It’s a trip back to a time of Saturday Matinees and large groups of kids in the back of Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagons for Gen X-ers who remember when Television Stars made movies – long before the time of Movie Stars making television. For those of us who made those journeys – The Apple Dumpling Gang was right up there with Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit and, even, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. If you don’t remember it, maybe it’s time to check out the comic abilities of two icons: Don Knotts and Tim Conway, two bonafide TV Stars who took a trip into the Deschutes National Forest and came out with what can only be called an Apple Dumpling Franchise…with cheese.
Any way you slice it, The Apple Dumpling Gang was a giant hit.
Disney’s live-action Western comedy romp, headlined by Don Knotts and Tim Conway as a pair of bumbling bankrobbers, became a beloved staple in the decades after its released, and in 1975 it was a top ten box office success, racking up $36 million to out-gross well-remembered baby boomer movies like Tommy, Rollerball, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Nashville. In fact, it was the most successful Disney picture of the decade (incidentally, another #OregonMade film that we’ll look at in a future Raid, Rooster Cogburn, made about a quarter of Apple Dumpling’s haul in ‘75). Unsurprisingly, Disney recognized that there was gold in them thar hills, and made a sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, in 1979, following it with a TV remake in 1982 (Tales of the Apple Dumpling Gang) and a series with the same characters (but new actors), Gun Shy (which ran for only 6 weeks in 1983).
When Disney began repurposing their films for the home video revolution during the ‘80s, The Apple Dumpling Gang was near the top of their list, as one of the company’s first 13 titles made available in the VHS format (available at selected Fotomat booths — kids, ask your grandparents what those were). And in 2018, Disney is slated to reboot the franchise once again as ¡Viva Apple Dumpling Gang!, with writer Quentin Tarantino directing James Franco and Benicio del Toro as the two klutzy criminals (ok, maybe untrue, but I’d want to see it).
The Apple Dumpling Gang was once a near-institution for family fun, running all over television and establishing Knotts and Conway as a comedy team to be reckoned with (see The Prize Fighter, Cannonball Run II, or The Private Eyes, if you don’t believe me). But does the film hold up? Can kids and families still yuk it up at their horseplay hijinks?
Honesty, it’s a little hard to recommend watching the movie, other than as some kind of nostalgia trip (and maybe as an alternative to distract young kids from the junk they’re probably watching on YouTube). I can’t disagree with The New York Times’s film critic Richard Eder, who wrote (in 1975) that the movie was a “fake meal of dishes labeled humor, sentiment, fantasy and suspense, each containing a little pink water”; it’s clearly meant to be funny and fun, but is largely neither. Eder notes that the sole advantage of The Apple Dumpling Gang is its outdoor setting “in the Far West,” and that its “horses are always nice to see in a movie”—and most importantly for this Raider, the beautiful landscape of the film is the Deschutes National Forest. So if you’re bored by the story or the laughless slapstick, you can happily gaze upon Oregon’s natural splendor in the background.
Nostalgia-appeal can be pretty powerful, though, and remembering your own youthful enjoyment of the movie might help you appreciate a re-viewing. As a character summarizes TADG in Bill Koningsberg’s young-adult coming-of-age novel Openly Straight, “It’s perfect. Scary, but not too scary. Cartoonish, but not too cartoonish. Sexy, but not too sexy. You don’t mess with The Apple Dumpling Gang.” So at the risk of messing with the Gang — although it’s pretty unlikely that either Don Knotts or Tim Conway will come gunning for me — I’ll take a shot at mining the film for some of its sparklier moments.
The movie’s multiple storylines are masterfully laid out, a tribute to the craftsmanship of writer Don Tait (in addition to writing more than a dozen Disney films, Tait penned many episodes of classic TV, including Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, and the Raider-favorite Combat!). Three parallel storylines weave throughout the film: (1) a gambler gets tricked into caring for three orphans, and schemes to find a new mom for the kids, (2) the dumb duo of Theodore (Knotts) and Amos (Conway) plot to figure out how to rob something or somebody, and (3) the real, tough outlaws Frank Stillwell and his gang plan to rob the mining town of its one bona fide newly discovered treasure, a valuable hunk of gold. Tait ties the A,B, and C storylines up in a satisfying package, delivering comeuppance for the bad guys, chuckles for the incompetent crooks, and one-big-happy-family hugs for the kids, their adopted dad, and the new mom to which he’s been hitched (a spoiler, I guess, but not much of one).
The movie’s got an all-star cast (well, all-star in my book anyway), and they all do their best with the material. Don and Tim both saw better days (as Barney Fife and Mr. Tudball, respectively), but are game at trying to wring laffs out of their situations (there’s an extended ladder gag that verges on being funny — and certainly outshines anything in the Dorf videos). Bill Bixby (the chill alter ego of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk) is charming and slick as the gambler Donovan; Susan Clark (the mom on TV’s Webster) is tomboyishly adorable as Dusty, the girl who wins Donovan’s heart; Harry Morgan (an Emmy-winner for his role as Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H) steals every scene he’s in as the crusty sheriff-cum-Justice-of-the-Peace Homer McCoy; and David Wayne (Batman’s Mad Hatter) affably hams things up as Dusty’s drunken blowhard father, Col. TR Clydesdale. My favorite moment of the film is one that ought to appeal to other movie cultists too: Slim Pickens, who chomps on the scenery as the villain Stillwell (he fakes being a minister and hides a six-shooter in a hollowed-out Bible), rides an out-of-control fire wagon at the film’s end, waving his pistol and hooting ’n’ hollering; it’s a genuinely funny homage to Pickens’s most famous role, as the nuke-happy Major “King” Kong (who rides a decidedly more lethal vehicle at the end of Dr. Strangelove).
The Apple Dumpling Gang doesn’t entirely neglect its adult audience, most of whom probably couldn’t find anyone else to accompany their kids to the theater. The film’s grown-up content operates several feet above the heads of the kiddies, of course, which is part of its fun. Sheriff McCoy, for instance, explains the town’s code: “We have certain what you call Rules to Live By. You don’t jump another man’s claim. You don’t steal his wife, woman, or whiskey.” When McCoy suggests that Donovan marries the seemingly boyish Dusty — for the sake of the orphans, you understand — he suggests that she’s got more under wraps than might at first be evident: “Dusty’s a fine specimen of womanhood. I seen her get caught in a cloudburst once, and I wanna tell you …” (later, during the comic-action finale, she gets dunked in the river, calling back to the scene to prove McCoy’s leering observation!). After Dusty and Donovan get married — again, for the kids, y’know? — Donovan explains that he had no intention of consummating their relationship; when Dusty finds out that Donovan has bought a fancy new brass bed, she thrashes him in a long, drawn-out bar fight, shouting “If you had no intention exercising your husbandly pre-rogatives, why’d you buy that bed!?” (as you’ve likely guessed, he bought the bet for the kids, of course). And in the finale of the film, when they finally kiss, a wowed Donovan asks the drenched specimen Dusty, “You always kiss like that?” Well, Dusty answers, “I’ve been saving up!” It’s sexy, but not too sexy (for the kids).
There’s an extended pee joke in the movie too (one of the orphans needs to go potty a lot). Perhaps the promise of that small hint of urinary naughtiness and other kid-level illicit content can lure your kids away from their Snappychats or CrashRoyals or whatever they do with their phones to look at the Deschutes National Forest as rear-projected through the action-comedy scenes of The Apple Dumpling Gang? It won’t kill them. And there’s a chance that you’ll winding up having a little fun too.
Watch: The Apple Dumpling Gang is available on all major streaming platforms (Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play) for about 3 bucks.
Visit/Drink: If you’re near the Deschutes National Forest, stop in at the Deschutes Brewery; if you’re anywhere else in the state, pick up some Mirror Pond Pale Ale (virtual tour its namesake here) or Black Butte Porter (virtual tour here). The movie won’t be much better if you’re drinking beer, but at least it won’t be any worse …