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Walt Disney Studios, in their live-action comedies, often set the stories in academia. Starting with The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961, the All-American environs of high school and college campuses provided the backdrop for outlandish Disney comedy plots that allowed for imaginative shenanigans brought to life by likeable casts filled with familiar faces. Walt Disney also liked to do sequels, following up The Absent-Minded Professor with Son of Flubber (1963), and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) with The Monkey's Uncle (1965). The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) , starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Reilly and set on the fictional campus of Medfield College, spawned Now You See Him, Now You Don't in 1972, as well as a third film, The Strongest Man in the World in 1975.
Kurt Russell, a Disney veteran, had been signed to a contract by Walt Disney himself back in 1960, and had starred in several successful movies for the studio, such as Follow Me, Boys! (1966) and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), in addition to pursuing a vigorous career as one of the hardest-working child actors on television. He starred in his own TV series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (1963-64) when he was only twelve years old, and managed to successfully bridge the often awkward gap from moppet to adult actor.
Writer Joseph McEveety scripted all three of the movies starring Kurt as Dexter Reilly, a brainy but charismatic and popular college science major who would get himself into crazy adventures with light science fiction overtones but played strictly for laughs. In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Dexter gets zapped while fixing the school computer and his brain suddenly becomes a super computer. In the second Reilly movie, Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Dexter stumbles upon the formula for invisibility, and finds himself being pursued by crooks seeking the invention, and finally, in The Strongest Man in the World, the school science department, while conducting bovine nutrition studies, somehow concocts a formula that gives super strength to all who ingest it.
The first two movies in the Medfield College-Dexter Reilly trilogy were directed by Robert Butler, but Vincent McEveety, another Disney veteran, was brought in to direct The Strongest Man in the World. One of the chief pleasures of the movie trilogy was the superb cast of co-stars and supporting actors who filled out the rest of the cast of characters. Actor Joe Flynn was along for all three movies in the role of Medfield's Dean, Eugene "E.J." Higgins, the bombastic administrator who's under constant financial pressure and is willing to do almost anything to get money for the college. He's just trying to keep poor Medfield afloat, if only his student body would just stop getting into so much mischief. Flynn was a show business veteran who started out in movies and moved into television; he eventually concentrated on comedy, and finally achieved sitcom stardom with his role as the apoplectic Capt. Binghamton on TV's McHale's Navy series from 19621966. Flynn became a Disney regular, too, eventually appearing in ten productions for the studio.
Filmed on the Disney lot, The Strongest Man in the World also reunited other stars from the previous Dexter Reilly features, including Hollywood veteran smoothie Cesar Romero as the resident villain, rapacious local businessman A.J. Arno who is integral to the plotlines of all three films. Romero had long been a movie mainstay, and kept his career contemporary through movies like this and his earlier unforgettable turn as The Joker on television's Batman series. The goofy and charming comic actor Michael McGreevey co-starred as Dexter's best friend Richard Schuyler in all three films.
The rest of the cast is a veritable who's who of American comedy and character actors. Perennial wisecracking dame Eve Arden plays the head of a cereal company she wants the super strength formula to juice up her cereal line. Veteran funnyman Phil Silvers plays the head of a rival cereal company, who also lusts for the super formula. William Schallert is back as Dexter's college science professor, and other familiar faces in the cast include Dick Van Patten, Harold Gould, Benson Fong, James Gregory, Raymond Bailey and Ronnie Schell.
The chief slapstick moments in The Strongest Man in the World obviously revolved around feats of super strength bending power poles, effortlessly lifting up people, subduing multiple bad guys, a weightlifting competition, putting the formula into a car to make it run super fast as well as an extended comic hypnotism sequence featuring Dexter's friend Schuyler. In fact, Kurt Russell as Dexter Reilly is almost a supporting character in this film with less screen time than in his previous two outings.
Tragically, star Joe Flynn, who had outdone himself in sheer comic vitality in The Strongest Man in the World, and was nominally the true star of the film, was not around to see the movie's release in February of 1975. Recovering from a broken leg at his Beverly Hills home in July of 1974, the 49-year-old actor was found drowned at the bottom of his swimming pool. He had suffered a heart attack, ostensibly while attempting to swim with a cast on his leg, though some acquaintances were not completely satisfied with that explanation. No foul play was ever seriously considered, but in any case, the sudden and unusual death at so young an age of this beloved comic actor cast a sad pall over the subsequent release of The Strongest Man in the World.
Reviews of The Strongest Man in the World were tepid, especially when compared to the more enthusiastic reception of the first film in the series. This wasn't a movie that would live or die by the critics, of course, and audiences who enjoyed the exaggerated antics of a delightfully capable cast were not disappointed.
Producer: Bill Anderson
Director: Vincent McEveety
Screenplay: Joseph L. McEveety, Herman Groves
Cinematography: Andrew Jackson
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge, Jack Senter
Music: Robert F. Brunner
Film Editing: Cotton Warburton
Cast: Kurt Russell (Dexter Reilly), Joe Flynn (Dean Higgins), Eve Arden (Harriet), Cesar Romero (A.J. Arno), Phil Silvers (Krinkle), Dick Van Patten (Harry), Harold Gould (Dietz), Michael McGreevey (Schuyler), Dick Bakalyan (Cookie), William Schallert (Quigley), Benson Fong (Ah Fong), James Gregory (Chief Blair).
C-92m. Closed Captioning.
by Lisa Mateas