The Living Desert

The Living Desert is a 1953 American nature documentary film that shows the everyday lives of the animals of the desert of the Southwestern United States. The film was written by James Algar, Winston Hibler, Jack Moffitt (uncredited) and Ted Sears. It was directed by Algar, with Hibler as the narrator and was filmed in Tucson, Arizona. The film won the 1953 Oscar for Best Documentary.[2][3]

The Living Desert
Living Prairie.jpg
Film poster for the double-feature release of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie
Directed byJames Algar
Written byJames Algar
Winston Hibler
Produced byBen Sharpsteen
Walt Disney
Narrated byWinston Hibler
CinematographyRobert H. Crandall
N. Paul Kenworthy
Edited byNorman R. Palmer
Music byPaul J. Smith
Distributed byBuena Vista Distribution
Release date
  • November 10, 1953 (1953-11-10)
Running time
69 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.6 million (US)[1]

It is featured in the 2006 DVD Walt Disney Legacy Collection Volume 2: Lands of Exploration.


The Living Desert was the first feature-length film in Disney's True-Life Adventures series of documentaries focusing on zoological studies; the previous films in the series, including the Oscar-winning Seal Island, were short subjects.[4]

The documentary was filmed in Tucson, Arizona. Most of the wildlife shown in the film was donated to what would soon become the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The film was inspired by 10 minutes of footage shot by N. Paul Kenworthy, a doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles. Kenworthy's footage of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp intrigued Disney, who funded a feature-length production following the lives of diverse desert species. Disney was highly supportive of Kenworthy's work and its impact on nonfiction filmmaking, stating, “This is where we can tell a real, sustained story for the first time in these nature pictures.”[4]


Prior to the production of The Living Desert, Disney was releasing his films through RKO Radio Pictures. But due to a long-frayed relation with the studio, which had little enthusiasm for the producer's documentary releases, Disney opted to sever his relation with RKO and create his own distribution subsidiary – Buena Vista Distribution, which he named after the street where his office was located.[4]

The Living Desert received some criticism for bringing unsubtle humor to its scenes of desert life – Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Disney to task for adding jokey musical effects to several of the film's scenes, including hoedown music for a sequence involving a scorpion mating dance.[5] Nonetheless, the film was a commercial success: the US$300,000 production grossed US$4,000,000 at the box office.[4]

The film was very popular in Japan surpassing Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all time with a gross of over $800,000.[6]


The Academy Award that Disney earned for The Living Desert helped the producer make history as the individual with the most Oscar wins in a single year. At the 26th Academy Awards, in addition to winning the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Disney also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for The Alaskan Eskimo and the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) for Bear Country.[7]

In addition to its Oscar, the film also won the International Prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival,[8] an award at the Berlin Film Festival[9] and a special achievement award from the Golden Globe Awards.[10][11] In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[12][13]


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  2. ^ Crowther, Bosley (2009). "NY Times: The Living Desert". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 21, 2009. Retrieved November 8, 2008.
  3. ^ "The 26th Academy Awards (1954) Nominees and Winners". (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Retrieved May 30, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d Bob Thomas (1976). Walt Disney: An American Original. Pocket Books. pp. 248–49. ISBN 0-671-66232-5.
  5. ^ Bosley Crowther (November 10, 1953). "The Living Desert". The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  6. ^ "'Living Desert' Tops 'Gone With Wind' Gross ($800,000) in Japan". Variety. July 20, 1955. p. 10. Retrieved December 12, 2019 – via
  7. ^ "1953 Academy Awards Winners and History". Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  8. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Living Desert". Retrieved January 25, 2009.
  9. ^ "4th Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". Retrieved December 24, 2009.
  10. ^ "True-Life Adventures: The Living Desert". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on January 20, 2009. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  11. ^ "The Living Desert". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Archived from the original on December 15, 2009. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  12. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  13. ^ "Librarian of Congress Names 25 More Films to National Film Registry". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Retrieved May 4, 2020.

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