There’s a reason we keep going back to the Disney well, and it isn’t just that I have a brand. It’s that there’s a certain class of Disney movie from the ’60s and ’70s that people do not tend to remember that turn out to be based on books people have never even heard of. In fact, Disney adapted this particular book twice; the second adaptation was considerably further from the book. Some of the changes from the book for the first one make some kind of sense; some of them don’t. Still, there’s a reason neither movie is better remembered.
The book starts out with Patti Randall. She’s in her early twenties and lives at her parents’ house still; her parents are in Europe, and Patti is taking care of her siblings—younger sister, Ingrid, sixteen, and younger brother, Mike, twelve. Patti is a model at Bullocks department store. One night, she is awakened by the telephone and then the door; Greg Balter, across the street, is angry because he’d recently shot a duck while hunting, and the Randalls’ cat, DC, has stolen it. When DC comes in, she retrieves the duck and returns it. She also discovers that DC—short for Damn Cat—has a wristwatch around his neck. Patti calls the FBI; they confirm is is the watch belonging to Helen Jenkins, a bank teller kidnapped a week earlier by bank robbers.
In the first movie, Mike is gone and the sisters’ names are reversed. Patti is Hayley Mills and Ingrid is Dorothy Provine. DC is no longer a twenty-five pound black cat; he’s a reasonably sized Siamese, and the “Damn” has become “Darn,” per title. Helen Jenkins is now Margaret Miller and played by Grayson Hall. Greg has become the odious Gregory, played by Roddy McDowall, who is prissy and trying to shape Ingrid into his preferred woman; and Canoe, played by Tom Lowell, is introduced as a love interest for Patti. Dean Jones as FBI agent Zeke Kelso is practically unchanged.
In the second movie, we’ve lost the older sister entirely, but the parents are back. Patti is now Christina Ricci. Zeke Kelso is a bumbling failure played by Doug E. Doug. Instead of a bank robbery, we’ve got an abduction. A lot of other changes are made, essentially none of them for the better, and while it’s nice to see Dean Jones, and while there’s no good character for him to play in a more faithful adaptation, it’s still not really worth discussing the movie as a whole for the most part.
We spend most of the book in one of four characters’ heads. We start with Patti. She’s of an age where she thinks of herself as fully adult, though she still hasn’t fully moved into her own space. Well, she’s slightly older than my mom, and when my mom was Patti’s age, a lot more women lived with their parents until they married. Then there’s Helen Jenkins. She is, quite frankly, terrified, and who can blame her? She’s been abducted, and her abductors make it quite clear that her life is in her hands, and eventually they even tell her when they’re going to kill her. We also get Zeke Kelso, allergic to cats and uncertain how his life turned out like this.
Then, there’s DC. Whether he’s a damn cat or a darn cat, he’s definitely a suburban survivor. The book gives us his internal dialogue. He makes it very clear how much he likes the assorted Randalls. He shows you how he thinks things through. And, yes, he’s a sneaky bugger, as cats tend to be. (I like cats and have one right now.) He’s also fully aware of when people don’t like him. And, no, he doesn’t understand what the people are actually saying. He doesn’t speak their language, and they can’t convince him to show them where Jenkins and the robbers are out of the goodness of his heart, even assuming he had any.
By giving us the relationship between Patti and Ingrid, or “Inki,” regardless of which is older, the book and the first movie give us a relationship between two women—a woman and a girl, really, but still—that’s based on love and genuine friendship. The story works without it; its being missing isn’t why the ’90s version doesn’t work. However, it’s really nice to see. Book-Ingrid wants Book-Patti to be happy, and she’s perfectly aware that the two men they deal with during the plot are too old for her and is interested in seeing her sister settled with someone. And, yes, that’s an awfully ’60s way of thinking about life, but 1963’s gonna 1963, you know?
Yes, these are all fairly lightweight. The stakes with the robbery are much more immediate in the book, where we spend several chapters in the head of Helen Jenkins, listening to the men who think she’s too much trouble to leave alive. Even there, though, we spend a lot more time with Kelso stalking DC around the yards of Greg and the Randalls with DC’s tail painted with fluorescent paint. (And you’d better believe we get DC’s thoughts on the subject.) Imagine being Helen Jenkins and knowing that you could’ve been saved sooner had not there been shenanigans where a man was jealous of an FBI agent.
Next month, we’ll be going somewhere a little more adult and checking in at The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving. It’s probably going to take some doing to find the movie; help me out with the column expenses by funding my Patreon or Ko-fi!