Director – Robert Stevenson, Screenplay – Ellis Kadison, Based on the Novel The Gnomemobile: A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonsense but Gnothing Gnaughty by Upton Sinclair, Photography – Edward Colman, Music – Buddy Baker, Songs – Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman, Special Effects – Eustace Lycett & Robert A. Mattey, Art Direction – Carroll Clark & William H. Tuntke. Production Company – Disney.
Walter Brennan (D.J. Mulrooney/Knobby), Karen Dotrice (Elizabeth Winthrop), Matthew Garber (Rodney Winthrop), Tom Lowell (Jasper), Richard Deacon (Ralph Yarby), Sean McClory (Horatio Quaxton), Ed Wynn (Rufus), Cami Sebring (Violet)
Lumber-milling millionaire D.J. Mulrooney picks his grandchildren Rodney and Elizabeth up from the airport. Travelling back in his antique touring car, they stop in one of his redwood forests for lunch. The gnome Jasper makes the decision to reveal himself to them, he needing their help finding a female gnome to marry lest he become ‘see-throughish’ ie. invisible (gnomes don’t die, they just fade away). The children persuade Mulrooney to takes Jasper and his grandfather Knobby with them in his car. However, Mulrooney has to keep his identity from the gnomes, who regard him as their greatest enemy because he has cut down the forests and destroyed the gnome sanctuaries.
Mary Poppins (1964) was one of the greatest live-action successes that Disney ever had. For more than a decade afterwards, Disney constantly tried to recapture the success of Mary Poppins. The Gnome-Mobile was one such occasion. The studio even went so far as to reteam the kids from Mary Poppins, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber – and if that were not enough, they are billed on screen as “the Mary Poppins Children, Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice.” Furthermore, the film also has the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins performing the same function here.
Like Mary Poppins and other imitators like Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), The Gnome-Mobile has a basic plot that involves children in the guardianship of an adult (but not a parent) being taken on a magical journey in a fantastical form of transport – by umbrella in Mary Poppins, a flying bed in Bedknobs and an antique touring car here. Although the Disney film that The Gnome-Mobile resembles far more than Mary Poppins is Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) with its frolics concerning pint-sized leprechauns in the world of ordinary humans. If the creative connections were not clearer, then Darby O’Gill, Mary Poppins and The Gnome-Mobile were all directed by Robert Stevenson.
It is a lively film. Robert Stevenson was responsible for some of the more enjoyable Disney live-action comedies and his talent in this area shines through here. The film is strung out around a series of slapstick scenes – the scene in the hotel lobby with the gnomes in the picnic basket being taken for wild geese; the breakout from the asylum with Walter Brennan and Matthew Garber trying to fake snores to cover up the sawing of the bars; the madcap car chase where the pursuing villains’ car manages to continue on despite being progressively wrecked.
The film excels in its effects scenes – the scene with the pint-sized Tom Lowell running around the house and the full-sized Sean McClory trying to reel him in with a fishing line; and particularly the eminently lively climax with the female gnomes trying to catch a soap-greased Tom Lowell. Walter Brennan has a considerable amount of fun, playing both the role of the millionaire and having especial fun as the apoplectically cantankerous gnome Knobby.
In the hard to believe department, the film comes from a children’s book The Gnomemobile: A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonsense but Gnothing Gnaughty (91936) by Upton Sinclair, the same author whose book also inspired the Academy Award-winning There Will Be Blood (2007).
British director Robert Stevenson made a number of other films for Disney that include Disney include Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963), Son of Flubber (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), The Love Bug (1969), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Herbie Rides Again (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). Before moving to Hollywood, Stevenson also made the Boris Karloff mad scientist film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) and the sf film Non Stop New York (1937).