Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
The 1980s were an odd time for Disney, a fact well documented in James B. Stewart’s excellent tome DisneyWar (2005), an examination of Michael Eisner’s 20-year tenure as CEO and Chairman. Yet before that tenure even began, Disney had struggled throughout the 1970s to maintain a cohesive string of successes, the mark of a company still lost in the wake of Walt’s untimely death in 1966. Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Freaky Friday (1976) didn’t fare well at the box office, and Don Bluth and 12 other animators left to start their own company. After scrambling out the $20 million The Black Hole (1979) in response to Fox’s unprecedented Star Wars (1977) success, Disney resorted to co-productions with Paramount such as the ill-fated Popeye (1980) and Dragonslayer (1981).
In the middle of these uncertain times, and Kurt Russell having moved on to bigger things, Disney’s most experimental period saw two very incongruous comedies with Elliot Gould. The first of these was more traditional The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark (1980), while The Devil and Max Devlin was a sign of the changing times at the House of Mouse. Max Devlin (Elliot Gould) is a shonky landlord, who treats all of his tenants with contempt. However, when he is hit by a bus and killed, he goes straight to Hell, which resembles an open plan office. There he meets Devil’s right-hand man, Barney Satin (Bill Cosby). Max is offered a chance: if he can convince a teenage nerd (David Knell), an aspiring singer (Julie Budd) and the young boy Toby (Adam Rich) to sell their souls to him within three months, then he gets his life back. Max is quite good at his new job, using his new powers to give them what they want, at least until he begins to become attached to his assignments, and especially when he falls for Toby’s mother (Susan Anspach).
Something of a minor entry in the Disney canon, The Devil and Max Devlin is perhaps notable not only for the appearance of Bill Cosby, but also by being the first to contain swearing, including ”damn” and an unfulfilled “son of a bitch”! It would begin a journey that would eventually lead to the establishment of Touchstone Pictures and massive successes such as Splash (1989) in the back half of the decade. Here we still see a studio caught between the radical departures of mystery-thriller The Watcher in the Woods (1980), the technologically groundbreaking Tron (1982) and the massive animated successes that would come under Eisner. The Devil and Max Devlin may be mixing it up with dirt-bike racing, devils and musical careers up front, but at its heart it is still a film about finding family.
Gould is still marvelous as the initially crooked Devlin, although the uncharacteristically mellow Billy Cosby is somewhat jarring for those only familiar with his works after The Cosby Show began three years later. Like the other Disney films released that 1981, such as the obscure Amy and superhero attempt Condorman, The Devil and Max Devlin is instantly forgettable and exists only as a cult item from one of Disney’s strangest creative periods. Yet it is also inoffensive and charming, and one of songstress Julie Budd’s only screen appearances, yet somehow managing to lodge “Any Fool Can See” and “Roses and Rainbows” in our head for weeks. It’s the devil’s work, we tell you!