The Song of Hiawatha is a famous 1855 epic poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the fictional adventures of an Indian warrior named Hiawatha based on Native American legends. Walt Disney first encounted the poem when he was a student at Benton Elementary School in Marceline, Missouri.
Disney did produce the Silly Symphony Little Hiawatha in May 1937 which was about the misadventures of a typical “cute” little kid whose pants kept falling down. He had to be saved from an angry bear by the animals he had been too softhearted to kill.
The story has no real connection to the epic poem and the title was simply chosen for its name recognition by an audience just as it was by other cartoon studios. The character later appeared in several stories in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories published by Dell Comics as well as four single issues of Dell’s Four Color comic series.
In 1940, storyman Ted Sears worked up a serious cartoon short entitled Pipe of Peace where Hiawatha playing his flute brought peace between all the animals and humans.
As animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson wrote in their book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, “Walt was always way ahead of any of us, searching for new procedures, new forms of entertainment. One theme that kept haunting him was the story of Hiawatha. He kept bringing it up over the years, trying to find the right way to do something with it.
“He said to us, ‘There’s something there, y’know? Something we could do – something that’s right for us. I don’t know what it is or how we’d do it. Don’t think of a film, don’t even think of a show – don’t limit your thinking to a regular theater. Maybe it’s something out in the woods, or on a mountain, maybe the people are brought in – or – I don’t know – but there’s something there!’ He felt the subject needed something beyond a film to be properly presented.”
Author Bob Thomas wrote in Walt Disney: An American Original, “A Hiawatha feature metamorphosed over a period of twenty years and when a story man lacked an assignment, Walt instructed, ‘Put him on Hiawatha’. But, despite all the efforts, Hiawatha was never produced.”
In 1943, Walt seriously started work on Hiawatha as a feature film. At one point, he considered having Native American artists do concept art and to employ it in some way in the finished film.
Starting in animation, Dick Kelsey became an art director at the studio on Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (“Rite of Spring segment) (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). After serving in the Marines during World War II, Walt put him in charge of a crew of artists to create storyboards for the proposed Hiawatha animated feature. In 1948 and 1949, Kelsey almost single-handedly produced an impressive number of atmospheric storyboards.
They were so evocative and accurate that decades later they were pulled out of storage to be studied for the Disney animated feature Pocahontas (1995). The research on historic costuming and background material had been impressive.
From an Associated Press newspaper account dated September 12, 1948:
“Dick Kelsey, one of Disney chief staff artists will spend six weeks (starting Sept 25) touring the Great Lakes Region sketching and documenting the settings of Longfellow s famous narrative poem.
“His Itinerary includes Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the shores of Lake Superior and Michigan, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit across Lake Erie to Buffalo then through Rochester the Finger Lakes district the Mohawk Valley down the Hudson to New York and on to Washington for museum data. Color camera records will supplement his sketches.
“The finished cartoon likewise will be in color. Kelsey’s will be no easy task in this modern era since he insists he will try to recapture both the spirit and the look of Hiawatha’s land. Every remaining forest, prairie, lake and river associated with the Indian legend will be visited by boat, automobile, train, horse or on foot, he declared.
“He has arranged to study museum material in Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis, and Rochester the American Museum of Natural History and the Heye Foundation in New York and the Smithsonian Institute and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. At Naples, NY he will confer with Dr. Arthur C. Parker, director emeritus of the Rochester Museum, an authority on American Indian life and lore.”
The story kept evolving as Walt sought to condense the sprawling poem into a story that could be told within the confines of a single film. At one point, Walt even considered having the characters deliver their lines in sign language and so research was done at the Smithsonian Institution but was abandoned as the story became too complicated to tell in that fashion.
An early version of the story started with an inter-tribal war and the Great Spirit sending a deliverer in the form of Hiawatha to re-establish the peace and prosperity. Disney storymen added a villain named Tadodaho who was a feared warrior and whose jealousy of Hiawatha results in various acts of treachery including killing Hiawatha’s best friend. Eventually the villain dies in a massive snow storm and Hiawatha is vindicated from all the earlier actions Tadodaho took to undermine Hiawatha in front of the tribe.
Kelsey told the other artists at the studio that “Walt doesn’t want to make this a light thing…he wants it (to have) a terrific musical accompaniment – almost Christ-like but not quite… Walt said it was originally his idea to get the storyboards up to show the material we are going to work with, then call in the composer – tell the story like we just told it – let the composer write a suite called ‘The Hiawatha Suite’ – then go back and start working from the composer’s musical score.”
On December 8, 1948, the studio held a showing for all of the artwork and story that had been done on the feature. While most praised the artwork, others feared that the approach was too “highbrow” in its seriousness, much like the earlier unsuccessful Fantasia (1940) and not what the audience would expect of a Disney animated feature.
Certainly the film faced many challenges including finding enough skilled animators who could handle drawing realistic human figures. It was also considered risky because the Disney Studio still had not recovered financially from World War II so the decision was made to concentrate on Cinderella (1950) which was a wise choice since it was both a critical and financial hit.
In September 1949, the story of Hiawatha was once again reworked so that it was told in flashback format to a white missionary to the tribe. In that way, it didn’t have to be a straight story but focused on the best segments. Kelsey did even more storyboards. The villain Tadodaho disappeared and was replaced by the evil magician Pearl-Feather and he battled with Hiawatha for the big climax.
Most people feel that Walt abandoned the project by the end of 1949 but press articles about the forthcoming feature appeared as late as 1951.