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DVD SAVANT

Johnny Tremain


Johnny Tremain
Disney DVD
1957 / B&W / 1:33 flat adapted pan scan / 80 min. / Street Date August 2, 2005 / 19.99
Starring Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten, Richard Beymer, Walter Sande, Jeff York, Sebastian Cabot, Virginia Christine, Whit Bissell
Cinematography Charles B. Boyle
Production Designer Peter Ellenshaw
Art Direction Carroll Clark
Film Editor Stanley Johnson
Original Music Tom Blackburn, George Bruns
Written by Tom Blackburn from the novel by Esther Forbes
Produced by Walt Disney
Directed by Robert Stephenson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

As late as 1992 grade school kids were still reading the book Johnny Tremain, as can be seen in the Simpsons' episode where Bart's interest in reading improves after being told that the hero is really named "Johnny Deformed." The book was considered a kid's classic and a key example of history made into juvenile drama to get kids to think about what happened during the American Revolution.

Perhaps by necessity, Disney ironed out the story's rougher edges and sweetened the whole mixture. The production is also too limited in scope to really make us invest in much of what we're seeing - but it's still an okay effort.

Synopsis:

Boston 1773. Apprentice silversmith Johnny Tremain (Stalmaster) wants so hard for his master to make ends meet, he tries to pour a difficult piece on the Sabbath and burns his hand terribly. Denied work because of his disability, he joins the Sons of Freedom and becomes a messenger for the secret conspirators seeking to escalate hostilities with the English armed forces, which are beginning to behave like an army of occupation. Along with his best friend Rab Silbee (Richard Beymer) and sweetheart Priscilla (Luana Patten), Johnny helps greats like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere (Walter Sande) outwit the British authorities.

Johnny Tremain doesn't quite hang together, and I'm not sure it ever did - we grade-schoolers never heard postive playground 'buzz' about it when it was new. In contrast to the sometimes tough-minded book, the movie stays firmly in the land of family entertainment. A pleasant-enough parade of firebrand revolutionaries seem more like museum waxworks, spouting pithy statements about freedom and principles with every other breath. James Otis (Jeff York, later Mike Fink for Disney's Davy Crockett) pauses to lecture his peers about the meaning of their revolution several times. It's pretty funny when, at the very moment the group is ready to begin hostilities against the British, Otis conducts a round-Robin chat about 'Why we're doing this." If everyone in the room isn't already itching to blow away Redcoats, what good is a civics lesson?

Disney's revolution is the antiseptic schoolbook kind, with Paul Revere politely asking for a ship captain's acquiescence before dumping his cargo of tea overboard, and making sure the decks are swabbed clean before his men leave. Several representatives of England are obviously on the side of the Colonists, and when the time comes to bring the insurgents to heel, the Brit commander makes it clear that he's following orders and not his own conscience.

This revolution is barely more serious than a kid's game. Rab, Johnny and Priscilla easily gather crucial strategic information just by hanging around idiotic British officers. The Redcoats blab all that's needed to to kaibosh English plans for surprise. Starting a revolution is shown to be as easy as saying some inspirational words, keeping secrets and playing Halloween pranks.

At the end, Disney doesn't shirk at showing plenty of colonials and soldiers shot dead in the first skirmish. But it's all painless. The bodies have no identity and nobody mourns them directly - it's all too much liberating fun! Besides, there's more important things to think about, like yet another inspirational Otis speech before a 'bonfire of freedom.'

Johnny Tremain is pretty hilarious, politically speaking. At several junctures, it encourages young people to stand up for the future and what's right ... a lot of us kids who took that message to heart realized how hollow it was during the Vietnam war, ten years later. The real message (of the film, not the book) is 'get with the program kid, and here's what you are to believe.'

The movie celebrates surreptitious insurrection as a happy American tradition. Even though it takes a genteel route, the conspiracy of Minutemen make Johnny Tremain play similarly to The Battle of Algiers. The colonists' efforts are like a picnic: Even the revolutionary leaders admit there have been relatively few if any measures taken by the Crown to curb their activitites -- no hangings, no imprisonments. Adams and Revere's spies have the full measure of all English military activities. Some superficial proprieties are followed - the first stand-off is a curiously formal gun-down in a line formation - but from then on it's complete guerilla war. All the colonials lack is suicide bombers.

The big difference between this revolution and the merciless repression of resistance in places like India is the homogeneity of the sides - the colonists are all English citizens and their differences are mostly economic, not racial. Just the same, this all led to a nasty war that Johnny Tremain avoids entirely . Nothing has changed - when the underdogs break 'the rules' of war, the overwhelmingly superior enemy still brands them as subhuman savages. They also call them religious fanatics when they present their oppressors with a mirror image of their own 'godly' imperatives.

Johnny Tremain is unevenly scripted - it looks as if it had to be condensed from a much longer script. Many short scenes fade before they're rightly concluded, and personal stories are truncated or missing altogether. Mr. Lyte, the Tory merchant (Sebastian Cabot) is well-established as both a selfish snob and Johnny's obvious relative, yet never goes the final step to accepting him. The opportunity to make something of the fact that they're on opposite political sides is never taken. Hal Stalmaster isn't a very inspirational Johnny and hurts the center of the film - he never seems to have a real light in his eyes. Richard Beymer is better but also a bit short in the grit department; together they come off as taking part in a pagaent instead of fighting a war. Luana Patten has the useless role of the girl who looks on and gives support, and smiles sweetly a few times. It's criminal that this magnetic actress didn't go farther - her only other really notable film is Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill.

The supporting cast does great work distracting us from the film's tiny budget. Familiar faces Whit Bissell, Walter Sande and Walter Coy (Aaron in The Searchers) give gravity to the revolutionary speeches. It's good to see a fellow like Bissell get some real lines to sink his teeth into, instead of just exposition in a genre picture.

Geoffrey Toone plays the principled military commander, and went on to star in Hammer's xenophobic horror adventure Terror of the Tongs. Virginia Christine (The Killers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mrs. Olsen of Folger's fame) is a greedy housewife generally given the blame for Johnny's crippling accident in the silversmith's shop. She encourges Johnny to break the Sabbath and then wants to be rid of him as soon as he's been injured.

Speaking of young Tremain's injury, it's miraculously cured by simply cutting his fingers apart. Remember kids, in the long run dousing your hand in molten silver is no more problematic than an accident with Super Glue. I don't remember Johnny's hand being fixed quite so easily in the book, if at all.

Peter Ellenshaw's superior effects help Johnny Tremain look like a real movie. A single olde-town square is augmented by clever matte paintings to represent Boston, and only their static nature and the reappearance of the same exact puddle over a course of weeks and months gives them away. Disney springs for a crowd scene or two, and his Lexington battle is rather small in scale.


Disney's DVD of Johnny Tremain is an okay transfer of color elements that are a bit contrasty and grainy, but otherwise fine. The original theatrical aspect ratio was wide, as the main titles form a perfect center-scan 1:77. When we get into the show, however, actors' heads are right up to the top frame line. This leads Savant to suspect that the feature was re-formatted for television use, and cropped all around. This also accounts for the increased grain, as well as the left to right cramping. It's entirely possible that the crowd and battle scenes had 'several more fingers' of image on both sides. (probably wrong ... see below)

As an extra the disc adds Disney's original 1957 TV show heralding the theatrical film. It plays as a complete digest version, a spoiler with every major scene represented (very much like many modern theatrical trailers). Disney's wraparound host segments characterize the conflict of the day as a clear struggle for Liberty and Freedom. The show is in B&W only, and uses clips from a Disney Robin Hood show to illustrate what Liberty and Freedom mean. Mustn't over-complicate things.

The openings of a later two-part Disney show serializing Johnny Tremain over two nights also appear in B&W. The first starts in the costume department with Walt once again offering more vague talk about Freedom, assuring us that America's aim is spread 'Freedom' throughout the world. The second opening is mostly a re-cap of part one. I believe this is how I first saw Johnny Tremain, in two parts in B&W on television. 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Johnny Tremain rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good with suspicious aspect ratio fudging
Sound: Good
Supplements: 1957 TV show promoting the release, later opening segments with Walt Disney introductions
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2005


Footnote:

1. Actually, this is a major revision to the review ... I wrongly assumed that Johnny Tremain was a movie first and a television show second. Here's a welcome letter from William C. Wind, 8.26.05:

"If you are able to check out Leonard Maltin's book, The Disney Films, you will find out that Johnny Tremain was originally filmed as a two-parter for the hour-long Disney TV series. This would account for several of the things you mentioned in your review:

1. When they decided to release Johnny Tremain as an 80-minute theatrical feature instead, they would have cut 10-20 minutes from the TV version (fewer commercials in 1957), resulting in the choppy quality of the feature. The fact that the story jumps ahead two years at about the midway point reflects the structure of the TV two-parter.

2. They probably created new titles to accommodate the 1.85:1 ratio for the theatrical release, while retaining the 1.33:1 ratio of the original grainy TV footage.

3. Johnny Tremain's TV origins might also account for the low-budget look of parts of the film. Still, Peter Ellenshaw's superb work gives the film some very elegant visuals.

I'm not sure I can see Johnny Tremain in the negative light you cast on it. I had read the book only a few years before the movie came out, and I recall feeling that it was a pretty fair representation of the book. Also, I don't think we can judge older films by contemporary standards. Just as we can overlook all the boozing in the early Thin Man films, so we should be able to view the "Disneyfication" of Johnny Tremain as simply the type of film that was popular with young people in the 1950s. I enjoyed the film when it first came out, and I was able to recreate that experience when I watched the DVD.

By the way, I enjoy everything you write, even if I don't always agree with it." - William C. Wind

End Note: In light of this, it's too bad we can't see the original full-length show on television. TV then had so much filler, that with the Disney intros, I'm not so sure the film would have been much longer. GE


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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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