Celebrate Patriots’ Day with JOHNNY TREMAIN (Walt Disney 1957)

Here in Massachusetts, every third Monday in April is designated Patriots’ Day, a state holiday commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord which gave birth to the American Revolutionary War. The annual Boston Marathon is run on this day, as well as an 11:00AM Boston Red Sox game, so it’s a pretty big deal in this neck of the woods. Those of you in other parts of the country can celebrate by watching JOHNNY TREMAIN, Walt Disney’s film about a young boy living in those Colonial times that led up to the birth of “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

Based on the 1943 Newbery Award-winning YA novel by Esther Forbes, the film tells the story of the Revolution through the eyes of young Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster), a teen apprenticed to silversmith Mr. Lapham (crusty Will Wright ), who has a cute daughter Priscilla (Luana Patten). When the aristocratic merchant Jonathan Lyte (eloquent but arrogant Sebastian Cabot ) brings in his silver tea-pot demanding a rush job, Johnny shares a secret with Cilla: his christening cup, given to him by his late mother, bears the Lyte family crest. When Johnny diligently works on the pot during the Sabbath (how blasphemous!), his hand is burned, permanently damaging it and his apprenticeship in the process!

Unable to find work because of his injury, Johnny goes to Lyte for help, and instead is accused of stealing the christening cup and arrested! He’s put on trial, and defended by Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell ), a leader in the secret “Sons of Liberty” society. Cilla’s testimony sets Johnny free, and he’s recruited by the Sons as a messenger, playing an important part in the Boston Tea Party, then again by delivering the famous message to the church sexton (“Two if by sea”) that triggers Paul Revere’s midnight ride, leading up to the Battle at Lexington Green and “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World”!

Along the way, Johnny meets all the important figures in the Revolution: Revere, Quincy, James Otis, Samuel Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren. The film was  directed by Robert Stevenson , his first of a number of Disney classics: OLD YELLER, MARY POPPINS, THE LOVE BUG, and many more. It’s a stirring saga that manages to both educate and entertain, and features the rousing song “The Sons of Liberty” after the Tea Party incident, with the rebels hanging 13 lanterns on the tree, representing the Original 13 Colonies:

        The cast includes Richard Beymer as Johnny’s pal Rab, Virginia Christine as Mrs. Lapham, Walter Sande as Paul Revere, Jeff York as James Otis (who gives an impassioned speech on fighting tyranny at the Sons’ secret meeting), Walter Coy, Cyril Delevanti, Gavin Gordon, Dabbs Greer , and Lumsden Hare. So today would be the perfect day to watch JOHNNY TREMAIN and celebrate liberty and freedom; as for me, I watched it last week, and since the Red Sox game has been cancelled due to our crummy New England weather, I think I’ll start my day by watching yet another movie! Happy Patriots’ Day, one and all!

BTW, this year Patriots’ Day happens to fall on another celebration – my birthday!!

Happy 82nd Birthday Donald Duck!

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It’s hard to believe, but that wild-tempered waterfowl Donald Duck made his first appearance 82 years ago in the 1934 Disney short THE WISE LITTLE HEN, part of the ‘Silly Symphonies’ series. Donald’s next film ORPHAN’S BENEFIT teamed him for the first time with frenemy Mickey Mouse, beginning a comic rivalry that lasts to this day. The immoderate mallard began starring in his own cartoons in 1937, begetting a cast of characters such as girlfriend Daisy Duck, nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and uncles Ludwig Von Drake and Scrooge McDuck.

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Donald’s flying-off-the-handle personality and riotous fits of anger caused fits of laughter for generations of moviegoers. He made the perfect foil for straight-mouse Mickey, and carried the brunt of their comedic load. The quacking voice of Clarence “Ducky” Nash went a long way towards putting Donald’s over-the-top antics over the top. Every kid tried to imitate that unique duck-like voice (admit it, you did too!). Nash voiced Donald for fifty years until his death in 1985, when animator Tony Anselmo assumed the mantle.

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The ballistic bird also found fame on television, video games, Big Little Books, and most memorably in a comic book series by legendary illustrator Carl Barks that are worth big money to comic collectors today. Donald even won an Oscar for 1943’s DER FUEHER’S FACE. In fact, he made many a patriotic propaganda film during the World War II era, including THE SPIRIT OF ’43, where the question is posed to pay your taxes or support the Axis:

So happy birthday to my second favorite animated duck (sorry, but Daffy’s #1 in my book!). Long may you rant and rave!

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Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)

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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and Ned and makes them his prisoners. The Nautilus takes the trio on a fantastic journey to the undersea kingdom, where they encounter everything from cannibalistic headhunters on an unchartered island to a giant squid that attacks the submarine during a gale-force storm.

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The four leads are in top form, especially Kirk Douglas as the rowdy Ned Land. Kirk has a ball playing the rambunctious sailor, and even gets to sing a song, “A Whale of a Tale”. Paul Lukas (Oscar winner for WATCH ON THE RHINE) adds dignity to the part of Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre is sarcastically funny as his sidekick Counseil. James Mason cuts a fine figure as Nemo, the anti-war warrior. Nemo’s a conflicted character; abhorring violence and wishing only to live in peace beneath the sea, yet attacking ships and sending their crews to a watery grave. Of all the screen versions of Verne’s Nemo (Herbert Lom, Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif et al) Mason is by far the best. And let’s not forget Esmerelda, Nemo’s trained seal who bonds with the boisterous Ned.

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This was Disney’s fifth live-action film (the first was 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND) and first under the Buena Vista Distribution banner. To direct, Disney hired Richard Fleischer , son of his former animation rival Max Fleischer (POPEYE THE SAILOR, BETTY BOOP, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The younger Fleischer handles the material well, from a script by Earl Fenton. He had directed several highly regarded noirs (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) before taking on this big-budget adventure, and split the remainder of his career between crime dramas (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, MR. MAJESTYK) and fantasies (FANTASTIC VOYAGE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA).

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. The breathtaking underwater sequences were shot mostly off the coast of Nassau, and involved over 30 crew members to film. The giant squid scene features a larger than life animatronic monster, and still looks better than any CGI- created creature today (don’t get me started!). Walt Disney put together a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that has indeed stood the test of time, as enjoyable now as when it was first released in Technicolor and CinemaScope. One of the all-time classic adventures of the screen, 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA belongs in every film fanatic’s collection.

 

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