Wednesday, November 28, 2012


IF A CHILDREN'S BOOK by Upton Sinclair seems unlikely, then a Walt Disney movie based on an Upton Sinclair children's book seems almost impossible. But in 1967, thirty-one years after the book The Gnomobile was published, Walt Disney released the live-action film The Gnome-Mobile starring Walter Brennan "and those Mary Poppins kids," Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice.

Sinclair had had a tempestuous relationship with Hollywood over his long career. He at first believed that film could be a powerful tool in raising social awareness and reaching the populace. He produced (and made a cameo in) an adaptation of his most famous book The Jungle in 1914, which stayed faithful to his book. But the next major movie based on one of his books, The Money Changers, released in 1920, turned a novel about J. P. Morgan's involvement in the panic of 1907 into a movie about the Chinatown drug trade. Sinclair was furious, and was ready to write off Hollywood for good. But there was still some belief that the cinema could be made to serve social justice.

In 1932, his pro-Prohibition novel The Wet Parade was turned into a film by MGM for which he was paid $20,000. This time, the story in the book matched the story on the screen. This personal success allowed the socialist Sinclair to move to Beverly Hills, where he was soon hired by William Fox to write a book on Fox Corporation's Depression travails. The book was meant to be a publicity tool for Fox Corporation, but in Sinclair's hands it became an indictment of a movie studio attempting to form a monopoly. It did not make him popular in Hollywood.

By the time Sinclair ran in the gubernatorial race of 1934, his socialist politics seemed such a threat to the Hollywood studios--especially Louis Mayer--that the studios churned out an active smear campaign, ensuring Sinclair's loss. It was because of this loss that Sinclair set out on a speaking tour in 1935 to recoup some of his campaign money, which took him through the redwoods and inspired the novel The Gnomobile.

Despite his status in Hollywood, when the book came out in 1936, Sinclair's friend Rob Wagner, publisher of the magazine The Script, introduced Sinclair to Walt Disney, suggesting that The Gnomobile might be suited for film. Disney didn't think it right for an animated movie, but said if he ever began making live-action films, he would consider it.

After Disney began making live-action features in 1950, Sinclair began to write occasional letters reminding Disney of his promise to turn The Gnomobile into a movie. Sinclair's hope was that he would see the book on the big screen before he died. Eventually Disney wrote back, and in 1967, Sinclair got his wish. Walt Disney, however, twenty-three years his junior, died before the movie's release.  He watched footage of the film in progress in the last month of his life.

AS TO BE EXPECTED with a Disney adaptation, The Gnome-Mobile is very different from The Gnomobile, and it goes far beyond a change in title. First off is a change in protagonists. In Sinclair's book, the main characters are a young girl named Elizabeth and her uncle Rodney Sinsabow. In the movie, Rodney becomes Elizabeth's younger brother, and the adult along for the adventure is their grandfather D. J. Mulrooney, the lumber baron (played by Walter Brennan). This is significant because the disappearance of the gnomes is a direct result of heavy logging. Now, instead of trusting in a descendent of loggers with great disdain for his family's business, the gnomes must trust in their arch-nemesis himself.

The gnomes go in for name changes as well. Bobo becomes Jasper, and his grandfather Glogo becomes Knobby. Since the arguably more loaded gnomic word Doo Deen (doodie anyone?) is introduced in the movie for regular-sized people--in the book, they're just called "big people"--it's not clear why these new name are preferable to the originals.

The movie opens with D. J. leaving the Mulrooney Lumber building in his Rolls Royce to pick up his grandchildren at the San Francisco airport. The plan is to drive up to Seattle to go yachting. Along the way, they stop for a picnic in Mulrooney Grove in Redwood National Park. D. J. explains, "All that sign means is, that I had the privilege of seeing they'll always be here." He's a lumber baron and a conservationist.

While D. J. and Rodney set up the picnic, Elizabeth wanders away into the forest. There we see Jasper conferring with his animatronic woodland friends about whether or not to address the Doo Deeen girl in hopes that she can help him with his problem. Against his friends' advice, he talks to her, and soon he has met the other Doo Deens as well.

Jasper's problem is that his grandfather Knobby is going all "see-throughish," which means he has lost the will to live. "Grandpa's given up all hope of ever seeing me married and havin' young'uns of my own." (Apparently gnomes have a southern country accent. But then D. J. has a faint Irish accent and his grandchildren have English accents, so take your pick.)

There are no more gnomes in this forest, although there are rumors of gnome colonies in other forests. After placating an irate anti-Doo-Deenic grandpa Knobby (also played by Walter Brennan), it is agreed that D. J. will take the gnomes in his car, which Elizabeth quickly dubs The Gnome-Mobile, to find other gnomes.

The trip will take more than a day, so they stop off at a motel, the gnomes safely hidden in the picnic basket. D. J. has managed to keep from the gnomes that he is the one responsible for cutting down the trees. However, when the desk clerk says his name aloud, Knobby throws a fit, which attracts the attention of Quaxton, purveyor of Quaxton's Academy of Fantastic Freaks, who happens to be putting up a poster in the hotel lobby.

In the hotel room, Knobby and D. J. have it out, and D. J. storms off with Rodney saying that he's taking the gnomes right back to their forest in the morning and be done with them. Quaxton, seeing two of the party leave, calls the room and tricks Elizabeth into abandoning her post as gnome-sitter. He then promptly purloins the gnomes.

When D. J. finds out the gnomes have been stolen, he contacts his executive vice president Ralph Yarby to call in the company security team, knowing he can't go to the police without it becoming a news story. Yarby, however, thinks D. J. has gone crazy, so he flies up to where they are staying, and telling D. J. they are going to see a private detective, commits him to Five Oaks mental hospital, abandoning Sinclair's book completely.

Elizabeth and Rodney then break D. J. out of the locked facility, but they're  not sure what to do next. Rodney then remembers seeing Quaxton in the motel, so the three of them--D. J. in his Five Oaks nightgown--head for Quaxton's Academy of Fantastic Freaks.

At the freak academy, D. J. has a run-in with the caretakers who are in their pajamas, but armed with a shotgun. With the assistance of Rodney, he manages to get out of them that Quaxton has a cabin in the woods, and that he's probably there.

At the cabin, Jasper breaks out of the picnic basket when Quaxton goes out to get food. He is in the process of getting Knobby out the window when Quaxton returns. Quaxton manages to prevent Jasper's escape, but D. J. and the children are soon upon him, and the three of them along with Jasper are soon on the road.

Now, of course, since this a movie about a car, there needs to be a car chase. Yarby and two male nurses from Five Oaks are quickly on D. J.'s trail. D. J. swerves his vintage Rolls Royce off the road, and takes flight through the woods. The Rolls holds up fine, but the car that Yarby is in loses piece after piece as they bounce along, first the hood of the car and lastly the rear wheels. As D. J. pulls away, Yarby catches a glimpse of Jasper in the back of the car, and does a double take.

The movie at this point, reaches new levels of silly. Knobby has found another colony of gnomes nearby. The Gnome-Mobile crew manages to pull off the road and find him immediately. He's in the company of Rufus, leader of the colony, played by the lord of silliness Ed Wynn in his final performance.

Rufus introduces some of the other gnomes, but they are all men, which leaves Jasper a bit disappointed. When D. J. points this out, Knobby says, "Of course, how stupid of me. Rufus has more girl gnomes here than he knows what to do with."

Rufus then yells, "Girls! Girls! Come on out girls! The eligible gnome is here!" and a bevy of girls in flowing dresses somewhere between a peasant dress and a mini-skirt comes flocking out of the underbrush. They line up. Jasper picks out the one he wants (Violet), only to be told "It's not the male that picks his mate, it's the she-male that picks the date."

Here's what's going to happen. Jasper is going to get lathered up in soap. Then whichever girl holds him to the count of seven gets to keep him. D. J. actually says, "It's like a greased pig chase back in Ireland." Watch.

This chase goes on for six whole minutes.

In the end, Jasper marries Violet right then and there despite having said nothing more than "hello" to each other. D. J. announces that any gnomes who want to form a new colony are welcome to join him in the Gnome-Mobile. And they all sing a reprise of the song.

Right, I didn't mention the song. In addition to the Mary Poppins' kids, The Gnome-Mobile has the Mary Poppins' director Robert Stevenson, and one song from the Mary Poppins' song writers, the legendary Sherman brothers: 'In the Jauntin' Car/The Gnome-Mobile'.

In 1978, The Gnome-Mobile aired in two parts as part of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

THE CRITICS were rather dismissive of The Gnome-Mobile when it came out. Roger Ebert said, "Disney films are meant to please kids not critics. So now I go on Saturdays. Last Saturday the kids let me know that The Gnome-Mobile had some good parts in it."

The New York Times said, "A fine idea unquestionably, especially for the Disney technicians, who do very well in some beautiful but fleeting photography of the majestic backgrounds and in some of the whimsy...But the action and light-hearted spirit sag under a crisscross jumble of slapstick and broadly handled locomotion that flattens the fun."

The Los Angeles Times was a bit more austere, recognizing that The Gnome-Mobile was one of Walt Disney's last pictures and contained Ed Wynn's final performance. Still, "Mr. Disney always insisted that he didn't make children's pictures, he made family pictures, and more often than not, this was true enough. With The Gnome-Mobile, however, a slightly higher than usual quota of adult tolerance may be called for."

The Los Angeles Times also included a photograph of Upton Sinclair standing with Walter Brennan and Ed Wynn in their gnome guises, which I have only seen as a scan of a microfilm. If anyone has a clear copy of that picture, please let me know so I can add it to this post.

One last note of interest, both the car used in the film and the oversized rear seat used to make grown people look like gnomes are housed in The Gilmour Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, making that museum one of the more esoteric Disney vacation destinations. If anyone has pictures from the museum, I'd be happy to add them as well.

I DREW FROM many sources for this post. First and foremost was the movie itself, which is currently available as part of a four-movie collection (see right) that also includes Darby O'Gill and the Little People, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, and The Happiest Millionaire. These are the actual discs from the original single-movie DVD releases. I picked it up for about $13 at Wal-Mart.

The posters for The Jungle and The Wet Parade came from Wikipedia. The information on Upton Sinclair's experiences with Hollywood came predominantly from Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century by Kevin Mattson. Information on Sinclair's experience specifically on The Gnome-Mobile came from Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair's California edited by Lauren Coodley. The illustrations used in my synopsis of the film came from The Story of Walt Disney's Motion Picture The Gnome Mobile: Authorized Edition retold by Mary Carey with illustrations by John Solie.

The YouTube video I borrowed is a recording of side B of the Walt Disney Book and Record Read-Along 316 Gnome-Mobile. If anyone has this set in working order, I am interested in acquiring it for my daughter, who loves listening to book and records.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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