Disney's Ben and Me: The Pint-Sized Patriot

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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"I think it is high time all these things got straightened out in the public mind. Walt Disney has gotten hold of all the facts in the case. Mr. Disney has always been very decent to us mice." — Amos Mouse (as voiced by Sterling Holloway) in the trailer for Ben and Me

"The story of a mouse that lived in Ben Franklin's hat." — Walt Disney in his introduction to The Liberty Story (1957)

One of my favorite Disney animated cartoons is especially appropriate for The Fourth of July. The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I love the sense of patriotism, the hot dogs, watermelon, the homemade lemonade, and the picnic celebrations with fireworks.

Of course, since I live about a half hour from the Magic Kingdom, I could probably enjoy the same thrill just about every day of the year, especially with a visit to Liberty Square.

With July 4th being next week, I thought it would be fun to focus on one of the many films Walt did that related to the birth of the United States of America.

When I was younger, I saw a rerun on the weekly Disneyland television show called The Liberty Story, which originally aired on May 5, 1957. It was basically a promotion for the release of the live-action Johnny Tremain film that year. However, Walt also spent time enthusiastically showing the concept art for the announced, but never built, Liberty Street at Disneyland.

In addition, during his introduction, Walt walked over to his magical bookcase in the soundstage set that mimicked his real formal office. However, this time there was a smaller bookshelf extension attached to one of the shelves that had never previously appeared or would ever again.

Walt explained that these books had been located in a church basement when it was being torn down and since the books seem to have been written by a mouse, that it was natural that they send the books to Walt.

Walt even showed an old newspaper describing the finding of the books. My eyes were wide with amazement (remember I was pretty young and gullible then, and now I am just gullible) that this must be true, because Walt was telling me the story and right there on television were the books themselves.

It never occurred to me that it was just a clever introduction to Ben and Me, an animated special short released theatrically November 10, 1953, that I had never seen before because, in those prehistoric times, there were no video recorders. The only chance to see a cartoon short was if it were released theatrically or aired on television.

Based on the popular 1939 book by Robert Lawson, Ben and Me tells the "true" story of the inventive churchmouse who was actually the brains behind Benjamin Franklin and his many accomplishments.

Amos Mouse and his cleverness and common sense helps inspire such innovations as bifocals, Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac," the Franklin Stove and the Declaration of Independence and much more.

Of course, his participation in Franklin' s experiments with electricity has tragic results that thankfully gets resolved in time to help the United States get born. In real life, it was Franklin's 20-year-old son William who assisted with the experiment.

Walt Disney purchased the rights to the book in 1946 and by 1947 rough storyboards had been prepared.

Ben and Me was originally released on November 10, 1953. It was issued as part of a package that included the live-action 72-minute-long True-Life Adventures feature The Living Desert.

In fact, Buena Vista Pictures was created by Walt Disney Productions to release this particular theatrical program, after RKO, who had released Disney films since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, balked at releasing a full-length True Life Adventure film (just as it had a few years earlier at releasing True Life Adventures shorts).

The package was first booked into the Sutton Theater in New York and was an immediate success. It was then released in the same manner throughout the country and, proportionately, became the biggest profit-maker in Disney history up to that time, earning $4 million after a total production cost of $300,000.

Ben and Me was made in Technicolor and ran 21 minutes (it has been released at a length of 25 minutes with additional animation done for the television presentation) and was considered the first Disney animated featurette (two reels), since it was shorter than a regular feature, but almost three times as long as the usual Disney short cartoon.

Walt felt that an animated featurette could be paired with a live-action feature to make a complete program of Disney entertainment. Some stories were too long for the standard short, but not sufficient to maintain a feature, so a featurette could pick up the slack.

Ben and Me was nominated for an Academy Award in the two reel short subject division. The winner for two-reel short subject that year was Disney's True-Life Adventure Bear Country. The winner for one reel short subject was Disney's Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which was also competing against another Disney nominated cartoon: Rugged Bear.

The inspiration for the featurette was the original book Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin that was published in 1939. It was written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Lawson was also the illustrator of Munro Leaf's Ferdinand the Bull that Disney had made into an Oscar winning short cartoon in 1938.

Lawson also wrote Mr. Revere and I (1953) about Paul Revere's horse, the mare Sheherazade, saved from the glue factory by Sam Adams. She and Paul Revere supposedly make the ride that changed the course of history.

"I have never, as far as I can remember, given one moment's thought as to whether any drawing that I was doing was for adults or children," Lawson said. "I have never changed one conception or line or detail to suit the supposed age of the reader.

"And I have never, in what writing I have done, changed one word or phrase of text because I felt it might be over the heads of children. I have never, I hope, Insulted the intelligence of any child. And with God and my publishers willing, I promise them that I never will," he said.

It was a philosophy that echoed Walt Disney's own philosophy about family entertainment.

After he illustrated Mr. Popper's Penguins (1938), publisher Little, Brown and Company asked Lawson to illustrate another book and to suggest a subject that would interest him. He wrote an outline of Ben and Me and sent it off to the publishing house. They immediately wrote back that while they liked the concept, they could not possibly think of any author who could do justice to the odd story, and Lawson would have to do it himself.

The publication of Ben and Me in 1939 demonstrated his ability to write as well as to illustrate. Lawson has been awarded both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. The Lawsons' home, called "Rabbit Hill,"was the original setting for the book by that name written and illustrated by Lawson. Robert Lawson died at Rabbit Hill, Westport, Connecticut, in 1957, so he did get to see the animated version of Ben and Me delight audiences in theaters.

Famed Disney storyman Bill Peet did the primary adaptation with additional dialogue supplied by Winston Hibler, Del Connell, and Ted Sears. The adaptation kept fairly close to the source material, but added some scenes and humor that helped expand and focus the story.

One significant change is that in an early chapter in the book, in order to get the assistance and advice of Amos, Franklin must agree to provide Amos' large family with cheese, rye bread, and wheat on a regular basis.


The DELL comic book version of the Ben and Me featurette was released in 1954.

Peet changes it into a contract near the end of the film that will give the mouse respect and not be subject to experimentation and humiliation. The contract, as written by Amos, inspires Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence using the exact same words.

Perhaps the most interesting difference is that in the Lawson book, the wording that inspired the Declaration was the work of a mouse named "Red" who rode in Jefferson's saddlebag. He is so revolutionary that he seeks to organize the mice and rats in France (who get distracted by food, so the revolution fails).

However, in the 1950s during the Red Scare of Communism having a radical mouse by that name was probably not advisable, so he does not appear in the Disney film at all.

The film was directed by Hamilton Luske. Luske had joined the Disney Studio in 1931 as an inbetweener and became an animator in 1934 on the Silly Symphonies.

At the time Ben and Me was made, he was a sequence director on the animated feature film Peter Pan and was moving into being a sequence director on the animated feature Lady and the Tramp.

Luske was considered a prestigious director at the Disney Studio at the time, so it gives some indication of how important this animated special was considered. Luske's directorial assistant on Ben and Me was Rusty Jones.

Animators who worked on the film included Wolfgang Reitherman, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Hal King, Cliff Nordberg, Les Clark, Marvin Woodward, Don Lusk, Hugh Fraser, Jerry Hathcock, Eric Cleworth, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Merle Gilson, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, Bob McCrea, and Art Stevens.

Dan McManus did some effects animation and art direction was by Ken Anderson and Claude Coats. Backgrounds were by Al Dempster, Thelma Witmer, and Dick Anthony. Oliver Wallace did the music.

Sterling Holloway is the only voice credited on the film. According to Disney Archivist Dave Smith, Holloway, Hans Conried, Bill Thompson, Charlie Ruggles, and Stan Freberg were all in to record voices for the film during January 1952, but the files do not specify which roles they recorded.

However, their voices are so distinctive, it is easy to tell that Holloway did the voice of Amos Mouse who narrated the story; Charlie Ruggles was a genial Ben Franklin; Hans Conried (who had just finishing voicing Captain Hook for Peter Pan) was a fiery Thomas Jefferson; Bill Thompson (who had just finishing voicing Mr. Smee for Peter Pan); was the guide at the beginning of the featurette as well as Governor Keith and some bit roles; and the talented Stan Freberg filled in some miscellaneous parts. as well.

Charles "Charlie" Ruggles was one of the most popular comedy character actors of the 1930s and 1940s. Usually playing a henpecked husband or a genial, eccentric character, he appeared in about 80 movies including the well-known Ruggles of Red Gap in 1935.

While he was recording the voice of Ben Franklin, he was appearing on his television show, The Ruggles (1949-1952). The show featured Margaret Kerry as his teenaged daughter. At this time, Kerry had just recently done live action reference modeling for the role of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan.

Years later, Ruggles appeared in several live-action Disney films, including The Parent Trap (1961), Son of Flubber (1963), The Ugly Dachshund (1966) and Follow Me Boys (1966).

Although Sterling Holloway's first Disney work was as the messenger stork in Dumbo (1941), Walt Disney was apparently aware of Holloway's work on radio since—in a memo dated August 9, 1934—he recommended Holloway as the voice of Sleepy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The part eventually went to Pinto Colvig.

Despite his many memorable voices for Disney characters, including Kaa the Snake, the Cheshire Cat and Winnie the Pooh, Holloway only voiced one other mouse: Roquefort the gentle mouse in The Aristocats (1970). Holloway is also known to Disney fans as a narrator of Disney cartoons like Peter and the Wolf. His first narration for Disney was as "Professor Holloway" in The Three Caballeros (1945) telling the story of "Pablo the Cold-Blooded Penguin."

Years later (after I had wised-up that Amos and his books didn't exist and weren't an unsolved mystery), I did discover that new animation written by Peet and directed by Luske had been added to The Liberty Story presentation on television.

You can tell that the new animation was done quickly and less expensively, and it barely blends with the lusher animation of the animated featurette. For instance, take a look at the original animation where Amos is writing the word "binding" on a contract and his tail mimics the letters. That type of small detail is not evident in the new limited animation.

The new animation, not based on anything in Lawson's book, is a prologue about the plight of the ancestors of Amos. In 1568, Christopher Mouse seeks refuge in the cellar of a London bakery in Fleet Street only to be denied access to a split open sack of flour by a fat, black cat (re-using animation of the cat Lucifer from Cinderella).

Jason Mouse, "the first real champion of the rights of mice," is in 1620 London where mice are actually "threatened by a mouse shortage" because of the alarming number of cats. Jason prepares a petition demanding all cats be caged, but it is ignored. Jason takes his family aboard a ship to the New World.

"Jason soon learned that the passengers, men and mice, were all in the same boat. They were all fleeing from the persecution and tyranny of the old country. The name of their good ship was the Mayflower." However, one of the Pilgrims has brought along his hungry cat, so mice are still threatened and not truly free.

Amos obviously has a family history of radicalism and is eager to become involved in the revolution against British tyranny. Amos and his family live in an old New England church vestry, Christ Church in Philadelphia, behind the paneling.

This delightful cartoon was first released on VHS under the Walt Disney Mini Classics label in 1989 and was later released on DVD as a short film in the "Disney Rarities" volume of the Walt Disney Treasures collection in 2005, and on Walt Disney's Timeless Tales DVD in 2006. It was shown on the Disney Channel.

For an obscure character in a Disney animated featurette, Amos the Mouse has appeared on quite a number of pieces of merchandise.

To help promote Disney's first featurette, a DELL comic book (Four Color No. 539 illustrated by Al Hubbard released in 1954) and a Sunday comic strip version of the film were released. The Sunday comic strip version was written by Frank Reilly, penciled by Manuel Gonzales, and inked by Dick Moores, as most of the cartoon adaptations in the Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales were. It ran every Sunday in color in newspapers from November 1, 1953 through December 27, 1953.

In addition, a Little Golden Book storybook (adapted by Campbell Grant and originally numbered "D-37" in the Simon and Schuster edition), a Cozy Corner Book (adapted by Earl Klein and released by Whitman Publishing in 1954 as well), and a recording of the Ben and Me theme, "You and Me," by composer Oliver Wallace were offered to eager audiences.

In 2003, Amos was issued as a 5-inch tall porcelain limited-edition figure in the Walt Disney Classics Collection. Included was a pin of Amos waving a flag.

This "true mouse" version of the American Revolution remains an entertaining glimpse of the obvious "suppressed historical truth" of the situation. Apparently, when it came to the birth of the United States, it did indeed all start with a mouse.

 

Comments

  1. By wdwchuck

    Thank you for this excellent article. Well written and well researched. I am looking forward to seeing Ben and Me.

  2. By DisneyGator

    They used to play this one on the Disney Channel back in the early days of the 80s. I loved this one! Think I'll be playing it tonight for my kids.

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