I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, if I see this movie on cable, I will like as not stop what I’m doing and watch the rest of it. And I own it. It’s not great, but it’s definitely better than its reputation. It’s light and charming and even manages to acknowledge that women can be good at seemingly masculine activities and still have a longing for feminine things, something that shows so often get wrong—especially because appearing in a beautiful dress once doesn’t then mean she never appears in pants again!
Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) is playing poker one night and agrees to pick up valuables off the next day’s stage on behalf of the untrustworthy John Wintle (Don Knight). The “valuables” turn out to be Bobby (Clay O’Brien), Clovis (Brad Savage), and Celia Bradley (Stacy Manning). Donovan is understandably less than thrilled, but Homer McCoy (Harry Morgan), who is barber, Justice of the Peace, sheriff, and judge for Quake City, tells him he signed for the kids and they’re his problem. Then, the kids find a very large gold nugget, and everyone wants them. Or anyway control of their gold. In the best interests of the children, Donovan marries local stagecoach driver Magnolia “Dusty” Clydesdale (Susan Clark).
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, a pair of desperate criminals are hiding from everyone. They are Theodore Ogelvie (Don Knotts) and Amos Tucker (Tim Conway). And I mean everyone—they’re hiding from the law, because they’re technically criminals, and they’re hiding from their former gang, because Theodore accidentally shot the leader of their former gang, Frank Stilwell (Slim Pickens), and he’s understandably upset about this. The kids encounter them and want to give them the gold nugget so everyone will leave them alone, and Theodore and Amos want to steal it and are completely incompetent.
Really, a lot of Disney movies are about kids who need homes. The Bradley children are orphans. Wintle appears to be their only living relative, and he doesn’t want them when it looks like they’d be anything but the owners of a giant gold nugget. Donovan doesn’t seem fond of kids in general. Dusty is, and even these kids in particular, but almost everyone else in the kids’ lives pretend to be nice to them. There’s a scene in the movie where Celia is dressed in a pretty new dress, implied to be the prettiest she’s ever had, and women who want her for the gold pull her back and forth until the dress is destroyed. She is understandably upset.
Dusty isn’t given a ton to do, since the movie has a lot of characters to focus on—the kids, Donovan, Theodore and Amos, Stilwell—but she’s never shown as anything but competent. And she’s never shamed for being competent. She runs the stagecoach line, because her father (David Wayne) is a drunk. He’d clearly much rather tell stories about his glory days than actually get anything done. So when she marries Donovan, she’s resigned to the fact that, yes, she’s going to be taking care of the kids. She’s not as resigned to the idea that her relationship with Donovan will be physical, though—marriage of convenience only goes so far.
Frankly, she wants to be treated as a woman. She still wants to be allowed to do what she wants and do it well, but she wants someone to notice her for more than just her handling of the team. She’s pretty and young. When McCoy asks if they need to have the formal words read over them when they get married, her instinctive response is, “I’d kind of like to hear them at least.” She admires a large brass bed. She wants to be admired. The movie doesn’t shame her for that, either. In some ways, she’s one of the best female characters in a live-action Disney movie. She has faults—a short temper most notable among them—but she’s fully realized and allowed to be.
I haven’t talked much about Amos and Theodore; there’s not much to say. Oh, they’re funny, but they’re funny in that sort of bungling criminal, Don Knotts-and-Tim Conway Disney way. The kids are kind of neutral. Bobby is concerned for his younger siblings. Clovis “don’t like to be touched” and lashes out violently if he is. Celia has potty issues. But that’s about it, as far as making them into personalities.
This is based, in theory, on a book. I have read the book. If you kind of squint, you can see the similarities, but frankly, this is a rare instance of a movie that’s better than the book. The book has several more kids in the family, including a sexpot older sister. Amos and Theodore are like eighty or more and senile and deaf, and they get boring fast. Honestly, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t have the charm. One thing Disney has always been very good at is charm.
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