80 STEPS TO JONAH (1969).
How could anyone trash a movie about adorable blind children? It's easy when that film is also the screen debut of 27-year-old, future-Vegas-relic Wayne Newton. Littered with familiar faces, this wholesome, uplifting, hideously-manipulative, G-rated fiasco has the distinct stench of a shitty Elvis Presley project that ended up retooled for Mr. "Danke Schoen." For those too young to remember, Wayne Newton was the Justin Bieber of his era -- a brown-nosing, white-bread musician adored by gullible young girls and their moms, but unfathomable to anyone else. As for his 'acting', Wayne didn't appear in another movie for 20 years. 'Nuff said... A hitchhiker named Mark Jonah Winters (Newton) gets into the wrong car and ends up mistakenly arrested for manslaughter and auto theft, only to escape from custody, retrieve his trusty guitar and stumble upon a summer camp for blind children. "Jonah" is mistaken for their new handyman, and within minutes, all of these darling kids are in love with this kind stranger, including comely young camp owner Tracy (Diana Ewing), who lost her eyesight as a teen. Oscar-winner Jo Van Fleet (EAST OF EDEN) helps run the place, knows the truth about Jonah, but also recognizes his inner goodness. Meanwhile, there's a statewide manhunt for our fugitive. Jonah proceeds to open up the children's world by stringing a rope-line "monorail" around the camp, then taking the group fishing and (adorably) tricking blind kids into thinking they've all caught something. In return, they treat Jonah like he's the second coming. But just when you think the film couldn't get any worse, they all break into song while planting a garden! The screenplay is so ridiculously predictable that the moment we learn Tracy is also a sculptor, you can bet she's going to make a bust of Jonah, it'll get noticed by the authorities and lead to his arrest... The film has so many unintentional laughs that it's hard to pick a favorite, but I'd have to go with lovesick Tracy laying in bed, caressing her sculpture of Jonah. Or maybe macho Jonah shooting at a cougar but winging a li'l blind girl instead. Oops! Newton has the on-screen charisma of a smoked ham, while Ewing is scrawny and stilted. In supporting roles, Slim Pickins and R.G. Armstrong play Nevada sheriffs in search of Jonah, Keenan Wynn is a plainclothes detective, while the half-pint cast includes Brandon Cruz (THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER) in his acting debut as Little Joe, 8-year-old Erin Moran (HAPPY DAYS) as Kim, and post-MUNSTERS Butch Patrick as a neighbor kid. Best of all, a late flashback includes Mickey Rooney as a stumbling drunk who could exonerate Jonah and switchblade-wielding Sal Mineo giving Jonah that fateful lift! Also look for cameos from Hollywood columnist James Bacon as a hobo who shares a boxcar with Jonah and comedian Jackie Kahane (Elvis' '70s warm-up act) at a Reno roulette wheel. Despite some solid talent behind the camera, including director Gerd Oswald (SCREAMING MIMI, BUNNY O'HARE) and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (THE APARTMENT, MARTY), the script finds any excuse for overwrought drama or sickly sweet tune co-written by Wayne ("My World," "If I Could Be To You," "Tender Loving Care"), and makes this an insufferably condescending excuse for family entertainment.
© 2011 by Steven Puchalski.