Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

An Honor To Be Nominated: West Side Story

THE CONTENDER: West Side Story (1961)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Best Picture (Robert Wise); Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins); Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Lehman); Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fapp); Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin); Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon E. Sawyer); Scoring of a Musical Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff)

Number of Wins: 10 – Everything except Adapted Screenplay (sorry, Ernie)

Before I expanded the parameters of this column to encompass all Oscar-nominated films in all categories, the rules were very simple. To be included, a movie simply had to have been nominated for Best Picture and lost. Using those guidelines, I never, ever would have included West Side Story.

West Side Story is by far the winningest movie we’ve covered here to date. It came very close to a clean sweep, with only Abby Mann’s screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg standing in the way of 11 for 11. Its soundtrack went on to become the best-selling album of the 1960s. Not just a year, the entire decade. It has been referenced and/or parodied in everything from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Anchorman. And somehow, the closest I had ever come to seeing it before now was in seconds-long clips in award show montages.  

The Academy’s attitude toward musicals seemed to be changing in the early 1960s. The genre had been part of the Oscars pretty much since synchronized sound became the norm. Most years found at least one musical nominated for Best Picture. But only a handful had actually won, starting with The Broadway Melody all the way back at the second ceremony. But that changed in the 1960s, as musicals came to dominate the Best Picture category, winning more frequently than they ever had before or would since. It would be their last hurrah.

As Hollywood fought the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, the movies got bigger. Fancy new processes were created to help embiggen the public’s love of movies, with fun futuristic-sounding names like CinemaScope, Cinerama, VistaVision and Todd-AO. The Academy embraced the Age of the Epic with open arms, handing out trophies to movies like Around The World In 80 Days and Ben-Hur as if they couldn’t sculpt the statuettes fast enough. It was an age when even a small movie, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, looked huge.

It didn’t take long for musicals to embrace the possibilities of widescreen cinematography. Movies like White Christmas, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, and many more pushed the boundaries of the screen. Of course, all this extra space meant filmmakers needed more stuff to fill it with. So sets got bigger, costumes got more elaborate, and the number of dancers on screen at any given moment multiplied like rabbits. It was just as well that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were aging out of the genre. By 1961, the idea of paying to see just two people dance elegantly on screen was hopelessly outdated and quaint.

In many ways, West Side Story was the culmination of all this change. The play had debuted on Broadway in 1957, the brainchild of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins recruited playwright Arthur Laurents to tackle the book and composer Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Eventually, Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent.

When it came time to bring the show to the big screen, the director’s reins were handed to Robert Wise. Robbins had wanted to direct himself but the money folks at The Mirisch Company balked at his total lack of experience with filmmaking. At the time, Wise must have seemed an odd choice. He had started his career as an editor, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Citizen Kane and was notoriously put in charge of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons after RKO fired Welles.

As a director, Wise had bopped from horror (The Curse Of The Cat People) to noir (The Set-Up) to westerns (Two Flags West) to sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to pretty much any other kind of movie you can think of but he’d never made a musical. So it was agreed that Jerome Robbins would stay on as co-director to handle the musical and dance sequences. But Robbins’ insistence on multiple takes led to the production going over-budget and, eventually, his firing. He never directed another feature which, as near as I can tell, makes him the only one-and-done Best Director Oscar winner in history.

What Wise, Robbins, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, and all the other filmmakers were able to accomplish with West Side Story was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the movie, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that this material could ever be contained on stage. The sets are too big, the movement too expressive, the colors too vivid. It’s dynamic and exciting in a way that’s unique to film. And unlike too many other bloated epics of the period, West Side Story moves. It’s a long film, clocking in at around two-and-a-half hours, but there isn’t a wasted second in it.

It’s a little hard to judge the actual performances in West Side Story. Certainly the dancing and physicality is remarkable across the board. But this was a time when movie stars didn’t really have to sing in musicals if the producers didn’t want ’em to, so we end up with these odd Frankenstein performances with lip-synched vocals. The movie’s big name is Natalie Wood, who had already been a star for over a decade. She was still a teenager when she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for Rebel Without A Cause a few years earlier. 1961 ended up being a very good year for her. In addition to West Side Story, she’d garner her second Oscar nod for her other movie that year, Splendor In The Grass.

Even though Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon and even though she’s no more Puerto Rican than I am, her performance as Maria is delicate and lovely. She hits just the right blend of sweetness and sensuality, really selling the emotion and pathos of the character. Richard Beymer as Tony isn’t quite as successful. He’s handsome and charming enough but his inexperience comes through occasionally. He just doesn’t yet have the depth as an actor to really connect with the songs he’s not singing (Jimmy Bryant dubbed his voice). He’d find it by the time he played Ben Horne on Twin Peaks (and as a Twin Peaks fan coming to West Side Story late, I should add that seeing Beymer and future Dr. Jakoby Russ Tamblyn together in this does result in a moment or two of cognitive dissonance) but back then, he seems a little out of his depth.

That is definitely not the case with Oscar-winning supporting actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Both stars had an intensive dance background and both were sort of struggling to find their place in Hollywood when West Side Story came along. They made the most of the opportunity, especially Moreno who practically explodes off the screen. Moreno got to do most of her own singing and Chakiris did all of his, possibly just because he doesn’t get any big solo numbers. Their Oscar victories are even more impressive when you consider who they were up against. Chakiris’ competition included Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, while Moreno was in her category opposite no less than Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with either Moreno or Chakiris. Rita Moreno found herself unemployed for seven years afterwards, not making another movie until The Night Of The Following Day in 1968. Eventually of course, she’d go on to be one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and an all-around national treasure. As for Chakiris (who, again, not a Puerto Rican, but certainly believable and acceptable as one), he made some pretty forgettable movies throughout the 60s before becoming a prolific TV actor in the 70s.

The only nominee who went home empty-handed that night was screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman was one of the great Hollywood script writers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in film history would be secured by his screenplay for North By Northwest, essentially the platonic ideal for the contemporary mystery thriller. Lehman would be nominated for six Oscars over his career, winning none. Perhaps he was overlooked this time because the Academy figured the movie was so faithful to the play that Lehman hadn’t really done much. In any event, he would go on to become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 2001, by which time he had long since retired.

It’s hard to make a case against any of West Side Story‘s Oscar triumphs. At the time, the technical awards were still split into two categories, color and black-and-white. Odds are this arrangement benefited the black-and-white movies more than West Side Story, which probably would have dominated no matter what it was up against. In the Best Picture category, its only real competition was the star-studded but somber Judgment At Nuremberg. Of the other nominees, The Hustler was likely too small to make much of a dent and The Guns Of Navarone was probably dismissed as just a popcorn epic. As for Joshua Logan’s Fanny, another movie based on a stage musical that perversely decided to eliminate all the songs…nobody remembers Fanny.

As they are wont to do, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from West Side Story. Musicals continued to get bigger and busier, eventually becoming so expensive to produce that they priced themselves out of existence. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing rapidly in the 60s, turning big Broadway-style productions into dinosaurs. But West Side Story captured the form at its best, with a perfect storm of talent working together to bring a timeless story to life. The Romeo & Juliet template is essentially foolproof. It’s a classic, endlessly malleable story that everyone relates to on some level. When you apply this level of craftsmanship to a story this universal, the results will almost always be timeless.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.