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.

(UPDATE: A reader informs me that Disney has released this on DVD once. The Disney Movie Club once had an exclusive Educators Resource collection. I don’t think they do anymore and these Classroom Editions can be difficult to find but they do exist.)

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: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Secrets Of Life

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Secrets Of Life

Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure features were not in the business of playing coy. When you sit down to watch The Living Desert or The Vanishing Prairie or The African Lion, the title alone gives you a pretty good idea what to expect. If anything, Disney was criticized for simplifying things too much, reducing complex behaviors to cute, anthropomorphized routines. But Secrets Of Life is a grand, mysterious title that tells you almost nothing. The poster is even less helpful. This movie could be about anything.

As usual, Walt knew what he was doing. The True-Life Adventure movies had been surprisingly popular but they mostly focused on easily recognizable animals. Secrets Of Life takes a different approach that borders on the experimental. This time, director James Algar sets his cameras on plant life, insects (primarily bees), and fish.

If you think that sounds like kind of a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects, you’re not wrong. Algar does his best to transition smoothly from one topic to the next, relying on the Animated Paintbrush that has traditionally been used to open each feature. We see a lot more of the A.P. this time and with good reason. It’s a quick and easy way to segue from one thing to the next.

But Algar also expands his cinematic toolbox this time out, utilizing time-lapse photography, macro photography and underwater cameras more than ever. He even switches to CinemaScope for the grand finale (more on that in a second). As a result, this is one of the most visually spectacular True-Life Adventures. The time-lapse sequences of plant growth and blooming flowers are beautiful and genuinely interesting. Algar lets these images speak for themselves, reducing the role of Winston Hibler’s folksy narrator. Honestly, Algar may have overestimated how compelling that footage actually is. By the end of the sequence, even the most hardcore gardener may find their attention starting to wander.

We next get up close and personal with bees and ants, thanks in part to the macro-photography of Robert H. Crandall. Crandall had previously worked on the memorable spider-vs-wasp sequence in The Living Desert. There isn’t anything quite that dramatic in Secrets Of Life but the footage is still remarkably intimate. Even with modern advances in camera technology, Crandall’s work still holds up today.

The underwater sequences probably could have provided the basis for an entire True-Life Adventure of their own. Both the short subjects and the features covered creatures of the land and sky extensively but rarely went aquatic. Even when the series did go to the ocean for the Oscar-winning short subject Water Birds, the cameras were pointed up, not down. But Algar finds plenty of fascinating subjects in the water, including the alien-looking anglerfish and the diving bell spider.

There are plenty of possible reasons why Disney never gave sea creatures their own True-Life Adventure spotlight. Maybe shooting an entire feature underwater would have been too expensive or technically challenging. Maybe Walt didn’t think fish were relatable enough to attract general audiences. It’s even possible that Walt didn’t think he could compete with the groundbreaking work of Jacques Cousteau, whose 1956 documentary The Silent World won the Oscar. Whatever the reason, the lack of an underwater True-Life Adventure feature feels like a missed opportunity.

Having covered plants, insects and sea creatures, Secrets Of Life wraps things up with…volcanoes. Why? I guess because when you’ve got breathtaking, CinemaScope footage of active, erupting volcanoes, you’ve gotta use it somewhere. And don’t get me wrong, this stuff does indeed look fantastic. Hibler tries his best to tie the footage to the rest of the picture, intoning about the earth’s cycle of life, reinventing itself in fire and so on and so forth. But really this is just a big fireworks show included for the sole purpose of making the audience go, “Ooh!”

Despite the movie’s lack of cohesion, Secrets Of Life is one of the better True-Life Adventures. The photography is top-notch and the variety of plant and animal life we’re introduced to is genuinely interesting. Algar picked his subjects wisely, providing unusual facts and information. Of all the True-Life Adventure features covered in this column so far, Secrets Of Life is probably the most educational. I think most viewers would learn at least a little something new from this.

But it’s also the entry in the series that feels the most like school. Hibler’s narration is a little drier than usual and the moments of comic relief are less frequent. As long as you’re interested in the subject at hand, the movie remains compelling. But if your interest starts to flag, and at some point, it certainly will, the movie becomes a bit of a slog.

Still, with a running time of only 70 minutes, it never turns into an interminable slog. If you find yourself getting bored with a segment, just wait for a few minutes. It’ll soon be over and you’ll be on to something new. Secrets Of Life can feel a bit like a clip show made up from leftover scraps of footage that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. If that is indeed the secret of Secrets Of Life, Algar and Disney made the right call. The footage was too good to waste.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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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 African Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.

In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.

It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.

Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.

To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.

Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.

Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.

As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.

Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.

Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.

Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.

Theatrical poster for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.

The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.

But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.

Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.

Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.

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

Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.

Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Vanishing Prairie

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

With the release of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, Walt and Roy Disney were almost free of their obligation to former distributor RKO. They still owed them one animated feature, which would end up being Music Land, a re-edited remix of segments from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But now, the Disneys were free to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

After the surprise success of the first True-Life Adventure feature, it makes sense that Disney would want to get another one in theaters as soon as possible. And so The Vanishing Prairie became the second release from the fledgling Buena Vista Distribution Company, a mere nine months after the release of The Living Desert.

It isn’t surprising that Walt was able to get The Vanishing Prairie in theatres so quickly. True-Life Adventures had started out as a series of short subjects. Several of these shorts were actively in production when The Living Desert was released, with titles like Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Story and Cat Family. Now that the Disneys were responsible for their own distribution, features made more economic sense than shorts since they could charge theaters a higher rate for them. So Walt directed James Algar to combine several of the in-progress short subjects into a single feature focusing on the wildlife of the American Prairie.

As you can probably tell from the title, The Vanishing Prairie turns back the clock to focus on animals who once roamed freely in abundance but are now in danger of disappearing. This is a fairly forward-thinking position for a documentary in 1954. The idea of wildlife conservation had been around since the turn of the century. Some of the animals concerned in those earliest efforts, including the bison and whooping crane, are featured in the film. But the first federal protection act wouldn’t be enacted until 1966. In ’54, the idea that a species could simply vanish off the face of the Earth hadn’t quite sunk in for most folks.

James Algar established a winning formula with his direction of the True-Life Adventure shorts and he doesn’t deviate much from it here. If you see something cute or funny and want to see it again, don’t worry. Algar’s got you covered with plenty of additional shots of ducks slipping on ice and baby mountain lions playing. He’s more than happy to show it again and again and again.

But The Vanishing Prairie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. We see the mother of those adorable kittens stalk and kill a deer. Although the actual attack is kept off-camera, we do see her drag the carcass back, feed on it with her young and bury the remains for later. This ain’t Bambi, kids.

Some of the footage proved too graphic for 1954 audiences. A shot of a buffalo birthing a calf caused the film to be censored and even banned outright in some cities. To their credit, I don’t believe Disney ever cut the scene themselves. The uncut version is currently available on Disney+.

The footage in The Living Desert had primarily been the work of two men, N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. and Robert Crandall. The Vanishing Prairie utilizes a large team of nature photographers. The footage they were able to capture is absolutely remarkable by 1950s standards. The best of it holds up even today.

Tom McHugh and his team traveled to Montana to film the buffalo. Draped in a buffalo skin, McHugh was able to position himself right in the middle of the herd. Husband-and-wife team Dick and “Brownie” Borden shot some beautiful slow-motion sequences of geese in flight. In arguably the film’s most memorable sequence, Lloyd Beebe and James R. Simon follow a mountain lion as it attempts to track a fawn, getting startlingly close without ever actually finding it.

Kenworthy also returned, creating a cut-away prairie dog burrow to track the animals’ movements underground. Once again, Disney took some heat for including staged sequences like these. Animals enter and exit the burrows on the surface and the camera follows right along, seeming to plunge beneath the earth. Editor Lloyd Richardson does an extraordinary job making this look seamless. But obviously what we’re seeing is impossible. The above-ground footage can’t possibly have been shot at the same time and place as the below-ground footage. In “documentary” terms, this fails as an objective and accurate document of events. But dramatically, it works like gangbusters.

Of course, this was 1954 and not all elements of the film have aged well. Winston Hibler’s introductory narration praises the “Red Man” and his relationship to nature, coming to understand the world in “his primitive way”. Later on, Hibler claims that Native Americans patterned their dances off the mating dances of the grouse. Composer Paul J. Smith lays on some stereotypical Indian music in case you can’t see the similarity. Now, did some tribes actually get inspiration from the grouse for their dances? Possibly, I guess. But without any concrete proof to back up this assertion, the sequence just comes across as, “Hey, look at the funny birds!”

The condescending tone continues when it comes to gender roles. Another sequence shows male and female birds trading off the duties of going out to find food and warming the eggs in the nest. That’s fairly progressive…until the male bird accidentally carries an egg out of the nest and Hibler pipes up to remind us that dads are dumb when it comes to woman’s work. Gotta love the domestic humor of the 1950s.

Fortunately, these are minor moments in a film where the focus remains on the wildlife. Algar, Hibler and cowriter Ted Sears don’t bludgeon you over the head with their conservationist message but it’s definitely present. Hibler never once utters the word “endangered” but nearly every species we meet is described as “vanishing”. The narration includes at least one disparaging reference to “Man, the Invader”. This is clearly understood to refer to white settlers, not the Native Americans who had found a balance with nature.

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

Any doubts about the commercial viability of True-Life Adventure features were wiped out by The Vanishing Prairie. On its initial release, The Living Desert had been paired with Ben And Me, an animated featurette about Benjamin Franklin and his best friend and assistant, a mouse named Amos. Skeptics might argue that The Living Desert’s success had been helped by the prospect of a brand-new Disney cartoon. But The Vanishing Prairie was released with Willie The Operatic Whale, the Nelson Eddy segment from Make Mine Music. Not to diminish the popularity of Nelson Eddy but it’s safe to assume that audiences were not primarily drawn to theaters by an 8-year-old cartoon.

The Vanishing Prairie netted Walt Disney his second consecutive Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It raked in close to two million dollars at the box office. Not at all bad for a picture that was budgeted at less than $400,000. Like The Living Desert before it, The Vanishing Prairie remained popular over the years. In 1971, both films were re-released theatrically as a double feature. The True-Life Adventure features were here to stay. We’ll see a bunch more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Living Desert

Original theatrical quad poster for Walt Disney's The Living Desert

The Living Desert may appear to be a minor entry in the Disney catalog. It isn’t a cartoon, although it does open with a few minutes of animation. It’s live-action but there isn’t a single human being to be seen. But this feature-length nature documentary represents a significant milestone for the studio. To see why, we’ll eventually have to go all the way back to Disney’s very first films. But first, let’s rewind just a decade or so.

Walt Disney first got into documentary filmmaking during the war years, producing the feature-length Victory Through Air Power and assorted short subjects to help with the war effort. This opened up a little side business producing educational shorts for corporate clients like General Motors and Johnson & Johnson. These projects kept the studio afloat during the lean years of the 1940s.

An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Walt made his first trip to Alaska in 1947. He fell in love with the area and was eager to see more. A friend suggested he check out the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife team of nature photographers. Walt was impressed with their work and commissioned them to return to Alaska and film whatever they wanted. He didn’t particularly know what he was going to do with the footage. He just wanted to see what they’d get.

The Milottes shot thousands of feet of film. Out of all this, Walt was most interested in footage they’d captured of seals cavorting on the Pribilof Islands. He assigned James Algar, an animator who had directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia and Victory Through Air Power, the job of building a narrative around the footage. The resulting half-hour short, Seal Island, was presented as the first in a series of films called True-Life Adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Seal Island

Both Walt and Roy Disney felt that Seal Island was a winner. But RKO, their distributor for over a decade, didn’t want anything to do with it. Only after Seal Island won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject did they agree to put it in theatres.

Over the next few years, Disney, Algar, the Milottes, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and producer Ben Sharpsteen made half a dozen more True-Life Adventures. Four of them, In Beaver Valley, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and Bear Country, won Academy Awards. The series was an unqualified success. As far as the Disneys were concerned, a full-length feature seemed like the next logical step.

The Living Desert was inspired by the work of photographers N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert Crandall. Kenworthy was a graduate student working on a short film for his thesis project. He’d made some amateur 8mm films of insects and had read about Pepsis wasps, a large desert insect that preys on tarantulas. Nobody had ever filmed a wasp/tarantula battle before, so Kenworthy contacted Crandall, an entomologist based out of Arizona. Crandall’s scientific knowledge and Kenworthy’s skill with the camera allowed them to capture the entire event on film.

Kenworthy brought his footage to Disney, thinking it might make for a good True-Life Adventure. Walt loved it, bought the footage immediately and hired Kenworthy and Crandall to head back to the desert to get more. This also meant that Kenworthy had to start over on his thesis project, since he’d sold the rights to his film, but it seemed to work out all right for him.

The Living Desert was ready for release in 1953. But this time, RKO flat-out refused to distribute it. They had begrudgingly released the other True-Life Adventures shorts but a feature-length documentary was not what they wanted from Disney. This would be the last straw in the long-simmering feud between Disney and RKO.

Walt and Roy had struggled with their distributors from the very beginning. Their relationship with their first distributor, Margaret Winkler, fell apart when she stepped away from the busines and put her husband, Charles Mintz, in charge. Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Mintz. When the character became popular and Walt pressed for a better deal, Mintz went behind his back and hired virtually his entire staff away from him. Mintz also kept the rights to Oswald, inspiring Walt and Ub Iwerks, the only animator who remained loyal to him, to create a new character, Mickey Mouse.

Walt didn’t have much better luck with his next distributor, Pat Powers. Disney had originally signed with Powers to use his Cinephone recording system while making Steamboat Willie. But the terms of the arrangement were heavily in Powers’ favor. Once again, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal only to have Powers poach his key men. This time, he even lost Ub Iwerks, as well as composer Carl Stalling. As a result of the strain, Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931.

Once he was able to extricate himself from the Powers deal, Walt signed up with Columbia to distribute the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies cartoons. That relationship soured in 1932 when Walt moved over to United Artists. By 1937, UA was pressuring Walt to sign over the television rights to his cartoons. TV was still very much in its infancy and Walt, having been burned repeatedly in the past, wasn’t about to commit to a long-term contract for something that wasn’t yet fully understood. So Walt left the studio and signed up with RKO.

The relationship between RKO and Disney had its ups and downs. RKO had been reluctant to release some of Disney’s earlier films, including Dumbo (too short), Fantasia (too arty) and Victory Through Air Power (which they also turned down entirely, leading Walt to release it through UA). For their part, Roy and Walt had been unhappy with RKO’s lackluster promotional efforts.

In 1948, multimillionaire and movie dabbler Howard Hughes took control of RKO. Hughes proceeded to run the studio into the ground, releasing a mix of expensive flops and low-budget B-movies. During these years, Disney provided some of the few hits RKO had. At one point, Hughes even offered to sell RKO to Disney. Walt passed, supposedly saying something like, “I already have a movie studio. What would I want with another?” I can honestly not imagine any of Disney’s current executives expressing this sentiment.

By 1953, Disney was doing more for RKO than RKO was doing for Disney. After giving the studio a string of huge hits like Treasure Island and Peter Pan, Walt and Roy felt they’d earned the right to release whatever they saw fit. When RKO passed on The Living Desert, they decided they’d had enough of outside distributors. Roy proposed creating their own distribution arm. Walt liked the idea but didn’t want to be too involved, busy as he was with plans for Disneyland and his TV show. So Roy ran point on the new venture and established the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street where the studio stood.

Original theatrical release poster for The Living Desert

The Living Desert was the first Buena Vista release and it was an immediate success. It raked in millions at the box office, both domestically and internationally, and had only cost about $300,000 to make. Buena Vista was off to a very profitable start.

Watching The Living Desert (or indeed any of the True-Life Adventures) today, it’s immediately apparent that this is the work of animators, not seasoned documentarians. Winston Hibler, who cowrote the scripts with James Algar and provided the narration, had been a story man. Beginning with the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time, he contributed to The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Peter Pan and several other animated features. Algar had been with Disney since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

Algar and Hibler imbue the animals in The Living Desert with distinct personalities, giving them names like Skinny and Mugsy. That isn’t too difficult when you’re showing a bobcat get chased up a cactus by a pack of wild boars. But it’s quite another thing to anthropomorphize more alien-looking creatures like wasps and scorpions.

The biggest weapon in their arsenal is the omnipresent use of Paul L. Smith’s music. Disney pioneered the use of music in animation and that influence extended over into live-action films. So much so that the technique of exactly synchronizing music to the action on-screen is referred to as “Mickey Mousing”. In general, that term is not considered complimentary.

The Living Desert is guiltier of Mickey Mousing than most actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. When a couple of cute baby coatis (kind of a desert cousin to the raccoon) fall asleep in their nest, you can be sure that Smith will cue up “Home Sweet Home”. The most extreme example is the mating dance of the scorpions, which Smith and Hibler turn into a full-on country jambaroo complete with square dancing calls and manipulated footage to make it look like a nearby owl is also getting down.

Critics and naturalists cried fowl at obviously staged sequences like this but audiences at the time certainly didn’t mind. They also shouldn’t have been surprised. Walt had already proven that he wasn’t above creating an entirely fictional narrative to get across some broad facts in the studio tour feature The Reluctant Dragon. At least he didn’t try to make it look like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on a desert safari.

Despite the somewhat dubious educational value of such tricks, The Living Desert went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was a big night for Disney. Even though none of his animated or live-action features were even nominated that year, Walt cleaned up in other categories. Bear Country won Best Live-Action Short Subject (Two-Reel). The Alaskan Eskimo, the first entry in a sister series to True-Life Adventures called People & Places, won Best Documentary Short Subject. And the great Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom won Best Short Subject (Cartoons). The four Oscars Walt won set a record for the most taken home by an individual in a single night.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Living Desert and Bear Country double feature

The Living Desert has had a much longer shelf life than most documentaries from the 1950s. It was re-released theatrically a few times over the years. I remember watching it and other True-Life Adventures in school, a good 25 years after its original release. Today, it’s available on Disney+ and I can vouch for the fact that kids are still watching these vintage True-Life Adventures. Just this past July, we went to visit my girlfriend’s family. Her young nephews cycled through at least three of them one afternoon and, near as I could tell, that was all their idea.

By treating nature like a cartoon, Walt found a way to give documentaries a timeless appeal. The studio continues the tradition today with the Disneynature films. Celebrity narrators have replaced the friendly, folksy voice of Winston Hibler and sometimes they get an IMAX upgrade. But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures lives on. We will see more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: This is one of the few films I’ve ever watched that completely captivated my cat. Any movie that can hold a cat’s attention for over an hour has to be considered a Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Cinderella

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Cinderella

The Disney Princess Collection is currently one of the most lucrative franchises in the highly lucrative Disney portfolio. There are clothes and costumes, toys and games, books and albums, dolls of every size and price-point. You can paint your walls with Disney Princess wall paint, decorate the room in Disney Princess furniture, walk down the aisle in a Disney Princess wedding dress and invite your friends to a Disney Princess-themed baby shower. After you’ve lived happily ever after, you can probably even have yourself entombed in a Disney Princess coffin just like Snow White.

(Note: To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not officially licensed the Princesses or anything else to the funerary industry but I’m sure you could find a guy.)

All told, the Disney Princess line has raked in over $45 billion. So it’s a little surprising that it took Walt Disney over a decade to figure out that that’s what audiences wanted to see. He launched his feature animation division in 1938 with the original princess, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. That movie had been a massive, blockbuster success. Nothing else he’d made in the subsequent years had even come close to repeating it. By the time Cinderella became the second Disney Princess in 1950, Walt was in desperate need of a hit.

By the late 1940s, Walt was so in debt that Cinderella came perilously close to never being made at all. After spending the better part of the decade chasing contract work and the diminishing returns of the package films, Walt was at a crossroads. His choice was to either risk a return to feature-length animation or sell the studio. According to some sources, he came very close to picking the latter option.

Even with its fairly obvious similarities to Snow White, Cinderella was by no means considered a sure thing. The story and music departments had been developing a few different projects and Walt wasn’t sure which one to prioritize. He called a studio meeting and presented two options to his employees: Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. He displayed the artwork, he played the songs, and left it up to a vote. Cinderella won. Even after all that, Walt still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. He told the Alice team to keep working, kicking off a race to see which project would finish first.

On his earlier films, Walt had been involved in every step of production, leading daily meetings and agonizing over each detail. But now, his attention was elsewhere. He was devoting more time to live-action projects like So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. And when he wasn’t on location, he was frequently at home tinkering with his latest obsession: the construction of a miniature backyard railroad. Walt had always loved trains. But to many people, it seemed that his trains were now more important to him than his cartoons.

Fortunately, Walt had left Cinderella in excellent hands. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson oversaw an all-star team of animators, including all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. The animators reportedly felt a bit creatively hamstrung by Walt’s insistence on filming live-action reference footage for virtually the entire movie. Even so, their exquisite draftsmanship shines through. The human characters are rendered even more believably and subtly than in Snow White.

Since Walt couldn’t afford to lavish the same amount of time and money on the animation, the team utilized some subtle cost-cutting methods that served the story. Cinderella’s coach seems to float on air, partly because it’s a magical night but mostly to avoid having to animate wheels. When they dance, Cinderella and Prince Charming only have eyes for each other. They’re the only people on the dance floor. That’s highly romantic, considering everyone in the kingdom has been invited to the ball. It also saves a lot of time and money if you don’t have to animate dozens of other dancers.

1973 re-release poster for Cinderella

The blend of character design and shifting perspective between the humans and the animals is absolutely seamless. The parallel world of the animals is arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to the Cinderella story. There are many, many variations on the original folk tale, spanning centuries and different cultures. But Disney is primarily jumping off from Charles Perrault’s version from 1697. Perrault added many of the elements we now associate with Cinderella, including the Fairy Godmother, the glass slippers and the pumpkin-coach with mice transformed into horses.

Disney took that idea and ran with it, transforming the mice (and, to a lesser extent, the other animals) into full-on supporting characters. The animals add some much needed color to what would otherwise be an unrelentingly dark story. It’s Disney who introduced the idea of the animals coming together to make Cinderella’s dress to repay her for her kindness to them. This does a couple of things. First, it tells us a lot about Cinderella’s character, her genuine kindness, and how horribly she’s been mistreated by her stepmother. Even the animals can see how hard a time she’s had.

Significantly, it also helps justify the Fairy Godmother’s gift to Cinderella. She isn’t just sitting around wishing for someone to rescue her. She wants to go to that ball and is more than willing to put in the work it takes to get there. But with her stepfamily plotting against her, her friends are there to help without her even having to ask. And after the dress is ruined, she still isn’t looking for a handout. She doesn’t even know her Fairy Godmother exists. She appears because Cinderella has earned a break.

Let’s talk for a second about that dress-ruining sequence. Lady Tremaine, perhaps the iciest and most disturbing of all Disney villains, points out her daughters’ discarded scraps in the dress and watches with a sneer as Drizella and Anastasia attack, tearing the dress to shreds. This is all done very quickly and very savagely, leaving Cinderella looking very small, alone and vulnerable. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking sequence that carries all the impact of a rape. Up until now, Drizella and Anastasia have been played primarily for laughs. Once it’s over, you feel like the entire family is in league with the devil. After all, they do have a cat named Lucifer.

Cinderella is certainly a more interesting and complex heroine than Snow White. She’s seen tragedy and faces adversity every day but still manages to look on the bright side. The key to her character comes after the ball as she’s hiding in the bushes with Bruno the dog, Major the horse and the mice. The palace guards chase off into the night but she pays them no mind. She simply thanks her Fairy Godmother for giving her such a wonderful night, expecting nothing else to come of it. Cinderella fully expects to go back to her miserable life with her stepfamily with the memory of this one night to sustain her forever.

Now, it’d be a stretch to call Disney’s Cinderella some kind of feminist role model. I do think there have been very valid feminist tellings of the Cinderella story but this isn’t necessarily one of them. But considering the era and the medium, the character is progressive enough to be considered some kind of achievement. I mean, she’s at least slightly more involved in her own rescue than some of Disney’s other heroines. If nothing else, she was smart enough to hang on to that other glass slipper.

1987 re-release poster for Cinderella

But in other respects, the film is as retrogressive as you might suspect. The whole ball is just a setup to get Prince Charming married so the King can have some grandkids to dote on. We know very little about the Prince other than he seems bored by both his princely duties and women in general. We spend more time with the Grand Duke than we do with the Prince. If we assume that “charming” is an apt description of his demeanor and not just his name, it’s only because Cinderella sure seems charmed by him.

And then of course, there’s “The Work Song”, where the female mice actively reinforce their own stereotype by insisting, “Leave the sewing to the women! You go get some trimmin’!” Hey, Jaq and Gus were just trying to help, lady. Cool your jets.

The songs in Cinderella were written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston. As a trio, they’d been responsible for the song “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, which had been a big hit in 1947. They’d repeat that trick here with “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”. Lots of artists, including Perry Como and Disney vets Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, ended up having hit records with their versions of the song. It was one of three Academy Award nominations the film would receive.

Cover art for the 1950 release of Walt Disney's Cinderella Story Book Album

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” lost the Best Original Song Oscar to “Mona Lisa” from the mostly forgotten Alan Ladd vehicle Captain Carey, U.S.A. That was a highly competitive category in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Seemingly every song that won is now considered a standard, even if many of the films they were originally written for have been overshadowed.

For whatever reason, Walt Disney never fully warmed up to Cinderella. He thought Cinderella’s transformation into her ball gown was one of the best individual pieces of animation his studio had ever produced. But he would also refer to the film dismissively as “just a picture”. Regardless, Cinderella turned out to be exactly the hit he needed. Both critics and audiences hailed it as a return to form. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1950 in North America. Perhaps more importantly, it was also a huge hit overseas, particularly in England and France, territories that had been closed off for years.

Without Cinderella, the Walt Disney Studios we know today wouldn’t exist. There would have been no theme parks, no TV shows. If Cinderella had bombed, Walt would have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he started the 1950s on a high note. Its success would catapult Walt Disney into one of the most productive decades of his life. But animation would play a relatively small part of that decade. His attention would be increasingly spent on new ventures like Disneyland and live-action production. Obviously he would never completely abandon cartoons. But animation was no longer his first and only priority.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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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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