Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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