Disney Plus-Or-Minus: So Dear To My Heart

Original theatrical poster for So Dear To My Heart

Walt Disney had not moved to Hollywood to work in animation. He’d already been making cartoons for a few years back in Kansas City. If he’d wanted to continue exclusively in that field, the place to go would have been New York, home of animation pioneers Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers. But Walt wanted to break into live-action. The dream was deferred while he built his animation studio but it never went away.

Throughout the 1940s, live-action slowly became a larger part of the Disney operation. Most of the reason for this had been economic. It was a lot cheaper to bridge the segments in package films like The Reluctant Dragon and Fun & Fancy Free with the likes of Robert Benchley and Edgar Bergen than to create full animation. Even Song Of The South had become a hybrid film out of necessity. The cartoon sequences simply didn’t have enough meat on the bone to carry an entire feature.

So Dear To My Heart was supposed to be different. It was intended to be Walt Disney’s first entirely live-action feature. It was based on the children’s book Midnight And Jeremiah by Sterling North. The story of a young boy who raises an unwanted black lamb in turn-of-the-century Indiana clearly meant a great deal to Walt personally. He had fond memories of his childhood years on a farm outside Marceline, Missouri, right around the same time as North’s book was set. Walt only spent a few years in Marceline but they made a huge impact. So Dear To My Heart would be one of Walt’s first attempts at capturing the idealized, nostalgic Americana of his youth but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Walt hired journeyman director Harold Schuster to helm the film based on the strength of his work on the boy-and-his-horse movie My Friend Flicka. One of Walt’s major changes to North’s book also involved a horse. As a child, Walt had been a great fan of the legendary racehorse Dan Patch. Now as an adult, he saw the horse as the perfect symbol of that idyllic time in his life. So he included a brief scene where Dan Patch himself makes a brief stop in Fulton Corners, later inspiring young Jeremiah to name the black lamb Danny rather than Midnight. Sterling North must have thought these changes were pretty good. He went back and revised his book, reissuing it under the movie’s title and incorporating most of Walt’s tweaks.

The movie was shot in 1946. Young Disney contract players Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were cast as Jeremiah and Tildy. Schuster recommended veteran character actress Beulah Bondi (best known for playing James Stewart’s mother more often than anyone other than his actual mother) as Granny Kincaid. As the amiable blacksmith, Uncle Hiram, Disney cast Burl Ives, a radio personality and folksinger who had just started appearing in films.

The shoot seemed to go smoothly enough. But when Walt got a look at the assembled footage, he thought it was missing something. So he brought in his cartoon team and had them create animated segments featuring a Wise Old Owl (voiced by Ken Carson) imparting greeting-card-style life lessons to Jeremiah and a cartoon version of Danny the sheep. Adding animation delayed the film’s release until late 1948. By the time it finally came out, Harry Carey, who appears as the Head Judge at the County Fair, had been dead over a year.

Ironically, those animated sequences really don’t add all that much to the film. So Dear To My Heart is a sweet, some might say saccharine amble through a nostalgic America that never really existed. The cartoon sequences, directed by Hamilton Luske, are mostly just little detours along the way. They’re cute and nicely designed but I don’t think you’d miss them much if they weren’t there.

The one exception is a sequence I presume was intended to be a big showstopper. “Stick-To-It-Ivity” has the Owl singing about the importance of persistence, which is all well and good, using elaborately designed stories about Christopher Columbus and Robert the Bruce to illustrate his point. Setting aside any issues one might have with historical inaccuracies (which certainly wouldn’t have bothered 1948 audiences anyway), this all feels a bit out of the blue. One minute we’re in the world of county fairs and quaint train depots, the next we’re seeing an animated version of Braveheart. It doesn’t exactly fit the movie’s genteel tone.

That tone is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. This is a completely harmless movie, suitable for all ages. As in Song Of The South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten make a cute pair. If anything, they’ve relaxed a bit between films. Their performances aren’t quite as Child Actorly as they were in their first movie. It’s fun to see Beulah Bondi spout old-timey expressions like “full of ginger” and “tarnation” and Burl Ives is a warm, inviting presence. Disney and Schuster wisely keep him busy singing whenever the opportunity arises.

But So Dear To My Heart is also as lightweight as a dandelion on the wind and nearly as forgettable. It recaptures that summertime feeling in the country when the days are long, the air is warm and there’s nothing to do but watch the clouds pass by. That can be an awfully pleasant feeling while you’re experiencing it. It can also be quite dull. As soon as you move on to something else, you’ve forgotten all about that lazy summer day. And that’s exactly the case here.

Theatrical re-release poster for So Dear To My Heart

So Dear To My Heart did not end up being a huge hit for Disney, though not for lack of trying on Walt’s part. As the film premiered in various cities across the Midwest in 1949, Walt went with it, making personal appearances and trying to drum up business. But it only did so-so, got a brief re-release in 1964, and has only been intermittently available on home video.

There were at least a couple of things from the film that were unqualified successes. “Lavender Blue” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar and became Burl Ives’ first hit record. It lost (to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) which is just as well, really. Not that it’s a bad tune. Songwriters Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey adapted a centuries-old English folk ballad, which made it a perfect fit for Burl Ives. But it also means it wasn’t a particularly original “original song”.

Burl Ives’ folksy charm is so perfectly in sync with Walt Disney’s golden-hued nostalgia that it’s somewhat surprising the two didn’t work together more often. Ives would, of course, make an indelible impression as a voice actor in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer but Walt never tapped him to do a cartoon voice. He released a few albums on Disneyland Records and, in 1974, provided the voice of the animatronic Sam the Eagle (no relation to the Muppet) for America Sings at Disneyland. But Burl Ives will only show up in this column once more, in another live-action role.

The other big winner to emerge from So Dear To My Heart was young Bobby Driscoll, who was enjoying the best year of his tragically brief career. In March 1950, Bobby was presented with a special Juvenile Award at the Oscars for his work in this and the RKO film noir The Window. We’ll see Bobby in this column again soon, so let’s let him enjoy his moment of glory and save the sad stuff for another time.

Luana Patten, on the other hand, was nearing the end of her association with Disney, at least as a child star. This was her fourth appearance in a Disney film, following Song Of The South, Fun & Fancy Free and Melody Time, and it would be her last for awhile. Luana quit acting for nearly a decade after So Dear To My Heart. Her next film appearance would be as a teenager opposite Sal Mineo and John Saxon in the 1956 rock & roll picture Rock, Pretty Baby! We’ll see her back in this column as a grownup eventually.

Even if So Dear To My Heart hasn’t left a lasting impression, it’s still a key moment in Walt Disney’s development as a filmmaker. Its failure to stand on its own without cartoon sequences gave Walt a clearer idea of the challenges of live-action filmmaking. It put him one step closer to his goal of producing movies without the crutch of animation, a goal he’d be achieving very soon.

But more importantly, it marked the beginning of an aesthetic that would continue for the rest of Walt’s career. He would return to the idealized small town in the heart of America again and again. We’ll be visiting it in this column in plenty of times. But perhaps the most concrete and lasting legacy of this vision lies in Main Street, USA, the hub that welcomes visitors to Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and now Disney theme parks around the world. It’s practically the set of So Dear To My Heart brought to life, with its quaint shops, horse-drawn carriages, and railroad depot. It’s no surprise that Walt kept an apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. He had spent his entire life trying to get back to Marceline. In the end, he simply rebuilt it in his own image.

VERDICT: This is another one where Disney Minus seems too harsh but Disney Plus seems too enthusiastic. Let’s call it Baseline Disney.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bambi

Original theatrical release poster

Whatever else one might say about Walt Disney, nobody could accuse him of making the same movie twice during his first half-decade or so of feature production. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo are all very different films in style, in tone, in story and in characters. Disney had pushed the envelope of animation farther than anyone before him and he still wasn’t done. With Bambi, he wanted to hit a new level of realism in animation. It would be his last truly great film of the 1940s and arguably one of his last bold experiments with animation.

Bambi was based on a novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten (we’ll see his name in this column again, as Disney would go on to produce two more movies based on his work). Significantly, Bambi was not considered a children’s book. It had been a major international bestseller and was even banned as a subversive political allegory by the Nazis. Any movie version of Bambi would have been seen as an A-list prestige picture.

Originally, that movie was to have been made by Sidney Franklin, a producer and director at MGM who apparently had a thing for deer. In 1946, he’d produce the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling starring Gregory Peck. But in 1937, Franklin decided that making a live-action version of Bambi would be next to impossible. So he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who planned on making it his follow-up to Snow White. This turned out to be a seriously optimistic goal, as both the story and the animation took a long time to get right.

Today, the story beats of Disney’s Bambi are so familiar that they seem inevitable. But Disney and the story team led by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey would make some big changes to Salten’s book before it made it to the screen. Disney’s movie certainly has some intense moments but the book is an even darker affair.

In the book, Faline has a brother, Gobo, who goes missing following the hunt that (spoiler alert, I guess, although I can’t imagine why you’re reading this if you’ve never seen Bambi) kills Bambi’s mom. Later on, Gobo returns. Turns out that a man found Gobo, took him home and nursed him back to health. Strong and overconfident in his belief that he knows more about the ways of man than the other deer, Gobo is eventually shot and killed in a particularly horrifying scene that would have scarred young psyches waaaaaaay worse than Bambi’s mom’s off-screen demise.

The death of Bambi’s mother is a stunning sequence and a testament to the genius of Walt Disney. For generations of kids, this scene was probably their first experience with death. Did Walt realize that would be the case when he was making the film? It honestly feels as if he might have. Everything about the sequence, the pacing, the colors, the music and sound design and the sudden absence of sound when the Great Prince appears, has been carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The impact of that loss has real weight. It hits audiences harder than most fictional deaths.

A newer generation may have had a similar experience with The Lion King, a movie this column will get to eventually (a couple times, as a matter of fact). The Lion King owes more than a little bit to Bambi but I’d argue that the movies treat their respective parental deaths very differently. Mufasa is killed by an act of treachery. It’s a plot point in a story arc that most of us will never live through. Bambi’s mom is killed by a hunter with a gun. It’s a threat that these animals have to deal with every day of their lives. It could happen at any time. Mufasa reappears in cloud form to give Simba some fatherly advice. When Bambi’s mother is gone, she’s just gone. It’s no wonder Bambi continues to leave an indelible impression on young audiences.

While Disney may have been striving for realism with Bambi, it’s a mistake to describe this as realistic animation. The animals may not be as heavily anthropomorphized as they are in other cartoons insofar as they’re not wearing people clothes. But you’re still not going to find a rabbit who looks and acts like Thumper or a skunk who behaves like Flower in nature. Nature itself doesn’t look the way it looks in Bambi. The backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are stunningly gorgeous and thoroughly impressionistic.

Somehow, all of these non-realistic elements blend together perfectly to create a world that feels very real. There are shots of deer leaping through the forest and Bambi’s mother entering the meadow that look absolutely lifelike. That doesn’t mean they look like a photograph. That’s something Disney seems to have forgotten in their wave of CGI remakes like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It simply means they have the illusion of life.

Bambi re-release poster

By this point, Disney movies were routinely nominated for Academy Awards. They had been particularly dominant in the music categories, a trend that continues to the present day. Bambi was no exception, earning nominations for the score by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb and for the song “Love Is A Song”. The music in Bambi is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it probably has more music than any other Disney film. The movie is practically wall-to-wall music and the two moments that have no music at all are very noticeable.

But Bambi isn’t really a musical, at least not in the sense that Disney’s previous films had been. There are only three or four songs in the entire movie and none of them are sung by characters. “Love Is A Song”, the sublime “Little April Shower”, and the rest are all non-diegetic songs that comment on the movie rather than help move the story along. Dumbo had done a little of that with sequences like the Stork song but it still left room for more traditional musical numbers. Back then, the Oscars split the Original Score categories into musical and non-musical divisions. The year before, Dumbo had won the award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. Bambi was treated like a drama and nominated in the category’s non-musical equivalent.

(“Love Is A Song” didn’t win, by the way, but I doubt anyone expected it to. It was up against a little number by Irving Berlin called “White Christmas” from the movie Holiday Inn. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Academy made the wrong call in this case.)

Walt may have been more excited by Bambi‘s third Oscar nomination: Best Sound Recording. That may not sound worth getting fired up over but it was the first time that an animated film had been nominated in the category. Although Bambi didn’t win (it lost to Yankee Doodle Dandy), it was further validation that the Hollywood establishment was taking the art of animation seriously.

Bambi was released in August of 1942, already a much different world than the one that had greeted Dumbo less than a year earlier. America had officially entered World War II, so it probably wasn’t the best time for Walt to turn his back on fantasy and embrace realism. Like many of his other films of the period, Bambi would take years to turn a profit.

But the legacy of Bambi is undeniable. Walt Disney proved that animation was capable of tackling mature, serious themes just as well as it could handle fantastic and comedic stories. It places the audience deep into the heart of the forest, making us truly empathize with these animals more deeply and fully than any live-action film ever could. I imagine Bambi has provoked more deep, meaningful conversations between parents and their kids about life, death, the environment, even vegetarianism, than most other movies, animated or live-action.

In some ways, Bambi represents the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s animated art. Thanks to World War II and the financial disappointments of his recent films, Walt would now be forced to cut back. It would be years before he could make another animated feature as ambitious as his first five had been. But even if the studio had gone bankrupt and Walt had never made another feature film, he’d be remembered today for these early classics. Bambi remains a high-water mark in animation, the culmination of a remarkable run of unbridled creativity.

VERDICT: Disney Plus