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Good Children’s Movies (1965-70): Ghosts, Magic Machines & an Exotic Island

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David Appleford itcherWhen it came to children’s movies and family films in the latter half of the sixties, the most interesting aspect of those last five years was the development of star names favored by children. Adult audiences were always enticed to see a film by the moniker on the marquee, but generally speaking, children went to the movies to have fun, not to see a favorite actor. That changed with ‘Mary Poppins’ and its effect hit the studios in a big way. ~ David Appleford

Looking to the Stars

Julie Andrews may have played the lead in ‘Mary Poppins’, and certainly 1965 saw the decade’s biggest opening for a family film with ‘The Sound of Music’, but it was Dick Van Dyke who became the children’s favorite. Because of his likeable portrayal of Bert the Chimney Sweep, plus the ever growing popularity of his hit TV sitcom, children wanted more.

1967 gave families the comedy ‘Fitzwilly,’ Walt Disney hired him in 1966 for ‘Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.’ and again in 1968 for ‘Never a Dull Moment’, all of them fun and popular with the family. But it was the big musical ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ also released in 1968 that sealed Dick Van Dyke’s popularity. Children enjoyed the car, but they loved Van Dyke.

Another popular children’s star was Dean Jones. In the latter half of the sixties, Dean Jones headlined a string of popular Disney movies, including ‘That Darn Cat!’ in 1965, ‘The Ugly Dachshund’ in 1966, ‘Monkeys, Go Home!’ in 1967, ‘The Love Bug’ in 1968, plus ‘Blackbeard’s Ghost’ in the same year. It didn’t matter what the film was about; if Dean Jones was in it, children went.

There were other great films for children in the late sixties that, even today, remain worthy. There were large scale musicals like ‘Doctor Dolittle’ and ‘Oliver!’ Gerry Anderson’s puppets transferred from the small screen to the big in ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ and ‘Thunderbird 6,’ plus Elsa the Lioness stole children’s hearts in ‘Born Free.’

Check the following five recommendations. Two are mentioned above, but there’s a chance you may never heard of the remaining three. Most children today won’t have heard of Dick Van Dyke or Dean Jones, but imagine how much fun it will be to see their eyes light up when discovering the magic of their movies for the first time.


Exceptional Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin’ (James Neilson, 1967)

Grandpa used to say that people are 98% water and if you don’t stir them up once in a while, they stagnate…

British-born actor Roddy McDowall made his career as a child actor in several family favorites such as ‘Lassie Come Home’ and ‘My Friend Flicka’. As an adult, he became known in Hollywood as the fussy, professional Brit starring with Dean Jones in ‘That Darn Cat!’ and donning an ape mask as the friendly chimpanzee doctor in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’. In 1967, Walt Disney cast him in the comedy western ‘The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin’ as the title character.

Set during the California gold rush, Bullwhip is the butler to an adventurous youngster from Boston who heads west in search of his family fortune. The young man has run away, but the trusted family butler has followed him, and together, the two begin a set of whacky adventures in the untamed west coast.

The film tends to be one of the lesser known Disney comedies of the sixties, perhaps because it was released as the support feature to ‘The Jungle Book’ in the days of double features. But grab it if you can. The film is both colorful and very funny, and there’s a chance your children may be engaged to the point where they might want to see more of Roddy McDowell.

Interestingly, another British actor, comedian Tony Hancock was supposed to be in the film, but due to some unpredictable and erratic behavior on set, the studio was forced to replace him.

‘Willy McBean and His Magic Machine’ (Arthur Rankin, Jr., 1965)

Remember the animated, stop-motion Christmas TV special ‘Rudolph’ that even today continues to air on television? ‘Willy McBean and His Magic Machine’ comes from the same studio. It’s a Rankin/Bass stop-motion feature, made the same year as ‘Rudolph’, only this time, director Arthur Rankin Jr. made it for the big screen.

The villainous Professor Rasputin Von Rotten invents a time machine which he uses to go back and change history in his favor. He goes to the Battle of the Little Big Horn but escapes just before General Custer meets his fate, travels to see Christopher Columbus in order to take the credit for discovering America, and even travels to Camelot to pull that sword from the stone before a certain young Arthur can get to it. Along the way, his plans are usually thwarted by young Willy, who has built his own time machine to stop Von Rotten and keep history the way it always was.

The film is loaded with all kinds of puppetry, including pirates, cowboys, cavemen, even dinosaurs, and if it achieves anything – other than being a lot of fun for children – it’s also a way of introducing key moments of history or fantasy legend to kids discovering these events for the first time.

If you can picture how ‘Rudolph’ looked, then you know what you’re in for. And who doesn’t enjoy repeating the rhyming title, just for the fun of it?

‘Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.’ (Byron Paul, 1966)

According… to… my… calculations, I’m somewhere between Elmira, New York, and Muncie, Indiana…

No, not the one that was stranded on an island with Man Friday. This one happened 247 years after the famous Daniel Defoe novel. This is the other Crusoe stranded on an island, and instead of Man Friday, he finds his Girl Wednesday.

Dick Van Dyke plays a navy pilot whose plane has engine trouble and he’s forced to bail. He becomes a castaway and after several days adrift in a raft, he finally lands on a tropical island, making it his home. Along with a chimp called Floyd, he builds a golf course and a special system to send his mail in bottles out into the sea. Then an island girl appears and Crusoe’s life in paradise is turned upside down.

For whatever reason, reviews were negative, but don’t let that stop you. Children should be thrilled, not only with the color, the location and much of the slapstick comedy, but with Dick Van Dyke.

At the time, the film was a big success due to the comic actor’s immense popularity, but over the years, Crusoe was buried and mostly forgotten. In fact, the DVD was never released until 2005, almost forty years after its theatrical release.

For trivia fans: look closely at the writing credits. It states that the film was written by Retlaw Yensid. Unscramble the letters and you’ll see it reads… Walter Disney.

‘My Side of the Mountain’ (James B. Clark, 1969)

Well, I came because I thought the only way to know nature was to live with it. Like Thoreau…

This is one of those family gems that was based on a famous 1959 novel of the same name, but today, is mostly forgotten. 

Teddy Eccles, best remembered as the actor who supplied the voice of Aaron in the Christmas TV special ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, plays Sam, a young man who heads up into the mountains of Canada after he’s told that the family summer holiday is canceled. With his pet raccoon named Gus, he finds the perfect spot to build a home in a tree and settles, spending time with a wandering folk singer named Bando while learning how to live with nature, away from the crowds.

For any child who dreams of going it alone, ‘My Side of the Mountain’ is their film. The late Dan Haggerty who later went on to become TV’s ‘Grizzly Adams’ worked as the animal trainer on set.

And take a look at that frozen lake. It may appear to be winter, but it’s not. Through the trickery of movie magic, cinder blocks were sunk into the water then covered with plywood. The white stuff sprayed around on top looked like snow and ice and gave everything that frozen effect. It’s an old-fashioned adventure, but when Sam communicates and plays with those animals, children will be in awe.

‘Blackbeard’s Ghost’ (Robert Stevenson, 1968)

I don’t think you’re real and I don’t think that sword is real. I’m going to walk straight through it and go to bed!

The teaming of Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette had proved so popular two years earlier in Disney’s ‘The Ugly Dachshund’ that the studio looked for new material that would re-team them with equal success. They found it in a book called ‘Blackbeard’s Ghost,’ and it proved to be even more popular and certainly funnier than their previous collaboration.

As played by Peter Ustinov, the ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate can only be seen by local Carolina track coach Steve Walker (Dean Jones). The pirate is cursed to be a wondering ghost forever, unless he can perform one good deed. College professor Jo Anne Baker (Suzanne Pleshette) befriends the coach, and even though she can’t see Blackbeard, she’s convinced that the coach can. Against his will, Blackbeard not only helps the track team win their races, but he also helps the coach and the professor stop the local inn from falling into the hands of the mob.

Watch the looks on the faces of your children during the track and field events where an invisible ghost literally pushes the team to win. They will be bug-eyed if they’re not already laughing. And if they love ‘Blackbeard’s Ghost’ (which they will, guaranteed!) you might think of introducing them to Dean Jones in ‘The Love Bug’ as a kind of family movie double-bill.

Jones made many adult movies during the fifties, but it was with family films and Disney where he found his true following, and ‘Blackbeard’s Ghost’ and ‘The Love Bug’ show why.


All Aboard!

The sixties were an undeniably great time for children’s films. From almost all of the titles above, with the exception of maybe ‘Oliver!’, it’s easy to see that America, and especially Walt Disney, dominated the market.

But in the decade to follow, the United Kingdom delivered an adventure concerning a steam train in what today is still considered one of the greatest British films of all time, and it’s aimed squarely at the family. Stay tuned, and whatever you do, don’t walk on the tracks.

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