Justin Morgan Had a Horse

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Back in October of 2019 (which, if you’re checking your calendar, feels as if it was roughly 9,000 years ago), the Disney+ Twitter account managed to dominate the social-media conversation for a full day thanks to a massive thread of more than 600 tweets, in which they announced each title that would be available to stream on the service’s first day. Most of those titles were plenty exciting to fans of one kind of intellectual property or another. There were plenty of animated features, TV shows, Marvel movies, etc. to whet fans’ appetites. But there were some titles that threw people for a loop because they sure seemed like joke titles.

Maybe the easiest title to mock — or at least one of the easiest — was Justin Morgan Had a Horse. Here was a film that few people seemed to recall or had indeed ever heard of, and with such a simple, declarative phrase as its title, too. For my own part, when I saw some folks mock titles like The Biscuit Eaters or Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, I shook my head at their inability to realize that the 1970s were a weird time for Disney live-action. But even I was fully unfamiliar with Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and I hosted a weekly podcast about all kinds of Disney movies for nearly nine years. The title was one of only a few Disney released  from before I was born that I’d genuinely never recognized, until I Googled and realized why I didn’t know it well: this 90-minute adaptation was a two-part episode of the Walt Disney anthology TV series, not a feature film.

So, for today’s Out of the Disney Vault column, I wanted to answer the obvious question: what the hell is Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and why is it on Disney+?

The Pitch

As mentioned above, Justin Morgan Had a Horse was a made-for-TV movie, adapted from the Marguerite Henry book of the same name. That book, in turn, was inspired by the true story of the real Justin Morgan, a schoolteacher in Vermont in the 1790s who raised a small horse named Figure in the hopes of making an all-American breed of horse. Morgan’s quest, to be clear, is the premise of the movie. In the film as in life, he’s desperately hopeful that Figure would be seen as an attractive enough horse that other prospective owners would want Figure to sire other horses. (In short, and I apologize for being juvenile, this is a story about a guy who wants his horse to have sex a lot.)

The Morgan horse, as Figure is known in the film, did become the source of a whole breed with origins in the United States, only a few years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, thus ensuring our country’s independence. From the outside in, with decades removed from when this aired on television, it seems most likely that Justin Morgan Had a Horse would have appealed to the Walt Disney Company because of its setting, both physically and temporally. Airing just a few months after the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, Justin Morgan Had a Horse would have fit right into the soon-to-open Liberty Square section of the Magic Kingdom, as that area also hearkened back to a period of time when American society was different (for better or worse), tinged with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

The Movie

I’m trying to provide context here, both because Disney+ provides literally none for this film and because the film doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself. Justin Morgan Had a Horse first aired on NBC in February of 1972 over the span of two straight Sunday nights. And in an era well before TV supplanted film as an equally powerful medium through which to tell dramatically daring, bold stories, Justin Morgan Had a Horse very much looks like it was made for television. Its cast is comprised of a lot of actors you may have heard of, depending on your knowledge of older films — Don Murray, who plays the title character, may be best known for his Academy Award-nominated performance in the Marilyn Monroe drama Bus Stop — or your awareness of 60s- and 70s-era TV dramas on which they racked up guest appearances. 

It’s also worth noting that, unlike a number of Disney live-action films of the era, there aren’t any children in this film, and really few elements of comic relief that would appeal to kids. The only obvious appeal to the whole family would be the horses themselves, and there’s no comic business to speak of when they’re onscreen. I can’t speak to how faithful the film is to the novel, but the adaptation is a fairly sober-minded (sometimes too sober-minded) affair about how a lower-class schoolteacher, constantly beset upon by a grouchy Squire who essentially runs their Vermont town, really wants his little horse to become a horse daddy to lots of other horses. 

Does this all sound pretty weird to you? Because Justin Morgan Had a Horse is a very weird film to watch. For Mousterpiece Cinema, the podcast I used to host, I watched a lot of the films Disney made in the 1960s and 1970s; while I wasn’t a fan of many of them and their elongated stretches of slapstick humor, there were at least attempts at being lively and humorous throughout. Justin Morgan Had a Horse is so blandly dramatic that it barely has a pulse. A climactic dual horse race at the end of the film, meant to prove that Figure really is a hell of a steed, is a rare bit of action and humor, though the latter is unintentional. If there’s a true antagonist in the film, it’s the ridiculous pair of New York dandies who try to weasel their way into remaining victorious with their horses. It’s not often you see a depiction of New York as being so snobby that its representatives are dressed like they just left the court of the French King Louis XIV.

Aside from that, Justin Morgan Had a Horse is so straight-faced, it might as well be making fun of itself. Justin has a romance of sorts with a young indentured servant of the Squire, which is full of fits and starts. Just when they get close, Justin suffers personal indignity and decides to leave, only to change his mind and stay, simply to prove to an out-of-town newspaperman that Figure can be the start of a new breed. When his love interest expresses dismay that Justin didn’t stay to be with her, and basically spells out the conflict of the film, it’s one of those moments in life where you say something out loud and realize how ridiculous it sounds.

The Legacy

There is genuinely one reason why I wanted to watch this movie, and it’s the same reason I wanted to write about it: to answer the aforementioned question, “Why the hell is Justin Morgan Had a Horse on Disney+?” Before this streaming unit, Justin Morgan Had a Horse arguably didn’t have a legacy (unlike the actual man’s horse, and the legacy of horses he sired). This isn’t so obscure a title as to have never been released on home media before, granted; it was once given a Betamax release, and is even on DVD as part of something called the Disney Generations collection. (That sounds like the kind of packaging you might notice if you’re strolling through the knick-knacks sold at your local Cracker Barrel while waiting for your table to be ready.) But let’s be honest: few of you, reading this, knew what Justin Morgan Had a Horse was before clicking the link to access this column. So why would Disney+ make this available, and on its opening day?

It’s even more baffling when you look at the numbers, specifically those related to the Walt Disney anthology TV series. I’ve written about the two proper episodes of the show, “The Plausible Impossible” and “Disneyland Around the Seasons”, you can stream right now on Disney+. Overall, throughout more than 50 seasons on television, there have been 1,224 episodes of the anthology show. That does, to note, count all of the theatrically released films that aired as part of the program’s history. (You might think only Disney’s own films were ever aired as part of the show, but you’d be wrong. Even the 1990 Universal Pictures comedy Problem Child was aired on the Wonderful World of Disney once, and no, I have no idea why.)

Looking at the Wikipedia page, there are 992 episodes listed. Of those, by my count, just 30 of those hourlong installments — with content that was specifically created for the anthology TV series — are available on Disney+ right now in some capacity, That includes the condensed movie-length versions of the Davy Crockett TV show, “The Plausible Impossible”, “Disneyland Around the Seasons”, and Justin Morgan Had a Horse. I’ve written at length before about just how much I want the Disney Vault to open its doors wide, letting out every possible movie or TV episode within its coffers, not just the big titles. 

But what these releases lack is context. (Why, it’s almost as if Disney+ should have a host of some kind, especially for older material, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve written about why already.) Part of that context is grasping what it is about films like Justin Morgan Had a Horse that inspired their streaming arrival, over more pressing historical content. I wouldn’t tell you to run far away from this film, but I also really don’t know how strongly I can recommend it unless…well, unless you really like horses. Otherwise, this exists as an inexplicable curio (equally inexplicable — the sole selection in the Extras tab is a minute-long clip of the film). 

I hold out hope that somewhere within Disney, there are people hard at work trying to give an HD remastering to older material, and that’s why we haven’t seen more of the early, Walt Disney-hosted episodes of the anthology show. But Justin Morgan Had a Horse hasn’t received that crisp a remastering of its own, and there’s a number of episodes available in the Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection that could easily wind up on the streaming service right now with similar quality. So in the end, I still can’t answer the most pressing question of all: why the hell is this movie on Disney+? Maybe someone at Disney is reading this. Maybe you know why it’s there. Don’t keep it a secret. Let the world know. ‘Cause I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.

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