I have always been a Disney kid. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began watching the studio’s live-action fare from the ’60s. The movies, I’ll admit, aren’t always gems — for every Blackbeard’s Ghost, there is a The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. My favorite discovery so far, though, has been 1965’s That Darn Cat!, a movie that has strangely become part of my Halloween rotation even though it really has no relation to the holiday whatsoever. The cat of the film’s title is D.C., a troublemaking Siamese who discovers the hideout of two bank robbers and their hostage, a scared bank teller. When the teller switches out D.C.’s collar for her watch with the word “help” scratched on the back, the cat’s owner, Patti, makes the connection and contacts FBI agent Zeke Kelso. With the hope of finding the crooks by following D.C. on his nightly strolls, Agent Kelso gets more than he bargained for thanks to Patti’s meddling, intrusive neighbors, and one serious cat allergy.
That Darn Cat! was the last of six films that Disney darling Hayley Mills would make for the studio. Precocious yet never cloying, Mills often played bright, bubbly characters who demonstrated a self-sufficiency and maturity that went well beyond her years. Patti is no exception. As someone who craves excitement and finds adventure in everything, working with the FBI proves more than satisfying for the young woman. Her tenacity and scrappy attitude certainly get her into trouble, but they’re also the things that save her (and a few other people) in the end.
While That Darn Cat! marked the end of an era for Mills, it was the first Disney film for another of the studio’s legends, Dean Jones. It is also, I must admit, the film that made me fall in love with him. A handsome man with an abundance of goofy charm, Jones almost steals the entire movie as Agent Kelso. While it would have been easy to play the character as a dopey authority figure, the actor instead chooses to imbue Kelso with strength and resourcefulness. He isn’t a perfect agent, but he also isn’t ineffectual or moronic. You feel safe with him, a sentiment that Patti’s sister Ingrid (Dorothy Provine) comes to agree with over the course of the film, in spite of her relationship with Gregory, an insufferable mama’s boy played to sniveling perfection by Roddy McDowall.
As you might have noticed, what continually strikes me about Disney films is the impeccable casting. Brilliant character actors were treasured at the studio and That Darn Cat! is a great example of that. Richard Deacon pops up as an annoyed drive-in theater manager; wily Frank Gorshin is excellent as one of the robbers; Neville Brand adds the danger as Gorshin’s intense partner; William Demarest plays the grumpy, hilarious husband to Elsa Lanchester’s extremely nosy neighbor. Even perennial Disney favorite Ed Wynn shows up as a frazzled jeweler who reluctantly helps Mills.
My favorite supporting role, though, is Tom Lowell’s fantastic turn as Patti’s boyfriend, Canoe. With a bottomless pit for a stomach and a perpetual tobacco pipe in his hand, Canoe is, well, let’s just say he is a good counterpoint to Agent Kelso. He is also a clear stereotype of the 1960s teenager, but Lowell brings a sweetness and warmth to the character that saves Canoe from becoming completely one-note.
In addition to most of the cast, That Darn Cat! had people behind the camera who were also beloved members of the Disney family. The title song, for instance, was written by the Sherman Brothers (and sung by Bobby Darin!), while the direction was provided by Robert Stevenson. By the time of this film, Stevenson was a major asset to the studio. In 1957, after helming such classics as Jane Eyre (1943) and The Las Vegas Story (1952), Stevenson came to the Walt Disney Company and wound up staying for 19 films, including Mary Poppins (for which he was Oscar-nominated), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Absent-Minded Professor, the aforementioned Blackbeard’s Ghost, and The Love Bug. Although I didn’t grow up with many of these films, there is something inherently cozy about them. It might just be that magical Disney atmosphere, but I also think Stevenson’s winsome direction is a good reason why these movies are still delightful, regardless of how old the audience is or how many years have gone by since they’ve been made.
Although I will always have immense love and deep nostalgia for the studio’s iconic animated films, That Darn Cat! is proof that Disney’s live-action work is nothing to sniff at, either. In the coming October days, as the leaves fall and the air gets crisp, you’ll find that putting on this film and cuddling up with some hot cocoa are just what you need to start your autumn right.
You can catch Hayley Mills in The Trouble with Angels at IU Cinema on October 21 as part of the series 5X Ida Lupino: Fearless, Extraordinary Trailblazer. For a closer look at The Trouble with Angels, check out regular contributor Laura Ivins’s “scathingly brilliant” video essay here!
For another film about a mischievous cat, check out the spooky and extremely rare horror flick The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen at the Cinema on October 29. The screening is in conjunction with the East Asian Film Series: Demon Cats and Deer Warriors.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.