The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) – Norman Tokar

Like most people my age, I grew up with the Carol Burnett show and delighted in the antics of the comedic genius that was Tim Conway, so when he and Don Knotts found themselves in a family/comedy/western film for Disney alongside Bill Bixby, and familiar names and faces like Susan Clark, Harry Morgan, Slim Pickens, Fran Ryan and John McGiver, you know I went to see this as a matinee growing up.

It has been easily over forty years since I’ve seen this one, so I was a little anxious about how it held up. But it actually ended up being a fairly fun and funny family film.

Bixby plays Russel Donavan, a bit of a rogue who is not always on the up and up. But when he agrees to watch over some valuables for Wintle (Don Knight) that are arriving on the local stage, overseen by Magnolia aka Dusty (Clark), he doesn’t expect to be saddled with three kids, Bobby (Clay O’Brien), Clovis (Brad Savage) and Celia (Stacy Manning).

Donavan doesn’t want to be settled with the kids, but when they come across a large gold nugget in their family mine, Donavan has a number of less than desirable takers who are eager to get their hands on the kids, but more importantly their property.

To help keep them at bay, Donavan agrees to take Dusty on as a wife (a business arrangement, though they are both developing feelings for each other) to protect the kids.

Interwoven through all of this is a story thread that features a pair of bumbling would-be outlaws, Theodore (Knotts) and Amos (Conway). They’ve targeted Donavan, but can’t seem to pull off any kind of heist. They even pair up with the kids, and help them try to get their gold back when Wintle returns to town to lay claim to the siblings and the mine.

Knotts and Conway provide some brilliant physical comedy, there are shootouts, there are familiar western actors playing familiar western stereotypes, and all of it is tinged with a good sense of Disney fun.

I didn’t know this when I was young, but apparently the film is based on the novel of the same name by Jack M. Bickham, though I’m willing to bet that the Amos/Theodore dynamic was created expressly for the screen and the stars who took on the roles.

It’s goofy and fun, and there’s little things for both the grown-ups and the kids, and it’s fun to watch Bixby do something besides warn people about making him angry. It’s actually a well-cast and fun film that doesn’t want to do anything more than entertain.

So, of course, they made sequel.

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