Now, as people might have noticed by now, I have a Patreon account. Also a Ko-fi, though literally no one has donated to that one yet. And, it’s true, I put more weight on suggestions from people who give me money. Of course I do! So when my newest subscriber mentioned a fondness for So Dear to My Heart, it seemed the least I could do to write about it. I even rented it from Amazon, on the sneaking suspicion that it was not one I’d wish I’d bought instead. I can now tell you that, if I had bought it, I would be loaning it to people prefaced with, “You will not believe this movie.”
It is 1903 in Pike County, Indiana (current population not quite 13,000). For reasons never explained, young Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll) lives alone with his grandmother (Beulah Bondi). One day, a train stops in their town so a prize racehorse can get some exercise. Jerry decides he wants his own prize horse, but that’s clearly not going to happen. However, one of the ewes gives birth to twin lambs and rejects one, as it’s black. Grandma’s all set to let it die, but Jerry decides he’ll just have a prize lamb instead of a prize horse. Then goings-on go on.
I’m bewildered by the theology of this movie. The grandmother is one of those hardcore “it’s God’s way” types, and it makes her give weird pronouncements. If the black lamb dies, it’s God’s will, for example. This despite the fact that even I know that bottle-feeding lambs is a relatively common occurrence in sheep-raising communities, if there isn’t another ewe to take care of a lamb. You can’t afford to just shrug your shoulders and let the lamb die; sheep are an investment, after all. It also seems to make her stern and frankly distant.
Oh, and have I mentioned the kid’s scrapbook? Because yeah, the kid’s got a scrapbook. Initially, it’s all about racehorses, but he rips it up and makes it about sheep instead, except there’s this kindly wise owl who appears on cards in it who, this being a Disney movie, comes to life and sings to him in the voice of Ken Carson of the Sons of the Pioneers. It gives him helpful advice like, um, suck it up and make do, because you’re stuck with what you’ve got. And I remember as a child being deeply irritated by a She-Ra episode that informed us the lesson of the day was “stick-to-it-ivity,” but I’d forgotten that the term appears in this movie first.
That latter is in a weirdly spiritual-feeling song about [checks] Columbus and Robert the Bruce. Including having the ships attacked by a sea serpent, as is chronicled in all the best history books, and having Robert the Bruce inspired by a spider in a kilt with a terrible accent that dances a jig. Oh, and then we get to see him attack a castle, with his archers shooting flaming arrows. You know, for kids!
Meanwhile, there is Burl Ives as kindly “Uncle Hiram,” who I’m pretty sure is one of those people called “uncle” by everyone, rather than an actual relative of the kid’s. He appears to be a local carpenter who befriends Jerry and fellow urchin Tildy (Luana Patten), who as far as I can tell doesn’t have any family whatsoever. Uncle Hiram actually seems to like Jerry more than his own grandmother does, but he’s also playing a, well, avuncular character who loves kids and wants to help people and so forth. He gets a song or two, because of course he does.
In order to raise the money to get to the fair, the kid sells sassafras to the local general store and goes in search of a bee tree through the finest fake Disney swamp, complete with animatronic birds. Because the grandmother refuses to allow anyone to help the kid get to the fair, because that would be accepting charity and not “hey, I’d like to take an apparently orphan child to the fair.” Then later, he goes off in a Disney storm because Tildy has accidentally let his lamb out of its pen, which has to be super sturdy because it’s a really destructive lamb.
In a nutshell, a lot of this movie is your bog-standard mid-century Heartwarming Rural Kids’ Picture. Except where it veers into what the TV show Trollhunters phrases as “crazy town banana pants.” My almost-six-year-old son liked it better than I did, I think. Either way, it’s kind of weird that it has a Best Original Song nomination for “Lavender Blue,” a song then nearly two hundred years old. Which lost to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” 1949 was weird.