The Bootleg Files: Disney’s 3 Days in the County Jail

BOOTLEG FILES 677: “3 Days in the County Jail” (1976 nontheatrical short film distributed by Walt Disney Educational Media Company).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a gray market DVD with other imprisonment-related short nonfiction films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for commercial home entertainment release.


Back in the mid-1970s, when Walt Disney Pictures was stuffing theaters with such happy nonsense as “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “Escape to Witch Mountain,’ the company’s nontheatrical subsidiary Walt Disney Educational Media Company was attempting to convince America’s youth that crime didn’t pay. Through a four-part series called “Under the Law,” the sons o’ fun at the mouse factory offered a grim and gritty – at least by Disney standards – view of the mishaps that befell naughty young people who thought they were above and beyond the reach of law enforcement.

The second of the four-part “Under the Law” series was a short film called “3 Days in the County Jail.” And while Disney films had a history of dishing out nasty punishment to unruly youngsters – remember the dismal fate that befell Pinocchio’s pals on Pleasure Island? – this view of the penal system is somewhat bizarre because the jailhouse experience winds up being a life-enhancing and career-focusing endeavor for the central convict character.

“3 Days in the County Jail” opens with a group of prisoners being brought into the jail. The camera focuses on a young man named Doogie Dunn, which is not surprising since he is the shortest and most photogenic in the group. A correctional officer with a 70s porn-star mustache has the prisoners empty their pockets, unbuckle their pants and remove their shoes and socks. Doogie gets his obligatory phone call, telling his dad that “bail cannot be very high – I’ve never been in jail before.” Doogie and the other prisoners are then told by the correctional officer to strip off all of their clothing, which is followed by an abrupt cut to the prisoners showering together, although all of them make an effort not to make eye contact, let alone laugh and point at whatever is going on below camera range. The prisoners then get a quick delousing and the correctional officer returns and inspects his captives’ open mouths and orders them to bend over and brush their fingers through their hair. Of course, being a Disney film, the body cavity search is not included in this jailhouse romp.

Doogie and his fellow miscreants are then given denim jail uniforms – which, oddly, look better tailored and more flattering than the clothes they were wearing when they first arrived. A jailhouse doctor extracts blood from Doogie with a hypodermic needle that looks like a torture device from a James Bond movie. Another correctional officer with a 70s porn-star mustache fingerprints Doogie and then takes his mugshot with camera sporting an oversize flash – he responds with a wild-eye stare reminiscent of Norma Desmond in her final descent into madness.

Doogie is assigned a cell with an older and taller man who is sporting – yup, you guessed it – a 70s porn-star mustache. We learn why Doogie is in jail – a hit-and-run involving, as he recalls, “an old man in the crosswalk.” The older prisoner shakes hands with Doogie and grasps him a bit too tight, freaking the younger man out. As Doogie gets locked in his cell, the film stops and narrator Greg Morris of “Mission: Impossible” fame abruptly appears on the soundtrack to ask the viewer: “If you were in Doogie’s shoes, who would you blame?”

Fast-forward and Greg Morris tells us that Doogie’s dad posted bail, but Doogie was found guilty in court of felony drunk driving and felony hit-and-run with bodily injury. He was sentenced to state prison, but the judge suspended the sentence due to Doogie’s previous lack of criminal history and instead sent him to spend one year in the county jail. Of course, you may remember the film is called “3 Days in the County Jail,” not “1 Year in the County Jail,” but what the heck.

Greg Morris then tells us that Doogie’s victim survived by is wheelchair-bound. This should be a significant strike against our imprisoned protagonist. However, the jailhouse authorities seem to like their young convict. A member of the jail classification board wearing a very mild little mustache – more PG than porn-star in its hirsute extravagance – invites Doogie to complete his studies to earn a high school diploma and to work at the “honor ranch.” Doogie returns to his cell to find that creepy convict from his first day in jail destroyed his cell mattress. Doogie raises his fists in fury, but the film stops again in order for Greg Morris to ask the viewer, “If you were Doogie, what would you do?”

Mercifully for Doogie, he behaves and gets transferred to the “honor ranch” – his jailhouse nemesis is placed into the maximum security unit for “his repeated anti-social behavior.” Doogie gets to work outdoors feeding cows, harvesting fields and fixing machines. Doogie attends GED classes and Greg Morris intrudes again, asking the viewer “What do you think?” about whether Doogie will be able to succeed on the outside. Smart money would be on the affirmative – Doogie’s GED teacher, who also wears a 70s porn-star mustache, beams with paternal pride as Doogie is able to solve questions related to elementary school-level English.

The message of “3 Days in the County Jail” is downright peculiar. In this presentation, a jail sentence is seen as a character-building endeavor that enables troubled but good-hearted young men to find their purpose in life and take the first step become part of the degree-holding educated class. Doogie is an absurdly upright model prisoner, even going out of his way (according to Greg Morris’ narration) to contact the old man he drove over and promise to help him once he gets out of the slammer. And outside of the destruction of his mattress, Doogie never encounters any threat of jailhouse violence – indeed, the emotionally harrowing aspects of incarceration are carefully papered over in this Disneyfication process.

In this film, Doogie is played by Dennis Dugan, who would never make impact as an actor but would find later success as the director of Adam Sandler movies including “Happy Gilmore,” “Big Daddy,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” The film’s director, Philip Abbott, was a longtime television character actor who transitioned behind the camera to helm Disney’s educational short films. The Los Angeles County’s Sheriff Department enabled the production to use its facilities, and these locations provide the only genuine realism in the short.

“3 Days in the County Jail” and the other “Under the Law” films were shown in classrooms during the mid-to-late 1970s on 16mm prints. But with the advent of VCR video players, schools jettisoned their 16mm equipment and films. A well-worn 16mm print of the film that was purchased on eBay has been uploaded without authorization to YouTube, while another 16mm print was incorporated into a gray market DVD called featuring other short educational films about incarceration. Disney still controls the copyright on its 1970s nontheatrical work and never released the “Under the Law” films into the commercial home entertainment market. But if the silly quality of “3 Days in the County Jail” is any indication, we have a better chance of seeing “Song of the South” on Blu-ray than this jailhouse lesson.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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