I’ve always liked Tommy Kirk more than most people. It kind of gets to me when I watch Catalina Caper and everyone rips on him. I was really disappointed that he didn’t have more of a career. Maybe he wasn’t a great actor, but he was good in Old Yeller, right? He’s even still alive! Is there no work for a slightly goofy-looking character actor? And then I found out that he was blacklisted for being gay, basically, and that he’d had his career further destroyed by being at a party where people were using marijuana . . . in 1965.
He’d actually been fired from Disney by this point but was brought back to reprise the role of Merlin Jones. This time, he is petitioning to legally adopt Stanley (Judy the Chimpanzee). Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames) denies the petition but gives him guardianship. Merlin is using Stanley in experiments on sleep learning, trying to make Stanley civilized. Judge Holmsby asks Merlin to help Leon (Leon Tyler) and Norman (Norman Grabowski) pass their classes so they can continue to play football. Later, there is a battle between the regents—one has a donor who will give them a million dollars, but only if they abolish football at Midvale College. Judge Holmsby finds a donor who will give them ten million dollars if they develop human-powered flight.
Even as a child, I recognized that there was absolutely no chemistry between Merlin and Judy (Annette Funicello). For all he was surrounded by other women, he didn’t seem terribly interested in them, either. Honestly, I’d like to see an updated version of this (get on it, Disney+!) where Merlin was just allowed to be gay. I’m not sure why Judy exists in the movies in the first place, other than the fact that Annette Funicello was a bankable Disney star at the time. She gives Merlin a sidekick, I guess, and he does sometimes need a lab assistant. But while her jealousy occasionally advances the plot, it doesn’t do so in a terribly believable way most of the time.
Further, I don’t entirely get how Judy can think of a Mu Mu party as “glamorous.” She talks about how they obviously know how to spend money, but . . . finger sandwiches and streamers? It feels as though there’s a disconnect between the script and the set design, as though the people dressing the set didn’t get the memo. She and Merlin also seem okay with the Mu Mus’ being snobs as long as they get to be in on it. And if Merlin’s sleep-learning technique is so successful, why limit it to the football players, or even just members of a single fraternity?
That’s what the movies tend to miss; if Merlin’s inventions worked as shown, he wouldn’t need to work as a waiter in the campus cafe to pay tuition—leaving aside that there surely ought to be some sort of academic scholarship available to such a brilliant scientist, he should already at this point be making a fortune on various inventions. If he endowed the school with the patent for the artificial adrenaline we see in the second half of this in exchange for a free ride and all the lab space he needed, they’d both do really well out of it. Regent Mr. Dearborne (Frank Faylen), who is so opposed to football, should be championing Merlin as what the college should be supporting instead.
This, like the first one, was very clearly made with later airing on The Wonderful World of Disney in mind. The two plots are loosely connected by the rivalry between Judge Holmsby and Mr. Dearborne, and the needs of the Midvale football team. Honestly, it might’ve been better for Disney—and definitely would’ve been better for Tommy Kirk—if they’d made a series instead of movies. I’m not sure any of the four stories we see would hold up stretched to feature length; a Merlin Jones sitcom would be more effective, in my opinion.
There is much that is surprising about this movie. Its theme, presumably in-universe performed at a local club or something, is Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys. This is roughly at the end of their surf days and shortly before Pet Sounds; Brian hadn’t had his breakdown yet. It’s a Sherman Brothers song—not the best of their output, but not the worst, either. This screenplay, like the one before it, was written by blacklisted writers Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August; I don’t know if Walt knew. Also, one of these days, I will look into why Disney did so many movies with chimps in the mid-’60s. I assume it ties into the space race somehow, but it’s still weird.