Edith's Review of The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
Featuring a Very Different Herbie
Somehow, I never realized that this movie came out the same year as [i]The Love Bug[/i]. Dean Jones was then only slightly older than I am now, which means it wasn't unreasonable of him to be the father of a teenage girl. He would have been young when she was born, but not that young. Actually, only a year or so older than I was when my daughter was born. However, that same year, he would play a romantic lead who was still a bachelor, not--as he presumably is here--a widower. And yes, a bachelor with a bit of a past, but not yet an old man. Or even middle-aged. I guess it kind of gives me hope, given that I'd been feeling old lately. I also think it's interesting that his love interest in this movie was considered young and attractive--and wasn't that much younger than he was, was actually old enough to have had the life her character was supposed to have had by then.
Dean Jones here is Fred Bolton, a mid-ranked ad executive for a firm in New York who lives somewhere out in the country with his daughter, Helen (Ellen Janov), and Aunt Martha (Lurene Tuttle). His two biggest concerns are his bills and the Aspercel account. Aspercel is a patent stomach medicine; his agency has had the account for fifteen years, and Tom Dugan (Fred Clark) now wants them to go for a higher class market. At the same time, Helen has decided that now is the time to persuade her father to buy her a horse; it turns out she's a fine horsewoman who could do well in competition if she had the right horse. Fred decides to kill two birds with one stone--horse show crowds are higher class, so if Helen gets a horse, calls it Aspercel, and gets to nationals, she will draw attention to the brand and, you know, have a horse. Helping Helen this goal is S. J. "Suzie" Clemens (Diane Baker), the attractive woman who runs the stable where Helen is taking her lessons. Helen is also starting a romance with Ronnie Gardner (Kurt Russell).
The thing that has always confused me about this movie--and, yes, it's yet another "I saw it on the Disney Channel as a child" movie--is how Suzie got into the horse show at the end. Much fuss is made throughout the movie that Helen has to win three medals at a lesser series of events in order to qualify for nationals. This makes sense. You can't just show up at national competition and be allowed to compete like everyone else. Yet somehow, Suzie manages. There is absolutely no explanation. I mean, we've established already that she was a champion before she started teaching upper middle class teenagers. However, I'm certain there has to be more to getting to that level of competition, even for adults. I have never understood this, and the movie never bothers to enlighten us. The plot is not otherwise seamless or interesting enough to distract us from this issue, though I still find the movie entertaining, and it's one of the first live-action Disney movies that I bought on DVD.
There were some movies like this which loomed larger in my childhood consciousness than others. I'm not entirely sure why. Sometimes, it was because they were legitimately good movies, and occasionally legitimately good movies which didn't get played very often. To this day, [i]Candleshoe[/i] is probably my favourite live-action Disney movie of all time, and I remember it didn't get anywhere near the airplay on the Disney Channel as, say, [i]The Love Bug[/i]. However, I genuinely do not know why I was as interested in this movie as I always have been. I outgrew my horse phase fairly young, and I've never been particularly attracted to Kurt Russell (or, come to that, Dean Jones). I had an odd fondness for Lieutenant Lorendo (Federico Piņero)--yet another Guy Who Looked Kind of Like My Dad--but there really isn't much to this movie that makes sense as something that would draw my attention. I can't explain why, but I've always loved it.
Okay, and it's silly. I enjoy it, but it's silly, and it doesn't really have enough plot to fill out the nearly two-hour running time. This goes beyond the fact that you know how it's going to end. Of course you know how it's going to end; it's a live-action Disney movie from 1968. (Kurt Russell has an endearing moment of frustration about how he's been stood up even though he bothered to wear a tie, a moment that was dated pretty much as soon as it happened.) However, there is literally no conflict in the movie that isn't resolved pretty much immediately. The worst thing that happens to these characters for most of the movie is when Herbie the Dog eats almost everything out of the picnic basket. However, for what it is, it's entertaining and well made. It's one of my comfort films, and take that for what it's worth. It does mean that my rating may not be completely reliable, but there must have been something which caught me about this movie all those years ago, right?