Summer came too soon that year. The early Missouri June was crunchy and still, a solid heat pressing down until movement slowed, and slowed, then stopped. There wasn’t much to do in Lebanon, Missouri on a pleasant day, truth be told; on a day when all anyone could do was hide from the sun, the boredom was dramatic. The blistering June gave way to a mild July, and on an afternoon soon after the heat broke, maybe on a weekend or maybe a weekday — all days are equal to a little girl not yet of school age — the mother of the neighbor kids came over to tell us they were off to see The Boatniks.
It was three and a half decades ago, I was five years old, yet I remember with pointed clarity my friends’ mom asking my mother if I could join them. Dad was wherever he spent summer afternoons; I did not know and would not ask. Mom took any chance that presented itself to be rid of me, though was never brave enough to admit it. There was no other family about and precious few adult friends remained, and those who did were remarkable people willing to overlook a lot of things though, if we’re being honest here, they probably also shrugged off a few things they should not have.
But casual company was better than no company at all, and even at five, I wanted desperately to pretend to belong to another family, even if I didn’t fully understand why. Mom agreed to let me go to the movies, putting on her friendly public face and nodding vigorously, jostling a couple dozen hair rollers, their constant presence a kind of misguided rebellion only a pretty woman who had relied on nothing but her beauty her entire life would think effective.
That’s how I wound up in the sticky dank of the Star Theatre in downtown Lebanon, Missouri. Those are my friends and me in the picture on the right, taken about a month after we saw The Boatniks. We’re standing next to the love of my life, my old 1968 Chevy Nova.
The Star Theater was already suffering from the creeping decrepitude by the summer of ’77, which is probably why my parents, once family life settled into something mimicking normalcy in the early 1980s, always drove to the Lake Theater in nearby Camdenton instead (photo courtesy Neato Coolville).
The 1970s television commercial for The Boatniks.
For the past two weeks, my husband has broken into laughter every time I uttered the words “Boatniks” and “The,” not because the words are inherently funny (they’re not) but because I apparently spit them out like the words “douchebag” and “fucking.” This is unintentional, at least to a point. I don’t hate this movie. I don’t even hate the memory of this movie, which is mostly vague but involves uncomfortable family bits and laughing at guys falling off boats and playing with the sticky theater floor with my shoes. Now, I am irritated by The Boatniks, bored, often confused, but not filled with hate. It’s just that, as someone who grew up to be an enormous film buff and who at least thinks she knows a little something about film, it’s a source of quiet embarrassment that my first real movie was this particular slice of uninspired Disney dreck.
Not that I was unfamiliar with Disney as a child. I never saw (and have subsequently never seen) any of the classic Disney animated films save Fantasia, but I adored The Cat From Outer Space and The Apple Dumpling Gang, both of which played non-stop on local television when I was young, both directed by Boatniks auteur Norman Tokar. He is also responsible for one of my favorite episodes of “M*A*S*H” titled “Five O’Clock Charlie,” and if Ivan were here he would have talked me off of the roof by now tell you that Tokar also helmed nearly 100 “Leave It To Beaver” episodes. He’d also be able to tell you just how many classic TV shows screenwriters Martin Roth and Arthur Julian penned (hint: lots), and then I’d interrupt and mention that cinematographer William E. Snyder also filmed The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Then we’d probably start talking about monster suits with visible zippers and “F Troop.”
The point, and I’m pretending to have one here, is that the cast and crew of The Boatniks should have been able to create a reasonably entertaining film, but despite obvious effort at mimicking fun, there is not one drop of joy in this flick. The humor was mathematically calculated by advertisers wielding calipers and protractors, designed to contain a financially precise ratio of kiddie jokes to surreptitiously adult humor. It exhibits a dreadful cynicism via an economy of purpose where every word uttered, every prop in frame, and every stitch of costuming had a specific, but only momentary, use. There are no silly bits of business, no funny signs in the background, no ad libs or half-intelligible grumbles or goofy facial expressions. It’s life by metronome, and no character has been allowed a past or given a future. They exist for 99 minutes, born fully formed, bland and inoffensive, serve their purpose, then disappear into the junk drawer with the scotch tape and eyeglass repair kit.
The Boatniks concerns, inasmuch as it concerns anything, young Coast Guard sailor Ensign Garland (Robert Morse) who arrives to lead a ship stationed in a California harbor, its previous commander (Joey Forman) fed up with saving the public from themselves. People are idiots, you see, and that is the main thrust of this film. They are helpless, hapless and hopeless, and they repeatedly require those less half-witted than themselves and in positions of moderate authority to rescue them. Unfortunately, Ensign Garland suffers from a typical case of Sitcomicus Oedipus, a feeling of intense inferiority to his late great father, which doesn’t really manifest as anything tangible but we are told about it in snippets of stilted dialogue, so apparently it is a thing. His insecurity surfaces as clumsiness, rendering him just as worthless as the rest of the hoi polloi. His humanity is the flaw that must be overcome before the film is allowed end.
A trio of bumbling crooks insinuate themselves into Ensign Garland’s world, first by rear-ending him (not in the good way) and then by attempting to sail to Mexico with their stolen jewels while under Garland’s watch. The Boatniks is an almost direct rip-off of the 1952 British film Brandy For the Parson, the brandy smugglers replaced with this trio of idiot jewel thieves, with bonus “girls can’t fix boats” jokes plus Latino and Asian stereotypes for giggles.
Meanwhile, maritime wackiness attempts to ensue, but thanks to a lack of caring and what I presume was a low budget, it does not. The Numbers reports an $18M total gross, half in rentals and presumably half in theatrical releases. Given that there were at least three theatrical releases of The Boatniks — the original in 1970, again in 1972 on a double bill with Song of the South, and again in 1977 when I saw it — $9M is a pretty poor return, though one unsourced article claimed it was a “solid hit.”
It certainly was not a critical hit. The funniest Boatniks joke is that The New York Times evokes Skidoo as a better film than The Boatniks in the opening paragraph of their review. The second funniest joke is Lew Hunter’s anecdote as told in Screenwriting 434: Screenwriter Arthur Julian turned in his rewrite for Boatniks to Disney head Ron Miller, who declared it “too funny.”
Two boats collide! They’re hidden behind the yacht here and the crash only occurs in Foley, which is a low-tech cheat even The Phantom Creeps never resorted to, but I’m sure Disney had a good reason. Perhaps the excitement was too much and after several injuries and nervous breakdowns amongst the test audiences, judicious editing occurred.
It’s tangential, perhaps, but for me the big question has always been: why “Boatniks?” The term “boatnik” for an inexperienced weekend boater doesn’t seem to appear before the film. There were a few uses of the term “beautnik” for a beautiful woman in a beatnik milieu, though the term never took off in the popular lexicon. Besides, the entire concept of the -nik suffix was an outdated conceit by 1970, the days of Sputnik and Beatniks being a full decade prior.
My curiosity may be misguided but it is not singular, as others have also asked the same question, the answer often being that screenwriter Arthur Julian also co-wrote the 1960 B-movie classic and MST3K fave The Beatniks, and Boatniks was a callback.
There is a minor problem with this theory; namely, that Arthur Julian did not co-write The Beatniks. He’s certainly not credited on the film and no reference books list him as being involved in any capacity. The only sources I could locate that credit Julian as co-author are an MST3K site which has had him listed as screenwriter at least since 1998 if not earlier, and the IMDb which used to credit him with writing The Beatniks, though at some point in the last couple of years, the credit was removed. Not so much removed as corrected, I suspect; my guess is someone back in the early days of the IMDb mistook “Boatniks” for “Beatniks” and an error was born. Fortunately, it did not propagate widely outside of the internet, as only the MST3K site and The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) repeat the mistake.
There is no solid explanation for Disney choosing to reference an outdated concept that wouldn’t resonate with audiences and had essentially nothing to do with the plot, unless “complete cluelessness” is a solid reason, and I suppose it is, at least when talking about Disney output in the early 1970s. Disney didn’t seem particularly committed to the purported hipness of the title, either, as advertising attests. Despite “maximum saturation” advertising in early 1970 according to The Motion Picture Herald, which also noted that Disney’s goal with The Boatniks was to cash in on the late-60s fad for “skimming over waterways in virtually anything,” the advertising is surprisingly lacklustre.
The lobby card refers to “rocking” because that is what kids these days do, that rocking thing, and one button informs us that the Boatniks are “way out,” which is totally also hip as well. The rest of the advertising displays a sort of resigned punsterism that Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell would dismiss with a disgusted “Blech!”
It’s not just the title that dated the film before it was even released. The cast, too, shows some significant wear around the edges. Robert Morse had a brief Hollywood heyday that had already dissipated by 1970; in fact, Boatniks was the last film he would do for almost two decades. And as much as I appreciate him as an adult, I can’t believe many kids were clamoring to see a Phil Silvers film in 1970. But who knows. Perhaps some 10-year-olds were really impressed with his work in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968) or thought the character Honest John was the lynchpin of the entire “Beverly Hillbillies” comedic structure.
Wally Cox was probably the hippest guy in the cast, and if archaeologists eventually unearth evidence that The Boatniks was some sort of masochistic competition to the metaphorical death amongst actors — and I submit to you that it very well could have been — Wally was the clear winner, easily strolling away with the entire flick in his back pocket.
Norman Fell also gives a surprisingly good performance, though “surprisingly” may be unintentionally insulting, as Fell is an underrated actor, his campy work in “Three’s Company” overshadowing the many supporting roles earlier in his career. But it is a surprising performance for the movie, as most actors were content to either yawn their way through their lines or dispense a little pork by-product in lieu of a performance. (“How dare you call me a ham!”)
By the time I saw the film in its re-release in the summer of 1977, I knew much of the cast from their post-Boatnik TV work, and that includes a surprise bit part:
Carmen Zapata as Marta Ramirez, the “flight attendant” in Pepe Galindo’s (Vito Scotti’s) budget airplane business. Zapata is uncredited in the film, despite her character having a name and a relatively significant part. Her role is almost completely unmentioned in references, though after a lengthy search I found a singular mention of Zapata being in the film in a 1976 issue of Neworld Magazine. I’ve submitted a correction to the IMDb with the hope that Ms. Zapata was not purposely omitting The Boatniks from her resume.
It is not often that I deem a movie a complete waste of time. Terrible, yes, but completely irredeemable is rare. It’s even a little difficult for me to do now, because Don Ameche does make a little throwaway Gilda joke during the finale, and one of the party girls can clearly be heard calling Jason the playboy yacht owner “Wally,” and both of those things are delightful to me. I’m also somewhat chuffed at the fact that I finally know from where my irrational hatred of Robert Morse derives.
Mostly, though, I should love this film if only because there is something really exciting to me about desperation in an entity that has the means and ability to get out of almost any situation. Not the manufactured reality show desperation of people who often are being taken advantage of by a greedy network, but the desperation of an internationally-known and respected company like Disney. It fascinates me. I’m drawn to the recklessness and unpredictability, and especially to the inevitable fiery, comet-like end results that bad choices bring. Disney’s bad choice was their complete dismissal of artistic integrity in a cynical ploy to stay relevant, but the cynicism and greediness behind it is not fascinating, only mildly disgusting. That’s why their end result is a film so useless that the world would not differ one whit had it never been made.