Based on MacKinlay Kantor’s 1954 novel God and My Country, Disney’s Follow Me, Boys! was theatrically released on December 1, 1966. The live action drama is 131 minutes in length. The film was the studio’s final release prior to Walt Disney’s death on December 15, 1966.
In 1930, a middle-aged man named Lemuel Siddons (Fred MacMurray) travels aimlessly across the country with his band. Although Lemuel enjoys playing the saxophone, he believes that he should settle down and commence a more orderly life. Out of the blue, the musician gets his wish. En route to Chicago, the band’s bus endures a broken taillight and stops in the small town of Hickory. There, Lemuel abruptly quits the band, finds a job at the general store owned by the kindly John Everett Hughes (Charles Ruggles), and makes his mark at his first Civic Club meeting, contributing the fateful suggestion to improve the habits of the town’s unruly boys by starting a Boy Scout troop; nobody else coming forward, Lemuel volunteers to serve as scoutmaster, and before long, he becomes a hero to the boys. He also finds a bride in a beautiful young woman named Vida Downey (Vera Miles). The scout leader faces only two problems with his life. First, the local banker, Ralph Hastings (Elliott Reid), is a continual nuisance with his arrogant persona. Secondly, a young boy, Whitey (Kurt Russell), with an alcoholic father (Sean McClory) engages in troubling behavior towards both the troop and the community generally. Lemuel cannot do much about the first problem, but he believes he can solve the latter conundrum. Lemuel sees his own troubled past in Whitey and works to turn the boy’s life around. Will Lemuel succeed in this endeavor?
The film’s second half jumps forward several times, first by about fourteen years, to the heart of World War II; then to 1945 and the end of the war; and, finally, to 1950. These scenes feel somewhat disjointed, like separate installments of a television series—similar to the various portions of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956), which were first aired separately as five episodes on Walt Disney’s weekly NBC-TV program, “Disneyland,” before being amalgamated into two films—and, thus, do not flow as well as the scenes of the film’s first half. Nonetheless, the action is exciting, and the ending is fulfilling, showing the positive influence exerted by Lemuel on multiple generations of boys.
Follow Me, Boys! highlights the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that had great meaning for Walt Disney. Disney was a Boy Scout as a child, and he was awarded the organization’s highest adult honor, the Silver Buffalo Award, in 1946 for his contributions to “the joy of youth and to their appreciation of wholesome humor and the elevation of their standards of good taste.” (1) As the Boy Scouts seek to cultivate good citizens, so did Disney, especially through his history-based films, such as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and Johnny Tremain (1957).
Disney’s Silver Buffalo Award can be viewed by guests at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. (2)
Ending and Beginning: Walt Disney and Kurt Russell
Follow Me, Boys! was the first of, as of 2018, fifteen Disney films to feature Kurt Russell, who was named a Disney Legend in 1998. Russell subsequently contributed to The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), Charley and the Angel (1973), Superdad (1973), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Captain Ron (1992), Tombstone (1993), Miracle (2004), Sky High (2005), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) for the studio.
In his final days, Walt Disney had the young actor on his mind. Disney included Russell’s name among other ideas for upcoming projects on a notepad in his office; according to Disney Chief Archivist Emeritus Dave Smith, these notes were “certainly among the last things he [Walt Disney] wrote in his office.” (3) During filming for Now You See Him, Now You Don’t several years later, Smith took Russell to Disney’s office to show him the note. (4)
The Boy Scouts seek to teach youth how to deal with the ups and downs of life, fluctuations that reach extreme proportions in Follow Me, Boys! A twenty or so minute portion of the film dealing with the demise of Whitey’s father is among the saddest segments of any Disney movie, ranking with comparable portions of Old Yeller (1957), Up (2009), and Coco (2017). His despair notwithstanding, Whitey, with the help of the troop, manages to rebound and adequately cope with a horrible situation.
Moving to a larger point, the film shows that nobody is infallible; everyone makes mistakes, even Lemuel. The key is whether one can learn from his or her mistakes.
A catchy marching tune for Lemuel’s troop, “Follow Me, Boys,” is performed both vocally and instrumentally throughout the film. This song was the work of the classic Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, both of whom were named Disney Legends in 1990. The Sherman Brothers wrote music for numerous other Disney films, including The Parent Trap (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Summer Magic (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), The Gnome-Mobile (1967), The Jungle Book (1967), The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, and The Aristocats (1970).
Jazz music is featured early in the film as Lemuel travels with his band. Additionally, background music complements action throughout the flick. For example, a sad tune appropriately accompanies the scene when the scouts depart Whitey’s yard, foreshadowing the tragic events that follow.
Although Follow Me, Boys! is not a comedy, the film has its share of funny moments.
Lemuel calls Vida on the telephone while they are working in buildings directly across the street from each other. Hey, Vida; I can see you through the window!
Wanting to convince Vida to go on a date, Lemuel discusses the “exciting” agenda for the Civic Club meeting on Friday night. It may just be me, but I don’t think an examination of the town’s sewer problem sounds very exciting.
Ralph Hastings’s aunt, Hetty Seibert (Lillian Gish), forgets her daily itinerary and the subject discussed by the last speaker at the Civic Club meeting, but she can skillfully dissect specific aspects of tax law before a court.
The boys have much to learn about Boy Scout protocol and so does Lemuel, who reads the manual aloud while marching with his troop.
Before the troop decides to use “Follow Me, Boys!” as its marching song, the boys contribute other suggestions, including “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “The Dying Cowboy.”
The scouts’ effort to earn their cooking badge runs into some problems when what should have resulted in eight rolls of bread results in a lump of charcoal.
The scouts also struggle to play instruments. Their effort to perform a wedding song for Lemuel and Vida sounds like a cow in agony.
The judge (Willis Bouchey) for Hetty’s hearing against her nephew over a land title offers a string of witty remarks.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Follow Me, Boys! was the fifth of seven Disney films to star Fred MacMurray, who was named the Disney Company’s first Disney Legend in 1987. MacMurray had previously appeared in The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage! (1962), and Son of Flubber (1963) for Disney, and he subsequently starred in The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and Charley and the Angel for the studio.
Follow Me, Boys! was the last of four Disney films to feature Charles Ruggles. Ruggles had previously appeared in The Parent Trap, Son of Flubber, and The Ugly Dachshund (1966) for the studio.
Scouting is also featured in Pixar’s Up.
In the Parks
Guests can earn badges by completing stages of a scavenger hunt in the Animal Kingdom’s interactive “Wilderness Explorers” attraction, based on Up.
Although the film is on the long side and the second half is somewhat disjointed, Follow Me, Boys! is a great overall effort. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will hear some catchy music. Furthermore, Kurt Russell and Fred MacMurray give outstanding performances. MacMurray’s interplay with Russell here is more serious than his interactions with other young actors, most notably Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, in previous films, and the result is satisfying.
1) Bryan Wendell, “Walt Disney was a Boy Scout and received Scouting’s highest honor for adults,” Bryan on Scouting: A Blog for the BSA’s Adult Leaders, December 5, 2017, accessed March 5, 2018, https://blog.scoutingmagazine.org/2017/12/05/walt-disney-was-a-boy-scout-and-received-scoutings-highest-honor-for-adults/.
3) Dave Smith, Disney Trivia from the Vault: Secrets Revealed and Questions Answered (New York: Disney Editions, 2012), 251.
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