Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tonight's Movie: So Dear to My Heart (1948)

SO DEAR TO MY HEART is a relatively little-known Disney film, but it's a real charmer, an evocative slice of Americana set in the rural Midwest of 1903.

Jerry (Bobby Driscoll) lives a fairly Spartan existence with his stern but soft-hearted grandmother (Beulah Bondi) on a small farm. Granny and Jerry have little in the way of "extras," but Jerry has a happy life nonetheless, where he enjoys the wonder of something as simple as feeding an apple to the Great Dan Patch when a train carrying the famous racehorse makes a rest stop in his tiny town.

Jerry falls in love with a black lamb rejected by its mother and raises him. The lamb, called Danny, manages to get into a fair amount of trouble, but Jerry loves him so much that Granny can't bring herself to get rid of the lamb. Eventually Jerry hatches a plan with Uncle Hiram Douglas (Burl Ives) and his friend Tildy (Luana Patten) to enter Danny at the Pike County Fair.

Harry Carey Sr., in his final film, plays the judge at the fair; he passed away in September 1947. It's a small but effective role. The voice of John Beal, as the adult Jerry, narrates the film.

This is a simple story, yet it's filled with evocative and memorable moments, whether it's the children running carefree through a field, Uncle Hiram singing "Lavender Blue," or Granny finding Jerry asleep in the barn with his arm cast protectively over Danny. The cast is never anything less than note-perfect. The children's delight when Granny and Uncle Hiram sing "Billy Boy" seems quite genuine, providing another delightful moment.

Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten had appeared two years previously in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946), and like SONG OF THE SOUTH, SO DEAR TO MY HEART is a blend of live action and animation. Jerry keeps scrapbooks filled with colorful advertisements and postcards which come to life as animated cartoons, entertaining and encouraging him. The vintage "look" and seasons depicted in some of the animation sequences call to mind MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), set in the same time period.

Driscoll was a superb, natural child actor with a very expressive face. Driscoll also gave a remarkably fine performance in a film released just after SO DEAR TO MY HEART, THE WINDOW (1949). He would also star in Disney's TREASURE ISLAND (1950) and provide the voice of the title character in PETER PAN (1953). His early death in 1968, at the age of 31, was a sad postscript to a bright early career.

Luana Patten, of Long Beach, California, appeared in several Disney films. In addition to SONG OF THE SOUTH and SO DEAR TO MY HEART, she was in FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947) and MELODY TIME (1948). Nearly a decade after SO DEAR TO MY HEART, Patten appeared as Cilla in Disney's JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957).

This was Burl Ives' fourth film; the first was SMOKY (1946), followed by GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING (1948) and STATION WEST (1948). Ives was a natural on the screen and adds a lot to the film as a supportive adult in young Jerry's life.

"Lavender Blue," sung by Ives' character to Granny and the children, was nominated for an Oscar as Best Song. Another of the film's songs, "County Fair," was cowritten by Mel Torme. Several of the songs were performed by Ken Carson of the Sons of the Pioneers. Carson is backed by The Rhythmaires, who also sang in Disney's THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW (1949) and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (1949). Ken Darby served as the film's vocal director.

Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch had won an Oscar for his film released just before SO DEAR TO MY HEART, JOAN OF ARC (1948), and he would win again for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949) and THE QUIET MAN (1952). He shot SO DEAR TO MY HEART in Technicolor near Porterville, California.

This weekend at Destination D we heard that a building from the film ended up as a "shed" in animator-Imagineer Ward Kimball's backyard. Google led to some pictures of the film's small train depot. Today the building is owned by Pixar's John Lasseter.

A 2011 Disneyland exhibit of Mary Blair art featured a proposed design she created for the film's opening credits, seen in the photograph at the left. However, the credits ended up being against the backdrop of a quilt (seen above). Blair worked on the cartoon sequences along with many other Disney animation greats, including Les Clark, John Hench, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, and several others. The animated sequences include a darling black lamb and a Scottish spider who dances a memorable multi-legged Highland jig.

The movie was directed by Harold Schuster and Hamilton Luske. The screenplay by John Tucker Battle was based on the book MIDNIGHT AND JEREMIAH by Sterling North (RASCAL).

SO DEAR TO MY HEART is available on DVD in a Disney Movie Club edition which can be obtained as a premium from the Disney Movie Rewards Club or purchased via Amazon vendors. It was also released in a Gold Collection DVD in 2002, which is now out of print.

The film had a 1995 release on VHS, and it can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.


2015 Update: I had a wonderful experience seeing this film in 35mm at the TCM Classic Film Festival, introduced by Leonard Maltin.


Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

What a coincidence—we just watched this last night! It was one of my favorite movies when I was little, and my youngest sister likes it now. The last few couple of times I've seen it I've really come to appreciate what a wonderful movie it is. One thing that I love about it is the period atmosphere in the costumes, sets, etc.—it's a very believable 1903.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

My son Gavin and I think of "So Dear to My Heart" as "our" movie. I know he is feeling affectionate when the tape goes in the machine.

In catching variety shows from the 50s I have seen Mel Torme perform "County Fair" with Jo Stafford and on "The Rosemary Clooney" Show where the whole episode was built around a carnival. It wouldn't surprise me to find more out there.

The lessons in the movie are timeless.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's quite a coincidence you watched it the same evening, Elisabeth! So glad you and Caftan Woman both know it well.

That's great info about the "County Fair" song, Caftan Woman! I'm going to have to check YouTube and iTunes for that one.

Best wishes,

11:36 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Speaking of the music, do you happen to know who the vocalist was who sang "So Dear to My Heart" at the beginning? Was it actually narrator John Beal, or someone else?

3:01 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

This is a movie that really is So Dear to My Heart. It was the first movie I ever saw. I still remember that experience. I loved that movie then and still do. I guess "Lavender Blue" will always be one of my favorite songs, though as usual with Disney, all the music was good.

Didn't know it was on DVD and I want it in my library, so thanks for writing this and so letting me know it is there. I have seen the tape but not in awhile.

It seems fair to point out that Luana Patten had some good older roles as a teenager/young woman, most memorably in HOME FROM THE HILL, directed by Vincente Minnelli but also JOE DAKOTA; ROCK, PRETTY BABY; THE RESTLESS YEARS.

Now if only Disney would set free earlier Driscoll/Patten gem SONG OF THE SOUTH!

11:52 PM  

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