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January 19

January 19, 1949 – So Dear to My Heart is Released to Theaters.

“The greatest wealth a man may acquire is the wisdom he gains from living.”

A film brimming with nostalgia and turn-of-the-century charm, So Dear to My Heart was released to theaters on January 19, 1949, by RKO Radio Pictures. Based on the book Midnight and Jeremiah, by Sterling North, the film is about a boy named Jeremiah Kincaid, who trades his dreams of raising a prize-winning horse for the goal of raising a black lamb named Danny to be a champion at the county fair. The film was directed by Harold Schuster, with screenplay by John Tucker Battle. The cast includes Bobby Driscoll as Jeremiah Kincaid, Beulah Bondi as Granny Kincaid, Burl Ives as Uncle Hiram, and Luana Patton as Tildy, with John Beal providing the narration as the older Jeremiah.

The story opens in an attic, where the audience is taken inside an old scrapbook, observing the seasons and essentially going back in time to an old farm in 1903. The community, especially Jeremiah, is excited that the train stopping in their town contains the famous racehorse, Dan Patch. Jeremiah dreams of raising a horse just like Dan Patch, and he tries to convince Granny to trade their old mule for a mare, for “If we had a mare, we could get a colt,” Jeremiah argues. However, he changes his mind when he helps Granny take care of the new lambs in the barn. Twin lambs had been born: one black, and one white. When the mother shuns the black lamb, Jeremiah wants to adopt it, to which Granny tries to convince him otherwise but she finally agrees to let him keep it when she sees the affection Jeremiah has for the creature.

One of the examples of how much Jeremiah cares for Danny.

The lamb, now called Danny (after Dan Patch), causes nothing but headaches for Granny, breaking screen doors and rocking chairs, and Jeremiah is so consumed with taking care of Danny that he neglects his chores. Fortunately, Jeremiah has a strong ally in his Uncle Hiram, who tries to convince Granny to let Danny compete for the blue ribbon at the county fair. Uncle Hiram’s isn’t able to convince her, however, so Jeremiah plans to raise the money to pay for travel to the fair on his own by finding a bee’s hive and selling wild honey. Jeremiah and his friend, Tildy, find the hive and with Uncle Hiram’s help, bring back two tubs full of wild honey.

Burl Ives (L) as Uncle Hiram, Bobby Driscoll (C) as Jeremiah Kincaid, and Luana Patten (R) as Tildy.

Just as things are looking up for Jeremiah, he arrives home to find that Tildy accidentally let Danny escape into the woods and is unable to find him. Jeremiah runs out looking for him during a dangerous thunderstorm, but is dragged home by Granny. As Jeremiah sulks in bed, Granny begins to lecture Jeremiah on how he no longer loves the lamb, but the material things the lamb could provide: money and blue ribbons. Granny adds that God may not provide Danny mercy throughout the night, telling him that “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” The next morning, Jeremiah leaves at daybreak, and finds Danny, who had curled up in a log to survive the night. After he returns to the farm with Danny, he tells Tildy that they aren’t going to the fair, causing her to cry. When Granny questions him, he sheepishly tells her that he made a promise to God that if He would keep Danny safe through the storm, he wouldn’t go to the fair. Granny, touched by this turnaround in Jeremiah’s attitude, declares that she prayed that if God kept Danny safe, they would go to the fair, and since she’s known God longer, He wouldn’t mind if they go. And so the family heads off to the fair, with Danny groomed and looking impeccable, with Jeremiah certain that Danny will win the prize. The ending of the film is one of the most charming endings in Disney’s live-action film history.

The film itself is a mixture of live-action and animation, with the animation providing bookends to live-action segments rather than being interwoven in the film. The animation sections are interesting segments in themselves; a character named the Wise Old Owl, who provides some spirited advice, gives lessons of perseverance through the biblical stories of David and Goliath, and the walls of Jericho, as well as the historical stories of Christopher Columbus and Robert the Bruce. Although the animated sequences may seem a bit intrusive to the overall film, Walt Disney once explained that he “saw the cartoon characters as figments of a small boy’s imagination, and I think they were justified.”

One of the animated scrapbook segments from the film, acting more as Jeremiah's imagination than reality.

The music for the film doesn’t stand out as it would in a true movie musical, but it establishes the time period in which the film is set. Uncle Hiram, played by Burl Ives, provides many amusing ad-libbed songs. The opening song, “So Dear to My Heart,” was written by Ticker Freeman and Irving Taylor; “County Fair” was written by Robert Wells and Mel Torme; “It’s Watcha Do with Whatcha Got” was written by Don Raye and Gene DePaul. “Ol’ Dan Patch,” “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly),” and “Stick-to-it-ivity” were written by Eliot Daniel and Larry Morey. The song “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly),” based on an old English folk song, was nominated for the Academy Award for song in 1949, but lost out to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from Neptune’s Daughter.

Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were under contract with Disney, having already done the film Song of the South for the company. Driscoll himself received many positive reviews for his performance, and was awarded a special Academy Award as the “Outstanding Juvenile Actor of 1949” for his work in this film, and the non-Disney film The Window.

Luana Patten (L) and Bobby Driscoll. They were the first two contract players for the Walt Disney Studios; this was their second film together.

An interesting fact about this film concerns animator Ward Kimball: an avid railroad enthusiast, he was given the train station used on set and installed it at his Southern California home, where he would surprise the neighbors by driving around in his full-size train.

Overall, the film is a gem in the Disney library, and one that should not be missed. Because of uncertain marketing in 1948, the film didn’t make a huge profit, but it received highly positive reviews, and still shines with the well-known Disney charm.

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