Saturday, November 10, 2007

Desert Living in The Living Desert

Fifty four years ago today, Walt Disney released the first True-Life Adventure feature film The Living Desert. With its cactus-perched bobcat and square-dancing scorpions, the film launched yet another successful chapter in the history of the Disney Studios. Especially notable is the fact that RKO, Disney's distributor up until that point, balked at releasing The Living Desert, asserting that there was no market for longer form nature documentaries. Walt and Roy Disney were quick to show RKO the door and Buena Vista, an in-house distribution division was subsequently born. The Disney brothers were quickly validated in their decision; the film would gross over five million dollars on a budget of approximately $500,000, and would also win that year's Oscar for feature length documentary.

True-Life Adventures veteran writer and director James Algar explained the genesis of The Living Desert in a 1968 interview:

"Living Desert came about in this way. A young man from UCLA came in and showed us about 10 minutes of film that he had made as a thesis. Because it had to do with nature and we were then making nature stories, he brought it here. This was a boy named Paul Kenworthy. And this was one moment when Walt spotted a thing instantaneously; it sounded very exciting. Kenworthy's sequence was the story of the wasp and the tarantula. It was a very-well-covered, very-well-photographed, thorough going account of how this wasp stings the tarantula to a state of paralysis and lays its eggs inside the body of the tarantula. The tarantula is in a state of preservation, and when the wasp's young hatch, they then feed on the tarantula and become new wasps and fly off. This was a little complete short story right out of nature, and the boy had done it well. And Walt said, "Let's get hold of this young man and set him up out there and see if we can't find out more such stories about the desert and build a thing about the desert." And this is what happened."

Kenworthy would become one of two principal photographers on The Living Desert and ultimately go on to contribute his skills to subsequent True-Life films, most notably The Vanishing Prarie in 1955.

The Living Desert has any number of memorable moments, but a few stand out and those have become burned into the collective subconscious of the baby boomer generation. Dramatic confrontations--among them a red tailed hawk versus a rattlesnake, the aforementioned tarantula-wasp showdown, and two male tortoises jousting for the same potential mate. This harsher side of nature is offset throughout the film by lighter moments, most notably the comical, and occasionally criticized, scorpion square dance. Of that particular sequence, Algar noted:

"In Living Desert we had the material of the scorpions in their little mating ritual where they walk back and forth and circle. And the more we looked at that, the more it obviously felt rhythmic and the more we saw the chance of creating something interesting. This is one time where we actually created the music, and we set it to a square-dance routine. Now people tend to marvel, "Gee, how do you get those animals to perform to music?" where in truth you get the musician to perform to the animals. It's not quite as mysterious as it might seem."

One specific scene in the film would become legendary and in many ways iconic. When a peccary, an American cousin of the wild boar, chases a bobcat up a very tall cactus, the resultant image of the perched bobcat subsequently became representative of Disney's once and future nature themed efforts. It was displayed in marketing materials, on merchandise, and included in the opening montage of the Wonderful World of Disney. It was even recreated as part of the Nature's Wonderland attraction that was a Frontierland mainstay for many years at Disneyland.

Despite its recent DVD release, The Living Desert remains largely unseen except by the most devout of Disney enthusiasts. It is quick becoming lost in an age of high definition Imax productions and 24 hour nature-themed cable channels. It is regrettable as the film still retains a timeless charm and remains both entertaining and often compelling some five decades after its inital debut.


Cory Gross said...

Thank you for the review!

One of the things that suprised and disappointed me about The Living Desert was... and I hate saying this in relation to Disney... how fake it was. That is, there was just way to much of the experimental desert tub footage and not nearly enough footage from the great outdoors.

I suppose it's a trade-off though, since a lot of that intimate footage of insects and rodents probably wouldn't be attainable otherwise. I do think, though, that The Vanishing Prairie was a marked improvement. (even with the excessive "Mickey Mousing" of the music)

Despite those flaws, I agree that it's too bad that this part of Disney heritage is being lost... It's anotehr victim of Disney's inability to properly market that heritage. For some reason they think that slapping The Living Desert or Davy Crockett or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on a DVD is getting their money's worth out of the them rather than rereleasing them to theatres and television with all the merchandising bells and whistles.

Unknown said...


I hate to say it, I think slapping these types of movies on DVD is the best you are going to get.

I have had friends who have tried to get their kids to watch episodes like The Living Desert, but they found them boring.

They were more intent on seeing that kind of material presented by people like Jeff Corwin or the late Steve Irwin. They want high energy hosts that do seemingly stupid things to get close to the animals.

Marketing them on DVD gets the dollars from the enthusiasts like Jeff Pepper who not only want these things for their own historical video library but also want to watch them over and over again.

I too am one who laments the loss of Vault Disney were alot of these types of movies and shows would get some air time. But, Disney's marketing people said we weren't worth the trouble and pulled it.