Cinemalphabet: N is for The North Avenue Irregulars (1979)
The genesis of my love for improbably tall, awkward and earnest nerdy dudes is probably courtesy of Ed Hermann’s – the voice of the History Channel – indelible performance as Rev. Michael Hill in the Disney live action, family friendly screwball comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, which also has the distinction of being one of my very first “favorite” films.
Edward Herrmann, who was seen as Franklin D. Roosevelt in television’s two “Eleanor and Franklin” shows, plays the minister with the sort of earnest near-sightedness that requires him to wear glasses and frequently look aghast. Don Tait wrote the screenplay, which is based loosely on the real-life story of the Rev. Albert Fay Hill, of New Rochelle, as recorded in his book.
From its adorably animated opening titles to its over-the-top demolition derby finale, this film has got all the right comedic moves. Directed by Bruce Bilson – yes, Rachel Bilson’s grandfather – the film centers doings of a cross section of folks played by small screen comedy vets such as Karen Valentine, Barbara Harris, Alan “The Skipper” Hale, Jr., Michael Constantine and Cloris Leachman. The Fresh Prince’s granny – Virginia Capers – is also on deck as one of the sassy church ladies on a mission to rid their turf of the organized crime baddies who are messing with the North Avenue Presbyterian’s moral compass.
Rev. Hill and two adorable children – one played by Melora Hardin!!! – arrive at North Avenue and are immediately welcomed by an enthusiastic bunch of church ladies who often display more enthusiasm than follow through. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s happy at Rev. Hill’s arrival. Oh no. Annie, the church’s long time secretary and daughter of the exiting minister (who’s retiring) is less than enthused by Rev. Hill and his decidedly hipper community organizing view of Christian values. Rev. Hill wants more parishioner engagement and believes it’s easy if folks are simply asked to help. Reaching out to the enthused ladies is what gets them into this mess. The catalyst of all the running around and hilarity is one Delany who takes Rev. Hill’s suggestion to increase the church’s sinking fund a bit too far – by placing bets on a horse, which, of course, loses.
Chastened and frustrated by the lack of police engagement, Rev Hill decides to get the ladies involved, because as the grumpy FBI agent (Michael Constantine) points out, “Who would suspect a bunch a of dopey dames!” Well these dopey dames got skills. They got big ass sweet rides and despite their various stations in life – including one bad ass soccer mom who doesn’t let lack of childcare ruin her swerve – they all unite to run these bastards out of their town.
You can’t rent the kind of lulz served up by church ladies busting out a classic boozing song when their cover gets blown. The “Roll Out the Barrel” scene was my favorite a child and I didn’t even know what that lyric meant. The scene had me in TEARS when I revisited the film (after nearly 25 years) and I still laugh as the ladies try to play it off and are chased away with a terse, “GET OUTTA HERE!!!” I can’t even sing the song without including that unintentional bit of ad-lib. The scene is hilarious exactly the way the “For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow” scene in Clue is hilarious, mostly because Barbara Harris is North Ave’s resident Madeline Kahn!
Have we talked about the fierceness that is Cloris Leachman as the North Ave’s styling, saucy, wealthy minx with designs on the single Rev. Hill (yeah, another example of the dead wife trope) who rocks her a serious Streisandicure like nobody bidness. Actually, I’m bonks about all the fashion in this film. From the oversized sunglasses to all those bouncy roller sets! I am also loving the hell out of Barbara Harris’ sleek, swinging banged bob and Karen Valentine’s baby doll curls. When I was watching this film as a kid (with my little sis) I always wanted to be like Cloris Leachman’s character with big nails, hair and a big jive ass brothermobile. I wanted swerve corners by palming the steering wheel so my nails wouldn’t get messed up and wear a lot of mascara.
The North Avenue Irregulars marks the end of the kind of inspired, quality live action Disney fare that wouldn’t return (in my opinion) until near the end of the century in films such as: Cool Runnings, Angels in the Outfield and one of my faves (though all three are beloved by me) – the surprisingly fabulous Dennis Quaid baseball vehicle The Rookie. Now, the film is not going to float your boat if you’re unable to entertain the possibility there are Christian types who truly are loving, non judgmental or compassionate. And believe me, I know there are plenty of reasons to hold this world view! However, if you’re looking for something retro, sweet, funny, charming and silly, but with heart, skillful comedic acting and a decent message about communities doing for themselves when others devalue their concerns, North Avenue Irregulars is definitely worth a looksee.