In 1963, a child actor named Kurt Russell made his film debut, appearing in a bit role in the Elvis Presley film It Happened At The World’s Fair. Taking a page from his father, actor Bing Russell, Kurt established himself as a prolific juvenile actor, appearing in shows like Gilligan’s Island, Rin Tin Tin, and Lost In Space, along with taking the title role in a short-lived western series, The Travels Of Jamie McPheeters. However, Russell’s career didn’t break free from television roles until he met his first mentor: Walt Disney.
In 1965, Disney signed Russell to a ten-year contract, making the young actor one of the last of the classic Hollywood studio actors. (This essentially means that Russell was contractually obligated to make films for Walt Disney Pictures and had to ask permission to make movies anywhere else, much different than today’s free-agent system.) This proved to be a fruitful arrangement for both Russell and Disney Studios; the studio put him in lead roles, and Russell went on to become Disney’s top-earning star. From 1966 to 1975, Russell starred in nine films for Disney.
As we alluded to earlier, most of these films were financial successes. However, when people discuss Russell’s Disney period, three films tend to tower above the rest: the Dexter Riley trilogy. Today, we’ll be talking about the first film in the trilogy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes!
As the film opens we find ourselves on the campus of Medfield College, a privately-owned school in an undisclosed state. In a meeting room, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) meets with a group of his professors, discussing a wide array of topics. As we enter the room, Professor Quigley (William Schallert), the science professor, is making his case regarding bringing a computer to Medfield. Higgins objects, saying that a computer will cost too much money. Instead, he’s more interested in getting rid of a group of undesirable students, including Dexter Riley (Russell). Unbeknownst to Higgins, however, the students have bugged the room, and this group of kids want to help Prof. Quigley get his computer.
After some bargaining, Dexter and his fellow students persuade wealthy businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero) to donate a computer to the college. The students happily take the computer, unaware that Arno is the head of an illegal gambling ring and that the computer contains all his illegal bookkeeping.
While trying to replace a broken computer part during a thunderstorm, Dexter is zapped by the computer components, magically linking his brain to the computer’s memory. Dexter becomes a super genius, gaining the attention of the world. Unfortunately, he also catches the attention of A.J. Arno. Initially, Arno uses Dexter’s powers to his benefit, using his enhanced brain to pick the winners at the horse races. Ultimately, however, when Arno hears Dexter blabbing the computer’s illegal information on national TV, Arno kidnaps Dexter and ships him off to an abandoned house in the country – the day before Dexter’s due to appear on a college-bowl program. Can Dexter’s friends rescue him before it’s too late?
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes boasts a charming story, complete with enjoyable characters and a good message about humility. It also bears a strong resemblance to the origin story of one our most beloved superheroes, one who made his debut seven years before: Peter Parker, AKA Spider-Man. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes shares a couple core elements with Spidey’s origin, most notably the freak accident that gives our young hero powers, our hero becoming bedazzled by fame, and the theme that states that with great power, there must come great responsibility.
Please understand: I’m not saying that The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes ripped off Spider-Man’s story. In fact, those story elements are basic and universal enough that it’s easy to believe that two different writers could have come up with a similar story. I’m not even saying that these similarities are a mark against the film; in fact, I like that this is essentially Disney’s undercover superhero story! In fact, the Spider-Man similarities make this movie a distinctly 1960s superhero tale, since both stories have their origins in the decade. As a big fan of retro stuff, this is a big selling point for me! (And that’s not even mentioning the wonderful Mission: Impossible-lite climax of the movie, where Dexter’s friends band together to rescue Dexter from the baddies!)
The whole film is fueled by a quartet of good actors giving good performances: Joe Flynn, Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, and William Schallert. Joe Flynn is extremely funny as Dean Higgins, projecting an exasperated air as the harried and constantly worrying head of Medfield College. Kurt Russell, as Dexter Riley, is the likable everyman he built a whole career out of playing. Cesar Romero plays what I consider to be the quintessential Disney villain: a smart criminal who surrounds himself with – and is frequently annoyed by – less-able henchmen. William Schallert does a great job grounding the whole story by playing the level-headed, calm-speaking Professor Quigley!
I also kinda love the theme song.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes went on to be a big hit for Disney, inspiring (as we mentioned) two more films revolving around Dexter Riley and the Medfield gang: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man In The World, the final film Russell made under his Disney contract.
I’m unashamed in my love for Kurt Russell’s Disney films. He lends each film such a likable quality with the everyman characters he plays, along with the natural charisma he always carries. It was a great launching pad for what’s proven to be a career of wonderful movies!
Speaking of the rest of Kurt Russell’s career… it kinda fizzled a little when he first left Disney. Aside from two notable TV movies (The Deadly Tower, where Russell plays a serial killer, and the title role in John Carpenter’s 1979 biopic Elvis), the rest of Russell’s 1976-1980 career consists of forgotten movies and misfired TV series.
Then, in 1980, Russell returned to his comedy roots, taking his attractive boy-next-door image and subverting it into a character unlike any he’d played before. What movie was this? Robert Zemeckis’s second feature, Used Cars…
…which we’ll be covering in the second part of this double feature! See you then!