The Barefoot Executive (1971)
Written by Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn, Stewart C. Billett, and Joseph L. McEveety
Directed by Robert Butler
At some point in the late 1960s, Disney shifted from more fantasy-oriented live-action films like Mary Poppins or Bedknobs & Broomsticks to what is referred to as “gimmick comedies,” spurred on by the phenomenal success of The Love Bug. These movies were intended to be silly for kids and more “mature” and contemporary so that the parents would enjoy them as well. Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother, took over after Walt took ill and eventually passed away in 1966. The company actually created a cinematic universe with some of these movies, starting with The Absent-Minded Professor and leading into a trilogy of films starring Kurt Russell as college student Dexter Riley. A total of five films were set at the fictional Medfield College. The legacy of these movies can be seen on the Disney Channel with its original sitcoms. They are the spiritual successors to the cheap television-style plots of these movies.
The Barefoot Executive came on the heels of The Computer Wore Tennis but before the subsequent two sequels to that film. Kurt Russell plays Steven Post, a mailroom clerk at the floundering United Broadcasting Corporation. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, Steven’s girlfriend Jennifer acquires a chimpanzee named Raffles. Steven notices that Raffles always wants to watch the show with the highest ratings the next morning and uses the data he learns from the chimp to gain favor at UBC. Steven has to start smuggling Raffles into the screening rooms at work to get his feedback and maintain the veneer of Steven’s expertise. Of course, one sniveling executive suspects something is up and starts to get closer to the young prodigy’s secret.
The comedy of The Barefoot Executive could only appeal to a child and not a very smart child at that. It’s so clean and saccharine that it is absent the potential for any laughs. Everything hangs on the gimmick, “Isn’t it silly that a monkey is picking television shows?” Once you get past that heavy laugh-inducer, the film has nothing left. The main characters are bland and the antagonists ineffectual & bumbling. We know Steven is going to get away with it having little consequence. There is the seed of a brilliant satire in the narrative, mocking the ridiculous television of the 1960s/70s. You had shows like My Mother the Car, The Flying Nun, and Hogan’s Heroes, to name a few. This was a period of creative yet bizarre television programs. This film never lets us see the shows, thus undercutting the full impact of Raffle’s effect on the network.
There are a few genuinely funny moments that hint at a smart writers’ room, dumbing things down for a perceived audience. Early in the movie, Steve presents his trend data that television shows about Abraham Lincoln, doctors, and dogs do great in the ratings. Therefore, UBC’s best option is a show titled Abe Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. That’s actually funny. Wally Cox (the voice of Underdog) plays Merton, the driver to the antagonist executive. Cox is actually having fun with his role, and there’s even a scene that feels like a small bit of improv was allowed. I imagine Cox tried somethings with different takes, and they kept some of it in.
The Barefoot Executive is a feature film that feels like a premise for a bad sitcom carried too far. I can easily see this as a cheesy short-lived tv-series with Steven having to find ways to hide Raffles every week from pesky & nosy enemies. The production value of the film doesn’t feel far off from a tv show, and it probably would have been cheaper to make that way.