Hans Brinker is clumsy and charmless. It plods through its runtime. Once it becomes clear Moose Charlap’s songs aren’t going to be getting any better and there’s not going to be much expert iceskating on display, it plods even more. A lot of things would help–better writing, better acting, better photography. Unfortunately, Hans doesn’t get any until it’s too late and then it’s only actors in the supporting cast.
The film starts with a flashback. Nineteenth century Dutch mason John Gregson has a fall. Then Hans fast forwards to Roberta Tovey entering an empty house and looking around wistfully. Then we finally get into the “present action” of Tovey’s memories, ten years after the first scene. Screenwriter Bill Manhoff never identifies when or why Tovey returns to look around, but he doesn’t do much as far as the teleplay goes so it’s no surprise.
Robin Askwith plays the title role. He’s a seventeen year-old Dutch boy with big dreams and no way to realize them; Gregson’s fall resulted in some sort of brain damage and he hasn’t been able to support the family. Oh, right: Gregson is Askwith’s father. And Tovey’s. She’s Askwith’s somewhat younger sister. The difference is never determined, but it’s not too far–Askwith can still romance her rich friend, Sheila Whitmill, and Hans can do a wrong side of the tracks romantic subplot.
But a chaste one. Hans is for kids, after all. Kids with great patience.
Maybe the only good scene in the whole thing is Whitmill reading a romance novel scene to Tovey and another friend. It’s strange and shows personality, something Hans never does when it’s chronicling Askwith’s romance with Whitmill or his problems with the better-off boys around the village.
The songs ought to be a little funnier, but Hans has no sense of humor about itself. Not even when Askwith and his chums go to Amsterdam (so Askwith can recruit doctor Richard Basehart to operate on dad Gregson) and their innkeeper, Cyril Ritchard, does a cockney accent to show they’re in Amsterdam, not the boonies.
Can Askwith convince Basehart to do the operation? Will the barely mentioned but apparently very important race for the silver skates ever arrive? Does Eleanor Parker–as Askwith and Tovey’s mother–actually sing her two songs?
Parker, Basehart, and Gregson all try at various times throughout the film. Gregson’s most successful, as Parker gets a lot worse scenes to do than he does. She also has to play opposite Askwith, who’s a petulant jackass (regardless of family tragedy), and he’s never good. Even when he’s being selfless, he’s somewhat unlikable. He’s a snot.
His nemesis, rich kid Michael Wennink, on the other hand, is drivel. Julian Barnes is okay as the nice rich kid.
There are some lovely locations, some almost good sets of exteriors, when Hans might show some kind of personality. But director Scheerer avoids it, like he avoids pretty much everything. After the first big group song, Scheerer stops doing it big and instead relies on Edelgard Gielisch’s bad editing to get the group numbers done. It doesn’t seem like Askwith or Tovey sing. At least not often.
There are a number of cringworthy songs, but “When He/She Speaks” is the clear cringe winner. It’s all about how Askwith and Whitmill only love each other because they don’t listen to each other. Instead they daydream about walks in the countryside and ignore the other’s thoughts.
The big finale has big plot contrivances and some ostensible surprises. It doesn’t go anywhere because director Scheerer and writer Manhoff don’t wrap anything up. Plus, Tovey can’t really be holding the knot because–even though Hans is her memories–she’s only present for like a quarter of the film. The narrative disconnect isn’t even annoying because at least it means there isn’t more stuff for Hans to do wrong.
Tovey’s fine. She’s got a lousy part. Parker’s solid, but Scheerer doesn’t give her much time on anything. Well, except the two songs, which either have Parker signing them or have them dubbed. They’re both awkward songs. Cringey awkward, not funny awkward. Funny awkward would have at least passed the time. But Hans has no sense of humor.
It’s joyless, which is a big problem for a kids musical, though it’s pretty clear Askwith’s Hans isn’t capable of experiencing joy. So why should anyone else.
Directed by Robert Scheerer; teleplay by Bill Manhoff, based on the novel by Mary Mapes Dodge; director of photography, Günter Haase; edited by Edelgard Gielisch; songs and music by Moose Charlap; produced by Ted Kneeland; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.
Starring Robin Askwith (Hans), Roberta Tovey (Gretel), Eleanor Parker (Dame Brinker), John Gregson (Mijnheer Brinker), Richard Basehart (Dr. Boekman), Sheila Whitmill (Annie), Julian Barnes (Peter), Michael Wennink (Carl), and Cyril Ritchard (Mijnheer Kleef).