When it comes to movies, Disney likes to pretend it never existed, and The Song of the South is usually at the top. Its showcase of a utopian post-Civil War South and some bad stereotypes means it’s never been released on DVD or on Disney+, and obvious how Disney tries to ignore it.
However, there’s another movie that’s been buried even deeper in the Disney vaults. No blu-ray release, nothing on streaming, and almost no mention of it in Disney books. And for those who have seen it, it’s no wonder, as it’s still amazing how this ever got made.
The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.
On the face of it, it looks like typical Disney fare, a family musical boasting a great cast, too. There’s music from the Sherman Brothers, the guys behind Mary Poppins and It’s a Small World. There’s three-time Academy Award winner Walter Brennan, Buddy Ebsen, the lovely Lesley Ann Warren, John Davidson, Disney fave Kurt Russell, and, to top it all off, it’s the film debut of Goldie Hawn.
So how can this film be so bad? Find out.
The origins of the film
Band had its origins in a book about the Bower family, a popular clan of musicians living in South Dakota in the early 1900s. Walt Disney had hoped to turn it into a mini-series for his Wonderful World of Disney show and commissioned the Sherman Brothers to craft some songs. Supposedly, Roger Sherman did it under protest as he thought the subject was too mundane for a live-action project. Walt should have listened to him.
This was one of the last films Walt oversaw, along with 1967’s The Happiest Millionaire, which also starred Warren and Davidson. When Walt died in 1966, the studio continued to finish the film in his honor. What Walt didn’t realize was the late 1960s were the beginning of the end of the classic “roadshow” movie musical, as proven by Millionaire being a huge flop.
But as bad as that was, the reaction to Band was even worse.
The plot is set in 1888 when America was in the midst of a tough election between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison. The Bower family decides to move to the Dakotas in support of Warren’s new fiancee, Davidson, a Republican. Brennan, as Grandpa, is the only Democrat who hates it in the staunchly Republican Dakotas. (Keep in mind, the political parties were a tad different at this time with Democrats the ones more conservative). The Republicans there wanted Harrison to win so he could split the Dakotas into two states and give them more representatives in Congress.
Okay, quirky, but then things get really weird. You’d expect a fun film of the family heading to the national convention to perform their “Put it Over For Grover” song and some funny escapades. That’s not what we get. The movie pours on the political stuff with Brennan as a teacher who gets in trouble admitting he fought for the Confederacy and that the Dakotas should be one state. Warren is also ostracized, and the family is picking sides amid some truly bad songs by the Shermans.
The culmination is election night, as the movie tries a wild party dance sequence before word comes down that Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison won the electoral college. The backbiting between the two sides leads to a full-on pie fight/brawl before Ebsen takes the stage to lead a rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee,” and the two sides remember they’re all Americans.
Everyone makes up, Warren and Davidson get married just as word comes in that before leaving office, Cleveland is breaking the Dakotas into North and South and also granting Washington and Montana statehood for an even number of new Democrat/Republican senators. The family laughs, “That’s politics!” and leads the townspeople in a grand marching band song.
Yes, that’s the real plot.
Why it’s so bad
Now, even keeping in mind the politics of the movie’s setting and the year it was released, it’s still astounding how poor this is. At a time when the country was in major political, racial, and cultural strife, Disney was putting out a movie that not only ignored some of the issues of the time (such as the reason the Dakotas were “so wide open and free” was because of slavery abolished) but even enhancing the idea of political tension before a “we can all get along” message that fell flat.
Combine that with some songs that ranged from forgettable to flat-out painful and Brennan clearly reading off of cue cards, and it’s little wonder it was a huge flop. Aside from Bednobs and Broomsticks, Disney would cut out of the live-action musical game for years after this mess.
Surprisingly, it actually got a 2004 DVD release complete with audio commentary and even a featurette on making it. But really, the one memorable bit about it is that this is not only where Goldie Hawn started her career but also met her future life partner, Kurt Russell.
Bad as it was in its time, given the current climate today, the message in the film is even worse in certain parties made out as “good guy vs. bad guy” and devolving it into full-on violence is more jarring. Why Walt would think this was a good idea to start with is baffling and thus, why many Disney film fanatics ignore this movie as The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band may well be the worst Disney movie musical ever on so many levels.