Cast & Crew
George "foghorn" Winslow
Veda Ann Borg
Erudite television host Robert Jordan is infuriated when his sponsor, Mr. Swanson of Swanson's Fortified Farina, accuses him of appealing only to viewers with "mental middle-aged spread." Fearing that his show will be canceled unless he can attract a younger audience, Jordan tells his wife Helen that he will learn about children by reading comic books. Helen, who longs for children of their own, gently chides Jordan for his unrealistic notion, then admits that she donated his favorite suit to the local Boy Scout troop for a rummage sale. Jordan marches to the church basement and there wrangles with young Wolf Scout Mike Marshal, who refuses to return Jordan's suit unless he pays for it. Embarrassed by her husband's stubbornness, Helen pays for the suit. The next day, Helen broaches the subject of adoption, but abandons the idea when Jordan is unreceptive. The couple then receives a visit from Mike, who has been ordered by the Scoutmaster to return Helen's money. Curious about Mike's varying stories about his living arrangements, Helen invites him to stay for dinner, and Jordan is amazed by the quantity of food the small eight year old eats. Angered by Mike's obvious fibbing, Jordan disparages him after his departure, and is bemused by how vigorously Helen defends him. Realizing how much Helen wants a child, Jordan agrees to begin adoption procedures and goes to the Reverend Dr. Stone for advice. Although Dr. Stone is unable to offer advice about adopting, he does convince Jordan to become the new Scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop that meets in the church. With glorious thoughts of becoming the "father to thirty boys," as well as using them as research for his show, Jordan accepts the assignment, and later, is horrified by the boys's rowdy behavior during the first meeting. Jordan temporarily quiets the boys by singing "The Star Spangled Banner," and is congratulated by Mike after the meeting's end. Jordan is again annoyed when Mike lies, telling him that former Scoutmasters allowed him to attend the meetings even though he is too young. Although the exhausted Jordan tells Helen that the boys are hooligans, he dutifully reports to the Weber home a few days later to administer the "tenderfoot" test to three prospective Scouts. Unknown to Jordan, among the boys is Vernon Swanson, the know-it-all son of his sponsor. After a trying evening, Jordan dumps a bowl of melted ice cream on Vernie's head, and is astonished when Swanson later calls and praises him for reprimanding the spoiled Vernie. Helen, who has hosted a Cub Scout meeting at the Jordans' home in place of Mike's mother, who is supposedly out of town, offers to take the boy home, but because it is raining, Jordan insists on driving. Jordan lets Mike out at a luxurious apartment building, but after he drives off, Mike leaves and trudges through the pouring rain to his real home. Soon after, Jordan leads the Scouts on a hike up Mount Sherman, and after they set up camp, Jordan is surprised by the arrival of Mike, who admits that he walked all the way by himself. Jordan allows the youngster to share his tent but insists on driving him home the following morning. Mike is mortified when he must finally tell Jordan the truth and take him to the rundown apartment he shares with his party-loving, irresponsible aunt. Jordan learns that the orphaned Mike mostly fends for himself, and when Mike hears his aunt threaten to return him to the orphanage, he bolts out the door. Jordan chases but cannot catch Mike, and upon returning home, is given a chilly reception by Helen. The next morning, Mike's aunt comes to the Jordans' home and tells them that Mike is still missing. Although she tells Jordan that Mike adores him and had told her that he was going to be adopted by the Jordans, Jordan states that he has been a victim of Mike's lies and feels no remorse over his treatment of the boy. After the aunt leaves, however, a furious Helen reprimands Jordan, telling him that all Mike wanted was to be loved and accepted. Finally realizing that he let the boy down, Jordan goes to Dr. Stone for help. Dr. Stone then rings the church bells to summon the Scouts, who quickly organize a search for Mike. After the boys leave, Jordan muses that if he were an unhappy child, he would return to the last place that he was happy. Without giving Dr. Stone any more specific information, Jordan sets off by himself for the campground on Mount Sherman. While Dr. Stone waits alone, Mike arrives, having been summoned by the bells. Mike, who had spent the night sleeping in Jordan's car, immediately deduces where Jordan has gone, and after the other Scouts return, sets off alone to tramp through the darkness to the campground. Meanwhile, Jordan has settled into his sleeping bag for the night, and upon hearing a noise, realizes that the zipper on the bag is stuck and he is trapped inside. Believing that Mike is nearby, Jordan hops along and falls off a cliff into the branches of a tall tree. Mike eventually finds him and, using the ingenuity taught to him by the Scouts, rescues Jordan. Jordan warmly tells the boy that he will never return to the orphanage again, and later, Helen and Jordan, now Mike's proud parents, present him with a merit badge during a broadcast of Jordan's television show.
George "foghorn" Winslow
Veda Ann Borg
Robert B. Williams
Mary Alan Hokanson
Joseph La Shelle
Winston H. Leverett
William B. Murphy
Webb had graduated from supporting, often villainous roles like his breakout performance as Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944) with his comic work as Lynn Belvedere, a genius jack of all trades who takes on baby sitting in Sitting Pretty (1948). His exasperated responses to children and moralists struck a chord with post-war audiences tiring of Hollywood's usual saccharine, sanctimonious visions of family life. That film and its two sequels helped to domesticate an actor whose urbane disdain for the sentimental was one of his chief distinguishing characteristics. Nonetheless, as Webb grew in popularity, he increasingly starred in films that tried to have it both ways with his star image. He would start out disparaging all things domestic, but end up coming round, proving that beneath even the most brittle exterior lurked a heart of purest mush.
That was certainly the case with Mister Scoutmaster (1953). As the brainy host of a television series, he's threatened with cancellation because his sponsor doesn't think he has any appeal to younger audiences. To save his job, Webb first researches youth by reading comic books, then stumbles into a position as scoutmaster at his local church. Although he has no patience for the young boys in his charge, whom he dismisses as "uncouth, uncivilized little savages," they lap up his condescension. There's even a scene echoing one of his best in Sitting Pretty. In the earlier scene, he dealt with a temperamental infant by dumping a bowl of oatmeal on its head. In Mister Scoutmaster, he does the same to an older child with a bowl of ice cream. And it works! The other boys warm to him for taking on the spoiled brat, whose father even calls to thank him for the indignity. By the end, it's hardly any surprise that he not only comes to love the children, but even adopts one young lad, played by George "Foghorn" Winslow, the child actor whose voice was actually lower than Webb's.
Rice E. Cochran had based his book Be Prepared on his own experiences as a scoutmaster. Fox bought it as a vehicle for Webb, hoping it would attract the same audiences who had made the Belvedere films a hit. With its affectionate view of scouting, the film was made with the cooperation of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, with longtime scoutmaster George Bergstrom as technical advisor. To l953 audiences, it seemed like the best advertising the Scouts could find. Not only does running the troupe transform Webb, but scouting also makes the boys into better people, eager to use their newfound skills for the public good.
To contemporary audiences, however, Mister Scoutmaster has some distinctly ironic overtones, as pointed out by critics like David Boxwell, who wrote about the film for the online Bright Lights Film Journal. What passed as sophistication for the more innocent audiences of 1953, now seems suspect, particularly comic in light of the Boy Scouts of America's battles to exclude the openly gay from the joys of scouting. It doesn't take a dirty mind to notice that the film's romantic focus is not on Webb's seemingly sterile marriage to Frances Dee, but on his growing fondness for Winslow. When he threatens to discipline the mischievous boy, Webb even says, "This time, young man, it's time to face the music, and I'll pipe the tune that's going to be played on your little bottom."
Mister Scoutmaster was not one of Webb's favorite films. According to his biographer, David L. Smith, he was disappointed to be assigned to the low-budget comedy after the success of a much bigger picture, the musical biography of John Philip Sousa, Stars and Stripes Forever (1952). But it did well enough at the box office for him to continue in major films. His next picture would be one of Fox's biggest hits of the decade, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954).
Mister Scoutmaster also did well enough to inspire a television remake. Actor-turned-producer Jimmy Hawkins, who had played Herbie Weber, hired the original film's director, Henry Levin, to direct the new version, Scout's Honor (1980), starring Gary Coleman and Wilfrid Hyde-White. When the 70-year-old director died on the last day of filming, Hawkins finished the job and dedicated the film to him.
Producer: Leonard Goldstein
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Barney Slater
Based on the book Be Prepared by Rice E. Cochran Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, Albert Hogsett
Score: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: Clifton Webb (Robert Jordan), Edmund Gwenn (Reverend Stone), George "Foghorn" Winslow (Mike Marshall), Frances Dee (Helen Jordan), Veda Ann Borg (Mike's Aunt), Orley Lindgren (Ace), Jimmy Hawkins (Herbie Weber), Dabbs Greer (Fireman), Ned Glass (News Dealer).
by Frank Miller
The working title of this film was Be Prepared. Included in the film are brief renditions of several songs, including "The Star Spangled Banner." According to studio publicity, Rice E. Cochran's book was based on his experiences as a Scoutmaster, and the film was prepared with the cooperation of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Technical advisor George Bergstrom was a longtime Scoutmaster, according to a May 1953 Hollywood Citizen-News article. According to a April 13, 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, Billy Gray was set for the role of "Ace" but injured his foot and was replaced by Orley Lindgren. Although studio publicity lists the Great Dane in the film as "Baron," the film's pressbook credits "Count." It has not been determined which dog was used, or if both appeared in the picture in different scenes.