80 Steps to Jonah (1969)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Family-Oriented Adventure  |   Run Time - 107 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - G
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Better than it has any conceivable right to be, this film sounds risible on paper (Mr. Las Vegas as a drifter who takes a job at a camp for blind children?!) but succeeds as passable G-rated fare. As Mark Jonah Winters, Wayne Newton does a capable if unexceptional job, and the same competence extends to Diana Ewing (as his love interest), Jo Van Fleet, and all of the young child actors. The movie's two main problems are linked: overwrought sentiment, and one of the most grating musical scores in memory. Composer George Shearing seems so intent on underscoring literally every second with some sort of instrumentation that he may well have been influenced by Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. A tiny fraction of this would have been sufficient, but apparently Shearing didn't understand the meaning of the word "overkill." Still, younger viewers will be less bothered by the melodic accentuations, and the central dramatic arc is a solid (if predictable) one. The movie's sudden stylistic morph into a musical in-mid film feels startling, although given Wayne's presence, we shouldn't be too shocked. The songs themselves are serviceable but unmemorable - though what is going on with the one little boy who can't sing and is asked to speak his lyrics? Director Gerd Oswald was apparently drawn to offbeat casting; in Jonah it works, but take a look at the director's horrible 1971 counterculture farce Bunny O'Hare (with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine as hippie bank robbers!) to see another example that went totally off the rails.