Oh, I have no doubt that you are a scoundrel, Higgins.
— “Bullwhip” Griffin
It has been said by people smarter than me that the first truly original American
form of storytelling was the Tall Tale. These stories about larger-than-life
heroes and their amazing adventures helped to define how a lot of people saw
the old West.
A tall tale made in the 1960s, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin
is one of many live-action family films cranked out by Disney at the time, most
of which starred Dean Jones, Fred MacMurray, or Kurt Russell. Most were geared
to be harmless, rather bland family films. Some engaged the kids but bored the
parents (see The Apple Dumpling Gang), others had a hook that drew in
all ages (like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). With a fun story, a great
cast, minimal goofiness, and the always excellent Roddy “Dr. Cornelius” McDowall,
Bullwhip is one of the better films Disney released in this period.
Incidentally, Mr. McDowall is the reason I’m reviewing this film. Any movie
with Roddy automatically counts as a genre film as far as I’m concerned.
In Bullwhip, the wealthy Grandpa Flagg has passed on, leaving his
entire fortune to his grandchildren Arabella (Suzanne “Bob Newhart Show”
Pleshette) and young Jack (Bryan Russell), and his servants, who are headed
up by erudite butler Eric Griffin (McDowall). Unfortunately, said fortune has
been depleted, so the Flaggs and company are penniless.
Jack, inspired by the popular dime novels of the time, decides to head out
west to strike gold in the California gold rush. He stows away on a ship heading
that way, befriending an old actor who just happens to have a map to a major
gold strike he won in a card game earlier that day. This map also has the attention
of the miscreant Judge Higgins (Karl “American Express” Malden), who follows
them with nefarious plans to make the fortune his.
When Arabella and Griffin discover that Jack has run off, the prim and proper
butler heads off to bring him home. Of course, he ends up stuck on the boat
with Jack, they are forced to try and make their way together through Ye Olde
Wild West. Jack dubs Griffin “Bullwhip” after his favorite dime-novel hero.
Soon Arabella also heads out that way, and the movie becomes a series of vignettes
of their adventures foiling bruisers, the scoundrel Higgins, and a shady saloon
If you can overlook the campy '60s family humor, Bullwhip is a very
enjoyable movie. It’s light and fluffy, but with its excellent cast the film
remains engaging the whole time. These are seasoned actors, and they all strike
the proper tone for a tall tale. Pleshette is a great plucky heroine, very sexy
and funny; in a saloon scene, she sings one of the raciest family film songs
I’ve ever heard. Malden is a delight as the scoundrel Higgins, and refrains
from chewing the scenery too much.
Best of all, however, is McDowall, who as always brings his A-game to the
repressed, proper Bullwhip, who depends on his wits to win out in his adventures.
As in many other films, he is the glue that holds this film together. The role
is practically tailor-made for him, and he elevates the film above the standard
Disney family film fare of the time.
If you can’t bring yourself to let go of your modern cynical eye and overlook
the occasional goofiness, then you probably won’t enjoy this film. But your
certainly kids will.
Sadly, this disk is very much in the vein of the other archive films that
Disney has recently released. It’s the film, the whole film, and almost nothing
but the film. There are a few trailers for other movies, chapter selects, and
that’s it. The film itself is restored well, with a crisp, clear picture, but
that is all it has going for it. There isn’t anything on it that could be called
a special feature in any way. If it had more special features, I would have
no reservations heartily recommending it to everyone. But as the bare-bones
edition that it is right now, only hard core McDowall fans (like myself), and
people with kids won’t feel just a little swindled by this disk.
The Movie Itself: 7/10
The Special Features: 2/10