‘Kidco’: The Right-Wing Children’s Movie That Shouldn’t Be Forgotten

By  · Published on April 15th, 2014

20th Century Fox

This year we’ve already heard about The Lego Movie being anti-capitalist (even though it’s the opposite) and Frozen having a gay agenda (I can neither confirm nor deny this, as I still haven’t seen it), so it’s surprising that the conservative media hasn’t also jumped at the chance to denounce Rio 2 for its tree-hugging liberal propaganda. Maybe after piling on The Muppets, The Lorax, Cars 2, Happy Feet Two and others they’re tired of pointing out that basically every family film seems to them as leaning left. Or maybe, as Matt Patches argues disappointedly in his Fighting In the War Room podcast review, the message of Rio 2 is not direct enough to reach the young viewers because it implies the birds are fighting deforestation in the Amazon just fine on their own.

Either way, I invite the Right to join me this week in recognizing the 30th anniversary of Kidco, a mostly forgotten family film that aired a lot on HBO in the mid ’80s. That’s where I saw it over and over and over. Although shot in 1982, it was released theatrically, barely, on April 13, 1984, yet there’s no record of its box office gross (at Box Office Mojo or The Numbers) or any reviews it received at the time (on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDb). Why it was buried is unknown, but former child star Scott Schwartz, who appeared as the lead in the movie at age 14 (between his work in The Toy and A Christmas Story), said in a 2011 interview that it opened only in Alabama as a “courtesy” release by 20th Century Fox, which had spent $4M on the production, including $500K (or only $125K, according to People magazine) for the rights to the true story.

A true story that Ronald Reagan, in a 1977 radio address, championed for its encouragement of free enterprise in spite of there being so many “intrusive” and “discouraging” government agencies involved in commerce. Of course, he also recognized this story in particular because it involved child entrepreneurs.

In the movie version, Schwartz plays preteen Dickie Cessna, Jr., who with his two younger and one older sister begin a very profitable business selling horse manure out of the stables their father manages. But due to an angry competitor (the great character actor Clifton James – who shockingly is still alive) and “the feds,” as a couple of villainized agents from the California tax board are derogatorily called early on, Kidco is initially investigated for income tax evasion then brought to trial for multiple charges, including unpaid sales tax and operation of the business without proper permits. Although the courtroom act is where the movie goes downhill in terms of its production quality, it’s also where Kidco turns into what I’d imagine a collaboration between Frank Capra and Hal Roach would look like.

Watching the movie this week, for the first time since its cable run three decades ago, Kidco came across as a much more political movie than I remembered. Of course, I was only in single digits then and had only ever known of life during the economic and ideological trends of the Reagan Era. It was fairly normal for movies to lean a little to the right, but I wouldn’t have noticed. At the time I was also watching the heck out of Red Dawn and Ghostbusters and enjoying Michael J. Fox as young Republican Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, none the wiser that any of these were right-wing representations or what that even meant. Today, I wonder if the courtesy release of Kidco was at least intentionally done so close to April 15th because of the movie’s attitude towards taxation. But it’s pretty likely that was just a coincidence.

20th Century Fox

I’m rather surprised, regardless of how liberal most of Hollywood has always been stereotyped as being (and in 1982, Fox was run by Sherry Lansing and owned by oil tycoon Marvin Davis, both known contributors to the Democratic Party), that more children’s movies of the ’80s weren’t soaked in conservative values – and that the most glaring example hardly saw the light of day (or the light of a movie theater projector). Sure, there was another one where a kid takes down a group of evil spies, albeit of no political or national allegiance being named (Cloak & Dagger), and a lot of jingoistic action movies, many of which were being seen by kids like myself, especially if we were the heroes (as in Red Dawn and Iron Eagle), but Kidco is probably the only one that very explicitly promotes capitalism and small business and paints the government and tax men as bad guys.

It’s also, as I now realize upon viewing it as an adult, not very well made. Kidco was scripted by Bennett Tramer, who’d go on to become a writer and producer for Saved By the Bell, and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, who’d previously made movies about kids trying to grow up too fast (Little Darlings and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia) and later went on to greater fame for his Civil War epics (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals and last year’s Copperhead). Neither of them can be cited too much for what little good there is in the movie, which is mainly held together by the charismatic performance of Schwartz, with some help from the young actresses at his side, especially Cinnamon Idles.

For that reason and the fact that there’s no big fanbase, not even one fueled by nostalgia, I think Kidco would be a great movie to be remade by someone who understands how easily it could win the endorsement of the conservative media, as an answer to all the left-wing propaganda at the multiplex they believe is corrupting our youth. Then again, I think it’d also be interesting for a retelling to follow the Cessnas further, through the kids’ attempted purchase of a whole town (Gorda, California) and subsequent bankruptcy, though none of that would work with the original political message, the one that Reagan celebrated even before the movie was made.

“Maybe this incident is an indication of our changing world,” he said of the Kidco legal trouble. “Once upon a time we taught our children the fundamentals of free enterprise and thrift with jobs like paper routes, mowing lawns and, of course, the traditional summer lemonade stand at the front curb…I take my hat off to Mr. Cessna Sr. and hope with all my heart the officers of Kidco corp. have not been discouraged or made cynical by their first experience with the intrusive but and benevolent hand of officialdom.” (Quoted from “Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision: Selected Writings.”)

If there ever is a remake, it could be even more politically direct with inclusion of that radio address in the movie. And it’d then make a ton of money from Republican families, I bet, when Fox markets it through their own cable news station as one of the rare cases in which Hollywood is teaching the right ideals through its children’s movies.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.