Our memories of films that we watched as kids can often be characterized by the things that interest us as children and often 0ver-look aspects like narrative, plot arcs or dialogue, especially if the films were intended for a "family" audience, ie adults and their children, as was the case with much of The Disney Studios output throughout the 1960's when it became a byword for safe, family-friendly entertainment designed to keep all age-groups engaged.
Our assumptions about Disney films after this period tend to be coloured by this and we often remember the stories set in small-town America as light entertainment that rarely strayed into depicting complex themes or the darker aspects of life.
I had two reasons for deciding to watch "That Darn Cat!" (Disney+) - one was to see if the film was as I remembered and enjoyed it in the late 60's, along with a regular diet of Disney animation and the live-action films that the studio churned out in that decade, and the other is because I'm currently reading Hayley Mill's newly published autobiography, "Forever Young", that charts her rise to fame from being a child actress to a teenaged actress and which provides interesting insights into Disney Studios as they transitioned from animated feature films into live-action, and with whom she was under contract until the age of 18.
Launched with the hugely successful "Pollyanna", Mills soon found herself cast with top billing in a slew of Disney films capitalizing on her youthful appeal, which was highly unusual for a British actress of her age at the time and was something aided by a "Children's Oscar" for "Pollyanna" that ensured that she was marketable. Evidence of this can be seen in how the studio's marketing department made sure her name appeared at the very top of film posters.
As kids, the main focus of interest for us was the cat in "That Darn Cat!" since we had recently acquired one and Disney's "True Life Adventures" series provided the studio with a stock of camera-trained wildlife around which stories could be constructed (repeated later with "The Cat From Outer Space"), and I have only the dimmest memory of the plot, besides which I had totally forgotten that Hayley Mills was even in it, something possibly explained by the fact that she was totally ubiquitous in Disneys films up to that point, with "That Darn Cat" being the last of a very successful run of films featuring the actress, for the studio.
I was quite shocked to see that after the jaunty opening credits featuring a signature theme song of "That Darn Cat!" sung by Bobby Darin and shots of the blue-eyed Siamese cat of the title ranging about her neighborhood and confounding a neighbours bulldog etc, the plot shifts to the kidnapping of a female bank-teller by two armed robbers who keep her hostage in an apartment they are renting while deciding how to evade capture by the police and dividing up their loot.
This is in no way played for laughs and there are several moments of genuine menace throughout the film where they threaten the bank-teller with murder and discuss ways of disposing of her body, which seem totally out of place for a Disney film. This serves as a reminder that far from being the type of anodyne entertainment aimed at kids that audiences associate with the brand now, Disney had a history of films as far back as "Snow White" and later, "Bambi" that didn't shy away from tackling more complex themes.
In contrast to this, the scenes featuring Mills and an ensemble cast of Disney film regulars, like Dean Jones and Ed Wynn, are played not exactly for comedy but do lean towards being much lighter in tone as Mills turns teenaged sleuth with the aid of her mischievous pet, who has accidentally discovered the hoodlums hideout and eventually leads the police to them.
Hayley Mills struggles somewhat with an American accent and this is probably not helped by having English ex-pat actors like Elsa Lanchester and Roddy McDowell - as the rather effete boyfriend of Mill's screen sister, Dorothy Provine - to play off, before Provine's "Ingrid" falls for Dean Jones' suave "Zeke Kelso", the FBI agent assigned to the case.
The hoodlums are played by Frank Gorshin (later seen in the 1960's "Batman" TV series as "The Riddler") and Neville Brand, and they play their roles dead straight, which lifts what could have been a rather anodyne and improbable scenario into a curious mixture of near film-noir crime drama and lightweight comedy and suggests that Disney was experimenting with form as they ventured further beyond 2D drawn animation.
The success of "That Darn Cat!" convinced the studio to follow up with a series of films that repeated the successful formula established by that film. Mills' however was clearly too mature to continue playing the tomboyish "gamine' of "The Parent Trap" (1961) of four years earlier.
Disney+ has the entire catalogue of the films that starred Mills, starting with "Pollyanna" through to "The Parent Trap" and ending with "That Darn Cat!" before she was finally released from her contract to pursue other roles in her native England and elsewhere, and they chart what she describes as a very enjoyable and fruitful period of her career.
"That Darn Cat!", Dir Robert Stevenson, 1965