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So Dear to My Heart

So Dear to My Heart(1949)

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teaser So Dear to My Heart (1949)

Although rarely seen, Walt Disney's part-live action, part-animated films from the 1940s provide a fascinating window on the legendary producer's life and his visions of the American dream. That's particularly true of this follow up to his 1947 hit Song of the South. Disney saw this adaptation of Sterling North's children's novel as a tribute to his own childhood in rural Missouri.

At the turn of the century, young Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll), an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Beulah Bondi), dreams of owning a black lamb. He finds and raises one who has been rejected by its mother, but as his pet, Danny, grows, it wreaks havoc on the family farm and the neighboring small town. Encouraged by his uncle (Burl Ives), Jeremiah tries to raise the money to enter Danny in the county fair, hoping a victory will convince his grandmother to let him keep his pet.

Disney picked up the rights to North's novel shortly after it appeared in 1943 and started working on the screenplay in 1945. Early on he imbued the film with memories of his own childhood. Although the lamb was named Midnight in the book, he renamed him Danny in tribute to his childhood fascination with the racing horse Dan Patch and even had Jeremiah share that infatuation. The barn on Granny Kincaid's farm was modeled on memories of the barn where Disney played as a child.

Originally Disney envisioned So Dear to My Heart without animation. Salesmen at RKO, which had an exclusive contract to release his feature films, argued that it would be a hard sell, and audiences who had come to associate the Disney name with animation would be disappointed were there none in the film. Further, Disney's contract with RKO stipulated that all of his films had to be at least partly animated. By 1946, scripts for the film began to include sections that would be animated later. The idea was to animate the figures in Jeremiah's scrapbook and have them teach him basic moral lessons about how to get along in life. Ultimately, those animated sequences would amount to about 12 minutes, only 15 per cent of the film's running time.

Working with live action posed another problem. Disney's Burbank Studio was primarily dedicated to animation work. He had no sound stages and little actual back lot space. Not only did the crew have to shoot exteriors on location, but they built some of the interior sets there as well. The production crew found an ideal spot in the San Joaquin Valley, about 250 miles North of Los Angeles. As shooting dragged on through the summer, however, a dry spell hit, requiring the crew to stay up all night watering the locations so they would be consistently lush and green throughout the picture.

The animated sequences were directed by Disney veteran Hamilton Luske, who had directed Pinocchio (1940) and early Disney films mixing animation and live action like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos (both 1942). Disney and his family were very fond of 20th Century-Fox's 1943 film My Friend Flicka, so he borrowed that film's director, Harold D. Schuster, from Fox to direct the live-action footage. Schuster chose Bondi to play the grandmother and Harry Carey, Sr. to play the judge at the county fair. Carey would die after shooting his scenes, not living long enough to see the film's release.

The children in the film, Driscoll and Luana Patten, had appeared together in Song of the South, for which they had been the first actors ever signed to a long-term contract with Disney's studio. The big find of the film, however, was Burl Ives. An actor-singer who specialized in collecting American folk songs, Ives was already well known for radio and concert appearances, often referred to as "America's favorite Balladeer." He had started appearing in films in 1946, but had yet to score a major hit. He would have his first hit record with the film's "Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)." Although an adaptation of an English folk song and nursery rhyme, the work was considered original enough to win songwriters Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey an Oscar® nomination for Best Song.

That wasn't enough to make the film a box-office winner, however. Although it didn't lose money, mixed reviews and lower-than-usual box office led Disney to return to full-length animation with Cinderella (1950). The film maintained a strong hold on Disney's imagination nonetheless. At the time, he thought to create a traveling attraction called Disneylandia that would tour the country on railroad cars. The traveling show would consist of miniature exhibits depicting U.S. history and culture. The farmhouse in So Dear to My Heart provided the first exhibit, which Disney built himself from the original designs used in the film. Realizing that the audience for his Disneylandia idea would be limited, he expanded his scope, eventually turning it into Disneyland. The railroad station in that attraction's Frontierland is modeled on the train station from So Dear to My Heart, while the farmhouse model can now be seen in the Disney Studios in Orlando.

Director: Harold D. Schuster, Hamilton Luke
Producer: Walt Disney
Screenplay: John Tucker Battle, Maurice Rapf, Ted Sears, Sterling North, Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, Bill Peet
Based on the novel Midnight and Jeremiah by Sterling North
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Score: Paul J. Smith
Cast: Burl Ives (Uncle Hiram Douglas), Beulah Bondi (Granny Kincaid), Bobby Driscoll (Jeremiah 'Jerry' Kincaid), Luana Patten (Tildy), Harry Carey (Head Judge at County Fair), Raymond Bond (Pete Grundy, Storekeeper), John Beal (Jeremiah as an Adult, Narrator).

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