Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Biscuit Eater (1972)

          Over the years, the Walt Disney Company has made countless movies about children bonding with animals, but it’s hard to get too critical about these films. After all, pictures such as The Biscuit Eater express honorable values ranging from honesty to responsibility. However, there’s only so much entertainment value that one can derive from syrupy scenes of wide-eyed children moping over critters. That said, The Biscuit Eater is a decent example of this genre, 90 minutes of freshly harvested corn. As directed by Disney regular Vincent McEveety, the picture zips along at a brisk pace, with the two leading child actors delivering such upbeat performances that they seem more like Disney World animatronics than human beings. The whole enterprise is quite slick, from cinematography to scoring, and adult actors play their one-note roles efficiently. Plus, The Biscuit Eater mostly eschews the practice of attributing human behaviors to animals, so it’s a straightforward coming-of-age piece rather than a fantasy.
          Based on a novel by James H. Street that was previously filmed in 1940, The Biscuit Eater concerns a 12-year-old Georgia boy, who is white, and his best friend, who is black, taking guardianship of a misfit canine. As the boys train the dog, they learn lessons about consequences, economics, intolerance, and sacrifice. Johnny Whitaker, the bright-eyed redhead from the Family Affair TV series, stars as Lonnie McNeil, whose parents are hard-working Harve (Earl Holliman) and Mary Lee (Pat Crowley). Harve trains hunting dogs for Mr. Ames (Lew Ayres), the owner of the land on which the McNeils live and work. Lonnie’s closest pal is Text (George Spell), the son of neighboring widow Charity (Beah Richards). Through a convoluted set of circumstances involving Harve and wily gas-station proprietor Willie Dorsey (Godfrey Cambridge), Lonnie and Text become the owners of dog they name “Moreover.” The boys prep Moreover for entrance into a hunting contest, then learn that succeeding in the contest might adversely effect Harve, who has won the contest for two years running. Meanwhile, most of the film’s likeable characters clash with a violent local named Mr. Eben (Clifton James). Danger, heartbreak, homilies, and redemption ensue.
          Written in a colorful style that verges on stereotyping, The Biscuit Eater is full of lines like “I been hankerin’ for a dog for a right smart spell.” When delivered by pros Cambridge, Holliman, and Richards, the Southern-fried dialogue sounds quasi-authentic and quasi-endearing. When delivered by the juvenile stars, it’s a bit much. (Also tipping the scales toward schmaltz is the inevitable interlude during which Whitaker whines, “Don’t die, puppy dog, please don’t die!”) All in all, though, The Biscuit Eater means well, and the themes it communicates are worthwhile, even if the delivery method is trite.

The Biscuit Eater: FUNKY

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