Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Vanishing Prairie

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie

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.

Theatrical re-release poster for a double feature of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie

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.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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