This article is part of the Tearjerker blogathon: https://debravega.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/announcing-the-no-youre-crying-blogathon-our-favorite-tearjerker-films/
I did not have difficulty choosing the topic for this article, since this is the only movie in recent years to make me cry. Although I am a very sensitive young lady, I never cry during even the saddest movies; I know how to keep my distance from the emotions on the screen even while I enjoy the film entirely. In spite of this, a few months ago when I watched Rascal, a Disney live action film from 1969, I found myself crying after its ending. I have watched this film dozens of times throughout my life and have always been effected by its bitter-sweetness, but this is the first time that I have been moved to tears. To see why Rascal is the only film in recent years to make me cry, I will consider the story, the music, and the timing of this film.
The story of a boy who loves a wild animal which he must eventually give up has always effected me with its sentimental melancholy. I love my animals, so I sympathize with a boy who knows loneliness and makes his animals his only real companions. Sterling North spends the whole summer virtually alone with only his dog, Wowser, and raccoon, Rascal.
The summer is the most wonderful one Sterling ever knows because he spends it playing and exploring with his special new pet, whom he rescued and adopted after its mother was scared away by his dog.
Sterling works very hard to train and “de-varmatize” his mischievous pet, but he is unable to keep Rascal from being his namesake.
He terrorizes neighboring corn fields, hen houses, grocery stores, cupboards, larders, and anywhere else that desirable food is kept.
Sterling keeps training him and boarding up his exits, but the wily creature finds a new means of escape every night.
His teacher warned him earlier that he mustn’t get too attached to Rascal, since he someday would have to go back to the woods, but Sterling wouldn’t believe her. When the mayor finally says that the law demands Rascal to be caged, Sterling and his father decide to put him in the wild.
After Rascal helps the town’s favorite horse to win a race, however, he is a hero.
Sterling can keep Rascal always now, since everyone loves him. Rascal, however, has different plans. He wants to find a female friend, and when Sterling tries to keep him from getting out the window, he bites him. Sterling’s hand is not hurt badly, but his heart is broken. He feels completely rejected and betrayed by his pet. He knows he has to let him go.
As he releases Rascal into the wild, he watches his friend find his raccoon sweetheart then turn and chirp a farewell.
One must never underestimate the power of background music when it comes to moving the audience and producing a desired effect in the viewers. “Summer Sweet” by Bobby Russell is a heart-rending theme song which captures the feeling of an old-fashioned country childhood.
As I listen to it now on Youtube, I feel chills. I wish it could play continually at this article, but since I cannot, I will provide the link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lgGlr7-xuc. This movie is set around the turn of the century, and it has that simple, back-woods quality. However, it also has the sound of music from the 1960s, since the strumming guitars, folk-voices, and lilting rhythm are singular to that time. I often think about how singers in the 1930s, such as Ruth Etting and Bing Crosby, could put a cry in their voice like no other time. However, there is no music as sad as sentimental songs from the 1960s; while I think music from the 1930s is beautifully tragic, some music from the 1960s is ineffably depressing. Since this is set in an older time, I can probably best describe it as heartbreaking, beautiful sentiment which is melancholy since it captures the passing of times which can never be relived. The lyrics describe a glorious summer of youth which can never be rivaled in maturity.
This song captures the aspect of golden boyhood that is in this film; I think it a similar feeling to Mark Twain’s books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Disney’s cartoon Peter Pan.
It gives me a melancholy pain to think about the demise of golden boyhood and rosy girlhood, which have been merged into dun childhood. That aside, the simple, country-style background music throughout the film adds to the feeling of a small town in the Midwestern United States.
I think that this movie’s effect on me runs deeper than the film itself; the timing of the film makes it a heart-breaking example of a world that was almost completely dead by 1969. In November of 1968, the Code had officially been replaced with the modern rating system; that means that Rascal was made the first year without the Code.
In 1966, Walt Disney, the founder and very spirit of Walt Disney Pictures, had died. The year before that, Joseph Breen, the Production Code Administration’s great leader, had died. He had retired from the PCA, however, in 1954, so Hollywood had been dying for fifteen years by the time this film was released. Although many clean films were made throughout the 1950s, by the 1960s, the only studio which was exclusively making clean, Codish film was Disney. As a matter of fact, aside from Disney films, I can count the 100% Codish films from the 60s on one hand. The reason for this was that Walt Disney was dedicated to making wholesome films for the whole family; it’s not surprising that he never violated the Code, since he and Mr. Breen had the same goal for entertainment. Just as Joseph Breen ironically died the same year that the Catholic Legion of Decency was dissolved, Walt Disney died the same year that the Code was replaced with a list of eleven feeble points which basically said that public taste would govern Hollywood. For a few years after Disney’s death, his studio continued in his path; you cannot tell that Mr. Disney had died or even that Mr. Breen had retired for a few years. It was not until 1970 that Disney films ceased to be true Breen era films. When I thought about the fact that this film was from the last year that the last studio to respect the Code made truly Codish films, I felt an indescribable sensation of grief for something that is lost. Rascal‘s central theme and the lyrics to “Summer Sweet” tell the story of beautiful times which do not last forever; they pass away and remain only a beautiful memory. The images of the boy and his beloved animals, the lovely, bittersweet theme song, and the thought that this film was the swan song of the Code era were enough to make me cry.
Having reviewed the story, the music, and the timing of Rascal, it is clear that the plot and music perfectly acknowledge the death of the Code era, which adds to this film’s heartbreaking impact on me. I have always had great compassion for Sterling, a lonely boy whose only companions are his dog and raccoon, Rascal; when he decides he must release Rascal, it is heartrending. “Summer Sweet” is a nostalgic theme song which moves you throughout the film, using a tender melody, sentimental lyrics, and effective country-style instruments. Although this film is made in the style of the Breen era, by 1969 Joseph Breen, Walt Disney, and the Code had all died. Does this sweet time have to be over forever?
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!
Sterling: Billy Mumy; a young boy who finds a raccoon and makes it his pet
Willard North: Steve Forrest; Sterling’s adventurous father who is never home
Theo North: Pamela Toll; Sterlin’s practical older sister who leaves town to work
Mayor: Robert Emhardt; the local authority who wants Rascal to be caged
Garth Shadwick: Henry Jones; a horse owner who wins a race with Rascal’s help
Narrator: Walter Pidgeon; the unseen voice of grown Sterling, recounting his youth