Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Embarrassing animal performers

TCM aired the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning. It's not bad, even if it is typically Disney, adding touches that are designed to appeal to the kiddies. In this case, it's a trained seal named Esmerelda. In one scene, poor Kirk Douglas has to sing to the seal. Douglas was already quite the star by this time, and you wonder why he couldn't get a better deal than to serenade Esmerelda and feed her fish.

A lot of the animals that make life hell for the human actors are apes, largely because the apes are seen to be so close to humans. So, we get poor Ronald Reagan dealing with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan has come in for quite a bit of ridicule for this movie, largely thanks to Johnny Carson's mentioning it on The Tonight Show. In fact, Carson was poking fun at the movie's director, Fred de Cordova, who by the 1980s had become the executive producer of The Tonight Show. Reagan himself does the best he can, although it would have been difficult for almost anybody to pull off Bedtime for Bonzo.

Perhaps Cary Grant could have done it. He did a fine job with monkeys in Monkey Business, but a big difference between the two movies is that Grant was in a movie that was supposed to be nothing but comedy. Bedtime for Bonzo had a more dramatic message at the heart of it. Besides, Grant had made much the same movie a dozen years earlier, when he did the great Bringing Up Baby.

There's also the Francis series, starring the "talking mule". Donald O'Connor starred as the man who originally heard Francis talking, but apparently wanted out after the mule started getting more fan mail than he did! And you thought Mr. Ed was original.

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