J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Johnny Tremain Rides Again

On Wednesday, 2 July, Old South Meeting House will screen the 1957 Disney movie version of Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain. Showtime is 6:00 to 7:30 P.M. Museum admission is the regular price, but the popcorn is free.

In my eyes, this movie epitomizes the phrase “Disney version.” Dr. Joseph Warren fixes Johnny’s hand halfway through (after what became the first hourlong episode on television) instead of at the end. I don’t recall the British deserter being shot. And I don’t want to give anything away in either the movie or the book, so let’s just say that no one we know dies at Lexington.

On the other hand, the movie starts with a wonderful matte painting of the Boston peninsula that gives a great sense of the town’s scale and isolation in the 1770s. Forbes created a great story with thorough research, and even Disney couldn’t wash that away. Though Johnny’s lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., is, sadly, not cross-eyed, the movie does offer a rare glimpse of William Molineux, looking like Spiro Agnew.

Other reviewers also seem ambivalent, noting the sheen of 1950s Disney patriotism while also recognizing its charms. Ultimate Disney offers a thorough summary of the movie and concludes:

Overall, Johnny Tremain is a noble and mostly enjoyable effort but one which demands your attention and sometimes struggles to retain it. With sharp dialogue and fine acting, the stately historical drama proceeds in an interesting and technically sound fashion. The film is even able to overcome one of its biggest drawbacks - namely, that it was clearly shot on a budget. This is evident in how much a film about taking action consists solely of talking...
Monster Hunter snapped:
Now, this Johnny Tremain movie was made by Walt Disney in 1957, which means that the acting by the youngsters on the cast...come across as Mouseketeers playing dress up and being more interested in maintaining these beaming smiles and spewing out their lines with glee than they were with showing anything remotely resembling an emotion that someone who lived in those turbulent times would have experienced. The result is a revolutionary war movie that has the vague feel of a theme park, with everyone in their bright new costumes and Boston looking like a super clean part of Disneyland (Patriotland or something) so that you would expect to go into Paul Revere’s shop and be able to get a funnel cake and/or stuffed Mickey Mouse.
Whatever happened to Hal Stalmaster, the teenager who played Johnny? He also had a role in Disney’s next Revolutionary War dramatization, The Swamp Fox. Dick Beymer, who played Rab, went on to star as Tony in West Side Story.

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