60s Flashback: Kurt Russell in 'The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes'
Young Kurt Russell leads Robert Butler's Disney action-comedy.
Now Streaming: Kurt Russell began his screen career in 1962 with an uncredited appearance on TV's Dennis the Menace. He was 11 years old.
By the time he was 18, young Mr. Russell could count at least 17 guest appearances and several recurring roles on television, as well as several feature films. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) may have been one of his first lead roles, but he brought a wealth of experience to the character of Dexter Riley, an ordinary college student who gets electrified one rainy night and somehow acquires the brain of the school's new, room-filling computer.
Joseph L. McEveety, the younger brother of Vincent McEveety, who would direct Kurt Russell in Disney's SuperDad (1973), wrote the original screenplay, his first produced script. He had begun as an assistant director, started working for Disney on the Zorro TV show, then moved over to feature films (Son of Flubber, Mary Poppins, That Darn Cat).
Robert Butler made his feature directorial debut, after a decade of helming television, including the pilot episode of Star Trek and Guns in the Heather, which was broadcast in three parts on television for Disney and then edited into a feature film for European release in July 1969 (per Wikipedia). Kurt Russell played the leading role, and so likely felt comfortable working with Butler.
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Set at Medfield College, a school that was also the setting for The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber -- which may have been a source of inspiration for assistant director and soon-to-be scriptwriter Joseph L. McEveety -- the film creates a truly Disney-fied fantasy of college life in the late 1960s. Sure, the kids all have longish hair and wear groovy outfits, and I even spied at least two Black students, but they are in college to learn, darn it, so when they are informed that Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) has declined a request by their beloved Professor Quigley (William Schallert) for the school to buy a new computer, they take action!
No, they don't take action by protesting the war but by beseeching business executive A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero) to donate $10,000 to buy the computer. They warn to learn, darn it! (Full disclosure: despite Disney releasing That Darn Cat in 1965, the word "darn" is not heard in this particular Disney movie.)
Kurt Russell's Dexter Riley is a likable fellow, even though he doesn't impress anyone with his wit or intellect. That all changes after he gets the shock of his life and, essentially, becomes a living, walking, talking computer: he knows the answers to every test and becomes immensely popular nationwide
Since this is a Disney film, Dexter Riley must learn a lesson about his own conduct. Since everybody appears to be trying to use him for their own selfish desires, he decides he has to look out for his own interests first, even brushing off his college friends at one point. Then, he learns an important lesson about friendship: true friends look out for one another, and put the interests of their friends above their own.
It's a sweet lesson, and it's conveyed in a swell manner by Russell: we see the light that comes into his eyes when he learns this lesson; he doesn't need to explain it excessively or make a big deal about it, and neither does the movie.
Russell's performance in the lead role is very solid. He may not be the brightest bulb at school until he gets shocked and becomes a computer, but it's easy to see why he has so many loyal friends: he's friendly and helpful and positive and enthusiastic. In short, he's a good guy, and we want good things to happen to him: he's a very charming fellow.
The film is otherwise a forgettable piece of family-comedy fluff, but director Butler keeps it moving and the 91-minute running time flies by. Disney released it on December 31, 1969, and the film earned modest returns at the box office. Today it's available on Disney Plus, streaming a film print that looks very clean and presentable.
Butler and Russell worked together again for Disney on The Barefoot Executive (1971) and Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972). Butler became better known for his work on television, directing The Blue Knight (1973) and Hill Street Blues (1981), and co-creating Remington Steele (1982), among many, many movies and shows. He died last fall at the age of 95.
Kurt Russell is still alive and growling. I've enjoyed him immensely on Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters recently. It was lovely to watch him as a young man in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, though, showing his already-apparent ability to compel a viewer to watch more, no matter how silly the premise. [Disney Plus]