When a studio produces a movie that captures lightning in a bottle the way Disney did with Mary Poppins, you can’t blame them for trying to replicate the trick. But Walt’s follow-up musical, The Happiest Millionaire, had been an ambitious and costly misfire. So Bedknobs And Broomsticks would appear to be a take-no-chances attempt to completely recreate the creative alchemy that produced Mary Poppins. That’s sort of true but Bedknobs And Broomsticks isn’t exactly a Mary Poppins clone. It’s more like a fraternal twin.
Walt Disney tried for a long, long time to wrestle the film rights to Mary Poppins out of author P.L. Travers’ clutches. Negotiations were contentious and on more than one occasion, it appeared as though the project was doomed. Walt needed a backup plan in case Mary Poppins fell apart. One idea was a film based on a pair of children’s books by Mary Norton that Disney had acquired the rights to years earlier. The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires And Broomsticks were Norton’s first published works. By 1957, the two books were collected under the title Bed-Knob And Broomstick. Norton’s most famous work is probably The Borrowers, which I’m frankly stunned Disney never made into a movie.
Walt instructed the Sherman Brothers to start coming up with songs for both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Once Travers finally signed on the dotted line, Bedknobs was scrapped. The Shermans picked it up again in 1966, presumably assuming that it would make an obvious follow-up to Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, it was a little too obvious. Bedknobs And Broomsticks felt so much like Mary Poppins that it was abandoned a second time.
In 1968, the Shermans’ Disney contract was due to expire. The boys had always reported directly to Walt. Since his death in 1966, they’d been making plans to leave the studio. Before they left, producer Bill Walsh had them finish up their work on Bedknobs And Broomsticks. As they’d done on Mary Poppins, the Shermans worked closely with Walsh and cowriter Don DaGradi to crack the story.
Apparently Walsh had no intention of actually making Bedknobs And Broomsticks quite yet. He just wanted to make sure that the Shermans’ work wasn’t left unfinished while they were still on the hook for the studio. Once they had a finished script, the Shermans moved on to other projects elsewhere with an assurance from Walsh that they could come back if Disney ever did decide to make the movie.
Walsh returned to Bedknobs And Broomsticks in late 1969, after the Shermans had gone on to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This time, he decided to embrace the project’s similarities to Mary Poppins. He brought in that film’s director, Robert Stevenson. Stevenson had become one of the studio’s most reliable filmmakers since Poppins, turning out blockbusters like Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Love Bug. Animator Hamilton Luske, who had been part of Mary Poppins’ Oscar-winning visual effects team, passed away in 1968, so Ward Kimball was put in charge of Bedknobs’ animated sequence.
Walsh’s first choice to play witch-in-training Eglantine Price was Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. Andrews’ career was about to hit a rough patch. Her 1968 musical Star! had been an expensive flop. Her next film, 1970’s Darling Lili directed by her husband Blake Edwards, didn’t fare much better. When she got the call from Disney, Andrews passed on the role, fearing it was too similar to Mary. She later reconsidered, figuring she owed Disney one for igniting her career and probably thinking she could use a hit, but by then it was too late. Walsh had already given the role to Angela Lansbury.
Lansbury had been in Hollywood since the 40s and it seemed as though she’d had to reinvent her career several times already. She’d received three Oscar nominations but studios frequently had no idea what to do with her. Bedknobs And Broomsticks was her first lead role in a movie musical, despite the fact that she was a regular presence on Broadway. Lansbury will be back in this column in vocal form but not for quite some time, so it’s a little surprising how associated she’s become with Disney. Apart from a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns, this is her only live-action Disney appearance.
To star opposite Lansbury, Walsh tried to get Ron Moody, another Broadway veteran who had just starred in the movie version of Oliver! But Moody wanted top billing and refused to budge on that point. So Walsh brought in David Tomlinson, another Mary Poppins star. This would be Tomlinson’s third and final Disney appearance following Poppins and The Love Bug. His last movie, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu, came out in 1980. After that, he enjoyed a happy retirement until his death in 2000 at the age of 83.
The plot of Bedknobs And Broomsticks is almost a funhouse mirror version of Mary Poppins. Instead of a practically perfect magical nanny coming to the aid of a 1910 family, we have three orphans escaping the German blitz in 1940 being foisted upon a correspondence school witch who doesn’t particularly care for children. Mary has seemingly limitless powers. Eglantine Price is still learning the handful of spells she’s been sent. Mary imparts valuable lessons to the Banks family but it’s the kids who have to teach Miss Price to open up.
The Rawlins children, Charlie, Carrie and Paul, are played by Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan and Roy Snart. All three had previously appeared in a few commercials but that was about the extent of their acting experience. Only Cindy O’Callaghan continued on in the profession, mostly in British TV shows like EastEnders. Snart evidently became a software entrepreneur, while nobody’s one hundred percent sure whatever happened to Ian Weighill. They’re all natural performers, so I hope that if nothing else, they’ve all led happy, productive, scandal-free lives unlike so many other child stars.
The story kicks into gear when the kids spot Miss Price learning to fly on a broomstick while trying to sneak out. Now that Miss Price seems more interesting, they decide to stick around. Charlie, the oldest and most cynical of the bunch, decides to push back against Miss Price’s strict rules by holding her witchy secret over her head. In exchange for their silence and cooperation, she gives them a transportation spell that only young Paul can operate by twisting an enchanted bedknob.
Miss Price has recently received word that Professor Emelius Browne’s Correspondence College of Witchcraft is closing, just as she was about to receive her final lesson in Substitutiary Locomotion. Determined to get the spell, she packs the kids onto the magic bed and has Paul take them to London. There they discover that “Professor” Browne is nothing more than an ordinary stage magician and not a very good one, at that. He’s thrilled to learn that Miss Price is actually able to make his spells work. Unfortunately, the book he’s been cribbing the spells from is incomplete, so he offers to help her track it down.
A search of the market at Portobello Road turns up nothing but attracts the attention of Bookman (Sam Jaffe) and his enforcer, Swinburne (British TV personality Bruce Forsyth). Bookman also wants the spell and had hoped Browne had it in his half of the book. He also reveals that the spell is engraved on the Star of Astaroth, a sorcerer’s medallion now supposedly kept on the legendary Isle of Naboombu. Naboombu is supposed to be off-limits to humans. But most humans don’t have access to a magical bedknob, so Paul whisks them away to Naboombu.
The bed splashes down in the animated Naboombu Lagoon. Mr. Browne and Miss Price have time to win an underwater dance contest judged by a codfish (voiced by Bob Holt, later the Lorax, Grape Ape and lots of others) before they’re fished out by a bear (Disney regular Dal McKennon). Browne demands to see King Leonidas (Lennie Weinrib, voice of H.R. Pufnstuf and many other favorites of the 1970s and 80s). Both the bear and Leonidas’ secretary (also Weinrib) advise against this. The king is in an even worse mood than usual because he can’t find a referee for his anything-goes soccer match.
Browne, an enthusiastic fan and former footballer himself, volunteers for the job. After a far-from-regulation match, Browne is able to palm the Star of Astaroth medallion. They hot-foot it back to the bed, which transports them safely home. Unfortunately, the medallion doesn’t survive the journey between realms. But that’s OK because Paul has had a picture of it, engraving and all, in his picture book the whole time, rendering about half of the movie up to this point completely pointless.
After a little practice to make sure the Substitutiary Locomotion spell works, the group’s dinner is interrupted by Mrs. Hobday (Tessie O’Shea), the local chairwoman of the War Activities Committee. She’s found a more suitable home for the children. But they’ve been having such a good time that now they want to stay, along with Mr. Browne as their new father. Both Mr. Browne and Miss Price want this, too. But they both freak out a little over how quickly things have happened and Mr. Browne opts to return to London.
He’s spending a cold, uncomfortable night alone on the train platform when the town is invaded by Nazis. The Germans have picked a soft target like Pepperinge Eye as a warmup for a full-scale invasion of London. But between Miss Price’s magic and the village’s Home Guard of old-age pensioners, the Nazis are forced to retreat. In the end, Mr. Browne enlists in the army with a promise to return to Pepperinge Eye when the war is over.
Now, here’s the thing about Bedknobs And Broomsticks. This is, at best, a marginally successful picture, especially when held up against Mary Poppins. It doesn’t have a big emotional catharsis like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”. Its supporting characters aren’t as colorful and lively. Its animated sequence is completely superfluous. (So is the one in Mary Poppins, by the way, but it has “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” so nobody seems to notice or care.) None of that bothers me one bit. I love this movie.
I am as susceptible to the siren song of nostalgia as the next person. For whatever reason, Bedknobs And Broomsticks pushes every one of those buttons in me. The movie was released in the States on December 13, 1971 (it premiered in England about two months earlier). So if my parents did take me to see it at the time, I would have been two years old. I have no specific memory of that, obviously. I do remember seeing it later, maybe as a children’s matinee or on a re-release. But it feels as though it has always been imprinted on my brain. From the moment it starts, I’m as hooked as a bed on a bear’s fishing pole.
Unlike a lot of other films, Bedknobs And Broomsticks’ biggest problem isn’t overlength. It’s underlength. Disney had not had much success with roadshow-style engagements since Mary Poppins. Radio City Music Hall, New York City’s premiere venue for major movie musicals, felt particularly empowered to request cuts to movies they felt were too long. The studio had already caved to Radio City’s demands for cuts to Follow Me, Boys!, The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. Disney probably already had scissors in hand before they even started talking to Radio City about Bedknobs And Broomsticks.
Over twenty minutes were eliminated from the picture before it even premiered. This explains why Roddy McDowall, making his first Disney appearance since The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, is on screen for maybe two minutes despite receiving third billing. It also explains why “Portobello Road”, the movie’s would-be show-stopper, is inelegantly chopped up into a series of vignettes that never builds any real momentum.
In addition, three whole musical numbers were dropped along the way. The cumulative effect of these cuts is a movie that never quite seems to get anywhere with characters whose motivations remain somewhat inscrutable. In 1996, Disney attempted a restoration with the materials that had been salvaged. It was a good-faith effort with some sequences using re-recorded audio and still photos to stand in for lost footage. But that’s not the version most readily available to audiences today. The “restored”, 140-minute cut is only available on a 2009 DVD. The familiar 117-minute cut is the one available on Disney+ and Blu-ray.
That first round of cuts didn’t help the movie with critics or audiences. When it grossed less than half of its original budget on its initial release, Disney chopped even more out of it and sent it back out on the re-release circuit. It never did become a popular favorite but eventually it began developing a cult following, including myself, who were dazzled by the animated sequence, loved the songs, and were charmed by its refreshingly low-key manner. Bedknobs And Broomsticks might not add up to much but its quirky individual parts are a delight.
It also did surprisingly well at the Academy Awards. The movie received five nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects (its only competition in the category was Hammer Films’ When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth). The effects aren’t exactly revolutionary but they’re effective, fun and fit the tone of the film perfectly.
It was also nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, losing both of those to the now mostly-forgotten epic Nicholas And Alexandra. On the music front, it lost Best Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score to Fiddler On The Roof. The song “The Age Of Not Believing,” which is far from my favorite tune in the movie, lost the Best Original Song award to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” which, fair enough.
A lot of the folks who worked on Bedknobs And Broomsticks will be back in this column, including Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, director Robert Stevenson and producer Bill Walsh. Cowriter Don DaGradi retired after completing his work on the picture. He’d been with Disney since the 1930s, working as a background artist, animator, story developer and art director. He’d started writing live-action screenplays with Son Of Flubber and had been nominated for an Oscar for Mary Poppins. Don DaGradi passed away on August 4, 1991, at the age of 79 and was posthumously inducted as a Disney Legend later that same year.
This would also be the last Disney work from Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman for quite some time. They’d enjoyed a fruitful association with Disney but they felt it was time to move on. Over the next few years, they’d work on such films as Snoopy, Come Home and Charlotte’s Web and receive Oscar nominations for Tom Sawyer, The Slipper And The Rose and The Magic Of Lassie. Eventually they returned to Disney and, thanks to the studio’s policy of recycling old material into new feature films, we’ll see them again in this column soon enough.
The failure of Bedknobs And Broomsticks caused Disney to abandon the idea of doing big-budget musical spectaculars for a while. Going forward, Disney movies would be more modest in budget and ambition. But for some of us, Bedknobs And Broomsticks holds up as a high point of the Disney style and the Sherman Brothers’ music. If you read the words “Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee” in rhythm, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
In many ways, The Jungle Book marks the end of a journey that began all the way back in 1921 when Walt Disney founded the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. Walt didn’t invent animation by any stretch of the imagination. But he had revolutionized the format many times over since those early days back in Kansas. As the last animated feature Walt Disney had a hand in, The Jungle Book automatically earns a special place in history.
Of course, the studio had gone through some major changes since their first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Back then, the entire operation revolved around nothing but animation. Walt was personally involved in every aspect of production, poring over every cel and story beat until it was just right.
By the time work began on The Jungle Book in the mid-‘60s, animation was a small fraction of the studio’s output and Walt was trusting his staff to make most of the major decisions. It’s a testament to Walt’s love of animation that the studio was even continuing to make cartoons. The animation division had been on the chopping block more than once during economic lean times. Animation was expensive and time-consuming and Walt certainly didn’t need the extra work. Most of his attention was now devoted to live-action films, television production, Disneyland and his ambitious new Florida venture, EPCOT.
There had once been an entire department devoted to story development. Story meetings could turn into raucous affairs with Walt and his team acting out entire films. For the last several years, Bill Peet had been a one-man story department. After proving himself on One Hundred And One Dalmatians, Peet had been entrusted with The Sword In The Stone. It was Peet’s idea to develop a feature based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Walt thought that sounded like a swell idea and Peet went off to work his magic.
But The Sword In The Stone hadn’t quite turned out the way Walt had hoped, so he decided to get a bit more involved with The Jungle Book. He looked at Peet’s treatment and storyboards, which were heading in a very dark and dramatic direction, and essentially told him to lighten up. Peet strongly disagreed, arguing that it went against Kipling’s original stories (he wasn’t wrong about that). Walt didn’t really care. He wanted to make a movie everybody could enjoy, not just members of the Kipling Society. When Walt continued to insist on significant changes to the script, Peet quit, a bad end to a relationship that stretched back to the 1930s.
With Bill Peet gone, Walt turned The Jungle Book over to Larry Clemmons. Clemmons started with the studio as an assistant animator back in the ‘30s but left when World War II broke out. He came into his own as a writer working for Bing Crosby’s radio shows. When he returned to the Disney studio in the 1950s, it was as a writer and producer for the Disneyland and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows.
Clemmons struggled with the assignment at first. Kipling’s book was so episodic that he couldn’t find an actual story to hang his hat on. Walt advised him not to worry about it and instead focus on the characters and their personalities. He also brought in the Sherman brothers, whose songs had helped shape Mary Poppins’ story. They would be replacing Terry Gilkyson, a folksinger who had written several original songs for Peet’s abandoned, darker version of the film. Gilkyson was no stranger to the Disney studio. He’d contributed songs to Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam, The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, The Three Lives Of Thomasina, and The Moon-Spinners.
By all accounts, everyone was having a hard time wrapping their minds around what Walt envisioned for The Jungle Book until he suggested casting jazzman and radio star Phil Harris as Baloo the bear. Harris had been the bandleader on Jack Benny’s program. His appearances were so popular that he eventually got his own show, headlining with his wife, Alice Faye. Everyone knew Harris’ voice and it was nobody’s idea of what a Rudyard Kipling character should sound like. Even Harris didn’t think he was the right man for the job. Once he got to the studio, he was uncomfortable delivering the lines as written and asked to permission to just do it “his way”. All of a sudden, Baloo came to life as a fully-formed character, albeit one that didn’t have much to do with Kipling.
After that epiphany, things seemed to click for The Jungle Book crew. The character designers and animators were inspired by the vocal performances. Once Harris joined the cast, someone (I’ve seen multiple people take credit for it) had the idea to cast Louis Prima, another instantly recognizable voice from the jazz and swing world, as King Louie the orangutan. Disney legend Sterling Holloway was cast against type as the villainous snake, Kaa, another of Walt’s suggestions. And to lend at least a little British authenticity, Sebastian Cabot was tapped to play Bagheera the panther and the great George Sanders was cast as Shere Khan, the man-hating tiger. Cabot had previously done voice work on The Sword In The Stone and appeared in Johnny Tremain, while Sanders was previously seen menacing Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways.
This wasn’t the first time Disney had relied on celebrity vocal performances. Bing Crosby was near the peak of his popularity when he voiced his half of The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. Even Cliff Edwards was a known commodity when he was cast as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. But this was certainly the starriest cast Disney had assembled to date and not everyone was happy about it. You can draw a straight line from Phil Harris’ improvised performance as Baloo to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.
Today, there is absolutely an over-reliance on celebrity voices in animation. But young audiences discovering The Jungle Book for the first time have no idea who Phil Harris, Louis Prima, George Sanders or any of these people are (you’ll be doing them a kindness if you continue to expose your kids to these talents after they watch this). I was born just a couple years after The Jungle Book was released and this was certainly my introduction to them. A voice either works or it doesn’t work, regardless of how famous the face attached to it might be. There’s no denying that the voices in The Jungle Book are absolutely spot-on.
That extends to the youngest members of the cast. Bruce Reitherman, son of director Wolfgang Reitherman, got the part of Mowgli after the original actor’s voice changed midway through. Woolie Reitherman also battled puberty on The Sword In The Stone, cycling through no less than three kids (including two more sons, Richard and Robert) as Wart. Bruce had already performed the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree, so he knew his way around a studio. He was also young enough to make it through production without a voice change.
Bruce wasn’t the only young Winnie The Pooh alum in the cast. Clint Howard, the voice of Roo, provides the voice of the young elephant. Howard made his screen debut at the ripe old age of 2 on The Andy Griffith Show and he’s been busy ever since. Around this same time, he was guesting on shows like Star Trek and starring in Gentle Ben, which premiered just a few months before The Jungle Book. Clint will be back in this column before long, alongside his older brother, Ronny.
The Sherman Brothers ended up contributing five original songs to The Jungle Book, the best of which is unquestionably “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. Louis Prima is a perfect fit for the song. His signature style sounds nothing like any Disney song that had come before. It’s one of the biggest indications so far that Disney could change with the times, even if that change came slowly.
The Shermans’ other songs are honestly not up to the same level. Kaa’s “Trust In Me (The Python’s Song)”, which recycles a melody from an abandoned Mary Poppins song, isn’t bad and it’s imaginatively animated. But it doesn’t stay with you. “Colonel Hathi’s March”, on the other hand, does stick with you and not in a good way. It’s an annoying military-style earworm, so of course that’s the song that gets a reprise.
Probably the biggest miscalculation is “That’s What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)”, a barbershop quartet number performed by four vultures modeled after The Beatles. It was originally meant to be performed as a rock & roll song until Walt got cold feet, worried that the style would date the picture. So naturally the Shermans changed it to that most timeless of styles, barbershop. That never gets old.
This is one of those rare times that Walt’s usually unerring sense of what will or will not stand the test of time failed him. For one thing, rock & roll has proven to be a whole lot more enduring than Walt predicted. Certainly more than barbershop, a time machine back to the days of vaudeville and straw boaters.
More importantly, the musical style certainly wouldn’t date the movie any more or less than the fact that the vultures are physically and vocally modeled after The Beatles. Two of their voices were even provided by Lord Tim Hudson, a Los Angeles DJ with a dubious claim to being a friend of the Fab Four, and Chad Stuart of the British Invasion pop duo Chad & Jeremy (the others were J. Pat O’Malley and Digby Wolfe). So now you’ve got The Beatles singing a barbershop quartet, a reference that’s both dated and incongruous.
Ironically, the one song from The Jungle Book to receive an Academy Award nomination and arguably its most popular number overall was the one that almost got cut. Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” survived from Bill Peet’s abandoned version. If Walt had his way, it also would have ended up on the cutting room floor. When he brought the Shermans on board, he wanted to eliminate all of Gilkyson’s songs and start fresh. The animators fought for the song and Walt eventually relented.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine The Jungle Book without “The Bare Necessities”. It’s one of the best, most iconic numbers in the Disney Songbook. Plenty of classic Disney songs failed to win Oscars but Gilkyson really got robbed. The Oscar went to “Talk To The Animals” from the overstuffed musical Doctor Dolittle. Terry Gilkyson never quite became one of Disney’s go-to songwriters but he’ll be back in this column at least once more.
The Jungle Book is a hard movie to dislike. Walt instructed his team to focus on character and personality and they followed his mandate to the letter. Everybody remembers Baloo, King Louie, Shere Khan and the rest. They’re vivid, fun, highly entertaining characters that pop off the screen.
The movie’s biggest flaw is Mowgli himself. Everything revolves around him and our investment in the story depends on us believing that Baloo and Bagheera really love this little man cub. But he’s a total blank slate. His only goal is a negative. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he only knows that he does not want to go to the man-village. And for a kid who was raised for years by wolves in the jungle, he displays virtually no wolf-like characteristics. The wolves, not so coincidentally, are also the animals we spend the least amount of time with. They’re theoretically his family, right? If anybody should care about Mowgli leaving the jungle, you’d think it would be them.
Walt didn’t want his team getting too hung up on story but it would have been nice if they’d put a little bit more effort into it. The movie ends up turning into a series of encounters that don’t necessarily feed into one another. Even the threat of Shere Khan feels underbaked. When the final showdown does arrive, it’s difficult to feel like the stakes are too high. Walt continues to keep things light and jaunty up to the end, even when a tiger is trying to eat a little boy. It’s one of the most tension-free climaxes in Disney history.
The movie comes to a rather abrupt end when Mowgli sees a girl fetching some water by the river. He’s instantly smitten, shrugs his shoulders and follows her into the man-village as Baloo and Bagheera bop back into the jungle. The Blu-ray release storyboards an “alternate ending” from Peet’s version that’s really more like an alternate second half. Here, Mowgli is reunited with his birth parents and runs afoul of a treasure-seeking hunter. The movie is probably better without this lengthy digression. The quick pace allows The Jungle Book’s strengths to come into clearer focus. If the choice is between the movie slowly petering out or just stopping all of a sudden, I suppose I prefer the latter.
The Jungle Book was released on October 18, 1967, not quite a year after Walt Disney’s death. Critics and audiences alike were very pleased with Walt’s farewell animation. It was the studio’s highest-grossing film of 1967 and the 9th highest-grossing movie of the year overall, ahead of Camelot and just behind Thoroughly Modern Millie. Over the years, re-releases have added to its total both at home and overseas. According to a 2016 Hollywood Reporter article, it’s the biggest movie of all-time in Germany, ahead of Avatar, Titanic or any of those other also-rans.
In 1968, Disney tested the sequel waters, bringing back Phil Harris and Louis Prima for the book-and-record set More Jungle Book. The album didn’t do well and The Jungle Book went back on the shelf for awhile. In the 1990s, Disney brought the characters to television, first on the show TaleSpin and later on Jungle Cubs. Not long after, the studio brought Baloo and company back to theatres, in animation, in live-action and in whatever you want to call the CGI hybrid style employed by Jon Favreau. This column will be getting to many of those eventually.
Disney’s original The Jungle Book continues to have a place in the hearts of fans around the world. Walt had made better, more important animated features before and the studio that still bears his name has made better movies since. But it’s hard to argue against a movie with no ulterior motive other than showing its audience a good time. It’s fun, breezy and as easy to swallow as sweet tea on a hot day. It really does provide the bare necessities of what you want out of a Disney movie.
When Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles on August 27, 1964, Walt Disney was riding high on some of the most enthusiastic reactions of his career. The only trouble was they weren’t for his films. On April 22, the New York World’s Fair opened and four Disney exhibits quickly became must-sees for every visitor: Carousel Of Progress, Ford’s Magic Skyway, it’s a small world, and Walt’s passion project and personal favorite, Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. These were groundbreaking feats of engineering and entertainment. The Audio-Animatronics developed by WED Enterprises’ team of “Imagineers” were the toast of the fair. As the first fair season came to a close in October, almost five million guests had visited the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion to get the song “It’s A Small World (After All)” stuck in their heads.
But back in Hollywood, the name “Walt Disney” had lost a little bit of its magic. Sure, people were still buying merchandise, watching the TV show and visiting Disneyland. But the studio barely made cartoons anymore. Their last animated feature, The Sword In The Stone, was noticeably different from earlier classics in both style and tone and the response to it had been lukewarm. And while the studio was still capable of putting out a sizable hit, they weren’t exactly the kinds of movies that brought invitations to the Academy Awards. Walt certainly wasn’t embarrassed by movies like Son Of Flubber or The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones. But even though audiences ate them up, they weren’t quite what Walt had in mind when he branched out into live-action.
The one movie that he had wanted to make for years was an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. It had been a particular favorite of Walt’s daughters. He first tried to obtain the rights back in 1938 as part of his post-Snow White shopping spree, only to be turned down flat by Mrs. Travers. But Walt Disney was nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After years of flattery and cajoling (and presumably an increased need for cash on Mrs. Travers’ side), he finally got her to say yes.
The behind-the-scenes drama between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers is legendary, so much so that the studio made a whole self-mythologizing movie about it that will eventually appear in this column. Suffice it to say for now that Travers disagreed with almost every choice Walt and his team made, from the cast to the music to the animation. Especially the animation. P.L. Travers lived to be 96 years old, dying in 1996, and while she had come to terms with some parts of the film, she still hated cartoons.
Travers’ disapproval had to sting a little bit since Walt really had assigned his best people to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. Co-producer and co-writer Bill Walsh had been responsible for some of the studio’s biggest recent hits, including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Co-writer Don DaGradi came from the animation side. He’d been a background and layout artist, an art director and a story man on a long list of Disney projects from Dumbo to Sleeping Beauty. He crossed over to live-action in 1959, first consulting on special sequences for films like Darby O’Gill And The Little People and The Parent Trap before moving on to cowrite Son Of Flubber with Walsh. They made a good team with DaGradi’s visual sense complimenting Walsh’s way with words.
Robert Stevenson had become one of Walt’s most reliable directors since joining the studio on Johnny Tremain. He’d been responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits, including Old Yeller and the Flubber pictures. He was also adept with visual effects, as evidenced by his work on Darby O’Gill And The Little People. He’d never directed a musical before. But Walt hired the then-married choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood to handle the dance sequences and had the Sherman Brothers in charge of the songs, so the music was in good hands.
Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, had been on the Disney payroll since around 1960. Walt met them through their association with Annette Funicello, whom they’d written several songs for. Since then, they’d written plenty of tunes, mostly title songs and incidental tracks designed to bridge scenes in movies like The Parent Trap or In Search Of The Castaways. But so far, their best public showcase had been the World’s Fair. Songs like “It’s A Small World (After All)” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” were simple, catchy earworms that have had a global reach that boggles the mind. Even so, they hadn’t had much of a chance to show what they could do on a bigger canvas.
The closest the Shermans had come to writing full-on musicals had been Summer Magic and The Sword In The Stone, neither of which really captured them at their best. None of the songs in Summer Magic were staged as production numbers. They were just songs to sing around a piano or on the porch between dialogue scenes. The Sword In The Stone came a bit closer but these were mostly tuneless, rhythm-based character songs. An audience couldn’t really sing along to them very well, much less hum or whistle them. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for its music. But that went to George Bruns’ score, not to the Sherman Brothers’ songs.
But the Shermans had been working on Mary Poppins pretty much from the beginning of their association with the studio. Walt finally secured the rights to the book right around the same time he met Robert and Richard. They were two of the first people he brought on board and they were very important in shaping the finished film. The Sherman Brothers knew this was a huge opportunity and they made the most of it.
The cast was a good blend of Disney newcomers and returning veterans. Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber may have been a bit young to be considered “veterans”. But their performances in The Three Lives Of Thomasina impressed Walt enough to cast them in the key roles of Jane and Michael Banks. Glynis Johns, who had co-starred in two of Disney’s early British productions, The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, returned to the studio as Banks matriarch and suffragette Winifred Banks. And Disney stalwart Ed Wynn was given the role he was born to play, Uncle Albert, an eccentric kook whose uncontrollable fits of laughter sends him floating to the ceiling.
Walt couldn’t have found an actor more ideally suited to the role of the repressed, emotionally withholding George Banks than David Tomlinson. Tomlinson was a consummate professional who’d been acting in British films and on stage since the early 1940s, interrupted only by his RAF service during World War II. He was the very image of a British gentleman and he’d toy with that stereotype throughout his career.
Dick Van Dyke was a somewhat more unconventional choice to play Bert, the cockney jack-of-all-trades. Van Dyke was a newly minted TV star thanks to The Dick Van Dyke Show but was relatively untested in films. The fact that the Missouri-born entertainer was distinctly not British did not seem to be a concern. Despite what Van Dyke himself would later refer to as “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”, the movie serves as a terrific showcase for his talents as a song-and-dance man and a physical comedian. Those skills are underlined with Van Dyke’s virtually unrecognizable second role as the elderly Mr. Dawes. Revealing the gag in the end credits by unscrambling the name “Navckid Keyd” is a nice touch.
Of course, the most iconic bit of casting in the film is Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins herself. Andrews had been a sensation on London’s West End and Broadway in such shows as The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Jack Warner had bought the film rights to My Fair Lady and a lot of folks, including Andrews herself, were hoping she’d make her film debut as Eliza Doolittle. Warner had other ideas. He wanted a bankable star in the picture, so he cast Audrey Hepburn in the role. Andrews was pregnant when Walt first offered her the part of Mary Poppins. She turned him down but Walt promised to hold off on production until she was ready.
He was right to wait. Julie Andrews delivers a performance for the ages that seems effortless but is very much not. On paper, the character seems impossible to play. She’s magical but prim and proper. She’s warm and loving but not outwardly demonstrative. I don’t think she even gives anyone so much as a hug once in the entire picture. She’s also a world-champion gaslighter, constantly telling the children she has no idea about the magical adventure she just made happen.
Mary Poppins’ magic all comes from the inside out. It’s seen in the twinkle of Andrews’ eyes, the playful smile that only occasionally breaks into a dazzling display of teeth, and her matter-of-fact body language even as she’s literally walking on air. This performance defines Mary Poppins in the popular imagination. Other actresses have played the role on stage and Emily Blunt starred in the belated sequel that I suppose we’ll have to talk about in this column eventually. But they’re all filtering their performance through Andrews’ work here. Not only does the work defy anyone else’s attempt to put their own spin on it, most audiences don’t want to see another spin on it. The measure of success is how closely you can come to replicating the original.
In supporting roles, Walt recruited a parade of venerable character actors. Former Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester pops in briefly as the last in the Banks’ long line of ex-nannies. Reginald Owen, who had played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Ebenezer Scrooge, is great fun as the Banks’ neighbor, Admiral Boom. Jane Darwell, an Oscar winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath, makes what would be her final film appearance as The Bird Woman. And if you know where to look, you can spot several Disney voice actors in the cast, including Don Barclay (as Admiral Boom’s first mate, Mr. Binnacle), Marjorie Bennett (as the owner of Andrew the dog) and Cruella de Vil herself, Betty Lou Gerson (as the creepy old lady who scares the hell out of the kids after they run away from the bank).
I was never a big fan of Mary Poppins as a kid, so it was a pleasant surprise to revisit it and find that I had severely underrated it. The Sherman Brothers are clearly the MVPs here. As a musical, Mary Poppins holds its own with anything that was on Broadway at the time, including My Fair Lady. The Shermans won Oscars for both Best Substantially Original Score (beating out Henry Mancini’s equally iconic The Pink Panther) and Best Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. It’s interesting the Academy chose to honor that one since nearly every song has gone on to become a classic. The titles alone will get the songs playing in your head: “A Spoonful Of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (and yes, I copied and pasted that title).
In addition, Mary Poppins looks and feels like a big-screen movie. So many of Walt’s live-action films, especially from the 60s, look right at home on TV. In the 50s, Walt could get away with releasing made-for-TV productions theatrically because his production values were higher than normal for television. But as other studios made their movies bigger to compete with TV, Disney’s mostly stayed where they were. Mary Poppins was the exception. The sets, the costumes, the gorgeous matte paintings and other visual tricks were all state-of-the-art.
As enchanting as it is, Mary Poppins is not practically perfect in every way. P.L. Travers’ complaint about the animation isn’t wholly off-base. This was certainly Walt’s most ambitious blend of live-action and animation since Song Of The South. Technically, it’s extremely impressive and often lovely. It also goes on forever. They could have lost about half of it and no one would have been the wiser.
The “Jolly Holiday” song that takes up the first half of the sequence is one of the few times the narrative loses sight of the Banks family. Jane and Michael run off to explore the cartoon world while Bert serenades Mary Poppins and dances with some penguin waiters. A little goes a long way, especially since this doesn’t do anything to advance the story. Whatever weird past and/or present relationship Bert and Mary may or may not have had remains just as much a mystery. By the end of it, we haven’t learned a single new thing about either of these characters.
Overlength is probably the single biggest problem that plagues the film in general. Almost every scene, no matter how enjoyable, could probably be trimmed. “Step In Time” is an awesome production number but it feels like it’s never going to stop. I love the song “Stay Awake”, but the movie probably didn’t need two lullabies. And since “Feed The Birds” is a richer, more resonant song, “Stay Awake” feels like filler in comparison.
If critics or audiences shared these concerns back in 1964, they didn’t seem to care all that much. The press went nuts over Mary Poppins, praising it as Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Audiences adored it. Walt may have suspected he had a hit but even he had to be surprised at how big a hit it became. Not only did Mary Poppins become the highest-grossing film of 1964, it became the Disney studio’s biggest moneymaker ever.
When Academy Award nominations were announced on February 23, 1964, Mary Poppins led the pack with 13 including Best Picture, a first for any Walt Disney feature. The ceremony pitted Mary Poppins against My Fair Lady and, in many ways, Jack Warner’s film came out on top. In most categories where the two films went head-to-head, My Fair Lady won (one exception being Best Adapted Screenplay, which both lost to Becket). But Mary Poppins still took home five trophies including two for the Sherman Brothers’ music, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing (the one category where Mary Poppins triumphed over My Fair Lady).
The sweetest victory had to have been Julie Andrews’ win for Best Actress. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady, leaving Andrews to take home an Oscar for her very first film. A few weeks earlier, Andrews had been in direct competition with Hepburn and won at the Golden Globes. Accepting her award, Andrews cheekily thanked Jack Warner “for making all this possible”.
Mary Poppins must have been a pleasant experience for everyone involved, since nearly everyone in front of or behind the camera will be back in this column sooner or later. That includes Julie Andrews, although it’ll be quite some time before she returns. She’d go on to additional Oscar nominations (for The Sound Of Music and Victor/Victoria), a storied career on film, TV and stage, and a long marriage to filmmaker Blake Edwards. In 1981, she parodied her Disney image with a role in Edwards’ hilarious and tragically underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B. The next time we see Julie Andrews in this column, she’ll be Dame Julie Andrews, DBE.
Decades later, Mary Poppins has emerged as an enduring classic and one of Disney’s crown jewels. After its release, Walt would focus his attention on other projects, notably the ongoing work of his Imagineers and what would eventually become Walt Disney World. He’d be less hands-on with film, animation and TV production, with only a few projects capturing his imagination. And perhaps that’s understandable. Mary Poppins was the culmination of his life’s work, a magically entertaining synthesis of everything he’d learned about animation, storytelling and live-action filmmaking. After this, Walt Disney had nothing left to prove.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Walt Disney had not moved to Hollywood to work in animation. He’d already been making cartoons for a few years back in Kansas City. If he’d wanted to continue exclusively in that field, the place to go would have been New York, home of animation pioneers Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers. But Walt wanted to break into live-action. The dream was deferred while he built his animation studio but it never went away.
Throughout the 1940s, live-action slowly became a larger part of the Disney operation. Most of the reason for this had been economic. It was a lot cheaper to bridge the segments in package films like The Reluctant Dragon and Fun & Fancy Free with the likes of Robert Benchley and Edgar Bergen than to create full animation. Even Song Of The South had become a hybrid film out of necessity. The cartoon sequences simply didn’t have enough meat on the bone to carry an entire feature.
So Dear To My Heart was supposed to be different. It was intended to be Walt Disney’s first entirely live-action feature. It was based on the children’s book Midnight And Jeremiah by Sterling North. The story of a young boy who raises an unwanted black lamb in turn-of-the-century Indiana clearly meant a great deal to Walt personally. He had fond memories of his childhood years on a farm outside Marceline, Missouri, right around the same time as North’s book was set. Walt only spent a few years in Marceline but they made a huge impact. So Dear To My Heart would be one of Walt’s first attempts at capturing the idealized, nostalgic Americana of his youth but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Walt hired journeyman director Harold Schuster to helm the film based on the strength of his work on the boy-and-his-horse movie My Friend Flicka. One of Walt’s major changes to North’s book also involved a horse. As a child, Walt had been a great fan of the legendary racehorse Dan Patch. Now as an adult, he saw the horse as the perfect symbol of that idyllic time in his life. So he included a brief scene where Dan Patch himself makes a brief stop in Fulton Corners, later inspiring young Jeremiah to name the black lamb Danny rather than Midnight. Sterling North must have thought these changes were pretty good. He went back and revised his book, reissuing it under the movie’s title and incorporating most of Walt’s tweaks.
The movie was shot in 1946. Young Disney contract players Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were cast as Jeremiah and Tildy. Schuster recommended veteran character actress Beulah Bondi (best known for playing James Stewart’s mother more often than anyone other than his actual mother) as Granny Kincaid. As the amiable blacksmith, Uncle Hiram, Disney cast Burl Ives, a radio personality and folksinger who had just started appearing in films.
The shoot seemed to go smoothly enough. But when Walt got a look at the assembled footage, he thought it was missing something. So he brought in his cartoon team and had them create animated segments featuring a Wise Old Owl (voiced by Ken Carson) imparting greeting-card-style life lessons to Jeremiah and a cartoon version of Danny the sheep. Adding animation delayed the film’s release until late 1948. By the time it finally came out, Harry Carey, who appears as the Head Judge at the County Fair, had been dead over a year.
Ironically, those animated sequences really don’t add all that much to the film. So Dear To My Heart is a sweet, some might say saccharine amble through a nostalgic America that never really existed. The cartoon sequences, directed by Hamilton Luske, are mostly just little detours along the way. They’re cute and nicely designed but I don’t think you’d miss them much if they weren’t there.
The one exception is a sequence I presume was intended to be a big showstopper. “Stick-To-It-Ivity” has the Owl singing about the importance of persistence, which is all well and good, using elaborately designed stories about Christopher Columbus and Robert the Bruce to illustrate his point. Setting aside any issues one might have with historical inaccuracies (which certainly wouldn’t have bothered 1948 audiences anyway), this all feels a bit out of the blue. One minute we’re in the world of county fairs and quaint train depots, the next we’re seeing an animated version of Braveheart. It doesn’t exactly fit the movie’s genteel tone.
That tone is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. This is a completely harmless movie, suitable for all ages. As in Song Of The South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten make a cute pair. If anything, they’ve relaxed a bit between films. Their performances aren’t quite as Child Actorly as they were in their first movie. It’s fun to see Beulah Bondi spout old-timey expressions like “full of ginger” and “tarnation” and Burl Ives is a warm, inviting presence. Disney and Schuster wisely keep him busy singing whenever the opportunity arises.
But So Dear To My Heart is also as lightweight as a dandelion on the wind and nearly as forgettable. It recaptures that summertime feeling in the country when the days are long, the air is warm and there’s nothing to do but watch the clouds pass by. That can be an awfully pleasant feeling while you’re experiencing it. It can also be quite dull. As soon as you move on to something else, you’ve forgotten all about that lazy summer day. And that’s exactly the case here.
So Dear To My Heart did not end up being a huge hit for Disney, though not for lack of trying on Walt’s part. As the film premiered in various cities across the Midwest in 1949, Walt went with it, making personal appearances and trying to drum up business. But it only did so-so, got a brief re-release in 1964, and has only been intermittently available on home video.
There were at least a couple of things from the film that were unqualified successes. “Lavender Blue” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar and became Burl Ives’ first hit record. It lost (to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) which is just as well, really. Not that it’s a bad tune. Songwriters Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey adapted a centuries-old English folk ballad, which made it a perfect fit for Burl Ives. But it also means it wasn’t a particularly original “original song”.
Burl Ives’ folksy charm is so perfectly in sync with Walt Disney’s golden-hued nostalgia that it’s somewhat surprising the two didn’t work together more often. Ives would, of course, make an indelible impression as a voice actor in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer but Walt never tapped him to do a cartoon voice. He released a few albums on Disneyland Records and, in 1974, provided the voice of the animatronic Sam the Eagle (no relation to the Muppet) for America Sings at Disneyland. But Burl Ives will only show up in this column once more, in another live-action role.
The other big winner to emerge from So Dear To My Heart was young Bobby Driscoll, who was enjoying the best year of his tragically brief career. In March 1950, Bobby was presented with a special Juvenile Award at the Oscars for his work in this and the RKO film noir The Window. We’ll see Bobby in this column again soon, so let’s let him enjoy his moment of glory and save the sad stuff for another time.
Luana Patten, on the other hand, was nearing the end of her association with Disney, at least as a child star. This was her fourth appearance in a Disney film, following Song Of The South, Fun & Fancy Free and Melody Time, and it would be her last for awhile. Luana quit acting for nearly a decade after So Dear To My Heart. Her next film appearance would be as a teenager opposite Sal Mineo and John Saxon in the 1956 rock & roll picture Rock, Pretty Baby! We’ll see her back in this column as a grownup eventually.
Even if So Dear To My Heart hasn’t left a lasting impression, it’s still a key moment in Walt Disney’s development as a filmmaker. Its failure to stand on its own without cartoon sequences gave Walt a clearer idea of the challenges of live-action filmmaking. It put him one step closer to his goal of producing movies without the crutch of animation, a goal he’d be achieving very soon.
But more importantly, it marked the beginning of an aesthetic that would continue for the rest of Walt’s career. He would return to the idealized small town in the heart of America again and again. We’ll be visiting it in this column in plenty of times. But perhaps the most concrete and lasting legacy of this vision lies in Main Street, USA, the hub that welcomes visitors to Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and now Disney theme parks around the world. It’s practically the set of So Dear To My Heart brought to life, with its quaint shops, horse-drawn carriages, and railroad depot. It’s no surprise that Walt kept an apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. He had spent his entire life trying to get back to Marceline. In the end, he simply rebuilt it in his own image.
VERDICT: This is another one where Disney Minus seems too harsh but Disney Plus seems too enthusiastic. Let’s call it Baseline Disney.
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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.
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.
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.
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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If there’s one word the Disney Marketing Department loves to toss around, it’s “timeless”. Not without some justification, of course. So far, this column has looked at six films made around 80 years ago. All but one of them has continued to enchant and delight audiences around the world to this day.
During this time period, Walt only seemed to know how to make two kinds of movies: timeless classics and hyper-specific oddities that make almost no sense when you take them out of context. Falling squarely into the latter category are such films as The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos.
The backstory of Saludos Amigos is almost more interesting than the movie itself (in fact, it’s the subject of its own Disney-produced documentary, Walt & El Grupo). In 1941, Disney was in a bit of financial trouble. Walt had opened an expensive new studio in Burbank, his features were struggling at the box office, and his animators had gone on strike. So when Nelson Rockefeller, President Roosevelt’s newly appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, called to commission a feature, Walt wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.
Rockefeller was on a diplomatic mission, strengthening ties between the US and our Latin American neighbors and counteracting the Axis propaganda that had been flooding these countries during the early days of World War II. To do this, Rockefeller met with a number of celebrities and artists, appointing them Goodwill Ambassadors and sending them off on cultural tours of Latin America. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters went on tour and recorded Latin music with Xavier Cugat. Orson Welles hosted the radio show Hello Americans and started work on the film It’s All True. And Walt Disney assembled a team of artists and musicians to sketch their way through Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. But unlike Welles, Walt was able to finish his movie.
It probably didn’t hurt that Walt’s movie really stretches the definition of what’s considered a feature film. At just 42 minutes, Saludos Amigos makes Dumbo look like Lawrence Of Arabia. Watching it today, it’s hard to believe that it actually played in cinemas on its own. I can’t imagine most audiences left the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth. It almost feels like an extended teaser for some other movie. Live-action footage introduces the premise that Walt Disney and his team are traveling south of the border to do research for an upcoming picture. The movie’s almost over before you realize that this is that picture.
The live-action footage continues throughout, linking four new animated segments. This wasn’t really Disney’s first “package” film. Prior to the release of Snow White, Disney had strung together five Silly Symphonies and released the compilation to theaters under the snappy title Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons. Fantasia had been a highly prestigious package film and The Reluctant Dragon had padded out its animated scraps with extensive live-action footage. But in the years to come, Disney would rely more and more on package films like this one to keep the doors open. They were cheaper, they were faster, and they could be easily chopped up and sold for parts.
Saludos Amigos kicks off with tourist Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca and having some trouble crossing a suspension bridge with a llama. Next, we meet the young Chilean airplane Pedro. Disney would essentially revisit this concept some 70 years later in the Cars spinoff Planes. Goofy, always a welcome presence, shows up in the third segment to demonstrate the ways of the Argentinean gaucho. Finally, Donald reappears to help introduce another new character, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca.
José “Joe” Carioca (voiced by Brazilian musician José Oliveira) was positioned as the breakout star of Saludos Amigos. His segment is certainly the most exciting, both visually, breaking the fourth wall of animation by having the animator’s paintbrush creating backgrounds around the two birds, and musically.
The song, “Aquarela do Brasil”, had been around for a few years but didn’t become a hit until Oliveira performed it here. Today, of course, everyone knows it as simply “Brazil” and it’s one of the most instantly recognizable samba songs ever recorded.
José Carioca did in fact become a beloved, heavily merchandized star in Brazil but he never quite took off here in the US. Though that wasn’t for lack of trying on Disney’s part. We’ll see José in this column again soon.
Saludos Amigos isn’t really a bad movie. It’s far too slight and inconsequential for that. In fact, it’s barely a movie at all. Unlike some of Disney’s other package films, the segments here are extremely forgettable. Pedro is a little wisp of a cartoon and El Gaucho Goofy is far from the Goof’s funniest showcase. Donald fares slightly better. It’s always fun to see him in obnoxious tourist mode and the musical and visual flair of the finale ends things on a high note. But the whole thing’s over before you’ve even finished your popcorn.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Saludos Amigos is that the damn thing worked. There was no way the movie was not going to make money. The whole project had been bankrolled by the government and guaranteed with federal loans. But audiences actually turned up for this mini-movie. For many Americans, this was their first exposure to South American culture and they liked what they saw. More importantly, they liked what they heard. Latin American music became the hot new sound and its popularity continued to explode throughout the 1940s and 50s.
Saludos Amigos was even nominated for three Academy Awards, albeit in the traditionally overstuffed categories of Best Sound, Best Original Song and Best Original Score (Musical). Still, that’s the same number of nominations as Bambi. The movie’s best songs, “Brazil” and “Tico Tico”, weren’t original, so that left the title tune to compete in the Best Original Song category. It didn’t win any of the awards it was up for. But the fact that the Academy even recognized this as a feature and not a short subject is fairly impressive.
At best, Saludos Amigos was a minor success. It certainly wasn’t a dream project for Walt or anyone else at the studio. But Walt needed something to stay afloat. If that turned out to be a government-sponsored piece of South American boosterism, so be it. By turning his talents to propaganda, Walt would make it through World War II.
VERDICT: Disney Minus seems a little harsh, so let’s call it a Disney Neutral.
Whatever else one might say about Walt Disney, nobody could accuse him of making the same movie twice during his first half-decade or so of feature production. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo are all very different films in style, in tone, in story and in characters. Disney had pushed the envelope of animation farther than anyone before him and he still wasn’t done. With Bambi, he wanted to hit a new level of realism in animation. It would be his last truly great film of the 1940s and arguably one of his last bold experiments with animation.
Bambi was based on a novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten (we’ll see his name in this column again, as Disney would go on to produce two more movies based on his work). Significantly, Bambi was not considered a children’s book. It had been a major international bestseller and was even banned as a subversive political allegory by the Nazis. Any movie version of Bambi would have been seen as an A-list prestige picture.
Originally, that movie was to have been made by Sidney Franklin, a producer and director at MGM who apparently had a thing for deer. In 1946, he’d produce the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling starring Gregory Peck. But in 1937, Franklin decided that making a live-action version of Bambi would be next to impossible. So he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who planned on making it his follow-up to Snow White. This turned out to be a seriously optimistic goal, as both the story and the animation took a long time to get right.
Today, the story beats of Disney’s Bambi are so familiar that they seem inevitable. But Disney and the story team led by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey would make some big changes to Salten’s book before it made it to the screen. Disney’s movie certainly has some intense moments but the book is an even darker affair.
In the book, Faline has a brother, Gobo, who goes missing following the hunt that (spoiler alert, I guess, although I can’t imagine why you’re reading this if you’ve never seen Bambi) kills Bambi’s mom. Later on, Gobo returns. Turns out that a man found Gobo, took him home and nursed him back to health. Strong and overconfident in his belief that he knows more about the ways of man than the other deer, Gobo is eventually shot and killed in a particularly horrifying scene that would have scarred young psyches waaaaaaay worse than Bambi’s mom’s off-screen demise.
The death of Bambi’s mother is a stunning sequence and a testament to the genius of Walt Disney. For generations of kids, this scene was probably their first experience with death. Did Walt realize that would be the case when he was making the film? It honestly feels as if he might have. Everything about the sequence, the pacing, the colors, the music and sound design and the sudden absence of sound when the Great Prince appears, has been carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The impact of that loss has real weight. It hits audiences harder than most fictional deaths.
A newer generation may have had a similar experience with The Lion King, a movie this column will get to eventually (a couple times, as a matter of fact). The Lion King owes more than a little bit to Bambi but I’d argue that the movies treat their respective parental deaths very differently. Mufasa is killed by an act of treachery. It’s a plot point in a story arc that most of us will never live through. Bambi’s mom is killed by a hunter with a gun. It’s a threat that these animals have to deal with every day of their lives. It could happen at any time. Mufasa reappears in cloud form to give Simba some fatherly advice. When Bambi’s mother is gone, she’s just gone. It’s no wonder Bambi continues to leave an indelible impression on young audiences.
While Disney may have been striving for realism with Bambi, it’s a mistake to describe this as realistic animation. The animals may not be as heavily anthropomorphized as they are in other cartoons insofar as they’re not wearing people clothes. But you’re still not going to find a rabbit who looks and acts like Thumper or a skunk who behaves like Flower in nature. Nature itself doesn’t look the way it looks in Bambi. The backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are stunningly gorgeous and thoroughly impressionistic.
Somehow, all of these non-realistic elements blend together perfectly to create a world that feels very real. There are shots of deer leaping through the forest and Bambi’s mother entering the meadow that look absolutely lifelike. That doesn’t mean they look like a photograph. That’s something Disney seems to have forgotten in their wave of CGI remakes like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It simply means they have the illusion of life.
By this point, Disney movies were routinely nominated for Academy Awards. They had been particularly dominant in the music categories, a trend that continues to the present day. Bambi was no exception, earning nominations for the score by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb and for the song “Love Is A Song”. The music in Bambi is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it probably has more music than any other Disney film. The movie is practically wall-to-wall music and the two moments that have no music at all are very noticeable.
But Bambi isn’t really a musical, at least not in the sense that Disney’s previous films had been. There are only three or four songs in the entire movie and none of them are sung by characters. “Love Is A Song”, the sublime “Little April Shower”, and the rest are all non-diegetic songs that comment on the movie rather than help move the story along. Dumbo had done a little of that with sequences like the Stork song but it still left room for more traditional musical numbers. Back then, the Oscars split the Original Score categories into musical and non-musical divisions. The year before, Dumbo had won the award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. Bambi was treated like a drama and nominated in the category’s non-musical equivalent.
(“Love Is A Song” didn’t win, by the way, but I doubt anyone expected it to. It was up against a little number by Irving Berlin called “White Christmas” from the movie Holiday Inn. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Academy made the wrong call in this case.)
Walt may have been more excited by Bambi‘s third Oscar nomination: Best Sound Recording. That may not sound worth getting fired up over but it was the first time that an animated film had been nominated in the category. Although Bambi didn’t win (it lost to Yankee Doodle Dandy), it was further validation that the Hollywood establishment was taking the art of animation seriously.
Bambi was released in August of 1942, already a much different world than the one that had greeted Dumbo less than a year earlier. America had officially entered World War II, so it probably wasn’t the best time for Walt to turn his back on fantasy and embrace realism. Like many of his other films of the period, Bambi would take years to turn a profit.
But the legacy of Bambi is undeniable. Walt Disney proved that animation was capable of tackling mature, serious themes just as well as it could handle fantastic and comedic stories. It places the audience deep into the heart of the forest, making us truly empathize with these animals more deeply and fully than any live-action film ever could. I imagine Bambi has provoked more deep, meaningful conversations between parents and their kids about life, death, the environment, even vegetarianism, than most other movies, animated or live-action.
In some ways, Bambi represents the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s animated art. Thanks to World War II and the financial disappointments of his recent films, Walt would now be forced to cut back. It would be years before he could make another animated feature as ambitious as his first five had been. But even if the studio had gone bankrupt and Walt had never made another feature film, he’d be remembered today for these early classics. Bambi remains a high-water mark in animation, the culmination of a remarkable run of unbridled creativity.
Any retrospective project like this one runs the risk of viewing history as a straight line subject to cause-and-effect. First this happened, then this happened and so on and so forth. But history itself is rarely that neat and the nature of animation production emphasizes that fact.
After Snow White, many of Disney’s next films were all in various stages of production at the same time. Movies like Pinocchio and Bambi took years to make. Some of the films Disney was actively developing around this time, including Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland, wouldn’t come out for another decade or more.
Dumbo was a bit of an exception to the rule. The original story by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl was published in 1939 as a book/toy hybrid called a “Roll-A-Book”. Disney bought the rights almost immediately and story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant began developing it into a film in January of 1940. By the time it was ready to go into production, the studio was already losing money on Pinocchio and Fantasia.
Because of those losses, Disney badly needed a hit. If Dumbo was going to be made at all, it would have to be done quickly and economically. The film went into production in late 1940 or early 1941. And even with work interrupted by an animators’ strike in May, the movie was finished and released to theaters in October of 1941. Even by today’s standards, that’s a quick turnaround for an animated feature.
Of course, it helps that Dumbo barely qualifies as a feature. Clocking in at a brisk 64 minutes, it’s easily Disney’s shortest film. At the time, movies of that length weren’t exactly uncommon but they were usually B-pictures or cheapies turned out by such Poverty Row studios as Monogram or Republic. RKO, Disney’s distributor and a studio that knew a thing or two about B-movies, actually asked Walt to add about 10 minutes or so. Either out of artistic integrity or economic necessity, Walt declined.
This was absolutely the right choice. Part of what makes Dumbo so charming is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It fits squarely into the misfit underdog story template that resonates with everyone, regardless of age, gender or cultural background. But when we think about Dumbo, we don’t think about the plot. We think about individual moments and sequences. Dumbo isn’t really much more than a short sequence of vignettes. What’s magical about it is that any one of those vignettes would be another movie’s highlight. Dumbo is nothing but highlights.
Dumbo announces it’s different from its predecessors right from the get-go. This isn’t the fairy-tale world of Snow White or the cobblestone European streets of Pinocchio. This is America. Florida, to be exact. And it isn’t once upon a time. It’s 1941. The opening song, “Look Out For Mr. Stork”, makes a pop culture reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, who had fascinated the world since their birth in 1934. The tone, the style, the music, everything suggests that this is going to be a much looser, more casual movie.
But in spite of all that, Dumbo also has a reputation as one of Disney’s most emotional movies. If you watch Dumbo with a group of people and somebody doesn’t cry at least once, watch out because you’re hanging out with some cold-hearted sociopaths. The heart of the film is the relationship between mother and child, encapsulated beautifully in the “Baby Mine” sequence. It’s a testament to both the animators and to the Oscar-nominated song by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington that this sequence lands as powerfully as it does. This is character animation at its finest and the song is simple, lovely and perfect.
The animation has to be perfect in a sequence like this. It’s shouldering the entire storytelling burden. Dumbo has no dialogue throughout the film and Mrs. Jumbo’s only line comes when she christens her son Jumbo Jr. The lack of dialogue is another brilliant choice. It allows every single member of the audience to project their own identity and their own relationship with their mom onto Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. When Dumbo is mercilessly teased because of his big ears, we empathize because we’ve all been picked on for one thing or another. When Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo in her trunk, we all know that feeling. Dialogue would only get in the way.
Dumbo has a number of sequences built entirely on the interplay between music and animation. The movie starts with back-to-back songs, the aforementioned stork tune and “Casey Junior”. It’s little wonder that it won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. But apart from “Baby Mine”, the most memorable song and sequence in the film is undoubtedly “Pink Elephants On Parade”.
Over 75 years later, this sequence remains one of the most startling and exciting animated sequences in Disney’s history. Walt’s interest in surrealism and abstract art had already been on display in Fantasia but “Pink Elephants” took it to a new level. The sequence is a hallucinatory masterpiece. A few years later, Walt would strike up a friendship with Salvador Dalí. One imagines the subject of Dumbo must have come up in conversation once or twice.
Even though so much of Dumbo is unencumbered by dialogue, the characters who do speak manage to leave a big impression. Sterling Holloway makes his Disney debut as Mr. Stork. He, of course, would have a long association with the studio in everything from The Jungle Book to Winnie The Pooh, eventually becoming the first voice actor honored as a Disney Legend.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Edward Brophy as Dumbo’s friend and protector, Timothy Q. Mouse. Brophy had a lengthy career as a character actor, usually playing sidekicks and comic relief tough guys. He worked frequently in radio but this was his one and only foray into animation. It’s a standout character that could have been just a Jiminy Cricket knockoff. Brophy’s attitude and delivery gives Timothy a more contemporary edge.
Cliff Edwards, the voice of the actual Jiminy Cricket, also turns up as Dandy Crow (or, as he was originally called…ahem…Jim Crow). All right, let’s talk about the crows. These characters were in the news again recently after Disney+ felt the need to slap a disclaimer on Dumbo and its “outdated cultural depictions”. And sure, they are exaggerated African-American caricatures and their leader is voiced by a white guy (not that anybody would have known that at the time, since none of the voice actors were credited).
But animation, especially this particular cartoony style of animation, is built on caricature. What is the herd of gossiping elephants if not an exaggerated caricature of matronly women? Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that those two things are exactly the same. Jim Crow is too loaded to simply wave it away like that (and, to be fair, they did have the good sense to not actually refer to Edwards’ character as “Jim Crow” in the movie itself). But it would be equally wrong to ascribe any malicious intent to the characters and not acknowledge that this is simply what cartoonists and animators have done since the invention of the form.
Besides, the crows are by far the most fun characters in the movie. You empathize with Dumbo and his mom. You appreciate Timothy’s friendship and positive outlook. But you want to hang out with the crows. They get the catchiest song, the terrific “When I See An Elephant Fly”. And they’re not exactly making fun of Dumbo and Timothy in the same way that the movie’s other characters did. Finding a baby elephant and a mouse passed out in a tree gives them a pretty good reason to be incredulous at first. It doesn’t take long for them to change their tune and help Dumbo and Timothy out by providing the “Magic Feather”. They’re smart, they’re free, they’re funny. The crows are awesome and I find it hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely offended by them.
Dumbo went on to become a huge hit for Disney, almost single-handedly bringing the studio back from the brink of bankruptcy. Appropriately enough, the studio has continued to use it as a cash cow ever since. For years, Disney has floated Dumbo as a sort of test balloon for new technologies and formats. In 1955, Walt allowed it to be shown on television for the first time. At the dawn of the home video era, Disney was reluctant to embrace the VCR. But in 1981, Dumbo and Alice In Wonderland became the first Disney animated classics to be released on VHS and Betamax.
Since then, it’s become one of the studio’s most frequently re-released titles on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. Disney has worked hard to cultivate a mystique around certain titles, locking them away in the notorious Disney Vault for years at a time. But Dumbo is one of the few that you can grab a copy of pretty much any time you please. You can order it from Amazon right now for about 10 bucks, a bargain compared to most of the other movies we’ve looked at so far.
Perhaps because it’s so ubiquitous or perhaps because it’s so deceptively simple, even devoted Disney fans tend to overlook Dumbo. It’s definitely an unusual film. We all know it as a movie about a flying elephant but the movie ends moments after Dumbo masters the skill. It’s an abrupt but somehow still satisfying conclusion. After being bullied, ridiculed and traumatically separated from his mom, Dumbo’s been through enough. He’s earned his happy ending.
After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken
years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for
an encore. Snow White had been a
meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For
his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.
In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to
Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The
Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few
months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian
children’s book The Adventures Of
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.
But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating
realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt
switched things up and moved Pinocchio
to the head of the line.
In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic
works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening
of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic
story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this
But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale
by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and
different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms
codified it. Pinocchio was based on
an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine
beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated
into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most
translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as
old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had
really only been around for about 50 years.
The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to
Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of
the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.
Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie.
I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not,
both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it:
it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original,
Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts
kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The
book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but
the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.
Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio
himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character
considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell
the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from
his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its
expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that
Pinocchio is a puppet.
Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie
Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he
recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times
an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be
others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated
Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie
Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket
to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff
Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters
voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A
Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty,
huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern
American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin
Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.
Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters
introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own
right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little
cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket
was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and
Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational
films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.
It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John
(a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how
bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses
Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track
him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying
causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie,
despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over
into nightmare territory.
Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island,
where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them
every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them
into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence
alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure
Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island
and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where
everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is
genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his
hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would
come close to an effect like that for decades.
But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on
kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not
rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with
their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie
today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between
the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the
“I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most.
Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and
Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the
movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.
All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a
kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely
unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character
and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature
that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the
most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was
produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.
To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for
hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail,
whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure
Island or the belly of
the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow
White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless
blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic
character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals
(Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro),
and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never
question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and
making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and
personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.
also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy
Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins
one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very
much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an
instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios.
Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.
was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box
office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and
Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even
taking that into account, Pinocchio
was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.
Today, of course, Pinocchio
is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s
crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of
depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns
in to this project. But Pinocchio has
more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all
time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to