When discussing actor Fred MacMurray film buffs will cite such classics as Double Indemnity and The Apartment but even if those clearly show the power and range of this actor’s talent, and no one can deny how good he was in those films, those titles are not what he was most known for. If one were to look up the word “affable” in the dictionary and found a picture of Fred MacMurray you’d not be surprised, and this is why he’s most known for playing such sweet and caring characters and why he became a staple at Disney Studios. He’s played so many “nice guys” that he almost makes Jimmy Stewart look like a monster in comparison. Follow, Me Boys! is based on the book God and My Country by MacKinlay Kantor and is a Norman Rockwellesque look at the Boy Scouts of America with Fred MacMurray playing the scout master who would help shape the lives of many boys over the years.
Starting in the 1930s the movie opens with Lemuel “Lem” Siddons (Fred MacMurray), a saxophonist in a traveling band with dreams of being a lawyer and growing roots somewhere, who he finally gets that chance when the band’s bus stops in the quaint town of Hickory and he decides to give up the road for good. The sweet idyllic nature of this town may have been a key factor in this decision but the primary one would be him bumping into the beautiful Vida Downey (Vera Miles), a bank teller who is currently dating the town’s bank manager Ralph Hastings (Elliott Reid). Lem steps on Vida’s feet while backing up to catch a pop fly ball from a group of boys playing in the street, and that accidental assault is all it takes to get romance a blooming.
This is the second time we’ve seen Fred MacMurray facing off against actor Elliot Reed, in 1961’s The Absent Minded Professor Reid tried to steel Nancy Olson away from MacMurray with about the same amount of luck this time out. The character of Ralph Hastings is your typical “strawman” rival that pops up in many films of this genre, he doesn’t stand a chance against the hero and he’s almost always depicted as a pompous ass, and though this movie doesn’t veer to far from this clichéd character Reid is one of those actors that can really own this part and he blends inept villainy with a nice bit of comic aplomb. And just how villainous is Ralph Hastings? Well he almost runs down the Boy Scout troop as he blows by them in his car, leaving them in a cloud of dust, and he tries to have his elderly and forgetful aunt (Lillian Gish) declared incompetent so that he can get control of her real estate holdings. We can assume the scene where he kicked puppies was left on the cutting room floor.
Lem takes a job as a clerk at the general store owned by John Everett Hughes (Charlie Ruggles) and while there he plots his tactics for winning the heart of Vida. His first opportunity comes when he is invited to a town meeting and the problem of “What to do with all these boys running loose in the streets” is addressed, he spots Vida sitting next to Hastings and sees that she has written down “Boy Scouts” as a solution to this problem, so when the mayor asks for ideas Lem suggests the Boy Scouts, much to Vida’s delight, and when he is told the only reason the town has never implanted such a plan in the past is that no one will volunteer to be Scout Master. Of course Hasting vehemently refused when Vida suggested he volunteer for the position which gives Lem the perfect opening to declare he would be willing take on the job. I’m not sure how this would play out in real life as I doubt small townsfolk would be all that keen for a newcomer, one who previously played saxophone in a traveling band, to be put in charge of their children.
Follow Me, Boys! is a slice of Americana told in a way only Disney can pull off, the movies running time is over two hours long yet at no point does the film seem to drag as its cast of characters are constantly fun and engaging. The story takes place over a twenty year time period with Lem helping generations of young boys make the journey to manhood, and though it mostly a comic movie it does have some pretty dramatic moments that can easily bring a tear to one’s eye, such as Lem and Vida not being able to have children of their own, but the key one being local tough kid Whitey (Kurt Russell) who is angry at the world because he is both ashamed of his drunk father but also deeply caring for the man. The scenes between Fred MacMurray, Vera Miles and young Kurt Russell are the heart of the movie and the slow winning over of this troubled kid can resonate with modern audiences just as it did with those that saw it during its original run. This was the first of ten pictures at Disney Studios for Kurt Russell, even at the tender ages you can see he was loaded with talent, and later during his teen years he’d star in the Dexter Riley movies starting with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Dramatic moments aside this is mostly a family comedy with MacMurray having to deal with problems of teaching scouting while knowing nothing about it himself, all while trying to win the hand of Vera Miles, there is a particularly brilliant moment when Lem is captured by the United States Military during war games, believing his scout paraphernalia to be spy equipment, and is freed after his kids accidentally capture a tank. Disney has never been accused of being overly realistic and these moments of high comedy balance out the films more tear inducing moments. This may be a sugar coated look at the time period, the horrors of World War II being a backdrop deftly avoided, but overall it is a delightful movie with a fantastic cast and one I can easily recommend.