Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Snowball Express

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly series of blog entries where I watch one of the many DVDs in my collection and ramble about it.  Today, we're at a Disney film I saw a lot in my childhood, Snowball Express.  This entry is originally dated March 23, 2012.

I recently blogged about my attempts to get the not-so-classic Disney film Condorman on DVD.  I finally went about it by going through all my DVDs, cashing in all my Disney Rewards points, and getting a copy through Disney's rewards program.  But, after I did that, I saw I had enough points to get another free Disney DVD.  After perusing the offerings in their rewards program, I finally settled on another beloved Disney comedy from my youth, Snowball Express.

My fondness for Snowball Express kind of developed in the same way I love The Last Unicorn.  Back in the very early days of VCRs, when you had to rent the movies and the machine, the one place in town didn't have very much in the way of movies.  Their selection of Disney movies was very slim, and being a kid who loved Disney, I always wanted to rent something Disney.  So, wound up constantly gravitating towards Snowball Express.

Snowball Express came out in 1972, and in the 70s, Disney began to specialize in slapstick family comedies, and Snowball Express is typical of this era in the Disney legacy.  (I'm trying to sound all smart and film historian-ish in that sentence...do I pull it off?)  Part of its novelty is that it takes place in wintertime.  Many others have pointed out that most stories that take place in the winter are Christmas stories, and stories that take place in the winter "just because" are rare.  Well, Snowball Express takes place in the winter, and being a slapstick comedy, there's all kinds of crazy ski stunts.

The film opens in New York City, and we meet our hero, Johnny Baxter, played by Dean Jones.  He starred in a lot of Disney slapstick comedies in the late 1960s through the 70s.  His most famous role has to be Jim Douglas, the owner of Herbie the Love Bug.  Anyway, Johnny is regular office drone, starting to yearn for something more in life.  He shows up for work literally 1-minute late and gets a chewing out from his boss, played by Dick Van Patten.  (Was Van Patten famous at this time?  Would this be a cameo then?)  Johnny finds a lawyer waiting for him with bad and good news.  The bad news:  his distant uncle Jake had died.  The good news:  his uncle left him his property, a small hotel in Colorado known as the Grand Imperial.  The lawyer says that the hotel draws a net income of $14.000/month.  According to the inflation calculator I found online, $14,000/month in 1972 money is $75,000/month in 2012 money.  So, Johnny does what any rational person would do when they're told that they've inherited a business that clears $75,000/month:  he tells his boss to stuff it and quits in spectacular fashion.

He goes home and breaks it to his family, and they react like any rational family would:  they think  he's gone insane.  But still, he manages to talk them into it, and they move to Silver Hill, Colorado. 

When they arrive, they quickly learn the truth.  Uncle Jake was known by the locals as "Crazy Jake," and the Grand Imperial Hotel is a rundown dump.  Undaunted, though, Johnny is determined to restore the hotel to its former glory.  After some slapstick hijinks involving some animals that have moved into the hotel, and friendly mountain man who lives there named Jessie, Johnny seeks out the local banker, Ridgeway, about getting a loan to fix up the place.  Ridgeway says no to a loan, but instead offers to buy the place.  Johnny turns down the offer, still resolving to fix up the place.  After Johnny leaves, Ridgeway's secretary wonders aloud if Johnny is aware of what he really owns, to with Ridgeway responds that if Johnny really knew what he had, he wouldn't have come asking for a loan.  It appears there's more to this than meets the eye. 

While wandering around the hills around the hotel with his wife, wondering what to do next, Johnny runs into a local boy named Wally, and learns that he just doesn't own the hotel, but the many rolling hills that surround it.  Johnny then comes up with the idea that, rather than just fix up the hotel, they'll turn the whole place into a ski lodge.  With a business plan in mind, and knowing that Ridgeway won't give him a loan, Johnny gets in touch with the bank the next town over, and they decide to talk business on the ski slopes.  This would be the time to mention that Johnny can't ski.  So, they hit the slopes, and Johnny bungles his way down the hill in some pretty amazing ski stunts.  But still, the swath of destruction he leaves leaves a bad taste in the banker's mouth, and now no banker in the state will touch him. 

However, in comes Ridgeway, the avenging angel, and offers Johnny a very small loan.  Grateful for this start, Johnny gladly accepts.  Ah, but it turns out most of the town is up to their eyeballs in debt with Ridgeway, and Ridgeway has ordered that no one in town help Johnny, lest he start foreclosing on everything.  It seems that Ridgeway set a trap for Johnny, but he soldiers on.  With his own ingenuity, and the help of his family, Jessie, and Wally, they manage to get the place fixed up and open for business.  They just lack one thing:  customers.

Luckily, Wally takes care of that in one of my favourite gags in the film.  He's using dynamite to blow out a tree stump.  He sets off the dynamite, the stump goes flying high in the air, and the stump lands right back in the crater that formed...right back where it started from.  "Aw, man," says Wally.  But, it also sets off an avalanche, blocking off the train tracks, and halting a passenger train full of skiers heading off to bigger, fancier ski resorts.  Johnny rescues the stranded passengers, and they all settle into the Grand Imperial for two weeks of skiing.  Things are looking up!

And during this crowded scene, we get what was always my Dad's favourite gag in the movie.  It's been established that one of the problem with the hotel is fish have gotten into plumbing, and a fish may occasionally pop out of a faucet.  One customer comes up to Jessie:  "Hey!  There's a fish in my drink!"  Jessie:  "Quiet!  If you say that too loudly, everyone will want one!"  The customer accepts this logic, and walks away, proud of the fish in his drink. 

Have I mentioned yet that Jessie is played by Harry Morgan, just a couple of years before he played Colonel Potter on MASH?  He really shows off his great comedic timing here, and even gets to spout some of the great colloquialisms that made Colonel Potter famous. 

Anyway, things are going great, until another madcap slapstick ski chase leaves the hotel in ruins.  This, of course, scares off all the guests.  Ridgeway grins an evil grin and prepares to foreclose and claim ownership as Johnny won't be able to make his loan payment.  But, this being a Disney slapstick comedy, Johnny is one crazy scheme away from getting that money:  he's going to enter the town's big cross-country snowmobile race and win the money!  Even third place would be enough to pay off the loan.  This is when his wife reaches her breaking point, takes the kids, and takes off.  She just can't stand how obsessed he's become with this hotel. 

So we have our slapstick snowmobile race, and once again, it is well filmed and rather exciting.  It even looks like Johnny and Jessie are going to win, but their beat up old snowmobile goes haywire, and they come in dead last.  However, Sue (that Johnny's wife's name), is waiting at the finish line, and once again throws her support behind her hubby.

Johnny is ready to concede defeat, and gets ready to sign the hotel over to Ridgeway.  At this point, Ridgeway's secretary can no longer stay silent.  She reveals the true extent of Johnny's holdings, and why Ridgeway wants it so bad:  he also owns the rich forests of timber that surround the town that logging companies desperately want.  Jessie adds a little more information about the deal, and with some observations from Johnny's son, and looking a few legal loopholes, it actually looks like Johnny owns the whole town...including the bank.  Armed with this new information, Ridgeway now gladly offers an extension on the repayments, and even offers to finance the whole restoration and the expansion to a full, 5-star ski lodge.

And they lived happily ever after! 

So, let's see here.  I really liked Dean Jones's performance in this film.  In the 1980s, you could very easily see Chevy Chase playing this role.  It's a very similar performance to Chase's style.  In fact, if they were to do a remake, I think Steve Carrell could easily fit into the role.

Sadly, the kids in the family don't get much to do.  The teen daughter character doesn't even get the standard arc in movies like this of hating the move, and hating this new life, until she meets and falls in love with a cute local guy, and then suddenly things aren't so bad.  However, this is the slightest, briefest hint of something between her and Wally, so it's almost there. 

The last time I saw this film was in the mid-1990s, when the Family Channel stilled showed a lot more classics from the Disney library.  I remember being pleasantly surprised that veteran character actress Mary Wickes played Ridgeway's secretary.  And Ridgeway himself is another great character actor, Keenan Wynn, who did a lot of voices in those Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. 

And there's some great on-location filming in Colorado, too. 

This movie isn't funny as much as it is cute.  It's fun and, yeah. 

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