herbie, as Jim’s mechanic christens him (a little trivia for you), we learn has its own personality and mind. When Jim discovers Herbie’s love of racing, he starts mounting a comeback. While it would have been easy for the studio to just make this a simple rags to riches fluff fantasy, Dean grounds Jim Douglas firmly in reality, denying Herbie’s gift, abandoning Herbie when he loses his first race, finally realizing that he wasn’t winning alone. In the end, we come to like the character, flaws and all.  Dean would reprise the role of Jim Douglas no less than three times. After HERBIE RIDES AGAIN, the studio realized that Dean Jones and Herbie were inseparable. So, they brought Dean back for HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO,  a fun mix of racing and thievery, with a very funny turn by Don Knotts. CBS brought Jomes and Herbie to television for a short lived series, which explored their life off the track. To this day, I still remember an episode where Herbie gets himself impounded, and Dean, as Jim, gives him a chewing out. Herbie tries to play on Jim’s sympathies by activating his windshield wipers and washing fluid to suggest crying, but Jim wasn’t having any. It was great. Finally, in the late 1990’s Dean retired the character in a new LOVE BUG movie which sought to explore the origins of Herbie’s abilities. Sadly, it was not a shining moment, as the movie took the magic out of Herbie.

Then there’s THE SHAGGY D.A., a sequel to THE SHAGGY DOG, which had come out many years earlier. The story focused on Wilby Daniels, who upon reading the inscription on Lucretia Borgia’s beetle ring too many times, turns into a sheep dog. In SHAGGY D.A., Wilby’s a married man, with a son, and has completely forgotten about the ring, until it’s stolen from a museum. This would be bad enough if it weren’t for the fact that Daniels is trying to unseat the town’s corrupt District Attorney, played with hilarious bluster by Keenan Wynn. Again reading the inscription causes Daniels to turn into a sheep dog, this one owned by an ice cream man played by the great Tim Conway. Naturally, Conway’s character thinks his dog can really talk, which becomes one of the movie’s funniest running gags. As you probably guessed by now, Daniels transforms at the worst possible moments, on TV, at a fundraiser, and worst of all, right in front of his rival. I loved this movie for its pure slapstick sensibilities, including a search for the ring in a cherry pie, which ends up in an all out pie fight that stands toe-to-toe with the one in THE GREAT RACE. Once again, Jones draws us into the character he’s playing, we care about him as a devoted dad and husband, and we sympathize with his plight while laughing at the sheer craziness of it all. By the way, the TV spots for this movie used David Lindup’s I SAY, I SAY, I SAY. I told you that piece was everywhere in the 1970’s.

Finally, there’s THAT DARN CAT, in which Dean plays Agent Zeke Kelso, assigned to track down a kidnapped woman with the unlikely help of DC, Hayley Mills’ very intelligent cat. One problem, Agent Kelso is allergic to cats, and DC isn’t too crazy about Kelso. In a documentary about Disney’s live action movies, the producers weren’t sure this would hit with the audience. They snuck into a screening, just in time to see the scene in which DC leads the agents on a wild goose chase that leads them all back to DC’s house, where the two teams of agents ambush each other. The audience was on its feet, laughing and cheering, and the producers knew they had a hit. And once again, we get to know Agent Kelso, and like him for the everyman agent he is.

Well, there it is my readers, my fondest memories of Dean Jones. Dean, wherever you are now, I just want to say thank you for the great work you did for Disney. You were a class act, and a great person in general. Say Hi to Walt, Don, and  Buddy for us. Tell them the movies are still a part of who we are. Rest in Peace, Mr. Jones.

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