The Living Desert (1953)

69 or 72 mins | Documentary | November 1953

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HISTORY

The film begins with the following written prologue: “This True-Life Adventure is a drama as old as time itself. But seldom seen by human eyes, nature sets the stage and provides the actors. Only through the endless patience of skilled photographers has it been possible to view this strange and unusual world.” An animated hand then paints a globe and various maps. Narration is heard throughout the film explaining the images. Throughout the film, animation is mixed with live-action photography. Some sequences involve special effects and whimsical music, such as the scorpion mating scene, which is edited to appear as if they are sharing a square-dance, and a sequence of flowers blooming in time-lapse photography. Press materials state that sequences were created from original and stock footage, edited to appear chronological.
       According to a Jan 1953 HR article, after the success of a series of Walt Disney nature documentary shorts entitled "True-Life Adventures," the studio decided to make a feature-length version. The Living Desert was the first in a series of six feature-length "True-Life Adventure" films, which presented expertly photographed footage of the wonders and oddities of the natural world. All of the six films were produced by Ben Sharpsteen, directed by James Algar and featured narration by Winston Hibler. The films garnered much praise, including three Academy Awards, as well as criticism of the filmmakers for tampering with documentary footage by inserting "jokey" stop-motion photography and musical humor.
       Press materials state that N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. began photographing the Great American Desert region as part of his thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles. Modern sources state that he then sent footage ... More Less

The film begins with the following written prologue: “This True-Life Adventure is a drama as old as time itself. But seldom seen by human eyes, nature sets the stage and provides the actors. Only through the endless patience of skilled photographers has it been possible to view this strange and unusual world.” An animated hand then paints a globe and various maps. Narration is heard throughout the film explaining the images. Throughout the film, animation is mixed with live-action photography. Some sequences involve special effects and whimsical music, such as the scorpion mating scene, which is edited to appear as if they are sharing a square-dance, and a sequence of flowers blooming in time-lapse photography. Press materials state that sequences were created from original and stock footage, edited to appear chronological.
       According to a Jan 1953 HR article, after the success of a series of Walt Disney nature documentary shorts entitled "True-Life Adventures," the studio decided to make a feature-length version. The Living Desert was the first in a series of six feature-length "True-Life Adventure" films, which presented expertly photographed footage of the wonders and oddities of the natural world. All of the six films were produced by Ben Sharpsteen, directed by James Algar and featured narration by Winston Hibler. The films garnered much praise, including three Academy Awards, as well as criticism of the filmmakers for tampering with documentary footage by inserting "jokey" stop-motion photography and musical humor.
       Press materials state that N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. began photographing the Great American Desert region as part of his thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles. Modern sources state that he then sent footage to Walt Disney, who hired him, along with Robert H. Crandall, to shoot more desert footage for the studio over the next two years. Press materials note that Kenworthy and Crandall photographed all sequences except the following: Jack C. Couffer shot the bat sequence; Stuart V. Jewell shot the time-lapse flower photography; Tad Nichols covered the flash flood of the Colorado River in Arizona; and Don Arlen captured the bubbling mud.
       The HR review incorrectly lists The Living Desert as an RKO release. Although Disney had had a long-running distribution deal with RKO, as noted in a 29 Jul 1953 Var article, Disney independently distributed the picture. Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., which became Disney's releasing arm in 1954, released the studio's subsequent productions. According to press materials, the Nov 1953 New York premiere screening combined The Living Desert with the shorts Ben and Me and Stormy, the Thoroughbred . The latter film was subsequently adapted into a feature (see below). The Los Angeles premiere of The Living Desert , on 16 Dec 1953, benefited the John Tracy Clinic, of which Disney was a board member.
       Modern sources state that the film cost $300,000 and grossed about $5 million in its first release. The picture won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Berlin Film Festival's Best Documentary and audience favorite awards. Despite these honors, the film was criticized by some reviewers for anthropomorphizing the animals which, as the NYT review asserted, "isn't true to life." For more information on other feature films in Disney's “True-Life Adventure” series, please consult the Series Index. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Feb 54
pp. 74-5, 104-105, 109.
Box Office
10 Oct 1953.
---
Daily Variety
1 Oct 53
p. 3.
Film Daily
2 Oct 53
p. 6.
Hollywood Citizen-News
8 Apr 1954.
---
Hollywood Reporter
7 Jan 1953.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Oct 53
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Jul 1954.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
17 Dec 1953.
---
Los Angeles Times
26 Nov 1952.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
10 Oct 53
p. 2021.
New York Times
10 Nov 53
p. 38.
Time
16 Nov 1953.
---
Variety
29 Jul 1953.
---
Variety
7 Oct 53
p. 6.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT

NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
A True-Life Adventure Feature
A True-Life Adventure Feature
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTOR
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Scr
PHOTOGRAPHY
Addl photog
Addl photog
Addl photog
Addl photog
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
MUSIC
Mus dir
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec processes
PRODUCTION MISC
Pub chief
ANIMATION
Anim eff
Anim eff
Anim eff
SOURCES
MUSIC
"A Hot Time in the Old Town" by Theodore M. Metz.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
November 1953
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 9 November 1953
Production Date:
1952--1953
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
4 August 1953
Copyright Number:
MP4049
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound System
Color
Technicolor
With animated sequences
Duration(in mins):
69 or 72
Length(in reels):
9
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
16460
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Teeming life exists in the seemingly barren lands of the Great American Desert, which encompasses the area to the west of the Missouri River and to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges block trade winds, creating a desert wasteland that includes both the highest point in America, Mt. Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley. After discussing the landscape from the Painted Desert to Monument Valley, with its mirages and the bubbling mud of the Salton Sea, the narrator turns his attention to the animal life. Birds, such as the red-tailed hawk and the woodpecker, make their nests among the spikes of the towering cacti, which provide a defense against predators. In this arid region, animals must go for months without water. As a result, some species, such as the tortoise, manufacture liquid inside their bodies from foliage. One tortoise attempts to court a lady tortoise, who bites him, after which her mate attacks. The mate upends the tortoise, which is in danger of dying until he manages to right himself. The coati mundi, a raccoon cousin, can eat the scorpion because it is almost immune to the sting. Baby coati mundis play in hollow logs and steal eggs from unguarded vulture nests. Wild pigs called peccaries abound, a vicious breed that travel in packs and fight off a bobcat, which races up a cactus to avoid them, wounding its paws. Next, a rattlesnake is shown using its sensitive tongue to track a pocket mouse. After the mouse mistakenly heads down a tarantula hole, the snake attacks the spider while the mouse burrows into the ground to escape. At night, millions of ... +


Teeming life exists in the seemingly barren lands of the Great American Desert, which encompasses the area to the west of the Missouri River and to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges block trade winds, creating a desert wasteland that includes both the highest point in America, Mt. Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley. After discussing the landscape from the Painted Desert to Monument Valley, with its mirages and the bubbling mud of the Salton Sea, the narrator turns his attention to the animal life. Birds, such as the red-tailed hawk and the woodpecker, make their nests among the spikes of the towering cacti, which provide a defense against predators. In this arid region, animals must go for months without water. As a result, some species, such as the tortoise, manufacture liquid inside their bodies from foliage. One tortoise attempts to court a lady tortoise, who bites him, after which her mate attacks. The mate upends the tortoise, which is in danger of dying until he manages to right himself. The coati mundi, a raccoon cousin, can eat the scorpion because it is almost immune to the sting. Baby coati mundis play in hollow logs and steal eggs from unguarded vulture nests. Wild pigs called peccaries abound, a vicious breed that travel in packs and fight off a bobcat, which races up a cactus to avoid them, wounding its paws. Next, a rattlesnake is shown using its sensitive tongue to track a pocket mouse. After the mouse mistakenly heads down a tarantula hole, the snake attacks the spider while the mouse burrows into the ground to escape. At night, millions of bats fly out of a cave, pursued by a hawk, which captures one. Although millipedes exude an odor that repels the tarantulas, they are eaten by toads, while snakes serve as prey for owls. Mating rituals flourish, including those of the tarantulas, scorpions and longhorn beetles. One beetle suffers rejection from the female, a fight with another male, and a battle with a tarantula, only to be eaten by a toad. Another nocturnal animal, the kangaroo rat, gathers food and buries it in the sand. A mother guards the babies in a nest, moving them out the back tunnel when a king snake threatens. After losing the scent of the rats, the snake attacks a gecko, biting off its detachable tail. The side-winder rattlesnake, with its ability to achieve traction, is able to go where others cannot, thus allowing it to trap rodents and lizards. After it misses a kangaroo rat, the rats seem to celebrate. The early hours of the morning bring cooler weather, prompting the ground squirrels to emerge, followed by a road runner. A skunk sprays one of the squirrels, after which a Gila monster approaches. The squirrels, including one dubbed “Skinny,” fight back until the Gila monster retreats. Meanwhile, a tarantula fights a tarantula wasp, which manages to paralyze its larger foe and drag it into a nest, where it lays an egg that will feed off the spider. Later, a storm results in a flash flood, creating a river that rages over the sand until it runs out of strength. As a result, dormant seeds bloom, creating a bed of vibrant flowers. Although they soon die, they symbolize the cycle of birth and death constantly occurring in the desert. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.