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Wednesdays with Wade: The Story of "Ben and Me"

Wednesdays with Wade: The Story of "Ben and Me"

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"I think it is high time all these things got straightened out in the public mind. Walt Disney has gotten hold of all the facts in the case. Mr. Disney has always been very decent to us mice."

-- Amos Mouse (As voiced by Sterling Holloway) in the trailer for " Ben and Me"

"The story of a mouse that lived in Ben Franklin's hat."

-- Walt Disney in his introduction to "The Liberty Story," a 1957 episode of ABC's "Disneyland" television series

I know, I know. It's closer to August 1st than it is to the Fourth of July. But still my mind keeps drifting to that holiday. The Fourth of July is one of my favorites, you know. I love the hot dogs & watermelon, the homemade lemonade and the fireworks.

So -- to get myself back in a sort of Fourth of July mood -- I just a tape in the VCR of one of my favorite cartoons from childhood, "Ben and Me." Which is reportedly finally going to be released on DVD as part of one of the upcoming "Disney Treasures" multi-disc sets.

Based on the book by Robert Lawson, "Ben and Me" tells the "true" story of the inventive churchmouse who was actually the brains behind Benjamin Franklin. Amos Mouse and his cleverness and common sense helps inspire such innovations as bifocals, Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" newspaper, the Franklin Stove and the Declaration of Independence and much more. Of course, his participation in Franklin' s experiments with electricity has tragic results that thankfully gets resolved in time to help the United States get born.

"Ben and Me" was originally released on November 11. 1953. It was on the same bill as "The Living Desert." In fact, Buena Vista Pictures was created to release this theatrical program when RKO balked at releasing a full length True Life Adventure film.

" Ben and Me" was the first Disney animated featurette. It was made in Technicolor and ran about twenty-five minutes. Walt felt that an animated featurette could be paired with a live action feature to make a complete program of Disney entertainment. Some stories were too long for the standard short but not sufficient to maintain a feature.

"Ben and Me" was nominated for an Academy Award in the two reel short subject division. The winner for two reel short subject that year was Disney's True-Life Adventure "Bear Country." The winner for one reel short subject was Disney's "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom."

The inspiration for the featurette was the original book "Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin" that was published in 1939. It was written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Lawson was the illustrator of Munro Leaf's "Ferdinand the Bull" that Disney had made into an Oscar winning short cartoon in 1938.

Lawson also wrote "Mr. Revere and I" about Paul Revere's horse, the mare Sheherazade, saved from the glue factory by Sam Adams. She and Paul Revere make the ride that changed the course of history.

"I have never, as far as I can remember, given one moment's thought as to whether any drawing that I was doing was for adults or children. I have never changed one conception or line or detail to suit the supposed age of the reader. And I have never, in what writing I have done, changed one word or phrase of text because I felt it might be over the heads of children. I have never, I hope, Insulted the intelligence of any child. And with God and my publishers willing, I promise them that I never will," stated Lawson. It was a philosophy that echoed Walt Disney's own philosophy about family entertainment.

After he illustrated "Mr. Popper's Penguins," Little, Brown and Company asked Lawson to illustrate another book and to suggest a subject that would interest him. He wrote an outline of "Ben and Me" and sent it off to Little, Brown. They immediately wrote back that while they liked the concept, they could not possibly think of any author who could do justice to the odd story, and Lawson would have to do it himself.

The publication of "Ben and Me" in 1939 demonstrated his ability to write as well as to illustrate. Lawson has been awarded both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. The Lawson's' home, called "Rabbit Hill,"was the original setting for the book by that name written and illustrated by Lawson. Robert Lawson died at Rabbit Hill, Westport, Connecticut, in 1957 so he did get to see "Ben and Me" delight audiences in theaters.

Famed Disney storyman Bill Peet did the primary adaptation with additional dialogue supplied by Winston Hibler, Del Connell, and Ted Sears. The adaptation kept fairly close to the source material but added some scenes and humor that helped focus the slight story.

The film was directed by Hamilton Luske. Luske had joined the Disney Studio in 1931 as an inbetweener and became an animator in 1934 on the "Silly Symphonies." At the time, he was a sequence director on "Peter Pan" and would soon move into being a sequence director on "Lady and the Tramp."

In addition to his work on the features (which would even include work on "Mary Poppins"), Luske may be best known for his work on educational shorts like "Donald in Mathmagicland" and "Scrooge McDuck and Money." Luske's directorial assistant on "Ben and Me" was Rusty Jones.

Animators included Wolfgang Reitherman, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Hal King, Cliff Nordberg, Les Clark, Marvin Woodward, Don Lusk, Hugh Fraser, Jerry Hathcock, Eric Cleworth, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Merle Gilson, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, Bob McCrea, and Art Stevens. Dan McManus did some effects animation and art direction was by Ken Anderson and Claude Coats. Backgrounds were by Al Dempster, Thelma Witmer, and *** Anthony. Oliver Wallace did the music.

Sterling Holloway is the only voice credited on the film. According to Disney Archivist Dave Smith, Holloway, Hans Conried, Bill Thompson, Charlie Ruggles, and Stan Freberg were all in to record voices for the film during January 1952, but the files do not specify which roles they recorded.

However, their voices are so distinctive, it is easy to tell that Holloway did the voice of Amos Mouse who narrated the story, Charlie Ruggles was a genial Ben Franklin, Hans Conried (who had just finishing voicing Captain Hook for "Peter Pan") was a fiery Thomas Jefferson, Bill Thompson (who had just finishing voicing Mr. Smee for "Peter Pan") was the guide at the beginning of the featurette as well as the Governor Keith and some bit roles, and obviously the talented Stan Freberg filled in some miscellaneous parts as well.

Charles "Charlie" Ruggles was one of the most popular comedy character actors of the 1930's and 1940's. Usually playing a henpecked husband or a genial, eccentric character, he appeared in about eighty movies including the well-known "Ruggles of Red Gap" in 1935. While he was recording the voice of Ben Franklin, he was appearing on his television show, "The Ruggles" (1949-1952). The show featured Margaret Kerry as his teenaged daughter. At this time, Margaret had just recently done live action reference modeling for the role of Tinker Bell in "Peter Pan" .

Years later, Ruggles provided the voice of Aesop in the Jay Ward cartoon series "Aesop and Son". He also appeared in several live action Disney films including "The Parent Trap"(1961), "Son of Flubber"(1963), "The Ugly Dachshund" (1966) and "Follow Me Boys"(1966).

Although Sterling Holloway's first Disney work was as the messenger stork in "Dumbo" (1941), Walt Disney was apparently aware of Holloway's work on radio since -- in a memo dated August 9, 1934 -- he recommended Holloway as the voice of Sleepy in "Snow White." The part eventually went to Pinto Colvig.

Despite his many memorable voices for Disney characters including Kaa the Snake, the Cheshire Cat and Winnie the Pooh, Holloway only voiced one other mouse: Roquefort the gentle mouse in "The Aristocats" (1970). Holloway is also known to Disney fans as a narrator of Disney cartoons like " Peter and the Wolf." His first narration was as "Professor Holloway" in "The Three Caballeros" (1945) telling the story of "Pablo the Cold Blooded Penguin."

To help promote Disney's first featurette, a DELL comic book (Four Color No. 539 illustrated by Al Hubbard released in 1954) and a Sunday comic strip version of the film were released. In addition, a Little Golden Book storybook (adapted by Campbell Grant and originally numbered "D-37" in the Simon and Schuster edition), a Cozy Corner Book (adapted by Earl Klein and released by Whitman Publishing in 1954 as well) and a recording of the "Ben and Me" theme "You and Me" by composer Ollie Wallace were offered to eager audiences. WD Classics Collection released an Amos sculpture in 2003 with a specially designed pin.

I first saw "Ben and Me" in black and white on a rerun of the Disney television series, "The Liberty Story" that was originally shown on May 5, 1957. The first half of the show was a promotion for the then-in-release live action feature, "Johnny Tremain."

However, the second half was "Ben and Me" preceded by Walt Disney informing the audience that a small bookcase with books had been located in a church basement when it was being torn down and since the books seem to have been written by a mouse, it was natural to send the books to Walt. Walt even showed an old newspaper describing the find. As a child, I believed every word because, after all, Walt walked over to a mouse-size bookcase that was attached to his regular bookcase where he normally pulled a volume of literature to introduce a show.

Years later (after I had wised-up), I did discover that new animation written by Peet and directed by Luske had been added to "The Liberty Story." In the new introduction, Amos introduced his early ancestors before he moved into the story of how he helped Ben Franklin. I don't know whether that new animation will be included in the forthcoming DVD release (and true be told, you can tell that it was quickly done "television" animation and it barely blends with the lusher animation of the animated featurette) but I am glad that a new generation will be able to celebrate the Fourth of July whenever they'd like by watching this little animated gem.

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