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Friday, August 26, 2005

This one's for Doc: DVD review of Follow Me, Boys!

I'm gonna lay some things to heart with this one. It all started Sunday evening with a movie that until then I’d never really watched before...

One of the greatest heroes of all time, for me personally anyways, was Jim Valvano. About two months before he succumbed to bone cancer in 1993 Valvano spoke at the ESPY Awards and said something beautiful...

"To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
To laugh, to think, to cry... every day. I've never forgotten that. And I've tried to live those words every day in the twelve years since Valvano spoke them.

To me, that's also what a perfect movie is all about: it will make you laugh, and think, and cry. A movie that does those three things isn't just worth renting, it's a prime candidate for space on your DVD shelf. Movies like that are hard to watch sometimes: something about them just tugs at your heart and makes a lot of things you've carried around come pouring out. Stuff you didn't even know was there. It hurts to watch it almost... but when the credits roll, you know it was time well spent, because you finished it and came out of it different. Changed. Relieved of something. It makes you thankful for what you've got and for what you've been blessed with before. And you were entertained. As Jimmy V might say: that's a heck of a movie!

Well, Sunday night I saw a heck of a good movie and it's been on my mind a lot this past week. It made me laugh like mad. It made me reflect some things. It made me cry a lot. And in the end, I think I came away a better man for it.

Lisa signed us onto Netflix, which might just be the best thing on the Internet in the history of anything: nine bucks a month gets you DVDs with no late fees and no drive back to the store. It also has a fraggin' humongous collection of movies. It'll even tell ya what's hot in your area (right now Phenomenon, Superman: The Movie and 28 Days Later are in this town’s top ten, go figure) and make some recommendations for you. That includes movies you probably never heard of or think to rent in the first place. So it was that Lisa found Follow Me, Boys! and put it in our queue.

I'd watched a little bit of this movie years ago, not really much at all though. I knew it was about a Boy Scout troop and I knew it was one of Doc's favorite movies (we'll get to who Doc was shortly). The DVD came Friday. Saturday we saw Must Love Dogs at the theater which was oooh-kay but it didn't have many dogs in it. It's a chick flick and Lisa said it could have been better but by that point she'd pulled the same trick on me to go see this with her that she used with The Notebook ("It's a World War II movie you'll love it honey!" when there was like twenty seconds of World War II in the whole thing. But anyhoo...). We watched Garfield on HBO later that evening which I wound up liking a surprisingly awful lot: a good easy summer evening's flick. Still, not cat or dog really "stuck" with me so far as movies went lately. Think I needed something more. Which brings us to the following night...

Follow Me, Boys is a neat lil' film released by Walt Disney Studios in 1966. It's got a great cast but there're four people that particularly stand out for me: first, there's Fred MacMurray. He was the father on TV's My Three Sons for several years and quite a few other movies including others for Disney, and his face was also the model for the look of comic books' Captain Marvel... who also happened to be Elvis Presley's favorite superhero. There's Vera Miles, who's done a lot of stuff including plenty more Disney movies over the years but she's perhaps best known as the sister of a certain lady who decided to take a shower at the Bates Motel in Psycho. Lillian Gish is in this too: she was one of the very earliest stars of the silver screen (she was in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance if that tells you anything) and was widely considered to be an extraordinarily beautiful actress when movies were just coming about as an art form. And then there's Kurt Russell – all of about fourteen years old here in Follow Me, Boys! – a long ways off from playing Snake Plissken or MacReady in The Thing.

This is the perfect movie that encapsulates what it means to be a Boy Scout. I really wish I'd seen this sooner, because of that and because this was a favorite movie of "Doc" Lewis. Who was he? Well, the guy was practically the grandfather I never had. Alan Lewis died this past December, just shy of his 97th birthday after a life that most of us could only imagine living. This is a guy who acted on Broadway, knew George Burns and Audrey Hepburn, was very close friends with Norman Rockwell, visited every state but Alaska, was a world traveler, was a comedian without equal, could dance up a storm, could have spent the rest of his life being an entertaining sensation... and in the end dedicated it to helping young people. He became a teacher, then a school board superintendent for 30 years (the average nowadays is 3 years in one system). Might also be worth noting that he had one of the largest collections of Hummel figurines in the world: the guy was an authority on them bigtime.

I knew Doc from the Boy Scouts, in which he was an active participant for most of his life. He got the nickname "Doc" 'cuz he worked the health lodge at summer camp, patching up everything from splinters to broken fingers and then some. Geez, what couldn't this guy do related to Scouting? Doc lent his knowledge of theatrical special-effects to the Boy Scouts, especially its service brotherhood the Order of the Arrow: imagine Scouts in Indiana regalia swimming across a darkened lake in the middle of the night... while carrying torches. Or weird smoke coming out of nowhere. That was Doc's little handiwork. He was also the master of the campfire ghost story: the stuff he would tell you in the flickering light was either a true story that would send chills up your spine, or the setup for some hilarious punchline that would have you howling with laughter.

There was so much to Doc's life that if I were to sit here writing about it all, I would probably be working nonstop for the next week and a half. The guy was literally bigger than life, and almost impossible to believe if you'd never met him. And I wanted to write something to this blog then about it but his passing... really impacted me hard. I didn't know how hard until I saw this movie. Ya see, Fred MacMurray's character in this movie, Lem Siddons... well, that's who Doc was.

When the movie opens, Lem Siddons is part of a traveling band that's touring around in a bus. Lem is a good musician, but he's got other plans for his life: he wants to settle down somewhere and become a lawyer. So when the band stops in the little town of Hickory, Lem decides that this is as good a place as any to get started. He finds work doing stock in a local general store and starts cracking open books on law, studying to someday pass the bar exam. Eager to fit in with his new surroundings, Lem attends a public hearing one night about the town's young boys: it's felt that some kind of activity should be provided for them to be involved with. It's brought up that Hickory could use a Boy Scout troop, and Lem volunteers to help organize and lead it. It's just going to be for a short time, he thinks, and then he'll get back to studying so he can move on to become a lawyer.

That's the setup for this movie. Anymore and I would be treading too close to giving away a lot of delightful twists and turns that happen to Lem and his boys for the next twenty-some years beginning with 1933. We see Lem take on the first boys of the newly-inaugurated Troop 1. We see him reach out to Whitey (Kurt Russell), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who feels like an outsider to the rest of the town. We watch and laugh as Lem wins the heart of Vida (Vera Miles), and share their heartbreak as she shares some terrible news with him. We watch these characters grow up over the years, dealing with circumstances and coming into their own, trying to make the best of what life is giving them...

...and ultimately that's what the heartmeat story of Follow Me, Boys! is about: Lem's plan for his life and what happens to it after he makes this initially insignificant choice of helping out with the town’s boys. In some people's estimation, what happens to Lem is a failure. But that's just going by the world's standards. For Lem, it couldn't have been any happier than what comes of his decision to volunteer, and the commitment he makes to the town and its boys. In the end, we see that the town has become just as committed to him.

Maybe that's why after we finished watching Follow Me, Boys! that I started crying like nobody's business. This movie made me think about my friend Doc, and the choices that he made in the course of his life. He could have been a Broadway legend, or a big screen sensation. He chose to give that up and became something else. He became an inspiration for there's no telling how many thousands of young men over the course of his life. I know that there would have been a lot missing from my own life had Doc Lewis not been involved with it in so many ways.

That’s why Doc was one of the two people I dedicated Forcery to. And I might dedicate another movie to him someday, if it has a bigger reach than this first one did: though Doc gave up acting for something else, I can still honor his memory this way by putting him in a movie in even this little way.

Follow Me, Boys! made me cry. It made me think. But it also made me laugh so hard that it literally hurt! Lem’s boys do some pretty outrageous things over the years, and I'm thinking of two things in particular: when the very first troop attempts to build a meeting hall on their own. And what happens to the troop in 1944 when they wind up in the middle of an army wargame. Again, I'm not going to spoil it here but trust me: it's a hoot! The scene where Vida shows up at the Scouts' camp with some home-baked goodies... well, again I shouldn't say too much here, but it's a pretty funny lil' bout of spite that goes on, that's for sure! Given the sheer number of laughs, I would chalk Follow Me, Boys! up as an overall comedy, instead of an outright drama. Yeah it'll tug at your heart but it'll play with your funnybone too!

This is a movie about another time: when nobody thought twice about trusting young boys to the company of one man (thanks for nothing, Michael Jackson) and everybody in town knew everyone else. When life for a young person was about other things than videogames and the Internet. This was a time when small bands still roamed the countryside to play for whatever audience the next town could give them. Reflecting on things after seeing Follow Me, Boys!, I think it's safe to say that there was a lot more freedom back then, and we only think we're still that free now. Except we either don't use it, or we really don't have it anymore. This movie is about the way America used to be. Lord willing, it's about a way America could be again.

The DVD is packed with extras, including a "looking back" documentary featuring many of the grown-up child actors that made up the Boy Scouts. There's also a neat gallery showing the movie posters and lobby cards from when it was originally released to theaters. If I've any complaints about the DVD though, it's that the movie seems all too obviously shot in a widescreen format and on this release Disney made it full-screen pan-and-scan. Maybe someday – most likely post-Eisner era – Follow Me, Boys! will get a much more faithful transfer. It also shows no signs of being digitally enhanced or cleaned up (i.e. there are scratches visible in more than a few places). But these are really pretty minor, and do little to distract from the quality of the movie.

So if you're in the mood for a little something different to watch and you're up for some classic vintage Disney with timeless qualities coming to us from yesteryear, and just want a darned good movie all the way around, give Follow Me, Boys! a shot. If for nothing else than because this is one of the first times that we all get to see Kurt Russell before he started making movies about Elvis, escaping from New York and fighting extraterrestrial bodysnatchers.