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Based on Esther Forbes’s 1943 children’s novel of the same name, Disney’s Johnny Tremain was theatrically released on June 19, 1957. The historical fiction drama is eighty minutes in length.
Johnny Tremain is divided into two approximately forty-minute segments during which a young man named Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) evolves from a politically apathetic apprentice silversmith into an eager participant in the American patriot cause following a severe hand injury. The film’s first half details the lead up to and the undertaking of the Boston Tea Party between July and December 1773, while the flick’s second half chronicles the events between late 1774 and early 1775 that facilitated the actual fighting of the American Revolution.
Real People and Events
Although Johnny Tremain is a work of historical fiction, the film includes many actual colonial figures, events, and measures. Among the highlighted leaders in the film are Massachusetts Sons of Liberty members James Otis (Jeff York), Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane), Paul Revere (Walter Sande), Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell), Dr. Joseph Warren (Walter Coy), and John Hancock; then-Boston bookseller and future Revolutionary War hero and United States Secretary of War Henry Knox; Lexington militia captain John Parker; and British Regular military officers General Thomas Gage (Ralph Clanton), Colonel Francis Smith (Gavin Gordon), and Major John Pitcairn (Geoffrey Toone). Warren and Pitcairn were both killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
Meanwhile, authentic events and measures encountered in the film include the Townshend Duties; the Tea Act of 1773; meetings of the Sons of Liberty; the Boston Tea Party; the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts; Paul Revere’s journey from Boston to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to warn the locals of a possible British mission to seize the powder stored in Fort William and Mary—this event occurred in December 1774 rather than in the spring of 1775 as depicted in the film, however (1); the dichotomy between the British Regulars and the Massachusetts militiamen; the midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes; and the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
In eighteenth century New England, liberty was, broadly speaking, both individualistic and collective in nature. Regarding collective liberty, each member of the community had a specific role to perform. The town elites were expected to lead, and other members of the community were expected to follow by performing their role or trade. (2) This paradigm is broadly demonstrated through James Otis’s speech in the film’s second half—some men would contribute to the Revolutionary cause by fighting; others would help by constructing the necessary equipment; and still others, most notably Samuel Adams, would contribute through service in Congress.
When production of Johnny Tremain commenced in September 1956, Walt Disney intended to first air the film’s two parts as separate episodes on his weekly “Disneyland” television series and thereafter release the two segments as a package to theaters. (3) Such had been the formula for the release of Disney’s famed David Crockett series—the five Davy Crockett episodes had debuted as distinct episodes on Disney’s ABC-TV program and were subsequently released to theaters as part of two package films, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). (4)
By late-October 1956, however, Disney decided to first release Johnny Tremain as a package to theaters and air the segments separately on television later. The first part of Johnny Tremain was aired on Disney’s television program, now renamed from “Disneyland” to “Walt Disney Presents,” on November 21, 1958, and the second part was broadcast on November 28, 1958. (5)
Johnny Tremain was the only Disney film to feature Walt Disney’s daughter Sharon, who portrayed the title character’s friend Dorcus. (6)
Though most of the music in Johnny Tremain comes in the form of eclectic background tunes, the flick incorporates one great lyrical number, “The Liberty Tree.” This memorable ballad, composed by George Bruns, who was named a Disney Legend in 2001, is first sung immediately following the Boston Tea Party scene and is briefly reprised at the end of the film. The song is not quite as catchy as Bruns’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” but it is catchy enough.
Concurrent with the release of Johnny Tremain, Walt Disney planned to bring the spirit of the film to Disneyland with “Liberty Street” and “Liberty Square,” the former a cobblestone side street off Main Street U.S.A and the latter a small land at the end of Liberty Street. Liberty Street was intended to incorporate replicas of Revolutionary War-era buildings from each of the thirteen former American colonies as well as various trade shops with artisans performing their respective crafts. Liberty Square, meanwhile, was projected to include a replica of the Capitol Building and a pair of elaborate shows, one about the Declaration of Independence and the other about the United States presidents.
Seeing that his Imagineers had not perfected the technology needed to bring the historical figures to life, Walt Disney decided to spend his immediate funds on the Matterhorn Bobsleds roller coaster. For their part, the Imagineers soon developed an Abraham Lincoln animatronic, which thrilled guests at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was subsequently implemented on Main Street U.S.A. in the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show, which continues to delight Disneyland guests to this day. More elaborately, a Liberty Square, with a Hall of Presidents show, was included by the Imagineers in Florida’s Magic Kingdom and debuted with the park on October 1, 1971. (7)
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Johnny Tremain was the first of nineteen Disney films directed by Robert Stevenson, who was named a Disney Legend in 2002. Stevenson subsequently directed Old Yeller (1957), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Kidnapped (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), That Darn Cat! (1965), The Gnome-Mobile (1967), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), The Love Bug (1968), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Herbie Rides Again (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976) for Disney.
Other contemporary Disney films based on American history included Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956), and The Light in the Forest (1957). Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier details the life of Davy Crockett between the War of 1812 and the Alamo, The Great Locomotive Chase relays real events of the United States Civil War, Westward Ho the Wagons! explores Western settlement in the antebellum period, and The Light in the Forest deals with life among settlers and Native Americans in the backcountry prior to the American Revolution.
Jeff York, who played James Otis in Johnny Tremain, previously appeared in The Great Locomotive Chase, Westward Ho, the Wagons!, and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates for Disney; and he subsequently appeared in Old Yeller and Savage Sam (1963) for the studio.
Other Disney package films, which featured multiple segments based around a common topic, included Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1945), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, The Monkey’s Uncle, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977).
The great patriot Benjamin Franklin is highlighted in Disney’s 1953 short “Ben and Me.”
In the Parks
Walt Disney World’s Liberty Square includes a replica of the Liberty Tree seen in Johnny Tremain. An adjacent full service restaurant, “Liberty Tree Tavern,” serves lunch and dinner in a colonial American setting.
Liberty Square includes two outdoor Muppet shows, both of which are called “The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History.” One show is based on the Declaration of Independence; the other show is based on the famed midnight ride of Paul Revere.
At Walt Disney World, in addition to Liberty Square’s Hall of Presidents, an elaborate American history-based show, “The American Adventure,” is featured at Epcot.
Concurrently entertaining and educational, Johnny Tremain is a great film for the whole family. As one reviewer noted in 1957, “The picture stands as an excellent introduction to the Revolutionary War for young eyes and minds.” (8)
1) Fischer, D. H. (1994). Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press; pp. 52-56.
2) Ibid.; p. 28; Adams, H. (Ed.). (1877). Documents relating to New-England Federalism. 1800-1815. New York: Burt Franklin; pp. 338-64.
8) T., H. H. (1957, July 11). Johnny Tremain’ at Neighborhood Houses. New York Times, p. 21. Retrieved August 1, 2017, from https://libproxy-cc-stonybrook-edu.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/docview/114091031?accountid=14172.
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I'm a huge fan of the various Disney theme parks and movies. I've made several trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland with my family.
Additionally, I'm interested in sports and American history.