The Scoop: 1985 PG, directed by Jeremy Kagan and starring Meredith Salenger, John Cusack, and Ray Wise
Tagline: With innocence behind her and danger ahead, only courage and love were on her side.
Summary Capsule: During the Great Depression, a girl train hops from Chicago to Washington State to find her father.
Eunice’s Rating: 4 out of 5 unknown Disney movies. 5 out of 5 unknown John Cusack movies.
Eunice’s Review: Way back when Disney only had one channel and they weren’t so into producing live action shows, their late night slots were a treasure trove for people like me who liked the odd stuff. Quaint nostalgia shows like Davy Crockett and Zorro, to their forgotten movies like The Moonspinners (the only movie I know of where Haley Mills bludgeons a guy to death, someday I hope to review this train wreck). And so I found The Journey of Natty Gann.
1935, the Great Depression. In Chicago, Natty lives with her father Sol, a widower who’s trying to stand for a labor union during a time when jobs are hard to come by. Sol gets fired and is one of the lucky few in the unemployment line to get picked, first catch is the job is clear ‘cross country in Washington State. Second catch? He has to leave in a couple of hours if he wants to make the company bus. Natty’s left in the care of the landlady with a letter promising Sol will send money for a ticket as soon as he’s saved enough. A series of bad things happen and Natty has to make a decision: Ride the rails to Washington or get lost in the system as an “abandoned child.” What follows is Natty’s trek across country and the people she meets along the way.
While they don’t actually spend much screen time together, the movie is really about Natty and her faith in her dad. Sol is Natty’s hero, a good man in bad times. He the sort of guy who keeps a cool head when everyone else wants to fight and riot, telling people they got to hang on because someday the tunnel will end. At first he refuses the job in Washington because of Natty, but is told straight out if he doesn’t take it there will be no second offer. It’s a hard decision, he does what he has to do, but he never gets a chance to properly say goodbye and explain before he leaves.
Natty’s mother died when she was very little and so has been raised by her dad in a lower working class section of Chicago. She’s a tomboy, through and through. She smokes in the men’s bathroom, isn’t afraid to swear, and gets in fistfights. But when she fights it’s for what she believes is right, with the kind of charge in headlong attitude that children have. While she obviously hasn’t been left to be wild, she’s educated enough the she knows how to read and do math, she spends her days wandering around the city hanging out with friends in the neighborhood. When she finds out, rather rudely, that her father -her hero and best friend- has left her behind, the bottom falls out of her world.
What sets Natty Gann apart from most other Disney movies is that it’s fairly dark. And I don’t mean bad things are implied or happen off screen dark, I mean the real world is a scary dangerous place dark. By the point our story takes place we’re dead center the Great Depression, people are desperate and hard and trying to survive. In the city the men in the unemployment line have a hollow hungry look about them, people are getting evicted from their homes, and there are riots with police using their nightsticks. The landlady Natty’s been entrusted to verbally abuses her and then calls to have her taken away.
This is the part where I start to list off stuff, I do this because I hate spoiling movies for people, but there’s something I want to talk about. I figure this is the safest way to do both.
This movie has a lot of things that may be hot buttons for people. You get the impression that, while life hasn’t necessarily been easy, Natty’s been in a kind of bubble. Things would be okay because Dad was there. Now she has to figure out things on her own and most of the people she meets along the way are either bad people or at least people looking out for themselves. Natty gets hit and smacked and mistreated by adults. There’s a near rape. She gets locked in a dark cell while at an orphanage/juvie prison. She saves a wolf from dog fighting, but not before he’s shown killing another dog.
Not to say that there is no hope in this movie, while everyone tells her Sol truly has left her, Natty’s belief never waivers and the movie reflects that. She knows he loves her and was going to send for her, she just couldn’t wait any longer. Just to talk about Natty for a moment: She doesn’t act like she has all the answers or is annoyingly confident. She’s scared for most of the movie, but being a tough guy tries not to show it. More like she has to convince herself she can do this because if she doesn’t she won’t be able to. While she makes some bad choices on the way, she never stops believing that there are things that are right and things that are wrong, even if she does learn that there are monsters out there.
And not to say that there are no good people, Natty passes through towns fairly quickly, so there’s only a couple of them that get real screen time. Like a kind pregnant farmer’s wife that’s struggling to get anything out of their land. Or a scar faced blacksmith (Charlie is super interesting, I wish they had spent more time with him). But out of everyone she meets there are two important ones, Wolf and Harry.
Like I said Natty saves Wolf, and slowly befriends him. After the train Natty and Wolf are riding, not together, wrecks, the city girl finds herself lost in the woods. It’s a long but important sequence that ends with Wolf taking care of Natty. From then on Wolf becomes Natty’s protector and conscience. Wolf being a wolf has no lines, but there is a lot of great chemistry and nice scenes.
My brothers are big John Cusack fans, and whenever they get into a discussion on who is the bigger fan (siblings can turn anything into a competition), I’ll quietly sit on the sidelines waiting for the moment to throw this and The Grifters (great movie) into the mix of movies seen and win (last time Sis In-law 2 goes “There’s a movie with him you haven’t seen, but your sister has?! Buuuurn!”). While I can’t say that I’ve ever not liked John Cusack, watching Natty Gann when I was twelve pretty much cemented it. While the movie has a woefully small fanbase (I’ve never met anyone else who has actually seen it), it’s pretty dedicated and mostly made of people who fell in love with Harry (and/or people who liked having a tomboy heroine, to be fair).
The first time Natty meets Harry he saves her when she nearly gets herself killed trying to hop her first train. They part for a time, but meet later on. Also heading out west to find work, Harry is a quiet guy who’s seen too much too fast. He tries to come off as apathetic, but helps Natty because not so deep down he’s a nice guy and, like Sol, a good man. You get the feeling he hasn’t had a friend in a long time so it means something that he allows himself to get caught up with Natty and Wolf. For a small-ish part (screen time wise, he’s fourth after Wolf) he makes a mark, and it’s interesting to see how much screen presence John Cusack had in a drama even way back. I’d be lying if I said the last scene between Harry and Natty didn’t make my twelve year old self swoon/happy sigh a little. If you’re a fan, fill this in for his movie backlog.
Meanwhile Sol thinks Natty got killed in that train wreck from earlier, and takes on increasingly dangerous jobs as a timber faller to tempt his own death. Will Natty find her dad, and if so before he does something stupid?
The Journey of Natty Gann is a hard to movie to describe, because while you can tell it’s meant to be a kid’s movie, it deals with some pretty grownup issues, and is definitely not your usual Disney fare. I had a very hard time picking out movies for the ‘If you liked this movie, try these’ section below. I recommend this movie for being good and different and obscure.
In a sentence: It’s a road (train?) trip movie about a girl’s love for her father.
- The Mickey Mouse cartoon playing in the theater is ‘Mickey Plays Papa’ from 1934.
- Wolf is played by Jed, a wolf/Alaskan Malamute mix, who was in White Fang and The Thing.
- Meredith Salenger is fifteen in this, and John Cusack is nineteen.
- I want a cool train hopping name like ‘Oklahoma Slim.’ Maybe Railway Red or something.
Natty: Don’t be dumb, I’ve heard a man pee before.
Louie: Yeah? Where?
Natty: None of your business.
Parker: Nice dog.
Natty: It’s a wolf.
Harry: He with you?
Natty: We’re traveling together.
Harry: It’s hard enough without packing a dog.
Natty: He’s a wolf.
Harry: Even better.
Natty: I’m cold.
Harry: Buck up, Kid, will ya?
Natty: I’m bucking! *to Wolf* I’m bucking, right?
Harry: You’re a real woman of the world, Kid.
Harry: It looks safe. Come on. Come on! It’s empty! Nothin’ in here but a pig, and he sure don’t care.
Natty: You awake?
Harry: No, I’m talking in my sleep.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- White Fang
- The Secret of Roan Inish
- A Bear Named Winnie
- An American Tail