Happy Birthday Film Festival: Tommy Kirk
I’m trying out something new this week. In the Happy Birthday Film Festival, I’ll be taking a look at some of the prominent works making up a performer’s filmography. Sometimes they may be my favorites, there could be some deep cuts, still others may be a rough, or challenging viewings. However, what they’ll always be, is meaningful to me, and most certainly a tribute to the rich and varied careers of the classic Hollywood creatives we know and love.
I stumbled onto the work of Tommy Kirk as most millennials my age probably did, during late night “Vault Disney” viewings, usually waiting to watch The Adventures of Spin and Marty or Zorro. That couldn’t have been just me…. Right? With the passage of time, Tommy Kirk’s name in popular culture grew to become firmly associated with the fondly remembered Disney films of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
However, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the young actor largely disappeared from the public eye. Unfortunately, the “Whatever Happened To” pieces, of which former child stars usually find themselves the subject, never really do justice to their careers. Diving into history, there are so many social, cultural and personal factors which go into truly understanding the course of a performer’s life on-screen. It’s impossible to sum up a life in a click bait headline.
So, without further ado, as we celebrate Tommy Kirk’s 79th birthday, let’s talk about his filmography.
The Hardy Boys (1956-1957)
As mentioned, a majority of Tommy Kirk’s most remembered roles come from his time working for Walt Disney during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, next to Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, Tim Considine and Hayley Mills, he’s likely one of the best known Disney faces who didn’t serve time as a Mouseketeer.
Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine appeared in two seasons of The Hardy Boys serial beginning in 1956. The series, like The Adventures of Spin and Marty and Annette, aired as serials during The Mickey Mouse Club, bringing these fun, escapist stories to the children of the period in easy, bite-sized chunks.
Kirk’s time on The Hardy Boys stands out in that it was his entree to the Disney organization. At the same time though, the role pushed him in front of a brand new audience. Prior to this, the young actor appeared in a handful of television roles, but none were recurring. With this new work and the roles which would follow, Tommy Kirk entered a new level of stardom.
The Hardy Boys serials are available for viewing on YouTube, as well as in very rare DVD sets.
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Thinking back on my film viewing history, Swiss Family Robinson is probably the first, ultimate and most memorable of my “Vault Disney” viewings. I love you all, so I’m not afraid to get a little “fan-girly” here… when you’re a pre-teen, that James MacArthur/Tommy Kirk combo is a powerful, powerful thing.
Swiss Family Robinson truly is vintage Disney at its absolute finest and classiest. I mean, other versions of the classic novel exist in cinema, but for a majority of people, this is the definitive version. The feature brings all of the era’s expensive glitz and glamour with the high-brow literary tone necessary to truly sell a work like this.
At the same time, Swiss Family Robinson also represents the pinnacle of Kirk’s time in the Disney establishment. He landed a number of popular roles by this point in movies like Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and The Absent Minded Professor. Rewatching these, there is a sweet nostalgia to Disney’s work during this era, and any one of these films are most certainly worth a watch if you haven’t… as long as you can handle a certain amount of dog related trauma.
Swiss Family Robinson is available to stream on Disney+. Physical media copies are available through Amazon.
Pajama Party (1964)
Pajama Party holds a special place in my heart. The 1964 feature is actually the first entry in the “Beach Party” series I ever watched. The movie stars Annette Funicello as Connie, while Kirk plays Go-Go, a martian recently arrived on earth to prepare for an upcoming invasion. Elsa Lanchester, Jody McCrea, Jesse White, Bobbie Shaw and Buster Keaton co-star, giving the somewhat off-brand teen film a surprisingly all-star cast.
Pajama Party is a bit of tough one to classify in The Beach Party universe. Interestingly, it is the first film where we see a noted deviation from the popularized formula of the series’ earlier entries. The movies would return to “normal” with Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965. After that point though, more of the movies drifted away from the established format, with Kirk or Dwayne Hickman, and Deborah Walley standing in for the regulars (Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello) at various points.
Pajama Party premiered in November 1964 as popular culture in the United States was evolving. Beatlemania had hit and the world was changing quicker than anyone could imagine. This movie shows Kirk’s star persona hitting a rough patch. He was getting older (he was 23 at this point) and struggled to keep stepping into the nostalgic juvenile roles he played during his time at Disney. In fact, Kirk had reportedly been dropped by the studio the previous year. However, like his Pajama Party co-star Annette Funicello, his star persona was deeply intertwined with the nostalgia and innocence of the Walt Disney company, and he was finding it much harder to pull himself out of the image they’d carefully crafted for him.
Pajama Party is available to stream on Amazon Prime. DVD’s are available, here.
Village of the Giants (1965)
Village of the Giants was a relatively recent first-time-watch for me when I stumbled onto it on YouTube. Watching the film, it is a interesting snapshot of a very specific type of independent filmmaking in the middle of the 1960s. The movie features a surprisingly all-star cast: Tommy Kirk, Johnny Crawford (from The Riflman), Ron Howard (yes, that one) and Beau Bridges make up the principal players.
While Village of the Giants is most certainly marketed to teenagers, the movie steps beyond the “Beach Party” films running throughout the middle of the 1960s. This is drive-in schlock at its most outrageous and over-the-top. Kirk stars as Mike. The teenager is giddy with excitement when his kid brother (Howard) creates a concoction which makes an object grow at an astounding rate. Though, things spiral out of control when a group of juvenile delinquents (there are always some!) led by Fred (Beau Bridges) steal the invention for nefarious purposes.
Village of the Giants isn’t a “good” movie. In fact, it’s the type of feature that Mystery Science Theater 3000 covers. Much of this is due to the special effects work which largely doesn’t gel from a contemporary perspective. It is hard to gauge how this would have played in 1965; however, period reviews of the Bert I. Gordon directed feature are equally rough.
Looking beneath the surface, the film shows its young cast (Kirk and Crawford in particular) attempting to find their footing in the quickly changing entertainment industry. Both were deeply representative of a very specific early sixties innocence. By 1965, as things were moving towards the tune-in/tune-out culture of the late 1960s, both Tommy Kirk and Johnny Crawford found themselves forced to find work as men in a rapidly evolving field which didn’t let them shake the reputations they built as boys.
Village of Giants is only available as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 cut on YouTube at present. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
Unkissed Bride (1966)
The 1966 comedy– otherwise known as Mother Goose a Go Go— is an infamous entry in Tommy Kirk’s filmography. The young actor (billed here as Tom Kirk) plays Ted, a newlywed who discovers that he goes “stiff as a board” comatose whenever Mother Goose is mentioned. And to make matters worse, it seems to happen everytime he and his new wife (Anne Helm) are trying to be… intimate.
I’m not going to pull any punches, the movie is a bit of a doozy (as the secondary title implies). However, Unkissed Bride is a tremendously important movie when examining Tommy Kirk’s career.
The sex comedy is the first substantial example of him trying to stretch his wings and tackle adult roles. While the movie is tame by 2020 standards, it features drug use (LSD) and fairly blatant sexual content which likely would have played far more risque in 1966.
Ultimately though it comes down to a single fact. Tommy Kirk first appeared on screen when he was fourteen years old. He spent his pre-teen and teen years (when most will admit, we’re at our most awkward) working for a highly visible movie studio, making films which are still held up as treasured symbols of childhood nostalgia. So, to see him trying to stretch his wings and be seen as the man he was, only to find himself blacklisted from the industry is the tragedy of child stardom.
Unkissed Bride is available to stream on YouTube. It is available on DVD, here.
In interviews conducted more recently, Tommy Kirk has been refreshingly open about his personal life, and his struggles during his time in Hollywood. He’s been quoted in interviews saying identified as gay during his late teen years. However, this was the late 1950s, it was Hollywood, and he worked for Walt Disney. In a 1993 interview in FilmFax magazine he calls his teen years “desperately unhappy” and “lonely”, as there was no outlet or understanding for members of the LGBTQ community during this time.
Tommy Kirk’s filmography continued in earnest after 1966, though his roles largely tapered off, especially into the 1970s. He worked sporadically on-screen throughout the 80s and 90s, but reportedly enjoyed running his own carpet and upholstery business throughout his later years.
Tommy Kirk is someone whose been in my life for a long, long time. He’s been the cute kid, and the teenager I had a school girl crush on. However, in his challenges and struggles, he’s a champion. Hollywood is strewn with the bodies of child stars, broken and beaten by the trauma they suffered at the hands of the entertainment industry. Luckily, Tommy Kirk managed to rise above everything thrown at him and be able embrace who he truly is. This alone makes him worthy of respect. On his birthday, let’s take some time to remember Tommy Kirk’s career, watch some Swiss Family Robinson, and understand his importance in the history of the Walt Disney company.
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