Walt Disney’s involvement with The Gnome-Mobile, starring Walter Brennan, dated back to 1937 when he was first approached with the story by author Upton Sinclair. During production, Walt came to greatly identify with the picture. A grandfather himself, Walt felt close to the comedy about two grandfathers—one a two-foot tall gnome and the other a lumber tycoon. Both parts were played by Walter Brennan, a life-long friend of Walt’s.

Grandpa and Grandkids from The Gnome-Mobile (1967). Walter Brennan as D.J. Mulrooney and Knobby;
Matthew Garber as Rodney Winthrop; and Karen Dotrice as Elizabeth Winthrop.

During the production planning and story conferences, Walt was a frequent “visitor.” During one dialogue meeting, a disagreement over a grandfather’s lines arose. Director Robert Stevenson raised the question as to “whether a grandfather would say such a thing to his grandchildren.” Walt spoke up: “Take it from me. I’m a granddad, and if my 11-year old grandson drove my prize Rolls Royce, I’d congratulate him for not cracking it up, too.”

The “prize Rolls Royce” was a 1930 Phantom II, a Sedanca Deville by Barker.  At the time of filming, the car was owned by Sam Bergman, who started the first “classic car” store west of the Mississippi (and one of the few in the entire United States). Shortly after filming had concluded the “Gnome Mobile” was purchased by Walt’s friend Donald S. Gilmore, who was then the chairman of the board for Upjohn Pharmaceutical. Gilmore was an avid classic car enthusiast and collector who had strong ties with Disney, primarily due to Upjohn being one of the first corporate participants in Disneyland. Additionally, the Upjohn, Disney, and Gilmore families all owned vacation homes in Smoke Tree Ranch. Michael Barrier (my Guru) wrote an excellent essay on the Disney/Gilmore relationship on his website here (it is approximately three-quarters of the way down the page).

Gilmore’s collecting of antique automobiles began in 1963 and feeling a need (as most of us collectors do … thus DHI) to share his passion, he opened the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan in July of 1966. The Gnome-Mobile Rolls Royce can now be viewed there (along with an authentic movie set for the car’s back seat). You can learn more about the museum at their website: Gilmore Car Museum.

This fantastic concept art (and never-before-seen!) was done by illustrator extraordinaire Sam McKim. While Sam is known primarily for his 1954 and 1955 Imagineering art for Walt’s new theme park “Disneyland” (and later on for his imagining of the Florida Disney theme parks), Walt would, from time to time, ask Sam to contribute storyboards and concept art for the Disney live-action films; such as this piece for The Gnome-Mobile. During one of my interviews with Sam in the early 1990s, he shared this inspirational art with me, and then explained Walt’s interest in this idea for a possible ending to the film. In this version of the final scene in the film, Walter Brennan and his grandkids drive off in the Rolls Royce which is loaded–inside and out–with gnomes. An earlier version had all the gnomes inside the car, but Walt told Sam he wanted a a bigger, more memorable finish; this idea was the answer to Walt’s request. According to Sam the economics of filming such a special-effect heavy scene would have resulted in an equally heavy expense, so the idea was cut.  Moreover, Walt passed away during the production process, so if this was his preferred ending he was not there to make it happen. All that remains is this evocative McKim visualization to let us imagine how the film could have ended in a typical, imaginative Walt flourish.

Last summer I wrote more about the wonderful Sam McKim and his contribution to the Disney legacy, which you can read here.


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