For Disney, the 1960s saw the release of a couple of animated classics — One Hundred Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, and also the lesser received The Sword in the Stone, but in their live-action division, they pulled out all stops with their big-budget adventure films like In Search of the Castaways, as well as solid family dramas such as the Fred MacMurray film Follow Me, Boys. Yet as good as those films were, it was the Disney comedies that kept the studio afloat. Today we will look back at Disney’s That Darn Cat, a screwball comedy with a little romance and a dash of danger.
As in the book it was based on, Undercover Cat by Gordon and Mildred Gordon, That Darn Cat follows the misadventures of a Siamese cat named DC — which of course stands for “Darn Cat” — whose nightly prowls raise quite a degree of ire amongst the neighbours (leaving muddy paw prints on cars or stealing food out of neighbouring houses), but when DC wanders into a tenement apartment occupied by two bank robbers and the poor bank teller they are holding hostage, things get a bit tense … and a bit screwy. The hostage, one Miss Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall), manages to slip DC’s collar off and replace it with her wristwatch, after quickly scratching a message for help on the back of it, and when DC’s owner, Patricia “Patti” Randall (Hayley Mills), discovers her cat’s new accessory, she quickly deduces that the watch came from the kidnapped bank teller. She informs cat-allergic FBI agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) of her theory, and despite this leap in deduction, the FBI takes her seriously. What follows is roughly two hours of hilarious hijinks as FBI agents try to tail a cat in the hopes that it will lead them to the villains and the poor woman.
That Darn Cat would be the exit picture for Hayley Mills from the studio — she wouldn’t return to Disney until 1986 with the sequel to The Parent Trap — but it was the beginning of a long series of Disney films for actor Dean Jones. The two actors work off each other beautifully in this film, but not in any kind of romantic way — we have Patti’s older sister Ingrid (Dorothy Provine) to provide that — as Mills and Jones bounce off each other with both verbal and physical comedy, all while futilely trying to wrangle the cat. The film’s climax will throw this odd couple into a good degree of peril — much as you’d expect to see in a Hitchcock thriller — but as stated, there are no romantic sparks between the two, despite Patti finding Agent Kelso attractive. So there may not be sparks between Patti and Kelso, but something does develop between Kelso and Ingrid, and as with many films of this type, there is of course romantic foil to contend with. Providing the romantic rivalry in this film we have Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall), a lawyer who drives Ingrid to work, but whose carpool designs have a more overt nature, as he sets his sites on Ingrid. McDowell portrays the perfect mother’s boy cad, whose desire for the girl is most definitely not about true love, and he is certainly no match for a cat.
In the few scenes they have together, Dorothy Provine and Dean Jones have excellent chemistry. That they end up together by the film’s end will surprise no one, and McDowell is the typical strawman fall guy in this dynamic, as he’s never really in the running as a credible romantic foil, but instead, he’s a target for slapstick humour. Yet the film also throws in another “love interest” to complicate matters, this in the form of Patti’s sort-of boyfriend Canoe (Tom Lowell), a pipe-smoking man-child whose life seems centred on surfing and raiding the Randall’s fridge. Tension is caused when he spots Kelso lurking about, mistaking him for a romantic rival — the FBI’s involvement being kept secret so as not to tip off the kidnappers — and he along with Roddy McDowall, traipsing around in the dark, provides much of the film’s physical comedy.
One of the more interesting elements in That Darn Cat was the portion of the film dealing with the bank robbers and their hostage. The villains are portrayed by Neville Brand, who has appeared in such films as Stalag 17 and DOA, as he brings a great deal of threatening gravitas to the film, but it’s his partner in crime, played by the great Frank Gorshin, who is the real standout here, as he is simply chilling as killer/bank robber Iggy. Of course, Frank Gorshin is known by most audiences as the Riddler from the Adam West Batman series, but it’s films like this that show us just how scary he can truly be. The poor hostage is in constant fear, as she repeatedly overhears their plans to murder her and how best to get rid of the body when they do, and it’s these dread-filled moments that create an interesting counterpoint to the comedy elements of the rest of the film.
Director Robert Stevenson was one of the best and most prolific directors at the Disney studios, helming such classics as Old Yeller to Mary Poppins, and he has a deft hand with comedy, as he’d prove later with such entries as The Love Bug and Blackbeard’s Ghost, which would re-team him with Dean Jones. That Darn Cat is simply one of many live-action gems out of the Disney vaults that have mostly been forgotten — even though it was remade in the 90s with Christina Ricci, which is a film that actually should be forgotten — and if you happen to come across this piece of Disney history one afternoon while surfing channels, do yourself a favour, check it out and I guarantee you won’t be sorry you did.
That Darn Cat (1965)
Slapstick misadventures and a cast of veteran actors all add up to a brilliantly fun outing, making this one a personal favorite of mine – this coming from a guy who still sports the scars from my sister’s Siamese cat – and is the perfect embodiment of the Disney comedies of the 60s.