Staunch Democrat Grampa Bower (Walter Brennan) heads the all-singing, dancing and brass-instrument blowing Bower family band that include his easy-going Republican-supporter son Calvin (Buddy Ebsen), daughter-in-law Katie (Janet Blair), limber-limbed granddaughter Alice (Leslie Ann Warren) and her seven equally talented siblings. To the family's surprise, Grampa's long-held ambition to persuade the Democratic National Congress to let them perform at a rally to re-elect President Grover Cleveland comes true. A party official brings them the good news, but Alice mistakes him for her long-awaited suitor Joe Carder whom she has never met having only corresponded in letters. Happily, the real Joe Carder (John Davidson) arrive moments later and turns out to be handsome, charming, intelligent and to Grampa's dismay, a steadfast Republican. It happens Joe is behind a campaign to split his home territory into North and South Dakota so they can boot out the Democrats and send four Republican senators to Washington. To that end Joe persuades the Bowers to up sticks and move to the fertile farmlands of South Dakota where they inadvertently stumble right into a town feud between those in favour of split statehood and those bitterly opposed. Sure enough, Grampa's pro-Democrat ideals land everyone in trouble, causing a rift between the young lovers and the town in uproar.
Partisan politics and propaganda might sound like odd subject matter for a light-hearted musical from the Walt Disney studio but that is what they delivered with the jaunty oddity that is The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. Based on a book by Bower family band member Laura Bower Van Nuys, portrayed here by ubiquitous late Sixties-Seventies child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, the film seems on the surface to be Disney's attempt to mount a singing family extravaganza along the lines of The Sound of Music (1965), except the musical moppets play a less prominent role than the muddled political message. Sure, there is the fun novelty of seeing a young Kurt Russell sing and dance as part of the Bower clan alongside an even younger Jon Walmsley who went on to play the musically-inclined sibling on TV's long-running The Waltons. Viewers should also look out for the future Mrs. Russell, Goldie Hawn herself appears as Joe's quick-step partner in a showstopping dance sequence towards the climax. Legendary Disney composers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman penned the songs which while admittedly not in the same league as those in Mary Poppins (1964) or The Jungle Book (1967) are as catchy and mellifluous as one would expect from such talents. Louis Armstrong covered Joe and Alice's duet "Bout Time" which also featured in Nora Ephron's disastrous remake of Bewitched (2005). Yet for all its pleasantries, the toe-tapping tunes, the charming performances of Leslie Ann Warren and John Davidson, reunited with Disney after The Happiest Millionaire (1967), the confused nature of the film's ideological standpoint remains jarring to modern eyes.
Think about it. In this film the stubborn old man set in his ways espouses liberal values while the go-getting young idealist is a hard-line conservative?! Of course the political landscape in 1888, which is when the film takes place, was very different from today and Republicans were indeed perceived as the more progressive party. However given this came out in 1968, aspects of the plot seem geared especially towards the "silent majority" that elected Richard Nixon president. With the exception of Grampa, all the Democrats are drawn as stuffy and humorless like the visiting party spokesman or scruffy troublemakers like the cowboys that almost lynch the Bower kids at the town rally. All the Republican characters by comparison are warm, folksy progressives like Joe Carder who characterizes the opposition as shysters and quacks out to bilk the nation dry. A key scene where Grampa convinces kids at the local school that they can influence politics by making their voices heard offers a far more positive message that is immediately undercut when the old man and Alice are hauled before the town committee to offer tearful apologies. It is all quite sinister and reactionary and as such the half-hearted message towards the end that right and left-wingers ought to set their differences aside to forge a better nation falls completely flat.
As a hymn to old-fashioned, uncomplicated patriotism the film must have seemed out of step in the era of the Vietnam war, Woodstock and protesters picketing outside the White House. Indeed it proved something of a disaster. Cut by twenty minutes at the behest of programmers at Radio City Music Hall, who hosted its premiere, the film was slated by critics, bypassed theatres and eventually screened on television in 1972 in two parts on The Wonderful World of Disney. Even in the wake of its DVD release in 2004, Disney have yet to restore the missing twenty minutes.