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.
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.
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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Walt Disney was unquestionably one of the most imaginative figures of the twentieth century. His expansive vision went well beyond animation, transforming feature films, television and, of course, theme parks. So when he sat down to assemble Melody Time, Disney’s fifth package film of the decade, you’d think Walt could have come up with a more interesting theme than, “Let’s just do another music one.”
On the face of it, Walt’s commitment to musically themed package films is almost quixotic. He had hoped that Fantasia would be his crowning achievement and had taken its financial and critical disappointment personally. It seems as though he almost viewed it like a warning against letting his ambitions run away with him. He played it much safer on Make Mine Music. Most of the animation was done in the more traditional, cartoony style. The music was contemporary. And most of the segments could stand on their own as individually released short subjects in case the feature version tanked.
Walt’s compromises paid off. Make Mine Music was a modest success, at a time when the studio needed all the successes it could get. With their next full-length animated feature still on the horizon, Walt needed to release something to theaters in 1948. Another hodgepodge of contemporary songs must have seemed like as good an idea as any.
But Disney’s team had already had a more interesting idea. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Casey At The Bat segment in Make Mine Music, the animators were keen to develop an entire compilation of American folk heroes, tall tales and legends. Two segments were completed: The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. But for whatever reason, Walt decided not to pursue the idea and instead filled the rest of the film with an odd assortment of completely unrelated cartoons.
Perhaps it was Johnny Appleseed that soured Walt on the project. Performed by radio star Dennis Day, the segment mines all the excitement it can from the story of the peace-loving gardener who roamed the countryside planting apple trees. Which is to say, not much. It’s pleasant enough but it is completely bereft of dramatic conflict. Johnny walks, plants, befriends animals, walks, plants, naps, walks, plants, dies peacefully beneath a tree, then is escorted to heaven where he presumably walks, plants, and so on.
But The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed is slightly unusual for Disney in that it’s one of the most explicitly Christian projects the studio ever produced. We’re introduced to Johnny singing “The Lord’s Been Good To Me” and he carries his Bible with him everywhere. It’s hardly radical but it may have been too much for Walt, who was never a churchgoer and tried to keep religion out of his creative work.
About ten years after Melody Time, Walt’s brother Roy came to him with a potential live-action project: a religious epic called The Big Fisherman based on the life of Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter. Walt wanted nothing to do with it but Roy backed it anyway, releasing the independent production through Buena Vista. Today, The Big Fisherman remains virtually impossible to see.
At any rate, it’s possible that Johnny Appleseed‘s fairly innocuous religious content, coupled with its overall sleepy tone, helped put the kibosh on the tall tales and legends concept, at least for the time being. Disney would eventually get back to it in short form. In 1950, Casey Jones starred in The Brave Engineer. The Oscar-nominated Paul Bunyan followed in 1958. Finally in 2002, the studio got around to compiling most of these, along with the new short John Henry, in the direct-to-video package film Disney’s American Legends.
Still, it’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t have enough faith in the idea at the time, especially since the second folk tale, Pecos Bill, is easily the film’s highlight. In the live-action framing sequence, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (and Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies, of course) tell the story to young Disney contract-buckaroos Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten (reunited after Song Of The South). It’s a classic Tall Tale of the Wild West, with a pioneer boy raised by coyotes and growing up to shape the Great State of Texas alongside his trusty horse, Widowmaker.
Pecos Bill is just a breezy, fun cartoon. It’s the longest segment in Melody Time but it’s never in danger of overstaying its welcome. The animation is a treat and the music is delightful, especially the cowboy classic “Blue Shadows On The Trail”. That song is not to be confused with Randy Newman’s similar “Blue Shadows” from Three Amigos!, although I’m guessing Newman wrote his song because Disney wouldn’t let them use the original. In fact, the original title of Three Amigos! was actually The Three Caballeros. Disney probably had a thing or two to say about that, too.
The rest of the segments run the usual gamut of highs and lows. Singer Frances Langford performs the charming and nostalgic Once Upon A Wintertime. This cartoon would find a more receptive audience later after it was released on its own and included in various Christmas-themed compilations.
Bumble Boogie is a jazzed-up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. A presumably more traditional performance of the piece had been considered as a potential Fantasia segment a few years earlier. The music, performed by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra with Jack Fina killing it on piano, is great but the animation is disappointing. An insect that frankly doesn’t look all that much like a bumblebee has to maneuver his way through various musical backgrounds. Compared to the more ambitious abstract segments in Fantasia and even Make Mine Music, this comes across as a little pedestrian. It feels like Disney wasn’t all that interested in challenging himself anymore.
The Andrews Sisters perform the epic story of Little Toot, which is essentially the same as Pedro from Saludos Amigos but with boats instead of planes. A little tugboat who wants to be a big tugboat saves the day after he gets in a world of trouble. There isn’t much to this and it goes on a bit too long but I like the Andrews Sisters, so at least the music’s good. If you don’t like the Andrews Sisters, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Just about everyone is gonna have a bad time with Trees, in which Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform Joyce Kilmer’s poem set to music by Oscar Rasbach. Trees is one of the most famous poems ever written and I don’t know a single person who likes it. It’s the kind of thuddingly obvious poem that gives poetry in general a bad name. It’s one of the easiest poems to parody but Disney plays it completely straight. But the animation is certainly pretty, so if you mute your television, you might be able to appreciate it.
The penultimate segment, arriving just before Pecos Bill, is the third and final entry in the Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros saga, Blame It On The Samba. Donald Duck and José Carioca are back, along with that damn Aracuan Bird, but Panchito Pistoles sits this one out. This time, Donald and José have lost their pep until the Aracuan Bird spices things up with the samba rhythms of the Dinning Sisters and organist Ethel Smith, who appears in live-action footage.
This segment only adds to the sense that Melody Time is primarily scraps and leftovers. Any pretense of introducing audiences to authentic Latin American music is out the window. Donald and José don’t even get a chance to speak. It all feels like half an abandoned idea from The Three Caballeros that nobody bothered to flesh out.
Walt Disney’s years of penny-pinching and piecemeal package films were finally drawing to a close but he wasn’t completely done with them yet. By the early 1950s, Disney’s relationship with long-time distributor RKO was coming to an acrimonious end. Roy didn’t feel RKO was doing enough to publicize the Disney films, while RKO had problems of its own with Disney. A particular bone of contention was the series of True-Life Adventures nature documentaries, which RKO had no interest in distributing. This column will get back to those soon enough.
In 1953, Roy decided to break from RKO and created his own distribution company, Buena Vista. But the studio was on the hook to deliver one more animated feature to RKO. So in 1955, Walt re-edited a handful of segments from both Make Mine Music and Melody Time, added the bare minimum of new introductory material, and delivered Music Land to RKO.
Music Land is without question the rarest of all Disney features. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits album or a clip show. After it fulfilled Walt’s contractual obligation, it was locked up in the Disney Vault, never to be heard from again. I’m not advocating for its release. You could put together a YouTube playlist and have roughly the same experience. But it’s an interesting footnote to both the musical package films and Disney’s long relationship with RKO.
In the end, Melody Time didn’t do much for Disney. It failed to find much of an audience and critics received it with a shrug and a yawn. After years of package films and odd experiments, there were plenty of people who assumed that Walt Disney had lost his touch, perhaps for good. Unfortunately, it would be another few years before he’d prove them wrong.
VERDICT: Only Once Upon A Wintertime and Pecos Bill can really be considered winners here, so it’s another Disney Minus.
By the time 1947 rolled around, Walt and Roy Disney’s belt-tightening was beginning to pay off. The brothers had managed to keep the studio afloat through contract work, low-budget package films and re-releases of earlier favorites like Snow White and Pinocchio. Now that he had a little bit of money coming in, Walt went back to developing more ambitious features like Cinderella. But Walt held his animated features to a high standard, which meant that Cinderella wouldn’t be ready for a few years.
So Walt and his team went back to the discard pile in search of material for more of the profitable package films. They found a pair of stories that had both been in development as potential features until World War II ground everything to a halt. The Legend Of Happy Valley was an adaptation of Jack And The Beanstalk with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy taking on the giant. It had been almost completely finished before the war put it on hold.
Walt had never been all that crazy about Happy Valley. He thought the idea was hilarious but didn’t think the story was appropriate for the characters. When work picked up on the project, Walt decided to incorporate it into a package film instead of finishing it as a feature. His first instinct was to pair it with The Wind In The Willows but since that project still had a long way to go, he had to find something else.
Bongo, about a performing circus bear who longs to return to nature, was based on a children’s story by Sinclair Lewis. It had originally been developed as a semi-sequel to Dumbo, which makes sense. Both were about performing circus animals. But as work continued, Walt’s enthusiasm for the project waned.
The two stories had virtually nothing in common apart from the fact that Walt didn’t think either one was worth finishing as a stand-alone feature. But some new linking material would solve that problem and thus, Fun & Fancy Free was born.
Even the wraparound segments are built out of leftovers. Jiminy Cricket serves as host, a role he would continue to play on TV and in educational films. He first appears singing “I’m A Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow,” a song that had been cut from Pinocchio. Jiminy attempts to strike up a conversation with a morose-looking doll and teddy bear. The cricket has always had trouble discerning between sentient and inanimate creatures. Getting no response, he opts to play a record instead, selecting Bongo as performed by Make Mine Music alumna Dinah Shore.
Even though all the crossover material between Bongo and Dumbo had been dropped, it’s easy to see how the two could have connected. It’s harder to understand how Bongo ever could have worked as a stand-alone feature. It’s only about half an hour long but even at that length, it feels padded and dull.
Longtime Disney animator Jack Kinney was in charge of Bongo and it’s clear that he was trying to recapture the simple pleasures of Dumbo. But there’s a difference between “simple” and “simplistic” and Bongo falls squarely on the wrong side of the equation. Bongo escapes the circus train, struggles to fit in with the other woodland creatures, falls in love with Lulubelle and has to challenge a much larger bear called Lumpjaw. Every story beat is punctuated with its own, seemingly endless song. Even if you’re the current president of the Dinah Shore Fan Club, it’s a bit much.
Bongo wouldn’t have been a particularly memorable cartoon even edited down to Silly Symphony length. There’s a reason you won’t find any Bongo plush toys at your local Disney Store. The bear’s cute enough but he doesn’t have much personality. Considering we actually see him being mistreated by his circus handlers, it’s weird that we have almost no sympathy for him. With little reason to care about its outcome, Bongo ends up as a shrug of a cartoon, a time-filler for a particularly gloomy afternoon.
After Bongo mercifully trudges to a conclusion, Jiminy Cricket decides to snoop around the house some more. Turns out he’s in the bedroom of beloved Hollywood child star Luana Patten! Luana has been invited to a party across the street thrown by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and friends, so Jiminy heads over to check it out.
Luana Patten was not exactly a beloved Hollywood child star at this point. But Disney had signed both her and her Song Of The South co-star Bobby Driscoll to multi-year contracts. So if nothing else, he had a vested interest in giving her the appearance of a beloved Hollywood child star. We’ll see her again in this column.
Now, I suppose we could simply acknowledge that the 1940s were a simpler, more innocent time, especially at the movies. And if we did so, there would be no need to comment on the inherent weirdness of a small, unaccompanied girl attending a party thrown by a middle-aged man and two wooden puppets. But come on…at what point in human history would this have ever been considered anything other than deeply uncomfortable?
The whole thing’s even weirder if you know much about Edgar Bergen’s life and act. Bergen keeps things wholesome here but Charlie McCarthy was not exactly G-rated. He’d become a sensation trading double entendres with Mae West and W.C. Fields. At this time, Bergen was also the father of a one-year-old daughter, Candice. In her memoir, Candice Bergen revealed the strange hold Charlie McCarthy had over her childhood, feeling that the dummy was more of a child to her father than she was. When Bergen died, he left Charlie $10,000 in his will. Candice got nothing. Luana Patten was lucky she was only visiting.
Bergen regales Luana, Charlie, sensitive yokel Mortimer Snerd and party crasher Jiminy Cricket with the tale formerly known as The Legend Of Happy Valley but now titled Mickey And The Beanstalk. You know the story and have probably seen the cartoon, so I won’t bother recapping it here.
Odds are you remember this as a lively, funny cartoon with some unforgettable sequences. The Mickey/Donald/Goofy trio cartoons were always highlights of Disney’s short subjects, whether they were cleaning clocks or hunting ghosts. Their rapport is as reliably entertaining as ever here.
As it happened, this would be one of the last times Walt provided Mickey’s voice. After what sounds like a rather speedy audition process, he turned the job over to sound effects man Jimmy MacDonald. Walt would say that he simply didn’t have time to do it anymore but it’s not as though the studio was producing all that many Mickey Mouse cartoons at the time. It’s more likely that years of cigarette smoking had taken a toll on his voice, making it harder to reach Mickey’s falsetto.
Willie the Giant (voiced by Billy Gilbert, who had already worked for Disney as Sneezy in Snow White) is a terrific addition to the roster of Disney supporting characters. Almost 40 years later, the studio brought him back as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. But he makes such an indelible impression here in his first appearance that it’s easy to believe he must have turned up elsewhere over the years.
Even the music is better in this half. Anita Gordon’s songs as the Singing Harp are happy without being cloying. I don’t think the residents of Happy Valley would have been so joyous if they’d had Dinah Shore singing over them all the time. Willie gets a catchy, memorable entrance song. And to this day, the promise of a large meal will get me singing, “Turkey, lobster, sweet potater pie! Pancakes piled up till they reach the sky!”
So if you have fond memories of Mickey And The Beanstalk, I completely understand. I’m also willing to bet those memories are based on seeing the cartoon by itself, after it was rescued from the morass of Fun & Fancy Free. In its original context, the cartoon’s momentum is torpedoed every few minutes by interruptions from Bergen and his dummies. In the right context, I can appreciate and even enjoy Bergen’s act. Here, it just gets in the way. It also doesn’t help that his actual ventriloquism skills had deteriorated from years performing on the radio. You can see his lips moving throughout, which only adds to the sense that nobody’s bringing their “A” game here.
Mickey And The Beanstalk proved to be the gift that keeps on giving for the studio. In the 50s, it aired as an episode of Disney’s TV series with new narration by old standby Sterling Holloway. They revisited it again in the 60s, this time with a framing sequence featuring new animation and narration by Ludwig Von Drake. It’s been released on VHS and DVD several times, frequently by itself. It has had a much more lasting impact on its own than it ever had as part of Fun & Fancy Free.
As for poor Bongo, time has not been as kind to the little circus bear. It was also released on its own and aired on television but nowhere near as often. It seems to rank somewhere near the bottom of the middle of the Disney canon. Nobody really hates it but nobody much loves it, either.
Fun & Fancy Free did fairly well at the box office, especially considering it hadn’t cost all that much to make. But critics were unimpressed and nobody seemed to mind when it disappeared from theatres and went into TV rotation. Audiences would have to wait a little longer for Disney to recapture his past magic. The package film era was not yet over.
VERDICT: If you can catch Mickey And The Beanstalk on its own, do that. It’s a Disney Plus but Fun & Fancy Free is a Disney Minus.
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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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The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.
But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.
If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.
Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.
These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.
Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.
In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.
Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.
After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.
Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.
Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.
After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.
Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.
Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.
Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.
But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.
The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.
But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.
Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.
It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.
But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.
I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.
VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.
World War II affected every single Hollywood studio. But perhaps no one was hit harder than Walt Disney. After the US formally entered the war in December of 1941, Walt put virtually every one of his projects on hold to focus on the war effort. This was not entirely by choice. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army troops moved into Disney’s Burbank studio, which was strategically close to a Lockheed aircraft plant. The studio remained under military occupation for eight months.
With the Army already enjoying Disney’s hospitality, it was only a matter of time before the armed services and other branches of the government asked Walt to join their propaganda effort. For the Office of War Information, Disney produced animation for Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. He produced short subjects urging citizens to pay their taxes, buy war bonds, and conserve grease. And in 1943, he released his most ambitious wartime effort and one of the most unusual films of his career: a feature-length animated documentary based on a book arguing the theoretical applications of aviation in wartime. Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, doesn’t it?
Surprisingly, Victory Through Air Power was not a government commission. This was all Walt’s idea. Like a lot of people, Walt had read the best-selling book by Major Alexander P. de Seversky and was completely won over by his ideas. Walt felt the book had a message that needed to be heard. He believed in it so much that he financed it personally, fast-tracking the film’s production. When RKO, Disney’s regular distributor, refused to release the decidedly uncommercial project, Walt brokered a deal with United Artists to get it into theaters. RKO’s instincts turned out to be correct. Victory Through Air Power was another money-loser for Walt, although to be fair, he wasn’t really looking to turn a profit on this one in the first place.
The movie starts with the History of Aviation, an entertaining sequence that continued to be screened on its own for years after the rest of the film fell into obscurity. It is astonishing to realize that the Wright Brothers’ first flight had only happened 40 years prior to this movie’s release. Walt himself was actually two years older than the first airplane. That’s a lot of change in a really short time and this sequence does an admirable job condensing it into a fun, easy-to-understand animated short, even as it glosses over and oversimplifies some of its information.
With the background established, it’s time to turn to the themes and ideas in Major de Seversky’s book. And who better to convey those ideas than Major Alexander P. de Seversky himself? In live-action footage helmed by journeyman director H.C. Potter, de Seversky addresses the camera directly, using giant maps and oversized globes to help illustrate his points. The props help a little but the movie unavoidably swerves into sleepy lecture-hall territory whenever de Seversky pops up.
The animation in the second half is somewhat simpler than what had become the norm for Disney, with less detailed backgrounds and more abstraction. But the work is still striking, especially since we’re seeing the Disney style applied to some very atypical subject matter. The Dunkirk sequence is a grim and starkly beautiful standout.
But here’s the thing. Victory Through Air Power is unquestionably an interesting film, especially if you’re a Disney historian, a student of animation or a World War II buff. But “interesting” is not the same as “entertaining”. Even at just 70 minutes, this can be a long sit. Watching someone painstakingly explain strategies and theories from over half a century ago may be fun for some Monday morning quarterbacks but I suspect that most people would rather watch just about anything else.
Victory Through Air Power opened on July 17, 1943, six months after the mini-movie Saludos Amigos. Hardly anybody went to see it but it did at least get in front of people who mattered, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (although the music categories were essentially participation ribbons at this point) and quietly faded back into the fabled Disney Vault. Disney would not release another feature film until 1945.
But the work the Disney studio produced during these lean years would end up having a lasting impact. His government contracts not only kept the studio afloat, they resulted in some truly innovative and daring short films. Education For Death: The Making Of The Nazi is a radical departure, following a young German boy named Hans as he grows up and is indoctrinated into the party. It’s beautifully animated and one of the most serious, somber films Disney would ever produce.
On the other extreme is one of Disney’s wildest cartoons, the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face. Donald Duck wakes up in “Nutzi Land”, jarred out of bed by a band (whose members include Mussolini, Tojo, Himmler, Goebbels and Göring) playing Oliver Wallace’s memorable title song. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a big hit with their rendition of the tune. After breakfast (one-bean coffee, a slice of bread-shaped wood, a bacon-and-egg-scented mist) and a little light reading of Mein Kampf, the band hustles Donald off to his job at a munitions plant. The job and the constant “heil”-ing of Hitler sends Donald off the deep end…at which point he wakes up in his own bed (and his own stars-and-stripes pajamas) back in the good old U S of A.
Even though the whole thing is just a dream, it’s more than a little jarring to hear the words “Heil Hitler” coming out of Donald’s beak. Of course, that was the whole point. Donald Duck became Disney’s go-to wartime character, even doing a hitch in the Army in a whole series of cartoons. But Der Fuehrer’s Face stands out as one of Disney’s most effective and entertaining pieces of anti-Nazi propaganda.
Perhaps the most important legacy of films like Victory Through Air Power was the discovery of a new source of income for the studio: educational films. In the years that followed, Disney and his team would produce dozens of short films for use in schools. Some would use familiar characters like Donald Duck and Jiminy Cricket. Others would be more straight-forward, on topics ranging from The ABC Of Hand Tools to The Story Of Menstruation.
Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and business partner, had also learned a valuable lesson from movies like Saludos Amigos and Victory Through Air Power. Live-action sequences were a lot cheaper to produce than fully animated features. At his urging, the studio would start incorporating a lot more live-action footage into its features moving forward.
VERDICT: It’s certainly not without interest but for most people, Victory Through Air Power is far too specialized and frankly dull to be considered anything other than a Disney Minus.
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.