Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film. He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films. Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.
Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart. The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.
Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing Storm. Bambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.
Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land. With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana. Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.
World War II was hard on the Disney studios. Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market. Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well. And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.
After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons. He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films. Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.
Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time. He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films. He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.
Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking. He suggested a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.
Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney. After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter: “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.” Stewart never returned to the Studio. But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.
Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence. The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men had similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color. A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm. Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability. A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel. (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)
So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers. It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.