Extended Thoughts on ‘So Dear to My Heart’
So Dear to My Heart
Directed by Harold D. Schuster and Hamilton Luske
Written by John Tucker Battle
Nostalgia fuels the Walt Disney brand. No one can deny this, and when the various movies, TV shows, CDs, toys, and attractions under the Disney umbrella work, it’s not a bad thing. Nostalgia is why I go to the Disney theme parks at least once a year. Nostalgia seeps out of every orifice, every pore, every rock, and every tree of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Nostalgia is why the company is able to sell products of every kind to people who passed their literal childhoods long ago. As I’ve said before and will say again, the best that Disney has to offer is awakening our inner child.
But nostalgia is a precarious, often dangerous thing to utilize in entertainment. Our memories of watching various movies, for instance, is steeped in nostalgia. When, a week ago, news broke that Nike was selling a limited number of sneakers meant to look like those seen in the 2015 sequence of Back to the Future, Part II on eBay to help out Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s foundation, it wasn’t just news because Nike was doing a good deed for charity. It was news because we all fondly thought back to that movie, its cheerful notions of what the year 2015 would look like, and our experiences in watching the film. Think of any number of movies from the 1980s that were aimed at teenagers or twentysomethings, and you’ll likely find a lot of nostalgia within. From The Goonies to Return of the Jedi to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, nostalgia dominates our memories of movies from our childhood.
And the problem is that the nostalgia makes us look past the actual movies. I mentioned this a while back when discussing 1991’s The Rocketeer, which was a movie I greatly enjoyed as a child. I hadn’t watched the film in years—probably close to or more than 15—and while I got a huge kick out of it even as an adult, I wondered: do I actually think this is a good movie, or am I just enjoying the fact that the movie isn’t ripping my memories to pieces? I still think the movie’s pretty damn good, but I did at least remain conscious of the idea that nostalgia for something doesn’t always mean that thing was good to begin with.
So it’s interesting to consider So Dear To My Heart, a 1949 film from Walt Disney, the man, as it’s drowning in nostalgia from the moment the opening credits roll. Let’s dispense the plot of the movie instantly, as it’s so minor, I was nearly offended. Jeremiah is a little boy living in a small town in Indiana in 1903. One day, one of the lambs on the farm his grandma and uncle help run give birth to a few babies, including one that’s completely black and is shunned by its mother. Jeremiah takes the lamb as his own and tries to raise it to compete in a county fair. Will Jeremiah’s grandmother let him go to the county fair? If so, will his new pet, Danny, win?
The phrase low-stakes came to mind frequently during this 82-minute movie, which was originally meant to be the first fully live-action film from Walt Disney. Though So Dear To My Heart ended up having some animation sequences, I think Disney made the right decision to go a little bigger with the movie that wound up being the first of its kind from the company, 1950’s Treasure Island. Even if the latter movie isn’t one of the great Disney movies—or isn’t thought of in that way by most people—I imagine it’s a far better movie than what we have in So Dear To My Heart, which is just strange, baffling, and dull all around. I have no problem with greeting-card sentimentality, as long as it stays in greeting cards, not in feature films.
Jeremiah is played by Bobby Driscoll, who was the first kid actor to get a big boost in his career by working with Walt Disney. He was one of the children in 1946’s controversial Song of the South, and would go on to appear in Treasure Island and provide the voice of the title character in Peter Pan. Not a bad run for a kid who would only live to age 31, dying in New York of heart failure due to drug abuse. Driscoll isn’t particularly memorable here, but along with his work in a more dramatic film in 1949, he was awarded the juvenile Academy Award. I found some of his work with Burl Ives, as his uncle, and Beulah Bondi, as his grandmother, stilted, but he’s no worse or better than most of the children who appeared in Disney live-action or hybrid movies throughout the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.
Bondi and Ives are pretty much the only saving grace here, and that’s not saying much. Bondi does her very best to give her character some weight and gravity. Though the religious mentions caught me off guard—Walt Disney may have inspired many people, such as myself, to revere his work in a similarly fervent manner as some people react to religious texts but rarely invoked overtly religious references—I thought that Bondi did a fine job in a mostly thankless role as the antagonist in a movie that doesn’t require one. One late monologue she delivers has very hamhanded dialogue, but the dedication she has is impressive. Bondi, who I almost didn’t recognize from her superlative work in the 1937 melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow, isn’t nearly as incredible here, but she is quite good.
The real problem with So Dear to My Heart is that it has no internal logic, or the directors—Harold Schuster does the live-action work and Hamilton Luske did the animation work—don’t care to deal with it. Being fair, I shouldn’t include Luske here, as the animated sequences are so laughably shoehorned in. It’s no surprise to learn that Walt Disney added the sequences in because he feared, or was told by others in the company, that no one would see a movie from the company if there weren’t animated characters. They could’ve been right. Certainly, I can’t imagine this movie doing too well with audiences without the animation. Let’s not forget: the movie didn’t do that well WITH animation, so I can only imagine what legacy the film would’ve left behind as just a straight live-action movie that’s 65 minutes long.
But the internal logic is the main culprit here. The best example is Tildy, the fourth character in the movie. We have Jeremiah, Grandma, Uncle Hiram, and then there’s Tildy. Who is Tildy? Well, she’s a girl in town that Jeremiah plays with. Or, she’s Jeremiah’s sister. Or, she’s Jeremiah’s cousin. Or, she’s…you can see the problem. Unless I managed to miss a bit of exposition—or detail from any of the plot summaries I hunted down—I have no idea who Tildy is and what her relationship is to the rest of the characters. I could, frankly, argue about the way the other three characters are presented. Why not have Uncle Hiram be Hiram, Jeremiah’s dad? Why is Jeremiah being raised by his grandma? I’ve literally had to check and recheck plot summaries online to make sure I’m not the crazy one: Tildy’s relationship is never explained. I guess she’s Jeremiah’s friend. But I don’t know. And I don’t know what happened to Jeremiah’s parents.
Internal logic is a thorny problem, and here’s why. Sometimes, directors and writers don’t care to answer certain questions of a movie’s logic. It just happens that the audience shouldn’t know the answer to a question, or the director doesn’t have an answer. Here’s the thing: I can be fine with a lack of internal logic if you’re presenting me with an otherwise entertaining product. So Dear to My Heart is not that product. This is a movie that suffocates the audience in nostalgia for something that, at the time, did not exist. As a Disney theme park nut, I can understand the attraction to watch this movie. In some ways, looking at the setting of this movie is to look at preliminary plans for Main Street, U.S.A. On that level, the movie is something of a curio. Otherwise, we are left with a lifeless, lackluster lark. (Cheesy or not, that alliteration was more fun for me to write—and for you to read—than watching this movie.)
– Josh Spiegel