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When one thinks of classic live-action Disney films, one generally thinks of films from the ’60s such as “Mary Poppins”, “The Love Bug”, “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes”, “Pollyanna”, “Swiss Family Robinson”, “The Parent Trap”, etc. But the ’70s also had its share of classics. Today we’ll look at one of these classic ’70s Disney films in particular, “The Apple Dumpling Gang”.
Enjoy! And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
As the film opens, we are introduced to the protagonist of our film, Russell Donovan, played by Bill Bixby of “The Incredible Hulk” fame.
He’s just ridden into a small Western town called Quake City wherein he plans to stay for a while before heading out to New Orleans to follow his dreams of owning his own…saloon/building/entertainment-type edifice.
While in Quake City, he meets up with an old acquaintance, John Wintle, who asks a favor of him. Apparently, Wintle has to leave for San Francisco all of a sudden, but is expecting some valuables to arrive by stagecoach the next day. So he asks Mr. Donovan if he can pick up his valuables for him. Mr. Donovan reluctantly agrees…for a share in the valuables.
We then cut to the opening credits as we see the stagecoach, in question, moving down the frontier carrying passengers as well as luggage. As the credits roll, the theme song for the movie plays, which I have to admit is an AWESOME song! I’m surprised it’s not more popular. It’s basically a ballad about the titular “Apple Dumpling Gang” (even though we don’t know who they are yet). Listen to it below, (provided the link still works).
Once the credits end and the stagecoach arrives in Quake City, Mr. Donovan inquires the driver about Mr. Wintle’s valuables. He’s shocked to see what he finds.
So yeah, these kids (from eldest to youngest) are Bobby, Clovis, and Celia. They were on their way to Mr. Wintle’s because their parents recently died and Mr. Wintle is their apparent next of kin. But, Mr. Wintle didn’t want the kids, so he had to find some sucker to take the kids off his hands. This is where Mr. Donovan comes in.
Mr. Donovan, of course, doesn’t want to take the kids (now that he knows they’re not valuables) and argues with the driver, Magnolia Clydesdale, played by Susan Clark,
and her father, the founder of the stagecoach line.
In the end, Mr. Donovan’s arguments are futile as he has already taken money from Mr. Wintle to pick up his valuables, and all this occurred right under the eyes of the local sheriff, Homer McCoy, played by Harry Morgan.
So, the sheriff shows Mr. Donovan and the kids where Mr. Wintle’s shack is so they can stay there until Mr. Donovan can find foster parents to look after the kids. The shack is leaky, Mr. Donovan is jobless, and Mr. Donovan can’t cook, so the atmosphere is not a pleasant one.
Thankfully, Magnolia Clydesdale stops by and offers to help Mr. Donovan with whatever he needs help with while he goes on his “parent-hunt”.
Logically, Magnolia Clydesdale is the first person upon whom Mr. Donovan tries to push the kids. And of course, her answer is…
Hmm, too bad, Mr. Donovan! Keep trying!
And he does indeed do that. He takes the kids with him the next day to several families, but each endeavor meets with failure as the kids somehow manage to mess things up. They get a farmer’s dog in the chicken coop,
one of the kids kicks one of the prospective parents in the leg,
and one woman just takes a look at the kids and is disgusted.
After those rejections, they stop to have some lunch. Mr. Donovan realizes that he is jobless and needs to get some money to take care of the kids. He then gets an idea on how to do just that…by gambling, of course!
While he plays cards, he tells the kids to behave and not get into trouble. And we all know that no kid (at least in movies) ever effectively follows that order. So the question is, how exactly do they get into trouble?
Well, it seems that the kids’ father owned a mine in the area, a mine that was supposedly filled with gold. But nobody in town, including Mr. Donovan, believes this fact to be true. So when the kids see a mine in the distance, they decide to check it out, but quickly realize that it’s not THEIR mine. This is where the trouble starts. The kids climb into an abandoned minecart, accidentally disable the brake, then go flying off in their runaway minecart.
The brake is stuck, and since Newton’s laws of motion aren’t applicable to Disney movies, the kids can’t stop the minecart. It keeps rolling and rolling while disrupting a laundry station in Quake City’s Chinatown area,
flooding the laundry station in question via a toppling water tower,
breaking an expensive mirror,
and destroying a melodeon.
The owners of these places/items are not happy and go to Mr. Donovan later to be compensated for their losses using the money that he’s just won in the card game.
Poor Mr. Donovan, he’s back to square one.
Later that night (after putting the kids to bed, since he knows they can’t get into any trouble while asleep), he comes across two inept thieves, Theodore and Amos, played by Don Knotts and Tim Conway, respectively. They’ve heard that Mr. Donovan has won a lot of money gambling (but didn’t hear that he had to give it all away to pay debts) and want to rob him of it.
They are not evil or threatening and serve mainly as comic relief, so much so that Mr. Donovan initially doesn’t even realize that they’re trying to steal from him.
The next day, the kids decide to go digging in their mine for the gold (once they figure out which mine is theirs) that Mr. Donovan still doesn’t believe exist. Little do they know, but the mines are the hideout of Theodore and Amos. Apparently, the duo used to be part of the notorious Stillwell Gang until Amos accidentally shot Stillwell in the leg (HILARIOUS)!
That incident caused them to leave the gang and work by themselves with each other…hmm…an oxymoron.
So when they hear the kids coming up to their hideout, they assume it’s the cops and prepare to defend themselves.
When they find out it’s the kids, they feel quite sheepish over the whole thing.
The kids quite naively ask Theodore and Amos where their mine is located. Being acquainted with the area, Theodore and Amos point them in the right direction. And wouldn’t you know it? The kids actually discover gold in their mine! The news travels quickly and the gold nugget is put in the bank under the kids’ names for safekeeping.
Mr. Donovan is happy that the gold is in the children’s names, hence taking care of their future financial needs. He celebrates with the kids by eating out and buying them all new clothes.
But gold does attract attention. When people find out that the children are rich beyond belief, their minds start turning. In fact, all the women whom Mr. Donovan tried to get to adopt the kids before are now fighting each other to adopt them!
Because of all this hullabaloo, the kids now become the court’s responsibility and a court hearing is to come in the upcoming days to have the court decide which family to give the kids to. And from what I understand, the court will most likely hand the kids over to a married couple. When thinking of possible candidates, the sheriff suggests to Mr. Donovan that Miss Magnolia Clydesdale is a good candidate.
But the problem is, of course, that Miss Clydesdale…umm…Dusty is not married. So, the sheriff hints to Mr. Donovan that he should marry her. This way, the sheriff (being the Justice of the Peace as well) can hand the kids over to Mr. Donovan and Dusty (since they’d be married) and then they can divorce after the kids are legally theirs and stay with Dusty while Mr. Donovan heads on to New Orleans. (I honestly am not too sure how this is much different from Mr. Donovan’s original plan of asking Dusty to take care of the kids, but oh well!)
Mr. Donovan isn’t keen on the idea, but after constant coaxing by the kids, he decides to go to Dusty’s house and tell her about the marriage plans. She isn’t too keen on the idea as well and suspects that Mr. Donovan might be marrying her for…other reasons.
But once he assures her that he doesn’t have that on his mind at all, she agrees to the plan.
(Again, I’m not sure why she agrees now and not before, other than the fact that she’s taken a liking to Mr. Donovan. Oh well!)
Meanwhile the gold nugget has attracted our favorite thieves, Theodore and Amos. They plot secretly
to break into the bank at night and steal the gold nugget for themselves. This scheme leads to more hilarious incidents including Theodore and Amos robbing a ladder from a fire station,
using the ladder to walk across to the roof of the bank,
and breaking the ladder as they try to walk across! They then resort to plan B. Plan B is to use a donkey to pull one of them up by a rope over the roof of the bank. Theodore almost gets hanged in the process.
The duo finally breaks into the bank where the townspeople find them tangled up in a knot the next day.
The sheriff lets them go threatening them (jokingly) with a hanging if they ever come back. But our bumbling burglars are not the only ones out for the gold. Stillwell and his gang (the original gang that Theodore and Amos were part of) are after the gold as well. They’re the real bad guys of this film. Stillwell, played by Slim Pickens, is also seeking out Amos to get revenge for being shot in the leg.
Meanwhile, Mr. Donovan and Dusty get legally married and the sheriff takes Mr. Donovan to the saloon to celebrate. Dusty takes the kids to a local…umm…general store to celebrate. Once there, she learns from the storekeeper that Mr. Donovan has recently purchased a bed from the store. This infuriates Dusty as she thinks it can only mean one thing.
She then heads to the saloon and creates one of the most hilarious fights ever in a Disney film.
Once Dusty lets Mr. Donovan speak, he tells her that he bought the bed for the kids, not for them. She replies with
Totally pointless scene, but hilarious, hence worth it.
Anyway the day of the court hearing arrives and the sheriff publicly and legally declares Mr. Donovan and Dusty to be the rightful guardians of the kids. But, all isn’t well. Apparently, the Mr. Wintle from the beginning of the film is back in town and heard about the kids’ gold. He now wants to take the kids back into his custody. Sadly, the sheriff can do nothing about this problem since the kids are legally Mr. Wintle’s and everyone is saddened.
But the kids have an idea. They realize that Mr. Wintle only wants the gold and not them, so they go to Theodore and Amos and make a plan with them. They plan to help our two thieves steal the gold themselves! And it wouldn’t really be stealing since the kids are the rightful owner of the gold and can do what they want with it.
So the next day, Theodore and Amos go to the bank to steal the gold (with the help of the kids), but Stillwell and his gang break into the bank as well and the plans are spoiled. This leads to the film’s climax where Mr. Donovan, Dusty, and the rest of the town help fight off the thieves, save the kids, and save the gold.
Stillwell is arrested,
the kids are saved, the gold gets blown up into millions of tiny gold pieces, Mr. Wintle heads back to San Francisco, Theodore and Amos become good, and Mr. Donovan and Dusty decide to remain married and head off to New Orleans together with the kids, Dusty’s dad, Theodore, and Amos. And if you were wondering who the heck were “the apple dumpling gang”, well it’s a nickname given to Mr. Donovan’s new family! Bit disappointing, but who cares?
So that was “The Apple Dumpling Gang”. What do I think? I love it! It’s one of my favorite live-action Disney movies. It has incredibly likable characters, amazing acting, and just the right balance of comedy and plot. The film was also a success in the box office becoming the most lucrative Disney film of the ’70s despite mixed reviews. It even spawned a sequel and two TV series.
Yes this film was and is still a winner. If you’ve never seen it, I strongly suggest you watch it now.
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score is 31/35 = 88.57% (B+) !