Hill's Angels (1979)

D: Bruce Bilson
S: Edward Herrmann, Barbara Harris

Harmless Disney comedy from the novel by Reverend Albert Fay Hill pits priest Edward Herrmann against a gang of gamblers in a small town armed only with the talents of a group of female parishioners. Dated by its well-meaning sexism and its car chase finale, but still fairly good family entertainment. It begins with Herrmann's arrival at the community of North Avenue, New Campton, where he has inherited the pulpit from a retired pastor. In an attempt to broaden the range of people involved in church activities, he entrusts an elderly Irish lady (Virginia Capers) with some of the funds, which her husband immediately loses in an off-track back-parlour betting shop. Herrmann's frustration launches him on a crusade to rid the town of gambling. This brings him to the attention of the FBI, who ask him to recruit a few good men to help. When the menfolk of the town decline, he turns to the women. In a goofy, more or less harmless way, the help provided by a group of talented supporting actresses including Susan Clark, Cloris Leachman, Patsy Kelly, and Karen Valentine, tends towards the bumbling amateur variety. Some may argue that such semi-conscious and tongue-in-cheek sexism is as unacceptable as raw misogyny, but it all works out in the end and this is very much a good-natured comic farce which adults can watch with their kids and explain any untoward representational conventions to.

Director Bruce Bilson made his name on television directing episodes of Get Smart (for which he won an Emmy), and it shows in the simple but effective set up/punchline format he uses throughout. The photography is clean and the settings are suitably crisp and antiseptic. This is not a realist drama about the effects of gambling on a small community, or how the clergy must get down and dirty to solve the problems of the modern world. Everything takes place in a fantasy register given force by the code names the women choose for themselves as they pursue the bad guys in their vehicles. In typical Disney fashion, there are no extremes of behaviour here. Even the seeming threat of the Church authorities who disapprove of Hill's involvement with crime solving eventually dissolves with some amusing twists and gags, and when the villains are dispatched in a very 1970s car chase and pile up, no one is seriously injured and there is much poetic justice and narrative closure on all of the character-based sub-plots.

Adults may find it a bit more trying than kids, but there are one or two small smiles which they will enjoy and kids will not understand. But this is very much the type of 'family film' to which Disney had increasingly turned in this era and which paid off relatively well until the renaissance in animation made it unnecessary to continue with them on quite the same scale. That said it is visibly from another era, and kids may pick up on the lack of modern references and the curious sidelining of preteen characters in favour of adults, which nowadays would not be typical of the demographic pandering which 'family films' insist upon.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.