Disney's animated masterpieces get rapturous acclaim; the studio's live-action movies get less love, and far less critical attention. While this is no doubt appropriate, Disney's live action flicks shouldn't be completely neglected. A few of them, like Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Darby O'Gill and the Little People, qualify as classics, but even apart from these, Disney's adventures and slapstick comedies of the mid-20th Century, corny and sentimental and formulaic as many of them were, formed an important part of the early moviegoing experience for kids of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Including me.
But recently I caught up with a live-action Disney I managed to miss when it came out in 1967, and again when it was re-released in the '70s: The Gnome-Mobile. It was among the last productions worked on by Walt himself, who died before its release. It's pretty hokey and syrupy, with a bouncy, cringe-inducing theme song by the Sherman Brothers that can get stuck in your head. But it has a great roster of character actors, and an environmentalist message, and it raises some startling questions that left me, for a few weeks, with an interest in the film out of scale to its triviality.
The Gnome-Mobile is about a logging tycoon (Walter Brennan) who is driving his grandkids Elizabeth and Rodney (played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, the kids from 1964's Mary Poppins) through a redwood forest in Northern California in his opulent 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II Sedanca De Ville. They stop to have a picnic, and Elizabeth wanders off and meets a friendly young gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell). She convinces Rodney and Gramps of Jasper's existence, and then they meet his crotchety 900-something-year-old gnome grandfather, Knobby (also played by Walter Brennan).
Jasper and Knobby are apparently the last of their kind, at least in that forest, and old Knobby has given up on life and is prepared to slip into the gnome Great Beyond. But Gramps and the kids whisk them off in the backseat of the Rolls, now designated "The Gnome-Mobile," in search of a forest with a gnome population, and in particular with some fetching and eligible young lady gnomes for Jasper to meet. Trouble arises in the form of the lumberman's conniving corporate crony (Richard Deacon), who questions the sanity of his boss, and also of a rotten showman (Sean McClory) who gnome-gnaps, and plans to exploit, the diminutive forest folk.
So it's a '60s-era Disney product; sometimes cute, sometimes treacly, maybe a little more eccentric than usual but more or less routine. Three time Oscar winner Brennan, most remembered for playing lovable cantankerous galoots in Westerns like Red River and Rio Bravo, is said to have asked, when offered any part, "With or without?" by which he meant would he play it with or without his dentures. With his dual role in The Gnome-Mobile, probably for the only time in his career, he had one of each kind in the same movie.
It was great to see the other vets in the cast, too, including Charles Lane, Jerome Cowan, Maudie Prickett, Byron Foulger, Ellen Corby, Frank Cady and the great Ed Wynn, whose final film this was.
Not long before I saw the movie, I had turned up the Gold Key comic tie-in...
...and my friend, who showed me the film, also showed me the toy Gnome-Mobile he got as a premium from Clover Club Potato Chips when he saw the movie back in the day...
...and still had in his collection. But even with all these connections, the movie probably wouldn't have rated more than a passing mention, if it hadn't been for its source.
That's right, The Gnome-Mobile is based on a 1936 book called The Gnomobile by Upton Sinclair, prolific muckraking socialist author remembered for his 1906 novel The Jungle, which blew the lid off conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, and for dozens of other vigorously leftist works, both fiction and nonfiction (Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood was very loosely based on Sinclair's 1926 novel Oil!). In the 1920s he was a Socialist candidate for Congress from California, and three times a candidate for Governor of that state, twice as a Socialist and then, in 1934, as a Democrat (all of these campaigns were unsuccessful).
The Gnomobile is Sinclair in a lighter vein, obviously; it was written for his granddaughter Elizabeth, and he subtitles it "A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative With Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty." Still, I had to wonder how the two Walts--Disney, a staunch Republican, and Brennan, who is said to have been such a rabidly reactionary John Birch-style right-winger that he was gleeful when he heard of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and thought that the Watts riots should have been handled with a machine gun--felt about bringing lefty environmentalist propaganda to the screen.
So I read Sinclair's Gnomobile. It's available on Kindle, but I also obtained a 1966 paperback reprint from Tempo Books, a tie-in to the Disney movie...
This edition seems to have been slightly revised (maybe by Sinclair himself?), to avoid datedness, from the 1936 text on which the Kindle edition appears to be based; some references to "Shirley Temple" are replaced with "Jacqueline Kennedy," for instance. And the original dedication, to Sinclair's granddaughter, is changed in the reprint to "FOR ALL WHO LOVE AND PROTECT OUR FORESTS."
The story of The Gnomobile is different from that of Disney's The Gnome-Mobile in several respects. The tycoon is a minor background figure in the book; Rodney is here Elizabeth's whimsical, poetry-minded older uncle, not her brother, and it's he who drives her and the gnomes in the title vehicle. And the names of the gnomes are not Jasper and Knobby but "Bobo and Glogo"; in this, at least, the Disney version may have been an improvement.
On the whole, however, the book has a distinctive flavor that is homogenized out of the movie. Sinclair's tone has that self-consciously jocular quality which authors who normally write for adults sometimes adopt when they try their hand at writing for children. But it also has an unpredictability, an endearing sweetness, and moments of effectively deadpan humor. And Sinclair's descriptions of the various forests our heroes explore (they wander much farther than they do in the movie) have a lovely reverence.
It would be interesting to know how much Disney knew about this source material. Probably it's naive of me to imagine that the lefty tendencies of the author would have especially upset the producer; it may be, indeed, that moguls like Disney, if they thought about it at all, regarded this sort of adaptation as the most expeditious method to handle spiky material: Buy it and neutralize it into inoffensive insipidity.
This was, essentially, the process we saw dramatized in Saving Mr. Banks, where Walt and the boys do to Mary Poppins almost exactly what P. L. Travers fears they will. But that movie presented it as a positive, even redemptive experience for Travers. I wondered at the time if Travers really felt that way, and I likewise wonder if Sinclair, who died in 1968 at the age of 90, saw The Gnome-Mobile, and what he thought of it if he did.
One last note: Turns out the Rolls used in the movie now resides in the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Bluffs, Michigan, along with the oversized backseat set. Anyone up for a road trip?