My First Movie Blogathon: The Boatniks (1970)

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.

Actually underwater and not just inside a large aquarium at all.

 

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.

Exhibit A: The running salami joke.

 

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.

Disney: Racism, sexism, and bikinis equals family fun.

 

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.

***

This has been my entry for the Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear My First Movie Blogathon.

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16 Comments

  1. if Ivan were here he would 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.”

    Your encyclopediac knowledge of how my mind works never fails to astound me…and alternately, make me a little fearful.

    The other tidbit in this review that caused me to go “What the…front yard?” was learning how few Disney animated classics you’ve seen. But then, I myself have never peeped The Boatniks (though I did see the second half of the 1972 double bill, Song of the South, as one of my early movie memories).

    Finally…love the picture of Li’l Stacia–which sounds like a title from the Harvey Comics catalog.

    • I gotta admit, I read this entire entry with the goofiest smile on my face imaginable. This was a sheer delight to read! I guess there is one good thing you can say about THE BOATNIKS: after that film, your expectations of the cinema could only improve! Thanks for participating in this blogathon!!

      • Thanks Nathanael! I wish I could remember whether I liked the movie or not, but I’m not sure my 5 year old self had enough of an attention span to like any movie.

    • I’m just not into Disney. i didn’t grow up with Disney movies, either. My parents weren’t really keen on taking me to what would be considered kids movies, but instead took me along to whatever they wanted to see. By the time I was old enough to choose my own films, I had very little interest in Disney. I’ve seen some of the lesser films like Robin Hood and The Emperor’s Groove (which I love) but never Snow White or Bambi or any of those.

      I’d like to say I’d get around to it but there are just so many films to watch and so little time.

  2. I never heard of The Boatniks before, though I am familiar with some of the live-action Disney movies of the 60s and 70s. Thanks for sharing your experiences, I doubt there are many who can say they saw The Boatniks in theaters!
    I’m a big MST3K fan but haven’t seen The Beatniks yet. I’ll have to check it out when I get the chance!

  3. Stacia, I’m sorry I missed your post on Wednesday, but it was certainly worth the wait. I am beginning to suspect my childhood was relatively free of live action Disney films, because it never included “The Boatniks” as one of my early movie experiences (either in a theater or on television). I have never seen “Blackbeard’s Ghost” or any of the “Herbie the Love Bug” films, but one of my earliest memories was my brother and I recreating the spaghetti scene from “Lady and the Tramp” (my poor brother, I was a bit bossy even then). I can’t say, despite your almost joyous celebration of post mid-century mediocrity, that I am disappointed to have missed this film. Your nod to vintage advertising helps postpone the inevitable conclusion, despite the somewhat cryptic overtones of what passed for cool in 1970, but I can embrace the notion of the “inevitable fiery, comet-like end results that bad choices bring”.

    • Hi Whistlingypsy, thanks for stopping by! While I was writing this I kept trying to remember if I saw Herbie the Love Bug or not. By that I mean I saw it at some point, but I don’t remember if it was in a theater when I was a kid, just on TV some Saturday afternoon, or what.

      Strangely, even though I didn’t see much Disney, I had quite a few Disney ViewMaster disks.

      “What passed for cool in 1970″ indeed. I wasn’t alive yet in 1970, but I have trouble imagining it was ever quite as weak as The Boatniks makes it seem.

  4. I saw THE BOATNIKS on its first release. I was fourteen (I should have known better). Why I remember the experience is because, in the depths of the virtually empty theater, some adult was howling with laughter the whole time. He was either manic or had some yacht cutie entertaining him.

    • Hey, don’t be too hard on yourself, 14 is a difficult age. Lotta bad decisions are made when kids are 14 years old.

      I’ve seen people online say this is the funniest film they’ve ever watched, so I know the humor strikes a chord with some, and I can’t fault them for that because, hey, I don’t really care for The Bicycle Thieves. We all have our lapses in taste.

  5. I’m not sure if my blind spot towards Disney’s live-action output is more of a sense-memory defense mechanism. Things weren’t all that great in my household pre-1977 but it turned into a five-alarm shit storm we’re still bathing in three dire decades later. Healthy? Nope. But when life’s a flushing toilet, you grab the nearest floater, hold on, and hope for the best.

    Still, if The Boatniks is your measuring stick, man, that’s like judging Kubrick strictly on A.I. Also, I’m always up for discussing hidden subtext, the fine-art of the pratfall, and all other magnificence(s) of F-Troop. (…Robert Morse always was kindofa poor man’s Larry Storch.)

    • Ah, WB, I can very much relate. We may have had similar childhood paths.

      What I love about F Troop is that the subtext is so often not even TRYING to be sub, yet people didn’t seem to think anything about it.

  6. I did see THE BOATNIKS upon it’s release in 1970, but it was purely out of hometown spirit and morbid curiosity. At the time I lived on Balboa Island, which was in the middle of Newport Harbor, where the film was shot. Disney not only shut down our local waters for weeks on end (my sister and I were forbidden from taking our daily post-school swim due to all the movie-related marine traffic) but they practically emptied out my school as well, since all the kids in my class who had sabots (sailing dinghys), which was most of them, were engaged for slave wages to sail around the harbor islands for days and days in the service of a 3-second sight gag.

    Even though I was a wee lad when it came out, the film left such a lingering bad taste in my mouth that I shunned every cast member for years afterward, refusing to watch “HART TO HART” despite the seductive blandishments of a girlfriend who loved it, or SGT BILKO, to this day, because the memory of Phil Silvers is forever stained.

    • I have to admit, I have held an active dislike for a LOT of the cast members in this film; as I said in the post, once I saw the film I realized why I hated Robert Morse so much. Over the past decade or so I’ve warmed up to him, mainly because I love The Loved One to bits and pieces, but I was also never a fan of Hart to Hart, though Lionel Stander had as much to do with that as Stefanie Powers. And it took a couple years of reading Jack Pendarvis’ blog before I really fully forgave Wally Cox, though after rewatching the film I realize he almost — ALMOST — saved it.

  7. Lionel Stander was no Nat Pendleton. Or even Slapsy Maxie Rosenblum. And Robert Morse is painfully mannered, never more so than in his one big hit, How To Succeed…, but he’s easy to ignore, since he dropped out of sight for so many years (Thanks, Boatniks!) But I can forgive Wally Cox just about anything. Guy roomed with Brando, for Pete’s sake, and still kept his sanity

    • And Brando really loved the guy, which elevates my opinion of Brando considerably.

      Speaking of mannered, the Morse moment I remember the most is when he’s reciting his poem in The Loved One, and as he says a line that ends with “tongue” he sticks out his tongue and does a hand gesture basically pointing to said tongue, then pauses and stops so we can all fully bask in the glow that is a poetic mention of his tongue. Argh, that irritates me so much I can’t even with it I just grr.

      The day I posted this entry, I saw Morse briefly on “Mad Men,” and he was actually tolerable. It’s not a show I watch so perhaps he’s irritating on it, too. “Mad Men” doesn’t thrill me; I maintain that the indulgence of so-called old fashioned stereotypes is often a way for people to get their bigotry fix while pretending to be super interested in the history and irony of bigotry. Kinda like “I only subscribe to Playboy for the Gore Vidal articles.”

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