Ben and Me (1953)

The animated short, Ben and Me, was sold to theaters as a package deal with The Living Desert, so we figured we might as well check it out to get the full Disney content moviegoers would have gotten at the time.

Synopsis

The eldest of 26, a mouse strikes out on his own to save his family from having another mouth to feed. He looks for work and lodging and finds both with Benjamin Franklin. They become friends (kind of), work together (kind of), have a falling out, then make amends (kind of). The end.

The Longer Version

The story begins, as too few stories do, with a human historic interpreter standing in front of a statue of Benjamin Franklin; a small group of human children gathered around him to listen. As we pan up the statue, the human voice is replaced with another and we see a mouse statue atop Franklin’s hat, in front of which a mouse historian is interpreting the history of Amos the mouse to a small group of mousy children. From there we flashback to the body of the story, spanning at least a couple of decades in the mid to late 18th Century; quite the lifespan for a mouse.

Ben and Me 1.png

Amos looks like a mouse from Cinderella with the voice of Winnie the Pooh (Sterling Holloway). Amos, it turns out, was the real genius behind some of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest achievements, including:

  • The Franklin stove
  • Bifocals
  • The Pennsylvania Gazette, and
  • The beginning wording of the Introduction of the U.S. Declaration of Independence

Amos is Franklin’s faithful companion, feeding him ideas and edits, getting stories for the newspaper, and traveling with him inside his door-modified hat, à la Ratatouille and Levi:

Amos says he spent all his spare time responding to correspondence that Ben received, of course signing everything in Ben’s name, while Ben “pottered around with his experiments.” During one of these times, Ben realizes he can cause an electric shock. He then shocks Amos for fun. Amos is hurt by the shock, his tail is fried and crinkled. Franklin belly laughs, table slapping and all, and is confused when Amos heads out the door saying, “I’m leaving!” Ben says, “Aw, Amos. Now can’t you take a little joke?” “Joke? You call this a joke?” Amos says, holding up his still sizzling tail. Franklin says he didn’t mean it, begs Amos to not leave, and says he’ll never do it again. Amos says, “Well. . . No more tricks, now. Promise?” Ben says, “I promise,” and they shake on it, and Ben crosses his fingers behind his back.

Ben and Me 2

Murderous Kite Flying and Broken Promises

The most surprising scene involves Franklin’s electricity kite experiment. It’s presented as this jokey, ha ha scene, but setting aside that this is fiction, it’s kind of horrific. In this version, Franklin has attached a small basket to the kite, in which Amos has trustingly ridden into the sky. Amos is explicit in his narration that Franklin had told him he was up there to be the world’s first flying reporter, but that it turns out he was the “victim of a plot.” A storm rolls in and we see Franklin eagerly unraveling the kite string, intentionally having Amos fly higher and closer to the storm. Amos is struck a few times by lightning and calls over and over to Ben, still naïvely believing Ben gives a shit about him as a person. Amos is terrified, the kite is falling apart, and only then does Ben seem to lose his fascinated mien. The music is oddly lighthearted and jaunty. Ben loses control of the kite as Amos falls to the ground with its tattered remains.

TO BE CLEAR: Franklin put his friend/employee/source of best ideas in mortal danger, and actually injured him, for a news story. Without Amos’s prior knowledge or consent AND after promising to not do it again. Cue ‘Zach Morris is Trash’ music. Hey, Zach Morris, Ben Franklin, same number of syllables.

Ben and Me 4b.png
Trash

It’s curious that this in no way tarnishes Franklin’s reputation in-story, nor the perception of Franklin’s portrayal/the short as a whole as being wholesome and patriotic.

Amos, injured but alive, is understandably done with Franklin and says, “Goodbye! Goodbye and forever!” and goes back to live with his family. Franklin, in typical I’m-gonna-use-you-but-I’d-like-to-pretend-that-we’re-buddies boss fashion, is blindsided by this and is all like, “Why is he so upset?” Seriously. Ben’s first question to a barely conscious Amos is, “Was it electricity?” In fact, Franklin never apologizes, never expresses remorse for hurting Amos.

Is Franklin Disney?

At this point, MLE was like, “Whoa, is Ben Franklin Walt Disney?” Look, there’s a pretty solid case that Walt Disney was The Man. This has been established by us and others elsewhere. Check out the similarities here: A boss who’s mediocre at the things his workers are exceptional at, who nonetheless gets the credit for said work, while the workers get little to no credit. Workers then protest unsafe and unfair working conditions, complain, then strike and leave, by which the boss, in both cases, is hurt and flummoxed by what they see as a betrayal and disruption of a close-knit, utopian, familial workforce (of which they are the employees-must-call-me-by-my-first-name head). If so, was this intentional and how did the animators get away with it? At least Franklin didn’t take revenge on Amos by naming him as a Communist in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. . . *cough*

Note: The children’s book from which this short was adapted has Amos praising Franklin as a splendid fellow and patriot, but then also adds that “he was undeniably stupid at times.” There’s also a “good big tankard of ale” that doesn’t make it into the Disney adaptation, though there is some taverning, though not by Franklin himself.

Ending

Years later, Franklin returns from failed talks with King George. Amos is among the crowd at the docks and narrates, “Poor Ben. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. It was a heavy responsibility.” Amos has an impulse to help him, but then stops himself, saying “a mouse has a little pride.” Late one night in 1776, Franklin, realizing he’s super mediocre and relied on Amos for basically anything of note or intelligence he’d taken credit for, wakes Amos up to ask him to come back and help him again. It’s unclear why Franklin couldn’t just visit during the day. When Amos says no and returns to his home, Ben grabs hold of his tail and pulls him out. Ben then pleads and manipulates, saying things like “consider your country.” Amos is reluctant to resume this abusive relationship, and says he’ll only come back on his own terms and Franklin agrees to sign whatever contract Amos comes up with. When Amos visits Ben, Ben is solicitous, but then wants to get to talking about his problems, ignoring the obvious contract Amos is holding. Amos says contract first and Ben says, “Of course, of course,” as if he wasn’t trying to avoid it a second before.

Ben and Me 3
Amos, please. Don’t get back into this toxic relationship.

It’s at this time that Thomas “Red” Jefferson comes in bemoaning how the wording isn’t right. Amos whispers to Franklin to read the contract. Ben’s like, “Shut up. You don’t matter. I mean, please be quiet. I’ve changed. I promise.” Meanwhile, Red’s still wailing, and Amos is like, “Seriously, just read the bleepity bleeping words aloud already so we can get rid of this guy. My ears are bleeding.” Franklin does, Jefferson’s like, “Wow! You’re brilliant.” Franklin’s like, “Yeah, I know.” And those words became the beginning of the Introduction to the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

There’s a quick declarey scene with a bunch of rich white guys, then we cut back to the historic interpretations in the park.

The End

Racism

When I was picking which categories to put this post into, I initially skipped over ‘Racism’ without much thought. It’s all white people, so there’s no cringe-worthy caricatures of POC to mention. But the more I got to thinking about it, the more obvious it became. It’s problematic in what it omits and the myth it perpetuates about greatness (namely the greatness of rich, white men) and who built America. Colonialism was only possible by the subjugation of millions of humans. Empires necessitate continual funneling of wealth to the few. That wealth was created by the many. A significant chunk of the many in colonialism’s heyday were enslaved brown and black people. They constructed buildings, cooked, cleaned, nursed (white) children, shoed horses, planted and harvested crops, loaded freight, sewed, mined, hauled, smithed, shoveled, sweated, bled, and were killed for empire (and, crucially, collectively often survived).

Without their forced labor, people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have been rich and powerful. The time they could devote to invention, writing, philosophy, diplomacy, and fomenting independence from Great Britain was possible because their lifestyles were propped up by slavery. To depict 18th Century Philadelphia as all white is unreal. It belongs, along with so many of Disney’s depictions of historic America, in Fantasyland. Yet, unlike the insertion of a mouse character, the omission of any brown or black humans does not strike us as immediately odd and fictitious. Their presence and labor are often erased from our histories, so deftly and fully that even historians can become respected experts in, for example, U.S. history, and not learn about or teach the realities of their presence in society and what their labor built and paid for.

Until very recently, depictions of black people, and really all POC, were rare and pretty appalling in Disney animation. Omission, though, in all its insidious subtlety, can be just as racist.

Other Bits

Reuse of some artwork from Cinderella? Some of the mousy scenes look like they were perhaps partial reusings from Cinderella, especially the scene where Amos is standing in front of the hole that leads to his residence and Franklin is asking him to come back. And in a longer version that includes about four minutes of stories about Amos’s ancestors, there is a cat that looks and moves very much like Lucifer from Cinderella and another that looks like rather like Figaro from Pinocchio.

Anachronism—Tubes of ink (think toothpaste or paint tubes) used in an otherwise reasonably accurate representation of a printing press (ink balls and all). The paint tube wasn’t invented until about 100 years after this scene.

There’s also some gendered gazette reading during a short montage of townsfolk reading and discussing the contents of Franklin’s paper. The men comment on taxes and a fire. The women talk about a woman giving birth to triplets.

Rating vs Joe vs the Volcano:

MLE: Thumbs down
Ricktopher: Thumbs down

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