Okay, so we’re going to be spending a lot of time on Disney here. That is because a certain sort of mid-century Disney movie was frequently based on books no one had ever heard of. In fact, if someone wants to contribute to my Patreon or Ko-fi for it, or possibly even if they don’t, we’ll celebrate this column in December with Christmas at Candleshoe, and won’t that be a nice Yule present for all of us? I must further admit, though, that we’re going back to the well of “book Gillian already owns” again, too, because that is . . . also a deep well.
Today, what it brings up for us is The Apple Dumpling Gang, definitely better known in its movie version. Still, we’ll start with the book, because the book came first. The book, by Jack M. Bickham, is set in the small Western town of Hopewell. Adam Bricker, age forty, is the sheriff. In fact, he’s such a good sheriff that no major crime has happened in the town in ages. His biggest problem is that newspaper publisher Harold Enright has it in for him. Then one day, he agrees to take delivery of a package for drunk John Wintle, who is on his way to San Francisco. The package turns out to be Wintle’s five children.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Enright’s editorials that insist that Bricker is old and worthless, three different gangs of criminals decide that they don’t have to steer clear of him after all. They all agree to rob the bank at closing time Saturday. Adele Wintle, seventeen, is causing a riot among the town’s young men. Bobby is about fifteen and wants to help out. Clovis, ten, does not. Doreen, eight, seems to be responsible for Ellen, three, who desperately needs proper potty training. Bricker suddenly has his hands full—fuller than he can know, given that the crooks don’t exactly share their plans with him.
Fans of the movie are bewildered already. Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) is a gambler. He does agree to pick up a package for the drunken John Wintle (Don Knight), but it’s three children, and they were his sister’s, I believe. Donovan is persuaded to marry stagecoach driver Magnolia “Dusty” Clydesdale (Susan Clark) to properly care for the kids, in this case Bobby (Clay O’Brien), Clovis (Brad Savage), and Celia (Stacy Manning) Bradley. The kids find a giant gold nugget, which draws the attention of the Stilwell gang and also two men who were fired from it for accidentally shooting Frank Stilwell (Slim Pickens), Amos (Tim Conway) and Theodore (Don Knotts).
Yes, they are very different. To me, they both have things to recommend them. I’m not sure I’d go all the way to saying they’re both good, you understand, but there we are. The book is pretty wild. We get little bits inside the various gangs—Amos and Theodore in this one are elderly men of what’s called here, and briefly in the movie, the Hash Knife Outfit, but there’s also the Stilwell Mob and the Hole in the Wall Gang. No, not that one. We get a little inside Bobby and Clovis. But mostly we get Bricker, and his is a head it’s not bad to be in. Let me quote to you real quick, here.
It was going to be the hottest day of the year, in a summer where there had been a dozen other days that seemed certain of going down as the hottest. Up the street a half-block, the municipal water wagon trundled along behind two mules, the rows of water spigots on the bottom of the rust-red tank laying down streams of creek water to lay the dust. Bricker caught the distant moist odor of the operation, but today it only momentarily darkened the dust, and the road just sucked up every molecule of water and went right back to powder again, making the moist odors only tantalizing and temporary.
Now, that is just some beautiful writing. Frankly better than the book as a whole deserves and far, far better than you’d expect out of something that became a cross between a wacky kids movie and a Don Knotts/Tim Conway vehicle. I’m not going to claim that the whole book is written that well, but it is full of moments like that. Bricker, not unlike the movie’s Donovan, is a man a bit beaten down by life who still manages to hold onto hope for more.
Very different and definitely better done in the movie is how the two handle their female characters. Oh, there are more in the book. The movie actually trims two of the girls—well, yes. It trims Bricker’s deputy and the newspaper man, too, We are given a new character, a judge/justice of the peace/barber played by Harry Morgan because why not. But the real difference is Dusty, who is a replacement for the book’s Helen Jefferson, who is according to the book too wholesome to be the dance hall owner that she is.
Helen shows up a few times in the book. Her first appearance is on page 57 on my copy, somewhere around a quarter of the way through. She is there to give Bricker someone to consider marry; he is a widower, and it’s implied his ambition died with his wife. Meanwhile, Dusty is in the movie pretty much from the beginning. She’s kind and gentle and tough and independent. She is, frankly, a good role model for Celia and a good example of what a woman can be; she’s got a romantic nature and also runs her drunk and dissolute father’s stagecoach line.
Adele could be worse; she could end up with Bricker instead of Deputy Billy Dean. But she’s described as unaware that she’s a pretty young woman around men who don’t see a lot of pretty young women. She’s not bad, but she’s not very bright, and it’s kind of implied that the men around her should just be expected to get into fights over her and it’s her job to not tempt them. There is also at least one woman in the town who’s not as awful as the women in the movie who try to get the kids for their money. But Adele is the best-drawn woman in the book, and she’s not great.
Clearly, someone at Disney thought the book had good bones that could be made more Disney. And they weren’t wrong. Maybe it’s surprising to a lot of people that the Disney version makes the women better, but it doesn’t much surprise me. There are exceptions, even in a lot of movies that have good examples of it, but this is an era with a lot of interesting, intelligent, independent female characters in Disney movies. Honestly, Dusty is one of the best, even if the movie around her isn’t.
Next month, up to Canada for Jane of Lantern Hill and its made-for-TV adaptation!