Saturday Matinee #129: "Walt's Sweetheart Team: A Celebration of Bobby Driscoll & Luana Patten" (1946 to 1948)
Published June 22, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
Although The Lone Ranger is a few weeks away, the film will stand as Johnny Depp's tenth time working with Disney. "Wait, ten?" someone may ask. "Just how many Pirates of the Caribbean movies are there?!?" Actually, I padded that number out. Depp has worked six times with Disney directly: the four Pirates films, 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and this year's The Lone Ranger. So how do I get ten? I need only to point to 1994's Ed Wood from Touchstone, and his three Miramax films: Dead Man (1995), Chocolat (2000), and Finding Neverland (2004). However, given that Disney sold the studio and library in 2010, perhaps those last three shouldn't count. Either way, the seven remaining films show a longstanding collaboration between Depp and Disney. But he isn't the first. Fred MacMurray made seven films with Disney between 1959 and 1973. Dean Jones upped the ante, starring in ten films between 1965 and 1977, followed by a television series in 1982, and cameos in 1997's remakes of That Darn Cat and The Love Bug.
Disney certainly has had its share of reusing actors throughout the years, in both Walt's time and today. Both Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk divided time between "Mickey Mouse Club" serials and theatrical features. They'd become household names thanks to films like The Shaggy Dog and The Monkey's Uncle. And viewers can always count on watching stars of a Disney Channel Original Series headline their own Disney Channel Original Movie once in awhile. But Disney's first recurring team of live-action players can be traced back to two talented children of the late 1940's: Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. Dubbed "Walt's Sweetheart Team," the pair only co-starred in two feature films, while making a cameo appearance in a third. And yet the chemistry and charm between them has endured throughout the ages.
Their first collaboration occurred in the 1946 film Song of the South. Legally, I'm not supposed to own this film, so I shouldn't be able to provide any screen captures of their work. Fortunately, two shots appeared in the 1997 documentary "The Story Behind Fun and Fancy Free," which is available on DVD and is shown above. Bobby Driscoll played Johnny, a young boy who is living at his grandmother's plantation. There, he befriends Ginny, played by Luana Patten. The two become close when she gives him her puppy and he gives her his lace collar. The ending of the film is timeless, featuring Johnny, Ginny, and Toby (Glenn Leedy) singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" as they come across all the Br'er characters.
Luana Patten would then make a solo appearance in 1947's Fun and Fancy Free. She hosts a very small party whose guests consist of Edgar Bergen and his two companions: Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy. Jiminy Cricket joins them as well, just as Bergen and McCarthy begin telling the story of "Mickey and the Beanstalk." We can hear Patten's interjections throughout, although later "standalone" versions of this short would replace the Bergen/McCarthy/Patten narration (and mid-story interruption) with other narrators. Although I rarely take the time to sit down and watch Fun and Fancy Free, I often make sure to watch the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" segment, where I always enjoy hearing her gasps and occasional comments.
Driscoll and Patten team up again for the introduction to the "Pecos Bill" segment of 1948's Melody Time. Like with Fun and Fancy Free, they're not here playing characters, but just themselves. The scenario involves the pair never having heard of the "Pecos Bill" story, with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers narrating the story - the longest in the package film. Unfortunately, the short suffered some political correctness in its home video releases, as they've removed a scene showing Pecos Bill rolling a cigarette, then lighting it with a lightning bolt. Shots have also been edited to remove the cigarette from his mouth. The short isn't one of my favorites, and as a result, is often one of my least-watched Driscoll/Patten appearances.
For me, the best collaboration between Driscoll and Patten is 1948's So Dear to My Heart. One of Walt's most personal films, the film actually is based on the Sterling North book Midnight and Jeremiah. However, Jeremiah's life and the small Indiana town depicted is very reminiscent of Walt's own early childhood. In this film, Driscoll plays Jeremiah Kincaid, a young boy living with his grandmother on a farm (sound familiar?). His good friend Tildy (Patten) joins him on several adventures, such as when they meet the famous race horse Dan Patch, search for a stash of honey from local bees, and taking Jeremiah's black sheep Danny to the county fair. Driscoll and Patten have improved since their Song of the South days. The friendship feels more natural, and we even get some conflict between the pair.
Sadly, So Dear to My Heart was the last time the pair worked together. Patten would take a break from Disney (and Hollywood), before returning for 1957's Johnny Tremain, and later again for 1966's Follow Me, Boys!. Driscoll's career with Disney looked to be on the rise. Disney cast him as Jim Hawkins in the studio's first 100% live-action film, 1950's Treasure Island. In addition, Driscoll would lend his voice to Goofy, Jr. (now known as Max) for two animated shorts. Of course, his most notable role would be Peter Pan, which he voiced, then played in live-action reference footage, and in an appearance for 1951's "The Walt Disney Christmas Show." Unfortunately, his contract extension would be terminated after Peter Pan's release, and Driscoll had difficulty finding work, settling for television roles and minor movie parts before his premature death in 1968.
I often wonder what would have happened if Driscoll and Patten made more films together. Driscoll could have easily filled in the role played by Hal Stalmaster in 1957's Johnny Tremain. And the pair might have even given Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk a run for their money. Can you imagine the craziness that could ensue between the dueling duos? The best we can do is simply appreciate the few times they worked together. Of their three partnerships, So Dear to My Heart stands out as their best, as is the film I would recommend most for readers to check out.
All films discussed in this week's column, with the obvious exception of Song of the South, are available on Disney DVD, with Peter Pan also available on Disney Blu-Ray.