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Twentieth Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck was always eager to find the perfect vehicle for one of his studio's prime assets, Clifton Webb. The actor's waspish, sophisticated demeanor was a rarity in the conformist '50s, particularly when he got to play his barbs and poisonous glances off unruly children. So when the studio developed a film about an intellectual television host lowering himself to command a Boy Scout troupe, Webb was the perfect choice.
Webb had graduated from supporting, often villainous roles like his breakout performance as Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944) with his comic work as Lynn Belvedere, a genius jack of all trades who takes on baby sitting in Sitting Pretty (1948). His exasperated responses to children and moralists struck a chord with post-war audiences tiring of Hollywood's usual saccharine, sanctimonious visions of family life. That film and its two sequels helped to domesticate an actor whose urbane disdain for the sentimental was one of his chief distinguishing characteristics. Nonetheless, as Webb grew in popularity, he increasingly starred in films that tried to have it both ways with his star image. He would start out disparaging all things domestic, but end up coming round, proving that beneath even the most brittle exterior lurked a heart of purest mush.
That was certainly the case with Mister Scoutmaster (1953). As the brainy host of a television series, he's threatened with cancellation because his sponsor doesn't think he has any appeal to younger audiences. To save his job, Webb first researches youth by reading comic books, then stumbles into a position as scoutmaster at his local church. Although he has no patience for the young boys in his charge, whom he dismisses as "uncouth, uncivilized little savages," they lap up his condescension. There's even a scene echoing one of his best in Sitting Pretty. In the earlier scene, he dealt with a temperamental infant by dumping a bowl of oatmeal on its head. In Mister Scoutmaster, he does the same to an older child with a bowl of ice cream. And it works! The other boys warm to him for taking on the spoiled brat, whose father even calls to thank him for the indignity. By the end, it's hardly any surprise that he not only comes to love the children, but even adopts one young lad, played by George "Foghorn" Winslow, the child actor whose voice was actually lower than Webb's.
Rice E. Cochran had based his book Be Prepared on his own experiences as a scoutmaster. Fox bought it as a vehicle for Webb, hoping it would attract the same audiences who had made the Belvedere films a hit. With its affectionate view of scouting, the film was made with the cooperation of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, with longtime scoutmaster George Bergstrom as technical advisor. To l953 audiences, it seemed like the best advertising the Scouts could find. Not only does running the troupe transform Webb, but scouting also makes the boys into better people, eager to use their newfound skills for the public good.
To contemporary audiences, however, Mister Scoutmaster has some distinctly ironic overtones, as pointed out by critics like David Boxwell, who wrote about the film for the online Bright Lights Film Journal. What passed as sophistication for the more innocent audiences of 1953, now seems suspect, particularly comic in light of the Boy Scouts of America's battles to exclude the openly gay from the joys of scouting. It doesn't take a dirty mind to notice that the film's romantic focus is not on Webb's seemingly sterile marriage to Frances Dee, but on his growing fondness for Winslow. When he threatens to discipline the mischievous boy, Webb even says, "This time, young man, it's time to face the music, and I'll pipe the tune that's going to be played on your little bottom."
Mister Scoutmaster was not one of Webb's favorite films. According to his biographer, David L. Smith, he was disappointed to be assigned to the low-budget comedy after the success of a much bigger picture, the musical biography of John Philip Sousa, Stars and Stripes Forever (1952). But it did well enough at the box office for him to continue in major films. His next picture would be one of Fox's biggest hits of the decade, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954).
Mister Scoutmaster also did well enough to inspire a television remake. Actor-turned-producer Jimmy Hawkins, who had played Herbie Weber, hired the original film's director, Henry Levin, to direct the new version, Scout's Honor (1980), starring Gary Coleman and Wilfrid Hyde-White. When the 70-year-old director died on the last day of filming, Hawkins finished the job and dedicated the film to him.
Producer: Leonard Goldstein
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Barney Slater
Based on the book Be Prepared by Rice E. CochranCinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, Albert Hogsett
Score: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: Clifton Webb (Robert Jordan), Edmund Gwenn (Reverend Stone), George "Foghorn" Winslow (Mike Marshall), Frances Dee (Helen Jordan), Veda Ann Borg (Mike's Aunt), Orley Lindgren (Ace), Jimmy Hawkins (Herbie Weber), Dabbs Greer (Fireman), Ned Glass (News Dealer).
by Frank Miller