Summer Magic: Burl Ives Invites You to the Ugly Bug Ball

In today’s guest post, Rick 29 takes a look at an underappreciated Disney gem, 1963′s Summer Magic:

Hayley Mills‘ fourth Walt Disney picture was a footnote in both her career and the Disney filmography for many years. Certainly, it pales in comparison to stellar Disney-Hayley collaborations like Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. There’s no shame in that, but, in my experience, it’s also not unusual for Disney die-hards and Hayley fans to ignore Summer Magic when discussing In Search of the Castaways, The Moon-Spinners, and That Darn Cat. Still, I’m pleased to say the film has its faithful fans; when I recently mentioned Summer Magic on Twitter, I received a surprising number of enthusiastic responses.

The story unfolds in Boston around the turn of the 20th century, with the Carey family packing up their belongings to move to more affordable accomodations. The recently-widowed Margaret Carey (Dorothy McGuire) has little time to mourn her husand as she copes with what her daughter Nancy calls “reduced circumstances.” Mom soon learns that the enterprising Nancy (Hayley) has inquired about a vacant house in rural Maine, where the family vacationed in happier times. Nancy easily convinces the family to leave Boston behind and take up residence in “the yellow house” in the charming town of Beulah.

The village’s most popular resident is Osh Popham (Burl Ives), the local postmaster, storekeeper, handyman, and real estate agent for the mysterious Mr. Hamilton, who owns the yellow house. Osh and his two children befriend the Carey brood immediately (Mrs. Popham is not as easily swayed). But just as the Careys settle down, they are joined by uppity teenage cousin Julia (Deborah Walley), who competes with Nancy for the attention of the handsome new schoolmaster (James Stacy).

Summer Magic was based on Kate Douglas Wiggin’s 1911 novel Mother Carey’s Chickens, which was adapted for the stage in 1917. RKO mounted a screen version in 1938 with Fay Bainter as Margaret Carey, Ann Shirley as Nancy, and Walter Brennan as Ossian Popham. It was intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle, but she bought out her contract with RKO that year.

Ives and Mathers

As a lighthearted musical remake, Summer Magic coasts largely on the affability of its cast, especially the always versatile Burl Ives. He’s the glue that holds the

episodic plot together. He also gets to sing “The Ugly Bug Ball,” written by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman, who scored the best Disney musicals (e.g., Mary Poppins). Ives croons this unlikely tune about self-acceptance to young Peter Carey (played by Jimmy Mathers, brother of Jerry Mathers of Leave It to Beaver fame). According to Robert Sherman’s book Walt’s Time: From Before to Beyond, Disney didn’t like “The Ugly Bug Ball” initially, but was convinced by the Shermans to leave it in the film. The song remains a favorite of Ives’ fans (if you’ve never heard of it, just Google the title and you’ll be amazed about its enduring popularity).

While far from a Disney classic, Summer Magic will appeal to fans of its performers and to anyone in the mood to visit the kind of innocent small town where the worst crime is the theft of a 25-cent haircut.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café, on Facebook and Twitter . He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course.

  • Georgiapeach7559

    hayley mills was surely the best child actress of all time.  elizabeth taylor second.  i have collected all her movies.

  • Tim

    Hmmm…I’d never heard of this one.  Will definitely check it out.  Thanks for the entry!

  • RD Cochran

    Yep it’s a piece of fluff…but when you just want to watch something that’s lighthearted and fun, this one you can enjoy.

  • Kitkatpress

    Haley Mills… My first movie crush !!!!  I was 11, she was 13

  • Christinekay

    Actually, I’ve never seen the film itself, but I used to have it in book form as a comic strip.  It’s funny how the details you gave in your review (like the family moving to Beulah) triggered off memories in me.  I always thought that smalltown American looked terribly enticing … especially to a little girl living in a housing estate in early 60s Britain.  Beulah was certainly more picturesque, although the housing estate ended up being more interesting as it turned out!

  • Bcsanig

    i love this movie, but I really wish they would bring out Truth about Spring.

  • Debbie

    I just happened to watch it again on Sunday. I thought the ending left you hanging. An absurd plot, corny, and toe-curling singing. Absolutely great wholesome viewing.

  • Loughsprng

    Well being a long time fan of Burl Ives I’m going to have to check this movie out. I’ve never seen it though I’ve heard of it – just never happen to catch it showing anywhere. I have seen and really love the Disney classic “So Dear To My Heart” which also starred Burl Ives along with Bobby Driscoll and Beulah Bondi who were all wonderful in that film. If “Summer Magic” is anything like “So Dear To My Heart” then I know I’ll enjoy it.

    • Wayne P.

      Burl Ives could sure sing and act…his first movie was the family picture “Smoky” from 1946 about a horse, starring Fred MacMurray.  He was the ‘singing troubadour’.  We liked him so much we got a CD of him singing Christmas favorites and its very good!

  • Abehambino

    I think the reason people don’t mention this movie more often is because a lot of people don’t understand what to do with it. Is it a comedy, a romance a drama? They get. Onfused as to how to treat it. However, i like to treat it for what it is a clean fn witty and clever film that can appeal to whatever you want it to. You in the mood for some music? Check. You want a zany story with some twists? Check. You want some romance?check again. This movie has it all. If you’ve never seen it i highly recommend watching it. Youwon’t be disappointed.

  • Talynir

    One of my favorites.  Best song in it is “On the front porch with you” also sung by Burl Ives, although “The Pink of Perfection” is also good.   I think the reason most people don’t know it is because it’s more of a girl movie than the usual live action disney fare of my childhood and more serious… widowed mother with three kids… no flubber… no alien’s in feline disguise… no plots to keep the mercenary stepmother to be from stealing dear old dad…  Reading the book made me love this movie all the more because you really get a feel for what it’s supposed to be about… how a mother guides her children through to adulthood… and while they did make it more of a Hailey Mills movie, there is a little of the books spirit in there, too.  I think that slightly serious note makes it an odd fit. 

  • Kc80

    The Pink of Perfection was a favorite of my three girls…they knew a little about sibling rivalry after all and it wasn’t a stretch to apply that to a visiting cousin. Love the idea of a “yellow house” waiting out there somewhere for all of us.