The Light in the Forest Is Love:
Cold War Masculinity and the Disney Adventure Boys

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2004, Volume 3, Issue 1

Jeffery P. Dennis
Florida Atlantic University

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 series. 2.

Disney Adventure 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 relations.

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.

The Disney Version

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 energy.

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

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 original story.

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.

Roger Mobley

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.

Tommy Kirk

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 believe otherwise.

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 altogether.

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 civilization.

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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