THE OBJECTIVE: Watch the 52 worst live action Disney movies, one every week, in 2015.
THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN (1979)
The Apple Dumpling Gang was a staple of my childhood, yet I somehow never saw this bizarre sequel during my formative years. This may be for the best, as Vincent McEveety’s follow-up is exhausting, incoherent, and only occasionally fun. So saddle on up, and prepare yourself for a very long 88 minutes of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
If you have any recollection of the original, you may remember that the titular Apple Dumpling Gang was actually a sickeningly cute name for the three shitty orphaned kids around which that film revolved. As the sequel’s name states that the aforementioned gang “rides again,” one would assume that it features the further adventures of the whelps. This is not the case. It is comprised almost exclusively of the adventures of Amos and Theodore (Tim Conway and Don Knotts), the two jackasses who admirably provided the first film with comic relief.
At first I thought this wasn’t a half bad idea (aside from making the title make no sense); these guys are fun, and I’m happy to see more of them.
They’re wearing funny costumes! What’s not to like?
Anyhow, I should probably get to the plot, if it could be rightfully called that. Amos and Theodore decide not to be outlaws anymore, and try to set up a bank account. Fun! But wait, they get mistaken for bank robbers while doing so. Oh tragedy! They end up running afoul of the local lawman, Woolly Bill Hitchcock (Kenneth Mars).
Not sure what he’s doing with his hands here. Probably better not to ask.
Somehow finding themselves in possession of a pile of stolen money, they try to give it back at great risk to themselves, despite stealing a huge pile of money having been their objective all throughout the last film. Whatever. Shenanigans ensue.
After hiding in a cart, the two bumblers find themselves in the army, because apparently the writers have run through all their “hanging out in a small town” material, and are moving on to their “leftover jokes from F Troop” material.
Don Knotts is already looking tired, and this is only his second change of costume for the movie…
It doesn’t seem like the movie really knows how to handle a military subplot either, ’cause soon our two friends are just acting as waiters, albeit military waiters. Punch is spilled. Something catches fire. Things escalate quickly.
Sure. Seems reasonable.
Somehow Amos and Theodore are blamed for burning down the entire fort and are carted off to jail. Probably someone on the writing staff realized that there aren’t very many “being in the army in the late 1800s” jokes to be made.
Costume change #4.
So now they’re in prison, but before any funny prison hijinks can occur, they discover that there is a secret way out of the prison and a bunch of thieves led by a guy named Big Mac (Jack Elam) have been using the prison as a secret base. Our protagonists convince the thieves that they are big-time crooks, and get to join in on the next robbery. They get a 5th set of costumes, but they’re pretty boring, so here’s a picture of Jack Elam’s wacky face.
This movie may suck, but you can’t fault the casting.
Since they don’t want to actually be criminals, the guys try to escape. Guess what? More costume changes!
I’m too exhausted with this movie to even bother questioning whether this is transphobic.
And one more costume switch for good measure (that’s seven in all, if you’re counting!).
Assuming you count tossing a blanket on as a costume change. Whatever.
Turns out the robbery was related to some of the problems the army was having, but some minor character solves the problem and the day is saved, without us having ever cared about any of these problems in the first place. Hooray.
In the original Apple Dumpling Gang, Amos and Theodore’s antics were exclusively comic relief, only tangentially related to the main action. If we assume that the 90% of the movie devoted to those two assholes is just an overgrown tumor of a comic relief subplot, then whatever’s left must be the meat of the film. It is there that I will look for our subtext. And hey, it’s a pretty fucked-up little storyline!
Pvt. Jeff Reed (Tim Matheson), a somewhat skeezy-looking army grunt has been charged with picking up Millie (Elyssa Davalos), the daughter of Major Gaskill (Harry Morgan), and bringing her to the fort.
I can see why she would find him unappealing.
He seems a bit stalkerish, but it is his job to escort her back to the fort, so it’s easy to write off. Until he straight-up kidnaps her a few scenes later, as the fort is burning down. Her fiancé Lt. Ravencroft (Robert Pine) is driving her to safety, when Reed jumps onto the wagon and throws him out.
“Just going to steal you and your wagon and drive through the night, no big.”
Upon arriving at a mysterious cabin in the middle of nowhere, Reed introduces the kidnapped Millie to its proprietor, a middle-aged woman named Martha (Audrey Totter). “I’m not his friend, I’m his prisoner, and I plead to you as another woman to help me,” Millie exclaims. With a sly glance, Martha retorts, “Lot of women wouldn’t be all that upset about your predicament.”
It’s like Annie Wilkes decided to be Reed’s wingman.
Upon further conversation, Martha lets Millie know that Reed really loves her, and implies that Millie is a fool not to reciprocate that love. This is just creepy as hell, considering that Reed has done nothing but creep on Millie and drag her off to a mystery cabin.
But wait! When the movie comes to an end, it is revealed that Reed was a good guy trying to catch the thieves all along, so the right thing for Millie to do is to just go ahead and fall in love with him. Even worse, Millie is throughout the film portrayed in a negative light, shown as prissy and arrogant. She’s portrayed as the one at fault for not instantly falling at Reed’s feet. It’s confusing, and fucked up. But I guess what we can take away from it is that if a man is interested in a woman, it’s her duty to love him. Doesn’t matter if he’s a creepy mustachioed douche who just kidnapped her. He probably had a perfectly good reason. Shame on you ladies for being so stuck-up.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
At first glance, it seems like The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again has a lot going for it. Conway and Knotts can be a great combo, after all, and there are certainly promising scenes. There is a sequence where wacky bullshit breaks out in the middle of an old timey photo shoot that is a legitimate hoot.
Okay, so you may have to take my word for it.
But with each moment that the film wears on, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that these two cannot carry the film by themselves. I got the impression that the writers had ideas for zany Amos and Theodore subplots for a whole string of future Apple Dumpling sequels, but upon realizing that they were only going to get one, they just crammed everything into a single movie, which is why we get to see our heroes dress up as dandies, soldiers, cooks, prisoners, prostitutes, bandits, and, regrettably, squaws. Yet, once they get into costume, there isn’t anything for them to do.
Unless you count carving sad faces on potatoes.
The film isn’t without its moments. The burning fort scene, for example, is actually quite epic. Unfortunately, we aren’t invested enough in any of the characters to really enjoy it. So, yeah, I am in no way surprised that this plodding, plotless pile of a film hasn’t been cherished for generations.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
There’s plenty to pick from here, but I’m going to mention the one thing I haven’t touched upon above. When he is unable to apprehend Theodore and Amos, Woolly Bill goes insane. He get’s put in a straitjacket, and makes a bunch of bizarre cartoonish noises.
‘Cause remember, kids, mental health is always good for a punchline!
There’s no good reason why 88 minutes should be so exhausting, especially with actors like Knotts, Conway, Mars, and Elam in the mix. It’s just disheartening. Don’t waste your time.
Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)