The Living Desert (1953)
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The Living Desert won the Academy Award in 1953 for Best Documentary - the archives section of the Go Disney website contains a bit of the history: "Academy Award® winner for Best Documentary Feature. The film stands as a landmark of factual film-making."
I saw this film on The Wonderful World of Disney as a child and thought it was great. Having remembered the impression it made on me and despite the age of this film, I have used it and the accompanying book in my elementary school classroom. The kids seem to enjoy 'the old Disney' - poor color quality and all. Certainly there are excellent PBS or National Geographic documentaries on the subject, but Disney's The Living Desert has a certain charm.
The film was inspired by 10 minutes of footage shot by N. Paul Kenworthy Jr., a doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles. Kenworthy's footage of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp intrigued Disney, who funded a feature-length production following the lives of diverse desert species. Disney was highly supportive of Kenworthy's work and its impact on nonfiction filmmaking, stating, "This is where we can tell a real, sustained story for the first time in these nature pictures." Indeed, this film not only captures animals, but makes them really fascinating to watch. As a child, I saw a few of those Mutual of Omaha specials, and never really got into them. But this film? Fascinating. The turtle fight, the bird against a whole swarm of bats... that is something that can only be nature at its most raw, without prodding from the man behind the camera.
The photography is a joy to watch as we view lizards lapping up unsuspecting insects, turtles performing a mating ritual, javelinas chasing a bobcat which is forced to take refuge on a large prickly cactus. The movie is well edited as the viewer watches the seamless transition from scene to scene accompanied by music often right in tune with the action. Symphonic music for the slithering, striped snake burrowing in and out of the sand, soon followed by hoedown music for courting tarantulas. Told in the vernacular of mid-20th century life, we hear analogies to males fighting off rivals for the right to the female. Fortunately, these scenes are still available to viewers on stations like TCM. Highly recommend.
Nonetheless, Disney's little formula worked. As I recall, this feature and its companion The Vanishing Prairie, (1953), were both box-office successes. Now, of course, much of the same material can be gotten on cable. Still, some of the footage is superb: the blooming desert flower buds, the flash flood, and who would imagine a wasp that only hunts tarantulas--that's a real fight to the death. All in all, whatever the commercially driven excess, the footage still manages to fascinate and, yes, help educate non-naturalists like me.
Fans of the Warner Brothers cartoons will be thrilled to see a real road runner (no coyote in sight), going after the tails and leathery bodies of various mammals and reptiles. The presence of several lizards (including the infamous gila monster whom the narrator describes basically as a poisoned beaded purse) reminds me of the various monstrous looking creatures in "The Secrets of Life" that along with this influenced filmmakers to create Godzilla sized monster for all those infamous mid 1950's-1970's creature features. Natural wonders such as the description of how the desert stops Pacific Ocean rain in its tracks, how sudden floods change the landscape, and the nearly castle like mountainous rocky formations create various legends. This thrilled me as a kid in a double bill with a Disney feature, and it stands the test of time. Other than the narrator, there is no human being in sight, only pretty much every kind of critter you can imagine, all living out in the open, determined to survive another day. The poor bobcat, though, on the top of the giant cactus, had me in stitches. Poor kitty with thorns in their tootsies, but that's better than a bore tusk in its belly.