‘Rascal’ from 1969: A Nostalgic Farewell

This family fare celebrates life of a bygone time in America.
‘Rascal’ from 1969: A Nostalgic Farewell
Sterling North (Bill Mumy), in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)
Tiffany Brannan

G | 1 hr 25 min | Family, Drama | 1969

What draws us to old movies time and time again? For some people, it’s the artistry in the cinematography. For others, it’s the classy costumes. To still others, it’s the wholesome moral content. However, I think all classic film lovers appreciate old movies because of their nostalgia.

I generally write about movies made no later than the mid-1950s. This is because the high moral quality and decency which was commonplace for two decades during the Golden Era of Hollywood declined rapidly after 1954, when the Production Code Administration (PCA) stopped enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code effectively after Joseph Breen retired. However, not all movies made after 1954 reflected the indecent trends which plagued Hollywood.

Sterling North (Bill Mumy), in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)
Sterling North (Bill Mumy), in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)

One of the last categories of movies to remain family friendly was live action Disney films. Although Disney is seen differently nowadays, in the 1960s, movies about animals, children, and the great outdoors were good clean fun which the whole family could enjoy. Eventually, Disney’s content followed the rest of Hollywood, especially after Walt Disney’s death in 1966.

However, one movie released after the retirement of Joseph Breen, the death of Walt Disney, and even the replacement of the broken PCA with the modern rating system in 1968 includes all the family characteristics of old Hollywood. This movie is “Rascal,” and it is a tribute to a lost age of innocence.

A Nostalgic Story

“Rascal” is about the adventures of a small-town boy named Sterling North (Billy Mumy) during the last summer of his childhood. In 1918, Sterling lives in the small Midwestern town of Brailsford Junction, Wisconsin. His mother has died, and his older sister, Theo (Pamela Toll), works in the big city, so it’s usually just Sterling and his fun-loving father, Willard (Steve Forrest). Willard loves his son, but he’s a footloose wanderer who refuses to grow up enough to see how much his son needs him. Thus, Sterling spends a lot of time on his own.
Sterling North (Bill Mumy, L) and his father Willard (Steve Forrest), in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)
Sterling North (Bill Mumy, L) and his father Willard (Steve Forrest), in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)

At the beginning of summer vacation, Sterling’s caring teacher, Miss Whalen (Bettye Ackerman), worries that the boy will spend too much time by himself over the break. Little does she know that he will have plenty of company during the summer. The North family gains a new member when Sterling’s dog, Wowser, chases off a mother raccoon, leaving one abandoned baby in their yard. Sterling adopts the little raccoon as his pet, naming him Rascal. Sterling grows to love the little creature very much, and the boy, the dog, and the racoon have really wonderful adventures together during the summer. However, Miss Whalen wisely warns him that, like Sterling himself, Rascal will one day grow up and need to find his own life.

All movies can become nostalgic with age as they remain time capsules of past generations and eras. “Rascal” is one of those movies that was nostalgic when it was first released over 50 years ago. It was set in a time that few people remembered even then—a time of horse-drawn carriages, ice wagons, and country grocery stores. The little town of Brailsford Junction, whose inhabitants are honest, old-fashioned people, prize tradition over modern convenience. For instance, an important sequence in this film is a race between a newfangled motor car and a horse drawn buggy. With a little help from Sterling and Rascal, the horse wins the race, and a blow is struck for the old ways.

A Wholesome Example

The nostalgia in “Rascal” is no accident, nor is its wholesome moral content. You'd never guess that this movie was released the year of the “Summer of Love” (1967). I think that is the very point Disney Pictures was trying to make. While the modern youth was influenced by the hippie movement and drug culture, “Rascal” was a gentle reminder of America’s past.

Hollywood didn’t provide many good examples of innocent childhood by the late 1960s, just as it doesn’t now. It’s so refreshing to see a boy riding around on his bicycle, eating ice cream, and playing with his wild friends. For excitement, Sterling builds an Indian canoe in his living room. The disorder of the house appalls his neat sister and orderly schoolteacher, but Sterling could certainly have worse hobbies.

A race scene in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)
A race scene in “Rascal.” (Buena Vista Distribution)

“Rascal” isn’t saccharine. Like many sentimental stories, it is bittersweet, evoking deep emotions. The film is beautifully narrated by the rich voice of Walter Pidgeon, who speaks as Sterling from manhood, warmly recalling the happy days of his childhood. His recollections are accompanied by a very touching song, “Summer Sweet,” which was written and sung by Bobby Russell.

It’s very appropriate that this movie was released a year after the dissolution of the PCA. The Code’s era of decency in films was similar to a golden age of innocence, a family time without the ugly things of the world. Although the Code had been dying for over a decade, when Geoffrey Shurlock failed to enforce the Code’s rules as head of the PCA, there always was some hope that the Code could grow strong again as long as the PCA existed. However, by 1969, it was really gone.

“Rascal” is a beautiful tribute to a lost age of Hollywood, Disney, and America. Perhaps you remember seeing this film when it first came out. Maybe you’ve never heard of it, since it is quite obscure.

Theatrical poster for "Rascal." (Buena Vista Distribution)
Theatrical poster for "Rascal." (Buena Vista Distribution)
“Rascal” is now available on DVD from Amazon or to rent or buy on the major streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and YouTube.
‘Rascal’ Director: Norman Tokar Stars: Steve Forrest, Bill Mumy, Elsa Lanchester Running Time: 1 hour, 25 min Rating: G Release Date: June 11, 1969 Rating: 4 out of 5
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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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