A live action comedy-drama based on Will Stanton’s 1971 novel The Golden Evenings of Summer, Disney’s Charley and the Angel was theatrically released on March 23, 1973. The film is ninety-three minutes in length.
In a small midwestern town in the late summer of 1933, Charley Appleby (Fred MacMurray), the middle-aged father of a teenage girl named Leonora Appleby (Kathleen Cody), a preteen boy named Willie Appleby (Vincent Van Patten), and a younger boy named Rupert Appleby (Scott C. Kolden), and the husband of one Nettie Appleby (Cloris Leachman), approaches a crossroads in his life. If Mr. Appleby does not make the correct choice here, his life will hit a literal dead end.
You see, Appleby, in the midst of the Great Depression, does not know how to live happily. His immense concern for the fate of his hardware store results in a corresponding neglect of his family, the members of which tend to only demonstrate superficial love for their often-absent leader. Now, out of the blue, an angel formerly known as Roy Zerney (Harry Morgan) comes into Charley’s life with an ultimatum: Charley must either make amends with his family and enjoy their company, or he will die. Simultaneous to the reception of this grim news, Mr. Appleby’s children encounter difficulties of their own. His sons, trying to make money, inadvertently entangle themselves in an alcohol bootlegging ring, an operation that involves junkyard owner Felix (Larry D. Mann), bar owner Sadie (Barbara Nichols), henchman Buggs (Richard Bakalyan), and gangster Frankie Zuto (Mills Watson); and Leonora abruptly leaves home to elope with a young man named Ray Ferris (Kurt Russell). Can Mr. Appleby transcend these increasing troubles to suit both the heavens and his family?
Striking a balance between work and leisure is often difficult, especially during an economic depression, but said balance is usually essential to happiness. Are you really living if you only care about work?
On the other hand, as Willie and Rupert learn, people must work to make money.
Though it has numerous comedic moments, Charley and the Angel is often more serious than it is funny. The angel’s ultimatum and Charley’s ensuing efforts to find happiness afford a sad vibe to the film. Charley is undoubtedly distant from his family, but he doesn’t come across nearly so poorly as to be held in limbo with a potential death sentence. At worst, he appears as a grumpy man tired after a long day at work, and most of the complaints about him are based on incidents that occurred prior to the setting of the film. Frankly, I felt more sympathy for Charley than I did for the other characters, though the latter are generally likable. Willie and Rupert, in particular, add to the movie’s charm with their youthful enthusiasm.
As noted prior to the opening credits, Charley and the Angel was released in the Walt Disney Company’s fiftieth-anniversary year, 1973. The company, under the name “Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio,” was formed by Walt Disney and his older brother Roy O. Disney on October 16, 1923, when the duo secured distribution rights for Walt’s Alice Comedies.
The second half of Charley and the Angel is packed with action. Here, an extended car chase is followed by an encounter between the Applebys and the bootleggers in the Appleby home.
Upon seeing the shooting star, Charley wishes that the mosquitos would go away. Unfortunately, only the winter frost can solve that problem. A wish for a trip to the World’s Fair on the other hand….
Miss Partridge (Susan Tolsky) misunderstands the terms of a sale at Appleby’s store.
Willie and Rupert cannot get in sync with kite-building instructions from a radio program.
The angel remembers his long-lost name, Roy Zerney, in song! He also hovers, partially disappears, takes showers, and roller skates.
Driving a car is difficult under normal circumstances, but the effort is complicated when the driver, Willie in this case, cannot reach the pedal.
Charley is asked to choose between lemonade and iced tea at Sadie’s Place. He should have been offered an Arnold Palmer.
A whimsical lyrical tune, “Livin’ One Day At The Time,” plays over the opening credits and is reprised in the final scene. This number, which highlights the outlook on life that Charley must develop if he wants to survive, provides a fun bookend to the movie but is not especially memorable.
Additionally, a mysterious tune precedes the angel’s first appearance, a sad tune follows the scene where the entire family declines to accompany Charley to the movies, and a swift jazzy tune nicely complements the car chase scene.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Charley and the Angel was the last of seven Disney films to feature Fred MacMurray, who was named the Walt Disney Company’s first “Disney Legend” in 1987. MacMurray had previously appeared in The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage! (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), Follow Me, Boys! (1966), and The Happiest Millionaire (1967) for the studio.
Charley and the Angel was the seventh of fifteen Disney films to feature Kurt Russell, who was named a Disney Legend in 1998. Russell had previously appeared in Follow Me, Boys!, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972) for Disney, and he subsequently contributed to Superdad (1973), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Captain Ron (1992), Tombstone (1993), Miracle (2004), Sky High (2005), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) for the studio.
Charley and the Angel was the fourth of seven Disney films to feature Harry Morgan. Morgan had previously appeared in The Barefoot Executive, Scandalous John (1971), and Snowball Express (1972) for Disney, and he subsequently appeared in The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), The Cat from Outer Space (1978), and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979) for the studio.
Charley and the Angel was the fifth of nine Disney films to feature Richard Bakalyan. Bakalyan had previously appeared in Follow Me, Boys!, Never a Dull Moment (1968), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t for Disney, and he subsequently contributed to The Strongest Man in the World, The Shaggy D.A. (1976), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), and The Fox and the Hound for the studio.
Cloris Leachman subsequently appeared in The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), and Sky High for Disney.
At the beginning of Charley and the Angel, the Appleby family casts wishes upon a star. A more famous instance of this scenario occurred in Pinocchio (1940).
Reminiscent of the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland (1951), the angel in Charley and the Angel blows smoke rings from a pipe.
Angels are also featured in Angels in the Outfield (1994) and Angels in the Endzone (1997).
A supernatural being also follows a human in Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968).
In the Parks
The 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair is discussed throughout Charley and the Angel. Another World’s Fair, the 1964 event in New York, was crucial to the future of Disney’s theme parks. Popular attractions including “It’s a Small World,” “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress,” and “The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” debuted in some form at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Charley and the Angel is melancholier than one may expect, but the plot is suspenseful, and the film has the historical benefit of featuring two of Disney’s greatest actors, Fred MacMurray and Kurt Russell.
What do you think of Charley and the Angel? Let me know in the comments!
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