With so much garbage polluting the channels these days one has to wonder, “Just what kind of a nut thought the XFL was going to be a thing?” Yet questionable sports programming is barely the tip of the iceberg, certainly, no one could explain what the hell Galactic 1980 was about or who thought the Hitler sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home was a good idea, but back in 1971 Walt Disney Studios gave us a glimpse at someone or something that should be put in charge of the Networks, and that someone was The Barefoot Executive.
By 1971 Kurt Russell had become a household name when it came to Disney films and after his successful teen comedy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes the studio was eager to give him another starring role, albeit one where his co-star was a chimp. The movie follows the life of go-getter Steve Post (Kurt Russell) who works in the mailroom of the United Broadcasting Corporation but believes he’s got what it takes to be an executive at the network. He’s constantly bothering the vice president in charge of programming Francis X. Wilbanks (Joe Flynn) with insane ideas like “Abraham Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” but as nuts as his ideas are he does at least have the lovely Jennifer Scott (Heather North), secretary to Wilbanks, in his corner. Wilbanks has no interest in any of Post’s cockamamie ideas as UBC is always third in the ratings and there are only three networks and he needs a hit, thus enters Raffles the television loving chimpanzee into our little story.
Raffles belongs to Jennifer, who was saddled with the chimp when the previous owners had to move to San Francisco and couldn’t take the little guy with them, and Steve is at first angry that he has to deal with a spoiled chimp who hogs the television, but when he soon discovers that every show the chimp likes turns out to be the next day’s highest-rated programs he knows he’s on to something big. The problem is he doesn’t want anyone to know that a chimpanzee is picking the show, he wants the credit himself. This results in him breaking into his girlfriend’s place and swapping out Raffles for a chimp he picked up at the local pet store.
Question: In the 70s could you actually purchase a chimpanzee from a pet store?
It’s at this moment in the film I began to lose sympathy for our hero, as charismatic as Kurt Russell is it’s hard to get behind I guy who would steal a girl’s chimp, but the film works really hard to keep us on his side. When Jennifer eventually finds out that Steve basically kidnapped Raffles and is secretly using him to forward his career at the Network she is outraged, but then he tells her, “I did it for you.”
Steve explains that he could never think of marrying her while working as a mail boy, one who doesn’t even have a car and goes to night school via a motorcycle, but with Raffles picking winner after winner he managed to become Vice President of the Network and won the Emmy Award “Television’s Man of the Year” and apparently Jennifer is a soft touch and she buys this excuse, but there is more trouble in paradise as Network President J. Crampton (Harry Morgan) is worried that this rising star will eventually take his job. Soon Wilbanks, along with his oddball chauffer (Wally Cox) and ass-kissing assistant Roger (John Ritter) are on a mission to find out just how Steve Post is doing what he is doing.
The Barefoot Executive is not what one would call “comedy gold” but Walt Disney had arrayed a stellar cast of some of the great comic actors of the time in key supporting roles, including a John Ritter in his film debut, and though the target audience was clearly children there is still enough adult humour and good slapstick to keep older viewers from falling asleep. Of Disney’s “gimmick comedies” it will never stand out among classics like The Absent Minded Professor but Russell’s affable charm, and the film’s delightful goofy premise, does earn it a warm spot in my heart.
• When the heads of the three networks discover the truth of a chimp picking top-rated shows they assume if the public learned of this, “It would be the end of TV?” It could be just me but I’m not really seeing the correlation there.
• One exec comes up with a simple solution, “Destroy the chimp.” I’m guessing this guy later moved onto work at Fox News.
• Quite a few Medfield College alums are here; Kurt Russell played Dexter Riley, Joe Flynn played Dean Higgins, and Alan Hewit who plays a rival network exec played rival Dean Collingsgood.
• Jennifer is played by Heather North who is most known for being the original voice of Daphne on “Scooby-Doo, Where are You!”
The Barefoot Executive (1971)
Directed by Disney workhorse Robert Butler The Barefoot Executive is a fun and light-hearted flick that could be considered the forerunner to such films as The Secret of My Success.