The Million Dollar Duck (1971)
Written by Ted Key & Roswell Rogers
Directed by Vincent McEveety
This was the first film that critic Gene Siskel walked out on. He would only do that with two subsequent movies (1980’s Maniac and 1996’s Black Sheep). The story is a stock Disney script for the time, one of the gimmick comedies, not rising much above a Disney Channel original movie. The production quality is at the television level as well. By the midway mark of the film, I was checking out, despite trying to stay engaged from the outset. There are only so many gags you can do with this plot before it wears out its welcome.
Albert Dooley (Dean Jones) is a scientist studying animals’ ability to solve simple problems. He’s quite taken with Charlie, a duck in the lab, and when his boss decides he wants to toss the animal, Albert brings Charlie home as a pet for his son. However, exposure to a mixture of radiation and his wife’s (Sandy Duncan) terrible cooking has Charlie (a female duck) laying eggs with gold yolks. This is a boon but also a burden as their next-door neighbor Finley Hooper (Joe Flynn), works for the US Department of Treasury. As Albert and his family amass a cache of golden eggs, they realize it’s going to be a challenge keeping this duck under wraps.
There’s a lot of archaic depictions of women in the movie, mainly of Katie, the wife. She’s a ditz who can’t seem to follow a recipe and spends money without paying attention to the checking account. It’s some eye-rolling traditional portrayals, especially weird as women’s liberation was pretty well established a cultural movement at the time. One the other hand, Katie is the heart of the family, seeing things that Albert completely misses about their son. She understands how important having a pet to bond with is for little Jimmy and is the reason Charlie comes home in the first place.
The messaging here is super-conservative with a very negative angle on the government, especially taxes. It’s no wonder Disney, one of the most bloated media corporations in the country, would make sure the movie had a heavy anti-tax theme. The film positions it as the government is bad for the average working man when the reason we set up the Dooleys as having problems with their finances being overspending. Youth are portrayed as trouble-making whippersnappers with the Wadlow brothers down the street and their buggy.
Despite the conservative bent, the film ends up making the adult men look like buffoons most of the time. At one point, Albert and his friend Fred (Tony Roberts) end up on all fours in the middle of duck pen barking like dogs. The barking is the aural trigger to make the duck lay eggs, and they have lost Charlie in a sea of lookalikes at this point in the movie. Albert quickly forgets about his kid when the golden eggs start coming, but by the third act, we get a fairly pat sitcom quality moral to the story and wrap-up.
There were some genuinely funny moments in the first act. The opening scene where Albert is approached by Jimmy and his friend with a puppy the friend wants to sell to Jimmy is very funny. The friend stares down Albert for the whole scene with narrowed eyes as Jimmy explains he wants fifty bucks for the dog. Jones does some pretty good reaction comedy and feels like he’s having fun with the role. The jokes sort of end around that point, and the rest of the movie gets caught up in weak gags and hitting plot points. The Million Dollar Duck definitely represents a low point in the Disney live-action catalog. Let’s hope they get better.