January 22, 1964 – The Live-Action Feature Film The Misadventures of Merlin Jones is Released to Theaters
“Merlin Jones? What’s he got that I haven’t got?” “I’m afraid I don’t have enough time to answer that.”
On January 22, 1964, the live-action feature film The Misadventures of Merlin Jones was released to theaters. The film was originally to be a two-part television special, but NBC executives liked it so much that Disney decided to turn it into a theatrical release instead, a fact that did not go unnoticed by film critics. The film became an audience hit, leading to a sequel in 1965. The screenplay was written by Tom and Helen August, which were pseudonyms for two blacklisted writers, Alfred Lewis and Helen Levitt. The lead song was written by Robert and Richard Sherman, with the opening sequence done by Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio. The film was based on a story by Bill Walsh, directed by Robert Stevenson, and stars Tommy Kirk as Merlin Jones, Annette Funicello as Jennifer, Leon Ames as Judge Holmsby, and Norm Grabowski as Norman.
The film begins at Midvale College’s science department, with Jennifer walking the hallway before she is accosted by fellow student Norman, who asks her to the Letterman’s Ball. Jennifer informs Norman that she already has a date, and he angrily asks what Merlin Jones, the campus genius, has that he hasn’t got, but she brushes him off as gracefully as she can. Merlin appears and walks Jennifer away, promising to take her into town after class. However, he gets caught up in his experiments and forgets, only remembering when Jennifer storms angrily into his lab, informing him that he’s an hour late. He’s rather excited about his newest project, which should track brainwave patterns using a rather elaborate helmet. When he asks Jennifer to kiss him, the brainwave pattern goes crazy. When he puts the helmet on her and kisses her, there’s no brainwave activity. Merlin is initially upset, thinking he doesn’t mean that much to Jennifer, but she points out to him that the helmet is unplugged. They finally go into town, but he wants to take the helmet with him to figure out the cause of so many traffic violations around town lately.
Merlin and Jennifer are presented in front of the judge, where they try to explain the experiment they were conducting
As Merlin and Jennifer begin their experiment, they are pulled over by a police officer, who won’t even let Merlin explain what he’s doing. The cop just tells them they can explain the ticket in front of Judge Holmsby, who doesn’t seem to like Merlin or his experiments. The judge rules that Merlin is no longer allowed to perform any experiments while driving, and suspends Merlin’s license for ten days. Back at the lab, Merlin is hard at work on his experiments, when one of the antennas from his helmet explodes, causing a chain reaction. Merlin can’t turn the switch off, but his professor does. When the professor has a thought about how screwy Merlin is, Merlin realizes that thanks to the explosion, he now has the ability to read minds. Although he is pleased to hear what people think of him, he starts getting distracted by all the thoughts he hears while studying in the library.
Jennifer enters the library, and as she passes by Norman, Merlin hears his thoughts about how he wonders how “a dish like Jennifer” is with the “campus creep” Merlin. Merlin confronts Norman, throwing him against the bookshelves and causing a domino collision of all the bookshelves in the library. Merlin and Jennifer escape to make their way to Merlin’s job at the café. Judge Holmsby is at the café, and Merlin hears Jennifer’s thoughts about how worried she is about him. As he waits on the judge’s table, he hears the thoughts of the judge, finding out that he’s really a criminal, responsible for a large payroll theft recently that is still unsolved. Merlin tries to tell the police about what he knows, but they don’t believe his accusation of the judge.
With his ability to hear thoughts, Merlin keeps close to the judge hoping to hear more evidence
Back at the café, he tries to convince Jennifer of what he knows, and finally tells her that he can hear people’s thoughts. Convinced of his newfound ability, Jennifer asks him what he plans to do, and the two make their way to the judge’s house to find some evidence. Merlin stays near the judge to hear his thoughts, and finds out how the judge plans to hide the diamonds he plans to steal. Without the help of the police, Merlin and Jennifer decide to find the diamonds themselves to prove the judge is a fraud. However, what Merlin doesn’t know is that the judge writes mystery novels; his thoughts concern his books rather than an actual crime. When they finally confront the judge, he admits to his double life as a writer of mystery novels.
When Merlin goes to court about his license after the judge debacle, the judge gives Merlin the benefit of the doubt and lets him keep his license, but Merlin finds that he can no longer read minds. Returning to class, Jennifer and Merlin learn about hypnosis and Merlin asks to be the test subject. The professor successfully hypnotizes Merlin to eat a raw potato, with Merlin thinking it’s an apple. While everyone laughs at Merlin’s state, Jennifer is not at all amused. After being sent back to his desk, Merlin is commanded to kiss the first pretty girl he sees. Unfortunately for Jennifer, he kisses the girl sitting in front of her. Jennifer is steamed, although Merlin finds the idea of hypnotism fascinating.
Merlin and Norman are at odds over Norman’s treatment of Stanley
Late that night, Merlin thinks about hypnotism, and decides to hypnotize his cat in his theory of “helpful hypnosis.” After helping his cat chase after the dog that’s been bullying him, Merlin is ready to test his theory on people. Jennifer volunteers for Merlin’s experiment, but Merlin wants to use Stanley, the chimp in the science department. Norman, Merlin’s nemesis, refuses to let Merlin experiment with Stanley, but after Norman leaves, Merlin tries hypnosis on the chimpanzee anyway.
As Norman attempts to beat Stanley for sitting in his chair, Stanley finally fights back and begins to destroy everything in the lab. When people open the door to the lab to see the ruckus, they find an unconscious Norman, with Merlin standing over him, holding a broken bottle. Merlin is taken in front of Judge Holmsby again in an informal hearing, and when asked who attacked Norman, Merlin refuses to answer. Finally, he admits that he hypnotized Stanley, which intrigues the judge. The judge dismisses the charges, but tells Merlin that he must stay away from Stanley. He then privately asks Merlin to stop by his home to help him with a little problem. The judge, in his mystery-writing mode, asks Merlin for advice on hypnotism for his new book. He asks Merlin to help him test out the theory for his book, and while Merlin is at first averse to the idea, he finally agrees to help. The plan is to hypnotize the judge into committing a crime, bypassing the judge’s own moral code. Merlin commands the judge to steal Stanley from the psychology department. Although Merlin thinks that one cannot be hypnotized to go against his own moral code, he is surprised to see the judge leave his house to commit the crime. Jennifer and Merlin follow the judge, and retrieve Stanley after the judge has completed his orders. However, when Merlin returns Stanley, he is quickly arrested.
After figuring out the truth about Stanley’s “kidnap,” the three come to terms
Jennifer visits Merlin the next morning as he is in jail, although she acts as if she will never see him again while he is “the clutches of the law.” Merlin realizes that the only way to get to the truth is to hypnotize the judge again, hoping he will remember what he did. Merlin tries to hypnotize the judge in open court using hand motions, but to no avail. He then gets Stanley called to the stand to testify. While the judge is flabbergasted, Merlin explains that he called Stanley to help demonstrate the true relationship between Stanley and Norman. Merlin asks Norman to pick Stanley up, and Stanley flees in fear. The judge rules that Norman will no longer be allowed to work with Stanley or with any other animal, but also rules that Merlin has a suspended 60-day sentence, in which he will visit the judge once a week. An angry Jennifer cries out that the judge is really the one who stole Stanley. The judge quickly summons Merlin and Jennifer into his chambers, and asks if he really stole Stanley. Merlin admits that he did, and the judge realizes that the lesson is that every man has evil in his heart, and it’s not for us to judge another person without looking inside first. The film ends with Merlin and Jennifer driving off together.