As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s my appreciation of American history as an engaging, electric, and interconnected tapestry was forged by two men of great imagination whose own narratives couldn’t have been more strikingly dissimilar, yet were suffused with common cultural and geographic ground: Lynd Kendall Ward and Walter Elias Disney.
In the year that civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in segregated Mississippi and Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the walls of my elementary school in Parkersburg, West Virginia, were lined with poster-size reproductions of the dust jackets from the award-winning childrens books that Lynd Ward supplied his now-iconic artwork for.
Much as Walt Disney would do with his famed television programs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Ward used his talents with watercolor, oil, brush and ink, mezzotint, and lithography to illustrate hundreds of inspiring historical biographies of true-life American heroes for children to admire and emulate:
US patriot and silversmith, Paul Revere (America’s Paul Revere with Esther Forbes, 1946); statesman and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson with Saul Padover, 1967); Civil War General and 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant (The Story of Ulysses S. Grant with Jeanette C. Nolan, 1962); the larger-than-life 16th President of the United States (America’s Abe Lincoln with Ward’s wife, May McNeer, 1957); an American Revolutionary War soldier who fought to gain independence for the small state of Vermont by commanding a force of irregulars known as the Green Mountain Boys (America’s Ethan Allen with Stuart Hall Holbrook, 1949).
Lynd Ward, the son of a prominent Chicago social reform activist who served as the first chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lent his considerable artistic talents to hagiographic young adult books on the California and Alaska gold rushes (with nary an inkling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sentiment that “all gold rushes are essentially negative”), Andrew Jackson’s war on Florida’s Seminole Indians (overlooking Jackson’s ethnic cleansing of many Native American tribes and his mandate from then-US President James Monroe to prevent Spanish Florida from becoming a safe haven for runaway slaves), and, my personal favorite as young reader, Admiral Peary and Byrd: Conquest of the North and South Poles (1952).
Johnny Tremain, the historical fiction tale of a 14-year-old prize silversmith apprentice in Boston who becomes an American Revolutionary War hero with the rebellious Sons of Liberty, was a 1944 undertaking with Lynd’s frequent collaborator, writer Esther Forbes; their effort won the prestigious Newbery Medal for “distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. (Writing for the independent newsmagazine In These Times, Massachusetts Institute of Technology history teacher Christopher Capozzola says that Tremain “told the story of the American Revolution as a populist narrative at the height of the Cold War”, suggesting that Ward had not abandoned his commitment to social justice inherited from his Methodist minister father.)
Johnny Tremain is where Ward’s path intersects with another classic American myth-maker and peddler in counter-factual history, Walt Disney: whereas Ward was bowing to dictates of the marketplace and literary genre, Disney, as a film, television, and overall pop culture producer, recognized the crudely emotional appeal of nationalism and primed the pump for all it was worth.
Capitalizing on Americana
Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, the first hour of a five-part serial featuring wooden and stoic actor Fess Parker in a heavily romanticized interpretation of the adventures of the folkloric American frontiersman, explorer, Congressman, and defender of the Alamo, debuted on the Disneyland show for the ABC Television Network on 15 December, 1954.
Writing at Amazon.com, reviewer Charles Solomon calls Disney’s handling of the Crockett legend “an engaging example of American myth making”. So engaging, in fact, that Disney and his studio officers were caught by surprise at the literal overnight success of the mini-series; Disney capitalized on the popularity by immediately licensing the Crockett name and likeness for a cavalcade of products. Solomon notes that “an estimated $300 million worth of Crockett merchandise was sold during the first eight months of the Crockett craze, including 10 million coonskin caps.”
Author and historian Paula Sigman observed in the Turner Classic Movies documentary, The Age of Believing: The Disney Live-Action Classics, with the Crockett film series Disney was simply (and shrewdly) responding to “a return to Americana and American values after World War II.” No one ever went broke capitalizing on zeitgeist, especially if they get into the game early and aggressively, as Disney most assuredly did.
Realizing the error of killing off such an immensely popular hero in the 23 February, 1955 episode titled Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Disney rushed two prequels into production for the Disneyland TV show. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates aired in November and December, 1955, respectively.
The popularity of the Crockett TV movies was also due in no small part to the collective American thirst for unambiguous nationalist heroes in the wake of the Cold War, an arms and ideological struggle between the Soviet bloc countries and the Western countries that broke out in the aftermath of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan of 1947 to bolster the economies of Western Europe, ravaged by the hostilities and deprivations of World War II.
Anti-Russian sentiment was a contagious and hideous virus that spread across the United States throughout the late-‘40s and ‘50s in the aftermath of the global conflagration; Joseph McCarthy, an otherwise obscure Republican US Senator from the state of Wisconsin, boosted his status on the trembling shoulders of the Red Scare by chairing a government committee obliged to the task of ferreting out and investigating alleged Communists in the government, religious, and social service organizations, the entertainment industry, and even the US military (which would prove McCarthy’s undoing).
Only 12 months before Davy Crockett debuted on ABC, McCarthy’s irresponsible and dangerous demagoguery had been brought to an end after a public censure by the US Senate in December 1954 but not before ruining the lives and careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Americans whose only crime was embracing a political ideology contrary to that of the republic of the United States.
Walt Disney, the popular creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the first full-length animated feature film to win an Academy Award (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1939), gladly testified before Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, accusing union organizer Herbert Sorrell, and animators William Pomerance and David Hilberman of being Communists; Disney asserted that the attempts to unionize the animators at his Burbank movie studio was the sinister work of Communist agitators; the man with the benign, fatherly face even accused the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood of being a Communist front.
Disney was a proud member and founding father of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization formed in 1944 by a clutch of politically conservative Hollywood heavyweights (including the producer and director of lavish Biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille, and matinee idols Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and John Wayne) who sought to protect the film industry against the encroachment of Communist infiltration.
Writing in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden, biographer of the fiery Russian-American novelist and conservative philosopher, quotes from a manifesto that Rand wrote for the Alliance titled Screen Guide for Americans:
“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories—thus making people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.
“The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas—which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense.”
Because any right-thinking American knew that when Joan Crawford said in Mildred Pierce that she’s “going to wear a red dress tonight”, she was actually sending a coded message to comrades in Moscow.