Cast & Crew
Jack C. Couffer
Robert H. Crandall
Teeming life exists in the seemingly barren lands of the Great American Desert, which encompasses the area to the west of the Missouri River and to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges block trade winds, creating a desert wasteland that includes both the highest point in America, Mt. Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley. After discussing the landscape from the Painted Desert to Monument Valley, with its mirages and the bubbling mud of the Salton Sea, the narrator turns his attention to the animal life. Birds, such as the red-tailed hawk and the woodpecker, make their nests among the spikes of the towering cacti, which provide a defense against predators. In this arid region, animals must go for months without water. As a result, some species, such as the tortoise, manufacture liquid inside their bodies from foliage. One tortoise attempts to court a lady tortoise, who bites him, after which her mate attacks. The mate upends the tortoise, which is in danger of dying until he manages to right himself. The coati mundi, a raccoon cousin, can eat the scorpion because it is almost immune to the sting. Baby coati mundis play in hollow logs and steal eggs from unguarded vulture nests. Wild pigs called peccaries abound, a vicious breed that travel in packs and fight off a bobcat, which races up a cactus to avoid them, wounding its paws. Next, a rattlesnake is shown using its sensitive tongue to track a pocket mouse. After the mouse mistakenly heads down a tarantula hole, the snake attacks the spider while the mouse burrows into the ground to escape. At night, millions of bats fly out of a cave, pursued by a hawk, which captures one. Although millipedes exude an odor that repels the tarantulas, they are eaten by toads, while snakes serve as prey for owls. Mating rituals flourish, including those of the tarantulas, scorpions and longhorn beetles. One beetle suffers rejection from the female, a fight with another male, and a battle with a tarantula, only to be eaten by a toad. Another nocturnal animal, the kangaroo rat, gathers food and buries it in the sand. A mother guards the babies in a nest, moving them out the back tunnel when a king snake threatens. After losing the scent of the rats, the snake attacks a gecko, biting off its detachable tail. The side-winder rattlesnake, with its ability to achieve traction, is able to go where others cannot, thus allowing it to trap rodents and lizards. After it misses a kangaroo rat, the rats seem to celebrate. The early hours of the morning bring cooler weather, prompting the ground squirrels to emerge, followed by a road runner. A skunk sprays one of the squirrels, after which a Gila monster approaches. The squirrels, including one dubbed "Skinny," fight back until the Gila monster retreats. Meanwhile, a tarantula fights a tarantula wasp, which manages to paralyze its larger foe and drag it into a nest, where it lays an egg that will feed off the spider. Later, a storm results in a flash flood, creating a river that rages over the sand until it runs out of strength. As a result, dormant seeds bloom, creating a bed of vibrant flowers. Although they soon die, they symbolize the cycle of birth and death constantly occurring in the desert.
Jack C. Couffer
Robert H. Crandall
Stuart V. Jewell
N. Paul Kenworthy Jr.
Theodore M. Metz
C. O. Slyfield
Harold J. Steck
The Living Desert -
Disney's studio had begun a series of True-Life Adventures in 1948, winning Oscars for most of them (five out of seven) in the now-defunct category of best two-reel short. Convinced that a feature-length entry would have even more impact, Disney took his cue from a reel of insect footage - detailing a showdown between a beetle and a tarantula - that a UCLA grad student had sent to him.
The result was The Living Desert, a colorful portrait of animals and plants dwelling in arid stretches between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada mountains. The terrain looks dead and forbidding but actually pulses with life in a rich variety of forms, ranging from bugs, snakes, and lizards to toads, tortoises, bats, birds, and bobcats. Photographed primarily by entomologist Robert H. Crandall and the aforementioned grad student, N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr., the movie depicts its subjects in the traditional Disney style - revealing and rewarding at its best moments, distortive and manipulative at its worst.
By announcing itself as A True-Life Adventure in the opening credits, The Living Desert links itself with the Oscar-winning shorts made under that rubric. Equally important, it lets audiences know that this big-screen theatrical feature is connected to Disneyland, the brand-new television show launched just two weeks before its 1953 premiere. As connoisseurs of Disney culture know, Disneyland divided its content into four categories - Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland - the last of which presented nature documentaries and was therefore the most firmly grounded in reality. The implicit message to moviegoers was plain: The Living Desert will be an enjoyable entertainment, not a dull educational exercise like the things they show in school.
Be that as it may, this True-Life Adventure doesn't start like a true-life adventure. It begins like a comfortingly familiar Disney cartoon, with an animated pen sketching a bouncy overview of the territory to be explored. The narrator also chimes in, outlining basic facts in friendly yet authoritative tones. A printed text describes the film as a "drama" where "Nature sets the stage and provides the actors," and in line with this description the narrator often ascribes human rationales to nonliving things - calling the desert, for instance, "a country where rivers give up their hopeless struggle and sink into the earth." In this true-life adventure the emphasis is mostly on adventure.
In a clever cinematic strategy, director James Algar eases the transition from animation to live action by following the cartoon prologue with aerial views of exotic vistas that eerily resemble Chesley Bonestell's speculative paintings of landscapes on other planets. Soon after comes a sequence showing how "pent-up gases bubble and boil like seething cauldrons" in the largely dried-up Salton Sea, conveyed through a quick-cutting montage of muddy bubbles, muddy water, and just plain mud, all set to spirited music. This is the first of several times when The Living Desert capitalizes on memories of Fantasia, the 1940 animation that earned Disney and company an honorary Oscar for creativity in sound and music.
The rest of the picture unfolds via live-action photography, but it's important to note that some portions are so conspicuously staged and heavily edited that they construct rather than document their material. Types of fakery as old as Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 classic Nanook of the North boost entertainment value at the expense of authenticity - supposedly natural mouse tunnels with missing walls, for instance, and split-second escapes from predators that the filmmakers clearly arranged. The finale shows a gorgeous array of desert flowers blossoming with the magical speed that only time-lapse cameras can provide, closing the film with live-action footage that's hard to distinguish from the animation that began it.
In terms of subject matter, a wildlife documentary like The Living Desert has to deal with sex and death - not two of Disney's strongest areas, to state the obvious. The narrator alludes to death quite early, saying that the desert embodies "the ancient drama of the struggle for existence, and for the most part, life here is a bit on the grim side." He quickly adds that "there's always comedy relief," and the sight of a hopping roadrunner bears out the point. Still, you can't dance around the fact that desert animals stay alive by eating other desert animals. The film's main response is denial. It displays a fair amount of chasing and stalking, but nothing larger than a millipede gets gobbled on camera, and the confrontations between predator and prey - a rattlesnake and a hawk, for instance - generally end with the latter reaching safety in the nick of time. (An exception is the poor tarantula, which gets paralyzed and carted off by the beetle.)
The film gives more time to sex, or rather to courtship patterns and mating displays, accompanied by the narrator's most brazenly anthropomorphic language and the soundtrack's most shamelessly tricked-up music. The low point comes when the wooing behavior of two scorpions is played as a square dance complete with romping fiddles and calls of "allemande left" and "do sa do." Audiences were willing to swallow this in 1953, but today the average eight-year-old will find it too cutesy for comfort.
Since it raised the stakes of Disney's commitment to documentaries, The Living Desert put added strain on his deteriorating relationship with RKO Pictures, which normally released his productions but didn't like nonfiction. He therefore decided to set up his own Buena Vista Distribution branch, which got off to a running start, parlaying the $300,000 budget of The Living Desert into grosses of $5 million in its initial release. The picture won an international broadcasting award at the Cannes filmfest, where it was shown in competition, and picked up the Berlin festival's gold medal for documentary. It looks less imposing in our own time, but it has great value as a time capsule whisking you back to an era when films geared for family viewing had a self-conscious innocence and willful naivety that have largely vanished from the scene.
Director: James Algar
Producer: Walt Disney
Screenplay: James Algar, Winston Hibler, Ted Sears
Cinematographers: N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Robert H. Crandall
Film Editing: Norman Palmer
Music: Theodore M. Metz
With: Winston Hibler (Narrator)
by David Sterritt
The Living Desert -
The film begins with the following written prologue: "This True-Life Adventure is a drama as old as time itself. But seldom seen by human eyes, nature sets the stage and provides the actors. Only through the endless patience of skilled photographers has it been possible to view this strange and unusual world." An animated hand then paints a globe and various maps. Narration is heard throughout the film explaining the images. Throughout the film, animation is mixed with live-action photography. Some sequences involve special effects and whimsical music, such as the scorpion mating scene, which is edited to appear as if they are sharing a square-dance, and a sequence of flowers blooming in time-lapse photography. Press materials state that sequences were created from original and stock footage, edited to appear chronological.
According to a January 1953 Hollywood Reporter article, after the success of a series of Walt Disney nature documentary shorts entitled "True-Life Adventures," the studio decided to make a feature-length version. The Living Desert was the first in a series of six feature-length "True-Life Adventure" films, which presented expertly photographed footage of the wonders and oddities of the natural world. All of the six films were produced by Ben Sharpsteen, directed by James Algar and featured narration by Winston Hibler. The films garnered much praise, including three Academy Awards, as well as criticism of the filmmakers for tampering with documentary footage by inserting "jokey" stop-motion photography and musical humor.
Press materials state that N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. began photographing the Great American Desert region as part of his thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles. Modern sources state that he then sent footage to Walt Disney, who hired him, along with Robert H. Crandall, to shoot more desert footage for the studio over the next two years. Press materials note that Kenworthy and Crandall photographed all sequences except the following: Jack C. Couffer shot the bat sequence; Stuart V. Jewell shot the time-lapse flower photography; Tad Nichols covered the flash flood of the Colorado River in Arizona; and Don Arlen captured the bubbling mud.
The Hollywood Reporter review incorrectly lists The Living Desert as an RKO release. Although Disney had had a long-running distribution deal with RKO, as noted in a July 29, 1953 Variety article, Disney independently distributed the picture. Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., which became Disney's releasing arm in 1954, released the studio's subsequent productions. According to press materials, the November 1953 New York premiere screening combined The Living Desert with the shorts Ben and Me and Stormy, the Thoroughbred. The latter film was subsequently adapted into a feature (see below). The Los Angeles premiere of The Living Desert, on December 16, 1953, benefited the John Tracy Clinic, of which Disney was a board member.
Modern sources state that the film cost $300,000 and grossed about $5 million in its first release. The picture won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Berlin Film Festival's Best Documentary and audience favorite awards. Despite these honors, the film was criticized by some reviewers for anthropomorphizing the animals which, as the New York Times review asserted, "isn't true to life." For more information on other feature films in Disney's "True-Life Adventure" series, please consult the Series Index.
Selected in 2000 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States 1953
Released in United States 1953