It should not come as a shock to learn that Walt Disney had been a Boy Scout. As an adult, he wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of an outdoorsman. But the principles of the Boy Scouts clearly resonated with him. Scout Law sounds a lot like the codes of conduct for cast members at Disney theme parks or on the Mickey Mouse Club. Like the Boy Scouts, a Mouseketeer is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
Walt had to quit the Scouts when his family moved back to Chicago in 1917. In 1946, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) presented him their highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award. Other recipients that year included General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, both of whom received billing beneath Walt in the BSA’s writeup of the event. Clearly, Walt had enormous affection for the organization. However, I’m not sure that justifies a two-hour-plus valentine to the good work of the Boy Scouts of America.
Follow Me, Boys! is based on the novel God And My Country by MacKinlay Kantor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Civil War novel Andersonville. Another of Kantor’s war-themed works, the novella Glory For Me, provided the basis for the 1946 classic The Best Years Of Our Lives. Disney’s movie reunited director Norman Tokar with screenwriter Louis Pelletier, who’d written Those Calloways and Big Red. Tokar (who seemed to be competing with Robert Stevenson for the title of Disney’s Busiest Director) had recently branched out into comedy with The Ugly Dachshund. Follow Me, Boys! places him squarely back within his wheelhouse of earnest dramas.
Fred MacMurray (last seen in 1963’s Son Of Flubber) stars as Lemuel Siddons, a saxophonist with Melody Murphy’s Collegians and aspiring lawyer. Lem is getting tired of life on the road, so when the band makes a pit stop in the small town of Hickory, USA, he impulsively decides to get off the bus permanently. He gets a job at Hughes Mercantile Store and slowly wins over the locals, including Mr. Hughes himself (Charlie Ruggles in his final Disney appearance) and wealthy widow Hetty Seibert (silent film icon Lillian Gish in her only Disney gig).
One person who seems immune to Lem’s charm is Vida Downey (Vera Miles in her third Disney picture). Vida works at the local bank alongside Hetty’s nephew, Ralph Hastings (Elliott Reid, also MacMurray’s rival in the Flubber flicks). Hoping to impress her, Lem attends a town meeting on the topic of keeping Hickory’s boys off the streets and out of the pool halls. Lem spots a list of suggestions in her hand that includes Y.M.C.A., 4-H and (underlined) Boy Scouts.
Before Vida gets the chance to speak, Lem stands up and steals her idea to organize a Boy Scout troop. Unfortunately, no one is willing to be Scoutmaster, so Lem volunteers for the job. Vida is impressed by Lem’s willingness to lead the boys (especially since Ralph wants nothing to do with it) and she slowly starts warming up to him. Eventually, the two get married. I guess the secret to a happy marriage is never tell your spouse that you stole credit for her idea.
Over the next few weeks, Lem assembles a ragtag group of Scouts, including the bespectacled Hoodoo Henderson (Dean Moray), husky Beefy Smith (Keith Taylor), and cornet-playing Quong Lee (Warren Hsieh). Of course, there’s always one outsider, a tough guy with a slingshot who doesn’t go in for sissy stuff like the Boy Scouts. In Hickory, it’s Whitey and he’s played by a young actor named Kurt Russell. We’ll talk more about this promising newcomer in a moment.
Lem catches Whitey trying to steal from the general store. But instead of turning him in, Lem lets him go and turns a blind eye when he swipes a copy of the Boy Scout manual. Whitey’s intrigued and reads the book cover to cover. He secretly longs to join but he’s ashamed of his father Ed (Sean McClory), the town drunk. Eventually, Lem and the boys persuade Whitey that they really do want him to sign up and Whitey agrees, somewhat reluctantly.
When Lem runs into Ed at the store, he discovers that Whitey didn’t even invite him to the upcoming Fathers’ Night. Lem tries to repair the rift between father and son but only makes things worse. Ed shows up staggering drunk, toting a couple of melting, oversized containers of ice cream for the boys. Ed causes a scene and a thoroughly humiliated Whitey escorts his dad back home, angrily resigning from the troop.
Later on, Ed passes out and Whitey races back to Lem for help. Sure enough, Ed has finally drunk himself to death, leaving Whitey an orphan. Lem and Vida, who have recently learned they can’t have children of their own, take the boy in, finally providing him the home and family he never had.
Whitey returns to the troop and works his way up to a leadership role. He even performs a daring rescue when a younger boy falls off a cliff onto a ledge. But nothing’s good enough for the blue-nosed gossips of Hickory. To them, Whitey’s still a bad apple, the son of that no-account drunk. Furious that his boy would be treated so shabbily, Lem calls up the BSA and quits. At the same time, Whitey packs up his stuff and decides to run away from home. Lem finds him picking up camping gear at the cabin. The two of them convince each other to stick around just as the entire town shows up to show their support for Lem. It’s a big emotional finale as Troop 1 has been saved!
But guess what? It’s not the finale as Follow Me, Boys! just keeps on going. Time rolls forward several years to 1944. Lem is still Scoutmaster to a new troop of boys, taking them on an overnight camping trip. But this is wartime and the U.S. Army has scheduled a military exercise at the very same lake. Not realizing that he isn’t part of the war games, Lem is taken captive and held as a P.O.W. The MP in charge doesn’t buy his Boy Scout story because Lem can’t even tie a sheepshank. Meanwhile, the boys take cover in an abandoned bunker where they manage to take out an entire battalion and capture a tank. If you’re thinking this all sounds very random and tangential to the story that had been being told up until now, you’re not wrong.
After this very extended interlude, Lem and the boys return to their meeting house, only to find it sealed by court order. Turns out that Ralph found out that Aunt Hetty, who owns the valuable lakefront property, planned to bequeath the land over to the Scouts in her will. Fearful of losing his inheritance, Ralph argues that Hetty is getting senile and demands the court appoint a guardian. Lem, forever toting around law books but never finding the time to take the bar exam, is allowed to question Hetty in court. He proves that she’s still sharp as a tack, forcing Ralph to withdraw his petition.
Time marches on yet again and the movie flashes up to the 1950s. Whitey is now all grown up and played by Donald May (last seen in A Tiger Walks and no relation, as near as I can tell, to Synapse Films President Don May, Jr.). He served in the medical corps overseas and comes home to Hickory with a new wife, Nora (former Disney child star Luana Patten, not seen in this column since Johnny Tremain). Lem hasn’t slowed down a bit. He still serves as Scoutmaster and now owns the store since Mr. Hughes passed away. Concerns over his health force Lem to concede that it’s time for someone else to take over Troop 1. Since the newly expanded meeting house at the lake is ready to open, the BSA decides to throw a combination dedication and retirement ceremony.
The people of Hickory have one more surprise for Lem. The drive out to the lake turns into a parade as everyone gathers to celebrate Lem Siddons Day. All of the original Troop 1 boys turn out, even Hoodoo who grew up to become governor of whatever state this is. Lem cuts the ribbon opening Camp Siddons, leads everyone in one last round of Troop 1’s official marching song, “Follow Me, Boys” by the Sherman Brothers, and now the movie is finally allowed to end.
Follow Me, Boys! is very much the type of movie fans either adore or despise. It’s a lot and if you don’t have a taste for homespun cornball Americana, it’s easy to choke on it. This is like It’s A Wonderful Life if George Bailey had no regrets, would never dream of committing suicide and thought everything about life in Bedford Falls was A-OK all the time. Lem isn’t even bothered by the fact that he never became a lawyer. Good for him, I guess, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling or dramatic story arc.
The movie’s biggest flaw, and one I believe even its most ardent fans will agree with, is that it’s ridiculously overlong. Even the studio thought so. When they re-released it to theatres in 1976, they cut nearly half an hour out of it. There’s hardly a scene that doesn’t drag on just a little bit longer than it needs to. That’s not even counting the whole war game sequence, which comes totally out of left field and just does not know when to quit. I get why it’s here. It’s the kind of big, loud, silly setpiece that people had come to expect from live-action Disney movies. But it’s also completely extraneous and forgotten about the second it’s over.
Another problem is the casting of Fred MacMurray as Lem. Not that he doesn’t seem like a believable Scoutmaster and father figure. But he hits the same note so often that the character doesn’t seem to change or grow at all over the years. Both physically and emotionally, Lem seems like exactly the same guy at the end of the movie as he did at the beginning.
When Follow Me, Boys! was released, MacMurray was 58 years old. Looking at him, you’d think, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” So at the beginning of the movie, it’s impossible to figure out how old Lem is meant to be. He’s playing in a band called the Collegians but he remarks to his boss that they’re hardly Collegians anymore. Indeed, the other band members look just as old or older than Fred. Lem deciding to chuck it all for a job as a stockboy seems less like the impetuousness of youth than a late-game midlife crisis.
It gets even worse as Lem gets older (which is to say, closer to MacMurray’s actual age). Rather than wasting time with old-age makeup, they simply tried to put white in MacMurray’s already-dyed black hair. So he ends up with this extremely unnatural blue tint in his hair. Vera Miles, who was only about 37, doesn’t fare much better. They wrinkle her up and put some random streaks through her hair. It’s all so vague that I’d place their characters’ ages at anywhere from 60 to 100.
MacMurray and Miles also don’t make for a very appealing couple. Granted, plausible adult romance was never a strong suit of Walt Disney Pictures. Even their best relationships are pretty chaste (Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith in The Parent Trap providing one notable exception). But here, it’s hard to fathom what Miles sees in this guy. During their courtship, they have a huge fight in front of the boys after Vida prepares an elaborate picnic lunch and Lem forbids her from serving it. He wants the boys to be self-reliant. So Vida throws the whole thing into the lake out of spite. She’s prone to flying off the handle and he’s an insensitive, bullheaded tyrant. It’s a match made in heaven!
Despite the movie’s many, many flaws, lots of people really love Follow Me, Boys! Believe it or not, I can understand why they do even if I disagree with them. Clichés do not become clichés because they don’t work. It’s because they do work that makes them so effective and overused. The finale goes all out tugging shamelessly at the heartstrings. It’s hard to resist the old “ordinary guy is celebrated by all the people he’s touched over the years” routine. Would it have meant more if we actually knew something about these kids beyond their names and a single personality trait? Sure. But it works well enough as is to get the job done.
Certainly the most genuinely affecting parts of the film revolve around Kurt Russell and his dad, Sean McClory. McClory manages to avoid turning Ed into a caricature. He doesn’t seem to be an abusive or angry drunk. When he sees the shame and disappointment on his son’s face, he becomes even more disappointed in himself. This guy knows he’s letting himself and his son down but is powerless to stop it. It’s a really interesting performance with more nuance than I expected. Sean McClory had earlier done some uncredited voice work on Mary Poppins and I’m happy to say he’ll be back in this column soon.
Needless to say, we’re also going to be seeing a whole lot more of Kurt Russell. Russell began acting in the early ‘60s, appearing in the Elvis Presley movie It Happened At The World’s Fair and popping up on various TV shows. In 1963, he landed the title role on The Travels Of Jaimie McPheeters, an hour-long Western that ran on ABC opposite Walt Disney’s Wondrful World Of Color on NBC. (Dan O’Herlihy, brother of Fighting Prince Of Donegal director Michael O’Herlihy, played Kurt’s dad on the show…everything is connected.)
Jaimie McPheeters didn’t last long and Russell was back to guesting on shows like The Fugitive and Gilligan’s Island (he played Jungle Boy). After he was cast in Follow Me, Boys!, Walt knew he had his next big child star. Walt took Kurt under his wing, coming to visit him on the set and showing him bits and pieces of other projects in development. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kurt Russell would become as important to Disney as Hayley Mills had been a few years earlier.
Thanks to this chronological project, it’s very easy for me to imagine someone other than Russell playing this role. If Walt had made it earlier, it would have been Tommy Kirk or Tim Considine or David Stollery or even, God forbid, Kevin Corcoran. Some of those kids would have done just fine but none of them were Kurt Russell. It would be easy for a young actor to overplay this role. Russell can’t totally elevate the character out of the realm of cliché. Nobody could. But he does sell Whitey’s rebellious streak without being obnoxious and he plays on the audience’s sympathies without being maudlin. That’s harder than it looks, especially when you’re just starting out and the script isn’t doing you any favors.
Follow Me, Boys! was positioned as Disney’s big holiday release, coming out on December 1, 1966. Predictably, most critics were not charmed but audiences seemed to enjoy Walt’s Boy Scout Jamboree. It did reasonably well at the box office and, as mentioned earlier, warranted a rerelease in the ‘70s.
But the release of Follow Me, Boys! was quickly overshadowed by sadder news. On December 15, 1966, Walter Elias Disney died at the age of 66. The end had come quickly. He had only just been diagnosed with lung cancer in early November. His death was front-page news around the world, eventually leading to weird urban legends that his body had been cryogenically frozen (it’s not) and that his last words had something to do with Kurt Russell (again, not exactly…one of Walt’s last handwritten notes appear to be casting suggestions for a TV production called Way Down Cellar that include “Kirt” Russell and fellow Disney contract player Roger Mobley, spelling apparently not one of Walt’s strong suits).
It also left the studio that bore his name in a bit of disarray. With Walt gone, his brother Roy O. Disney became president. Roy had been with Walt from the beginning but he’d handled the business end, not the creative. Of course, the studio still had a few projects already in the pipeline that Walt had supervised but not many.
Walt’s primary focus during his last years had been EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT would remain unrealized but Roy postponed his own retirement to fulfill one of his brother’s other last projects, a second theme park in Florida that would be named Walt Disney World. But around the studio, things were about to change. Walt Disney’s innate sense of storytelling and world-building had guided the studio for decades, leaving a legacy that’s lasted generations. Now that guiding hand was gone and other people would have to learn to steer.
VERDICT: If you have fond memories of it, I’m super happy for you. But coming at it cold in 2021, it’s a Disney Minus.