1958 was an interesting year for Disney. In addition to last week’s Native American Double Feature of The Light in the Forest and Tonka, it saw the release of the short “Paul Bunyan” and the rerelease as an individual short of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Also White Wilderness, for you lemming fans, and a short about the Grand Canyon that I’ve probably seen and can’t remember. Disney was deep into Americana that year, which frankly isn’t too much of a surprise. Disney has always been deep into Americana; it’s no surprise that entering any Disney park gets you a Main Street, USA.
The list of Disney materials about US history and folklore is a long one. After all, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was already nine years old at that point, and even it wasn’t the first telling of American folklore in Disney’s history. Johnny Appleseed, for one, had already put in an appearance the year before. Disney has also brought Pecos Bill and John Henry, the tales of Brer Rabbit, Hiawatha, and more to the screen. (And, yes, I’m aware I’m conflating folktales and works of American literature, but I believe most of the literature in question is either derived from folk tales or created its own.) On the border of history and folklore is, of course, Davy Crockett, who’d carried Old Betsy onto the televisions of America a few years earlier.
And then there’s US history—or fictionalizations thereof. Johnny Tremain, Texas John Slaughter, Francis Marion (played by that great Canadian Leslie Nielsen), and more. The animated movies are seldom Americana, but live-action spends a lot of time there. Walt’s fixation with the circus is best known for appearing in Dumbo, but less well known is Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus, two years after the one we’re looking at this month, where Kevin Corcoran runs away to join the circus. (Which is also one of the many, many Disney Chimp Movies, a phenomenon I’ll explore at some point.) Admittedly part of the drive was ABC’s determination that Disney produce another Davy Crockett, but much of the ’50s involved delving deep into America’s history on TV each week, even if it was often as not just as a setting.
As it happens, I do not particularly fault Disney itself for its more benign versions of history. Okay, so their version of Francis Marion relies heavily on information first described by, sigh, Parson Weems. On the other hand, ask five adults for a true story about George Washington, and how many will tell you about the cherry tree, invented out of whole cloth by Weems? Apparently, his work on Marion was closer to reality, although that’s a low bar. The point is, Disney is just one in a long line of American inventions of their own history, and I’m not going to hold them to a higher standard than, say, the Texas Board of Education in recent years.
Is it a problem that so many Americans have their ideas of American history and folklore begin and end with the Disney version? You bet. I doubt most coonskin-cap-wearing children of the ’50s ever learned more about Davy Crockett than what Disney showed them. I don’t think that’s Disney’s fault—how many people’s knowledge of Greek mythology begins and ends with Kevin Sorbo?—but it still bothers me more than it does a lot of other people. As it happens, I’ve never seen the Disney version of Hercules because I know how much it’s at odds with the mythology I read and loved as a child.
Still, I’m not sure what the solution is. You can neither force Disney to improve the historical accuracy of their films nor force people to do their own research. I’ve been told that people who watch them tend to become more interested in the truth, but do they? How many people who grew up on Pocahontas know that the historical figure was twelve at the time, much less anything else about the reality of that story? And if being a Loki fangirl drives an interest in Norse mythology beyond that, I haven’t seen it among my friends! Similarly, while I’d really love to see how Tony Stark would handle Sleipnir, it’s not going to happen.
I will also say that Disney’s version of Americana is at least somewhat broader than a lot of others. Yes, it’s still extremely white in many places. But the first I heard of Elfego Baca was through The Wonderful World of Disney, and if he was played by Robert Loggia, well, that was also in 1958, when, as established, we got Sal Mineo in redface. But in those two theatrical release movies, the white people weren’t all automatically good and right.
In fact, that year on what I think was called Disneyland at the time saw The Littlest Outlaw, which is actually about a Mexican kid; The Saga of Andy Burnett, about someone settling the California mountains; a history of US motoring; “The Pigeon That Worked a Miracle,” which I don’t think I’ve ever seen but which has baseball as part of its plot; “Rusty and the Falcon,” about a kid in the Rockies who rehabilitates a falcon; a few episodes of Texas John Slaughter; and a few episodes of Elfego Baca. That’s a relatively wide segment of America—and Zorro was airing at the same time. Not brimming over with black people or Asian people, true, but a lot less white than most of US TV at the time.
I think from the beginning, Walt himself was so interested in Americana that it infused the company. After all, he did grow up on his father’s stories of helping to build the White City in Chicago. Main Street is not dissimilar from what he himself would remember of childhood. Goodness knows he was also aware that he could sell it—he said of Davy Crockett that, had he known the character would be so popular, he wouldn’t have killed him off after three episodes—but it was what interested him. And the thing about being Walt Disney was that what interested you would end up shaping the world.