Extended Thoughts on ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’
Directed by Norman Tokar
Written by Don Tait
Starring Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Bill Bixby, Susan Clark
Oh, my stupid memory. While I hadn’t exactly built up, in my mind, The Apple Dumpling Gang as a true live-action classic from Walt Disney Pictures, I clearly fooled myself. As I mentioned on the show, I have vague memories of watching this film and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. The more I ponder those memories, the more I realize that I don’t remember the movies themselves so much as the experience of having watched them, renting them on VHS from my local library. I had a glimmer of watching Don Knotts and Tim Conway play bumbling thieves in the Old West…and that’s it. I had hopes for watching the 1975 film, which is apparently Disney’s most successful live-action film of the 1970s (not too shabby, considering how many movies they released in that period). Almost instantly, those hopes were dashed. I spent too much time during the film wondering what happened to the movie I fondly if distantly remembered to engage fully with what was on screen.
See? Even I can admit when the problem with a movie lies almost entirely with me. Now, this isn’t to say that The Apple Dumpling Gang is an otherwise untouchable film, a cultural touchstone of some kind. But I do think it’s fair to say that my general lack of enthusiasm for the film is based partly on my assumptions being quashed. I assumed the movie would be Knotts and Conway-centric; granted, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who would think this. Knotts and Conway’s faces leer out goofily on the DVD, and they’re the only characters on the DVD cover. You would, perhaps, not be wrong in assuming they were the leads of the film—and presumably the title characters—if you only had the DVD front cover and disc itself staring at you. But Knotts and Conway are the comic relief in The Apple Dumpling Gang, never serving another purpose. What’s more, though we begin and end with these characters, these Rosencrantz and Guildenstern types, they’re gone from a majority of the film, vanishing to points unknown.
I suppose it wouldn’t matter that the marketing for the film is, these days, deliberately misleading if the actual movie was decent and enjoyable. And no, The Apple Dumpling Gang isn’t as bad as the other 1970s-era live-action films Mike and I have discussed on the podcast. However, it’s so lightweight and so slow-paced, you almost have to latch onto Knotts and Conway’s performances to make the movie memorable. What I find fascinating isn’t that the sequel focuses solely on them, but that the sequel didn’t do well. Were audiences that much more enthralled by the story of a gambler who finds the path to decency through three nondescript kids in a standard-issue Western town? Knotts and Conway’s thieving characters are far goofier—one of the few legitimate laughs in the film is when an attempt to lift Knotts up a building via a Rube Goldberg-esque rope/horse contraption goes awry—but they’re also the most lively in the film.
The Apple Dumpling Gang falls perfectly in line with a lot of Disney’s family output, trying to mix lowbrow humor with a positive family-oriented message. And, like most of those movies, it’s mostly fine just lying there, being fairly low-key and slow-moving. Bill Bixby, best known for being the Bruce Banner to Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, is a bland, passable lead. Frankly, everyone in the movie except for Knotts, Conway, and Slim Pickens as a third-act villain is the casting version of tofu. There’s no taste, no bite, no spark. There’s nothing. Knotts, Conway, and Pickens may mug for the camera, but I’ll take that over nothing. I had a hard time engaging with this film, not only because my memory deceived me, but because what was actually happening felt mighty boring.
I think that’s the core problem with The Apple Dumpling Gang. The film isn’t offensively bad, aggressively unfunny, or something similar to what I found with the Herbie movies. The issue is that the writers and director aren’t able to mix comic relief with a more straightforward story. Somehow, the poor attempt to balance the two tones makes both stories feel weak and uninspired. I haven’t read the book on which the film is based, but I wonder how faithful the film was. Based on a generic plot synopsis, at least, the basic set-up seems similar. But I kind of doubt the structure was exactly the same. A good amount of the so-called humor in The Apple Dumpling Gang feels like it was forced on the film. Bixby doesn’t look spectacularly uncomfortable interacting with the three orphaned kids who lead him to riches, but he never feels at ease. You could say that’s just an excellent example of Method acting, or you could say Bixby just feels wrong for the role. (And seeing as one of Bixby’s earliest roles was as the title character of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, I’m not sure why he seems so wrong for this character.)
I wouldn’t say this is a case where the filmmakers didn’t try. I’ve seen more lackluster films from Walt Disney Pictures, especially during this era. But I think they tried to do too many things at the same time, thus being unable to focus on actually achieving each of those goals. Did this movie want to be a boisterous Western-themed slapstick comedy? Did it want to be a heartfelt story of how a supposed degenerate is reformed by three children he’s forced into caring for? Is it about three kids finding gold and being chased after by all sorts of nefarious hoodlums? I’m not saying a movie couldn’t be all three of those things, I’m saying that this movie doesn’t do a good job of balancing those various stories’ needs. If, for example, the movie wants to balance comedy with pathos, balance the slapstick with a more family-oriented story, here’s the question: why not have Knotts and/or Conway be the one in charge of the kids?
I haven’t seen the sequel in many years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the second story goes, giving Knotts and Conway more agency in the story. Obviously, the sequel wasn’t as big a hit, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that these are the actors we remember from the series, if we remember anything about the films at all. The two men have a natural chemistry with each other, making hay from nothing. What they have to work with is mighty goofy, but Knotts and Conway know how to milk that into something endearing, something charming, if not laugh-out-loud funny. The movie surrounding them doesn’t know what it wants to be, sadly.