December 1, 1966 saw the release of Walt Disney’s Follow, Me Boys! only two weeks before the visionary storyteller would pass away at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. Though other productions that had featured Walt’s involvement continued after his death, this film would be the last Disney feature to be released in his lifetime. Follow Me, Boys! stands as a lasting testament to the spirit of nearly every film that Walt gifted to audiences around the world.
A film straight out of Main Street, U.S.A., Follow, Me Boys! is grounded in the Midwestern ideals that so defined Walt’s own worldview. A story endowed with wholesomeness and a sentimental devotion to community, it tells of the compassionate character Lem Siddons and his dream of finding an idealized life in rural America of the 1930s. Settling in a small town, Lem works as a stockboy, putting his plans to become a lawyer on hold, and becomes Scoutmaster for a local Boy Scout troop that revitalizes the community, endearing Lem to succeeding generations of his scouts.
Based on the novel “God and My Country” by MacKinlay Kantor and starring the beloved actor and Disney regular Fred MacMurray, Follow Me, Boys! is a nostalgic, heartfelt story. As historian Leonard Maltin would describe, “[…] It is laid out with such conviction and sincerity that it is quite possible for a viewer to lose all perspective and warm to the sentimental tale.” It was a story that tugged at the heart strings of many Americans during the tumultuous and uncertain conditions of the mid-1960s.
Boy Scouts are the central focus of this film, a fitting testament to Walt’s own admiration for this group. Walt received commendations from both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for his tireless efforts on behalf of the welfare of children. One particular honor is the Silver Buffalo, the highest commendation given by the Boy Scouts of America. Walt received his Buffalo twenty years before Follow Me Boys! was released, and almost thirty years after he served a short time as a young Boy Scout in Kansas City, Missouri. While Walt was forced to end his participation in the organization due to other commitments, he described the experience as “one of my finest lifelong satisfactions.”
Kurt Russell, who would go on to a successful career in many Hollywood films, made his Disney debut in Follow Me, Boys! as Whitey, one of the young boys who finds new purpose as a scout. He later remembered Walt with admiration, “What Walt represented to me was someone who was constantly aware of what might be fun to do… I remember he would always say, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun?’”
Walt had confidence in the thoughts of children, trusting in their judgement as to whether or not a project was of good quality. Russell remembered being invited by Walt to view parts of a film then in production. “[…] He was picking the mind of an uninhibited 13-year-old. He would ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ and we’d kick ideas back and forth. I think he was finding out how a young mind worked.”
Watching the film, one sees a bit of Walt in Fred MacMurray’s leading character, Lem Siddons: a thoughtful, eclectic man imbued with a sense of optimism and compassion, and above all, a sincere sense of dedication to his work. The grand parade and celebration at the end of the film, given in honor of Lem’s commitment to the community, feels like something that could’ve been given for Walt at a similar time in his life. Indeed, Walt had served as the Grand Marshal in the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1966. But the community that honored and celebrated Walt hailed from across the world, in as many nations as there had been films that Walt produced. The anthem song of this last film, wonderfully penned by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, might as well have been a march with which to follow Walt as he led us down new and exciting paths filled with promise for the future.
This article was co-written by the museum’s Guest Operations Trainer, Tyler Fahr, and historian Lucas O. Seastrom. The two became friends whilst serving as museum volunteers, and together helped produce the popular “Ghost Host Gallery Tours” in October 2014.
“Famous Scouts: Walt Disney,” Boys’ Life, January 2000, 56.
Follow Me, Boys! Dir. Norman Tokar. Prod. Walt Disney. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Vera Miles, Kurt Russell. Walt Disney Studios, 1966. DVD.
Green, Amy Boothe., and Howard E. Green. Remembering Walt: Favorite Memories of Walt Disney. New York: Disney Editions, 1999. Print.
Korkis, Jim. "The Myth of Walt's Last Words." Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?: And Other Forbidden Disney Stories. Orlando, FL: Theme Park, 2012. 183-88. Print.
Maltin, Leonard. "Follow Me, Boys!" The Disney Films. New York: Disney Editions, 2000. 245-47. Print.