Sunday, February 25, 2007

What a Character! - Pecos Bill

Pecos Bill was featured in the final segment of the 1948 “package film” Melody Time. His story was told in both narrative and song by movie cowboy Roy Rogers, accompanied by the Sons of the Pioneers. Disney child actors Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were on hand around the campfire to hear the tale.

Reaction over the years has been mixed about both Melody Time and specifically the Pecos Bill sequence. Leonard Maltin called it a “felicitous collaboration,” and was especially complimentary of how animators brought to life the “marvelous exaggerations” of the Pecos Bill legend. Author John Grant however called it a “somewhat lackluster short,” in his Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters. Personally, I feel Melody Time is one of the studio’s most underrated productions, and Pecos Bill in particular is a high-energy and very entertaining piece of work. The supporting characters of Widowmaker and Slue Foot Sue are especially memorable and well-realized.

Not counting cameos on the recent House of Mouse television program, Pecos Bill was never animated again beyond his initial Melody Time appearance. He did receive exposure over the next few decades on the Disney anthology television show. Like Johnny Appleseed, his Melody Time segment was an easy cut-and-paste into episodes with American folklore themes.

Unlike many of his lower-tier contemporaries, Pecos Bill managed to make his presence felt at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The character of Slue Foot Sue, played originally by actress Betty Taylor, was the proprietress of the original Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland when the park opened in 1955. That particular show went on to play for over 30 years and 39,000 performances.

A Pecos Bill restaurant has been a mainstay at Walt Disney World since the Magic Kingdom’s opening in 1971. The long-popular counter service venue was originally called the Pecos Bill Cafe. It was remodeled and expanded in 1998 and then became known as the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe. Known for its burgers and extensive “fixin’s bar,” it straddles a corner between Frontierland and Adventureland, just opposite Splash Mountain.

A sign at the entrance identifies the establishment as having "The Tastiest Eats and Treats this side of the Rio Grande." An excerpt from the text on the sign provides the cafe's backstory:

“In 1878, with the encouragement of his friends, Pecos Bill decided to open his own watering hole, a restaurant whose motto very much reflects its one-of-a-kind owner, “The tastiest eats and treats this side of the Rio Grande.” Pecos Bill called it the Tall Tale Inn and Café and it quickly became a popular hangout for some of his legendary friends. As time went by it became a tradition when each friend paid a visit they would leave something behind for Pecos Bill to remember them by. As you can see from the articles and artifacts that don the walls, many of which carry inscriptions, Pecos Bill had some mighty impressive friends. It seems that every trail eventually led to the Tall Tale Inn and Café.”

Among those articles and artifacts:
  • Slue Foot Sue's gloves, bearing the inscription "To Billy All My Love Slue Foot Sue.”
  • Davy Crockett’s bag and powder horn. Disney’s version of Crockett from the 1950s became a pop culture phenomenon. Fess Parker played Davy. Crockett's best friend Georgie Russell is also featured. Russell’s artifacts include trail gear and a letter that details a shooting match between Crockett and Big Foot Mason. Russell was played by Buddy Ebsen.
  • Johnny Appleseed’s tin pot hat--John Chapman's story was also a featured segment in the film Melody Time.
  • Paul Bunyan’s ax. His story was told in a Disney cartoon from 1958. The ax bears the inscription, “To Pecos--from one giant to another. Best wishes Paul Bunyan.”
  • John Henry's hammer and spikes. The famous steel-driving man was featured in an animated short produced by Disney in 2000, a couple of years after the restaurant's refurbishment.
  • Casey Jones’ coal bucket and oil cans. Casey Jones featured in the 1950 Disney cartoon The Brave Engineer. He was based on real life engineer John Luther Jones. Jones died in a locomotive crash in 1900 where he sacrificed his life to save the lives of the passengers on the train. Not surprisingly, in the Disney version he survives for a somewhat happier ending.
Other artifacts include objects donated by Jim Bowie, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody.

Pecos found himself reinvented by Disney in 1995, this time as real flesh and blood, in the live action feature Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. The film starred Patrick Swayze as Bill, and also featured other characters such as Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Calamity Jane.

In 1998, Pecos Bill became a poster boy of sorts for Disney Animation purists decrying censorship, when the film was finally released to home video. Ironically labeled as Fully Restored, Buena Vista Home Video had actually taken a digital knife to the film, and most specifically in the Pecos Bill sequence. You see, our rambunctious cowboy just happened to also be . . . a smoker! More concerned with pleasing the soccer-mom demographic than preserving the integrity of the company’s classic animation, the suits cleansed our spirited hero of his homemade cigarette vice.

First, they clumsily edited the musical number that expounded on many of Bill’s over the top feats of daring-do. The tornado-taming scene is all but eliminated. Why? The song’s lyrics at that point enlighten the reason:

While that cyclone bucked and flitted,
Pecos rolled a smoke and lit it,
And he tamed that ornery wind down to a breeze.

It’s a fun gag when Bill grabs a lightning bolt and uses it to light the cigarette.

Second, Bill’s aforementioned “smoke,” that hangs dutifully from his mouth throughout, has been digitally removed from the entire sequence. In an interesting bit of high-handed PC hypocrisy, Jose Carioca continues to puff away on a cigar without consequence in the “Blame It on the Samba” segment of the same film. Sadly, the edits were still in place when Melody Time was released on DVD in 2000.

Pecos Bill has remained alive and well, and most especially in song. His theme song, originally performed by Roy Rogers in 1948, has been recorded by numerous other artists over the years, including cowboy band and Woody’s Roundup performers Riders in the Sky. The opening lines from that song happily sum up Bill’s unique personality and character:

Pecos Bill was quite a cowboy down in Texas,
And a western superman to say the least.
He was the roughest toughest critter,
Never know to be a quitter,
Cause he never had no fear of man nor beast!



Spaced Out Dude said...

Before the remodell of Peco's Bills in 1998, wasn't it the Mile Long Bar. Where the Country Bear heads were singin?

Jeffrey Pepper said...

The Mile Long Bar occupied a small area at the far left of what is now the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe. The original Pecos Bill Cafe was then located to the right of the Mile Long Bar.

The Mile Long Bar was eliminated and the area absorbed into the new expanded Pecos Bill's.

Spaced Out Dude said...

Thanks Jeff, that's what I thought. Do you have any pictures from the Mile Long Bar? I'd love to see them.

BJWanlund said...

Again, yet another example of the Disney-must-appeal-to-the-soccer-moms attitude that is so vexing to us classic animation fanatics. Disney, if you're listening, PLEASE put these underrated classics onto DVD and don't sanitize the living h-e-double hockey sticks out of it!


Daveland said...

You can see both Pecos Bill and Sue at the Disneyland Golden Horseshoe Saloon on the frosted windows when you first walk in. I have pics of both at the bottom of this page, and interestingly enough, Bill has a cig hanging from his mouth:

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing The Cat from Outer Space on TV a long while back and one of the side characters, played by the guy who was the original base commander on MASH, came over to his friends house with a six-pack of beer to watch the game on television, which he had a bet on.

Funny what did and did not concern Disney in those days.

HenriekeG said...

Interestingly, on the Dutch Melody Time DVD that I bought a few years ago, Pecos is still smoking! The only thing that's missing is that if you watch the Dutch dub, the singers remain silent while he lits his cigarette. The original soundtrack is complete, though.
Here is a screencap:

I'm commenting on an old post but thanks for making this blog! I always enjoy reading it.

Anonymous said...

I used to love this collection of old cartoon shorts with Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane, Johnny Appleseed, and many more. I think it's a shame we can't find these on dvd today. Disney shouldn't be ashamed of the history of cartoons. I would love to have the original versions unmodified just the way I always watched them.