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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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Another Side of Johnny Tremain

So did you all attend the screening of Disney’s Johnny Tremain at the Old South Meeting House last night? If so, you’re now ready to discuss Jeffrey Dennis’s article The Light in the Forest Is Love: Cold War Masculinity and the Disney Adventure Boys,”, published in the Journal of American Popular Culture in spring 2004.

As in his discussions of nearly every other Disney live-action movie of the era, Dennis detects a homoerotic component to Johnny’s relationship with Rab:

Johnny, a Revolutionary War-era silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident (but cured after twenty minutes), was portrayed by a seventeen-year-old newcomer named Hal Stalmaster, with an angelic face, pleasantly swarthy skin, and eyes so bright they seemed to glow. Again, the homoromance of earlier adventure boys is maintained as Johnny and tall, teen-idol sultry Rab (twenty-year-old Richard Beymer) can’t take their eyes off each other. They spend practically every scene together, taming a horse named Goblin, working for the Sons of Liberty, and standing together at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Dennis’s interpretation makes sense for The Shaggy Dog, in which Tommy Kirk (eventually fired by Disney for being gay) tries to hide an embarrassing biological condition from his dad. But I’m far from convinced that it applies to Johnny Tremain.

Of course, American popular culture of the time suppressed such feelings—so strongly that they could often pop out in plain sight. I believe that Johnny Tremain is the most widely read American children’s novel that begins with three boys waking up in bed together. Those are Johnny and his fellow apprentices, whom he looks down on. Notably, after Johnny meets Rab and develops a bit of a boy crush—the first time he’s found an older-brother-figure he admires and loves—Esther Forbes makes clear that the two teenagers sleep in separate beds.

1 comment:

Larry Cebula said...

Years ago I saw a lecture about 19th century minstrels by a young, hip professor. "We will proceed from the truism that all white men in this country feel strong, sublimated homosexual desire for black men," he announced, then proceeded to do just that. Huh?

Wish I could remember his name.

Of course sometime this line of analysis is quite correct--as in the heartbreaking romance between Maverick and Goose in the film Top Gun, or the movie 300, or the life of Meriwether Lewis. Other times it is more of a Rorschach test.