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Hayley Mills, a Siamese, Frank Gorshin and that gravelly-voiced guy from Laredo. BE THERE. – Walt Disney’s That Darn Cat

May 8, 2013

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Every generation has its teen idols, personified fads that make sense to adolescents at the time but mystify adults — and the adolescents when they themselves reach adulthood. Now we seem to be entering into the final stage of Justin Bieber’s apotheosis, as the screaming girls and trademark scents at the Macy’s perfume counter morph into gas masks, random hospitalizations and monkeys held at customs. Have teen idols become weirder as the media landscape has fractured and metastasized? The Biebs would argue yes.

All this is fodder for another day and another place. But today we have before us a comic adaptation of a film starring a 1960s child actor, a precursor of the modern teen idol archetype. Behold, Hayley “Parent Trap” Mills, and her celluloid masterpiece known as That Darn Cat!.  

That Darn Cat! came well into Mills’ time in the Disney grind, after she had already starred in the aforementioned Parent Trap and several other lesser pictures. This, her final film for the Mouse, was perhaps the most Disney of them all — after all, it had a cat as one of the principals. The eponymous feline — a Siamese nicknamed “Darn Cat” or “D.C.” because of his neighborhood shenanigans — is the catalyst for the story’s action. On his usual rounds, he stumbles into the hideout of two crooks (played by Frank Gorshin and Neville Brand), who are holding a teller from the bank they just robbed hostage:

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The teller hooks her watch onto D.C.’s collar, which tips off his owner, Patti Randall, played by Mills, that something is up. When she finds the watch, she makes vast leaps of logic to connect it to the robbery in the news, and immediately heads to the local F.B.I. office to make a report. This gets Agent Kelso (Dean Jones) on the case:

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What Kelso is trying to spit out is that he’s allergic to cats. Of course he is.

The vast resources of the F.B.I. are then funneled into kitty surveillance, hoping D.C. will lead them back to the captive teller and the nefarious robbers. This cues much of the Keystone Kops comedy of the movie, some of which is replicated here:

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Spoiler: It all works out in the end.

The art within this comic, ably crafted by Dan Spiegle, is above par for this era and this genre, the one-off movie adaptation. In fact, he was somewhat of a veteran in this sub-field, having also done, just to name a few books also looked at here on the blog, adaptations for The Shaggy Dog, It’s About TimeSea Hunt and the old Annie Oakley series. Though the two Randall sisters are hard to distinguish (their hair, a yellow normally only seen in cheap vanilla ice cream, is their dominant, unifying, bewildering feature), the characters are well-drawn and the action is evenly paced. That said, one of the few hiccups in the translation comes in the romance between Agent Kelso and the elder of the two sisters. In the film it’s clear that she’s much older than the teen played by Hayley, but in the comic it’s not so obvious – and, with the hair similarity, they might as well be twins. Kelso’s interest in her therefore takes on a creepy, Lolita-ish vibe, but this isn’t something that undermines the whole enterprise.

Most importantly, the comic beats are replicated remarkably well, so much so that they work better on the page than in the film. In neither instance do they rise above the “gentle smile” kind of funny, far short of the “laugh out loud, wet your pants” brand of amusement, but they’re nevertheless there. The film is a highly thought of exemplar of the glory days of live action Disney, and the comic is a worthy companion piece.

Postscript: An odd addendum comes on the inside back cover. Mills’ status as a teen star necessitated some fluffy paragraphs about her wonderful, charmed existence, so we shouldn’t be surprised about finding some of that tucked away there. But the coining of the insufferable term “Jeanager” and the matter-of-fact summary of her 19-year-old life and times… Nothing against Ms. Mills and her kith and kin, I’m sure they are/were all fabulous, but this, with her inoffensive yet somehow vomitous insights on life and dating, might make you want to nuke the British Isles:

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That Darn Mills.

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