Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

Branching into television production worked out extremely well for Walt Disney. In an era when TV was still broadcast in black-and-white, Walt was forward-thinking enough to insist on filming in color. This enabled him to repackage the enormously popular Davy Crockett serials and release them theatrically. Those two features proved that the quality of Walt’s TV productions could hold their own on the big screen.

Johnny Tremain was intended to premiere on the Disneyland TV series, just like Davy Crockett. Walt would continue to make historical adventures a key element of the show for years with serials like The Saga Of Andy Burnett and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca. But after screening Johnny Tremain, Walt decided it was good enough to skip television and premiere theatrically instead.

If he was going for longevity, Walt couldn’t have picked better source material. Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1943. It’s been a fixture of middle school curriculums ever since. The book has never gone out of print and in 2000, Publishers Weekly placed it at #16 on their list of all-time best-selling children’s books. If you’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without being exposed to Johnny Tremain, you must have gone to a school that didn’t have books.

Tom Blackburn, Disney’s go-to writer for historical adventure projects, adapted the book. He and composer George Bruns also tried to recapture their “Ballad of Davy Crockett” magic with a couple of original songs, although “The Liberty Tree” didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Blackburn’s script betrays the movie’s TV origins, splitting the story into two distinct episodes.

In the first, we meet our young hero. Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is an apprentice silversmith in Boston working under Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright). Wealthy merchant Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot) wants to commission a replacement piece but Lapham refuses, concerned that his skills are no longer up to the task. Johnny insists that he’s up to the challenge and accepts the work under a tight deadline.

While working on the piece, Johnny reveals a secret to Lapham’s daughter, Priscilla (played by former Disney child star Luana Patten, considerably grown up from her appearances in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart): Johnny is in fact related to Lyte. Before she died, his mother gave him her christening cup engraved with the Lyte family crest. But Johnny wants to make his own way in the world and has decided not to confront Lyte with his story unless he absolutely must.

For advice on Lyte’s commission, Johnny goes to visit Boston’s other prominent silversmith, Paul Revere (Walter Sande). Revere, of course, is a member of the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary organization formed by Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane). Printer’s apprentice Rab Silsbee (future West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Richard Beymer) encourages Johnny to get involved but Johnny prefers to stay out of it.

Taking Revere’s advice, Johnny breaks the Sabbath to finish Lyte’s commission. But an accident badly burns his hand, rendering it useless. The Laphams are forced to let him go. Unable to find work anywhere else, Johnny appeals to Lyte, showing him the cup his mother left him. Rather than taking him in, Lyte accuses Johnny of burglary and has him arrested. Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell) defends Johnny in court, calling Priscilla as a witness and clearing his name. Grateful for all their help, Johnny takes a job delivering newspapers and acting as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty.

From this point on, Johnny has a front-row seat for all the key events of the American Revolution. He and Rab take part in the Boston Tea Party. He’s there for Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to Lexington. He’s on the front lines of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. If he’d been carrying a gun, he probably would have been responsible for the shot heard round the world.

There’s nothing about Johnny Tremain that I would describe as actively bad. It’s a well-made film with high production values and a capable cast. But it is an extremely old-fashioned movie, a little bit stiff and stagy. At times, it feels more like a professionally made Independence Day pageant than a film, especially when the entire cast marches through the streets of Boston singing “The Liberty Tree”. Hamilton, this isn’t.

The biggest problem is that Forbes’ novel has had every last trace of grit and toughness scrubbed out of it by the Disney Sterilization Crew. The book treats the Battles of Lexington and Concord with some degree of realism. Rab is wounded and dies painfully (spoiler alert for a novel you really should have read by now, I guess). The movie treats it like an exciting romp through the woods with high spirits and laughter all around. I don’t expect Johnny Tremain to turn into Saving Private Ryan but any anti-war message from Forbes’ book has been completely jettisoned.

Much of the pleasure of Johnny Tremain comes from watching the cavalcade of character actors as real-life historical figures. Walter Sande is a particular treat as Paul Revere, giving the silversmith a down-to-earth decency that goes beyond the usual thumbnail sketch of kids’ Intro to American History books. Sebastian Cabot is smugness personified as Lyte. And Jeff York (Mike Fink, King of the River!) is virtually unrecognizable as James Otis, a founding member of the Sons of Liberty whose behavior has become increasingly erratic after a head injury.

Considering the presence of Luana Patten, you might expect Walt to cast her former co-star Bobby Driscoll as Johnny. But Driscoll had already been arrested once for marijuana possession by this point, so Walt cast newcomer Hal Stalmaster in the lead role. He isn’t a natural actor but he certainly sells Johnny’s earnestness.

If you’ve paid attention to the credits of virtually any movie or TV show from the second half of the 20th century, you’ve seen the name of Hal’s older brother, the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Lynn was already in casting when Hal got the part in Johnny Tremain and was evidently surprised to find out that his younger brother had any interest in acting. As it turned out, Lynn was right. Hal’s interests did end up lying elsewhere. Walt cast him in another Revolutionary War TV serial, The Swamp Fox starring Leslie Nielsen. But apart from a few small TV roles, Hal retired from acting entirely before the end of the 1960s. He ended up following in his brother’s footsteps, working in Disney’s casting department for a time before becoming a talent agent.

But Johnny Tremain’s most significant addition to the Disney roster was director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson was a British director who emigrated to the US in the early 1940s. He was under contract to David O. Selznick, for whom he made the 1943 version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles, and made a few films at RKO before moving into television. He was a prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke.

When Walt hired Stevenson to direct Johnny Tremain, it was just another TV gig. It became a life-changing experience. Over the course of the next twenty-plus years, Stevenson would direct another 18 features for the studio, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his work on Mary Poppins. In 1977, Variety named him the most commercially successful director of all time with 16 films on their list of all-time highest-grossing films. Needless to say, we’ll be seeing a lot more Robert Stevenson movies in this column.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt’s theatrical gamble paid off for Johnny Tremain. Box office numbers weren’t widely reported back in 1957. But Walt certainly acted like he expected another Davy Crockett-size hit. He flooded stores with Johnny Tremain toys, comics, and other tchotchkes. There were even official Johnny Tremain tri-cornered hats to try and convince kids that coonskin caps were so 1955.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Crayons and Stencils
Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Tri-Cornered Hat

The movie also inspired Walt to propose a new addition to Disneyland called Liberty Street recreating Revolutionary-era Boston. Liberty Street eventually morphed into Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The Johnny Tremain connections might not be quite as overt as Walt had once planned but the Liberty Tree, an enormous 100-year-old southern live oak, still dominates the area.

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

Johnny Tremain also stayed alive through screenings on TV and schools. That original TV format lent itself to editing, so in addition to returning to its original berth on Disneyland, Disney edited it down further to focus on sequences like Paul Revere’s ride. For years, even if you hadn’t seen Johnny Tremain in its entirety, you’d probably seen some of it on a day when your history teacher needed a break.

Today, Johnny Tremain isn’t impossible to find but Disney certainly isn’t treating it like one of their crown jewels. They haven’t released it on Blu-ray or made it available on Disney+ but you can rent or buy an HD version digitally on Vudu or iTunes. It isn’t a terrible movie but I think it’s destined to remain stuck in the past. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy revisiting it. But if you’re new to the world of Johnny Tremain, I don’t think you’ll be inspired to buy your own tri-cornered hat.

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

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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: Treasure Island

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Treasure Island

In the back of my mind, I had always assumed the story behind Treasure Island went something like this. As a boy, young Walter Elias Disney had read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and, like most boys, had fallen in love with it. He wanted to make it into a movie but not a cartoon. Walt wanted to live the adventure, to smell the sea air, feel the ship beneath his feet and assemble his own motley pirate crew.

There may well be some small element of truth to that idealistic tale but the real story behind how Treasure Island became Walt Disney’s first fully live-action feature is much more prosaic. In the years following World War II, the British government levied a steep import tax on American films. Monies earned by American studios were frozen with the condition that it must be put back into the ailing British economy. They’d also imposed a quota that mandated that 45 percent of all films shown in British cinemas had to be made in England.

Walt wasn’t about to build a new animation studio in London. But he could use the frozen assets to shoot a live-action feature using a mostly British cast and crew. And so it was the accounting department that decided Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island would become Walt Disney’s first live-action feature film.

While most of the below-the-line crew was British, including the great cinematographer Freddie Young and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, the top guys were all Americans. Producer Perce Pearce had been with Disney for years, working on Fantasia and Bambi before moving over to live-action production with Song Of The South. Screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin had been hired by Disney a few years earlier to adapt Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill stories into a screenplay. Watkin would write several more films for Disney before that project was finally realized in 1959.

Director Byron Haskin had been a cinematographer and special effects man at Warner Bros. before becoming a full-time director with the 1947 film noir I Walk Alone. Treasure Island would be Haskin’s only film with Disney. He’d later collaborate with George Pal on such movies as The War Of The Worlds and Conquest Of Space, as well as directing the cult sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe On Mars.

Watkin’s screenplay condenses Stevenson’s novel down to a tight 96 minutes. Most of the iconic characters are represented, even if some, like Blind Pew, are nearly reduced to cameo appearances. Fortunately, the cast is strong enough to make an impression with even the smallest roles. Geoffrey Wilkinson, a stage actor with no other film roles to his credit, makes for an ideal Ben Gunn, the half-crazed pirate marooned on Treasure Island. The pompous Squire Trelawney is brought to life by Walter Fitzgerald and Denis O’Dea makes for a sympathetic and understanding Dr. Livesey. Both actors would later return to the Disney fold in Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

And then there’s Robert Newton, the living, breathing embodiment of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, as Long John Silver. Newton wasn’t the first actor to take on the role of the one-legged pirate but he made it his own like no one before or since. Newton sets the tone for the entire picture with a broad, caricatured performance straight out of a British pantomime. Subtle, it is not. But it is effective and impossible to forget.

There was really only one choice to play young Jim Hawkins. Bobby Driscoll had been the first actor signed to an exclusive contract with Disney. In the years since his debut in Song Of The South, he’d been kept busy in movies like Melody Time and won a special juvenile Academy Award for So Dear To My Heart and the RKO thriller The Window. Bobby’s all-American voice and demeanor makes him an odd fit for the West Coast of England in 1765. But he gets by on spirit and attitude and it helps that he and Newton have a fun, natural rapport.

Cover art for the Dell Four Color Comics adaptation of Treasure Island

Treasure Island would be the beginning of the end for Bobby Driscoll at Disney. Walt had planned on casting him as Tom Sawyer, which would have been a perfect fit, but couldn’t secure the film rights. Other potential live-action vehicles also fell by the wayside. Bobby’s next work for the studio would be as the voice of Goofy Junior in the shorts Fathers Are People and Father’s Lion. We’ll see him in this column one last time, in animated form.

One character who didn’t make it into the movie was Jim Hawkins’ mother. Mrs. Hawkins only appears briefly in the novel but in the film, she’s simply referred to in passing. We’re assured that a good word from Dr. Livesey will be all that’s needed to secure her permission for Jim’s sea voyage. Her presence isn’t really missed all that much but it does make Treasure Island a very testosterone-heavy movie. There isn’t a single female character in the entire picture.

Apart from Robert Newton, it’s Freddie Young and Peter Ellenshaw who emerge as the film’s MVPs. Young’s Technicolor cinematography is vibrant and colorful, ideally suited to a rousing boy’s adventure. This would be his only work for Disney but he of course went on to become one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, winning Oscars for his work on Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Treasure Island would be the beginning of a long association with Disney. When someone describes the look of a live-action Disney film, it’s often Ellenshaw’s beautiful background paintings that come to mind. He’d go on to win an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins and rack up additional nominations for Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Island At The Top Of The World, and The Black Hole. We’ll be seeing a lot more of his work in this column.

Theatrical re-release poster for Treasure Island

Years later, Disney would submit Treasure Island to the MPAA ratings board prior to a theatrical re-release. The board slapped it with the dreaded PG. At the time, Disney had a strict policy of only releasing G-rated fare, so they cut about 9 minutes out of the film. By the early 1990s, that policy was gone and the movie was restored to its original length.

Even today, Treasure Island is a bit more violent than you might expect from Disney. Pirates are shot in the face at point blank range. Jim gets skewered by a sword and has to stagger back to shore alone. By the end, hardly anyone emerges unscathed. It certainly isn’t Peckinpah levels of blood and gore but the body count is pretty high for a kids’ movie.

Treasure Island was a solid hit at the box office and with critics, proving once and for all that Disney was capable of more than just animation. Despite its success, Walt decided not to pursue a sequel. But since Stevenson’s novel was in the public domain, there was nothing to stop others from cashing in on Disney’s success. In 1954, Robert Newton reprised the role in Long John Silver, directed once again by Byron Haskin. It did well enough that Newton and Haskin went on to a short-lived TV series, The Adventures Of Long John Silver. Twenty-six episodes were produced but most of the world didn’t get to see them until after Newton’s death in 1956 at the age of 50.

Even though Walt Disney himself didn’t produce a sequel, this was far from the last time he’d venture into pirate-infested waters. In 1967, Pirates Of The Caribbean would debut at Disneyland. The attraction was one of the last rides personally overseen by Walt himself. In 2003, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp would turn it into a surprise blockbuster, launching four sequels so far.

Pirates would also play key roles in Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson and Blackbeard’s Ghost. In 1986, the Disney Channel would air the miniseries Return To Treasure Island, with Brian Blessed starring as Long John Silver. Ten years after that, Muppet Treasure Island marked the second co-production between Disney and the Jim Henson Company. And in 2002, the studio would give the story a sci-fi makeover with the costly flop Treasure Planet.

The one-two punch of Cinderella and Treasure Island made 1950 Walt Disney’s most profitable year in nearly a decade. On Christmas Day, NBC aired Walt’s first foray into television. One Hour In Wonderland featured Walt himself, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, the young star of his next feature, Alice In Wonderland. Walt was one of the few studio heads to grasp the potential of television. Within a few years, he would be a regular presence on the small screen.

The Disney empire was expanding into new mediums and new formats. Treasure Island was the opening salvo into the world of live-action production. It’s a world that, at its peak, will threaten to overshadow animation completely.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Original theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Walt Disney started the 1940s with two of the most ambitious creative gambles of his career: Pinocchio and Fantasia. Neither one paid off the way he had hoped. What followed was arguably the most tumultuous decade of his life. World War II, an animators strike, and too many expensive box office flops had forced him to scale back considerably. Walt had started the decade with high hopes and big dreams. By 1949, he just wanted to be done.

Walt’s lack of enthusiasm bled over into the last few package films of the decade. The connective tissue between the segments grew flimsier as time went on. The segments themselves betrayed their origins as scraps and leftovers from other projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the behind-the-scenes drama on Disney’s final package film, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad.

Walt’s animators first pitched The Wind In The Willows as a potential feature back in 1938. Walt was lukewarm on the idea but bought the rights to Kenneth Grahame’s book anyway. Since the Disney coffers were stuffed with Snow White money, he was buying the rights to a lot of things at the time. Production officially began in 1941 with James Algar directing. But they didn’t get far before the strike and the war caused it to be abandoned.

A few years later, Walt turned his attention back to the project. He took a look at what had been done so far and didn’t care for it. He told Algar and Frank Thomas to take another crack at it but to cut it down to the bone. If they could get it under 25 minutes, Walt would pair it up with the Mickey Mouse mega-short The Legend Of Happy Valley (soon to be renamed Mickey And The Beanstalk) and release it under the truly abysmal title Two Fabulous Characters.

But it soon became apparent that The Wind In The Willows was going to take longer to finish than anyone had anticipated. Not wanting to delay the release of the Mickey cartoon any longer, Mickey And The Beanstalk got shuffled over to Fun & Fancy Free. In need of a fabulous replacement character, Walt settled on another project that didn’t seem worth expanding to feature-length, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Not because it made a better thematic match with The Wind In The Willows. That’s just what he had left.

At some point, Disney mercifully decided to drop the Two Fabulous Characters name, although not before the phrase crept into the narration. Instead, he gave the project the slightly-less generic title The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. That’s not even the order the stories appear in the film but whatever. At this point, I’m surprised Walt didn’t call the movie Fire Sale: Everything Must Go!

(For whatever reason, Walt seemed to have a thing for that original title. Later on, he’d air an episode of the Disneyland TV series called Four Fabulous Characters that had nothing to do with any of this. Instead, it featured The Martins And The Coys and Casey At The Bat segments from Make Mine Music, Johnny Appleseed from Melody Time and The Brave Engineer short. If nothing else, Walt Disney was a firm believer in recycling.)

To narrate the stories, Walt hired two of the biggest stars he’d worked with to date. Basil Rathbone was already a highly respected actor when his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on film and radio turned him into an icon. Bing Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. Having either one associated with a Disney production must have been a huge coup.

Even though the movie was assembled in such a lazy, slapdash manner, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad ironically emerges as one of Disney’s better package films. The only real problem with it, and it’s a fairly large problem, is that the two stories could not be more dissimilar. If you’re a fan of Ichabod, it’s a chore to sit through The Wind In The Willows. And if you loved Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow is a jarring change of tone. Even the flow from one story to the next seems off. The British Wind In The Willows ends up as a Christmas/New Years story. The American Sleepy Hollow is autumn leading up to Halloween. Everything about the film seems backwards.

Walt’s disinterest in The Wind In The Willows may have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether his mind was on other things or he simply didn’t get it, he really wasn’t the right choice to adapt Grahame’s gentle, deeply British novel. Like a lot of adaptations, Disney decides to focus on the fun-loving, adventure-seeking Toad, although Mole and Rat are really the main characters of the book. There’s nothing wrong with that choice but it does reduce the story to a series of madcap chases. At least Walt was able to get a fun Disneyland attraction out of it.

UK quad poster for The Wind In The Willows.

For what it is, Disney’s Wind In The Willows is perfectly fine. The animation is lively and the character design is memorable. Rathbone’s narration gives it an air of English authenticity that is otherwise wholly unearned. Eric Blore, a reliably hilarious presence in such films as Top Hat and Sullivan’s Travels, is an excellent choice to provide the voice of J. Thaddeus Toad. But it’s easier to appreciate the cartoon’s strengths when viewed on its own instead of as an opening act.

Make no mistake, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is very much the headliner of this double feature. All these years later, I would argue that it remains the definitive screen version of Washington Irving’s classic story (sorry, Tim Burton). Even though it’s lighter and family-friendlier than Irving’s original, the cartoon’s images and sounds are so indelible that they’ve come to represent the tale in the popular imagination.

On the face of it, Bing Crosby may seem a counterintuitive choice to tell the tale but it’s actually an inspired choice. Crosby had been a hugely popular singer since the early 1930s. Since crossing over to film, he had become a top box office draw and won an Oscar for his work in Going My Way. Thanks to his work for the USO during the war, he had essentially become the voice of America. In 1948, he topped polls as “the most admired man alive”. Who better to take you by the hand and guide you through a quintessentially American ghost story?

Of course, you don’t hire Bing Crosby just to narrate. You want him to sing, so Disney hired songwriters Don Raye and Gene de Paul to come up with three original songs, one for each of the main characters, Ichabod, Katrina and the Headless Horseman. Raye and de Paul didn’t contribute all that much to the Disney songbook. They’d written the song “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got” for So Dear To My Heart and would later come up with “Beware The Jabberwock”, an unused song from Alice In Wonderland. But they’re best known for future standards like “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Their pop sensibilities work well here, creating three instant earworms that suit Crosby’s style perfectly.

Album cover art for Walt Disney's Ichabod by Bing Crosby

As wonderful as the music and Crosby’s narration are, it’s the animation and design that makes Sleepy Hollow so unforgettable. Co-director Jack Kinney was the main director on the Goofy shorts and you can see the same lanky, graceful awkwardness in Ichabod Crane. Brom Bones is such an ideal caricature of a rugged he-man that the studio essentially recast him some 40 years later as Gaston in Beauty And The Beast.

And then there’s the Headless Horseman, a character who gets one of the top-five best entrances in Disney history. Only Maleficent and maybe Cruella De Vil come close to topping it. Every other character is exaggerated to some extent but the Horseman is played completely straight. This isn’t some cartoon monster. This is a demon who seriously means to cut your head clean off.

The chase sequence is a masterpiece of animation. Directors Kinney and Clyde Geronimi manage to pull off the difficult trick of making the scene both funny and frightening at the same time. Humor is a vital element in horror, helping to provide a release valve for tension. Without the business between Ichabod and his horse, this sequence would be unbearably tense for most kids.

Even with it, it’s still a lot to take. I’ve talked to plenty of people who say this movie gave them nightmares and it’s hardly surprising. This chase feels completely different from, say, the police pursuit of Mr. Toad in the previous segment. Even though bullets are flying, you’re never afraid that Toad is in danger of being picked off. You don’t have that same assurance with Ichabod and the Horseman. There’s real weight behind the Horseman’s sword.

The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad was released in October of 1949, in time for Halloween. It made some money but considering the fact that the studio had been working on it in some form or another for the better part of a decade, it wasn’t enough to recover its costs. After it completed its original theatrical engagement, the film wouldn’t be seen in its original form again for decades.

Instead, as had become common practice with the package films, the two halves were split up to air separately on TV, theatrically, and eventually on video. The Wind In The Willows debuted on television first, paired with Disney’s earlier adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Years later, it was retitled The Madcap Adventures Of Mr. Toad and released in front of the live-action comedy western Hot Lead And Cold Feet.

Sleepy Hollow had a much bigger impact on its own. Its television debut was a Halloween episode of Disneyland, for which the studio produced an introductory prologue on the life of Washington Irving. Disney has never officially released that prologue on home video but YouTube is a thing, so here it is now:

The short was released to theatres in 1963 and I can personally vouch for the fact that it became a Halloween staple of elementary school teachers throughout the 1970s and 80s. It would continue to be a part of holiday specials like Halloween Hall O’ Fame (featuring a pumpkinhead Jonathan Winters) and Disney’s Halloween Treat for years. In the early 90s, Disney finally put the original film back together on laserdisc.

VHS cover art for Disney's Halloween Treat

For too long, you could only see these films individually. Today it’s the opposite problem: whether it’s on Blu-ray or streaming, you can only access them together. Why on earth is it so difficult for Disney to give audiences BOTH options? Believe it or not, most people don’t want to make The Wind In The Willows part of their Halloween traditions. To be clear, I don’t want them to erase the original version from existence. But when a studio repurposes material as drastically as Disney has done with the segments from its various package films, the ideal presentation would include all the different variations.

Disney ended the package film years on a high note, even if that wouldn’t become fully apparent until later. At the time, I’m sure that Walt didn’t even notice. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad had never been a priority for him. As usual, his eyes were on the future. The 1950s would be a much different decade for Walt Disney.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus but it’d be a Disney Double Plus if they split the segments up again.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Song Of The South

Song Of The South theatrical release poster

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.

Original 1946 theatrical release poster for Song Of The South

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.

1970s re-release poster for Song Of The South featuring the Tar Baby

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.

1980s theatrical re-release poster for Song Of The South

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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