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A live action comedy, Disney’s Gus was theatrically released on July 7, 1976. The film is ninety-seven minutes in length.
The dawn of a new season brings sports fans hope that their teams will exceed the prognosticators’ expectations and maybe even win the league championship. Such optimism does not exist, however, among those associated with the National Football League’s fictional California Atoms franchise. The Atoms did not win a game the previous year, finishing with a 0-14 record, and, aside from middle linebacker Rob Cargil (Dick Butkus), they lack talent. Head Coach Venner (Don Knotts) brings more humor than strategic aptitude to the sidelines, and the team’s cheerleading squad and band stumble as much as the actual team. Anyone coming to watch the Atoms can expect to find entertainment solely in ineptitude, not in winning games…or not?
You see, team owner Hank Cooper (Edward Asner), seeking decent halftime entertainment, signs a Yugoslavian mule that has a perfect record in kicking soccer goals from one-hundred yards away; the mule’s young owner, Andy Petrovic (Gary Grimes), is also signed, and the two board with Cooper’s kindly young secretary Debbie Kovac (Louise Williams). Before long, Gus transcends his status as a halftime act to become the team’s regular placekicker—Andy does the holding—and he never misses, not even from ninety-nine yards out. Unbelievably, a team that was seemingly destined for last place is instantly transformed into a Super Bowl contender.
Cooper, however, cannot enjoy his team’s Cinderella ride. After a 41-0 preseason loss to the Cleveland Browns, the owner, rapidly losing money, makes a bet with a shady old friend, Charles Gwynn (Harold Gould), whereby Cooper will sell the team to Gwynn on the latter’s terms if the Atoms fail to win seven games. Sensing that the Atoms may as well win the Super Bowl as go 7-7, Gwynn coerces Cooper into changing the bet’s terms: it is now a Super Bowl championship or bust for the current ownership.
Panicked after the Atoms’ hot start with their new four-legged kicker, Gwynn decides that he can no longer take any chances. He hires a pair of recently-released prisoners, Spinner (Tom Bosley) and Crankcase (Tim Conway), to sabotage Gus, an effort that persists until Super Bowl Sunday. Can the Atoms overcome Gwynn’s mischievous schemes to win the big game and help Cooper retain his team?
Johnny Unitas and Dick Butkus, the former who portrays himself as a sportscaster and the latter who portrays Rob Cargil, are both Professional Football Hall of Famers; Dick Enberg, who portrays himself as the Atoms’ radio announcer, has long been a sportscaster in real life.
The Atoms and their opponent in the Super Bowl, the Michigan Mammoths, are the only fictional teams in the movie. The other NFL franchises—the Green Bay Packers, the Los Angeles Rams, the Atlanta Falcons, the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the New York Jets, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins—are real teams.
In the months after Gus’s release, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers proceeded to finish with a 0-14 record, replacing the Atoms as the worst team in the NFL.
The Atoms’ comeback from sixteen points down to win the Super Bowl was the largest comeback in the NFL’s championship contest until the New England Patriots overcame a twenty-five-point deficit to win Super Bowl LI in 2017.
Had the Mammoths been able to look into the future and see the 1978 “Miracle at the Meadowlands” game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants, they may have just taken a knee in the Super Bowl’s closing seconds rather than running the ball and risking a fumble. The defeated reactions of Cooper and Venner prior to the play show that it was not fourth down and that a stop would not have given the Atoms possession and a chance for a game-winning field goal attempt.
Talent is not everything. Although Cargil is the Atoms’ best non-special teams player, he is traded after his obnoxious behavior towards Andy hurts the team’s prospects.
Though Andy’s father (Titos Vandis), who denigrates his younger son for not being a “hero” like his soccer star older brother Stjepan (Jackson Bostwick), is correct that the media’s praise for Andy is excessive, his belief that Andy has no effect on Gus’s perfection is misguided. Handling and spotting a snap are not necessarily easy tasks, especially when the holder, in this case Andy, must be stretchered onto the field after being temporarily knocked unconscious.
Finally, Debbie offers Andy wise advice about letting his father’s criticisms depress him: “You’ve got to be something in your own eyes before you can be anything to anybody else.”
Gus features no lyrical music, but the film’s background music is solid. Numbers include a whimsical tune during Gus’s first scene with Andy, periodic band music, a romantic tune as Andy and Debbie meet at Los Angeles International Airport, and a chaotic tune during the supermarket melee scene and the final play of the Super Bowl.
The opening film session scene with Venner and Cooper reviewing tape from the previous season is divided into several sequences interspersed with band music and the opening credits. This fragmented structure works well, allowing the magnitude of the Atoms’ pre-Gus futility to steadily build in the viewer’s mind.
Gus is consistently funny.
Venner’s opening film session with Cooper illustrates the Atoms’ futility. Although handing the ball to the referee after a play may demonstrate composure, doing so in the midst of a running play merely shows ineptitude. Similarly, while celebrating a successful field goal can build team unity, knocking your kicker into retirement by mobbing him has the opposite effect.
Venner and Cooper exchange some amusingly snarky comments during the film sequence. When Venner asks, for example, what the team should do about a certain player, the owner responds, “Trade him to the Packers; they ought to love him; he played a better game for them than he did for us.” Then, seeing another player, Lindstrom, run the wrong route while peering into the stands, Cooper wonders, “What was he doing? Waving to his girlfriend in the stands?” To this query, Venner responds, “I don’t think so, Mr. Cooper. Lindstrom’s married!”
Venner gives his players an enthusiastic pep talk that includes an introduction of the team’s new assistant coaches; unfortunately for Venner, the coaches are the only people present—the players, unbeknownst to the head coach, do not report until the following day.
The Atoms’ cheerleaders and band members collide during practice. This incident at least affords Cooper some hope for the team’s attendance figures, the owner proclaiming, “That should bring in a few people! Especially doctors.”
Gus’s immediate predecessor as placekicker also splits the uprights on a field goal attempt, albeit with his shoe rather than the ball. No good! The shoe doesn’t count!
Johnny Unitas’s broadcast partner, Pepper Allen (Bob Crane), exudes an obnoxious vibe, perpetually talking, answering his own questions to Unitas, and making colossally incorrect predictions.
Spinner and Crankcase wreak havoc by impersonating hospital staff and by leading Gus on a chase through a hotel and a supermarket. The supermarket scene, like this blog post, is overly long and frustrating—I am not sure how the trio can cause problems for so long without being confronted by any store employees.
Pepper Allen and the Michigan Mammoths both struggle to close out the Super Bowl.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Gus was the third of five Disney films to feature Tim Conway, who was named a Disney Legend in 2004. Conway had previously appeared in The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) for Disney, and he subsequently appeared in The Shaggy D.A. (1976) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979) for the studio.
Gus was the third of six theatrically-released live action Disney films to feature Don Knotts, following The Apple Dumpling Gang and No Deposit, No Return (1976), and preceding Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978), and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Knotts also voiced Mayor Turkey Lurkey in the animated film Chicken Little (2005).
Gus was the fifth of seven Disney films to feature Dick Van Patten, who briefly portrays Gwynn’s assistant Cal. Van Patten had previously appeared in Snowball Express (1972), Superdad (1973), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), and Treasure of Matecumbe (1976) for Disney; and he subsequently appeared in The Shaggy D.A. and Freaky Friday (1977) for the studio.
Several references to Dumbo (1941)—Cooper’s assistant Joe Barnsdale (Ronnie Schell) suggests an elephant act for a halftime show, an animal becomes drunk, and Crankcase specifically mentions “Dumbo the Flying Elephant”—are made throughout Gus.
A chaotic football game was also featured in Son of Flubber (1963).
Like That Darn Cat! (1965), Gus features a drive-in movie sequence.
An animal, albeit a dog rather than a mule, was also the star of a football team in Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998) and the star of a soccer team in Air Bud: World Pup (2000).
In the Parks
Part of Walt Disney World’s “All-Star Sports Resort” is themed after football.
Guests can ride Dumbo at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland parks in California, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
Gus is implausible, even considering the unpredictability of the sports world, but it is also highly entertaining.
What do you think of Gus? Let me know in the comments!
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I'm a huge fan of the various Disney theme parks and movies. I've made several trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland with my family.
Additionally, I'm interested in sports and American history.