Out west ailing ancient millionaire Jasper Bloodshy (Jim Dale, in old man makeup) bequeaths a fortune to twin sons who never met. Wild Billy (Jim Dale with cowboy stubble) is a gun-toting outlaw who terrorizes the town. Eli (Jim Dale yet again with a Beatle-esque scouse accent) is a happy-clappy do-gooder with the Salvation Army. Arriving in town with little orphans Roxanne (Debbie Lytton) and Marcus (Michael Sharrett) in tow, Eli befriends pretty schoolteacher Jenny (Jim Dale- just kidding! Karen Valentine) even though everyone else mistakes him for his trigger-happy twin. Unfortunately Billy is less than pleased about sharing his inheritance with a long-lost brother. It turns out however that Jasper's will stipulates his fortune will go to whichever brother proves man enough to win a gruelling race across 'the Bloody Bloodshy Trail.' While a terrified but determined Eli goes head-to-head with his rugged brother, shifty Mayor Ragsdale (Darren McGavin) enlists outlaw gang the Snead Brothers to help snag the loot for himself.
Hot Lead and Cold Feet was among a handful of Disney productions headlined by likeable British comic actor Jim Dale. Today American fans know Dale best for narrating the audio books for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter (a service performed by Stephen Fry on the British versions) but back in the Sixties he was a regular lead in Britain's popular Carry On series. He also penned the lyrics for the Oscar-nominated theme song to Georgy Girl (1966). In the Seventies Dale relocated to the States for an acclaimed run on Broadway, most notably the stage musical Barnum, and lively villainous roles in Disney fare from the better-known Pete's Dragon (1977) to the nutty Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) a.k.a. The Spaceman and King Arthur. Disney were in a strange place in the late Seventies. A few years prior to the experimental phase that would yield cult items like Tron (1981), Dragonslayer (1981) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), the production team were still struggling to craft the family-friendly fare synonymous with founder Walt Disney in a decade where film-goers no longer seemed interested. Given westerns were no longer a box office draw at the time it is surprising the studio opted for one here although they did have minor success with the similarly-themed The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) which sired a sequel the following year in The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).
In a tour de force Jim Dale proves charismatic and convincing in three different roles as unstable cowpoke Wild Billy, Beatle-voiced nice guy Eli and doddery old Jasper Bloodshy. However, most of the big laughs arise from Apple Dumpling veteran Don Knotts who delivers another delightfully twitchy, hyper-manic turn as a cowardly sheriff engaged in an ongoing feud with bug-eyed Jack Elam (equally amusing if underused). Their incidental clowning (which includes a gunfight where both sink in the mud) completely eclipses the ramshackle plot that over-relies on laboured slapstick and shoehorns cute kids and animals into proceedings in a desperate bid for that Disney feel. The film never misses an opportunity to have someone fall over. Mostly old man Jasper who, in a twist that makes no sense, turns out to be very much alive and lurks around with his butler Mansfield (John Williams in his final role) heckling Eli from afar.
Dale makes Eli's dogged decency and determination endearing but the film suffers from muddled morality. Eli might preach about love and human kindness but our heroes ultimately resort to violence and trickery to tame the town. In the last of several Disney directing jobs, notably the Kurt Russell comedies The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and The Barefoot Executive (1971), Robert Butler does a competent but uninspired job handling the boisterous if scattershot action. Butler had a prolific but wildly eclectic post-Disney career including numerous TV shows, taut thriller Night of the Juggler (1980), Underground Aces (1981) a zany parking lot attendant comedy (?!) with Melanie Griffith and the daffy Ray Liotta-goes-psycho-on-a-plane disaster flick Turbulence (1997). Every Disney comedy in the Seventies had at least one chase sequence involving dodgy rear-projection but Hot Lead and Cold Feet is chock full of them. The brothers race runaway locomotives, canoe down raging rapids and climb a treacherous cliff-face while bad guys pelt them with boulders but the climax is a chaotic mess.