So Dear To My Heart (1949)

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Ernest Rister, Feb 13, 2004.

  1. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    SO DEAR TO MY HEART (1949)
    (d. Harold Schuster; ph. Winton C. Hoch; scr. John Tucker Battle)

    by
    Ernest Rister

    The cotton farm that my mother grew up on is under water now, sleeping silently under the waters of Granger Lake in Central Texas. Travel west of Granger for a while, and you might pass the farm that my father was raised on - a wide expanse of grazing land and cattle tanks, crop fields and fishing holes.

    One of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was a childhood spent on the farms and riverbeds of Central Texas. During school weeks, I was a child of the suburbs, but on the weekends, I would be found in the country, tearing up my swimming trunks sliding down moss-covered rocks in the river, or fishing for catfish in my grandfather's cattle ponds, or sitting on my grandfather's knee while he drove his tractor and plowed his fields. My memories of those days remain potent and vivid -- the cracked earth of the fields in the summer, the minnows in the creek nibbling on my fingertips in the spring, the peace of home-made blankets and cups of hot chocolate in the fall and winter.

    It is no small coincidence that Walt Disney produced So Dear to my Heart, the story of a young boy's life on a farm. Walt himself was raised on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, and grew up in the same years that his film was set. Walt would later say of the film, "So Dear to my Heart was especially close to me. Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri." From the beginning of the opening credits, you can see Walt Disney's love of rural Americana. The opening titles of the film appear over an assortment of home-made quilt patterns, the kind knitted with modesty and pride by my grandmother and her grandmother before her. For some, these are just quaint designs to set the atmosphere of the story. In a way, though, because these quilt patterns are seen in close-up, the camera is asking you to notice and appreciate the fine details and handiwork. These opening titles establish the quiet, underlying passion underneath So Dear to my Heart -- the film is a celebration of the people who called an American farm their home at the beginning of the 20th century. It's a celebration of country life itself.

    The evocative opening shot transports us through a scrapbook and into the American past, and from that moment on, we are seeing and feeling Walt Disney's own affection for a childhood spent in the countryside, alongside dirt roads and river beds.

    The story of So Dear to my Heart involves the struggles of an orphan named Jeremiah (Bobby Driscoll), who is living on a Midwestern farm with his grandmother (Beulah Bondi) in the by-gone year 1903. One day, a train passes through the little town of Fulton's Corners, with the famous racehorse Dan Patch in tow. Danny's eyes grow wide at the sight of the prize-winning horse, and his head swims with the dream of one day raising a prize horse of his own.

    Later that night, a litter of newborn lambs arrive on the farm, but one of the young lambs has black wool. Because it is different, the mother lamb refuses to nurse it. "Why won't she take him?" Jeremiah asks his Grandmother. "They're the Lord's critters, and they all have the ways that he gave them." Granny responds grimly, resigned to the newborn's fate. Like the little girl Fern in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Jeremiah is appalled at the thought of the newborn starving to death, and so he takes matters into his own hands, sneaking the lamb inside the farm house to give it milk and keep it alive.

    Granny soon discovers Jeremiah and the lamb, and argues with the boy. Realizing Jeremiah's sincerity and love for the newborn, she relents, and allows the boy to keep and nurse it.

    Later, Jeremiah adjusts his scrapbook, and trades his dream of raising a prize-winning horse with the dream of raising a prize-winning lamb. Jeremiah devotes himself to the lamb, whom he names Danny, and he hopes he can convince Granny to one day take the grown animal to the County Fair to compete with the other lambs and hopefully win a Blue Ribbon.

    This downsizing of his dream from Horse to Lamb is brought to life visually, as the figures in Jeremiah's scrapbook come alive via animation and music, expressing Jeremiah's new dream with the song, "It's Watcha Do With Watcha Got".

    This animated sequence is notable because of the attempt to animate certain scrapbook images in a way true to their own illustrated design. While the Wise Old Owl and Danny the Lamb are drawn in a way typical of the Disney house style, other figures are drawn and inked in a way that retains their scrapbook appearance. The attempt here is to give a sense of Jeremiah's scrapbook literally "coming to life", and it is a bold and charming moment.

    Like Charlotte's Web, the road to glory at the County Fair is beset with great adversity. Jeremiah's greatest obstacle is Granny. Granny has been hardened by farm life into a realist. She will only tolerate so much childish fancy, and she knows Jeremiah's dream is in vain -- there is no chance that a lamb with black wool will win a Blue Ribbon at the County Fair. A Blue Ribbon represents "best of breed", and a lamb with black wool has no chance at all.

    Also, it costs money to travel to the County Fair, something Granny has precious little of. Danny himself turns out to be quite the two-foot-tall hell raiser, with a penchant for destroying property, ruining crops, and running away into treacherous forests and swamps, enraging Granny and endangering Jeremiah in the process.

    Throughout it all, Jeremiah soldiers on, surmounting one obstacle after another through sheer pluck, determination, and ultimately, selfless devotion. Suffice it to say, Jeremiah and Danny finally make it to the County Fair, and the boy is allowed to enter Danny into competition, and then, just as Granny predicted, the lamb loses the contest because of his black wool. But the film is not a downer -- without giving away the ultimate ending, So Dear to my Heart turns out to be the Rocky of "prize livestock" movies, and the film ends on an inspiring note.

    It is tempting to credit Disney's empathy with the period settings as the reason So Dear to my Heart is such a small gem of a film, but credit is shared by director Harold Schuster (My Friend Flicka), and screenwriter John Tucker Battle, working from the short story "Midnight and Jeremiah" by the acclaimed American author Sterling North. Disney, Schuster, and Battle each lent their own commitment to the project, and the result was a family film of tremendous heart and sincerity.

    Looking at the film today, it stands as the best film Walt Disney produced during the post-War reconstruction years of the mid-to-late 1940's. It is similar in some respects to Song of the South in that the story involves the struggles of a young boy in a rural setting, and it features animated musical segments designed to illustrate the important life-lessons that the boy learns as the story progresses. But unlike Song of the South, So Dear to my Heart has a genuine authenticity. This quality may be due to the realism of Sterling North's story, or from Walt Disney's nostalgia of his own childhood days, or from Schuster's sensitive handling of the material. Credit perhaps is due to all three, but regardless, the story incidents of the film are completely natural and believable. The film does hit a false note occasionally, due to technical limitations of the time and because of the youth of the child actors, but these are easily forgiven considering the achievement of the film in total.

    In many ways, So Dear to my Heart was the first of a long line of live-action Disney period films that were defined more by their integrity and their commitment to serious drama than they were by concerns over reaching a mass audience. So Dear to my Heart was the fore-runner to the films that today stand among the best of Disney's achievements in dramatic live-action films, namely 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Pollyanna, The Three Lives of Thomasina, Those Calloways, Treasure Island, and Old Yeller.

    In each of these, there is no flinching from the hard facts inherent to the story, and the characters are allowed to experience real pain as they struggle. If you ask people today to list the best moments in Disney live-action films, invariably they'll name Fred MacMurray discovering Flubber or Tommy Kirk turning into a sheepdog, or Herbie riding upside down in a tunnel in Monte Carlo, or Johnny Depp crossing swords with a skeleton. They are not to be faulted for such impressions, these are the films that have been promoted to them.

    Ask me, I'll name Tommy Kirk struggling to aim his rifle at his own dog in Old Yeller, or Karen Dotrice telling a local priest that she has killed her father in Thomasina, or Brian Keith struggling with his alcoholism in Those Calloways, or Karl Malden realizing he has misled his parish in Pollyanna, or little Bobby Driscoll forced to shoot a pirate in the face in Treasure Island, or James Mason explaining why his heart is filled with hate in 20,000 Leagues -- or a young boy apologizing to God and praying for the life of a sheep in So Dear to my Heart.

    This tradition of live-action Disney films with real, sincere drama began with So Dear to my Heart. It is not surprising that many of Disney's sincere live-action dramas under-performed at the box office, and have fallen into obscurity, despite their quality and their reputations among Disney buffs. Two years ago, I screened Darby O'Gill and the Little People for my sister and my niece, and they both adored it. Afterwards my sister asked me, "How come I've never heard of this?" Ask someone today if they've ever seen So Dear to my Heart, and you may receive a similar reaction.

    So Dear to my Heart has a dedicated following. I was asked to write this article for the website UltimateDisney.com, whose members had selected the film among the best of the Walt Disey live-action titles. I was glad to see the film recognized for two reasons. On the one hand, it is one of my favorite Disney films because the film reminds me of my own childhood days on my grandparents' farms. But more importantly, hopefully this recognition will spur other people to give the film a chance as a rental, or at least convince it's doubters to see the film in its true light -- not as a forgotten Disney curio from the 1940's, but as small personal film made with tremendous affection for its characters and its world, and the forerunner to Disney's truly great live-action dramas.

    A DVD release for So Dear to my Heart was planned for release in America in 2001, but months before the title was due to ship, Disney abruptly cancelled the title, and ever since, American fans of Disney's live-action titles have been waiting. It is now 2004, and still, there is no word of the DVD release for So Dear to my Heart. If and when the title does eventually make it to DVD and your own home theater, you owe it to yourself to discover why Walt Disney considered it one of his favorite films, why Disney historians like Leonard Maltin call it one of Disney's best, and why it has a special place in the heart of anyone who knows their grandfather's farm once held more adventure, fun, and wonder than all the cities of the world put together.

    -- Ernest Rister
     
  2. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Well, I knew this film was obscure, but "0" replies? Goodness. Maybe I should say something typically controversial to spark some life in this thread...hmmm...ah, yes...the little boy in the film, Bobby Driscoll (who also voiced Peter Pan in Disney's 1953 animated film), died as an addict in an abandoned building due to a drug overdose. His body was found but not identified, and so his remains were interred in a unmarked grave. The identity of his body was not determined until after his burial.

    "They carried me in on a velvet pillow, and then threw me out like the rest of the garbage."
    -- Oscar-winner Bobby Driscoll, on his child-star Hollywood experience
     
  3. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Producer
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    I don't believe that I have ever ever seen "So Dear To My Heart." At least it doesn't ring any bells with me. I did see "Darby O'Gill and The Little People" when I was a kid. It seems pretty silly now but as a kid there was a scene in "Darby O'Gill" that creeped me out. It was the scene with the "death carriage." Should I be admitting that? [​IMG]

    The factoid about Bobby O'Driscoll was interesting. I never knew that he ended in such an ignominious way. Unfortunately, it seems the type of treatment he described is an all too common occurence for child actors. When the "cute" goes away so does the fame.
     
  4. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    That banshee in Darby O'Gill and the carriage driven by the headless coachman *is* creepy. Don't be ashamed of admitting it. The moment when Darby opens his front door to find the spectral banshee leaping up at him is enough to scare grown men, let alone young children.
     
  5. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Producer
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    I sure wish I could remember if I ever saw "So Dear To My Heart", but the more I think about it the more I'm sure I haven't seen it. I don't even remember ever seeing it in the theatre. Was it ever released theatrically post 1961?

    Even as a kid, I tended to avoid Disney's live films. I'm more a fan of the animated films than I ever was of his live stuff. The live action films that come to mind are all the standard ones such as "The Absent-Minded Professor", "Herbie the Love Bug", "Mary Poppins", etc.

    I have never missed seeing any Disney animated film in the theatre up until "Brother Bear." "Brother Bear" was just the final straw. The film felt so derivative of THE LION KING I just couldn't bring myself to spend money to see it in a theatre.

    I might go to "Home on The Range", but truth to tell I feel somewhat underwhelmed by the animation quality displayed in the trailer. Everything in the film looks flat and simplistic: like they were in a rush to just get it over and done with. The use of modern colloquialisms like "awesome" bothers me as well.

    I hope Disney finally releases "So Dear...." onto DVD. I'm curious to see if I would recognize it.
     
  6. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    Home on the Range is stylized, but that has nothing to do with the animation -- you're referring to the character designs and the art direction. Personally, the trailers remind me of Ward Kimball's marvelous solo work in the 50's, 60's and early 70's (like Pigs is Pigs, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, Melody, Mars and Beyond, It's Tough to be a Bird, etc.) It looks no more rushed than those Ward Kimball gems.

    As for modern colloquialisms, that's as old as Disney animation itself, going all the way back to the Newman Laugh-O-Grams in the early 20's. The use of modern shtick sure didn't hurt Emperor's New Groove, and Home on the Range looks like New Groove woith cows. Seeing as how Emperor's New Groove was also panned prior to release, and then became a surprise word of mouth $90 million-grossing hit, and seeing as how Home on the Range is the first Disney animated feature in seven years to feature songs written by Alan Menken...I'm all about it. Looks like it could be a fun little movie. Nothing wrong with that at all.

    I don't know if So Dear to my Heart was ever re-released theatrically. It could have been put on a double-bill in the 70's, when Disney was known to pair up a new film with another classic title (like Return from Witch Mountain with Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad or Cat from Outer Space with Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, Too or The Strongest Man in the World with Bambi).

    Walt Disney was proud of the movie, that much is known, and he chose So Dear to my Heart to air as the 5th episode of the old Disneyland TV anthology series in 1954.
     
  7. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Producer
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    If that was its only air play on TV then I most likely haven't seen the film. It aired a few years before my time.
     
  8. Brian Kidd

    Brian Kidd Screenwriter
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    It was released on VHS not too long ago I believe. I'll have to search my library for it.
     

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