Early Happy 4th of July to all our US of A readers, and Happy Saturday to those of us reading from other countries! This week's Saturday Matinee takes a look at "Ben and Me," a 1953 cartoon adapted from the 1939 children's book by Robert Lawson. I actually showed this cartoon to my "U.S. Literature to Realism" class a couple semesters ago, and we had a lengthy discussion of its uses as both entertainment and education. The short takes obvious liberties with recorded American history, namely in that it's all about how a mouse named Amos was really behind all the great ideas that founded the country.
As the cartoon opens, a tour guide is speaking to his group about one of our founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin. Rather than stay with them, the camera then moves up towards old Ben's hat, where we see another tour group: mice. Instead of talking of Ben, the tour guide for these lovable rodents brings notice to the contributions of Amos, a mouse that worked with Benjamin Franklin. Together, they developed bifocals, central heating, and ran a printing press. In addition, Amos would sit atop Ben's tricorne and whisper to him who everyone was - Ben had a bad memory - when greeting people on the street. However, Ben's electricity experiment with a kite caused a falling out between the two. He set up Amos to be attached to the kite, something Amos never wanted to do. The two part ways for several years, until a chance encounter which eventually leads to Ben and Amos helping write the Declaration of Independence, based on a contract Amos was writing for Ben that promised equality between the two of them.
As mentioned earlier, "Ben and Me" started out as a children's book, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson in 1939. Disney's adaptation was the studio's first two-reel cartoon short, a length experimented with in later shorts of the 1950s and 1960s ("Goliath II," "The Saga of Windwagon Smith," etc.). While it was attached in theatres to the True-Life Adventure The Living Desert, the short is probably better known to Disney fans for being attached to "The Liberty Story," a 1957 episode of "Disneyland" that went behind the scenes of the studio's other colonial adaptation, Johnny Tremain. The short would go on to be repeated again on television, in the "Wonderful World of Color" incarnation, with Make Mine Music's "Peter and the Wolf" in 1965. After that, it would see continued use in classrooms over the next few decades. At least, that's how I experienced the short, and how I know many of my classmates did. I'm fairly certain I watched the short in elementary school, and perhaps a few times on Disney Channel in their Vault Disney days. It wasn't until fall of last year that I was really able to examine the short and its story.
I had brought "Ben and Me" to my U.S. Literature to Realism class, as we had been reading and analyzing several newspaper articles by Benjamin Franklin. The class was glad to watch the short, and we had a very productive discussion about how media influence has changed from Franklin's time to ours. The newspaper - Franklin's medium - was used to influence and educate the people of his time, just as this short cartoon was being used to influence and educate students in ours. Many classmates mentioned how they suddenly remembered watching the short in elementary school, and key sequences in the short that triggered their memory. For some, it was the creation of the bifocals, for most others, it was the electricity kite. A lot of us also agreed that the short was one of the ways that they became interested in American History, even if "Ben and Me" treats Franklin as a bumbling and scatterbrained guy. But that was part of the appeal of "Ben and Me," at least from a Disney perspective. The short turns the underdogs like Amos into the real heroes, while the leaders are dropped down a peg or two in order to be more relatable to an audience. And in a slight bid to appeal to children, we see a "kiddified" version of American History, creating a story both entertaining and educational, if
One direction that I didn't like the discussion taking - but wisely held my tongue - was the assumption by most of the class that the short was created exclusively for children and the classroom. Thanks to Saturday mornings and the continued widening of the generation gap, that's what cartoons eventually have been reputed to be. However, Disney - Walt's Disney, that is - never catered to just one demographic. "Ben and Me" was made to have multi-generational appeal, as was everything else the studio released. Even if my classmates weren't realizing this, I was just glad that I could incorporate some Disney into one of our lessons. My professor really enjoyed how much discussion stemmed from the short, and she always welcomed future offerings I made of other Disney shorts that could relate to the material.
For use in the classrooms, "Ben and Me" is available via Disney Educational Productions for the understandably high price of $29.99. For everyone else, you can find it in 2005's two-disc set "Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities" and in the compilation disc "Walt Disney's Timeless Tales, Volume Three," which also includes the cartoons "Casey at the Bat" (1946), "Little Hiawatha" (1937), "The Wise Little Hen" (1934), "The Golden Touch" (1935), and "Morris, the Midget Moose" (1950). In addition, if you'd like to check out Johnny Tremain (1957), that film is also out on DVD and includes "The Liberty Story" among its bonus features. Unfortunately, the DVD does not contain the full episode with "Ben and Me," just the first half which was devoted to Johnny Tremain. It's worth watching, especially the brief sequence when you see Walt's plans for "Edison Square," a mini-land within Main Street that never came to pass, but likely was the inspiration for Liberty Square in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
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