Cast & Crew
In the Continental Divide, Native American drawings depict the area's lush flora and fauna. Much of the ancient prairie life still exists in the remaining, albeit endangered, species. In spring, geese, duck, cranes and swans return from their migratory flights and pair off to mate. Some attempt to land on still-icy waters, causing them to slip and slide unceremoniously. The red-necked grebes build a floating nest from which they can simultaneously feed their hatched chicks and incubate eggs. The whooping crane, endangered in part due to its inability to lay more than one egg per year, performs a majestic mating dance, as does the sandhill crane. In early morning, the grouse and prairie chickens make noises by expelling air from pockets in their chests, then demonstrate the rapid, hopping foot movements that were imitated by Indians during their fire dances. Although the buffaloes' numbers have decreased dramatically in the past century, each new calf brings hope for their survival. The birth of one calf is shown, after which the mother eats the caul blanketing the baby, then encourages it to stand and to nurse. When the calf is strong enough, the herd moves on, creating the characteristic trails that years ago helped point the prairie settlers toward water. Also nearing extinction are the pronghorn sheep, whose cousins, the bighorn sheep, have evolved into expert rock climbers who scale sheer cliffs with ease. The high country represents the last refuge of the mountain lion, also called the puma or cougar. She hunts relentlessly to feed her cubs, who play nearby. The lioness tracks a fawn, but it instinctively lies perfectly still, protected by its lack of scent, and is soon reunited with its mother. Prairie dogs, rodents so named for the barking noise they make, build vast underground tunnels to escape their many predators, including the ferret and the prairie falcon. Nearby, a coyote mother, like the mountain lion, must constantly hunt to feed her pups. She, as well as a badger, tracks a prairie dog, but upon losing sight of it the coyote chases a hare instead. The badger, meanwhile, is distracted by an ardent male. The prairie dog then sees his dirt burrow destroyed by the buffalo that enjoy rolling in the soft dirt. One brave little prairie dog nips at the feet of a buffalo, to no avail, as it is concentrating on a mating ritual of its own. When a fall storm hits the prairie, the buffalo stampede to avoid a fire, caused by lightning, which soon spreads over the plains. The animals panic and run, and although the fire is soon quelled by a rainstorm, the deluge brings new problems. The flat prairie soon floods, forcing the animals to swim to higher ground, and eventually to rebuild their homes completely. Young coyotes howl at a full moon, after which the bighorn rams rut by butting heads repeatedly. Soon, winter comes, and the prairie continues to endure each season. In the present, nature is learning to coexist with man.
Cleveland P. Grant
Dr. Brewster M. Higley
Stuart V. Jewell
N. Paul Kenworthy Jr.
Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr.
James R. Simon
C. O. Slyfield
Harold J. Steck
The Vanishing Prairie (1954) -
The first in these installments was Seal Island (1948), a short that Disney commissioned after viewing thousands of feet of footage shot in Alaska on its nature and culture. He didn't find the human society stuff interesting but the animal footage intrigued him. He assigned James Algar to direct it and when all was said and done, it proved not only commercially and critically successful, it won the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Subject. It took only a few more years before Disney decided to up the ante from shorts and move to feature length, just as he had done with animation. In 1953, he released the feature-length The Living Desert, and to no one's surprise, it succeeded, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The next year brought the series its most famous, and greatest installment, The Vanishing Prairie. It won the Oscar, too, but more importantly, established the nature documentary as a viable commercial enterprise, becoming a lasting hit in the Disney canon.
The Vanishing Prairie gives the viewer a glimpse into the natural world that exists between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Starting out with the advent of Spring and the return of migratory birds, the viewer sees both the majestic, as Whooping Cranes dance in the sky, and the comical, as Mallards come in for landings on iced over ponds and, sliding across the ice, crash into each other with reckless abandon. We also see buffalo roaming the plains, coyotes attacking snakes, and mountain lion cubs chasing squirrels in trees. But there's also a fair amount of heart-pounding footage, as a fawn narrowly escapes death at the hands (or should that be paws) of a hungry cougar, or prairie dogs escape the flooding of their tunnels, or a jack rabbit escapes advancing grass fire by running straight through it. As the documentary ends, we're back at winter as the cycle starts over, moving towards another spring.
The Vanishing Prairie was, quite surprisingly, not free of controversy. One of its greatest moments, the birth of a buffalo, was the subject of a ban in New York State of all places. The censor board there thought that such an image might upset viewers. Wiser heads prevailed and the ban was lifted, leaving Bosley Crowther to write in The New York Times, referring to the film's already apparent enduring qualities, "[n]ow that the New York State censor has agreed that a film may show a buffalo's birth without tending to corrupt morals or incite to crime, 'The Vanishing Prairie' of Walt Disney should be very much in evidence for some time on the unhindered screen of the Fine Arts."
The film was directed by James Algar, a director Disney came to trust early on. At the young age of 28, Algar, already working at Disney studios, was tapped to direct the Mickey Mouse segment of Fantasia, the famous Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence. From there, it only got better. He was enlisted by Disney time and time again to direct animated shorts (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949), live-action shorts, many episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, as well as nearly every installment of the True Life Adventure Series, including its multiple Oscar winners. In The Vanishing Prairie, as with the others, Algar employed non-documentary footage in a way as to blend in with the actual footage shot, something documentary filmmakers have been doing from the beginning but which has led to criticism of the genre. For instance, to show the dangers of a prairie fire, and get the best possible camera setups, they had to setup grass fires they could film and show artificially constructed prairie dog tunnels (viewed from the side of a glass encased tunnel) filling with smoke to show what's happening beneath the plain.
The Vanishing Prairie would be so successful it would be broken up into its constituent parts (the buffalo herds, the prairie dogs, etc.) and marketed as individual educational shorts, often shown on Disney for years to come. Today, it still holds up as great nature documentary giving the viewer, with breathtaking scenery and fascinating footage, both education and entertainment.
by Greg Ferrara
The Vanishing Prairie (1954) -
The working titles of this film were The Prairie Story and The Grazing Story. The opening credits include the following written acknowledgment: "With the cooperation of The United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Wind Cave National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Crow Indian Tribe." The film begins with an animated paintbrush "painting" the American prairie, which comprises the middle section of the country and includes streams, grassland and rock formations. Voice-over narration occurs throughout the film to provide facts about the flora and fauna being portrayed.
According to press materials, the field photography for The Vanishing Prairie was accumulated over two years, in addition to many more months spent on editing and narration. Press materials attribute sequences to photographers as follows: Warren Garst, Tom McHugh and James R. Simon shot the buffalo footage, including the birth, in Yellowstone and on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana; Cleveland P. Grant photographed the fight between buffalo bulls; N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and McHugh captured the prairie dogs; Murl Deusing shot the migratory waterfowl; Dick Borden caught the Canadian geese; and Grant and Herb Crisler snapped the images of the bighorn sheep. Press materials add that McHugh was able to gain proximity to the herd by covering himself under a buffalo pelt and creeping in among the animals. Although marketing materials state "all animals [in the film] are photographed in their natural habitat," modern sources note that Kenworthy shot the underground burrows of the prairie dog by creating a cross-section bordered on one side by a plate of glass. Other locations noted in the press materials include the Colorado Rockies and Washington state, as well as various national park refuges and in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife preserves.
As with the previous "True-Life Adventure" films, The Vanishing Prairie was edited so that the footage had more of a narrative thrust. In addition, special effects such as slow-motion photography and telephoto sequences were used, and music was added to create humor. Press materials refer to this practice as "informative entertainment." Many contemporary critics indicated that the editing was unnecessary, but noted that it was used less here than in the previous films. According to modern sources, more than 120,000 feet of 16mm film was edited down to 30,000 feet and transferred to 35mm to create the final film.
As noted in a August 10, 1954 Daily Variety article, The Vanishing Prairie caused a brief commotion when New York censors insisted that the sequence featuring the birth of a calf be eliminated. That article stated that the National Catholic Legion of Decency and all other state censorship boards had approved the picture in its entirety. On August 12, 1954, Los Angeles Daily News reported that "an avalanche of protests from religious, social and civic groups" followed, causing the New York censorship board to reconsider the decision. Los Angeles Daily News conveyed on August 13, 1954 that the board subsequently reversed the decision, which American Civil Liberties Union director George E. Rundquist called "the midsummer madness of an overzealous member of the board." According to a February 2, 1966 Variety article, when the film was shown that year in an Indiana classroom, one father withdrew his fourteen-year-old daughter from classes in protest.
Disney broadcast footage of the making of The Vanishing Prairie on its Disneyland television program on November 10, 1954. The film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1954. It was re-released in 1968. For more information about Disney's "True-Life Adventure" series, please consult the entry for The Living Desert.