The Light in the Forest Is Love:
Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900-present), Spring 2004, Volume 3, Issue 1
Cold War Masculinity and the Disney Adventure Boys
Florida Atlantic University
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On Wednesday afternoons in the fall of 1956, millions of baby-boomer
children tuned in to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club and
watched two fifteen-year-old best friends, Spin and Marty, take
time out from their usual summer camp pursuits of swimming, hiking,
and riding horses to flirt with, brag to, and compete for the
attention of Annette Funicello, a girl from across the lake. In
the summer of 1957, on the big screen, they saw Johnny Tremain,
a seventeen-year-old silversmith’s apprentice in the Revolutionary
War era, take time out from fighting the Redcoats to flirt with,
brag to, and eventually kiss Cilla, his master’s granddaughter.
Competing for, flirting with, bragging to, and eventually kissing
girls is not unusual for teenage adventurers today. Indeed, almost
every teenage boy who heeds the mythic “call to adventure”
has, as one of his primary goals, meeting, winning, wooing, or
rescuing a girl; and, if not, he will certainly fall in love with
a girl he meets along the way. An intense, absurdly eager heterosexual
desire has become an essential component – indeed, the essential
component – of adolescent masculinity. But before the fall
of 1956, only David and Ricky Nelson and their sitcom kin, trapped
in quiet, doomed small towns, kissed girls, or invited them out
on dates, or gaped in awe as they passed. The call to adventure
came only to “manly” men, to boys who spurned the
sissy, the feminine, and the sexual. As J. G. O’Boyle states,
Walt Disney has become “the primary transmitter of traditional
American values” (70) for the baby boomer generation, but
these girl-crazy summer camp boys and Revolutionary War apprentices
were not traditional at all.
Adventure Boys Before Disney
During the first half of the twentieth century, dozens of adventurers
were fighting spies, outwitting mad scientists, getting captured
by headhunters, diving for pirate treasure, and otherwise finding
adventure across the universe of mass culture. A few were girls,
children, or adults, but most were adolescent boys. They excluded
girls from their lives, except as buddies or sisters; instead,
they established intense, intimate, and arguably romantic bonds
with each other, or with adult men. Carole Kismaric and Marvin
Heiferman note, for instance, that high school sleuths Frank and
Joe Hardy “live for each other” (36), and even their
friends disdain heterosexual romance – Biff, the handsome
jock with “muscles like steel,” runs away in a panic
when girls flirt with him (90). Mickey Rooney
played dozens of adventure boys during the 1930’s, bonding
aggressively with other boys, and never even glancing at a girl.
1. Wise-cracking juvenile delinquent
Leo Gorcey flirted with girls only two or three times in all of
his thirty-odd Dead End Kids movies, and Frankie Darro played
“woman-hating” teenagers over fifty times through
the 1940’s. Sometimes the interactions
move from a mere exclusion of girls into a “sexual liminality”
which hinted quite strongly at the erotic between men (Holt 73),
as between Tim Tyler (Frankie Thomas) and the reformed pirate
Lazarre (Earle Douglas) in the serial version of Tim Tyler’s
Luck (1937), or between Jack Armstrong, “All-American
Boy” and globe-trotting “Uncle Jim” in the radio
Boys Become Girl-Crazy
In the first season of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club
(1955-56), the live-action serial Spin and Marty sends
Marty Markham (fourteen-year-old David Stollery), a rich mama’s
boy, to the Triple R Ranch summer camp, where he brawl-bonds with
all-American jock Spin Evans (fourteen-year-old Tim Considine).
They ride horses, swim, compete, and box, without a moment of
girl-ogling. But in the second season (1956-57), The Further
Adventures of Spin and Marty betray not a hint of the earlier
sissy-jock antagonism, perhaps because David Stollery’s
solid physique was beginning to out-jock Tim Considine’s
sunken chest and soft, malleable arms and shoulders, or perhaps
because sissies could no longer exist. Instead, the fifteen-year-olds
compete for the affection of Annette Funicello, staying at the
girl’s ranch on the other side of the lake. Yet the homoromantic
bond does not fade: after several cliffhanging jealousy-fights,
Marty rescues Spin from drowning, and they realize how important
they are to each other. They vow to stay away from girls henceforth.
Though they veered far away from the homoromantic adventure boys
of the past, rarely touching each other or otherwise expressing
an intimate bond, still they did not actively repudiate same-sex
In The New Adventures of Spin
and Marty (1957-58), each of the sixteen-year-olds
gets a girl of his own. 3. A
fourth series was scripted but never produced, and 1958-59 the
stars moved on to other projects. 4.
But by now, Spin and Marty were an institution,
overflowing their Mickey Mouse Club base with coloring books,
records, toys, two tie-in novels (in addition to the original
Marty Markham), and a Dell comic book series (1956-1960). 5.
Today, the grown-up boys who watched The Mickey Mouse Club
every day after school have only faint recollections of the other
live-action series, The Adventures of Clint and Mac or
The Boys of the Western Sea, but they recall
Spin and Marty as prophetic of what their own lives would
be like, or should be like, once they hit their teens.
That summer, Johnny Tremain appeared (June 1957), dedicated to
the “youth of the world, in whose spirit and courage rest
the hope of eventual freedom for all mankind,” obviously
a response to the juvenile delinquent genre, but with the youth
rebelling against British tyranny rather than the Establishment.
“I wonder why we bother,” a middle-aged Son of Liberty
quips: “Liberty is for the young.” Johnny, a Revolutionary
War-era silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident
(but cured after twenty minutes), was portrayed by a seventeen-year-old
newcomer named Hal Stalmaster, with an angelic face, pleasantly
swarthy skin, and eyes so bright they seemed to glow. Again, the
homoromance of earlier adventure boys is maintained as Johnny
and tall, teen-idol sultry Rab (twenty-year-old Richard Beymer)
can’t take their eyes off each other. They spend practically
every scene together, taming a horse named Goblin, working for
the Sons of Liberty, and standing together at the Battle of Lexington
and Concord. Conversely, the heterosexual interest is limited
mostly to an introductory scene in which Johnny preens for Cilla
(Luana Patten), and she gripes about his arrogance (i.e. his sexiness).
They are together only briefly until the final scene, when they
bend in for a kiss, only to be interrupted by Rab (by design,
no doubt, since Cilla is his competition). Nevertheless, this
kiss, albeit interrupted, represented a monumental change.
As we know, the socialist and Third World challenges to the primacy
of Western capitalism after World War II produced a “crisis
of masculinity” that defined capitalist and socialist political-economic
systems in terms of sexual identity, as masculine/heterosexual
and feminine/homosexual respectively (Kimmel 221-260, Corber 23-30,
Terry 329-342). Heterosexual desire was validated as normal and
natural, “the American way of life,” indeed inscribed
within the very concept of desire itself (Sedgwick 87), while
same-sex desire was marginalized as abnormal, unnatural, infantile,
a threat to the American way of life. Queer theorists (e.g. Sedgwick,
Morton, Erni, and Thomas) note that same-sex desire blurs hegemonic
polarities of public and private, stranger and kin, individual
and the state; thus, during political and economic crises, homosexuality
often takes on profound significance as the primary threat to
the social order, civilization, and even human existence. The
result is the construction of an American hetero-masculinity defined
not through desire for women but through a flight from anything
that might suggest desire for men.
The male adolescent, himself trapped in a liminal space, caught
between innocence and experience, between a presumably sexless
boyhood and a presumably heterosexual adulthood (see Hanawalt,
Johnson), was especially problematic, since no one suggested that
his desire for girls was innate or constitutional. His sexual
proclivities must be carefully nurtured from childhood through
marriage, lest he fall prey to the innumerable pitfalls that could
subtly shift his trajectory away from heterosexual destiny. The
all-consuming fear of parents, teachers, almost all adults, as
Harry Benshoff notes, was that they might inadvertently instill
“homosexuality” in their charges (193). The fear was
so great that child psychologists and pop sociologists dared not
use the word, lest seeing it in print enact a subtle perversion;
they couldn’t even say the word, lest it had some magical
transforming power, yet parents’ magazines and self-help
books overflowed with advice on how to avoid raising boys who
were that way (see Grant). First dates, proms, pinning, and engagements
became moments of profound relief, evidence that, at least for
now, the boy was “normal,” not perverted, not doomed.
In mass culture, the crisis of masculinity required a new adventure
boy. He must not express even a hint of femininity, of course,
but even his masculine traits might be overdrawn, since exaggerated
masculinity was a symptom of “homosexuality.” Thus,
he had to be handsome but not matinee-idol pretty, quick-witted
but not an egghead, a leader but not a martinet, athletic and
powerful but not mountainous (bodybuilders were emblematic of
same-sex desire until Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger
heterosexualized them during the 1980’s); as Kenneth Dutton
notes, he must express “the lithe muscularity of the athlete.
. .the ghost of Donatello rather than Michelangelo” (92).
He must be friendly with his male peers, but reject the intense
same-sex bonds that earlier adventure boys like Mickey Rooney
and Frankie Darro enjoyed. And most importantly, he could no longer
ignore girls or treat them as sisters, like the earlier adventure
boys; he could no longer postpone heterosexual desire to adulthood.
To avoid speculation that his life-trajectory might be heading
toward “perversion,” he must demonstrate longing for
girls right now.
In 1955, the Cold War was heating up: the U.S. outlawed the Communist
Party and joined with seven other nations to form SEATO, an anti-communist
organization dedicated to fighting “massive military aggression.”
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European countries
signed the Warsaw Pack, and Khrushchev angrily told the West,
“We will bury you.” Civil defense drills became commonplace;
suburban homeowners increased their property value by installing
bomb shelters. Perhaps the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957,
marked the height of American anxiety about the future of the
nation. A new masculinity was needed to bolster masculine, capitalist
In addition, Walt Disney was in an economic slump after over-extending
himself in jingoistic animation during the last hot war, and self-indulgent
bombs like So Dear to My Heart (Schickel 241-242), but
the Cold War allowed him to re-invent the studio by promoting
patriotism – that is, aggressive military expansion into
South America, the Middle East, and Viet Nam. As Steven Watts
states in The Magic Kingdom, Disney was reinventing himself
as “something more than a moviemaker or even an artist.
He increasingly appeared as a spokesman for American ideals of
democracy and freedom” (347), and by 1955 those ideals required
a new, explicitly girl-crazy “all-American boy.”
As I have been arguing, Disney bolstered the Cold War by instilling
girl-craziness into the adventure boys: they ogled, flirted, and
kissed in the midst of their adventures, and sometimes the pursuit
of the girl became their explicit goal. This was the beginning
of the “age of the chest” (Cohan 165), a time in which
the chest was being fetishized in both men and women (see M. Davis,
Dyer). Soon Disney was flaunting his adventure boys shirtless
as often as the plot would allow. But now, the intense buddy-bonds
of the earlier adventure boys appeared only very occasionally:
same-sex bonds were actively repudiated as hints of homoerotic
potential; other boys became unwelcome intrusions or competitors
in the quest for girls.
Between 1956 and 1966, Disney personally auditioned
a veritable army of young men to become his new models of heterosexual
adolescence: nearly half of the twenty-nine Disney adventure,
mystery, Western, and science fiction films released between 1957
and 1966 feature teenage boys flexing their muscles and falling
in love with girls; none feature the earlier model of the adventure
boy oblivious to girls, and only one, Toby Tyler (1960),
features a romance between children. 6.
Paradoxically, Disney often selected boys who had previously played
gay or gay-stereotyped roles on screen. Michael Anderson Jr. played
Robert Mitchum’s shy, sensitive (i.e. gay) son in The
Sundowners (1960) before Disney cast him In Search of
the Castaways (1962). Peter McEnery played
a young gay man who committed suicide in Victim (1962)
before Disney cast him in The Moon-Spinners (1964). Tom
Lowell played a “sissy-boy” who rejected a bombshell’s
advances in The Carpetbaggers (1964) before
Disney cast him in That Darn Cat (1965). Warren Berlinger
played a series of shy, sensitive (i.e. gay) boys with arguably
romantic attachments to their best buddies before Disney cast
him in Kilroy (1965). 7.
Surely, it is no coincidence that so many of the Disney adventure
boys were hired directly from roles with implicit or explicit
sexual ambiguity, when many young actors who portrayed aggressively
heteronormative characters were available. It seems that Disney
was attempting to instill adolescent heterosexual desire as a
form of personal and national salvation, to demonstrate that even
“sissies” could become “red-blooded, all-American
men,” that America retained, or (at the very least) could
invent, a masculine, competitive, successful presence in the world.
An analysis of the three most prominent adventure boys, James
MacArthur, Roger Mobley, and Tommy Kirk, will demonstrate how,
in the Disney version, an adolescent heterosexual desire becomes
integral to discourses of national identity.
James MacArthur, the adopted son of playwright Charles MacArthur
and eminent thespian Helen Hayes, was already twenty-years-old,
somewhat over the hill for an adolescent. But
he had a remarkable physique, and perhaps more importantly, his
only major acting role so far was The Young Stranger
(1957), a juvenile delinquent exploitation film in which his character
demonstrates no interest in girls whatsoever, just an intense,
arguably romantic bond with his best buddy. 8.
At this point in MacArthur’s career, Disney hired him to
play adventure boys four times: in The Light in the Forest
(1958), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Kidnapped
(1960), and Swiss Family Robinson (1960). In
all but Kidnapped, he must both flex his muscles and
kiss a girl, regardless of how alien girl-craziness is to the
In Conrad Richter’s original novel Light in the Forest
(1953), True Son, abducted and raised by Indians in Colonial Pennsylvania,
is reunited with his birth family, feels alienated, and bonds
with boys; there are deep homoerotic undertows, no girls, and
no justification of white/Western colonization of the New World.
The Disney version, produced at the start of a more subtle but
equally aggressive program of American intrusion into the social,
economic, and political structures of the Third World, paradoxically
promotes heteronormative white/Western “civilization”
over the explicitly homoerotic “savagery” of the Indians,
as articulated in the bond between True Son (James MacArthur)
and his cousin Half Arrow (Rafael Campos), and, as Sean Griffin
details, in the bond between the barely-civilized Del Hardy (Fess
Parker), who takes an avuncular but nevertheless amazingly physical
interest in the boy (82-83). James MacArthur is overtly positioned
as an object of white/Western capitalist desire, shirtless in
almost every scene, his chest and shoulders embossed with a Technicolor
glow. When he is tied to a stake, his face, painted black and
white, melts into a stoic mask, but his bare chest remains bright.
The object of desire must himself desire, so, most likely, scriptwriter
Lawrence Edward Watkin dug through the novel to find a servant
girl, mentioned fleetingly (Richter 32-33), and transformed her
into the “love interest” Shenandoe (Carol Lynley).
The juxtaposition between Indian/primitive/homoerotic and white/civilized/hetero-erotic
becomes increasingly blatant. Among the Indians, women are absent
or mothers, never presented as potential spouses or objects of
desire; but the moment True Son enters white/civilized society,
Shenandoe teaches him how to dance, hold hands, and kiss. He makes
mistakes, at first: at a party, he finds a ring hidden in a piece
of cake. He is supposed to present it to the one he loves best,
so he gives it to Del Hardy. Del corrects him, “You don’t
give it to a man. You give it to the girl you love the best.”
True Son has learned that modern American adolescents must express
heterosexual desire, so he gives the ring to Shenandoe.
Soon True Son tires of white society and returns to the Indians.
Half Arrow helps him strip down and dispose of his clothes. Then
they wrestle and hug in the joyous, unabashed homoeroticism of
the wilderness. But the thought of leaving Shenandoe at the mercy
of the villainous Harry Butler (Frank Ferguson) compels True Son
to return to the civilized, heterosexual world. The movie concludes
with True Son and Shenandoe kissing, as the music swells. The
Light in the Forest, the meaning of life, has paradoxically switched
from “the wild beloved freedom of the Indian” (Richter
120) into heterosexual love.
Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1960), another adaptation
of a book present in most boys’ bedrooms, seems designed
specifically to present white/Western/heterosexual “civilization”
as an object of desire, with both national treasure James MacArthur
and nineteen-year-old Tommy Kirk bare-chested and bronzed in nearly
every scene. Early on, Father and Mother Robinson (John Mills,
Dorothy McGuire) worry that, if the family is stranded in their
desert island Paradise forever, their sons will grow up without
girls to ogle. The father asks, “Don’t you sometimes
feel this is the life we were meant to live?” The mother
responds, “It’s wonderful now, but what about tomorrow?
What about our sons? What future is there for them? What if we
were never to get away? They’d never know what it is like
to be married. . .what it’s like to have a family”
(All quotations are transcribed from the film.)
The dearth of females precipitates the decision of Franz and Ernst
to explore the other side of the island, where they become not
chums but competitors: they encounter a puzzlingly sissy “boy,”
Bertie, who turns out to be a girl, Roberta (Janet Munro). There
is a girl in the original novel, an “English cousin”
that no one bothers to fall in love with, but in the Disney version
Fritz and Ernst spend the rest of the movie posturing, flirting,
and fist-fighting over her. Roberta is always talking about how
she misses London, with its color and excitement, but at the end
of the movie she refuses rescue, deciding to stay with Fritz and
found a colony. “Two people,” Roberta says, “if
they have each other, what more could they want?” Fritz
replies, “I guess. . .to be alone.” Then they kiss
as Ernst, coming to fetch them, grimaces.
Ernst goes off to Europe to be educated: Fritz, Bertie, and their
heterosexual desire are necessary to bring American-style civilization
to the tropics, and boy-pals are merely a hindrance.
Associating young masculinity with muscles and girl-craziness
was insufficient: the adventure boy also had to actively reject
buddy-bonding, leaving the homoromantic behind to devote himself
to the single-handed pursuit of girls. Other
boys must be competitors in the pursuit, or comrades to grin at
and nudge during the pursuit, but they could not be vital and
necessary companions. The fifteen-year-old Roger Mobley had been
playing boys, bonding with other boys and an assortment of dogs,
horses, and men, for years when Disney hired him for the small-town
nostalgic tale For the Love of Willadean (1964),
9. in which he has to compete
with a fifteen-year-old boy for the affection of the new-girl-in-town.
Next, he became Richard Davis’s Gilded Age newspaper copyboy
Gallagher in four movies, all appearing for the first time on
The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights: The Adventures
of Gallagher (1965), The Further Adventures of Gallagher
(1965), Gallagher Goes West (1966), and The Mystery
of Edward Sims (1968).
The first installment stays close to the original Gilded Age Horatio
Alger-style stories, granting Gallagher a homoromantic bond with
Jimmy the Bootblack (thirteen-year-old Bryan Russell, who starred
with him in Emil and the Detectives earlier that year) and no
perceptible interest in girls. But the second, with the same writer
but a new director, eliminates the buddy-bonding and asks Gallagher
to puppy-dog grin at liberated newspaperwoman Adeline Jones (Anne
Francis, borrowed from the contemporary spy spoof-sex romp Honey
West). Adeline is eight years older than Gallagher, so nothing
comes of the infatuation; in fact, when they go undercover as
siblings to investigate a story, Gallagher must wear a girlish
Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit to hide his “youthful masculinity.”
It is enough to know that the infatuation exists, that the boy
has successfully acquired girl-craziness and abandoned “unhealthy”
associations with other boys.
In Gallagher Goes West, the seventeen-year-old newsboy
heads out to the archetypal (rather, stereotypical) town of Brimstone,
where shootouts punctuate the sizzling afternoons and horses neigh
on dirt streets. The local Mom-and-Pop newspaper editors take
him under their wings as cub reporter and surrogate son. All Western
heroes need horses, so Gallagher approaches a rancher’s
son, Phinn Carlson (twenty-year-old Tim McIntire), to see if Dad
has any for sale. Phinn agrees to show Gallagher the merchandise
the next day. Son of famous Western actor John McIntire, Tim McIntire
would soon shift from Wagon Train and Shenandoah
to more suggestive fare, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) and
A Boy and his Dog (1975); we, therefore, might anticipate
a few smoldering looks and some suggestive grabbing as Phinn shows
the greenhorn Gallagher how to tame a wild stallion. But no: when
Gallagher arrives at the Carlson ranch, Phinn has inexplicably
vanished, and his teenage sister Laurie (Darlene Carr, soon to
sing paeans to heterosexual sleaze as one of Dean Martin’s
Golddigger Girls) offers to train and “tame” Gallagher.
The two fall in love precisely on schedule.
Gallagher also excites the interest of the villainous Sundown
Kid (Western veteran Dennis Weaver). As the episode begins, the
two have just shared a lengthy stagecoach ride. As they say goodbye,
the Kid gazes at Gallagher with lip-licking predatory lust and
says“I like your style” in a hoarse voice that seems
to imply rather an appreciation of physical attractiveness. Later,
after kidnapping Gallagher, the Kid cups his face in his hands,
draws him close, and threatens to shoot him, but looks as if he
really plans a kiss instead. Weaver seems to have deliberately
added hints of homoerotic desire to his portrayal of the Kid to
underscore his aura of menace – no Disney villain of the
1960’s could be really murderous, but they could be creepy,
and what better way to induce shudders than to display a desire
for something beyond the limits of imagination? The goblins and
bogeys of the nursery, similarly, do not plan to eat or murder
us (such fates threaten only in tales for older children, where
ogres are merely brigands). Instead, they plan to get us; they
desire something other than our meat or our lives, something terrible
that we cannot imagine or define. Same-sex relationships are no
longer merely infantile; they are actively threatening, to be
spurned or abandoned. The only true, valid, and safe relationships
must be with girls.
The Mystery of Edward Sims, similarly, has the eighteen-year-old
fall in love with rancher’s daughter Darcy Killigrew (Stacey
Maxwell) while ignoring her hunky brother William (David Watson).
The Treasure of San Bosco Reef (1968), about
treasure-hunting off the coast of Italy, has no girlfriend-characters,
but the buddy-bonding between Roger and a young boy named Augusto
Donato is offset by discussions of native beauties.
After promoting American interests through media, in his off-screen
life Mobley went to Viet Nam as a Green Beret. He returned to
marry his high school sweetheart and become a police officer in
Orange County, Texas. He recently retired after thirty years on
the force. Few more macho lives exist.
Ultimately, however, Disney failed to completely contain the homoerotic.
Of all the young actors Disney tried out during the 1950’s
and 1960’s, only Tommy Kirk was outed and fired (during
the filming of The Monkey’s Uncle in 1964). But
even more interesting is the fact that his performances up to
that point frequently resisted the very association of masculinity
and girl-craziness that Disney wanted to foster. Even when he
was a Mousketeer, Joe Hardy in the teen-sleuth Hardy Boys serial
(1955-56), he failed to repudiate boys or long for girls. Michael
Mallory may note that he met the news of his older brother Frank’s
sudden girl-craziness with the “surprisingly powerful. .
.panic and anguish of a young man who feels he is being replaced
in his brother’s life” (56), but might it also be
the panic and anguish of a young man who has been spurned for
another? When the sixteen-year-old took time off from The
Mickey Mouse Club to star in the boy-and-dog Westerner
Old Yeller (1957), he still ignored girls, notably next
door neighbor Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn).
The Shaggy Dog (1959), Tommy’s first post-Mouseketeer
movie, involves spies and an ancient Egyptian ring that turns
its wearer into a sheepdog, an adventure story embedded in 1950’s
television suburbia: Dad (Fred MacMurray), Mom (Jean Hagen), little
brother Moochie (Kevin Corcoran), best friend Buzz (Tim Considine),
girl next door Allison (Annette), suburban streets, jalopies,
malt shops, and the shadow of a high school. Indeed, the cast
was packed with suburban sitcom stars: both Jean Hagen and Annette
had starred in Make Room for Daddy (as Daddy’s
wife and au pair girl respectively), Joyce Kendall (playing the
vampish Franceska) had just finished a season on Father
Knows Best, and Tim Considine and Fred MacMurray would
begin the long-running My Three Sons in 1960. Thus, instead
of the exuberant girl-craziness of the other Disney adventure
films, The Shaggy Dog displays anxieties about the possibility
that Wilby (Tommy Kirk), a shy, sensitive (i.e. gay) high school
boy, might not develop “normally” at all. The Egyptian-ring
plot device locates possible “perversion” in the Orient,
both the ancient mythical Egypt and the Middle East of contemporary
Anglo-Egyptian social conflict.
In an early scene, Mom passive-aggressively demands that Wilby
invite a girl to one of the country club dances the middle class
was always throwing during the 1950’s, but Dad believes
that seventeen-year-olds are too young for girls. Mom argues,
“He can’t exist in a vacuum. . .there’s nothing
wrong with girls. They’re character building.” Then
Moochie asks, “Why does he have to take a girl? Why can’t
he go with me?” Wilby rolls his eyes and quips, “That’s
a great idea, that is!”
Later, buddy Buzz, in the tradition of the 1950’s classroom
instructional films, tries to jump-start Wilby’s girl-craziness
by inviting both Allison and Franceska to the dance and then asking
Wilby to help him out of his “jam.” Wilby agrees to
escort one, noting that “Anything’s better than taking
my little brother!” The ploy works to an extent: Wilby falls
for Annette, but his intermittent transformation into a sheepdog
undermines his attempts at romance, suggesting the possibility
that he might not turn out adequately heterosexual after all:
the Egyptian-bred sheepdog is another form, deviant and alien,
like the homosexual.
Later, Wilby decides to “come out” to his father about
his sheepdog-lifestyle. Although most parents would be distressed
at the news that their child undergoes periodic transformations
into household pets, Dad’s reaction might be especially
harsh, since, as a retired mailman, he hates dogs. Wilby meekly
approaches Dad (in dog form) and, in a wavering voice, announces
that he has a problem. Eyes locked on a newspaper, Dad says that
Wilby can tell him anything – he needn’t be afraid.
Then he finally notices that Wilby is a dog and faints in horror.
Awakening, he moans “How could this happen? I’m a
failure as a father!” Even the best of parents could hardly
shield their children from the effects of a magic ring, so obviously
Wilby-as-dog refers to Wilby-as-something-else, a transformation
of boy into a deviant, a perversion of his growth into manhood.
After Tommy jostled with James MacArthur to win the affection
of girl-in-drag Bertie in Swiss Family Robinson, he starred
in an embarrassing number of bad Disney comedies: he romanced
Annette in The Horsemasters (1961), chased girls ineptly
through Europe in Bon Voyage (1962) and Escapade
in Florence (1962), was miscast as a college basketball star
(named Biff, yet) in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
and Son of Flubber (1963). His most convincing role was
no doubt Grumio, the over-eager Toymaker’s assistant in
Babes in Toyland (1961), who facilitates Annette’s
romance but displays no heterosexual interests of his own. We
might wonder why Tommy stayed on the Disney payroll for so long
when his on-screen girl-craziness is so clumsy and inept. For
one thing, Kirk’s films sold tickets: The Shaggy Dog
raked in $7.8 million, Old Yeller $5.9, and even the
stinker Misadventures of Merlin Jones $4.0, surpassing
that year’s From Russia with Love and tying with
the Oscar-winning Night of the Iguana. Perhaps audiences
(and Disney) desired the misfit to transform into the “all-American
boy” firmly ensconced in the “all-American family.”
The boy-and-dog Western, Savage Sam (1963), had an overt
heterosexual romance and frequent shirt-doffing scenes explicitly
designed to display Tommy’s “youthful masculinity,”
yet still the discourses of heteronormativity are subtly disrupted.
The twenty-one-year old plays Travis Coates, his Old Yeller character,
now grown into adolescence and living alone with little brother
Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Mom and Dad are breezily dismissed, but
adult guardian Uncle Beck (Brian Keith, who always wears pink)
looks in on the boys from time to time, occasionally bringing
along his life partner, Lester White (Dewey Martin, who always
wears lavender) and daring us to draw conclusions. Travis (Tommy)
does the wimmen’s work, cookin’ and cleanin’
and bein’ purty (the adult men constantly comment on how
handsome he is), while Arliss (Kevin Corcoran), a scrappin’,
ornery cuss, does the man’s chores. Tommy is still unable
to adequately portray heterosexual desire, so girl next door Lisbeth
(Marta Kristen) overdoes it, forgetting she’s in a Disney
movie, eyeing him hungrily and bandying about barely-cloaked sexual
innuendos. When they ride together, she places her hands not around
his stomach, like most back-seat equestrians, but around his belt,
a posture that might allow her intimate access to his privates.
We can find few more risqué gestures in the Disney opus.
A band of Apaches, unregenerate savages of the old school, abduct
Travis, Arliss, and Lisbeth, rip off the boys’ shirts to
give the audience what they bought their tickets for, and force
them on a cross-country journey back to their village. Butch Arliss
squawks and fights, but shy, feminine Travis suggests that they
bide their time until they can escape. As a consequence, the Apaches
pretty much leave Lisbeth and Travis alone, but they decide to
make a brave out of Arliss. They grab and grope him exhaustively,
suggesting another attempt to link homoerotic desire with savagery,
as juxtaposed with the “civilized” heterosexual romance
of Travis and Lisbeth.
When Travis is accidentally left behind, he follows the band to
mount a daring rescue, even though he is so fragile that he faints
dead away twice from fatigue and sunburn. He joins forces with
Savage Sam, the titular dog, and eventually with Uncle Beck and
his posse, to track down and shoot all the Indians. Then, quite
casually, they all go home. One might expect that bravery during
the battle would make a man of Travis, but no; he still plans
to start dinner, gender-transgressively, until Lisbeth restrains
him: “Cooking is women’s work. You go fetch some wood.”
Only then do the men grin and nudge each other, and Uncle Beck
exclaims “He’s clean hooked. She’s planted his
corn for good.” Corn will be planted, nuclear families raised,
and Western-style heteronormativity will tame the “wilderness.”
It takes a girl to prod a boy into heterosexual practice: in Tommy’s
last two movies for Disney studios, he plays “scrambled
egghead” college student Merlin Jones, lost in his own world
of wacky inventions, while girlfriend Annette has the job of proving
that he is really and truly heterosexual. In The Misadventures
of Merlin Jones (1964), often tagged as “miss-adventures”
to imply that it is a sex farce, she sings “his kisses make
me wish that I was Mrs. Frankenstein,” although they never
kiss. In The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), she sings “I’m
in love with the Monkey’s Uncle and the Monkey’s Uncle’s
ape for me!”, angrily, eyes flashing, as if daring us to
In spite of the box office success, Disney’s attempts to
cast Tommy according to the new model of the adventure boy, combining
a muscular physicality with overt heterosexual desire, almost
invariably failed. Tommy’s body was solid and pleasant to
look at, but it conveyed cuteness rather than power, and his scenes
displaying girl-craziness were strained and awkward. His lack
of the artistic genius of fellow gay actors like Rock Hudson was
perhaps exacerbated by his difficult coming out process –
difficult even for the early 1960’s, sending him on binges
of drug abuse. Indeed, he often came to the set so stoned that
he could barely recite his lines; Fred MacMurray gave him “the
dressing down of his life” on the set of Bon Voyage,
and in the spring of 1965, shortly after Disney fired him for
being gay, he was arrested for possession of marijuana, and Paramount
fired him from The Sons of Katie Elder. After a few sleazy
B-pictures like Mars Needs Women, he dropped out of acting
The Disney Impact
We can still see Walt Disney’s impact on adventure boys
in the movies and on television. They still fight to rescue or
win a girl, or fall in love with a girl en route, or at least
gaze with awe upon the feminine form to demonstrate that they
are heterosexual. The 1990 Håkon Håkonsen
(released in the U.S. as Shipwrecked) stars fourteen-year-old
Stian Smestad, a cabin boy whom hunky sailor-buddy Jens (Trond
Peter Stamsø Munch) must steer away from ladies of the
evening, admonishing him to “protect his valuables.”
But when he is shipwrecked on a desert island, Smestad crawls
out of the surf with his cabin-boy uniform peeled back to display
tanned pubescent cleavage (flexing is evidently still required),
and he immediately initiates a romance with spunky fellow castaway
Mary (Louisa Millwood-Haight).
In the New Swiss Family Robinson (July 1998), hardbodied
but homely surfer dude Shane (John Asher), shipwrecked in the
South Pacific without a shirt, is abducted by a French-speaking
jungle girl (Yumi Iwama), survivor of a long-ago plane crash;
they have time to dive Tarzan-and-Jane style into the lagoon,
kiss, and plan a wedding before settling down to plant an American-style
True Son’s modern counterpart, similarly, is not the obviously-adult
James MacArthur, but the thirteen-year-old, barely pubescent Sam
Huntington. In Jungle 2 Jungle (1997), Sam plays Mimi,
a “white boy” raised in savagery in Amazonia. He visits
his long-lost Dad in Manhattan dressed only in a loincloth (malls
in Brasilia do not sell t-shirts, evidently). His long blond hair,
pretty face, and soft body certainly code him as gender-transgressive,
as does his gender-bending name, but upon meeting Karen (fourteen-year-old
LeeLee Sobieski), he allows himself to be seduced. “You’re
putting the moves on my twelve-year old daughter!” her father
accuses Mimi. “That’s not true!” Karen argues.
“I was putting the moves on him!” Leonard Maltin calls
it “love of the puppy variety” (330), but there is
an extended kiss (while the music swells), a shot of the two asleep
in a hammock, a tearful goodbye, and then a joyous reunion, while
all of the adults stand around grinning their approval (and the
music swells again). Clearly, it is heterosexual desire, not shopping
at the Gap or learning to play video games, that makes an American
out of Mimi.
White or nonwhite, working class or elite, almost adult or barely
pubescent, adventure boys across the universe of mass culture
have been commanded by the Disney dictum that intense, aggressive
heterosexual desire is an essential component of “the American
way of life.”
1. His girl-crazy Andy Hardy character was a small-town
schoolboy, not an adventure boy.
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2. Not his own uncle, but the uncle of his sidekicks,
Billy and Betty.
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3. Spin gets Annette, and Marty gets Darlene Gillespie.
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4. David Stollery left Hollywood to become an
automobile designer, and Tim Considine starred in Disney’s
Swamp Fox and Shaggy Dog before becoming the
eldest of My Three Sons on TV (1960-65). Later, he became
a writer and well-known sports photographer.
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5. A remake, The New Adventures of Spin and
Marty (August 2000) bombed, perhaps because it was forty
years too late, or because Spin (Jeremy Foley) and Marty (David
Gallagher) were presented as preteens, and therefore excused from
flexing and ogling.
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6. Excluding TV movies and movies starring animals.
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7. None of these four appear to be publicly gay,
but only Michael Anderson and Tom Lowell married, and Peter McEnery
and Warren Berlinger continued to play gay and gay-vague roles
(among others) throughout their careers.
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8. In real life, MacArthur was married to future
sitcom star Joyce Bulifant.
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9. Made for theatrical release, it was shown on
The Wonderful World of Disney in 1968.
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