The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)
“When the family fortune runs out, the laughs rush in.”
Director: James Neilson
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Suzanne Pleshette, Karl Malden
Synopsis: A young man from Boston heads west to join the California gold rush with the hopes of restoring his family fortune, but his dedicated butler sets out to find him and bring him home.
This minor Disney comedy has modest ambitions which it fulfils with ease. Roddy McDowall plays the title character, initially a very precise and proper butler for the wealthy Flagg family of Boston. When the head of the family dies, however, it’s discovered that the family isn’t as wealthy as was believed, despite the fact that the old boy left a small fortune to each of his staff in his will. The Flagg’s are, in fact, completely broke, and surviving family members Arabella (Suzanne Pleshette) and Jack (Bryan Russell) are forced to sell their home and all its furniture in order to pay off the family’s debts.
Determined to reinstate the family’s fortune, young Jack stows away on a ship bound for San Francisco, where the gold rush is in full flow. Griffin goes after him, and both end up as the captain’s cooks when the ship sets sail with them both on board. During the voyage they meet Quentin Bartlett (Richard Haydn), an actor in possession of a map pinpointing the location of the mother lode of gold, which he offers to share with Griffin and Jack. Before they land at San Francisco, however, Bartlett is robbed of the map by the unscrupulous Judge Higgins (Karl Malden).
The somewhat effete Roddy McDowall rarely won leading roles, but he makes a charming leading man in The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, providing a father figure for his young co-star who not only looks a little like him but also takes to dressing in similar clothes once their adventure gets under way and Griffin abandons his traditional butler’s outfit. The film does little to develop the relationship between them, though, choosing instead to focus its attention purely on the situations in which they find themselves. They’re mildly amusing, these situations, although filtered as you’d expect through the usual Disney sanitisation process so that any dangers encountered are only notional and non-threatening. Griffin finds himself forced to participate in a boxing match with Mountain Ox (Mike Mazurki) whom he accidentally knocked out during a previous encounter, and it’s a skirmish that’s played purely for laughs, with McDowall proving to be a surprisingly adept physical comic.
The accomplished cast do much with what is essentially a fairly routine script, with Karl Malden in particular appearing to have a whale of a time in a rare comic role as the dastardly con man Judge Higgins. Russell is perhaps a little bland — it’s his piercing blue eyes that linger in the memory, rather than any facet of his performance— while Pleshette provides the wholesome good looks that display not one hint of sexuality which, I guess, would have been exactly what Uncle Walt would have wanted…
(Reviewed 11th July 2013)