Today’s review is a request of one of my friends and followers, simoa. A lover of Pixar, animation, and classic Hollywood, she also runs the Champagne for Lunch blog. She’s a fan of Roddy McDowall’s and wanted me to review two of his live-action Disney films, so today we’re taking a look at The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. (Let’s hope she doesn’t kill me after reading this review, lol!)
Without further ado, this is The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film takes place in 1845 and begins with an amazingly designed opening credits sequence complete with a catchy title song that one can expect from the Sherman Brothers.
We’re then introduced to our protagonist, a butler named Griffin, played by Roddy McDowall. He works for a well-to-do family on the East Coast and the patriarch of the family recent died. Today happens to be the “reading of the will” day. The will stipulates how much money the members of the household, including staff, will get.
We learn that deal ol’ Griffin is set to inherit $500,000! This good news quickly turns into bad news when it’s found out that the patriarch actually died broke having borrowed so much money from people. So, nobody’s getting any money and the house will soon be up for sale.
This news of sudden penury amuses the patriarch’s granddaughter, Arabella Flagg, played by Suzanne Pleshette, but causes her younger brother, Jack, played by Bryan Russell, to come up with a get-rich-quick plan. He’s been interested in the recent gold rush in California, so what better time to sneak out of the house, head to California, and pan for gold?
When Jack’s disappearance is discovered, Griffin promises Arabella that he’ll go after Jack and bring him back home. Both Griffin and Arabella seem to have feelings for each other, but Griffin is too proper to tell her since they’re of different social statuses.
Meanwhile, Jack has managed to sneak aboard a ship heading to California along with another guy who doesn’t have a ticket, Quentin Bartlett, played by Richard Haydn. Not long after, Griffin arrives and explains to the captain of the ship that Jack may be aboard. The captain allows Griffin to search for him provided that they both leave before the ship embarks on its voyage. Unfortunately, while Griffin is searching for Jack, Mr. Bartlett thinks he’s the police and knocks him out. This results in the ship embarking before Griffin regains consciousness and they’re on their way to California!
After regaining consciousness, Griffin gets things straight with Mr. Bartlett and the captain. He then becomes the personal chef to the captain as a sort of recompense for being aboard without a ticket.
Mr. Bartlett has since befriended Jack and Griffin and explains that the reason he’s so anxious is that he fears people are after him. You see, he has a map that leads to a mother lode of gold in San Francisco and everyone wants to get their hands on it. He trusts Griffin and Jack though and wants them to be partners with him in that mother lode.
One day, a fire breaks out on deck and in the midst of the chaos, the map is stolen by a crooked Judge Higgins, played by Karl Malden. Judge Higgins has been after that map for some time now (even stealing someone else’s ticket to get on the ship). He takes one of the lifeboats and heads to California on his own.
Not long after, the ship reaches California and Griffin, Mr. Bartlett, and Jack do their best to find Judge Higgins and retrieve the map. In San Francisco, a bully named Mountain Ox, played by Mike Mazurki, tries to pick a fight with Griffin. Luckily, Griffin has a nugget of gold in one of his gloves and knows Mountain Ox out with that. This “demonstration of strength” quickly has the town calling him “Bullwhip Griffin” after a comic book/dime novel/folk tale-type character of similar strength and guts. Bullwhip Griffin has now become a legend in San Francisco.
But, Bullwhip Griffin, Jack, and Mr. Bartlett are still looking for Judge Higgins. They briefly catch up to him, but lose him again after an incident with some Mexican bandits. They soon find Judge Higgins again in a small mining town almost ready to be hanged!
You see, Judge Higgins set himself up as a dentist to these miners. But, as we all know, he ain’t no dentist! So, it’s not long before the miners realize that he’s a fake and want to hang him. Luckily, Bullwhip Griffin and the gang come in time to defend/save Judge Higgins…or at least postpone his hanging. As thanks for saving him, Judge Higgins gives the map to Bullwhip Griffin and Jack, but they realize that the ending of the map is missing. A bullet hole was made in it by the aforementioned Mexican bandits, so now there’s no telling where the mother lode is.
In the meantime, the miners order Bullwhip Griffin and Jack to dig a grave for Judge Higgins since he’s still set to be hanged sometime. While digging, Bullwhip Griffin and Jack serendipitously hit the mother lode and the miners go wild for the gold forgetting about Judge Higgins.
Everyone is happy after getting gold and soon, Bullwhip Griffin and the gang are back on a ship headed to the East Coast. But, Judge Higgins, who was unable to get any of the gold, is also on board the ship and tries to steal Bullwhip Griffin’s gold. This results in the gold being lost at the bottom of the sea, Judge Higgins escaping to shore, and Bullwhip Griffin and the gang heading back to San Francisco once more to find gold.
Meanwhile, Arabella has come to San Francisco in search of Bullwhip Griffin and her brother and has become a dancer at a local saloon. When Bullwhip Griffin and Jack discover this, the saloon owner recognizes Bullwhip Griffin as the guy who beat up Mountain Ox. He decides to arrange a fight between Bullwhip Griffin and Mountain Ox and have people place bets on it. Of course, he’s unaware of how Bullwhip Griffin beat Mountain Ox in the first place.
So, Arabella, Jack, and Mr. Bartlett try to train Bullwhip Griffin into becoming a fighter, but they know he can’t win by skill. The only possible way is to tire out Mountain Ox by having him run around a lot. And that’s pretty much how the fight goes: it’s comedic to watch and Bullwhip Griffin eventually wins in a way that I’m not entirely sure is legal by basically tiring out Mountain Ox and having him beat himself.
But our good friend, Judge Higgins, happens to be at the saloon too and tries to steal all the betting money. But, he doesn’t get far as the townspeople go after him. The money is found, Judge Higgins is jailed, and Arabella becomes the saloon owner although I’m not entirely sure how/why. It doesn’t really matter though as the saloon is burnt to the ground during the chaotic climax.
The closing Bullwhip Griffin song explains how Bullwhip Griffin used the money he won from the fight to rebuild San Francisco the way it is now.
And that’s The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.
As the title suggests, it focuses on a couple of “adventures” that Bullwhip Griffin has, so the movie does feel episodic rather than a proper film. I feel it would have worked better as a TV series rather than a film. The matte painting backgrounds and title card sequences are done quite well, but the special effects are honestly disappointing, even for its time.
And while the songs are not too bad, they’re also not the best from the Sherman Brothers. The acting is…serviceable at best, especially in the cases of Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette. Karl Malden tries a bit too hard so he comes off as not being authentic. Richard Hayden probably gave the best performance of the cast.
Summing up, although this film will receive a poor grade from me, it’s not the worst film there is. If you’re a fan of the cast, you can forgive a lot. But if you don’t forgive a lot, it’s totally understandable too!
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
The next review will be posted on November 21st.