Today we pretty much take our computers for granted, but that was certainly not the case back in the sixties when the typical computer took up an entire floor of an office building. In 1969 computer science was the equivalent of alchemy to the average person, the internet wasn’t even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, and in movies they were truly magical beings with infinite power and knowledge. Enter Disney Studios and their fictional Medfield College to show us the truly wonderful world of computers.
Long before John Carpenter turned Kurt Russell into an action hero with his film Escape From New York Russell was consider a light comic actor, appearing in numerous televisions shows, and was for a time a contract player at Disney. This brings us to Dexter Reilly and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the first in the Dexter Reilly series for Disney Studios.
The movie begins at Medfield College, which first appeared in Disney’s The Absent Minded Professor, where we are introduced to Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) who is trying to explain to Professor Quigley (William Schallert) why the cash strapped college cannot afford to buy a computer. Eavesdropping on this meeting are a group of misfit students that Dean Higgins refers to as “deadwood” and the leaders of that group are Dexter Reilly (Kurt Russell), Pete Oatzel (Frank Webb), Annie Hannah (Debbie Paine) and Richard Schuyler (Michael McGreevey). Due to their poor academic performances many of this group are put on probation. Basically this was Animal House Pre-Belushi. The kids feel bad that Quigley isn’t going to get the computer lab he wanted, but Dexter has a brilliant idea on how they can get a computer. Turns out he use to work as a cleaner in a building owned by local wealthy businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), and he’s sure he could get him to donate the necessary money for a computer. What they don’t know is that A.J. Arno is also the head of large illegal gambling ring.
Mister Arno is sorry to tell the kids that he already pledged a $20,000 donation to Medfield College so he’s unable to give more money for a computer, but after the kids leave he comes up with a way for him to save some money and still keep up his good guy image by donating one of his old computers to the school instead of giving the $20,000 dollar pledge. The kids are excited about the “new” computer, and Professor Quigley tells them all about how some day computers will do everything for you.
During a demonstration a part in the logic activator circuit of the computer blows and Dexter volunteers to drive over to Central Electronics to get the replacement. When he returns to the computer lab later that night he doesn’t seem concerned that an open window has let rain cover the lab floor. I know he’s a student on academic probation but how dumb do you have to be to not know that water and electronics do not go well together. He stupidly slides in the activator while standing in a puddle of water, and he receives an incredible electrical jolt. And that kids is how you can turn your brain into a living computer. The next day when Dexter takes the State Classification test he finishes it in less than four minutes, and with a perfect score. Dean Higgins is sure the boy cheated, but Quigley is positive something else is going on and has Dexter checked out by a doctor. The results are surprising.
Once everyone has come to grips with the fact that Dexter Reilly now has a computer brain, which every does remarkably fast, he becomes an instant celebrity. He gets the key to the city, has dinner at the White House, and addresses the United Nations. All this fame goes straight to Dexter’s computer filled brain, and his ego starts to explode. He becomes so caught up in his self-importance that he starts blowing off his old friends. But when a day hanging out with A.J. Arno and his assistant/goon Chillie Walsh (Richard Bakalyan) lands him in jail, due to an illegal gambling parlor that he and Chillie were visiting when it got raided, it’s his friends that bail him out. So Dexter learns that that friendship is more important than money, and fame. Dean Higgins of course is still all about the money, and he really wants the $100,000 cash prize for the College Knowledge Quiz Program, but Dexter only agrees to help if his friends can be on the team.
Problems arise when one of the questions asked during the program triggers Reilly into unknowingly spouting out details of Arno’s gambling ring on live television. And that folks is why you do not donate a computer that was formally used for your criminal activities. This is bad news for Arno so that night Dexter is abducted by Chillie Walsh and taken to an abandoned house outside of town. It’s up to the whole gang to free Dexter from the mobsters clutches before he’s weighted down and sunk to the bottom of a nearby lake.
This is the classic family entertainment that one could expect from Disney at the time; it didn’t have to make sense it just had to be fun. As long as at some point there was a car chase, someone in the establishment was made fun of, and the villain gets eggs, oil, paint or what have you splattered all over them they considered it a job well done.
Will Dexter and friends make it to the College Knowledge quiz show in time to win the $100,000 prize? Can A.J. Arno and Chillie stay one step ahead of the law? Does being dropped on his head while escaping the crooks affect Dexter’s computer mind? All these questions and more are answered in this fancifully fun fantasy/science fiction flick.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was directed by Robert Butler, a man mostly known for television work, so it’s not surprising that this movie has a very “movie of the week” feel to it, and I’m betting it getting a theatrical release was a decision made after production got underway. This zany type of Disney comedy was never popular with the critics, but they made huge box office so it’s no surprise that we got two follow up Dexter Reilly movies; Now You See Him Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World. All three are well worth checking out.