Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Old Yeller

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Old Yeller

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Spoiler alert: the dog dies. You probably already knew that. Even if you’ve never seen Old Yeller, you probably knew that the dog dies. Bill Murray uses it to rally the troops in Stripes. An entire episode of Friends is built around Phoebe’s discovery of how the movie really ends. It’s one of those pop culture moments that transcends itself and enters into our collective subconscious.

Old Yeller started life as a novel by Fred Gipson published in 1956. It received a Newbery Honor, the runner-up prize to the award won by Johnny Tremain. Walt Disney must have snapped up the movie rights to the book almost immediately to get it into theaters for Christmas 1957. Gipson is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with William Tunberg and as near as I can tell, the film remains extremely faithful to the book.

This makes sense because the story doesn’t exactly have a lot of twists and turns. The Coates family are homesteaders trying to make ends meet in 1860s Texas. Patriarch Jim Coates (Fess Parker) is embarking on a cattle drive that’ll take him out of state for a few months, so oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is appointed Man of the House. Pa’s gone less than 24 hours when a big yellow dog (Spike) comes tearing through the Coates’ cornfield, destroying crops, scaring the plow-mule and ripping up a couple lengths of fence.

That old yeller dog keeps showing up, stealing food and making himself comfortable. Travis is ready to shoot him on sight but his precocious younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) immediately lays claim to the mutt. The boys’ extraordinarily patient mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), thinks this is a fine idea for some reason and lets Arliss keep Yeller, sticking with literally the first name they could think of.

It isn’t long before Yeller stops stealing food and starts earning his keep. He saves Arliss from an angry mother bear (justifiably angry, since Arliss was messing around with her cub). He turns out to be a good herding dog. Even Travis warms up to him, eventually spending more time with him than Arliss does.

A hint of conflict seems to appear when Yeller’s original owner, cowboy Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up to claim his dog. But Burn turns out to have a heart of gold. After he sees how the family has bonded with Yeller, he agrees to let them keep the dog (in exchange for a horny toad and a “woman-cooked meal” in an arrangement worked out with Arliss). Before he leaves, Burn takes Travis aside and warns him of a spread of hydrophobia that’s going through the area. This information will come in handy very soon.

Travis and Yeller’s bond is cemented when Yeller is seriously injured saving Travis from a pack of wild hogs. Travis is also badly hurt but makes it back home and brings his mother out to rescue Yeller. They escape the threat of hydrophobia this time but it soon descends on the Coates home. First, Travis has to put a rabid cow out of her misery. Then Yeller saves Katie from a rabid wolf attack. While at first it seems that Yeller might be OK, he eventually starts exhibiting symptoms. And so, Travis has to man up and shoot the best friend he’s ever had.

Re-release poster for Old Yeller

Old Yeller was an enormous hit when it was released in 1957. It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and it became a touchstone for multiple generations. It’s one of those movies that people either love or hate for the exact same reason: it’s so incredibly sad. If the death of Bambi’s mother makes kids cry, the death of Old Yeller seems to make men, women, boys and girls of all ages weep.

And yet, this is a film that has never done anything for me. It is not difficult to make me tear up during a movie. But I am resistant to the saccharine manipulation of Old Yeller. Look, nobody likes to see a beloved pet get put down and Yeller seems to be a very good boy indeed. But I just don’t get invested in the relationship between this particular boy and his dog.

Part of the problem is that all of the young performers grate on my nerves to some extent. This worries me because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of both Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in this column. It isn’t that I think the kids are giving bad performances or are miscast. I believe they’re doing exactly what Walt and director Robert Stevenson asked them to do. I just don’t care for it.

Arliss is particularly hard to take. He’s an exploding little dynamo of energy, splashing around in mud puddles, climbing over the furniture and swinging from the rafters. Corcoran shouts most of his dialogue at the top of his lungs. He’s the kind of kid that makes you grit your teeth in frustration if you saw him at the grocery store or a restaurant, hoping against hope that his mother will actually step in and do something about the little hellion.

Travis is a bit more complicated and Kirk does a good job shading him in. He’s a decent kid, doing his best with probably too much responsibility. He warms up to Yeller slowly and believably, at least at first. But when he does decide he likes the dog, it’s like a switch has been flipped. All of a sudden, it’s his dog, not Arliss’. When neighbor Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) tries consoling Travis by gifting him a puppy sired by Yeller (and not just any puppy, the pick of the litter), Travis petulantly rejects it, saying he already has a dog. When Lisbeth gives the pup to Arliss instead, I expected him to shout, “Hooray! Now I have two dogs!” I have a hard time feeling bad for Travis at the end since he essentially stole his brother’s dog. And I can’t feel sad for Arliss because he’s Arliss and everything seems to work out for him anyway.

Both Kirk and Corcoran went on to long careers at Disney. Tommy sort of stumbled into acting when he was cast in a bit part in a production of Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse (also in the cast of that production was troubled former Disney star Bobby Driscoll). Afterward, he became a go-to child guest star on TV shows like Matinee Theatre and The Loretta Young Show.

In 1956, Disney secured the rights to Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, intending to make it their next Mickey Mouse Club serial. Tommy was cast as Joe, opposite Tim Considine from Spin And Marty as Frank. The Hardy Boys was a big hit, so Walt kept Tommy busy hosting remote segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. There was even talk of Tommy appearing as young Davy Crockett before Old Yeller came along. Old Yeller was huge but his next movie for the studio would be even bigger and secure Tommy’s reputation as Disney’s All-American Teenager.

As for Corcoran, he also started out on The Mickey Mouse Club, frequently playing different-but-similar characters called Moochie on serials like Spin And Marty and Moochie Of The Little League. After Old Yeller, he appeared as Tommy’s younger brother a couple more times and eventually moved up to starring roles. After graduating college, Corcoran went back to Disney as an assistant director and producer on movies like Pete’s Dragon and Herbie Goes Bananas. So he’ll continue to be a presence in this column for some time.

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker both receive above-the-title billing, although Parker probably filmed the entirety of his role over the course of a day and a half. He sports a mustache this time but apart from that, it’s Parker as usual. He was getting very close to the end of his association with Disney by this point, so it’s hardly surprising that his role isn’t much more than a cameo.

McGuire had been Oscar-nominated for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 but her career had hit a bit of a rough patch. Now in her 40s, she had begun to transition into “Mom Parts” with William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sizable hit in 1956. Old Yeller cemented the matriarchal image of her career’s second act. She’ll be back in this column before long.

One actor who will not be returning to this column is Chuck Connors. Connors had been working steadily in movies and TV throughout the 50s but hadn’t become a huge star yet. Old Yeller would be his only work for Disney but it proved significant. Shortly after the film came out, Connors was cast as the lead in the television series The Rifleman. He turned the role down, telling the producers they weren’t paying enough. They were ready to move on to another actor when they went to a screening of Old Yeller. Impressed by Connors’ chemistry with Kirk, they agreed to his salary demands and Chuck Connors got the most iconic role of his career.

Old Yeller was a bona fide blockbuster but, perhaps because of the subject matter, Disney showed a fair amount of restraint when it came to tie-in merchandise. It was mostly limited to tie-in books and adaptations for comics and younger readers. There was one bizarre lapse in judgment. In 2005, Disney licensed the name to Kroger for Disney’s Old Yeller dog food. DogFoodAdvisor.com gave the product a one-star rating and it appears to have been bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. It doesn’t look like they make it anymore, which is probably just as well.

Disney's Old Yeller Dog Food

Walt was very proud of Old Yeller and re-released it to theatres a couple of times. The film was so popular that optioning Fred Gipson’s sequel was a no-brainer. So even though Old Yeller himself won’t be back in this column, the Coates family will.

Over the years, Old Yeller has remained critic-proof (except for dog food critics, that is). It’s easy to understand why. You simply cannot argue against the visceral, gut-punch reaction most people have to this movie. Believe me, it is no fun to be the odd man out at the party. Especially when that party’s more like a wake and everybody around you is bawling their eyes out. So if you are one of those people who hold Old Yeller near and dear to your heart, I understand, even if I can’t entirely relate.

VERDICT: Disney Minus. Sorry, it’s just not for me.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

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.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

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.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The African Lion

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The African Lion

Any number of people could make a legitimate claim for being most responsible for the success of Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Director James Algar, narrator and co-writer Winston Hibler, producer Ben Sharpsteen and composer Paul Smith all worked on every installment, both shorts and features. They established a consistent tone and style for the films that worked like a charm. The series had been successful from the get-go and nobody was in a hurry to shake things up.

But the backbone of the series was the work of the nature photographers who spent months in the wild gathering hundreds upon hundreds of feet worth of footage. Alfred and Elma Milotte had been the first to join the studio. Their work resulted in the Oscar-winning Seal Island. If the Milottes had never met Walt Disney, True-Life Adventures may never have existed at all.

The Milottes had been responsible for most of the early True-Life Adventures shorts. Six of those short subjects had won Oscars. So it was inevitable that the Milottes would eventually get a feature of their own. The husband and wife team spent three years in Africa, shooting enough footage for multiple features. Eventually, Algar and his team pared it down to a brisk 75-minute feature titled The African Lion.

The film itself is a fairly straight-forward and clear-eyed look at the African ecosystem. The King of the Jungle is front and center, positioned as the alpha predator sitting atop the food chain. It’s through the eyes of the lion that we see how other animals interact and coexist with each other on the savanna. The Milottes’ cameras capture giraffes, hippos, rhinos, baboons, elephants and lots more. None of the animals are particularly rare or unusual, even for 1955, but the Milottes manage to get a bit closer than most of their contemporaries.

The African Lion deviates ever-so slightly from the successful True-Life Adventures formula by downplaying the anthropomorphism and cornball humor of previous installments. No mating dance hoedowns in this one. In fact, this is one of the grimmest entries in the entire series. Algar and the Milottes do not shy away from the fact that the lion and other large cats like the cheetah are both hunters and carnivores. The African Lion is all about the Circle of Life and we see the end of that circle over and over again.

Perhaps the most upsetting sequence in the film comes with the discovery of a rhinoceros trapped in the mud of a drying water hole. The rhino thrashes and bellows, attracting the attention of other nearby animals. For a second, Hibler’s narration actually tricks us into thinking we’re watching a cartoon. Hibler suggests that the observing animals are considering the problem and trying to figure out a way to help. Of course they don’t but you half expect the elephant to extend a helping trunk to his pal the rhino. In the end, the rhinoceros is left to suffer what will surely be an agonizing fate.

(Don’t worry, the rhino was actually fine. After they got their footage, the crew managed to free the animal. In return, the rhino charged after the crew before going on his way. That’s gratitude for you.)

The most interesting moments in The African Lion all tend to be on the dark side. We follow a lioness dragging half a wildebeest carcass back to her young, followed close behind by scavenging jackals, hyenas and vultures. A prolonged drought brings a swarm of locusts so thick they all but block out the sky. A cheetah runs down an unfortunate gazelle. By comparison, sequences of baboons carefully selecting which grass to eat can’t help but seem a little bland.

Of all the True-Life Adventures covered in this column so far, The African Lion suffers the most from the limitations of the technology of its time. The Milottes don’t break any new ground in terms of filmmaking technique. They get as close to their subjects as their telephoto lens will allow. As documentarians, their greatest strengths are really just patience and persistence. Today, advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to capture even more extraordinary footage in shows like Planet Earth. But even by 1955 standards, The African Lion is good but not great.

Contemporary critics and audiences seemed to agree. For the first time, a True-Life Adventure feature was not nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. (That year’s winner was the Helen Keller documentary The Unconquered. Its director, Nancy Hamilton, was the first woman to win the award. That has nothing to do with The African Lion but I thought it was an interesting bit of trivia.) Even so, it made over $2 million at the box office, which remains impressive for a nature documentary.

The African Lion would remain Al and Elma Milotte’s most ambitious work for Disney. After their three years in Africa, the Milottes spent two years in Australia, resulting in the short film, Nature’s Strangest Creatures. In 1959, they retired from filmmaking and turned their attention to publishing nature books. Elma and Al passed away within five days of each other in 1989 but their legacy lives on. True-Life Adventures continue to attract new audiences on Disney+ and Disneynature, the spiritual successor to True-Life Adventures, continues their work today. So if anyone can be said to be responsible for the long-term success of the True-Life Adventures, I would argue it’s Alfred and Elma Milotte.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus, albeit a relatively minor one.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lady And The Tramp

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp

When Lady And The Tramp debuted on June 22, 1955, it should have been a bigger deal. For years, the Disney name had been synonymous with feature animation. Here was the studio’s first feature cartoon since Peter Pan two years earlier. Not only that, it was the first ever produced in CinemaScope. But animation had become almost an afterthought at the studio. Walt himself had decided it was time for his name to become synonymous with something much bigger. His attention was entirely on Disneyland. Lady And The Tramp would have to sink or swim on its own merits.

Lady And The Tramp is easily one of Disney’s most unusual feature animations. For the first time, the story was entirely self-generated and not based on a classic fairy tale or book. Development began all the way back in 1937 when animator Joe Grant brought in some sketches he’d done of his English Springer Spaniel, Lady. Grant had just had a baby and his sketches of the jealous Lady made Walt think there might be a story there. He assigned a small group of storymen to the project and work quietly began on Lady.

By 1945, work on Lady hadn’t progressed much farther than that. Various artists and storymen dropped in ideas here and there but it simply wasn’t coming together. The project might have disappeared into the vault if Walt hadn’t come across a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”. Walt decided a scrappy, cynical dog might be just the counterpoint the sweet, lovable Lady needed.

Walt already knew the story’s author. Ward Greene was a writer and journalist but his day job was general manager of King Features Syndicate, distributing columns and comic strips to newspapers around the country. Disney had been a staple of the funny pages and a feather in King Features’ cap since the Mickey Mouse comic strip premiered in 1930. Odds are this was not a difficult negotiation.

Work continued on what would eventually be titled Lady And The Tramp off and on for the next several years, mostly off. Joe Grant left the studio (and animation, at least temporarily) in 1949, leaving the story to be molded primarily by Ward Greene. Still, the project was simply not a priority at the studio.

Finally in 1953, Walt and Roy Disney had a problem. For years, they had struggled with having too many animated projects in various stages of development. Now, for the first time, they didn’t have enough. Peter Pan had been released but Sleeping Beauty, intended to be Walt’s magnum opus, was nowhere near finished. Roy was in the process of launching Buena Vista, the studio’s new distribution arm. It would be a lot easier to woo exhibitors to Disney distribution with the promise of new Disney animation.

According to Neal Gabler’s excellent book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, Walt first considered simply cobbling together another package film. That would have been easier said than done, since the production of animated short subjects was trickling to a halt. Any animators not working on Sleeping Beauty had been kept busy producing new but cheap footage for the Disneyland TV series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Instead of a package film, Roy encouraged Walt to kickstart Lady And The Tramp, figuring it would be a relatively quick and easy project to complete.

It probably would have been except for one thing: CinemaScope. The widescreen process had become Hollywood’s latest craze toward coaxing audiences away from televisions and back into theatres. Disney had successfully used it on the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar-winning animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. When he decided to shoot Lady And The Tramp in CinemaScope, the animators had to make some big adjustments. The backgrounds had to be bigger. Layouts had to be changed. They even had to prepare a second, alternate version formatted for theaters that weren’t equipped to project CinemaScope. Consequently, the “quick and easy” project took longer to complete than anticipated.

Narratively, Lady And The Tramp remains true to the modest goals first laid out by Joe Grant. The story opens on Christmas with Jim Dear presenting Lady in a hatbox as a gift to his beloved wife, Darling. This incident, supposedly inspired by Walt’s own Christmas gift of a puppy to his wife, Lillian, early in their marriage, helped obfuscate Grant’s contribution to the story in later years. Opening with such a personal moment, everyone simply assumed the story was Walt’s and Walt himself did little to suggest otherwise.

The movie ambles along at its own pace from there, following Lady as she grows up, gets to know her neighbors Jock and Trusty, acquires her collar and official dog license. The movie’s almost a third over before we’re introduced to either the idea of a new baby entering the home or even Lady’s costar, Tramp.

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp has a reputation as one of the most romantic movies of all time, animated or otherwise. It landed at Number 95 on the American Film Institute’s 2002 list of love stories, 100 Years…100 Passions. But the film takes its time revealing that side of itself. Crucially, Disney spends the first 45 minutes or so romanticizing the characters’ world rather than the characters themselves. Tramp and his friends from the wrong side of the tracks are kept separate from Lady and her Snob Hill neighbors. Both worlds seem equally appealing and idyllic on their own. When Lady and the Tramp come together, they blend into a singular, magical space.

After Disneyland opened, it became common shorthand to compartmentalize Disney’s work into the four park areas: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But there was always a fifth area to the park, Main Street USA, and it’s that idealized, hyper-nostalgic worldview that’s on full display in Lady And The Tramp.

More often than not, Disney would indulge his nostalgic impulses through live-action films like So Dear To My Heart and later, Pollyanna. Lady And The Tramp translates that live-action aesthetic into animation and the result is even more idealized. We believe in the somewhat unlikely romance between these two dogs in large part because of their perfect surroundings.

Supposedly, Walt was ready to cut the now-iconic spaghetti dinner scene, concerned that the sight of two dogs wolfing down a big plate of pasta would just look ridiculous. Animator Frank Thomas fought for it, animating the whole thing by himself to prove his point. The beautifully animated scene kicks off the “Bella Notte” sequence, a lovely blend of character animation, sumptuous backgrounds and romantic details. How could anyone not fall in love to images like these?

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Their happiness is short-lived as Lady is thrown into the local dog pound, where she learns some harsh truths about her new boyfriend. Tramp gets around and everybody’s got a story to tell about his love life. By the time she gets sprung from lockup, Lady’s fed up with Tramp. He ran off and abandoned her when she was caught. Now it seems he never really cared about her at all.

But Tramp hasn’t abandoned Lady or run away. He’s completely selfish but he isn’t a coward. We’ve already seen that he’s got a soft spot for puppies and is a true and loyal friend, rescuing dogs on their way to the pound. He assumed that Lady would be fine, thanks to her get-out-of-jail-free license. As soon as she’s out, he comes by to check on her and learns that love means putting another person (or dog or, in this case, baby) ahead of your own best interests. As relationship lessons go, the ones taught by Lady And The Tramp aren’t bad.

For the voice talent, Disney cast a wider net than on other projects, recruiting a number of actors from outside the studio. Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady. It was her first role for Disney but not the last. She’d go on to voice a number of characters over the years, including Kanga in the Winnie The Pooh series. Tramp was voiced by Larry Roberts, a stage performer who never made another film. He retired from show business in the late 1950s and went into fashion design. Reliable Disney stock players Verna Felton and Bill Thompson appeared as Aunt Sarah and Jock.

Disney even brought in a pair of voice talents not typically associated with the studio. Stan Freberg was an established voice talent at Warner Bros. and on radio who was beginning to hit the big time with his own comedy records when Disney brought him in to provide the voice of the Beaver. Alan Reed was still a few years away from landing his defining role as Fred Flintstone but was a popular radio and character actor when he voiced Boris, the Russian wolfhound.

But the not-so-secret weapon of Lady And The Tramp is undoubtedly Miss Peggy Lee. Disney had never relied on celebrity voices for his cartoons but he certainly wasn’t against using them. Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone had toplined The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad and Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was modeled after radio star Ed Wynn. But Peggy Lee was in a different category when she arrived on the Disney lot.

Peggy Lee became the singer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941. Within two years, she had the number-one song in the country, the million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After she left Goodman’s group, her career really took off with huge hits like “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”. Her being asked to work on Lady And The Tramp was the 1950s equivalent of Elton John working on The Lion King or Phil Collins on Tarzan.

Peggy Lee gave the work her all. She provides the voices for four characters: Darling, the cats Si and Am and, of course, Peg the Pekingese. She even gave story notes. Trusty the bloodhound was supposed to die at the end until Peggy Lee cautioned against traumatizing a generation that was still grieving Bambi’s mom.

Album cover art for Songs From Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp by Peggy Lee

Most importantly, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on six original songs. Burke had first worked for Disney on Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom and he’d go on to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic records, including “My Way”. The songs Lee and Burke wrote for Lady And The Tramp work perfectly with Oliver Wallace’s Victorian-tinged score. The lullaby “La La Lu” bridges the gap between the eras nicely.

But the songs everyone remembers from Lady And The Tramp are distinctly modern. “Bella Notte”, “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp” are very much of their era. They help contemporize Lady And The Tramp, bringing it out of the rose-colored mists of nostalgia and into the present day. Today, it creates a feeling of double-nostalgia for both Walt’s turn-of-the-century youth and for the 1950s. It’s the same powerful feeling that accounts for the continued popularity of movies like Grease. We’re nostalgic for nostalgia itself, not for a specific era.

As for “The Siamese Cat Song”, it’s a bit lame to brush aside its casual ethnic stereotyping by saying that this is far from the worst example of it we’ll see in a Disney movie. Sure, they’re cats but there’s no missing the implications of the character design, music or voices. One can certainly understand why the song was scrapped from the recent Disney+ remake. Still…it’s a good song. The Asian pastiche is a pretty common type of popular song and this is one of the better examples of it.

Besides, it isn’t like the cats are singled out. It’s a long-standing tradition in animation that if an animal can be defined by an ethnic stereotype, it will be. Jock, the Scottish terrier, is very Scottish. Boris, the Russian wolfhound, is very Russian. Pedro, the chihuahua, is very Mexican. Of course Si and Am are going to be very “Siamese”, which is a word that people just took to mean generally Asian back in the day. At least they weren’t called “Oriental”. On our ongoing list of Outdated Tropes of the Past, “The Siamese Cat Song” doesn’t seem worth getting too worked up over.

Lady And The Tramp was not an immediate hit with critics. Many longtime Disney supporters dismissed it as sentimental and inconsequential. But audiences loved it. It quickly became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White, ending up as the sixth highest grossing film of 1955.

Lady And The Tramp didn’t exactly lend itself to Disneyland attractions or toys and games beyond the usual merchandise but its popularity earned it a spin-off comic strip. Scamp, originally written by Ward Greene and distributed by King Features, followed the adventures of Lady and the Tramp’s mischievous son for over 30 years. The strip finally ended in 1988 and Scamp returned to animated form in the 2001 direct-to-video sequel Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.

Comic book cover art for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp spin-off Scamp

Even today, Lady And The Tramp remains one of Disney’s most popular films. In 1987, the film was released on VHS for the first time and surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling videocassette of all time. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Peggy Lee, who sued Disney for royalties on the video sales. She was eventually rewarded over $2 million and the case changed entertainment copyright law forever, forcing studios and unions to grapple with new media like home entertainment.

Lady And The Tramp proved that Walt Disney didn’t need a beloved book or fairy tale to deliver a heartfelt, masterfully animated feature. The studio was more than capable of crafting their own stories. But unfortunately, it came around a little too late. Walt had almost done everything he wanted to accomplish with animation. His heart and his mind now belonged to Disneyland. The golden age of Disney animated features was coming to a close.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Even if you’ve never seen a single second of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier, you know it. “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Greenest state in the land of the free / Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree / Kilt him a bar when he was only three.” This earworm, written by George Bruns and Tom Blackburn, has been getting stuck in people’s heads since the mid-50s. Thanks, guys. And now that you’ve read those lyrics, it’s probably stuck in yours. You’re welcome.

Davy Crockett did not start out as a feature film. In the early 1950s, Walt Disney once again needed money. The studio was hemorrhaging cash as a result of budget overruns on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and a pet project of Walt’s, an insane idea for an amusement park. Walt had discovered the power of television with a pair of early specials promoting Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. He realized that a weekly TV series could not only bring in some much-needed income, it could also promote the park.

He shopped it around but nobody seemed all that keen on the idea. Nobody, that is, except ABC, who was struggling to get a foothold against competitors NBC and CBS. Walt signed a deal with ABC and on October 27, 1954, Walt Disney’s Disneyland (named after his insane idea for a park) debuted coast-to-coast. I suppose there is some irony in the fact that Disney now owns ABC, but Disney has now acquired so many studios and subsidiaries that irony feels irrelevant.

Walt Disney on the cover of a 1954 issue of TV Guide.

At any rate, a weekly television series demands content. The Disney Vault already had quite a bit of content and the first seven episodes made judicious use of it. Alice In Wonderland and So Dear To My Heart made their TV debuts. Other episodes were assembled from True-Life Adventure shorts and Donald Duck and Pluto cartoons. There was also plenty of good old-fashioned hucksterism as Walt sold the public on Disneyland (which would open in July of 1955), 20,000 Leagues and Lady And The Tramp.

But Walt also wanted the series to feature all-new original programming. In particular, he wanted to produce a number of historical dramatizations based on American folk heroes. Walt had earlier considered doing an animated treatment of Davy Crockett, perhaps during the brainstorming sessions that produced the Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill segments in Melody Time. When Crockett was pitched for the TV show, Walt wasn’t completely sold on the idea. But the risk was relatively low, so the three episodes were given the go-ahead.

The project was given to two newcomers to the Disney lot. Writer Tom Blackburn started his career writing pulp western stories for dime magazines. He entered the movie business in the late 40s, still focused mainly on westerns like Colt .45 and Cattle Queen Of Montana. Director Norman Foster was a former actor who had found success helming a number of entries in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series. They divided the Crockett story into three distinct episodes: the Creek Wars of 1813-14, Davy’s tenure in Congress, and his last stand at the Alamo.

Walt now began his search for an actor to play Crockett. James Arness was recommended for the part, so Walt screened his latest picture, the monster movie Them! But instead of Arness, Walt’s eye was drawn to Fess Parker, who had a small role as a pilot sent off to the crazy house after nobody believes his story about giant ants attacking his plane.

Parker was pretty close to calling it quits when he landed the role that changed his life. He’d kicked around Hollywood as a contract player for a few years, appearing in small, frequently uncredited roles. To describe Davy Crockett as a big break for the struggling actor would be an understatement.

Another actor who had been considered to play Crockett was Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen knew a thing or two about missed opportunities. He’d been in show business since the 1920s, winning acclaim as a dancer in movies like Born To Dance. He had been cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz but was forced to drop out when the aluminum dust in the makeup made him sick. After that, MGM more or less benched him. Between his contract disputes with the studio and the outbreak of World War II, Ebsen’s career was sidelined for most of the 1940s.

Walt first hired Buddy in 1951 on something called Project Little Man. Ebsen was brought into the studio and filmed performing his signature dance moves in front of a large white grid. This reference footage was then studied by the team that soon became known as Imagineers. Their goal was to create a realistic miniature mechanical man who could move and speak. Eventually, they decided it would be easier to create full-size figures. The project was renamed Audio-Animatronics. So when you see Lincoln in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, you can thank Buddy Ebsen for his part in inspiring it.

After Fess Parker was cast as Davy Crockett, Ebsen was offered the role of Davy’s sidekick, George Russel. It was an inspired pairing. Parker and Ebsen share a natural, easy chemistry that makes it easy to believe that these two men are lifelong friends.

The guest stars include a number of solid character actors. William Bakewell appears as Tobias Norton. Basil Ruysdael plays General (later President) Andrew Jackson. Mike Mazurki, one of the most recognizable heavies of the period, is the land-grabbing Bigfoot Mason. Kenneth Tobey has a relatively small part as James Bowie. Best of all is Hans Conried, bringing some Captain Hook flavor to the role of riverboat gambler Thimblerig.

Davy also encounters a number of Native Americans on his adventures, making peace with Chief Red Stick (Pat Hogan, who actually was Native), coming to the aid of neighbor Charlie Two Shirts (Jeff Thompson, who I can’t find much information about) and defending the Alamo alongside Busted Luck (Nick Cravat, who definitely was not). Compared to a lot of other frontier westerns of the period, Davy Crockett treats the Indians with a fair amount of respect. They’re treated as equals, deserving of the same respect and fairness as anyone else. Even the warlike Red Stick is shown to be a smart, passionate leader. When he tells Davy that it’s not him, it’s the government he doesn’t trust, he’s not wrong. Davy’s more than a little naïve to think he can single-handedly guarantee their fair treatment but bless his idealistic heart for trying.

By feature standards, Davy Crockett was relatively low-budget. But for television in 1954, it looked very impressive. Walt insisted that every episode of Disneyland be shot in color, even though virtually everything was still being broadcast in black-and-white. The production has scale and scope, with big, exciting battle scenes, beautiful locations, and feature-quality matte effects by Peter Ellenshaw recreating Washington, D.C. circa 1830.

Davy was also able to encounter a wide range of wildlife, thanks in part to the True-Life Adventures series. When Davy wrestles an alligator, he’s fighting footage from the two-reel Prowlers Of The Everglades. Davy and George run across the buffalo stampede from The Vanishing Prairie, as well as a prairie dog. The footage doesn’t exactly fit together seamlessly. The gator fight in particular is a little dodgy. But it’s a cost-effective means of adding production value.

The first episode of Davy Crockett aired December 15, 1954. It was an overnight, runaway success, taking everyone involved completely by surprise. Suddenly it seemed you couldn’t step outside without hearing somebody singing “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It’s estimated that more than 40 million people watched the final episode in February. Walt and Roy Disney responded by rushing a wide range of Davy Crockett merchandise into stores. Within months, the coonskin cap became the must-have accessory of kids across America.

Walt Disney's Official Davy Crockett Indian Fighter Hat (Coonskin Cap)
Print Ad for line of Daisy Official Walt Disney Davy Crockett Products
Hey Kids! It's a real Davy Crockett Gym Set!

The show’s success did not go unnoticed by movie exhibitors. Theater owners urged Disney to release a feature version. Since the show had been filmed in color, Walt thought that sounded like a good idea. On May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier hit theaters. I’m not 100% certain whether or not this was the first time something made for TV was repurposed for theatrical exhibition but it seems likely.

The success of Davy Crockett left Disney with one problem. The series ended with Davy’s death at the Alamo, so a sequel would be a bit tricky. But a prequel was certainly a viable option, so later in 1955, the country was treated to a fourth and fifth episode of Davy Crockett. This column will get to those adventures very soon. We’ll also see a lot more of Fess Parker, who became a Disney contract player after the success of Davy Crockett. Buddy Ebsen will be back, too.

Davy Crockett made Disney a force to be reckoned with on television. The Disneyland anthology series continued to air for decades, moving back and forth between ABC, NBC and CBS. The title would change, first becoming Walt Disney Presents, then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, The Wonderful World Of Disney and so on, but the format rarely did.

In addition to airing classic films and shorts, the series continued to produce original programs. These included documentaries on science and space exploration and more Frontierland dramas with characters like Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox. The Wonderful World Of Disney banner returned as recently as this past May, with ABC’s primetime debut of Moana. If you treat all the various incarnations of the series as one show, as most do, it’s the second longest-running primetime show in America.

As successful as the series continued to be, nothing would ever match the once-in-a-lifetime popularity of Davy Crockett. It was a genuine phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of audiences of all ages. It’s hard to say why it clicked as completely and effectively as it did but the combination of Disney’s storytelling savvy with the new medium of television proved irresistible. For a little while in the 1950s, Davy Crockett was king of a whole new frontier.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

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.

Theatrical poster for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

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.

Cover art for the Decca Records release of A Whale Of A Tale by Kirk Douglas

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.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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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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