I grew up watching this film, and just assumed that it was as much a part of everyone else’s childhood as it was mine, just like any other Disney movie, or other animal movies like Lassie Come Home or National Velvet. Apparently that’s far from the case, as only one other person I knew at the festival had seen it (and she’s a certified Disney fanatic who went to great lengths to obtain a copy), and most people had never heard of it until it was in the festival program. It has never been released on DVD except as a bonus through the Disney Rewards Program. I’m pretty sure we bought it on VHS when I was a kid, but it’s possible we taped it off the Disney Channel or something. As the sole person in my group who had nostalgia for the film, I found myself trying not to oversell it, fearing that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. Thankfully, while it’s definitely fairly minor Disney, its charm and winsomeness remain intact through some admittedly cornball plot development.
Young boy Jeremiah Kincaid wants nothing more than to own a prize racehorse someday (this being rural Indiana in 1903, it’s harness racing he’s thinking of, not Thoroughbred racing)…until one of the farm’s sheep has a black lamb and refuses to accept him, and Jeremiah convinces his granny (his parents are unmentioned) to let him raise the outcast. Soon Jeremiah has big dreams for the troublemaking lamb Danny, hoping to take him to the state fair and win a blue ribbon. Lots of other little vignettes fill out the story, notably a treacherous trip into the swamp for Jeremiah and his cousin Tildy seeking out a bee tree, and an overnight search for the lost Danny in a frog-drowner of a rainstorm.
Jeremiah is played by Bobby Driscoll, an extremely promising young actor whose work the following year in suspense film The Window is not to be missed. He was also in Disney’s Song of the South, Treasure Island, and Peter Pan. Unfortunately, Driscoll’s story is a tragic one, as his career faltered in the late 1950s and he died penniless in 1968, barely 31, due to narcotics abuse. Those days seem blissfully far away watching him as Jeremiah, a boy who has plenty going on in his head, more than a lot of kids in movies did in the 1940s, but is ultimately good-hearted and grounded.
A few things struck me watching this time that didn’t necessarily as a kid. One is the strong religious content that comes through Granny. Played by the wonderful Beulah Bondi, Granny invokes the Lord’s name constantly, and basically gives Jeremiah a sermon when he’s angry and belligerent about her not letting him look for Danny in a monsoon. That’s the only time it really gets heavy-handed, though, and Granny feels very realistic to me; not far off from my own rural-living grandmothers who prayed hard and worked harder. She’s strict, but that persona falls away often enough to let her warm-heartedness shine through. The laid-back presence of Burl Ives doesn’t hurt the film’s dynamic, either.
The other thing is how free range these kids are. They’re probably like seven or eight, and I’m pretty sure Granny only sees them at mealtime, bedtime, and when they’re doing chores together. Other times, Jeremiah and often Tildy, who is younger, are just traipsing about the fields, the woods, even the swamps, and it’s no big deal. Of course, even my own childhood was much more independent than kids usually are today – I played all over my neighborhood when I was as young as Jeremiah – but it seems startling now.
The thing I remembered most from watching the film as a child were the animated segments. Disney had toyed with live action before: films like The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos were mostly animated with some integrated live action, and Song of the South framed its animated segments with a live action storyteller, while The Reluctant Dragon was largely a live action documentary with a separate animated short tagged at the end. So Dear to My Heart was really the first one that was mainly a live action narrative, and its success would lead directly to Disney’s great live-action family films of the ’50s and ’60s, but at this point, Disney wasn’t quite ready to put out a film with NO animation in it. So there are little sections of an animated Danny (and by extension, Jeremiah) being schooled by a wise Owl in how to do the best with what he’s got available, stick with what he’s started, etc. These are cued by Jeremiah’s scrapbook filled with turn of the century picture postcards, so they have a very quaint charm to them.
The thing that makes So Dear to My Heart work is that despite its folksiness and old-fashioned temperament, it has not a single ounce of irony. It’s completely earnest in how it treats all its characters and story, and that’s a surprisingly winning quality.