In 1957, Walt Disney tried mixing up the tried-and-true True-Life Adventures formula with Perri. Labeled a True-Life Fantasy, Perri was the first explicitly fictional entry in the popular series. But Disney had been playing fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking from the beginning. Even Oscar winners like The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie made no distinction between footage caught in the wild and scenes staged in the controlled environment of the soundstage. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the difference. But to most audiences, the movies were so entertaining that nobody seemed to notice or care.
White Wilderness would be the third and last True-Life Adventure to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Purportedly shot in the Arctic over the course of three years, the movie won rave reviews. More than one contemporary critic singled it out as Walt’s best nature film to date. And on the surface, it is indeed a beautifully shot, highly entertaining picture. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were more than a little overzealous in their use of movie trickery this time. They crossed a line that ends up tainting the entire project.
Things start promisingly enough with Winston Hibler’s narration and our old pal, the Animated Paintbrush, whisking us back to the Ice Age. Hibler gives a little backstory about some of the animals we won’t be seeing in this film, like woolly mammoths and mastodons. We next tour the Arctic landscape, accompanied by majestic images of glaciers, avalanches and frozen seas. It’s some of the most stunning nature photography in the entire series.
Then we start to meet the animals and they’re frankly delightful. Walruses, beluga whales, seals, they’re all here and they’re all fantastic. Best of all are the polar bears, especially Mama Bear and her cubs. Cute baby animal footage is the stock-in-trade of the entire True-Life Adventures series. But of all the adorable baby animals we’ve seen so far, there are none cuter than polar bear cubs and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. We don’t really learn much about them but who cares? Just look at those little goofballs!
Later on, more baby animals turn up in an attempt to give the polar bears a run for their money. There are the goldeneye ducklings who are hatched in trees. They leave the nest before they’re able to fly, so they tumble out of the tree and bounce when they hit the ground. There are some cute little wolf cubs taught how to howl by Papa Wolf. They’re all fun but bouncing ducks and playful wolves are still no match for polar bear cubs in the cuteness department.
By the end of the movie, we’ve been introduced to a wide cross-section of animal life. Majestic birds like the osprey. Great herd animals like the caribou. Cute but fierce predators like the ermine. Less cute and even fiercer predators like the wolverine. The footage is top-notch. The animals are varied and interesting. Even the Oscar-nominated music by Oliver Wallace is less overbearing than some of the other True-Life Adventures. All signs point to this being a high point of the entire series.
But then, right smack in the middle of all this, there’s the lemmings.
Hibler informs us that the little hamster-like lemming breeds even faster than the rabbit. Mama Lemming can welcome two or three big litters each season. Once they’re old enough to fend for themselves, the lemmings emerge from their underground burrows to forage for food. Sure enough, there are lemmings as far as the eye can see, getting underfoot and gobbling up every bit of vegetation in sight.
Once the lemming population becomes unsustainable, Hibler tells us they follow a primal instinct to migrate to the sea. Off they go, swarming the countryside on their little lemming feet, until they reach the inevitable end of the line. Confronted with the frigid Arctic Sea, the lemmings march on, plummeting over the edge of the cliff and into the waters below. They swim until their little lemming bodies can swim no more. And so, the lemming population ebbs back, the result of an instinctual kind of mass suicide. The ways of nature are mysterious indeed.
As it turns out, almost everything we’ve seen and heard in this sequence is complete crap. It’s probably worth pointing out again that screenwriter and narrator Winston Hibler and director James Algar were not men of science. They were men of cartoons. They knew how to tell a story and the myth of lemmings committing suicide is a good one. Not true, though. The idea is so widespread that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game felt compelled to address it on their website.
But worse than the misinformation is the way the sequence was filmed. In 1982, a Canadian news show called The Fifth Estate ran an episode called Cruel Camera. Journalist Bob McKeown investigated reports of animal cruelty in Hollywood. He sat down with Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who had worked on several True-Life Adventures, to discuss staged sequences in the series and in particular, White Wilderness.
The lemming sequence was not shot on location in the Arctic. It was filmed in Calgary with lemmings bought from local Inuit kids for about a quarter a pop. These particular lemmings weren’t even migratory. To make it look like they were migrating, the filmmakers built a set, stuck the lemmings on a turntable and just cut it together over and over. And when it came time for them to jump into the “ocean” (actually the Bow River), they just pushed ‘em in.
In Cruel Camera, Roy admits they went too far that time. However, he is also careful to make clear that he personally didn’t work on White Wilderness and that he doesn’t believe Walt knew anything about what the crew was up to. Strictly speaking, the crew didn’t break any laws or even guidelines. Oversight of animals in film and television was a whole lot looser in the 1950s than it is now. Even if it wasn’t, the film’s status as a “documentary” probably would have allowed them to sidestep any pesky regulations. Still, it’s a black mark on the film that leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.
The entire Cruel Camera documentary is available on YouTube and it’s worth checking out. In addition to Roy’s interview, you get to see Ronnie Hawkins talk about some of the insanity he witnessed on the set of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Marlin Perkins from Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom get super-defensive when asked about staged sequences on his show.
The lemming business is truly unfortunate because it mars what is otherwise a terrific film. I suspect that lingering concern about the lemming issue was behind the studio’s decision to yank White Wilderness off of Disney+ shortly after its launch. I can’t imagine they had pre-existing contracts with other streamers for the True-Life Adventures and all of the other features are available. Better to just ward off any potential controversy before it starts.
I think it’s important to try and watch movies within the context of their times and not judge them based on contemporary values and ideals. But a film like White Wilderness makes that hard. Audiences in 1958 didn’t know that a lot of this stuff was staged. Even if they did figure it out, they certainly didn’t know the extent to which the filmmakers went. White Wilderness has a lot going for it and if you can somehow overlook its dark history, it’s well worth watching. But once you know the behind-the-scenes story, it’s almost impossible to look at it the same way.
VERDICT: Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the story behind the making of the film turns an easy Disney Plus into an unfortunate Disney Minus.
By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.
Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.
As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.
The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.
None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.
Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.
Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.
Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.
If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.
Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.
Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.
When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.
Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.
Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.
Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.
As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.
When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.
In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.
It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.
Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.
To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.
Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.
Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.
As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.
Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.
Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.
Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.
Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.
The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.
But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.
Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.
Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.
Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.
Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.
With the release of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, Walt and Roy Disney were almost free of their obligation to former distributor RKO. They still owed them one animated feature, which would end up being Music Land, a re-edited remix of segments from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But now, the Disneys were free to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
After the surprise success of the first True-Life Adventure feature, it makes sense that Disney would want to get another one in theaters as soon as possible. And so The Vanishing Prairie became the second release from the fledgling Buena Vista Distribution Company, a mere nine months after the release of The Living Desert.
It isn’t surprising that Walt was able to get The Vanishing Prairie in theatres so quickly. True-Life Adventures had started out as a series of short subjects. Several of these shorts were actively in production when The Living Desert was released, with titles like Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Story and Cat Family. Now that the Disneys were responsible for their own distribution, features made more economic sense than shorts since they could charge theaters a higher rate for them. So Walt directed James Algar to combine several of the in-progress short subjects into a single feature focusing on the wildlife of the American Prairie.
As you can probably tell from the title, The Vanishing Prairie turns back the clock to focus on animals who once roamed freely in abundance but are now in danger of disappearing. This is a fairly forward-thinking position for a documentary in 1954. The idea of wildlife conservation had been around since the turn of the century. Some of the animals concerned in those earliest efforts, including the bison and whooping crane, are featured in the film. But the first federal protection act wouldn’t be enacted until 1966. In ’54, the idea that a species could simply vanish off the face of the Earth hadn’t quite sunk in for most folks.
James Algar established a winning formula with his direction of the True-Life Adventure shorts and he doesn’t deviate much from it here. If you see something cute or funny and want to see it again, don’t worry. Algar’s got you covered with plenty of additional shots of ducks slipping on ice and baby mountain lions playing. He’s more than happy to show it again and again and again.
But The Vanishing Prairie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. We see the mother of those adorable kittens stalk and kill a deer. Although the actual attack is kept off-camera, we do see her drag the carcass back, feed on it with her young and bury the remains for later. This ain’t Bambi, kids.
Some of the footage proved too graphic for 1954 audiences. A shot of a buffalo birthing a calf caused the film to be censored and even banned outright in some cities. To their credit, I don’t believe Disney ever cut the scene themselves. The uncut version is currently available on Disney+.
The footage in The Living Desert had primarily been the work of two men, N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. and Robert Crandall. The Vanishing Prairie utilizes a large team of nature photographers. The footage they were able to capture is absolutely remarkable by 1950s standards. The best of it holds up even today.
Tom McHugh and his team traveled to Montana to film the buffalo. Draped in a buffalo skin, McHugh was able to position himself right in the middle of the herd. Husband-and-wife team Dick and “Brownie” Borden shot some beautiful slow-motion sequences of geese in flight. In arguably the film’s most memorable sequence, Lloyd Beebe and James R. Simon follow a mountain lion as it attempts to track a fawn, getting startlingly close without ever actually finding it.
Kenworthy also returned, creating a cut-away prairie dog burrow to track the animals’ movements underground. Once again, Disney took some heat for including staged sequences like these. Animals enter and exit the burrows on the surface and the camera follows right along, seeming to plunge beneath the earth. Editor Lloyd Richardson does an extraordinary job making this look seamless. But obviously what we’re seeing is impossible. The above-ground footage can’t possibly have been shot at the same time and place as the below-ground footage. In “documentary” terms, this fails as an objective and accurate document of events. But dramatically, it works like gangbusters.
Of course, this was 1954 and not all elements of the film have aged well. Winston Hibler’s introductory narration praises the “Red Man” and his relationship to nature, coming to understand the world in “his primitive way”. Later on, Hibler claims that Native Americans patterned their dances off the mating dances of the grouse. Composer Paul J. Smith lays on some stereotypical Indian music in case you can’t see the similarity. Now, did some tribes actually get inspiration from the grouse for their dances? Possibly, I guess. But without any concrete proof to back up this assertion, the sequence just comes across as, “Hey, look at the funny birds!”
The condescending tone continues when it comes to gender roles. Another sequence shows male and female birds trading off the duties of going out to find food and warming the eggs in the nest. That’s fairly progressive…until the male bird accidentally carries an egg out of the nest and Hibler pipes up to remind us that dads are dumb when it comes to woman’s work. Gotta love the domestic humor of the 1950s.
Fortunately, these are minor moments in a film where the focus remains on the wildlife. Algar, Hibler and cowriter Ted Sears don’t bludgeon you over the head with their conservationist message but it’s definitely present. Hibler never once utters the word “endangered” but nearly every species we meet is described as “vanishing”. The narration includes at least one disparaging reference to “Man, the Invader”. This is clearly understood to refer to white settlers, not the Native Americans who had found a balance with nature.
Any doubts about the commercial viability of True-Life Adventure features were wiped out by The Vanishing Prairie. On its initial release, The Living Desert had been paired with Ben And Me, an animated featurette about Benjamin Franklin and his best friend and assistant, a mouse named Amos. Skeptics might argue that The Living Desert’s success had been helped by the prospect of a brand-new Disney cartoon. But The Vanishing Prairie was released with Willie The Operatic Whale, the Nelson Eddy segment from Make Mine Music. Not to diminish the popularity of Nelson Eddy but it’s safe to assume that audiences were not primarily drawn to theaters by an 8-year-old cartoon.
The Vanishing Prairie netted Walt Disney his second consecutive Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It raked in close to two million dollars at the box office. Not at all bad for a picture that was budgeted at less than $400,000. Like The Living Desert before it, The Vanishing Prairie remained popular over the years. In 1971, both films were re-released theatrically as a double feature. The True-Life Adventure features were here to stay. We’ll see a bunch more of them in the weeks ahead.
The Living Desert may appear to be a minor entry in the Disney catalog. It isn’t a cartoon, although it does open with a few minutes of animation. It’s live-action but there isn’t a single human being to be seen. But this feature-length nature documentary represents a significant milestone for the studio. To see why, we’ll eventually have to go all the way back to Disney’s very first films. But first, let’s rewind just a decade or so.
Walt Disney first got into documentary filmmaking during the war years, producing the feature-length Victory Through Air Power and assorted short subjects to help with the war effort. This opened up a little side business producing educational shorts for corporate clients like General Motors and Johnson & Johnson. These projects kept the studio afloat during the lean years of the 1940s.
An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Walt made his first trip to Alaska in 1947. He fell in love with the area and was eager to see more. A friend suggested he check out the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife team of nature photographers. Walt was impressed with their work and commissioned them to return to Alaska and film whatever they wanted. He didn’t particularly know what he was going to do with the footage. He just wanted to see what they’d get.
The Milottes shot thousands of feet of film. Out of all this, Walt was most interested in footage they’d captured of seals cavorting on the Pribilof Islands. He assigned James Algar, an animator who had directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia and Victory Through Air Power, the job of building a narrative around the footage. The resulting half-hour short, Seal Island, was presented as the first in a series of films called True-Life Adventures.
Both Walt and Roy Disney felt that Seal Island was a winner. But RKO, their distributor for over a decade, didn’t want anything to do with it. Only after Seal Island won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject did they agree to put it in theatres.
Over the next few years, Disney, Algar, the Milottes, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and producer Ben Sharpsteen made half a dozen more True-Life Adventures. Four of them, In Beaver Valley, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and Bear Country, won Academy Awards. The series was an unqualified success. As far as the Disneys were concerned, a full-length feature seemed like the next logical step.
The Living Desert was inspired by the work of photographers N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert Crandall. Kenworthy was a graduate student working on a short film for his thesis project. He’d made some amateur 8mm films of insects and had read about Pepsis wasps, a large desert insect that preys on tarantulas. Nobody had ever filmed a wasp/tarantula battle before, so Kenworthy contacted Crandall, an entomologist based out of Arizona. Crandall’s scientific knowledge and Kenworthy’s skill with the camera allowed them to capture the entire event on film.
Kenworthy brought his footage to Disney, thinking it might make for a good True-Life Adventure. Walt loved it, bought the footage immediately and hired Kenworthy and Crandall to head back to the desert to get more. This also meant that Kenworthy had to start over on his thesis project, since he’d sold the rights to his film, but it seemed to work out all right for him.
The Living Desert was ready for release in 1953. But this time, RKO flat-out refused to distribute it. They had begrudgingly released the other True-Life Adventures shorts but a feature-length documentary was not what they wanted from Disney. This would be the last straw in the long-simmering feud between Disney and RKO.
Walt and Roy had struggled with their distributors from the very beginning. Their relationship with their first distributor, Margaret Winkler, fell apart when she stepped away from the busines and put her husband, Charles Mintz, in charge. Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz. When the character became popular and Walt pressed for a better deal, Mintz went behind his back and hired virtually his entire staff away from him. Mintz also kept the rights to Oswald, inspiring Walt and Ub Iwerks, the only animator who remained loyal to him, to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.
Walt didn’t have much better luck with his next distributor, Pat Powers. Disney had originally signed with Powers to use his Cinephone recording system while making Steamboat Willie. But the terms of the arrangement were heavily in Powers’ favor. Once again, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal only to have Powers poach his key men. This time, he even lost Ub Iwerks, as well as composer Carl Stalling. As a result of the strain, Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931.
Once he was able to extricate himself from the Powers deal, Walt signed up with Columbia to distribute the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons. That relationship soured in 1932 when Walt moved over to United Artists. By 1937, UA was pressuring Walt to sign over the television rights to his cartoons. TV was still very much in its infancy and Walt, having been burned repeatedly in the past, wasn’t about to commit to a long-term contract for something that wasn’t yet fully understood. So Walt left the studio and signed up with RKO.
The relationship between RKO and Disney had its ups and downs. RKO had been reluctant to release some of Disney’s earlier films, including Dumbo (too short), Fantasia (too arty) and Victory Through Air Power (which they also turned down entirely, leading Walt to release it through UA). For their part, Roy and Walt had been unhappy with RKO’s lackluster promotional efforts.
In 1948, multimillionaire and movie dabbler Howard Hughes took control of RKO. Hughes proceeded to run the studio into the ground, releasing a mix of expensive flops and low-budget B-movies. During these years, Disney provided some of the few hits RKO had. At one point, Hughes even offered to sell RKO to Disney. Walt passed, supposedly saying something like, “I already have a movie studio. What would I want with another?” I can honestly not imagine any of Disney’s current executives expressing this sentiment.
By 1953, Disney was doing more for RKO than RKO was doing for Disney. After giving the studio a string of huge hits like Treasure Island and Peter Pan, Walt and Roy felt they’d earned the right to release whatever they saw fit. When RKO passed on The Living Desert, they decided they’d had enough of outside distributors. Roy proposed creating their own distribution arm. Walt liked the idea but didn’t want to be too involved, busy as he was with plans for Disneyland and his TV show. So Roy ran point on the new venture and established the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street where the studio stood.
The Living Desert was the first Buena Vista release and it was an immediate success. It raked in millions at the box office, both domestically and internationally, and had only cost about $300,000 to make. Buena Vista was off to a very profitable start.
Watching The Living Desert (or indeed any of the True-Life Adventures) today, it’s immediately apparent that this is the work of animators, not seasoned documentarians. Winston Hibler, who cowrote the scripts with James Algar and provided the narration, had been a story man. Beginning with the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time, he contributed to The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Peter Pan and several other animated features. Algar had been with Disney since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
Algar and Hibler imbue the animals in The Living Desert with distinct personalities, giving them names like Skinny and Mugsy. That isn’t too difficult when you’re showing a bobcat get chased up a cactus by a pack of wild boars. But it’s quite another thing to anthropomorphize more alien-looking creatures like wasps and scorpions.
The biggest weapon in their arsenal is the omnipresent use of Paul L. Smith’s music. Disney pioneered the use of music in animation and that influence extended over into live-action films. So much so that the technique of exactly synchronizing music to the action on-screen is referred to as “Mickey Mousing”. In general, that term is not considered complimentary.
The Living Desert is guiltier of Mickey Mousing than most actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. When a couple of cute baby coatis (kind of a desert cousin to the raccoon) fall asleep in their nest, you can be sure that Smith will cue up “Home Sweet Home”. The most extreme example is the mating dance of the scorpions, which Smith and Hibler turn into a full-on country jambaroo complete with square dancing calls and manipulated footage to make it look like a nearby owl is also getting down.
Critics and naturalists cried fowl at obviously staged sequences like this but audiences at the time certainly didn’t mind. They also shouldn’t have been surprised. Walt had already proven that he wasn’t above creating an entirely fictional narrative to get across some broad facts in the studio tour feature The Reluctant Dragon. At least he didn’t try to make it look like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on a desert safari.
Despite the somewhat dubious educational value of such tricks, The Living Desert went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was a big night for Disney. Even though none of his animated or live-action features were even nominated that year, Walt cleaned up in other categories. Bear Country won Best Live-Action Short Subject (Two-Reel). The Alaskan Eskimo, the first entry in a sister series to True-Life Adventures called People & Places, won Best Documentary Short Subject. And the great Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won Best Short Subject (Cartoons). The four Oscars Walt won set a record for the most taken home by an individual in a single night.
The Living Desert has had a much longer shelf life than most documentaries from the 1950s. It was re-released theatrically a few times over the years. I remember watching it and other True-Life Adventures in school, a good 25 years after its original release. Today, it’s available on Disney+ and I can vouch for the fact that kids are still watching these vintage True-Life Adventures. Just this past July, we went to visit my girlfriend’s family. Her young nephews cycled through at least three of them one afternoon and, near as I could tell, that was all their idea.
By treating nature like a cartoon, Walt found a way to give documentaries a timeless appeal. The studio continues the tradition today with the Disneynature films. Celebrity narrators have replaced the friendly, folksy voice of Winston Hibler and sometimes they get an IMAX upgrade. But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures lives on. We will see more of them in the weeks ahead.
VERDICT: This is one of the few films I’ve ever watched that completely captivated my cat. Any movie that can hold a cat’s attention for over an hour has to be considered a Disney Plus.
Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.
Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.
Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.
By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.
After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.
When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.
Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.
The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.
A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.
Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.
Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.
But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.
But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.
In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.
None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.
The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.
Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.
Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.
For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.
Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.
When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.
But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.
It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.
But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.
The Disney Princess Collection is currently one of the most lucrative franchises in the highly lucrative Disney portfolio. There are clothes and costumes, toys and games, books and albums, dolls of every size and price-point. You can paint your walls with Disney Princess wall paint, decorate the room in Disney Princess furniture, walk down the aisle in a Disney Princess wedding dress and invite your friends to a Disney Princess-themed baby shower. After you’ve lived happily ever after, you can probably even have yourself entombed in a Disney Princess coffin just like Snow White.
(Note: To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not officially licensed the Princesses or anything else to the funerary industry but I’m sure you could find a guy.)
All told, the Disney Princess line has raked in over $45 billion. So it’s a little surprising that it took Walt Disney over a decade to figure out that that’s what audiences wanted to see. He launched his feature animation division in 1938 with the original princess, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. That movie had been a massive, blockbuster success. Nothing else he’d made in the subsequent years had even come close to repeating it. By the time Cinderella became the second Disney Princess in 1950, Walt was in desperate need of a hit.
By the late 1940s, Walt was so in debt that Cinderella came perilously close to never being made at all. After spending the better part of the decade chasing contract work and the diminishing returns of the package films, Walt was at a crossroads. His choice was to either risk a return to feature-length animation or sell the studio. According to some sources, he came very close to picking the latter option.
Even with its fairly obvious similarities to Snow White, Cinderella was by no means considered a sure thing. The story and music departments had been developing a few different projects and Walt wasn’t sure which one to prioritize. He called a studio meeting and presented two options to his employees: Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. He displayed the artwork, he played the songs, and left it up to a vote. Cinderella won. Even after all that, Walt still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. He told the Alice team to keep working, kicking off a race to see which project would finish first.
On his earlier films, Walt had been involved in every step of production, leading daily meetings and agonizing over each detail. But now, his attention was elsewhere. He was devoting more time to live-action projects like So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. And when he wasn’t on location, he was frequently at home tinkering with his latest obsession: the construction of a miniature backyard railroad. Walt had always loved trains. But to many people, it seemed that his trains were now more important to him than his cartoons.
Fortunately, Walt had left Cinderella in excellent hands. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson oversaw an all-star team of animators, including all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. The animators reportedly felt a bit creatively hamstrung by Walt’s insistence on filming live-action reference footage for virtually the entire movie. Even so, their exquisite draftsmanship shines through. The human characters are rendered even more believably and subtly than in Snow White.
Since Walt couldn’t afford to lavish the same amount of time and money on the animation, the team utilized some subtle cost-cutting methods that served the story. Cinderella’s coach seems to float on air, partly because it’s a magical night but mostly to avoid having to animate wheels. When they dance, Cinderella and Prince Charming only have eyes for each other. They’re the only people on the dance floor. That’s highly romantic, considering everyone in the kingdom has been invited to the ball. It also saves a lot of time and money if you don’t have to animate dozens of other dancers.
The blend of character design and shifting perspective between the humans and the animals is absolutely seamless. The parallel world of the animals is arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to the Cinderella story. There are many, many variations on the original folk tale, spanning centuries and different cultures. But Disney is primarily jumping off from Charles Perrault’s version from 1697. Perrault added many of the elements we now associate with Cinderella, including the Fairy Godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin-coach with mice transformed into horses.
Disney took that idea and ran with it, transforming the mice (and, to a lesser extent, the other animals) into full-on supporting characters. The animals add some much needed color to what would otherwise be an unrelentingly dark story. It’s Disney who introduced the idea of the animals coming together to make Cinderella’s dress to repay her for her kindness to them. This does a couple of things. First, it tells us a lot about Cinderella’s character, her genuine kindness, and how horribly she’s been mistreated by her stepmother. Even the animals can see how hard a time she’s had.
Significantly, it also helps justify the Fairy Godmother’s gift to Cinderella. She isn’t just sitting around wishing for someone to rescue her. She wants to go to that ball and is more than willing to put in the work it takes to get there. But with her stepfamily plotting against her, her friends are there to help without her even having to ask. And after the dress is ruined, she still isn’t looking for a handout. She doesn’t even know her Fairy Godmother exists. She appears because Cinderella has earned a break.
Let’s talk for a second about that dress-ruining sequence. Lady Tremaine, perhaps the iciest and most disturbing of all Disney villains, points out her daughters’ discarded scraps in the dress and watches with a sneer as Drizella and Anastasia attack, tearing the dress to shreds. This is all done very quickly and very savagely, leaving Cinderella looking very small, alone and vulnerable. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking sequence that carries all the impact of a rape. Up until now, Drizella and Anastasia have been played primarily for laughs. Once it’s over, you feel like the entire family is in league with the devil. After all, they do have a cat named Lucifer.
Cinderella is certainly a more interesting and complex heroine than Snow White. She’s seen tragedy and faces adversity every day but still manages to look on the bright side. The key to her character comes after the ball as she’s hiding in the bushes with Bruno the dog, Major the horse and the mice. The palace guards chase off into the night but she pays them no mind. She simply thanks her Fairy Godmother for giving her such a wonderful night, expecting nothing else to come of it. Cinderella fully expects to go back to her miserable life with her stepfamily with the memory of this one night to sustain her forever.
Now, it’d be a stretch to call Disney’s Cinderella some kind of feminist role model. I do think there have been very valid feminist tellings of the Cinderella story but this isn’t necessarily one of them. But considering the era and the medium, the character is progressive enough to be considered some kind of achievement. I mean, she’s at least slightly more involved in her own rescue than some of Disney’s other heroines. If nothing else, she was smart enough to hang on to that other glass slipper.
But in other respects, the film is as retrogressive as you might suspect. The whole ball is just a setup to get Prince Charming married so the King can have some grandkids to dote on. We know very little about the Prince other than he seems bored by both his princely duties and women in general. We spend more time with the Grand Duke than we do with the Prince. If we assume that “charming” is an apt description of his demeanor and not just his name, it’s only because Cinderella sure seems charmed by him.
And then of course, there’s “The Work Song”, where the female mice actively reinforce their own stereotype by insisting, “Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin’!” Hey, Jaq and Gus were just trying to help, lady. Cool your jets.
The songs in Cinderella were written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston. As a trio, they’d been responsible for the song “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, which had been a big hit in 1947. They’d repeat that trick here with “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. Lots of artists, including Perry Como and Disney vets Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, ended up having hit records with their versions of the song. It was one of three Academy Award nominations the film would receive.
“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lost the Best Original Song Oscar to “Mona Lisa” from the mostly forgotten Alan Ladd vehicle Captain Carey, U.S.A. That was a highly competitive category in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Seemingly every song that won is now considered a standard, even if many of the films they were originally written for have been overshadowed.
For whatever reason, Walt Disney never fully warmed up to Cinderella. He thought Cinderella’s transformation into her ball gown was one of the best individual pieces of animation his studio had ever produced. But he would also refer to the film dismissively as “just a picture”. Regardless, Cinderella turned out to be exactly the hit he needed. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a return to form. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1950 in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it was also a huge hit overseas, particularly in England and France, territories that had been closed off for years.
Without Cinderella, the Walt Disney Studios we know today wouldn’t exist. There would have been no theme parks, no TV shows. If Cinderella had bombed, Walt would have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he started the 1950s on a high note. Its success would catapult Walt Disney into one of the most productive decades of his life. But animation would play a relatively small part of that decade. His attention would be increasingly spent on new ventures like Disneyland and live-action production. Obviously he would never completely abandon cartoons. But animation was no longer his first and only priority.
Walt Disney had not moved to Hollywood to work in animation. He’d already been making cartoons for a few years back in Kansas City. If he’d wanted to continue exclusively in that field, the place to go would have been New York, home of animation pioneers Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers. But Walt wanted to break into live-action. The dream was deferred while he built his animation studio but it never went away.
Throughout the 1940s, live-action slowly became a larger part of the Disney operation. Most of the reason for this had been economic. It was a lot cheaper to bridge the segments in package films like The Reluctant Dragon and Fun & Fancy Free with the likes of Robert Benchley and Edgar Bergen than to create full animation. Even Song Of The South had become a hybrid film out of necessity. The cartoon sequences simply didn’t have enough meat on the bone to carry an entire feature.
So Dear To My Heart was supposed to be different. It was intended to be Walt Disney’s first entirely live-action feature. It was based on the children’s book Midnight And Jeremiah by Sterling North. The story of a young boy who raises an unwanted black lamb in turn-of-the-century Indiana clearly meant a great deal to Walt personally. He had fond memories of his childhood years on a farm outside Marceline, Missouri, right around the same time as North’s book was set. Walt only spent a few years in Marceline but they made a huge impact. So Dear To My Heart would be one of Walt’s first attempts at capturing the idealized, nostalgic Americana of his youth but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Walt hired journeyman director Harold Schuster to helm the film based on the strength of his work on the boy-and-his-horse movie My Friend Flicka. One of Walt’s major changes to North’s book also involved a horse. As a child, Walt had been a great fan of the legendary racehorse Dan Patch. Now as an adult, he saw the horse as the perfect symbol of that idyllic time in his life. So he included a brief scene where Dan Patch himself makes a brief stop in Fulton Corners, later inspiring young Jeremiah to name the black lamb Danny rather than Midnight. Sterling North must have thought these changes were pretty good. He went back and revised his book, reissuing it under the movie’s title and incorporating most of Walt’s tweaks.
The movie was shot in 1946. Young Disney contract players Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were cast as Jeremiah and Tildy. Schuster recommended veteran character actress Beulah Bondi (best known for playing James Stewart’s mother more often than anyone other than his actual mother) as Granny Kincaid. As the amiable blacksmith, Uncle Hiram, Disney cast Burl Ives, a radio personality and folksinger who had just started appearing in films.
The shoot seemed to go smoothly enough. But when Walt got a look at the assembled footage, he thought it was missing something. So he brought in his cartoon team and had them create animated segments featuring a Wise Old Owl (voiced by Ken Carson) imparting greeting-card-style life lessons to Jeremiah and a cartoon version of Danny the sheep. Adding animation delayed the film’s release until late 1948. By the time it finally came out, Harry Carey, who appears as the Head Judge at the County Fair, had been dead over a year.
Ironically, those animated sequences really don’t add all that much to the film. So Dear To My Heart is a sweet, some might say saccharine amble through a nostalgic America that never really existed. The cartoon sequences, directed by Hamilton Luske, are mostly just little detours along the way. They’re cute and nicely designed but I don’t think you’d miss them much if they weren’t there.
The one exception is a sequence I presume was intended to be a big showstopper. “Stick-To-It-Ivity” has the Owl singing about the importance of persistence, which is all well and good, using elaborately designed stories about Christopher Columbus and Robert the Bruce to illustrate his point. Setting aside any issues one might have with historical inaccuracies (which certainly wouldn’t have bothered 1948 audiences anyway), this all feels a bit out of the blue. One minute we’re in the world of county fairs and quaint train depots, the next we’re seeing an animated version of Braveheart. It doesn’t exactly fit the movie’s genteel tone.
That tone is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. This is a completely harmless movie, suitable for all ages. As in Song Of The South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten make a cute pair. If anything, they’ve relaxed a bit between films. Their performances aren’t quite as Child Actorly as they were in their first movie. It’s fun to see Beulah Bondi spout old-timey expressions like “full of ginger” and “tarnation” and Burl Ives is a warm, inviting presence. Disney and Schuster wisely keep him busy singing whenever the opportunity arises.
But So Dear To My Heart is also as lightweight as a dandelion on the wind and nearly as forgettable. It recaptures that summertime feeling in the country when the days are long, the air is warm and there’s nothing to do but watch the clouds pass by. That can be an awfully pleasant feeling while you’re experiencing it. It can also be quite dull. As soon as you move on to something else, you’ve forgotten all about that lazy summer day. And that’s exactly the case here.
So Dear To My Heart did not end up being a huge hit for Disney, though not for lack of trying on Walt’s part. As the film premiered in various cities across the Midwest in 1949, Walt went with it, making personal appearances and trying to drum up business. But it only did so-so, got a brief re-release in 1964, and has only been intermittently available on home video.
There were at least a couple of things from the film that were unqualified successes. “Lavender Blue” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar and became Burl Ives’ first hit record. It lost (to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) which is just as well, really. Not that it’s a bad tune. Songwriters Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey adapted a centuries-old English folk ballad, which made it a perfect fit for Burl Ives. But it also means it wasn’t a particularly original “original song”.
Burl Ives’ folksy charm is so perfectly in sync with Walt Disney’s golden-hued nostalgia that it’s somewhat surprising the two didn’t work together more often. Ives would, of course, make an indelible impression as a voice actor in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer but Walt never tapped him to do a cartoon voice. He released a few albums on Disneyland Records and, in 1974, provided the voice of the animatronic Sam the Eagle (no relation to the Muppet) for America Sings at Disneyland. But Burl Ives will only show up in this column once more, in another live-action role.
The other big winner to emerge from So Dear To My Heart was young Bobby Driscoll, who was enjoying the best year of his tragically brief career. In March 1950, Bobby was presented with a special Juvenile Award at the Oscars for his work in this and the RKO film noir The Window. We’ll see Bobby in this column again soon, so let’s let him enjoy his moment of glory and save the sad stuff for another time.
Luana Patten, on the other hand, was nearing the end of her association with Disney, at least as a child star. This was her fourth appearance in a Disney film, following Song Of The South, Fun & Fancy Free and Melody Time, and it would be her last for awhile. Luana quit acting for nearly a decade after So Dear To My Heart. Her next film appearance would be as a teenager opposite Sal Mineo and John Saxon in the 1956 rock & roll picture Rock, Pretty Baby! We’ll see her back in this column as a grownup eventually.
Even if So Dear To My Heart hasn’t left a lasting impression, it’s still a key moment in Walt Disney’s development as a filmmaker. Its failure to stand on its own without cartoon sequences gave Walt a clearer idea of the challenges of live-action filmmaking. It put him one step closer to his goal of producing movies without the crutch of animation, a goal he’d be achieving very soon.
But more importantly, it marked the beginning of an aesthetic that would continue for the rest of Walt’s career. He would return to the idealized small town in the heart of America again and again. We’ll be visiting it in this column in plenty of times. But perhaps the most concrete and lasting legacy of this vision lies in Main Street, USA, the hub that welcomes visitors to Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and now Disney theme parks around the world. It’s practically the set of So Dear To My Heart brought to life, with its quaint shops, horse-drawn carriages, and railroad depot. It’s no surprise that Walt kept an apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. He had spent his entire life trying to get back to Marceline. In the end, he simply rebuilt it in his own image.
VERDICT: This is another one where Disney Minus seems too harsh but Disney Plus seems too enthusiastic. Let’s call it Baseline Disney.
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I’ll bet some of you thought I was going to skip Song Of The South, didn’t you? If anyone who actually works at Disney reads these columns, they were probably hoping I would. Song Of The South is the studio’s not-so-secret shame, the one movie above all others they wish would just go away. Whether or not it deserves this reputation is another story and, as far as Disney is concerned, kind of beside the point. They appear to have made their corporate mind up on the subject. In the process, they’ve given the film a horrible reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve but is now impossible to live down.
Song Of The South‘s journey to the screen was almost as turbulent and controversial as its journey away from it. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney went on a bit of a spending spree, buying the film rights to a wide array of properties. One of these was Uncle Remus, a collection of black oral folktales codified, collected and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist from Atlanta. Harris himself is a fascinating and divisive figure. But since the name of this column isn’t Harris Plus-Or-Minus, you’ll have to find his story another time.
At first, Walt wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with Uncle Remus. He considered making a series of Br’er Rabbit shorts and even a full-length animated feature. But Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner, wasn’t convinced. He thought Harris’ original stories were too slight to justify the expense of a feature film. Roy successfully lobbied for a more limited use of animation.
Since the film would now be primarily live-action, Walt decided to find someone other than his usual team of cartoon story-men to write the script. He hired a writer named Dalton Reymond who had never written a screenplay before and never would again. His primary qualification seems to be that he was from the South. He had kicked around Hollywood for a few years, serving as “technical advisor” on such Tales of the Deep South as Jezebel and The Little Foxes.
Reymond’s treatment left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it wasn’t a shooting script. For another, it went a lot farther with its language and its racial stereotyping than the Hayes Office would allow. Walt knew Reymond needed help. His first choice was Clarence Muse, the distinguished African-American actor who had made a name for himself on vaudeville and Broadway. Muse was also a writer, having co-written the film Way Down South with the poet Langston Hughes.
Muse and Reymond did not get along and Muse quit the project in frustration over Reymond’s refusal to accept his suggestions. Muse then became an outspoken opponent of the film, writing against Disney and Reymond in the black press. Walt had another take on the subject, claiming it was all just sour grapes after Muse didn’t land the role of Uncle Remus. Whatever the case, Muse apparently got over it enough to appear in a couple of other Disney productions later in life.
After Muse’s departure, Walt hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf, a Jewish, pro-union liberal and card-carrying Communist, to help temper Reymond’s white southern sensibilities. The notoriously anti-union, anti-Communist Disney and Rapf sound like strange bedfellows but according to Rapf’s autobiography, they got along quite well.
After Reymond inevitably had another blow-up, Walt took Rapf off the project and assigned him to work on another feature in development, Cinderella. Unfortunately, Rapf was never credited for his work on that film. By the time Cinderella was released, his career was essentially over thanks to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The screenplay for Uncle Remus, which would soon be retitled Song Of The South, was completed by journeyman screenwriter Morton Grant.
Disney considered several actors as Remus (including Paul Robeson, which is wild to think about) before settling on James Baskett, who had actually answered an ad looking for voice talent. Baskett also came out of the Broadway scene where he had appeared alongside the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Louis Armstrong.
In Song Of The South, he gives the kind of instantly iconic performance that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a warm, folksy, magnetic appearance. It would also be his last. In 1948, James Baskett died of heart failure due to diabetes. He was just 44 years old.
Roy Disney had hoped that switching to live-action would help keep the costs of the film down. But so far, the studio had very little experience with live-action. Most everything they had shot was either limited to a soundstage (as in the musical performances in Fantasia and the documentary sequences of Victory Through Air Power) or just strolling around the Burbank lot (The Reluctant Dragon). This was their first time shooting on location, building period costumes and assembling a large cast of actors, so it was hardly a surprise when the project went over-budget.
But Disney was aware that audiences had been disappointed by the lack of animation in features like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos. This time, he decided to get ahead of any possible complaints by playing up the live-action aspect in some of the initial advertising for the film. This original poster makes the movie look more like Gone With The Wind than any Disney movie to date.
In the end, Walt contented himself with just three main animated sequences, less than half an hour of the 94 minute film. A few of these fully incorporate Uncle Remus into the animated world. Baskett’s entrance into that world at the beginning of the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” number is a great, unforgettable movie moment.
The mix of animation and live-action in Song Of The South is a huge step forward from what Disney had accomplished just a few years earlier in The Three Caballeros. MGM had already advanced the state-of-the-art by having Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh. For my money, the work in Song Of The South is even more impressive. One of the best examples finds Uncle Remus sitting down for a spot of fishing next to Br’er Frog. Bassett strikes a match, lights Br’er Frog’s pipe, then lights his own with the cartoon flame, and puffs out square animated smoke rings. The level of subtle detail in this simple action is extraordinary.
Of the three animated sequences, the most controversial is certainly the Tar Baby. For those of you who don’t know the story, Br’er Fox crafts a vaguely humanoid looking creature out of tar in an attempt to capture the gregarious Br’er Rabbit. Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit gets annoyed that the Tar Baby doesn’t respond to his friendly greetings and gets stuck. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. He frees himself by pleading with Br’er Fox not to throw him into the treacherous Briar Patch. Sadist that he is, Br’er Fox hurls him in, only to realize too late that Br’er Rabbit lives there. As fables go, it’s a pretty good one.
The problem is that the term “tar baby” has come to be used and taken as a racial slur. How this happened is absolutely beyond me. The story has roots in African folklore, specifically in stories of the trickster god Anansi. But at a certain point, “tar baby” came to be considered offensive mainly because it feels like it should be offensive. But there’s absolutely nothing racist or offensive about the actual Tar Baby story. Disney’s Tar Baby can’t even be considered a racial caricature. There are plenty of offensive African-American caricatures throughout animation and the Tar Baby shares none of their characteristics. But today, the expression is offensive because ignorant people decided to weaponize the phrase and people who should have known better didn’t fight to keep it.
In a way, this is the problem with Song Of The South in general. On the surface, it feels like it might be kind of racist. Therefore, it must be because digging any deeper might expose a minefield and nobody at Disney wants to deal with that. They aren’t in the business of building conversations. Their entire reputation is built around escapist fantasy. Anything that challenges that is considered taboo, even if the cause turns out to be relatively benign.
For example, take the songs performed by the plantation workers, all versions of traditionally African-American music from the Deep South. There’s the call-and-response of “That’s What Uncle Remus Said”, there’s “Let The Rain Pour Down” (based on the blues classic “Midnight Special”), and there’s a spiritual (“All I Want”). Every time I’ve seen this film, I’ve thought that these are some of the most white-bread, Lawrence-Welk-style versions of black music I’ve ever heard.
Imagine my surprise to discover that these songs were performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson himself was one of the most renowned arrangers of African-American spirituals in the world and an early inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. By assuming these songs were performed by a white chorus, I was displaying my own ignorance and buying into a stereotypical idea of what “black music” should sound like. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that most if not all of the music was written by white songwriters. These songs could have been made a lot more authentic simply by hiring black musicians to write them.
At worst, Song Of The South is guilty of sending mixed messages and a lot of that is Walt Disney’s fault. To his credit, he was aware of how delicate this subject matter was, even in the pre-Civil Rights era, and clearly did not want to make a movie with an explicitly racist agenda. Granted, that’s a super low bar to set for yourself but still. The problem is that Walt was a lot more afraid of offending white Southern audiences than he was of what African-Americans might think.
Because of this, a lot of material that would have helped put the movie in context was dropped. For instance, it’s never explicitly stated when it even takes place, which has led a lot of people to assume that the plantation workers are slaves. They’re not. They’re sharecroppers. Song Of The South takes place during the Reconstruction Era after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War but the audience is left to figure that out for itself.
At one point, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation entirely. Eventually we come to realize that he went to Atlanta to bring back little Johnny’s absent father (more on this guy in a minute). The movie wants to build suspense and make us think he’s leaving for good and that something might happen to him. From a dramatic perspective, that makes sense. But if the filmmakers left in dialogue about Remus being a “free man”, able to come and go when he pleases, the intent would be clearer and Uncle Remus would come across as a stronger, more independent character.
The entire set-up of Song Of The South is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. As the film begins, young Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who will be back in this column several times) arrives at his grandmother’s plantation with his parents for what he assumes will be a short vacation. But something’s up between mom (Ruth Warrick) and dad (Erik Rolf). There’s tension between them and it turns out that they’ll be separating. Dad’s going back to Atlanta while Johnny and his mother stay with Grandmother (Lucile Watson) and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel).
Now, because the tension between the parents is so palpable and no other real reason for it is offered, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Father is going off to war. You need to pay attention to the opening dialogue to realize that John Senior is a newspaper editor in Atlanta and apparently the center of some controversy. Since Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris worked as an associate editor under Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution during the time the movie is set, it’s probably fair to assume that John Senior is based somewhat on one or both of them. Both Harris and Grady supported a vision of the “New South”, stressing industrialization and reconciliation. Of course in real life, their politics were more complicated. But for a Disney-fied version of the New South, sure…John Senior was a unifier. Not that you would know any of that from the information supplied by the film itself.
Song Of The South does itself no favors by playing coy with this material but there are some problems that are built in to the film itself. Uncle Remus is basically the template for every Magical Negro character that followed. With his ability to converse to cartoon animals, he is literally magical. But is that this movie’s fault? Or is it the fault of all the other filmmakers and storytellers who later decided to pick up the ball and run with it? Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without repetition and the first example is rarely the worst.
Song Of The South‘s depiction of African-American stories and characters absolutely received some criticism at the time of its release from both black and white critics. Protests were organized by the National Negro Congress, while the NAACP expressed its frustration that such a technically well-made picture could incorporate so many objectionable elements. But the movie also had its champions on both sides. Herman Hill, writing in the respected black paper The Pittsburgh Courier, said that the movie would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”. His response to the movie’s critics was essentially, “Lighten up.”
Perhaps what’s most objectionable about Disney’s treatment of Song Of The South is their apparent desire to pick and choose what elements of the movie they want to acknowledge. The Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is still an integral part of the Disney Songbook. It has never not been included on one of their many compilation albums. It’s still used on Splash Mountain in the Disney theme parks, as are Br’er Rabbit and the rest. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been even a suggestion that the ride needs to be redesigned.
Also lost in Disney’s rush to disown the film is the fact that James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for it, becoming the first black male performer to win an Oscar. Walt Disney personally campaigned for the award, although why it was an honorary award instead of just a regular nomination for Best Actor, I’m not quite sure. The Academy certainly had a history of singling people out for individual achievements that didn’t fit their conception of what movies are supposed to be like. Regardless, Baskett’s untimely death prevented him from capitalizing on his win during his lifetime. Disney’s subsequent treatment of the film prevents his legacy from being celebrated or even acknowledged.
Even with the controversy, Song Of The South proved to be a sizable hit for Disney and not just in 1946. I’m old enough to remember seeing it during its re-release runs in the 1970s and 80s. It was back in theatres as recently as 1986, when it brought in over $17 million in basically free money for the studio.
The truth is that Disney’s moratorium on Song Of The South is entirely self-imposed. Nobody has actually banned the movie. Disney is simply afraid of how the film might be perceived by modern audiences and can’t be bothered to put it in any sort of context that would help explain it. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, has urged the studio to release the film in an edition with supplementary features for context. Ironically, one of the voices who argued stridently against the film ever being seen again was America’s disgraced former dad, Bill Cosby.
No one is going to argue that Song Of The South doesn’t have a complicated legacy. It is in no way a perfect film. Walt Disney could have done any number of things differently that would have made it better. But pretending it doesn’t exist does a disservice to both the filmmakers and their work. With no evidence to the contrary, an entire generation has grown up believing that Walt Disney was nothing short of a white supremacist who made an animated Birth Of A Nation. Walt’s politics and beliefs may not have entirely lined up with mine or yours but it’s unfair to characterize him in such a negative light.
For the animators and effects team, Song Of The South represented some of their very best work of the 1940s. The combination of live-action and animation is stunning. It wouldn’t be topped until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along nearly 40 years later. This work deserves to be restored and seen by an appreciative audience.
Perhaps the biggest loser in all this is James Baskett. He’s a tremendous screen presence. It’s unfortunate that he never became a bigger star. It’s a tragedy that his most iconic performance has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over racial representation on screen. It’s a conversation that’s almost impossible to have when you can’t see what exactly you’re arguing over.
In a way, I think Disney even realizes that Song Of The South deserves to be seen. They just don’t want to be the ones who let you see it. It’s very, very easy to find bootleg DVDs, typically sourced from a Japanese laserdisc release, on eBay or other online sources. Disney has a long reach. If they wanted to, they could shut these unofficial operators down in a snap. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me that the studio doesn’t want to get rid of the movie altogether. They’ve just thrown it into the Briar Patch. Like Br’er Rabbit, you’re welcome to jump in after it.
VERDICT: It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Disney Plus.
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The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.
But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.
If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.
Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.
These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.
Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.
In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.
Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.
After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.
Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.
Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.
After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.
Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.
Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.
Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.
But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.
The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.
But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.
Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.
It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.
But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.
I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.
VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.