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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #2: "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" (November 6, 1956)
by Albert Gutierrez

The western genre was no stranger to Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse's second cartoon, "The Gallopin' Gaucho" featured Mickey as Argentina's equivalent of the cowboy, and various shorts throughout the years had western settings. This eventually extended to film and television as well. Both Disneyland the park and "Disneyland" the show featured Frontierland, devoted entirely to the old west. It is in the wild untamed frontier that popular "Disneyland" serials emerged, such as in Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Texas John Slaughter. The immense popularity of Davy Crockett led to the original "Disneyland" episodes getting a 1955 theatrical release, as "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier", followed in 1956 by "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates." 1956 also saw Disney release two CinemaScope westerns to theatres: "The Great Locomotive Chase" and "Westward Ho the Wagons!" both starring Fess Parker. However, for me Disney's greatest western was a little cartoon that featured many of the expected western situations, but presented them in a whimsical way. I speak, of course, of the one-off short "A Cowboy Needs A Horse."

Before I discuss the cartoon, I'll need to provide a bit of backstory first. My first exposure to "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" was in the 1987 Sing-Along Songs VHS "Heigh-Ho." The song was featured as sixth of eleven in the half-hour musical program hosted by Professor Owl (with re-dubbed animation from 1953's "Adventures in Music: Melody"). One of the bird students is reading a book about Johnny, a city kid who wants to be a cowboy, and it segues into the sing-along. As such, even though the boy is nameless in the original short, I've always referred to him as Johnny and will continue to do so in the rest of this article.

High atop of a posh skyscraper, a little boy is asleep in his bedroom. Little Johnny dreams of his life as a cowboy, and through the song "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" we learn just exactly what every cowboy needs. A horse, a rope, a song. But that's not all, for he also needs a hat, fancy boots, and shiny spurs. As Johnny acquires each of these items, his dream becomes more detailed, what was once a nondescript background has evolved into an entire world all for him. Johnny the Cowboy rides through the land, and has his first encounter with a group of Indians. They fire arrows at him (all missing him) whilst he shoots his two pistols (all with perfect aim), until he runs out of bullets. As the Indians circle around him and chant their victory, Johnny uses his trusty rope to encircle and eventually tie them up. A burly chief emerges and offers a peace pipe, which Johnny uses to produce bubbles.

Immediately after, Johnny sees that a bandit is robbing the stagecoach. He stops the bandit, but when the stagecoach driver offers a reward for the bandit, Johnny valiantly refuses. A cowboy stops bandits for justice, not money. It doesn't end there, for a train is about to go over a bridge whose tracks have been blown up! Johnny then lays himself down across the missing track, allowing the train to cross over the bridge easily. But before he can celebrate, the screams of a little girl get his attention. A bandit has tied her to a cactus, and Johnny chases him away with his pistol. He then takes the girl back to her home, and the two wave goodbye as Johnny and his horse resume their walk through the untamed wild west. All in a day's work for the heroic cowboy. As we are reminded of the cowboy's few but basic needs, we return to Johnny in the city, asleep in his bedroom, and we exit as quietly as we came.

With only seven minutes for the audience to invest in, "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" needed three things: worthwhile characters, worthwhile story, and worthwhile animation. It delivered on all three fronts. The character of Johnny represented the child in all of us, his adventures become our own. By setting the short in his dream world, it allows him to become invincible, just as we often perceived our childhood heroes to be. The western story, which moves along like gangbusters, is an amalgamation of all the situations that made westerns so popular and successful. They're presented at a breakneck pace, daring the audience to keep up and pay attention. Finally, the animation represents some of Disney's finest when it came to their short subjects. The look of Disney's early 1950s animated films were supervised by artist Mary Blair, and I've always felt the rest of the decade were inspired (either intentionally or not) by that design. "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" looks very much like it could have come from the mind of Mary Blair, though it really belongs to Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio, the director and layout styling director of the short. Both do an amazing job at emulating the Blair style and use of colors, whilst still putting their own "stamp" on the cartoon as well.

The most memorable feature of the short is the title song, which in all its simplicity presents quite a profound observation. At the heart of the cowboy's life is the need to keep ridin' along, and the line "there's nothing more he needs, or can have, or can get" is a reflection of that. He's content with what he has, which is a bare minimum compared to the average person (in both the old west and today). In such a material world, the perceived essentials for living amount to quite a lot, and yet all that keeps the cowboy happy are the few items that he needs. When one of the things a cowboy needs is a mere song, it makes me wonder just how much I really need among all my possessions. Am I better off than a cowboy simply because I have a lot more? Maybe not. Then again, I don't have a song.

As I was doing some research in preparation for this article, I discovered that "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" was attached to the True-Life Adventure "Secrets of Life" when it was released to theatres on November 6, 1956. That seemed like an odd pairing, in my opinion. Granted, theatrical cartoons don't need to have the same theme as the film that follows it. However, the studio surely could have waited several weeks and allowed "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" to precede "Westward Ho the Wagons!", which hit theatres on December 20, 1956. After all, both shared the common link of children in the Old West. Both also contained memorable songs that rarely escape your head once they're in there ("Wringle Wrangle" and the titular "A Cowboy Needs A Horse"). "Westward Ho the Wagons!" was instead paired up with the "People & Places" short "Disneyland, U.S.A."


If you're interested in owning "A Cowboy Needs A Horse," it's available on two Disney DVDs. The two-disc limited-issue "Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities" features the short, as well a selection of the silent "Alice Comedies" and a platter of the studio's other one-off shorts. But for those only wanting a small sample of Disney's cartoons, there is "It's a Small World of Fun! Volume One," which features "A Cowboy Needs A Horse" and six other shorts.


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