Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Lady And The Tramp

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp

When Lady And The Tramp debuted on June 22, 1955, it should have been a bigger deal. For years, the Disney name had been synonymous with feature animation. Here was the studio’s first feature cartoon since Peter Pan two years earlier. Not only that, it was the first ever produced in CinemaScope. But animation had become almost an afterthought at the studio. Walt himself had decided it was time for his name to become synonymous with something much bigger. His attention was entirely on Disneyland. Lady And The Tramp would have to sink or swim on its own merits.

Lady And The Tramp is easily one of Disney’s most unusual feature animations. For the first time, the story was entirely self-generated and not based on a classic fairy tale or book. Development began all the way back in 1937 when animator Joe Grant brought in some sketches he’d done of his English Springer Spaniel, Lady. Grant had just had a baby and his sketches of the jealous Lady made Walt think there might be a story there. He assigned a small group of storymen to the project and work quietly began on Lady.

By 1945, work on Lady hadn’t progressed much farther than that. Various artists and storymen dropped in ideas here and there but it simply wasn’t coming together. The project might have disappeared into the vault if Walt hadn’t come across a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”. Walt decided a scrappy, cynical dog might be just the counterpoint the sweet, lovable Lady needed.

Walt already knew the story’s author. Ward Greene was a writer and journalist but his day job was general manager of King Features Syndicate, distributing columns and comic strips to newspapers around the country. Disney had been a staple of the funny pages and a feather in King Features’ cap since the Mickey Mouse comic strip premiered in 1930. Odds are this was not a difficult negotiation.

Work continued on what would eventually be titled Lady And The Tramp off and on for the next several years, mostly off. Joe Grant left the studio (and animation, at least temporarily) in 1949, leaving the story to be molded primarily by Ward Greene. Still, the project was simply not a priority at the studio.

Finally in 1953, Walt and Roy Disney had a problem. For years, they had struggled with having too many animated projects in various stages of development. Now, for the first time, they didn’t have enough. Peter Pan had been released but Sleeping Beauty, intended to be Walt’s magnum opus, was nowhere near finished. Roy was in the process of launching Buena Vista, the studio’s new distribution arm. It would be a lot easier to woo exhibitors to Disney distribution with the promise of new Disney animation.

According to Neal Gabler’s excellent book Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination, Walt first considered simply cobbling together another package film. That would have been easier said than done, since the production of animated short subjects was trickling to a halt. Any animators not working on Sleeping Beauty had been kept busy producing new but cheap footage for the Disneyland TV series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Instead of a package film, Roy encouraged Walt to kickstart Lady And The Tramp, figuring it would be a relatively quick and easy project to complete.

It probably would have been except for one thing: CinemaScope. The widescreen process had become Hollywood’s latest craze toward coaxing audiences away from televisions and back into theatres. Disney had successfully used it on the live-action 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar-winning animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom. When he decided to shoot Lady And The Tramp in CinemaScope, the animators had to make some big adjustments. The backgrounds had to be bigger. Layouts had to be changed. They even had to prepare a second, alternate version formatted for theaters that weren’t equipped to project CinemaScope. Consequently, the “quick and easy” project took longer to complete than anticipated.

Narratively, Lady And The Tramp remains true to the modest goals first laid out by Joe Grant. The story opens on Christmas with Jim Dear presenting Lady in a hatbox as a gift to his beloved wife, Darling. This incident, supposedly inspired by Walt’s own Christmas gift of a puppy to his wife, Lillian, early in their marriage, helped obfuscate Grant’s contribution to the story in later years. Opening with such a personal moment, everyone simply assumed the story was Walt’s and Walt himself did little to suggest otherwise.

The movie ambles along at its own pace from there, following Lady as she grows up, gets to know her neighbors Jock and Trusty, acquires her collar and official dog license. The movie’s almost a third over before we’re introduced to either the idea of a new baby entering the home or even Lady’s costar, Tramp.

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp has a reputation as one of the most romantic movies of all time, animated or otherwise. It landed at Number 95 on the American Film Institute’s 2002 list of love stories, 100 Years…100 Passions. But the film takes its time revealing that side of itself. Crucially, Disney spends the first 45 minutes or so romanticizing the characters’ world rather than the characters themselves. Tramp and his friends from the wrong side of the tracks are kept separate from Lady and her Snob Hill neighbors. Both worlds seem equally appealing and idyllic on their own. When Lady and the Tramp come together, they blend into a singular, magical space.

After Disneyland opened, it became common shorthand to compartmentalize Disney’s work into the four park areas: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But there was always a fifth area to the park, Main Street USA, and it’s that idealized, hyper-nostalgic worldview that’s on full display in Lady And The Tramp.

More often than not, Disney would indulge his nostalgic impulses through live-action films like So Dear To My Heart and later, Pollyanna. Lady And The Tramp translates that live-action aesthetic into animation and the result is even more idealized. We believe in the somewhat unlikely romance between these two dogs in large part because of their perfect surroundings.

Supposedly, Walt was ready to cut the now-iconic spaghetti dinner scene, concerned that the sight of two dogs wolfing down a big plate of pasta would just look ridiculous. Animator Frank Thomas fought for it, animating the whole thing by himself to prove his point. The beautifully animated scene kicks off the “Bella Notte” sequence, a lovely blend of character animation, sumptuous backgrounds and romantic details. How could anyone not fall in love to images like these?

Theatrical re-release poster for Lady And The Tramp

Their happiness is short-lived as Lady is thrown into the local dog pound, where she learns some harsh truths about her new boyfriend. Tramp gets around and everybody’s got a story to tell about his love life. By the time she gets sprung from lockup, Lady’s fed up with Tramp. He ran off and abandoned her when she was caught. Now it seems he never really cared about her at all.

But Tramp hasn’t abandoned Lady or run away. He’s completely selfish but he isn’t a coward. We’ve already seen that he’s got a soft spot for puppies and is a true and loyal friend, rescuing dogs on their way to the pound. He assumed that Lady would be fine, thanks to her get-out-of-jail-free license. As soon as she’s out, he comes by to check on her and learns that love means putting another person (or dog or, in this case, baby) ahead of your own best interests. As relationship lessons go, the ones taught by Lady And The Tramp aren’t bad.

For the voice talent, Disney cast a wider net than on other projects, recruiting a number of actors from outside the studio. Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady. It was her first role for Disney but not the last. She’d go on to voice a number of characters over the years, including Kanga in the Winnie The Pooh series. Tramp was voiced by Larry Roberts, a stage performer who never made another film. He retired from show business in the late 1950s and went into fashion design. Reliable Disney stock players Verna Felton and Bill Thompson appeared as Aunt Sarah and Jock.

Disney even brought in a pair of voice talents not typically associated with the studio. Stan Freberg was an established voice talent at Warner Bros. and on radio who was beginning to hit the big time with his own comedy records when Disney brought him in to provide the voice of the Beaver. Alan Reed was still a few years away from landing his defining role as Fred Flintstone but was a popular radio and character actor when he voiced Boris, the Russian wolfhound.

But the not-so-secret weapon of Lady And The Tramp is undoubtedly Miss Peggy Lee. Disney had never relied on celebrity voices for his cartoons but he certainly wasn’t against using them. Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone had toplined The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad and Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was modeled after radio star Ed Wynn. But Peggy Lee was in a different category when she arrived on the Disney lot.

Peggy Lee became the singer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1941. Within two years, she had the number-one song in the country, the million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right?” After she left Goodman’s group, her career really took off with huge hits like “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”. Her being asked to work on Lady And The Tramp was the 1950s equivalent of Elton John working on The Lion King or Phil Collins on Tarzan.

Peggy Lee gave the work her all. She provides the voices for four characters: Darling, the cats Si and Am and, of course, Peg the Pekingese. She even gave story notes. Trusty the bloodhound was supposed to die at the end until Peggy Lee cautioned against traumatizing a generation that was still grieving Bambi’s mom.

Album cover art for Songs From Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp by Peggy Lee

Most importantly, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on six original songs. Burke had first worked for Disney on Toot, Whistle, Plunk And Boom and he’d go on to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic records, including “My Way”. The songs Lee and Burke wrote for Lady And The Tramp work perfectly with Oliver Wallace’s Victorian-tinged score. The lullaby “La La Lu” bridges the gap between the eras nicely.

But the songs everyone remembers from Lady And The Tramp are distinctly modern. “Bella Notte”, “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp” are very much of their era. They help contemporize Lady And The Tramp, bringing it out of the rose-colored mists of nostalgia and into the present day. Today, it creates a feeling of double-nostalgia for both Walt’s turn-of-the-century youth and for the 1950s. It’s the same powerful feeling that accounts for the continued popularity of movies like Grease. We’re nostalgic for nostalgia itself, not for a specific era.

As for “The Siamese Cat Song”, it’s a bit lame to brush aside its casual ethnic stereotyping by saying that this is far from the worst example of it we’ll see in a Disney movie. Sure, they’re cats but there’s no missing the implications of the character design, music or voices. One can certainly understand why the song was scrapped from the recent Disney+ remake. Still…it’s a good song. The Asian pastiche is a pretty common type of popular song and this is one of the better examples of it.

Besides, it isn’t like the cats are singled out. It’s a long-standing tradition in animation that if an animal can be defined by an ethnic stereotype, it will be. Jock, the Scottish terrier, is very Scottish. Boris, the Russian wolfhound, is very Russian. Pedro, the chihuahua, is very Mexican. Of course Si and Am are going to be very “Siamese”, which is a word that people just took to mean generally Asian back in the day. At least they weren’t called “Oriental”. On our ongoing list of Outdated Tropes of the Past, “The Siamese Cat Song” doesn’t seem worth getting too worked up over.

Lady And The Tramp was not an immediate hit with critics. Many longtime Disney supporters dismissed it as sentimental and inconsequential. But audiences loved it. It quickly became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White, ending up as the sixth highest grossing film of 1955.

Lady And The Tramp didn’t exactly lend itself to Disneyland attractions or toys and games beyond the usual merchandise but its popularity earned it a spin-off comic strip. Scamp, originally written by Ward Greene and distributed by King Features, followed the adventures of Lady and the Tramp’s mischievous son for over 30 years. The strip finally ended in 1988 and Scamp returned to animated form in the 2001 direct-to-video sequel Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.

Comic book cover art for Walt Disney's Lady And The Tramp spin-off Scamp

Even today, Lady And The Tramp remains one of Disney’s most popular films. In 1987, the film was released on VHS for the first time and surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling videocassette of all time. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than Peggy Lee, who sued Disney for royalties on the video sales. She was eventually rewarded over $2 million and the case changed entertainment copyright law forever, forcing studios and unions to grapple with new media like home entertainment.

Lady And The Tramp proved that Walt Disney didn’t need a beloved book or fairy tale to deliver a heartfelt, masterfully animated feature. The studio was more than capable of crafting their own stories. But unfortunately, it came around a little too late. Walt had almost done everything he wanted to accomplish with animation. His heart and his mind now belonged to Disneyland. The golden age of Disney animated features was coming to a close.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Peter Pan

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Peter Pan

As with Alice In Wonderland before it, Walt Disney spent a long, long time bringing Peter Pan to the screen. It had been seriously considered as the follow-up to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as far back as 1935. But Walt wasn’t able to secure the rights until 1939, as part of his Snow White-financed spending spree. It would take fourteen years, many discarded drafts, and countless artists, animators and composers before Peter Pan finally premiered in February of 1953. But this time, unlike Alice, Walt seemed to think the finished picture was worth the effort.

It’s easy to understand why Walt would have been interested in J.M. Barrie’s play about the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Read any biography or watch any documentary about Walt and time how long it takes before someone refers to him as “a big kid” or something like that. He had seen the play as a child in Marceline, Missouri, and even played the title role in a school production. But despite his personal affinity for the material, it obviously took him awhile to decide how he wanted to adapt it to animation.

Some of the earliest concept art for Peter Pan was provided by artist David Hall. His work was considerably darker than what eventually ended up on screen. Walt continued trying to crack the story until the outbreak of World War II ground everything to a halt. The war years brought Disney’s studio to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing Walt to take out a massive loan from the Bank of America to stay afloat.

One of the stipulations of that loan was that the studio wasn’t allowed to put any new projects into production. They were only allowed to continue working on films that were already in progress. Even at that early date, Disney had put so much work into Peter Pan that the bank okayed the studio to keep going with it. But by the time the studio began to get back on its feet, Walt still wasn’t entirely satisfied with Peter Pan and started focusing on Cinderella instead.

By mid-1949, Walt felt the story was in good enough shape to finally give it an official greenlight. As was becoming standard practice, Walt insisted on shooting extensive live-action reference footage for the animators. Kathryn Beaumont went straight from working on Alice In Wonderland to voicing and modeling the role of Wendy. The great Hans Conried spent a few days providing the voices of both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling but was called back repeatedly over the course of over two years for additional live-action filming.

For the title role, Disney broke with the tradition of casting somewhat androgynous young women. Instead, contract player Bobby Driscoll was given the part, although he split the live-action duties with dancer and choreographer Roland Dupree, who handled the flying and action sequences. Driscoll had been 9 years old when he made his Disney debut in Song Of The South. By the time he worked on Peter Pan, he would have been around 14 and he definitely sounds like a teenager.

Bobby Driscoll and Walt Disney during the live-action filming of Peter Pan.
Bobby and Walt behind the scenes on Peter Pan.

Unfortunately, adolescence was not kind to Bobby Driscoll. For years, he had been Walt’s favorite juvenile lead. Through such films as So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island, Walt had referred to Bobby as “the living embodiment of his own youth”. But that all changed after Bobby hit puberty. Suddenly, Walt didn’t see him as the boy next door anymore. Bobby’s changing voice and a severe outbreak of acne now made Walt see him more as the neighborhood bully. In 1953, weeks after the premiere of Peter Pan, an extension on Bobby’s Disney contract was abruptly cancelled.

The next years were difficult ones. Bobby’s parents enrolled him in a public high school where his movie career made him a target. His grades dropped and eventually he began using drugs, leading to his first arrest in 1956 for possession. He started going by the name Robert Driscoll and landed a handful of roles, primarily on TV, but by the end of the 1950s, his acting career was essentially over.

In 1961, he was arrested once again and sentenced to a stint in rehab. Finding it impossible to get acting work, Bobby moved to New York where he fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. While at the Factory, he displayed a talent for art and appeared in at least one last film, underground filmmaker Piero Heliczer’s experimental Dirt, alongside the likes of Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Edie Sedgwick.

But Bobby eventually ran out of money and disappeared from the Factory. His whereabouts remained unknown until 1968 when two boys came upon his body in an abandoned tenement building. The cause of death was determined to be heart failure brought about by his heavy drug use. On the day his body was discovered, Bobby Driscoll would have been 31.

Because he carried no identification and no one locally stepped forward to claim him, he was buried in Potter’s Field in an unmarked, pauper’s grave. His fate wasn’t discovered until 1969, when his mother contacted someone at Disney for help tracking him down. A fingerprint match allowed the NYPD to confirm that the body buried on Hart Island belonged to Bobby Driscoll. It was a tragic conclusion to the former child star’s story.

Peter Pan marked the end of an era in other ways, too. It would be the last animated feature distributed by Disney’s longtime partner RKO. We’ll get into the reasons behind Disney’s split with RKO soon. It was one of the last films whose origins could be traced all the way back to the 1930s. Development on Lady And The Tramp also began around that time but by the time it hit screens in 1955, it had changed considerably from those preliminary discussions.

It was also the last feature to utilize the animation talents of all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. Les Clark was the longest tenured member of the team, having joined the studio back in 1927. All nine would continue to work for the studio in various capacities. But this would be the final film to tap into the unique alchemy that resulted from all nine working together.

If nothing else, Peter Pan is a terrific looking movie. It features some outstanding character animation and thrilling setpieces. “You Can Fly!”, featuring Peter and the kids soaring effortlessly over a beautifully detailed London skyline, is an undeniable high point. Conried, who would go on to voice some of my personal favorite animated characters including Snidely Whiplash and the MathemaGician in Chuck Jones’ The Phantom Tollbooth, is an ideal Captain Hook. He’s amusingly paired with Bill Thompson as Smee, once again doing a slight variation on his Wallace Wimple/Droopy/White Rabbit/Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore voice.

Tinker Bell is also a fine addition to the pantheon of Disney characters. Taking a character that was literally just a speck of light flitting around the stage and giving her personality and depth couldn’t have been an easy task. Doing it all without the benefit of dialogue makes the achievement even more impressive. Marc Davis animated Tinker Bell and he imbues her with a unique, contemporary style and attitude. Tink became the breakout star of Peter Pan, going on to essentially become the animated hostess of Disney’s long-running TV anthology.

In 2005, the studio finally decided to do something with Tink’s continued popularity by launching the Disney Fairies line. Unless you have kids of your own, you might not realize how massive this franchise has become. It encompasses books for a wide range of reading levels, comics, video games, and a long-running series of direct-to-video movies beginning with 2008’s Tinker Bell that finally gave her a voice (provided by Mae Whitman). DTV features are mercifully outside the purview of this column. This project is going to take long enough as it is, thanks very much. But it’s interesting to note that the Tinker Bell series has proven to be one of the studio’s most successful ventures in that realm.

Cover art for the direct-to-video Peter Pan spin-off Tinker Bell

Peter Pan did quite well during its original release. Most critics liked it and Walt himself was pleased with how it had turned out. But I’ve personally never quite connected with Peter Pan. I find the Lost Boys to be an aggressively annoying pack of urchins, not the playful scamps that Disney presumably intended. The Darling children aren’t as actively irritating but they aren’t particularly sympathetic, either. They’re just sort of blank, generic children.

Then there’s Peter Pan himself. He’s completely self-absorbed and remains that way throughout. He’s a hard hero to root for. It’s even harder to understand why every female character is obsessed with him. Tinker Bell’s jealousy over Wendy’s interest makes a little bit of sense since their relationship goes back decades or even centuries. It’s impossible to say how old a pixie and a boy who never grows up actually are. But the mermaids also fawn all over him and try to humiliate Wendy. Then it’s Wendy’s turn to get jealous when Tiger Lily makes her play. Every female character seems to possess just two emotions: blind devotion and petty jealousy.

We should also take a second to talk about Tiger Lily and the Indians. Disney indulges in pretty much every offensive Native American stereotype in the book, from the broken English to literally coloring them red. To be fair, this problem was not unique to Disney or even animation at the time. Nuanced, culturally appropriate depictions of indigenous peoples were few and far between in 1953. Still, a song like “What Made The Red Man Red?” isn’t great no matter what the context of the time.

Considering that Disney has essentially tried to erase Song Of The South from its history altogether, it’s a bit surprising that the latest Blu-ray of Peter Pan (released in 2018) doesn’t even warrant an outdated cultural depictions disclaimer (the version available on Disney+ carries one). Song Of The South is mostly offensive by omission, leaving out specific details that would have helped make the picture more palatable to modern audiences. Peter Pan is actively insulting. You can argue that the Indians aren’t meant to represent actual Native Americans any more than the Pirates are meant to realistically depict life at sea. That’s true enough, as far as that goes. But decades of being represented as literal and figurative cartoon characters is a big reason why racism against native people isn’t taken seriously.

For me, the only thing about Peter Pan that really works is the business with the Pirates, especially the cat-and-mouse game between Hook and the Crocodile. These sequences come alive with a slapstick energy that’s more akin to Looney Tunes than Disney. During one of Peter’s confrontations with Hook, they even indulge in the old cartoon standby of a fight continuing off the edge of a precipice. Hook doesn’t start to fall until Peter points down and Hook remembers that gravity is a thing. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner made their debut in 1949’s Fast And Furry-ous. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Frank Thomas and Wolfgang Reitherman, who were largely responsible for animating Hook and the Crocodile, cribbed some inspiration from their rivals at Warner Bros.

1989 theatrical re-release poster for Peter Pan

By the time Peter Pan was released in 1953, things were changing rapidly at Disney. Up until now, this column has focused primarily on animated features. That’s about to change. From this point forward, the live-action division of the Disney studio will become a lot more active.

Walt had built his reputation on animation, both short subjects and features. But production on the shorts had already begun to slow down. By the end of the decade, the studio all but abandoned the format. Every animated feature had taken years to develop and produce. Now with the backlog of unfinished projects beginning to run dry, the wait between full-length animated features became even longer.

While he’d never abandon the artform, Walt’s interest in animation had diminished considerably. Instead, he had thrown his energy into a new project: a massive amusement park that seemed so impossibly ambitious that even his wife, Lillian, thought he was nuts to attempt it. To help pay for and promote the park, Walt embraced the new medium of television, creating and hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC. Between Disneyland, the park, and Disneyland, the TV show, Walt now had bigger fish to fry. The movies that bore his name would now have a lot less direct input from Walt Disney.

VERDICT: This is going to be an unpopular opinion but for me, this is a Disney Minus. Nothing personal if you’re one of the millions who love it.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

Original 1951 theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.

Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.

Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.

By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.

After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.

When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.

Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.

Alice In Wonderland concept art by Mary Blair
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)

The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.

A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.

Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.

Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.

But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.

But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.

In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.

None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.

The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.

Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.

Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.

For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.

Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.

When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.

It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.

But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.

VERDICT: 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: Melody Time

Original teaser poster for Melody Time

Walt Disney was unquestionably one of the most imaginative figures of the twentieth century. His expansive vision went well beyond animation, transforming feature films, television and, of course, theme parks. So when he sat down to assemble Melody Time, Disney’s fifth package film of the decade, you’d think Walt could have come up with a more interesting theme than, “Let’s just do another music one.”

On the face of it, Walt’s commitment to musically themed package films is almost quixotic. He had hoped that Fantasia would be his crowning achievement and had taken its financial and critical disappointment personally. It seems as though he almost viewed it like a warning against letting his ambitions run away with him. He played it much safer on Make Mine Music. Most of the animation was done in the more traditional, cartoony style. The music was contemporary. And most of the segments could stand on their own as individually released short subjects in case the feature version tanked.

Walt’s compromises paid off. Make Mine Music was a modest success, at a time when the studio needed all the successes it could get. With their next full-length animated feature still on the horizon, Walt needed to release something to theaters in 1948. Another hodgepodge of contemporary songs must have seemed like as good an idea as any.

But Disney’s team had already had a more interesting idea. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Casey At The Bat segment in Make Mine Music, the animators were keen to develop an entire compilation of American folk heroes, tall tales and legends. Two segments were completed: The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. But for whatever reason, Walt decided not to pursue the idea and instead filled the rest of the film with an odd assortment of completely unrelated cartoons.

Perhaps it was Johnny Appleseed that soured Walt on the project. Performed by radio star Dennis Day, the segment mines all the excitement it can from the story of the peace-loving gardener who roamed the countryside planting apple trees. Which is to say, not much. It’s pleasant enough but it is completely bereft of dramatic conflict. Johnny walks, plants, befriends animals, walks, plants, naps, walks, plants, dies peacefully beneath a tree, then is escorted to heaven where he presumably walks, plants, and so on.

But The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed is slightly unusual for Disney in that it’s one of the most explicitly Christian projects the studio ever produced. We’re introduced to Johnny singing “The Lord’s Been Good To Me” and he carries his Bible with him everywhere. It’s hardly radical but it may have been too much for Walt, who was never a churchgoer and tried to keep religion out of his creative work.

About ten years after Melody Time, Walt’s brother Roy came to him with a potential live-action project: a religious epic called The Big Fisherman based on the life of Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter. Walt wanted nothing to do with it but Roy backed it anyway, releasing the independent production through Buena Vista. Today, The Big Fisherman remains virtually impossible to see.

At any rate, it’s possible that Johnny Appleseed‘s fairly innocuous religious content, coupled with its overall sleepy tone, helped put the kibosh on the tall tales and legends concept, at least for the time being. Disney would eventually get back to it in short form. In 1950, Casey Jones starred in The Brave Engineer. The Oscar-nominated Paul Bunyan followed in 1958. Finally in 2002, the studio got around to compiling most of these, along with the new short John Henry, in the direct-to-video package film Disney’s American Legends.

DVD cover art for Disney's American Legends

Still, it’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t have enough faith in the idea at the time, especially since the second folk tale, Pecos Bill, is easily the film’s highlight. In the live-action framing sequence, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (and Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies, of course) tell the story to young Disney contract-buckaroos Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten (reunited after Song Of The South). It’s a classic Tall Tale of the Wild West, with a pioneer boy raised by coyotes and growing up to shape the Great State of Texas alongside his trusty horse, Widowmaker.

Pecos Bill is just a breezy, fun cartoon. It’s the longest segment in Melody Time but it’s never in danger of overstaying its welcome. The animation is a treat and the music is delightful, especially the cowboy classic “Blue Shadows On The Trail”. That song is not to be confused with Randy Newman’s similar “Blue Shadows” from Three Amigos!, although I’m guessing Newman wrote his song because Disney wouldn’t let them use the original. In fact, the original title of Three Amigos! was actually The Three Caballeros. Disney probably had a thing or two to say about that, too.

The rest of the segments run the usual gamut of highs and lows. Singer Frances Langford performs the charming and nostalgic Once Upon A Wintertime. This cartoon would find a more receptive audience later after it was released on its own and included in various Christmas-themed compilations.

Bumble Boogie is a jazzed-up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. A presumably more traditional performance of the piece had been considered as a potential Fantasia segment a few years earlier. The music, performed by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra with Jack Fina killing it on piano, is great but the animation is disappointing. An insect that frankly doesn’t look all that much like a bumblebee has to maneuver his way through various musical backgrounds. Compared to the more ambitious abstract segments in Fantasia and even Make Mine Music, this comes across as a little pedestrian. It feels like Disney wasn’t all that interested in challenging himself anymore.

The Andrews Sisters perform the epic story of Little Toot, which is essentially the same as Pedro from Saludos Amigos but with boats instead of planes. A little tugboat who wants to be a big tugboat saves the day after he gets in a world of trouble. There isn’t much to this and it goes on a bit too long but I like the Andrews Sisters, so at least the music’s good. If you don’t like the Andrews Sisters, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Just about everyone is gonna have a bad time with Trees, in which Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform Joyce Kilmer’s poem set to music by Oscar Rasbach. Trees is one of the most famous poems ever written and I don’t know a single person who likes it. It’s the kind of thuddingly obvious poem that gives poetry in general a bad name. It’s one of the easiest poems to parody but Disney plays it completely straight. But the animation is certainly pretty, so if you mute your television, you might be able to appreciate it.

The penultimate segment, arriving just before Pecos Bill, is the third and final entry in the Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros saga, Blame It On The Samba. Donald Duck and José Carioca are back, along with that damn Aracuan Bird, but Panchito Pistoles sits this one out. This time, Donald and José have lost their pep until the Aracuan Bird spices things up with the samba rhythms of the Dinning Sisters and organist Ethel Smith, who appears in live-action footage.

This segment only adds to the sense that Melody Time is primarily scraps and leftovers. Any pretense of introducing audiences to authentic Latin American music is out the window. Donald and José don’t even get a chance to speak. It all feels like half an abandoned idea from The Three Caballeros that nobody bothered to flesh out.

Walt Disney’s years of penny-pinching and piecemeal package films were finally drawing to a close but he wasn’t completely done with them yet. By the early 1950s, Disney’s relationship with long-time distributor RKO was coming to an acrimonious end. Roy didn’t feel RKO was doing enough to publicize the Disney films, while RKO had problems of its own with Disney. A particular bone of contention was the series of True-Life Adventures nature documentaries, which RKO had no interest in distributing. This column will get back to those soon enough.

In 1953, Roy decided to break from RKO and created his own distribution company, Buena Vista. But the studio was on the hook to deliver one more animated feature to RKO. So in 1955, Walt re-edited a handful of segments from both Make Mine Music and Melody Time, added the bare minimum of new introductory material, and delivered Music Land to RKO.

Original theatrical release poster for Music Land

Music Land is without question the rarest of all Disney features. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits album or a clip show. After it fulfilled Walt’s contractual obligation, it was locked up in the Disney Vault, never to be heard from again. I’m not advocating for its release. You could put together a YouTube playlist and have roughly the same experience. But it’s an interesting footnote to both the musical package films and Disney’s long relationship with RKO.

In the end, Melody Time didn’t do much for Disney. It failed to find much of an audience and critics received it with a shrug and a yawn. After years of package films and odd experiments, there were plenty of people who assumed that Walt Disney had lost his touch, perhaps for good. Unfortunately, it would be another few years before he’d prove them wrong.

VERDICT: Only Once Upon A Wintertime and Pecos Bill can really be considered winners here, so it’s another Disney Minus.

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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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