This is the better of the two Disney movies I can think of that talks about the space chimp program. Unusually, it’s not as firm on the fact that chimpanzees aren’t monkeys as most of the Disney chimp films. (We will finally be discussing the concept of the Disney chimp film next week.) Personally, I would’ve made it clear that it’s the people opposed to the chimp plan that call them monkeys, while those won over to them refer to them as apes. However, as we’ll be getting to soon, the people who made this movie weren’t used to anything even as tenuously scientific as this.
Hank Dussard (Dean Jones) has inherited an olive grove in Provence. As you do. It turns out that a problem with the olive harvest in this part of Provence is that the ripening of the olives coincides with the mistral; the olives are blown off the trees and have to be picked up off the ground. Apparently, men’s fingers are too strong and crush them. Sure, okay. Women’s are better. But the town relies on children. Hank doesn’t have them. The local priest, Father Sylvain (Maurice Chevalier), suggests he marry a widow, but Hank has his own plans, despite a growing affection for Maria Riseau (Yvette Mimieux), who lives next door with her eight siblings.
In true bonkers Disney style, the enemy in this film is Communists. Some of the locals appear to be members of the Communist party, though it’s never made explicit, and they’re opposed to the chimps not because they’re a sentient species that’s being treated as slaves, per se—though it’s certainly phrased that way repeatedly over the course of the feature. But the butcher (Bernard Woringer), who also happens to be in love with Maria, complains that the chimps are doing the work of humans, and thus something something bad for the workers. Never mind that they are actually relying on children, who might be better not picking olives?
Even weirder is . . . well, practically everything about this movie. It was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. Among other things, he directed five John Wayne movies. He also directed literally hundreds of episodes of assorted TV Westerns. However, IMDb correctly knows that the thing he directed that I know best is Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker and Linda Evans. (Even the name sounds like a beer.) The screenwriter, Maurice Tombragel, primarily worked in Westerns, including the Gallagher series for Disney. So those are two people you’d expect to be involved in a movie about olive-picking in France.
Meanwhile, you know, Maurice Chevalier. As a priest. Father Maurice Chevalier. This was his last film before retiring, but that doesn’t make it any more believable. Sure, he’s old—nearly eighty, in fact. But he’s the kind of old where you know for a fact he was quite a popular fellow with the ladies in his past. And here, he’s encouraging Dean Jones to marry and settle down and raise children to pick up olives, and it’s just a lot. Honestly, Dean Jones playing a swinging bachelor was quite the stretch given his quiet Christian personal life, but he was definitely more believable as the possibly-gay Bobby of Company than Chevalier is as a priest.
And space chimps. Now, yes, okay—space chimps are a real thing. It’s also true that this is after NASA had moved on from chimps and was launching humans into space; this was released about two weeks after the Apollo 1 fire. I genuinely don’t know what happened to the space chimps after the program ended, but that was years before the movie was made, and I do know that chimps are not great at socializing with humans as they get older. These chimps, honestly, were too young to have been in the program, because chimps that old are too old to perform in movies. But is there really any reason to believe that space chimps would be better at picking olives? There are a few agricultural products that are sometimes picked by non-human primates, but does it make sense for these to be one of them?
After all, we’re operating on the premise that men’s fingers are too strong, that they would crush the olives. For all I know, this is true; add olive-growing to the list of things I don’t know a whole lot about. What I do know is that chimps are incredibly strong. Unlike humans, too, chimps probably don’t understand the need to handle the olives delicately. If anything, it seems likely to me that the chimps would be worse at picking the olives than humans, and something like a capuchin would be better at it.
And I haven’t even gotten into the subplot about the alleged cousin! One of the people trying to drive Hank out of business, for reasons, brings in a woman who says that she’s a cousin of his that he’s never heard of, and French inheritance law being what it is, all the heirs are entitled to a portion of the property. (Presumably unless there’s a will, which I don’t think we know enough about to say.) You’d think someone would have mentioned a cousin before she just shows up at the house, but we also don’t know how much Hank knows about the French side of the family—and I don’t think we learn anything at all about the American side.
So yeah. Chimps are not monkeys. Communism is not the enemy—it’s really just a red herring. Hank really is bad enough at people skills to tell a girl he’s kissing that he’s got things in mind that are more important than marriage and expects her to still want to kiss him again immediately after. All the anti-chimp graffiti is in English. No one considers the tourist potential of a farm where olives are picked by chimps except the guy who likes the chimps and doesn’t want the tourists. And this is still far, far better than Lieutenant Robin Crusoe, USN.