What would a computer need with a pair of tennis shoes?
Disney’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes continues their tried and true comedy formula started with The Absent Minded Professor. In this case a slacker gets superpowers and becomes an overnight celebrity, instead of an absent minded genius inventing a new substance. Either way it’s a fun film to share with family this season.
The trailer presents a film catered to the younger generation. It shows the college students ganging up on the “establishment” as a young slacker gets the mental powers of a computer. It’s pure Disney hijinks and family fun as a young Kurt Russell must avoid working for the mob. Of course he’s got his friends to help save him as well. We round out the end of the 1960s on Sci-Fi Saturdays with this hilarious sci-fi comedy!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) is a student at Medfield College, and part of a group of underperforming “ne’er do-wells” which Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) would like to “expunge” from the campus. He and his group are listening in secretly on a faculty meeting where genial Professor Quigley (William Schallert) is trying to get the Dean to spring for a computer. Higgins would rather spend his money elsewhere so the students decide to visit the local businessman selling the computer, A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), in an attempt to work out a deal. Arno agrees to donate the computer, but in doing so withdraws his cash pledge from the school, which upsets Higgins (who’d rather have the cash).
It’s unclear why Arno decides to give away his computer, which he uses to keep track of illegal gambling operations, but he lets the kids have it for Medfield nonetheless. While moving it in a piece gets damaged, so Dexter offers to drive to the neighboring town to get the replacement. He returns after dark, during a rainstorm, and while replacing the cable accidentally grounds himself and gets a huge shock. He awakens the next day with the brain capacity and power of the computer. He completes a 90 minute test in just 4 minutes. Dean Higgins sees opportunities to get publicity, and money, for Medfield.
When a doctor examines him, they see an actual computer in his brain! That evening he goes on live TV to answer questions from experts to prove that he really is super-smart now. He then goes on a whirlwind tour of many cities, including a ticker-tape parade in New York, and a chance to watch a rocket blast off at Cape Canaveral. When he returns home, he ignores his friends, and Dean Higgins–who wants to make sure Dexter is registered for the next semester–to meet with Arno, who wants him to work at his business. Arno and his henchman Chillie (Richard Bakalyan) take Dexter to the track and win 8 straight races. Arno knows he’s the real deal.
Meanwhile, both Dean Higgins and Dean Collingsgood (Alan Hewitt) of State College are both vying to get Dexter to come to their school next term. They both follow him and Chillie to one of Arno’s secret gambling facilities, where all of them get caught in a police raid. Dexter is bailed out by his friends, and realizes he’s been selfish–worrying that everyone is out for themselves. He also tells Higgins he’ll come back to Medfield and compete in the College Knowledge television trivia game, as long as he can pick his friends for the team.
During one of the televised games an answer triggers a subroutine in his brain and he begins spouting out information about Arno’s other secret gambling establishments. Arno sends Chillie and some other goons to kidnap Dexter. Without him, the team is no good. So his friends Pete (Frank Webb), Annie (Debbie Paine) and Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) analyze the tape and figure out that Arno must have taken him. They track down Chillie and follow him to the out-of-the way house where Dexter is being held.
Disguising themselves as student housepainters, the gang manages to find out where Dexter is hidden (he’s locked in a trunk) and spirit him away, but not before accidentally dropping the trunk. A chase ensues, with the kids in the paint truck and Arno and his crew in Dexter’s dune buggy. The kids manage to make it to the TV studio, getting Dexter back to the College Knowledge show, where his team is losing to State. Unfortunately the fall in the trunk gave him a concussion which is causing his brain to return to normal. Luckily the final question is answered by Schuyler! Medfield wins the $100,000 prize, Dexter is back to normal, and Arno is arrested.
“Don’t you think everybody thinks about themself?” – Dexter Riley
History in the Making
Welcome to the end of the 1960s on Sci-Fi Saturdays. I chose The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes as the final film for this year as a lighter, fun film. There was no good choice to represent 1969 that didn’t pale in comparison to the previous two films, Planet of the Apes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a continuation of Disney’s lighthearted, sci-fi comedies, which started the decade with The Absent Minded Professor.
As discussed in that article, the sci-fi elements really take a back seat to the comedy aspects, which is true here as well. The character of Dexter Riley is not a scientist or astronaut, but instead a normal college student that gets mixed up in the events of this film. In fact he becomes the subject of two additional films that also take place at Medfield College: Now You See Him, Now You Don’t in which he is experimenting with an invisibility formula, and The Strongest Man in The World which Dexter gains super-strength as another mix-up in the science lab occurs. All three of these films setup Kurt Russell as a leading man, and prepped the way for his future starring roles in more traditional science-fiction films, such as The Thing, Escape From New York, Soldier and Stargate.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes doesn’t really expand the genre of science-fiction film. Instead it takes some sci-fi adjacent elements and inserts them into Disney’s already perfected comedy formula. The advancement of computer technology and the visibility of such technology spurred a curiosity with the filmmakers whom created a “what if” scenario. What if Dexter absorbed the brains of the computer? In this case, hilarity ensues!
One thing that the film does do, which shows up in some other comedy shows and movies around this time, is utilize computer sound effects when Dexter is accessing data. The beeps, boops, and clicks make him sound like the dinosaur-like, room-sized computer of the late 60s, with its tubes and punchcards. It’s unclear if The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was the first example of this sort of trope, but humanoid computers such as Hymie from Get Smart and the fembots from The Bionic Woman would use similar sound effects to help indicate the characters were more than human.
After watching a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any commentary in this film seems downright trivial. But as with most Disney films The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is filled with good natured fun and a good moral. After receiving his powers Dexter gets caught up in the whirlwind tour and publicity associated with his abilities. Suddenly this “ne’er do well” is being sought after by the news media and important businessmen like A.J. Arno. So upon his return, he gravitates towards these individuals, ignoring his friends who have stood by him. It’s about halfway through the film when Dexter realizes he’s fallen in with a crowd that is only looking out for themselves. He’s put in jail after the police raid and there’s nothing his super-smarts can do to get him out. Enter his friends who pool their money to raise the $100 needed to bail him out. In actuality, they only raise $97.50, but the desk sergeant wants the kids to leave so he puts in the remaining $2.50! What a nice guy!
The moral of “trust in yourself” and “trust your friends” continues as Dexter is soon kidnapped, now with a criminal element that intend to kill him. His friends once again come to his rescue saving him from the mobsters. The one final lesson that they all learn has to do with the College Knowledge gameshow. Dexter’s brains have been winning all the games for them. Even when he tries to let Schuyler or Henry (Frank Welker) give an answer, they don’t understand the question or his answer, so Dexter must go it alone. But as his intelligence fails him, and the final game winning question comes up, Schuyler realizes that he knows the answer, in what is a funny yet empowering moment. He speaks up with seconds to spare and correctly identifies the geographic center of the United States (Lebanon, Kansas), not from his studies, but because he has family that lives there. The filmmakers end the movie pointing out that a team is strong because of the individual contributions of its members, and that believing in oneself is an important trait.
The film also strongly caters to the younger crowd and youth culture. Several times Dean Higgins brings up animosity to the students on his campus. First when he notices the gathering of “ne’er do wells” as he often calls them. He cites “unrest” on campuses, drawing the parallel to student protests that were occurring on college campuses during this time. He even asks his secretary to strike the mention of unrest from the meeting minutes. The rub is that the students, even the ones he wants to put on probation, are good kids just looking for new ways to help get a computer for the campus lab. They are not the subversive, or lazy teens that the media would often depict. And while the kids are shown as selfless, the adults–especially the Deans of the two colleges–are very much out for themselves and their schools. What can Dexter provide them? What can Medfield “put over” on State? This of course is all used for comedic effect, culminating in wacky chase where Arno and his goons must take Dexter’s dune buggy, decked out with flower emblems. The kids manage to get even with the “establishment” by dumping paint all over these “respected businessmen” in suits. Yeah, dude!
The Science in The Fiction
While no real scientific breakthroughs or analogies exist in the film, there is a nice primer on the use of computers. In 1969 computers were not part of everyday life. They were not palm-sized devices that we carry around in our pockets. Instead the computers were large bulky pieces of furniture that took up rooms worth of space, used magnetic tape reels and vacuum tubes to process the information, and were slow. To the public, they were really only seen in magazine articles and science-fiction films. So having Professor Quigley give some rudimentary information about how a computer works is beneficial to understanding the plot. He shows the students a program that evaluates the instructions about what to do on a rainy day. If it’s raining, then open the door to let the cat in, close the window and order groceries. Using a rain sensor, he demonstrates to the students amusement how a machine can carry out these orders.
Knowing how computers work in the real world, and the tropes associated with them, this sequence feels like a setup to show how Dexter might mis-interpret instructions and perform actions in the manner of a computer, ie. literally, and not using his human intellect and reasoning. This is not where the filmmakers went, and the demonstration was more to setup the short-circuiting of the machine so that Dexter could try to fix it, thus getting his powers.
The Final Frontier
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was the first of six Disney films young Kurt Russell would star in with in his ten year contract during the 60s and 70s. Besides the three Dexter Riley films, he was featured in Follow Me, Boys (1966, with Fred MacMurray), Mosby’s Marauders (part of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1967), The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (both in 1968), and then had lead starring roles in The Barefoot Executive (1971), Charley and the Angel, and Superdad (both 1973). He would return to voice the character of Copper in Disney’s 1981 animated feature The Fox and the Hound, having then moved into more adult roles.
The film also featured plenty of other stars and character actors seen in many other Disney films of the time. Joe Flynn played Dean Higgins in all three Dexter Riley films, as well as having a lead role on the TV series McHale’s Navy. William Schallert had already had a large career in many westerns, and will appear in the next sci-fi film reviewed here, Colossus The Forbin Project, before gaining television notoriety with roles as Nancy Drew’s dad on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and Gidget’s dad on The New Gidget. Cesar Romero also had a varied career in film, but is probably best known for his role as the Joker in the 1966 Batman series. Finally in a smaller role as Dexter’s buddy Henry, was a young Frank Welker, who went on to fame as the voice of Freddy and Scooby Doo on the Scooby Doo cartoons (as well as many other voice acting roles). One of the rival State team members is played a young Ed Begley Jr.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is a good example of a teen comedy from a bygone era. Wholesome and entertaining, it doesn’t take anything too seriously and has something for almost everyone. It’s currently on the new streaming service Disney+ for any readers that would like to watch this goofy comedy.
This film closes out the 1960s portion of Sci-fi Saturdays. Having worked through some of the classics of the decade, from The Time Machine to Fantastic Voyage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 60s experienced a huge growth in the types of stories and themes that sci-fi films presented. The growth expanded to television as well, seeing dozens of sci-fi series come and go including Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Lost in Space. This growth continues into the 1970s as sci-fi film, and science-fiction in general, finds a new audience in the growing baby boom and gen-X generations. If the 1950s were the birth and golden age of science fiction, the 1960s was the time when it started to take its first steps. The 70s then would provide the springboard by which sci-fi film would become a major player in the entertainment industry.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.