George Stevens and Frank Capra were two directors who really knew how to capture onscreen the essence of what being an American is all about. They made films about the love of one’s hometown, one’s family, about freedom and about helping one’s neighbor. But when it comes to making films about American history, it is Walt Disney who deserves the accolades. His films sparked that pride we feel in being American and the thrill you get when you hear a stirring tale of American patriotism.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, he brought many tales from American history textbooks to the motion picture screen – most of which were first adapted for television production, such as The Swamp Fox, Elfego Baca, Davy Crockett, and Johnny Tremain.
Johnny Tremain was filmed as a two-part series for the Disney TV show, each segment lasting 40 minutes. Even though most people across the States had black-and-white television sets, Disney wanted the film to be shot in Technicolor so it could be issued in theaters as well. Since the production was so good, it ended up being released in theaters first – on July 4, 1957 – and then airing on television shortly after.
Based upon Esther Forbe’s 1943 novel of the same name, Johnny Tremain tells the story of an apprentice silversmith who comes to learn the true meaning of liberty and having “the rights of free men” through an encounter with some of America’s founding fathers. The young lad finds himself wrongfully imprisoned for stealing a silver cup from a nobleman. He is touched when one of Boston’s finest lawyers takes his case without fee, representing him solely for the sake of justice. It is then that he discovers that throughout Boston men are uniting throughout the city to fight against tyranny and injustice from the British. He joins these men, known as the Sons of Liberty, and helps take part in the Boston Tea Party and in the colonist’s stand against British soldiers at Lexington Green.
Actor Hal Stalmaster was a relative newcomer when Disney cast him as the lead character in Johnny Tremain. He has the same winsome ways about him as another Disney child-actor, Bobby Driscoll, but unfortunately, he only did a handful of other television productions (including three episodes of The Swamp Fox before he retired from acting. Also in the cast is Richard Beymer, Whit Bissell, Sebastian Cabot, Jeff York (as James Otis), Luana Patten, Rusty Lane (as Samuel Adams) and Walter Sande (as Paul Revere).
“Johnny Tremain is about the nameless, unsung patriots whose hunger for freedom made possible the independence that is enjoyed in America today.” – Walt Disney
Walt Disney never watered down or changed the storylines of his films to make them more appealing to children. He knew that children would find them interesting if they could only relate to the main character and rightly so. Johnny Tremain unfolds at a slow pace but it is quite engrossing in spite of this and much of the credit for its entertainment can be attributed to the fine performances of all the actors and to director Robert Stevenson. This old British pro was making his debut with Disney studio and would go on to make 18 films for Disney over the next 20 years.
Also contributing much to the production of Johnny Tremain was Peter Ellenshaw’s beautiful matte paintings. These matte shots saved the studio unnecessary expenses and added a particularly charming touch to the film, making the scenes of historic Boston seem like a living painting. One scene in particular really stands out, that of the Liberty Tree in Old Boston aglow with lanterns hanging on its boughs. If you want to see a similar tree in person, complete with the lanterns, simply take a trip to Disney World, where within Liberty Square a 100-year old Liberty Tree proudly stands holding 13 lanterns to represent the original 13 colonies.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”