Even if you don’t know Tommy Kirk’s name, you’ve seen his face. As an actor, Kirk was a part of some of Disney’s most popular films during one of its most prolific eras, appearing in foundational movies like Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson and The Shaggy Dog. He often represents the ideals of the all-American teenager during the early 1960s. He is clean-cut, wholesome and adorable. Just the kind of boy you want to take home to mom.
While Walt Disney made movies throughout much of the early twentieth century, Disney as we know it sprung up in the 1950s when DisneyLand was preparing to open and the behemoth that was Disney content started airing on television screens. A relatively new medium in American culture, content like The Mickey Mouse Club, Spin and Marty and The Hardy Boys were beaming into every American household with a television, and people took notice.
Cue where I came in (in the 80’s… not the 1950’s). It was probably Swiss Family Robinson which introduced me to Tommy Kirk, who played the family’s brainy middle son, Ernst. I think I was in middle-school and the slightly “bro-ey” Fritz (James MacArthur) simply didn’t register for me at the time. That didn’t happen till I discovered Hawaii 5-0 much later. In fact, it was largely Tommy Kirk (and Tim Considine, but that’s another write-up) who were responsible for my growing interest in all things vintage Disney.
While Kirk’s career started to struggle in the early 1960s. His last film with Disney didn’t come until 1965’s The Monkey’s Uncle. Like fellow Disney alumn Annette Funicello, he made the jump to the beach, but appeared largely as the third string male star, taking on leading roles when Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman weren’t available (Pajama Party and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini). I’ve seen all these movies too…
There is a lot written about the downslide of Tommy Kirk’s career, but few actual citations seem to exist. As such, it’s difficult to concretely nail down exactly how everything happened. The biggest source is an interview the actor gave later in life discussing his homosexuality. Much has been discussed about Walt Disney, and Annette’s lack of a bikini during her Beach Party days. The studio was a conservative place and Walt held his stars to a rigid standard. Kirk’s black-balling from the prominent studio is said to have been made official with his role in 1966’s Mother Goose-A-Go-Go (later The Unkissed Bride). I’ve watched this movie and…the things we do for love.
Mother Goose-A-Go-Go follows a newlywed couple, Ted (Kirk) and Margie (Anne Helm). They’re young, deeply in love and enthralled in the excitement of their wedding night when they discover Ted’s paralyzing hang-up on Mother Goose nursery rhymes (thanks to a wedding present from Margie’s sexy Uncle Jacques). It seems Mother Goose renders Ted comatose… and unable to perform… you know… sexually. With few options and a recurring problem he didn’t know he had, Ted visits a therapist (Danica D’Hondt). He finds himself taking a little miracle cure called LSD (Ha!) in facing deep seeded sexual hang-ups he’s been struggling with since childhood. Jack H. Harris directs Mother Goose-A-Go-Go from a script he wrote himself.
Watching it through once again (with a more seasoned eye), there’s too much going on here, and ultimately the film is handcuffed by the period out of which it emerged. The narrative isn’t afraid to play in some weird (and potentially interesting) psychological territory. However, the scandalous capital is wasted on the use of LSD, which was only truly becoming well-known at this time (the movie hit theaters in October 1966). Yet, when Ted finds himself exposed to these nursery rhymes, he faints. Yup, just faints. In fact, the film uses this to craft a generic (but not well-developed) zany, slapstick humor which is largely only at home in the 1960s. Yes, there’s a slide-whistle sound effect every time he passes out. It’s silly things like that. Told in this way, Mother Goose-A-Go-Go feels like a far less polished Richard Lester film. Plenty of other movies did the same things at the same time, and they did them much better.
While my focus in this film wasn’t on the female characters… they are largely as bad as the pictures imply. We have two women of note in the narrative (Ted’s wife and Ted’s therapist). They have names… which you have to go to IMDb to remember. Other women flit around the vacation resort serving as the film’s setting, but they are only developed as far as serving as love interests… companions… heck, sex objects for the sexy, french-accented Uncle Jacques.
Mother Goose-A-Go-Go also features the most bikinis I’ve ever seen of a film which isn’t actually set on a beach. They girls wear bikinis in hotel rooms, in hallways, while talking on the phone… ask and you shall received a pair of barely supported breasts in a bikini. Is it fair to speculate the women are largely there for the bikini shots? Probably. Meanwhile, Kirk’s shirt is practically glued on… his character will take LSD, but hardly takes his shirt off. Come on, guys!
Like many films in the 1950s and 1960s, Mother Goose-A-Go-Go blames the main character’s… eccentricities… on a domineering maternal figure. I’ve covered it before, so I’m not going into it again here. However, let’s just say that as a youngster, Ted’s mom replaced unacceptable sexual content with Mother Goose. Once the dam breaks and Ted finally realizes what’s going on, he’s on fire! There are so many women! So many women to kiss! In fact, the movie gets a bit rape-ey in the third act. Who would have ever thought Tommy Kirk and rape-ey could be used in the same sentence? Certainly not me.
This is prefaced with a “Forgive me Tommy, I love you!”, but Kirk (billed in this film as “Tom” teehee), is best when he doesn’t have to say a lot in this movie. It’s easiest to (blame?) the relatively simplistic script. As Mother Goose-A-Go-Go begins, Kirk achieves a sweet, unspoken chemistry with Helm as the couple go about the traditional action of the wedding night. However, once the narrative takes shape, all sense of Ted and Margie as husband and wife is lost as he falls into the company of his therapist, and she her family. Though, most of her story is actually told by Uncle Jacque while Margie simply roams into the frame. Ultimately, the tone of the film is weird and Kirk doesn’t do well with the content he’s given. Even as a young actor, he thrived in dramatic roles. How many people are still triggered by Old Yeller? Swiss Family Robinson isn’t a laugh-a-minute either. Is he not funny? That’s a little harsh. Rather, most actors are only as good as the material they are given, and this film struggles mightily.
All in all, Mother Goose-A-Go-Go is a fascinating, cinematic time-capsule. It’s not a good movie (far from it actually). More problems exist than good content; however, it is interesting to see this film in a study of Tommy Kirk’s star persona. It’s definitely a transition, and when looking at the content through a contemporary perspective, it’s not actually that objectionable. However, this was reportedly enough for Walt Disney to officially sever ties with the former child-star, and unfortunately, his career never recovered.