Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Light In The Forest

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Light In The Forest

The films of Walt Disney are some of the most recognizable and familiar titles of the last century. The studio has done a commendable job keeping most of them in the public eye, so odds are good that you’ve seen quite a few of them. Even if you haven’t, Walt’s taste in source material ran toward popular classics like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. You don’t need to have seen Davy Crockett to know what it’s about. But I have to admit I had no idea what to expect from The Light In The Forest.

The movie is based on a 1953 novel by Conrad Richter. If you’re anything like me, you don’t know who that is, either, even though he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s probably best known for his trilogy The Awakening Land. Those books were turned into an NBC mini-series in 1978 that I vaguely remember my grandmother watching at the time.  

Lawrence Edward Watkin, Walt’s go-to writer of historical adventures, wrote the screenplay. Watkin’s previous script, The Great Locomotive Chase, failed to find much excitement in a real-life Civil War incident. While The Light In The Forest is fiction, Richter did incorporate a number of real historical figures and events into his book, including Henry Bouquet, a colonel in the British Army who is today notorious for coming up with the idea to give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox.

The movie doesn’t mention that incident and picks up some time later, with Colonel Bouquet (Stephen Bekassy) negotiating a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians. As part of the terms, the Delaware are required to hand over all their white captives. But these “captives” are mostly women and children who have been fully assimilated into the tribe. One of them, True Son (James MacArthur) has been raised by the Chief himself. True Son has no memory of his birth family and hates all whites. But Chief Cuyloga (Joseph Calleia, previously seen as the Padre in The Littlest Outlaw) displays no favoritism and delivers True Son along with the rest.

On the trail, True Son shows he’d rather die than return to his white family by attempting to eat some poisonous mandrake. Hoping to avoid further trouble, Bouquet asks his trusted guide and translator, Del Hardy (Fess Parker), to escort True Son to his parents and help him get settled. Del becomes something of a surrogate father to True Son, teaching him the ways of the white man and helping reconcile them with his Indian beliefs.

Now this is an interesting, provocative set-up for a story. And as you might imagine, a live-action Disney movie from 1958 is not equipped to handle all the complexities and rough edges of a story like this. However, it comes closer than you might think. The Delaware are treated respectfully, for the most part. The scene where they turn over their so-called “captives” to the British Army is uncomfortable, especially in 2020 when stories of immigrant children separated from their families are still very much in the news. It’s not quite clear whose side the filmmakers are on here but they deserve some credit for at least acknowledging the fact that these people did not want to leave the tribe.

Things get even more complicated when True Son meets his birth parents. At first, his mother (Jessica Tandy, already playing a frail old woman at the age of 48) appears like she’s going to be small-minded and racist. She makes him put on new clothes and refuses to let him leave the room until he says his “real” name, John Butler. But later when she’s teaching him English, we realize she’s not trying to make him forget his Indian language. She thinks he should learn as much as he can about everything and asks him to teach her the language of the Delaware.

The town’s real racist is Wilse Owens (Wendell Corey), a member of the Paxton Boys, a real-life vigilante mob notorious for slaughtering Indians in the Conestoga Massacre. Wilse goes out of his way to antagonize Johnny/True Son, even building a scarecrow out of his Indian clothes to use as target practice. Wilse also has a pretty 17-year-old indentured servant named Shenandoe (Carol Lynley in her film debut). And even though this is a Disney film, it’s very clear that Wilse’s intentions are less than honorable.

The movie’s ideology gets particularly jumbled in its final act. After Wilse kills one of Johnny’s Delaware friends, he returns to the tribe. The murdered boy’s father wants revenge but Cuyloga cautions against breaking the treaty. When the council outvotes him, he reluctantly agrees to join them on the warpath, attacking a group of white settlers, including women and children.

True Son is forced to prove his loyalty to the tribe by luring in another group but warns them away from the ambush at the last second. He’s appalled that his Indian brothers are ready to kill innocents. The tribe turns on True Son, painting his face black-and-white to symbolize his two-faced nature and planning to burn him at the stake. Cuyloga intervenes and spares his life but exiles him, declaring he no longer has any Indian blood in him.

Del finds True Son/Johnny and promises to take him back home, hoping that Johnny’s experiences have taught him that there’s good and bad in everyone. Except for maybe Wilse Owens, who seems to be pure evil. Johnny wants to kill him but Del warns he can’t exactly do that. Instead, Johnny challenges Wilse to a fist fight, “like a white man”. After Johnny kicks Wilse’s ass, they come to some kind of reconciliation with Wilse begrudgingly and somewhat admiringly admitting, “He’s white, alright.” Wow.

That ending is really the biggest flaw in The Light In The Forest and it’s a doozy. Wilse is an unrepentant racist, a murderer, and presumably a rapist. And yet he receives no punishment and learns nothing from all this. His comeuppance only serves to reinforce his racist beliefs. This is like Disney saying there are some very fine people on both sides. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because the rest of the movie at least attempts to grapple with the complex issues it raises. Shenandoe is an interesting character and an effective way to hint at the shadow of slavery without throwing another racial dynamic into the film’s already confused politics. The lyrics of the title song inform us that the light in the forest is love (it is not one of Disney’s greatest hits) because Johnny and Shenandoe end up together. A better, braver movie would have cast a Black actress as Shenandoe and dealt with slavery head-on. But considering Disney’s track record with racial issues, it’s probably just as well they went with Carol Lynley instead.

Both Lynley and James MacArthur made their Disney debuts with this film. Of the two of them, Lynley was the real find. She’s beautiful, charismatic and soulful. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. So naturally she was smart enough to avoid signing a long-term Disney contract. She went on to a long, eclectic career that included appearances in Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Poseidon Adventure but she never returned to Disney. Ironically, one of her last roles was in a completely unrelated 2003 family movie called A Light In The Forest.

MacArthur came from a show business family. His parents were the great screenwriter Charles MacArthur and legendary actress Helen Hayes. James was attending Harvard when he was cast in The Light In The Forest and one of the stipulations in his contract specified he could only work during his summer break. His performance is more than a little stiff but that could just be the unfortunate way actors were directed to play Native Americans in 1958. We’ll soon find out. MacArthur did sign a contract with Disney. He’ll be back in this column soon.

But this would be Fess Parker’s last rodeo for Disney. No one would deny that he had a hell of a ride, catapulting from obscurity to overnight international stardom on the strength of Davy Crockett. But Walt didn’t want Parker to do anything but play Davy Crockett. Parker had already lost out on plum roles in The Searchers and Bus Stop after Walt refused to lend him out to other studios. And he was getting increasingly bored with playing the same type of role again and again.

After The Light In The Forest, Walt cast Parker in a relatively small role in his next western, Tonka. Parker flat-out refused the part, which was not something actors did to Walt Disney. Walt placed him on suspension and Parker, fed up with the way he was being treated, quit. Afterwards, Parker bounced around movies and TV shows for a few years before landing his second iconic role, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone ran for six seasons between 1964 and 1970, not quite reaching Davy Crockett levels of popularity but certainly good enough. Parker pretty much retired from acting after Daniel Boone, turning to real estate ventures and winemaking. Fess Parker died in 2010 but the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard is still open for business in Los Olivos, California.

Herschel Daugherty directed The Light In The Forest. Not only was this his only work for Disney, it was one of the few theatrical films he ever directed. He went on to become an extremely prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O (which co-starred none other than James MacArthur as Danny “Book ‘em, Danno” Williams) and many, many others. Daugherty had a good eye and his camerawork is more active than we’ve seen in some of Disney’s other live-action features. It’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t bring him back for more.

The Light In The Forest is almost certainly the most obscure Disney movie this column has covered so far. The studio has not made it available on Disney+ or any other digital platform. They’ve never even released it on DVD, much less Blu-ray. It has flown entirely under the radar since its initial VHS and laserdisc release.

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the studio fears a Song Of The South-style backlash against the movie’s well-meaning but muddled racial politics. That could be but, to be honest, Hollywood studios generally don’t demonstrate that much sensitivity when it comes to Native Americans. Offensive, caricatured portrayals of Indians are shrugged off as just the way things were. If Disney was really worried about their past portrayals of Native Americans, there are a lot of places to start other than this.

To me, the more likely reason is simply that nobody at Disney has given that much thought to the movie. It got some decent reviews at the time and did okay at the box office but it was never a huge hit. Even the novel it’s based on has fallen into obscurity. Nobody in 2020 is clamoring for a big revival of The Light In The Forest.

The truth is it’s not a bad little movie. It’s certainly more interesting than something like Westward Ho The Wagons! But it is a movie that could benefit a lot from a remake. The dark, difficult story it’s trying to tell is directly at odds with Walt Disney’s rose-colored view of the past.

VERDICT: I appreciate the attempt at doing something a little different, so a very minor Disney Plus with reservations.

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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: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Great Locomotive Chase

Original theatrical poster art for Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase

Walt Disney LOVED trains. Model trains, full-size trains, animated trains, historic trains, experimental trains, you name it. If it ran on a rail, he was all over it. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a film based on one of the most famous railroad-related incidents of the Civil War, it not all time. The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the 1862 theft of a Confederate train by Union spies, briefly reignited Walt’s interest in filmmaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the thrilling passion project it should have been.

Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s British films from Treasure Island to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, had very much remained a part of the studio since the UK division folded. Watkin not only wrote the screenplay for The Great Locomotive Chase, he also served as producer for the first and only time in his career. Producing might not have been his forte but he continued to write for Disney for many years.

Watkin’s 1942 novel Marty Markham had provided the basis for the wildly popular Spin And Marty segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. One of the primary directors on that show was a former editor named Francis D. Lyon. Lyon had won an Oscar as one of the editors on the classic boxing film noir Body And Soul. His first two films as director, Crazylegs and The Bob Mathias Story, had both been sports biopics that starred their subjects as themselves. Having cornered the market on that very specific subgenre, Lyon signed on to The Adventures Of Spin And Marty.

Comic book adaptation of Walt Disney's Spin & Marty

Spin And Marty became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, almost rivalling Davy Crockett. Considering the success Disney had repackaging other TV productions for theatrical exhibition, I’m a little surprised that Spin And Marty won’t be appearing in this column (although its stars, Tim Considine, David Stollery and second season addition Annette Funicello, certainly will). Regardless, teaming up the director and the original creator of Spin And Marty on a project must have been a no-brainer.

The choice of who to star in the film was even more obvious. Davy Crockett had turned Fess Parker into an international star. Naturally, Disney had placed Parker under contract and now had to generate projects for him to appear in. The role of James J. Andrews, the civilian Union spy from Kentucky who led the mission, was squarely within Parker’s wheelhouse. Andrews may have had a nicer wardrobe but he was still very much a Crockett type.

Jeffrey Hunter was cast opposite Parker as the persistent train conductor William Fuller. Today, Hunter is probably best remembered among geeks of a certain age as Captain Pike in the original pilot for Star Trek. Back then, Hunter had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. He had appeared in movies like Red Skies Of Montana and Belles On Their Toes but efforts to turn him into a major star hadn’t really clicked. That started to change after John Ford cast him opposite John Wayne in The Searchers, which was released just a few weeks before The Great Locomotive Chase.

Ironically, Ford’s first choice for the part had been none other than Fess Parker. Parker wanted the role badly but Disney refused to let him out of his contract. Hunter later said he didn’t know anything about all that until years after the fact, while Parker said losing the part was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. This would end up being one of several incidents that ended up creating a rift between Fess Parker and Walt Disney.

The rest of the cast was filled out with character actors who would go on to have long associations with the studio. Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey and Don Megowan had all appeared alongside Parker on Davy Crockett. Harry Carey Jr. starred as Triple R Ranch counselor Bill Burnett on Spin And Marty. John Lupton, who narrates the film as Union soldier and chronicler William Pittenger, would later appear in several Disney film and TV productions of the ‘70s. Even the great Slim Pickens pops up briefly as the engineer of the train Fuller commandeers. All of these actors will appear in this column again.

This would be Disney’s first time bringing American history to the big screen (Davy Crockett, of course, having been originally made for television) and Walt was prepared to spare no expense. Peter Ellenshaw again painted meticulous mattes that brought the past to life. Walt himself made sure to guarantee the historical accuracy of the locomotives, working personally with the B&O Railroad Museum to secure period-appropriate trains. Watkin based his screenplay primarily on the account written by Pittenger himself. Artist and historian Wilbur Kurtz was brought on board as a technical advisor, a job he’d previously performed on both Gone With The Wind and Song Of The South. The location chosen was along the disused Tallulah Falls Railway in north Georgia, not too far from where the actual event took place.

All of this research may have resulted in a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events, although Watkin’s script absolutely takes some liberties. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a particularly exciting movie. Trains are wonderful, beautiful pieces of machinery. I’m a huge fan of them myself. But they aren’t very fast. Back then, they topped out around 20 miles per hour. Andrews’ train wasn’t going nearly that fast because they kept stopping to cut telegraph wires, tear up rails and perform other acts of sabotage. When Fuller first takes off in pursuit of the train on foot, it seems at first as though the movie’s entire chase might be a foot race.

The movie seems to be told in increments of 10-15 miles. Andrews’ train gets a little ahead, then stops. Fuller catches up a little bit, deals with whatever shenanigans Andrews has prepared for him, then inches forward again. Every so often, one of Andrews’ more aggressive men will spoil for a fight, only to have Andrews talk him off the ledge. For an ostensible action movie, it’s all very leisurely.

Finally, Fuller succeeds in catching up to his stolen train and Andrews agrees that it’s time to make their stand and fight. But no sooner has he made this declaration than the Cavalry rides in, hoopin’ and hollarin’! Hopelessly outnumbered, Andrews and his men head for the hills, abandoning the train and their mission. The big fight is over before it’s even underway and the whole mission has been for nothing. If you’ve ever been uncertain about what the term “anticlimactic” means, watch this movie. All will be made clear.

Andrews and his men are eventually captured and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Pittenger comes up with a daring escape plan. The plan works but Andrews sacrifices himself, allowing himself to be recaptured so the rest can get away. In the end, only about half the men make it back to safety, where they become the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The problem here is that the story is being presented as one of great heroics and honor, when it’s really one of defeat and failure. It’s an interesting story but the movie isn’t equipped to frame it in a way that makes sense. Half our heroes are executed and their plan fails but somehow that’s still a triumphant ending? The only winner here is Fuller. He, at least, gets to shake hands with his nemesis in the end and assure him that he was a worthy and honorable opponent. The movie really should have been about him.

Original theatrical poster for Buster Keaton's The General, inspired by the real-life Great Locomotive Chase

Of course, that movie had already been made thirty years earlier. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General was inspired by the exact same incident. Only in this version, Keaton plays the Fuller character (here named Johnnie Gray), the tireless, persistent Southern engineer who pursues his stolen locomotive regardless of whatever obstacle is thrown at him. In terms of historical accuracy, it has relatively little to do with the actual event. But as a movie, it’s a whole lot more fun to watch.

As a comedy, The General is able to make the Union spies the bad guys without anyone raising an eyebrow. The Great Locomotive Chase might be on the right side of history but it’s telling a story where the good guys lose. And yes, this is a very homogenized look at the Civil War that reduces the players to Good Guys and Bad Guys. Don’t look for any larger explorations of the issues surrounding the war here.

On the plus side, that also makes the film relatively inoffensive. African-American characters are mostly absent. Sure, you could choose to be offended by the fact that they somehow made a movie that takes place in Georgia during the Civil War with only three, mostly non-speaking Black characters. But considering Hollywood’s track record with situations like this, silence is probably golden.

The Great Locomotive Chase only did so-so business when it was released in the summer of 1956. But it ended up playing a small role in another landmark event in Walt’s life. Walt’s adopted hometown of Marceline, Missouri, contacted him that year. The city was preparing to open a new municipal swimming pool and wanted to dedicate it to Marceline’s favorite son. Walt and his brother, Roy, agreed to return to their childhood home for a homecoming visit that summer. One of the planned events would be the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase.

Walt and Roy Disney attend the Marceline premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase

If you’ve seen footage or photos of Walt and Roy strolling around Marceline while reminiscing, it most likely came from this trip. This visit became a key part of the myth-making around Walt Disney’s boyhood. The idealized nostalgia of Disneyland’s Main Street USA and films like So Dear To My Heart and Lady And The Tramp now had a basis in reality. Walt would continue to put Marceline up on a pedestal for the rest of his days. It came to represent everything that was good and pure and true about America.

Also on this visit, Walt began making inquiries into buying the old farm where he and his family had lived. He was envisioning another theme park, one that would transport visitors back to a quieter, more idyllic time. Dubbed The Marceline Project for security reasons (Walt knew that property values would skyrocket the second people discovered Disney was coming to town), it was meant to be an actual working farm with living history exhibits and attractions designed by the Disney Imagineers.

Walt’s death in 1966 brought an end to The Marceline Project. Walt had hoped Roy would bring the new park to fruition but by this time, he was completely absorbed in the construction of Walt Disney World, the Disneyland companion park in Florida.

Still, the Disney connection has provided a big boost to the Marceline Chamber of Commerce. At the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase, Walt told the audience of children, “You are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.” Any town would be thrilled to ride the coattails of a quote like that for generations and Marceline has certainly done just that. In 2001, the town opened the Walt Disney Hometown Museum to celebrate Walt’s centennial year.

As for the movie itself, nobody really talks much about The Great Locomotive Chase anymore. It isn’t available on Disney+ and has not yet been released on Blu-ray. The city of Adairsville, Georgia, holds an annual Great Locomotive Chase Festival the first weekend in October (unfortunately cancelled this year, due to COVID) to commemorate the actual event. I’ve never been but I’m guessing that if any movies are included in their festivities, it’s Buster Keaton’s The General and not this one.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Littlest Outlaw

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Littlest Outlaw

The Littlest Outlaw is a minor entry in the Disney canon. It’s rarely allowed out of the Disney Vault. The studio released it on VHS back in 1987 and as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive DVD in 2011. It has not been released on Blu-ray and isn’t currently available on Disney+, although a high-def version is available to rent or buy digitally on platforms like Vudu and iTunes. And while I’m not going to make the case that this is some kind of neglected masterpiece, The Littlest Outlaw is a better movie than its low profile would suggest.

The movie was the brainchild of producer Larry Lansburgh. Lansburgh started out as a stuntman before a fall from a horse broke his leg and ended his on-camera career. In 1938, he took an entry-level job at Disney, eventually making his way into editing. In 1941, he was part of El Grupo, the South American goodwill tour of Disney artists sponsored by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. Lansburgh shot some of the 16mm footage that later appeared in Saludos Amigos and was an associate producer on The Three Caballeros.

Throughout his career, Lansburgh’s first love remained animals, horses in particular. In 1954, he produced and directed Stormy, The Thoroughbred, a 45-minute featurette about a racehorse who’s bought by a champion polo player. Lansburgh next pitched Walt the idea for The Littlest Outlaw. Walt, who was also an avid polo player and horse-lover himself, liked the idea.

With Lansburgh producing, Walt gave the story to Bill Walsh to flesh out into a screenplay. Walsh had started out writing various Disney comic strips like Mickey Mouse and Uncle Remus. Recently, he’d been put in charge of television, producing major hits like Davy Crockett and The Adventures Of Spin And Marty. The Littlest Outlaw would be his first feature film but it was far from his last. We’ll see plenty more of Bill Walsh’s work in this column.

Lansburgh’s south-of-the-border trip evidently made quite an impact on him. There’s no real reason why Lansburgh couldn’t have simply hired a local crew, driven half an hour in any direction from the Burbank studio and made The Littlest Outlaw there. But Lansburgh wanted his film to have authenticity. To direct, he hired Roberto Gavaldón, one of Mexico’s leading filmmakers. The film was shot entirely on location in Mexico by a bilingual cast and crew.

Contemporary critics are all too eager to condemn movies of the past for whitewashing or indulging in outdated and offensive cultural stereotypes. So it’s disappointing when a movie like this gets it right and doesn’t receive the credit it deserves. Representation does matter and Disney and Lansburgh deserve to be acknowledged for engaging so many Hispanic artists in front of and behind the cameras.

In fact, Gavaldón actually shot the movie twice, once in English and again in Spanish. The Spanish version, El pequeño proscrito, makes a few changes. Most notably, Mexican actor and singer Pedro Vargas appears as Padre, a role played by Joseph Calleia in the English-language version. This version is difficult if not downright impossible to see these days, which is too bad. I’d love to see how the Spanish version differs from the English.

Lobby card for the Spanish language version of The Littlest Outlaw

The movie itself is a pleasant if unsurprising story of friendship between a boy, Pablito (Andrés Velázquez), and a horse. The horse, Conquistador, is owned by General Torres (played by John Ford regular Pedro Armendáriz). Torres plans on riding Conquistador to victory in an upcoming show but the horse refuses to make the high jump. Pablito’s stepfather is the horse’s trainer but his abusive methods only make the horse even more afraid to jump. When Conquistador’s skittishness causes the General’s young daughter to be thrown off, Torres orders the animal killed. But Pablito knows it isn’t Conquistador’s fault, so he runs away with the horse, encountering outlaws, gypsies and a kind-hearted priest (Calleia).

Again, none of this is exactly groundbreaking. You’ve seen variations of this story before. Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Velázquez, who seems stiff and uncomfortable throughout. Maybe he gives a more relaxed, natural performance in the Spanish-language version. The grownups, on the other hand, are a lot of fun, especially Calleia as the Padre. Calleia enjoyed a long Hollywood career, often playing bad guys and dark, shadowy figures. The Littlest Outlaw is the opposite of that. Calleia seems to be having a good time as the friendly, easy-going Padre who offers sanctuary to Pablito and Conquistador.

While the locations are lovely and the performances are generally solid, the film could use a little more Mexican flavor to spice things up. It makes a move in the right direction in its final act as Pablito’s journey takes him into the bullfighting arena where he encounters legendary matador Pepe Ortiz, played by none other than Pepe Ortiz himself. We get to see some authentic bullfighting action and while it isn’t as graphic or violent as some I’ve seen, it’s still plenty real. Bullfighting has become a controversial sport in the West, especially among animal rights activists. It could be this aspect of the film that prevents Disney from making it more readily available. None of the footage is particularly disturbing, unless you’re simply against the very idea of bullfighting at all. But Disney tends to react (or overreact) on the side of caution when it comes to potentially touchy subjects.

The Littlest Outlaw was Disney’s Christmas release for 1955, a big year for Walt in virtually every respect. His television presence was firmly established thanks to both the weekly Disneyland anthology series and the daily Mickey Mouse Club. Disneyland, the theme park, opened in July and after a fairly disastrous opening day, was rapidly turning into one of Southern California’s must-see attractions. And at the movies, Lady And The Tramp had become Walt’s biggest animated hit in years, while the first theatrical compilation of Davy Crockett episodes was essentially a license to print money.

But The Littlest Outlaw ended 1955 with a bit of a whimper. Critics dismissed it and, after its original theatrical release, it didn’t leave much of a cultural footprint. The studio did release a record, The Story Of The Littlest Outlaw, narrated by Jiminy Cricket for whatever reason. The record stayed in print well into the 1960s, periodically getting re-released alongside other stories like Bongo and The Three Little Pigs. It seems possible that more kids ended up becoming familiar with Jiminy Cricket’s telling of the story than the original film.

Album cover artwork for The Story Of The Littlest Outlaw

There’s no real reason for Disney to keep The Littlest Outlaw under wraps. It’s a fine little movie. Nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s a perfectly agreeable rainy afternoon movie. They’ve certainly shined a spotlight on far worse. Ideally, they should release both the English and Spanish-language versions on Disney+. They could use more multilingual programming and it would be fascinating to compare the two versions. Honestly, a Disney en español collection would be a nice addition to the service. Give me a call, Disney+ Folks! I’m available for consulting both on a freelance or a more permanent basis.  

VERDICT: Not quite a Disney Plus but better than a Disney Minus, so I guess that makes it just Plain Disney.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rob Roy

When Walt Disney turned to live-action film production in the early 1950s, he had a very good reason for focusing on costume dramas. He was an avid history buff but that was only part of it. Walt was a forward-thinking entrepreneur and knew that historical epics would have a longer shelf life than films set in contemporary times. Movies like Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood could be re-released again and again, just like his animated features.

On paper, the decision to make a film based on the legend of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor makes a lot of sense. But Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue turned out to be another disappointment and marked the end of Walt’s commitment to big-budget historical dramas.

Walt must have felt that the tale of Rob Roy MacGregor had the potential to be another Robin Hood. Both were outlaws fighting against a tyrannical oppressor. Even better, the Rob Roy story was much less familiar to American audiences, so there weren’t countless other versions to compare it to. There had only been one prior film version, a British silent picture from 1922 that most likely didn’t get much play in the US. Stateside, the Rob Roy cocktail was probably better known than MacGregor.

Producer Perce Pearce’s British production team remained mostly intact from The Story Of Robin Hood and The Sword And The Rose. Lawrence Edward Watkin again wrote the script. Guy Green, the director of photography on Robin Hood, returned to that role. The four stars of The Sword And The Rose, Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough, were cast in roughly equivalent roles here.

Pearce and Disney had hoped to get Ken Annakin back to direct. But Annakin was under contract to the Rank Organisation, who refused to lend him out for a third time. (He will eventually return to this column.) In his place, Disney hired Harold French. Both French and Annakin had directed segments in the popular anthology films Quartet and Trio, based on the work of W. Somerset Maugham.

The story begins with events already in motion. Rob Roy (Todd) leads an attack of freedom-fighting Highlanders against the Redcoat forces of King George. The specific reasons behind all this remain murky, so I’d recommend doing some independent research on the Jacobite uprising of 1715 if you’re interested. The important thing is that Rob is arrested and we discover that the King’s Secretary of State, the Duke of Argyll (James Robertson Justice) is related to Rob Roy and sympathetic to his cause. The scheming Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) is very much not.

Montrose wants Rob sent to London to stand trial. Argyll finally concedes to this arrangement but not before helping to hatch a plan to spring Rob on the road. Rob returns home to marry Helen Mary MacPherson (Glynis Johns), a bonnie lass who frankly has very little to do other than stand by her man and roll her eyes at her father’s rambling stories and bad bagpipe playing. The delightful Finlay Currie plays Hamish MacPherson and his presence lends some much-needed Scottish authenticity to the proceedings.

Rob and Helen are no sooner married than King George’s men show up, stripping Clan MacGregor of their very name and taking Rob back into custody. He escapes yet again, plummeting over a waterfall thanks to some visual effects that haven’t exactly withstood the test of time. Rob Roy leads his clansmen in an all-out revolt, taking over a fort and weakening George’s grip. This all ends with a bit of a whimper when Argyll intervenes on Rob Roy’s behalf, convincing him to lay down his arms and make peace with the King.

The best thing one could say about Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue is that it’s a lot more action-packed than an interminable slog like The Sword And The Rose. There are battles large and small, daring escapes and high-energy pursuits. But French isn’t quite as adept at filming the action sequences as Annakin or Byron Haskin. Rob Roy’s river escape is a prime example. It’s half thrilling and half silly, prompting at least a couple of unintentional laughs.

Rob Roy also suffers in comparison to Robin Hood. This may not be fair but Disney brought it on himself by casting Michael Todd in both roles. The Story Of Robin Hood is familiar enough that you can get away with glossing over some of the details. Everyone still knows the basic premise and why Robin does what he does. That isn’t the case with Rob Roy. It’s difficult to care about his fight when we don’t really understand what he’s fighting for, apart from his name. And why is that such a great loss? He’s an outlaw. He should have changed his name anyway.

Also, Robin Hood doesn’t have to carry his entire movie on his shoulders. He has his Merrie Men, colorful supporting characters like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. Rob Roy has a whole passel of anonymous and interchangeable MacGregors, most of whom are lucky to get a single line of dialogue. (One of those MacGregors is played by Ian MacNaughton, the future director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Richard Todd isn’t a bad actor but he’s better when he has someone to play against. He also doesn’t have a lot of range. About the only things distinguishing Rob Roy from Robin Hood are his dyed red hair and indifferently executed Scottish accent.

The movie does make a handful of interesting choices. The action temporarily shifts to London where we see how Rob Roy has already become a folk hero. Londoners eagerly snatch up copies of Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized pamphlet The Highland Rogue. A copy even ends up in the hands of King George, who’s impressed by his adversary’s exploits. All of this is rooted in fact and it’s unusual to see a film like this explore how myths are created.

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue had its gala premiere in London on October 26, 1953. It opened in the US the following February. Like The Sword And The Rose before it, Rob Roy was a box office disappointment. It had cost nearly two million dollars to produce but only did middling business. By this time, work was well underway on Disney’s first fully American-based live-action production, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. There was no longer a need to shoot films exclusively in the UK, so Walt decided it was time to give the costume dramas a rest.

No one was more affected by this decision than producer Perce Pearce. Pearce had joined the studio in 1935 as an inbetweener. Over the years, he distinguished himself with key contributions to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi. When the studio began to experiment with live-action on Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, Pearce moved up to associate producer. Walt had a lot of faith in Pearce, entrusting him to act as his surrogate on the British productions.

But after the failure of both The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, Pearce’s star faded. Consensus around the studio felt that Walt blamed Pearce for the films’ failures to catch on. So Pearce was taken off film production and became part of the team developing The Mickey Mouse Club for television. The new assignment was short-lived. Perce Pearce died of a massive heart attack in July of 1955. He was 55 years old.

This would also be the final Disney film for Richard Todd. Todd never quite became a major star, at least not in the US. He went on to star in Michael Anderson’s terrific World War II film The Dam Busters and reunited with director Ken Annakin as part of the massive ensemble in The Longest Day. His biggest brush with stardom came when Ian Fleming selected Todd as his first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. But a scheduling conflict came between Todd and 007, allowing Sean Connery, another former Disney star, to catapult to international fame.

Apart from Treasure Island, Disney’s British productions are today remembered as a footnote in the studio’s history. The studio has not treated them with much care. Two aren’t even available to watch on Disney+. But they’re interesting to look at as experiments, training grounds for the demands of live-action production. They cultivated relationships with people like matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and actors Glynis Johns and Finlay Currie, all of whom will be back in this column. But they generally aren’t up to the standards of the animation department. They had to learn to walk before they could run. And rest assured, the live-action division would be off and running very soon.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sword And The Rose

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sword And The Rose

By 1953, Walt Disney British Films, Ltd was proving to be a success. Under the supervision of producer Perce Pearce, the division had made two hits: Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men. Walt would periodically visit the sets, so perhaps some of the atmosphere even rubbed off on Anglo-centric cartoons like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. As ambitious as ever, Walt decided to swing for the fences with his next live-action British feature. The Sword And The Rose was pure 1950s Oscar bait, a grand, big-budget romantic costume drama. But the Academy did not bite and audiences were largely unimpressed.

Pearce reunited most of his Robin Hood team, including director Ken Annakin, screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin, composer Clifton Parker, and stars Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice. The script was based on Charles Major’s massively popular novel When Knighthood Was In Flower, which had been filmed twice before during the silent era. New to the Disney team was an up-and-coming cinematographer named Geoffrey Unsworth who went on to such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret and Superman.

Todd stars as Charles Brandon, recently returned to England from the “foreign wars”. Brandon arrives as King Henry VIII (Justice) is holding a wrestling match pitting England against France. Brandon volunteers his talents but Henry, unwilling to let a commoner represent the court, has the Duke of Buckingham (Michael Gough, the man who would be Alfred to various Batmen) step into the ring instead. After Buckingham wins, Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor (Glynis Johns) suggests that Brandon take him on. Brandon wins, Mary is smitten and Buckingham and Brandon become rivals for her affection.

At Mary’s behest, Henry appoints Brandon captain of the guards. A clandestine courtship follows. Mary loves Brandon because he’s not afraid to tell her what he really thinks. Brandon loves her because…well, she’s a rich, flirty, attractive princess. Buckingham seethes with jealousy. But the triangle is complicated by Henry’s plan to marry his sister off to the elderly King Louis XII of France.

Knowing there’s not much he can do to prevent the wedding, Brandon resigns his post and makes plans to sail for the new world. Mary runs away to join him, “disguising” herself as a boy to pose as his page. I use the term loosely because it’s the least convincing get-up in the history of cross-dressing. The ship’s crew sees through the ruse (though not as quickly as they should, considering she’s still wearing lipstick and mascara) and send the pair back to shore, where they’re picked up by Henry’s men.

Brandon is locked up in the Tower of London while Mary is shipped off to France after securing Henry’s promise that she be allowed to choose her second husband after Louis’ death. The treacherous Buckingham tells Brandon that Mary has abandoned him to his fate and arranges an “escape”, during which Brandon is apparently killed. In France, Mary does whatever she can to hasten Louis’ death, first getting him drunk, then challenging him to a horse race.

Louis succumbs to whatever illness he’s suffering from and Mary discovers that the new king is eager for her to stick around. Buckingham arrives with news of Brandon’s death and offers to marry her immediately. Just when all seems lost, Brandon returns to challenge Buckingham and win Mary’s hand. The age of chivalry lives on. Or something like that.

Ordinarily, I don’t bother with detailed plot recaps like this because I assume most people are intimately familiar with the majority of the movies we’ve discussed in this column. But it seems useful in this case, partly because the film is relatively obscure but also to help convey just how boring it is. This is not a swashbuckling adventure filled with bold knights and acts of derring-do. It’s the kind of historical romance that your grandmother may have read or watched. It’s the sort of movie that isn’t content with a five-minute ball scene showing elaborately costumed couples dancing in unison. It also needs a lengthy sequence with our leads learning the dances they’ll soon be performing. Yawn.

Cover art for the comic book adaptation of The Sword And The Rose in Four-Color Comics #505

Richard Todd, who had been perfectly adequate as Robin Hood, turns in an identical performance as Brandon. He’s a fine square-jawed, twinkly-eyed leading man but he doesn’t have the presence necessary to elevate inferior material. Glynis Johns is fun and spunky enough to sort of gloss over the fact that she essentially kills the King of France. But she and Todd don’t exactly have the kind of chemistry that ignites the screen.

To be fair, this may be more Disney’s fault than the actors. On the face of it, The Sword And The Rose feels like an attempt to branch out into more adult-oriented fare. There’s nothing in the movie that would be particularly appealing to younger audiences. The action and adventure scenes are perfunctory and rare. But Disney’s idea of romance remains remarkably chaste. The result is a movie that seems explicitly designed to satisfy nobody.

There are a few things about the picture that work. James Robertson Justice, Little John to Todd’s Robin Hood, appears to be having a grand old time playing Henry VIII. And Michael Gough is effectively smarmy as Buckingham. His performance is reminiscent of Vincent Price, who was playing a lot of slimy characters in period pieces himself around this time. We’ll see all four of The Sword And The Rose’s lead actors again in this column.

This is also a nice-looking movie thanks to Unsworth’s cinematography, the lavish costumes designed by Valles, and the matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw. Annakin used Ellenshaw’s work sparingly in The Story Of Robin Hood but he makes up for it here. Ellenshaw reportedly painted more than 60 backgrounds for The Sword And The Rose, giving the film an epic scope.

Perhaps I should say that I assume this is a nice-looking movie because the version that’s most readily available looks pretty terrible. Disney hasn’t yet made the film available on Disney+, much less Blu-ray. The only DVD release to date has been a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. You can buy or rent it online but it looks like a digitized VHS. I’m sure The Sword And The Rose doesn’t exactly have a fervent fanbase but come on, Disney. You can do better than this.

The Sword And The Rose was released in August of 1953 and landed with a resounding thud. Walt’s hoped-for Academy Award nominations failed to materialize (although he dominated the ceremony elsewhere, something we’ll get into next time). And for the first time since the war, box office returns were significantly less overseas than expected.

One theory for the UK’s lack of interest in The Sword And The Rose holds that British audiences couldn’t get past the film’s historical inaccuracies. This is absolutely the kind of “historical” drama that makes actual historians tear their hair out in frustration. Charles Brandon wasn’t some commoner that Henry chanced to meet at a wrestling match. He was one of the King’s oldest friends, having been brought up in the court of Henry VII. Brandon and Mary never attempted to escape by sailing to the new world. The English wouldn’t start colonizing America at all for another fifty years or so. Any student trying to use this movie in lieu of reading a textbook would get an immediate “F – SEE ME” in red ink slapped on their test paper.

But audiences forgive the most egregious factual errors if they’re in service of telling a ripping good yarn. The Sword And The Rose is not that. It’s a stodgy, plodding drama that doesn’t know what audience it’s trying to please. Too boring for kids and too juvenile for adults, it’s a misstep in Walt Disney’s journey into live-action filmmaking.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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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: 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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Victory Through Air Power

Original theatrical release poster for Victory Through Air Power

World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.

With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?

Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.

The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.

With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.

The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.

But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.

Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.

But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.

On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.

Disney's Donald Duck enters World War II in Der Feurher's Face

Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.

Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.

VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.