UltimateDisney.com's Top 30 Live Action Disney Movies Countdown
27. So Dear To My Heart (1949)

So Dear To My Heart is an absolute gem of a movie. It is a gentle, heartwarming story, simply told & beautifully understated. A movie full of nostalgic charm and appeal. Set at the turn of the century in 1903, it recreates small town America with stunning detail.

The film begins as the pages of a scrapbook open, and as they turn, they are brought to life through the art of animation, before dissolving into the live action world. The transitions between the animated pages of the scrapbook and the live action scenes are so beautifully and seamlessly done, that it allows the film to flow freely at all times as one unique piece of work. The animation never appears to be out-of-place or obtrusive.

Much is understated in this movie, and it remains the better for it. We can tell that life has not been the easiest for the Kincaids and it is interesting to note that even here we have the theme of a single parent, in this case a grandparent, left to raise a child, whilst single-handedly working the farm.

The film never comes across as saccharine. Thanks to a wonderful script with good, solid characters that have such great depth to them. And they are played to perfection by a good, strong cast. Every role has been cast perfectly. From Beulah Bondi as Granny, the legendary Harry Carey as the judge, Bobby Driscol & Luanna Patten as the two children, to Burl Ives in his very first feature film appearance, as that loveable Uncle Hiram. The ending is just right too. Winning the first prize blue ribbon would've been just too schmaltzy. What we are left with instead is an ending that is much more rewarding and satisfactory.

For me, the film works on every level. And it is augmented by a wonderful score by Paul Smith and choral arrangements by Ken Darby. But it is the heart of the movie that has endeared it to me. One of faith, hope, and love. And of great wisdom. Of daring to dream big, but not to despise the day of small beginnings. It's encouraging messages of "It's what you do with what you've got" and 'Stick-to-it-ivity.' But most of all, about learing to keep and maintain right priorities in life, something that Jeremiah learns during the course of the film. To quote the film's opening line, "The greatest wealth a man may acquire is the wisdom he gains from living. And sometimes, out of the small beginnings, come the forces that shape a whole life."

-David Rosengreen

So Dear to My Heart, reportedly one of Walt Disney's personal favorites among his own films, is a rare gem. It takes the kind of material that too often comes across as sentimental or cloying and makes it simple, honest and heartfelt. It's one of those films that ages like a fine wine. Actually, on second thought, it doesn't age a bit. I think as I get older, its gentle wisdom just rings more true.

-Glenn Freeze

So Dear to My Heart is a really wonderful little piece of film that I first discovered no more than a couple of years ago. Some say that it was Walt Disney's personal favourite, and it may very well have been. This film really has it all: A lovely setting, an intelligent storyline, brilliant child actors, great animated segments, memorable songs - all in a well-balanced mix.

-Anders M Olsson

The cotton farm that my mother grew up on is under water now, sleeping silently under the waters of Granger Lake in Central Texas. Travel west of a Granger for a while, and you might pass the farm that my father was raised on - a wide expanse of grazing land and cattle tanks, crop fields and fishing holes.

One of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was a childhood spent on the farms and riverbeds of Central Texas. During school weeks, I was a child of the suburbs, but on the weekends, I would be found in the country, tearing my swimming trunks up by sliding down moss-covered rocks in the river, or fishing for catfish in my grandfather's cattle ponds, or sitting on my uncle's knee while he drove his tractor plowing the fields. My memories of those days remain potent and vivid -- the cracked earth of the fields in the summer, the minnows in the creek nibbling on my fingertips in the spring, the peace of a home-made blanket and a cup of hot chocolate in the fall and winter.

Walt Disney lived his own boyhood days on a farm, and from the opening credits of his 1949 feature film, So Dear to my Heart, you can see Walt Disney's nostalgia and love of rural Americana right up on the screen. The opening titles appear over an assortment of home-made quilt patterns, the kind knitted with modesty and pride by my grandmother and her grandmother before her. For some, these are just quaint designs to set the atmosphere of the story. In a way, though, because these quilt patterns are seen in close-up, the camera is asking you to notice and appreciate the fine details and handiwork. These opening titles establish the quiet, underlying passion underneath So Dear to my Heart -- the film is a celebration of the people who called an American farm their home at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is no small coincidence that Walt Disney was born on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, and grew up in the country in the same years that So Dear to my Heart was set. Walt would later say of the film, "So Dear to my Heart was especially close to me. Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri." As the evocative opening shot transports us through a scrapbook and into the American past, we see and feel Walt Disney's own affection for a childhood spent in the countryside, alongside dirt roads and river beds.

The story of So Dear to my Heart involves the struggles of an orphan named Jeremiah (Bobby Driscoll), who is living on a Midwestern farm with his grandmother (Beulah Bondi) in the by-gone year 1903. One day, a train passes through town, with the famous racehorse Dan Patch in tow. Danny's eyes grow wide at the sight of the prize-winning horse, and his head swims with the dream of one day raising a prize horse of his own.

Later that night, a litter of newborn lambs arrive on the farm, but one of the young lambs has black wool. Because it is different, the mother lamb refuses to nurse it. "Why won't she take him?" Jeremiah asks his Grandmother. "They're the Lord's critters, and they all have the ways that he gave them." Granny responds grimly, resigned to the newborn's fate. Like the little girl Fern in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Jeremiah is appalled at the thought of the newborn starving to death, and so he takes matters into his own hands, sneaking the lamb inside the farm house to give it milk and warmth to keep it alive.

Granny soon discovers Jeremiah and the lamb, and argues with the boy. Realizing Jeremiah's sincerity and love for the newborn, she relents, and allows the boy to keep and nurse the lamb. Later, Jeremiah adjusts his scrapbook, and trades his dream of raising a prize-winning horse with the dream of raising a prize winning lamb. Jeremiah decides to devote himself to the lamb, whom he names Danny, and take it to the County Fair to compete and hopefully win a Blue Ribbon. This downsizing of his dream from Horse to Lamb is brought to life visually, as the figures in his scrapbook come alive via animation and music, expressing Jeremiah's new dream with the song, "It's Watcha Do With Watcha Got".

This animated sequence is notable because of the attempt to animate certain scrapbook images in a way true to their own illustrated design. While the Wise Old Owl and Danny the Lamb are drawn in a way typical of the Disney house style, other figures are drawn and inked in a way that retains their scrapbook appearance. The attempt here is to give a sense of Jeremiah's scrapbook live-action literally "coming to life", and it is a bold and charming moment.

Like Charlotte's Web, the road to glory at the County Fair is beset with great adversity. Jeremiah's greatest obstacle is Granny. Granny has been hardened by farm life into a realist. She will only tolerate so much childish fancy, and she knows Jeremiah's dream is in vain -- there is no chance that a lamb with black wool will win a Blue Ribbon at the County Fair. A Blue Ribbon represents "best of breed", and a lamb with black wool has no chance at all. Also, it costs money to attend and travel to the County Fair, something she has precious little of. And lastly, without spoiling the film, suffice it to say that Danny turns out to be quite the two-foot-tall hell raiser, with a penchant for destroying property, ruining crops, and running away into treacherous forests and swamps, enraging Granny and endangering Jeremiah in the process.

Throughout it all, Jeremiah soldiers on, surmounting one obstacle after another through sheer pluck, determination, and ultimately, selfless devotion. Suffice it to say, Jeremiah and Danny finally make it to the County Fair, and the boy is allowed to enter Danny into competition, and then, just as Granny predicted, the lamb loses the contest because of his black wool. But the film is not a downer -- without giving away the ultimate ending, So Dear to my Heart turns out to be the Rocky of "prize livestock" movies, and the film ends on an inspiring note.

It is tempting to credit Disney's empathy with the period settings as the reason So Dear to my Heart is such a small gem of a film, but credit is shared by director Harold Schuster (My Friend Flicka), and screenwriter John Tucker Battle, working from the short story "Midnight and Jeremiah" by the acclaimed American author Sterling North. Each lent their own commitment to the project, and the result was a family film of tremendous heart and sincerity.

Looking at the film today, it stands as the best film Walt Disney produced during the post-War reconstruction years of the mid-to-late 1940's. It is similar in some respects to Song of the South in that the story involves the struggles of a young boy in a rural setting, and it features animated musical segments designed to illustrate the important life-lessons that the boy learns as the story progresses. But unlike Song of the South, So Dear to my Heart has a genuine authenticity. This may have come from the quality of Sterling North's story, or from Walt Disney's nostalgia of his own childhood days, or both - but the story incidents themselves are completely natural and believable.

In many ways, So Dear to my Heart was the first of a long line of live-action Disney period films that were defined more by their integrity and their commitment to serious drama than they were by concerns over reaching a mass audience. So Dear to my Heart was the fore-runner to films that today stand among the best of his achievements in dramatic live-action films, namely 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Pollyanna, The Three Lives of Thomasina, Those Calloways, Treasure Island, and Old Yeller.

In each of these, there was no flinching from the hard facts inherent to the story, and the characters were allowed to experience real pain as they struggled. If you ask people today to list the best moments in Disney live-action films, they'll name Fred MacMurray discovering Flubber or Tommy Kirk turning into a sheepdog, or Herbie riding upside down in a tunnel in Monte Carlo.

Ask me, I'll name Tommy Kirk struggling to aim his rifle at his own dog in Old Yeller, or Karen Dotrice telling a local priest that she has killed her father in Thomasina, or Brian Keith struggling with his alcoholism in Those Calloways, or Karl Malden realizing he has misled his parish in Pollyanna, or James Mason explaining why his heart is filled with hate in 20,000 Leagues, or a young boy realizing he has been selfish, and is praying to God for the life of a sheep in So Dear to my Heart.

This tradition of live-action Disney films with real, sincere drama began with So Dear to my Heart. It is not surprising that many of these live-action films underperformed at the box office, leading many of Disney's smaller, dramatic films to fall into obscurity, despite their quality and their reputations among Disney buffs. Two years ago, I screened Darby O'Gill and the Little People for my sister and my niece, and they both adored it. Afterwards my sister asked me, "How come I've never heard of this?" Ask someone today if they've ever seen So Dear to my Heart, and you may receive a similar reaction.

I'm very happy So Dear to my Heart is being recognized by this forum as one of Disney's thirty best live-action titles. On the one hand, it is one of my favorite Disney films because the film's atmosphere, mood, and setting remind me of my own childhood days on my grandparents' farms. But more importantly, hopefully this will spur other people to give the film a chance, or at least see it in its true light -- not as a forgotten Disney curio from the 1940's, but as small personal film made with tremendous affection for its characters and its world, and the forerunner to Disney's truly great live-action dramas.

-Ernest Rister

DVD Details
This film has been "almost available" on DVD in the US for years now, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, it has never actually been released. Originally intended to be part of Disney's now-defunct Gold Collection line with two animated shorts, Walt Disney's TV introduction of the film, a still frame scrapbook, and "rare discovered footage", So Dear To My Heart is indefinitely postponed. While there's more hope for this to see DVD in the near future than its older cousin Song of the South, for the time being, you can only own the Region 2 DVD in Europe.
Buy So Dear To My Heart Region 2 DVD from Amazon.co.uk
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