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.