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February 18, 2008

The Gnome-Mobile

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Robert Stevenson - 1967
Disney Region 1 DVD

This is where my curiosity takes me . . . I checked the IMDb listing for Upton Sinclair. I had wondered if there were any earlier film versions of Oil! that had since been forgotten. What caught my eye was seeing that the last time there was a film version of any Sinclair novel, it was one made by Walt Disney. I was unaware that Sinclair wrote a children's book, titled The Gno-mobile. Even more surprising, given that they were politically opposite, is that Disney made the film. Sinclair was primarily a socialist, with writings critical of big business. Disney, the capitalist son of socialists even had a kingdom named after himself. The Gnome-Mobile was first released in July 1967, almost half a year after Disney's death. It would have been interesting to know if Sinclair had seen the film and what his reaction had been.

To some extent, Sinclair's allegory is recognizable. The head of a conglomerate, D. J. Mulrooney, is introduced as having made his original fortune with lumbar. Taking time to go on a road trip with his two grandchildren, they stop for a picnic in one of the forests areas that he owns. The trio discover two gnomes, young man Jasper, and his grandfather, Knobby. The Mulrooneys learn that the colony of gnomes living in the area were almost all driven out by the tree harvesting by D. J. Mulrooney. A decision is made to help the gnomes find another colony to join, which will allow Jasper to marry a gnome bride. While on the road, the group encounters Horatio Quaxton, who hopes to feature the gnomes with his traveling freak show. D. J. Mulrooney is temporarily held prisoner in a psychiatric facility. There also are some talking animals who discuss with the gnomes whether the humans are to be trusted. I can't be totally certain as I haven't read Sinclair's book, but I would guess there was some kind of message concerning ecology, responsibility to nature, and consideration to indigenous people that pretty much gets forgotten by the end of the film. More attention seems to have been devoted to the female gnomes Tinker Belle style costumes, and the male gnomes ghetto fabulous pimp hats.

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I vaguely recall part of an interview with Howard Hawks where Walter Brennan offered to play a part with or without teeth. Hawks decided Brennan was much funnier without teeth. In The Gnome-Mobile, Brennan plays Mulrooney with teeth and Knobby without teeth. He's not very funny either way. As Knobby, Brennan is simply cantankerous rather than cantankerous and endearing as he was in Rio Bravo. Likewise, the character of D. J. Mulrooney could have potentially been a friendlier, more successful version of the sly entrepreneur, Old Atrocity, in Barbary Coast. Better are the smaller roles, such as Sean McClory as Quaxton, in a part same seemed intended for Jack Carson. The two have some physical resemblance, and Carson was virtually typecast as the guy who was always selling something to somebody. Two refugees from "Green Acres", Frank Cady and Alvy Moore, provide seconds of pleasure. Perennial punching bag Richard Deacon and Ed Wynn, in his final performance, are virtually wasted. It may be that Robert Stevenson knew all along that he could never repeat the success of Mary Poppins, or that being house director for Walt Disney had simply taken a toll on his energy.

For Oscar prognosticators, they should consider how film adaptations of Upton Sinclair's novels might not have won Academy Awards, but have attracted Oscar winning talent. The Wet Parade was directed by future winner Victor Fleming, and featured Walter Huston. While Robert Stevenson had to content himself with a nomination for Mary Poppins, Walter Brennan had bragging rights to three wins compared to one solitary Oscar (so far) for Daniel Day-Lewis. Is that enough reason to see The Gnome-Mobile? Not really. But it does provide an amusing footnote, and a reminder as to why the Oscars should never be taken too seriously.

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Posted by peter at February 18, 2008 12:06 AM


I love the part about Hawks and Brennan's teeth... and then this:

"In The Gnome-Mobile, Brennan plays Mulrooney with teeth and Knobby without teeth. He's not very funny either way."


Posted by: fox at February 19, 2008 01:01 AM

Gnomes creep me out, especially that last demonic hillbilly type picture. I admire your courage for seeing this. I shall run from it with great speed.

Posted by: Jonathan Lapper at February 19, 2008 11:00 AM