Monday, May 21, 2018

The Life of (Dexter) Riley

This is my entry in the Kurt Russell Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Return to the 80's.

Kurt Russell has been around for decades.  People my age can probably first remember seeing him as the Jungle Boy who showed up in an episode of Gilligan's Island.  Or maybe even earlier.  He had a handful of appearances on TV shows in the early sixties, beginning with an appearance on Dennis the Menace in 1962.  And although he was in at least 15 movies and TV shows over the first 7 years of his acting career, he didn't really hit the big time until he was cast as Dexter Riley, a student at Medfield College.

Dexter was a college student at the institution who was constantly in dutch with Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn), mainly because he was a supreme screw-up.  He and a cast of fellow ne'er-do-wells were constantly on the verge of being kicked out of the university.  These were not the Omega fraternity malcontents of Animal House (it was Disney, after all), but they did not get on the Dean's List, either.  The core group of misfits are probably just winging it to avoid the draft.  (Although in Disney films, war never really exists, unless it was to glorify heroes of the American Revolution or the Civil War.  Vietnam, to my knowledge never was even mentioned in Disney films at least during the actual conflict...)

Russell made three movies with Disney as Dexter.   I don't remember a hell of a lot of my childhood experiences at the movies, but I can vaguely remember seeing The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.  I would have been about 7 or 8 at the time it came out, but it might have been a re-release and was showing a year or two later.  The Dexter series was my guilty pleasure as I grew older and me and my compadres thought we had outgrown Disney movies.  I still enjoy Dexter even 50 years later.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969):

The "bad boys" of Medfield College indulge in their favorite pastime, that of bugging the board meeting of the university.  This was the late 60's, of course, and it wasn't James Bond, so "bugging" essentially comprised of setting up a two-way walkie talkie, one hidden in a plant in the board room with the mike open, and the other with the group who would listen in to the proceedings.

Dean of Medfield College, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn), expounds on how the budget of the college can ill afford the $20,000 outlay for a computer.  I know you can buy one personal computer for about 1/50th of that these days, and I'm not entirely sure that $20,000 would have been enough for the room size contraption that passed for computers in the late 60's, but this is Disney, so accuracy is not a factor.

Anyway old fuddy-duddy miser Dean Higgins wants to spend the money that could be used for a new computer on such things as sidewalks and such, despite the objections of his science professor, Quiggley (William Schallert).  Dexter and his buddies have a plan, though.  They get in touch with A. J. Arno (Caesar Romero), a local wealthy business man, and convince him to let the college have his computer.  Unbeknownst to everyone, however, Arno is wealthy not from his business dealings, but because he is running illegal gambling joints around town.

Arno comes through for the guys however, and the computer is set up in a lab on campus.  Dexter, while fiddling around with it, however, gets fried by an electric storm, which somehow downloads the entire contents of the memory banks of the computer into his head.  It also gives him incredible abilities to absorb other knowledge, such as an ability to learn languages just by reading a book, and to garner the contents of an encyclopedia by speed reading it.

With dollar bill signs lighting up in his eyes Dean Higgins sees Dexter as his ticket for the college to win a trivia challenge and for once and for all putting his nemesis, Dean Collingsgood (Alan Hewitt) of nearby State.  But Dexter insists that instead of fellow big brains on the team, he wants his buddies, none of which are much smarter than a package of Juicy Fruit.  (How these guys every made it past the entrance exams is a mystery, but in 1969 you had to do something to keep from being sent to Vietnam...)

Things go well for the Medfield team even though Dexter ends up having to do all the answers to the questions himself, since his buddies can't even reasonably take a cue from him on how to answer.  But a question that involves the answer "AppleJack" triggers a memory of the illicit records in the computer concerning Arno's gambling ring, and Arno and company realize that Dexter is a threat to their misdeeds and kidnap him (with the intention of disposing of him).

His buddies realize what has happened and devise a plan to rescue Dexter.  Hijinks ensue, as is typical of this type of Disney fare, with an ultimate car chase that is a riot, and Dexter is safely (sort of) delivered to the studio where he can be on the quiz program.  But not all is well that ends well, as Dexter suffered a concussion during the rescue and is gradually losing his grip on the computer knowledge he garnered.  Stay tuned for the end, because it is worth it.

Now You see Him, Now You Don't (1972):

The next film in the series we finally discover that Dexter is studying chemistry and has a wacky plan to develop the formula for invisibility.  But his efforts are dismissed as a flight of fancy by Dean Higgins.  The dean has his sights on a fellow student, Druffle (Ed Begley, Jr.), to win an award being offered by philanthropist Timothy Forsythe (Jim Backus).  Druffle's experiments with bumblebees is thought to be the saving grace for Higgins to put Collingsgood in his place once again.

Meanwhile, A. J. Arno has been released from prison (where he went at the end of the previous movie for his illegal gambling operation).  Arno has obtained the college's mortgage, but his intentions are not altruistic.  Fortunately Dexter's experiment has, through unforeseen circumstances, produced a real viable invisibility formula.  Using the formula, Dexter and his buddy Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) sneak into Arno's offices and discover Arno's true plan; to foreclose on the college and use the land as another gambling mecca.

After revealing the nefarious plans, Higgins realizes his hopes are hinged on winning the Forsythe award, but Forsythe has turned down Medfield College as an entrant in the contest because he doesn't think much of Medfield's potential.  So Higgins enlists to play a round of golf with Forsythe.  But Higgins is an incompetent player (he has never even played, although he touts himself up enough that Forsythe allows him to play.  Using the invisibility formula again, Dexter manages to help Higgins win the round and Forsythe agrees to let Medfield back in the contest.

But Higgins thinks his golfing ability is good enough to win a contest with the pros and enters a tournament with a couple of pros.  But without Dexter being on hand, it is evident that Higgins is exactly what he is, an incompetent duffer.  Arno sees this and realizes there is something funny going on and has his henchman spy on Dexter, where he discovers the truth about the invisibility formula.  Arno plans to use the invisibility formula to hijack a bunch of money from the bank.  Hijinks ensue once again as the ubiquitous car chase with Dexter and friends trying to stop Arno, who now has Dexter's invisibility formula and makes not only he and his henchman invisible, but ultimately the getaway car, too.  Once again, stick around for the end, because you won't want to miss how Dean Higgins reacts when he discovers that Dexter's formula is not really a fraud.

The Strongest Man in the World (1975):

The boys in the chemistry lab are up to their usual antics, sneaking a cow into the lab for experiments.  Schuyler has been working on a formula that will increase the potentia to make fatter healthier cows.  But all is not bright in Medfield.  It seems that the college is on the skids financially and Dean Higgins is about to be ousted.  The Board of Regents wants some new blood.

Higgins desparately pleads for a 30 day reprieve to try to get things turned around.  Although what he could manage to do in thirty days is anybody's guess.  His first try is to fire Professor Quiggley (William Schallert, who was absent for school when they filmed the second feature.).  The science professor has been too lax in his spending habits for the college, at least in Higgins' mind.

But an accident in the chemistry lab causes Schuyler's cereal mix to become very interesting.  It gives it an incredible power boost. Schuyler's mutt Brutus, which is a shrimpy little terrier being bullied by a Doberman, eats some of the cereal and then barges down the door to chase the Doberman.  Dexter also ate some of the ceral and found his strength increased exponentially, too.

Since eating the enhanced cereal is seen as the key to the new strength, Dean Higgins sees dollar bills again.  He contacts the owner of the Crumbly cereal company, Aunt Harriet Crumbly (Eve Arden) and proposes a show of the potential.  After virtually destroying the board room, Higgins and  Crumbly concoct a plan that has potential.  They will have a televised weightlifting contest between Medfield and it's arch-rival, State.

Coincidentally enough, Crumbly's rival in the cereal business, Kirwood Krinkle (Phil Silvers) and the Krinkle cereal company are big supporters of State.  So a televised match between the State weightlifting team and what Medfield can manage to field has the potential of being a media advertising extravaganza.  Of course, Medfield doesn't really have a weightlifting team, but Dexter and his pals, along with Schuyler's super cereal think they have the game in the bag.

One of Harriet's board members is a traitor and lets Krinkle in on the secret.  Krinkle gets in contact with A. J. Arno (can't they keep this guy behind bars?) and Arno is hired to sneak in to the Medfield chemistry lab and steal the formula.  Unfortunately the Keystone Kops syndrome affects them and they are unsuccessful.  So they fall back on plan B.  Kidnap Schuyler and find out what the formula is from the source.

But the information Schuyler gives them is faulty as it turns out that, really, what caused the increased strength was not the cereal concoction at all.  Will Dexter and company solve the riddle in time to save the day?  (Foolish question, it's Disney after all)  But the final race to save the day is again worth a watch.

I guess I should have stayed in college.  Maybe by now I would be rich from my invention of a device to rescue cats from trees without actually having to climb the tree.  Drive home safely folks.



  1. Thanks for bringing this film trilogy to the blogathon, with such amazing casts and of course Kurt Russell! Sound great fun!

    1. Disney made a few movies that weren't schmaltzy as all get out, and these are proof. Thanks for reading.

  2. Hi Quiggy, I am so delighted you chose these Disney classics! I remember and love them all. Kurt was so wholesome and winning as Dexter, a great young comic actor. YES I remember him from Gilligan's Island, and even earlier he was a bratty kid who tangled with Elvis in It Happened at the World's Fair. He also played Elvis in a 1970s TV movie and did his own singing! Now that is one versatile Renaissance man of a star! Can't wait to read everyone's blog posts...we'll get westerns, horror, comedy, the whole gamut, just from this one actor...

    1. The Elvis gig is probably the only John Carpenter directed movie I have not seen yet. My favorite Kurt Russell movie I already did last year "Big Trouble in Little China" and my second favorite "Escape from New York" I have also covered. These three rank in the top ten favorite Kurt Russell movies, however. Thanks for reading.

  3. Such classics! Always part of Disney's family movie night.


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