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April 21, 2018

Disney Cartoon #2: "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" (November 6, 1956)
by Albert Gutierrez

The western genre was no stranger to Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse's second cartoon, "The Gallopin' Gaucho" featured Mickey as Argentina's equivalent of the cowboy, and various shorts throughout the years had western settings. This eventually extended to film and television as well. Both Disneyland the park and "Disneyland" the show featured Frontierland, devoted entirely to the old west. It is in the wild untamed frontier that popular "Disneyland" serials emerged, such as in Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Texas John Slaughter. The immense popularity of Davy Crockett led to the original "Disneyland" episodes getting a 1955 theatrical release, as "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier", followed in 1956 by "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates." 1956 also saw Disney release two CinemaScope westerns to theatres: "The Great Locomotive Chase" and "Westward Ho the Wagons!" both starring Fess Parker. However, for me Disney's greatest western was a little cartoon that featured many of the expected western situations, but presented them in a whimsical way. I speak, of course, of the one-off short "A Cowboy Needs A Horse."

Before I discuss the cartoon, I'll need to provide a bit of backstory first. My first exposure to "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" was in the 1987 Sing-Along Songs VHS "Heigh-Ho." The song was featured as sixth of eleven in the half-hour musical program hosted by Professor Owl (with re-dubbed animation from 1953's "Adventures in Music: Melody"). One of the bird students is reading a book about Johnny, a city kid who wants to be a cowboy, and it segues into the sing-along. As such, even though the boy is nameless in the original short, I've always referred to him as Johnny and will continue to do so in the rest of this article.

High atop of a posh skyscraper, a little boy is asleep in his bedroom. Little Johnny dreams of his life as a cowboy, and through the song "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" we learn just exactly what every cowboy needs. A horse, a rope, a song. But that's not all, for he also needs a hat, fancy boots, and shiny spurs. As Johnny acquires each of these items, his dream becomes more detailed, what was once a nondescript background has evolved into an entire world all for him. Johnny the Cowboy rides through the land, and has his first encounter with a group of Indians. They fire arrows at him (all missing him) whilst he shoots his two pistols (all with perfect aim), until he runs out of bullets. As the Indians circle around him and chant their victory, Johnny uses his trusty rope to encircle and eventually tie them up. A burly chief emerges and offers a peace pipe, which Johnny uses to produce bubbles.

Immediately after, Johnny sees that a bandit is robbing the stagecoach. He stops the bandit, but when the stagecoach driver offers a reward for the bandit, Johnny valiantly refuses. A cowboy stops bandits for justice, not money. It doesn't end there, for a train is about to go over a bridge whose tracks have been blown up! Johnny then lays himself down across the missing track, allowing the train to cross over the bridge easily. But before he can celebrate, the screams of a little girl get his attention. A bandit has tied her to a cactus, and Johnny chases him away with his pistol. He then takes the girl back to her home, and the two wave goodbye as Johnny and his horse resume their walk through the untamed wild west. All in a day's work for the heroic cowboy. As we are reminded of the cowboy's few but basic needs, we return to Johnny in the city, asleep in his bedroom, and we exit as quietly as we came.

With only seven minutes for the audience to invest in, "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" needed three things: worthwhile characters, worthwhile story, and worthwhile animation. It delivered on all three fronts. The character of Johnny represented the child in all of us, his adventures become our own. By setting the short in his dream world, it allows him to become invincible, just as we often perceived our childhood heroes to be. The western story, which moves along like gangbusters, is an amalgamation of all the situations that made westerns so popular and successful. They're presented at a breakneck pace, daring the audience to keep up and pay attention. Finally, the animation represents some of Disney's finest when it came to their short subjects. The look of Disney's early 1950s animated films were supervised by artist Mary Blair, and I've always felt the rest of the decade were inspired (either intentionally or not) by that design. "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" looks very much like it could have come from the mind of Mary Blair, though it really belongs to Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio, the director and layout styling director of the short. Both do an amazing job at emulating the Blair style and use of colors, whilst still putting their own "stamp" on the cartoon as well.

The most memorable feature of the short is the title song, which in all its simplicity presents quite a profound observation. At the heart of the cowboy's life is the need to keep ridin' along, and the line "there's nothing more he needs, or can have, or can get" is a reflection of that. He's content with what he has, which is a bare minimum compared to the average person (in both the old west and today). In such a material world, the perceived essentials for living amount to quite a lot, and yet all that keeps the cowboy happy are the few items that he needs. When one of the things a cowboy needs is a mere song, it makes me wonder just how much I really need among all my possessions. Am I better off than a cowboy simply because I have a lot more? Maybe not. Then again, I don't have a song.

As I was doing some research in preparation for this article, I discovered that "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" was attached to the True-Life Adventure "Secrets of Life" when it was released to theatres on November 6, 1956. That seemed like an odd pairing, in my opinion. Granted, theatrical cartoons don't need to have the same theme as the film that follows it. However, the studio surely could have waited several weeks and allowed "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" to precede "Westward Ho the Wagons!", which hit theatres on December 20, 1956. After all, both shared the common link of children in the Old West. Both also contained memorable songs that rarely escape your head once they're in there ("Wringle Wrangle" and the titular "A Cowboy Needs A Horse"). "Westward Ho the Wagons!" was instead paired up with the "People & Places" short "Disneyland, U.S.A."

            

If you're interested in owning "A Cowboy Needs A Horse," it's available on two Disney DVDs. The two-disc limited-issue "Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities" features the short, as well a selection of the silent "Alice Comedies" and a platter of the studio's other one-off shorts. But for those only wanting a small sample of Disney's cartoons, there is "It's a Small World of Fun! Volume One," which features "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" and six other shorts.

 

Past Saturday Matinees

Mickey Mouse
     - The Band Concert (1935)
     - Birthday Party, The (1931)
     - Boat Builders (1938)
     - Brave Little Tailor (1938)
     - Building a Building (1933)
     - Clock Cleaners (1937)
     - Croissant De Triomphe (2013)
     - Get a Horse (2013)
     - Hawaiian Holiday (1937)
     - The Jazz Fool (1929)
     - Lonesome Ghosts (1937)

     - Mad Doctor, The (1933)
     - Magician Mickey (1937)
     - Mickey and the Goat Man (2002)
     - Mickey Down Under (1948)
     - Mickey's Delayed Date (1947)
     - Mickey's Steam Roller (1934)
     - Mickey's Trailer (1938)

     - No Service (2013)
     - Orphan's Benefit (1934 and 1941)
     - Shanghaied (1934)
     - Steamboat Willie (1928)
     - Steamboat Willie Revisited (1928)
     - Thru the Mirror (1936)
     - Ye Olden Days (1933)
     - Yodelberg (2013)

Donald Duck
     - Beezy Bear (1955)
     - Chips Ahoy! (1956)
     - Donald's Diary (1954)
     - Double Date Don (2001)
     - Grand CanyonScope (1954)
     - How to Have an Accident in the Home (1956)

     - Lighthouse Keeping (1946)
     - Modern Inventions (1937)
     - Mr. Duck Steps Out (1940)
     - No Hunting (1955)
     - Sea Salts (1949)

Goofy
     - Goofy and Wilbur (1939)
     - Hello Aloha (1952)
     - A Knight for a Day (1946)

Chip 'n' Dale
     - Chips Ahoy! (1956)
     - Corn Chips (1951)
     - Out of Scale (1951)

Humphrey the Bear
     - Bearly Asleep (1955)
     - Beezy Bear (1955)
     - Hooked Bear (1956)
     - In the Bag (1956)

Oswald
     - All Wet (1927)
     - The Fox Chase (1928)
     - The Mechanical Cow (1927)
     - The Ocean Hop (1927)
     - Ozzie of the Mounted (1928)
     - Trolley Troubles (1927)

Alice Comedies
     - Alice's Wonderland (1923)

Other
     - Adventures in Music: Melody (1953)
     - All the Cats Join In (1946)
     - Ben and Me (1953)
     - Bueno Nacho (2002)
     - A Cowboy Needs a Horse (1956)
     - Daisy's Road Trip (1999)

     - Disneyland Showtime (1970)
     - Disney's Electric Holiday (2012)
     - Epcot Film (1966)
     - Evolution of the Dunk the Mayor scene (1965-2006)
     - Feast (2014)
     - Figaro and Cleo (1943)
     - The Flying Mouse (1934)
     - Football Now and Then (1953)
     - General Hospital - The Introduction of Lucky Spencer (1993)

     - Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (1964)
     - Grievance of a Starmaker (2002)
     - The Hardy Boys: The Stranger (1956)
     - John Henry (2000)
     - The Little Matchgirl (2006)
     - Max's New Car (2001)

     - Mickey and the Firefighter (1993/2002)
     - Muppet Mayhem: Baseball
     - Muppet Mayhem: Clapboard
     - Muppet Mayhem: Soap
    - My Heart Was an Island (1960)
     - Oliver and Company VHS Preview
     - Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Lane (1942)

     - Paperman (2012)
     - Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967)
     - Seven Wise Dwarfs (1941)
     - Snow White World Premiere Newsreel (1937)
     - Tangled Ever After (2012)
     - Three Notable Disney Commercials (circa 1950s and 2002)
     - Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom (1953)
     - Tummy Trouble (1989)
     - Victory Through Rocket Power (1991)

     - War Shorts (1941-1945)
     - Welcome to the Future

Pixar Shorts
     - Geri's Game (1997)
     - Jack-Jack Attack (2005)
     - La Luna (2012)
     - Toy Story Treats (circa 1996)

Silly Symphonies
     - Father Noah's Ark (1933)
     - Music Land (1935)
     - Peculiar Penguins (1934)
     - The Skeleton Dance (1929)
     - Three Little Pigs (1933)
     - Tortoise and the Hare (1934)

Specials
     - 100th Week Retrospective
     - Animation Sequence Analysis: Beauty and the Beast
     - Animation Sequence Analysis: Robin Hood
     - Animation Sequence Analysis: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
     - Animation Sequence Analysis: Sword in the Stone

     - As the World Turns and Disney
     - Beauty and the Beast: A Look at three versions of the story
     - Beauty and the Beast: Theatrical Reviews Trailer
     - Beauty and the Beast TV Spots
     - Bedknobs and Broomsticks
     - Casablanca scene of The Great Movie Ride
     - Happy Holidays from Saturday Matinee!

     - Cinderella vs. Cinderella III
     - Colors of the Wind Multi-Language Reel
     - Comparing Three versions of Alice in Wonderland
     - Deleted Disney
     - Disney Classics: Timeless Classics
     - Disney Classics: Modern Classics
     - Disney Classics: Television Classics

     - Disney Family Movie Night - Summer in June
     - Disney Studio Album: 1960
     - Frozen Review
     - Golden Girls go to Walt Disney World
     - Golden Girls Pilot Episode
     - Great Movie Ride Week One: Mary Poppins

     - Great Movie Ride Week Two: Singin' In the Rain
     - Great Movie Ride Week Three: Raiders of the Lost Ark
     - Great Movie Ride Week Four: The Searchers
     - Great Movie Ride Week Five: Alien
     - Great Movie Ride Week Six: Footlight Parade

     - Great Movie Ride Week Seven: Wizard of Oz/Fantasia
     - Great Movie Ride Week Eight: Casablanca
     - Heffalumps and Woozles vs. Pink Elephants on Parade
     - "It" Moments
     - Life Comes to Fantasy
     - Lion King Bloopers and Stand by Me

     - Live Action Character References
     - Muppets through Films
     - The Newsies' Santa Fe
     - Peter Pan's deleted song, "Neverland"
     - Remembering Steve Jobs
     - Saving Mr. Banks Review
     - Sleeping Beauty Backgrounds

     - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' first trailer
     - Song Showcase: Three Essential songs in Pete's Dragon
     - Spaceship Earth video
     - Spot Marks the X (1986)
     - Special Song Showcase: Disney's Greatest Love Songs

     - Step in Time from Mary Poppins on Broadway
     - Thor: The Dark World Review
     - VHS Deluxe Collectors Sets for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin
     - Walt's Sweetheart Team - Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten
     - The Watcher in the Woods
     - A Whole New World Recording Session

Winnie the Pooh
     - Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966)

 

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