Tim here. It’s Independence Day weekend here in the States, which means that most of you undoubtedly have something better to do than read about old cartoons. But if I promise to keep things short, hopefully you’ll indulge me in chatting up an odd little animated short perfectly timed to the holiday.
I have in mind Ben and Me, one of the oddest one-offs in the history of Walt Disney Productions. Released in November, 1953, it was the studio’s first two-reel animated short, and one of the initial releases under Disney’s own Buena Vista Distribution label, part of a package deal with the nature documentary The Living Desert. But more to the point, for our present purposes, it’s about how a mouse helps Benjamin Franklin write the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. We can wait a minute if you want to process all the ways in which that’s a perversion of history.
Okay, sure, there’s more to it than that.
Based on a 1939 children’s book by Robert Lawson, Ben and Me follows the life of Amos, a mouse voiced by Disney mainstay Sterling Holloway, who set off from his impoverished home in wall of a Philadelphia church in 1745 to make his fortune, ending up in the home of the absent-minded inventor and writer Ben Franklin (Charles Ruggles). Over the course of one night, the two are able to invent bifocals, indoor heating stoves, and the American news media.
Ben’s penchant for playing tricks on the mouse, sending him up on kites during thunderstorms and such, puts a wedge between them. Eventually, in 1776, they finally mend fences just about the time that Ben’s young colleague Thomas Jefferson (Hans Conreid) is having an impossible time finding the right opening for his otherwise-complete Declaration. More through accident than anything else, Amos ends up providing the legendary “When in the Course of human events…” The perversity having not let up, I will let you take another minute to process (it’s the 31-year-old mouse that bothers me the most).
Daft fantasy nonsense, for sure, but Ben and Me is actually pretty charming. Holloway and Ruggles are delightful in their roles, playing a kind of gentle riff on the traditional odd couple dynamic (Conreid, who voiced Captain Hook in the same year’s Peter Pan, is unfortunately distracting for that reason, but he’s not in it very much). It wasn’t an A-list project, and it lacks anything resembling the visual lushness of Disney’s contemporaneous features, like Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella – the latter of which obviously inspired Ben’s design; he looks exactly like the talking mice helpers from that film, though thankfully without their annoying pidgin English – but the simple style based on 18th Century painting brings the setting to life in a very specific, effective way. It’s not a colorful film, as such, but it has a clarity and warmth that fit the “historical bedtime story” mood.
Given Disney’s corporate proclivity for all-American nostalgia, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that the story ends up being so disinterested in any kind of soaring patriotism or overwrought long-view about Great Moments in History. It’s actually quite an ordinary platonic romantic comedy between a mouse and a man. Most of its energies are dedicated to building solid but hardly revolutionary cartoon sight gags out of 18th Century material (a lengthy printing press scene is by far the most ambitious part of the movie), but that ends up being enough.
At 21 minutes, it’s short enough that having genial humor built on a playfully impossible history lesson hasn’t run out of steam, while long enough to build character relationships with a depth that isn’t possible in a 7-minute animated short that only has enough time to plow through its gags. It’s not one of the timeless masterpieces of Disney animation, or anything equally silly, but it’s one of their best ‘50s shorts and a fun 4th of July pastiche that’s not really like anything else.