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Disney Film History: Johnny Tremain

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The mid-1950s have been filled with historical representations in Disney films. Thanks to the Disneyland television show, which first brought us Davy Crockett, Walt and his company moved forward with several historical films that showcased some real and not so real heroes. For this fictional tale, the hero is Johnny Tremain.

It was no secret that Walt Disney loved America and was a true patriot. During World War II, he didn’t even bat an eye when he was asked to turn his studio lot into an army base and help produce propaganda films. He also didn’t mind going on a good will tour of South America and working on films to showcase the fabulous continent for the benefit of America during WWII. ¬†So I can just see him when he first got to read Esther Forbes’s children’s book “Johnny Tremain”.

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This is the first live action film in over a year at the Disney company that doesn’t star Fess Parker in some sort of role and I’m glad to see that the company moved away from him at this point as it was overkill by this point. The film does star a Disney contracted star however. Luana Patten had been a star of Disney during the 1940s when she played opposite Bobby Driscoll in Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. This was Patten’s first film without Driscoll and as a much more matured female. Hal Stalmaster stars in the leading role but wouldn’t be know for much else other than a few parts in the Disneyland television mini-series The Swamp Fox. ¬†Another newcomer besides Stalmaster was director Robert Stevensen who must have impressed Walt Disney as he stuck around to direct many films we will be talking about including Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The film debuted on June 19th, 1957 and would be split in two parts for the Disneyland show a year later. The lack of film box office numbers must mean that it wasn’t the biggest hit Disney had during the time period but the film does have significance and has had it’s own legacy.

Thanks to it’s historical value of showcasing the Revolutionary War and the Boston Tea Party, the film has been shown in classrooms around the United States and has also found it’s way onto classic film channels like AMC.

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The film also inspired Walt Disney to add an extension onto Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. in 1957 but the idea was passed on. When Walt Disney World was being built, Walt’s idea was brought up again and Liberty Square was added to the park, not as an extension, but as an entire land. The Liberty Tree was added to the area linking it to the film’s historical values.

When talking about the Disney films of the mid-1950s, I haven’t been shy about my displeasure in the over abundance of films that really left me longing for the films of the previous decade. Johnny Tremain, however, was worth sifting through the wreckage. It was a film I knew about and was looking forward to. It has many things going for it. It showcases Walt’s passion and attention to American history, it doesn’t use starpower as a crutch to makeup for a lacking storyline or a weak adventure. The film truly captivates with adventure and romance. It’s definitely a shining star amongst many duds. I hope the upcoming films I see are similar in it’s quality but I’m not confident in that as my list continues on into the next decade with some real headscratchers.

Josh Taylor
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