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Monday, May 02, 2016

Disney Goes Postwar Scary

Ichabod and Mr. Toad for Fall Fun in '49

Probably the best 16mm reel I ever had of Disney's was a cut-down for student/libraries, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, twenty minutes as opposed to thirty-five or so that made up second half of 1949's theatrical release The Adventures Of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Idea at first was to call it Two Fabulous Characters, this another "package feature" that critics carped was mere cartoons strung together and symptomatic of Disney slipping (though better liked because there was less mix to annoy them). Fact was Walt fearing gamble of big-spenders like Bambi, Fantasia, Pinocchio ... red ink spillage of earlier that decade. Safer were hybrids like Song Of The South or So Dear To My Heart that combined animation with live action. Still, the outfit was about broke, Walt/Roy pondering merge with RKO that would have been finish to autonomy. 1949 shaped as all-or-nothing roll of dice to regain footing. As reported by Variety on 5/6/49, not only Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but Alice In Wonderland, Treasure Island, Hiawatha, and "40 percent completed" Cinderella, latter and Ichabod the only ones to actually get out that year (Cinderella rushed to make Christmas dates).

Ichabod and Mr. Toad was two stories, as in The Wind and The Willows and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Willows had been percolating as a feature since early in the 40's, then given up to packaging with failure to launch at long-length. A good decision that, for Mr. Toad's section drags, at least for me, at half-hour plus duration. Maybe I should read the source to better appreciate "satire" that was said to widen appeal of Wind/Toad beyond kids. Problem there, however, was same kids in 1949 getting fidgety in theatre seats, according to "Green Sheet" report from the MPAA, in concert with nationwide women's groups who judged new films for fitness to viewership, particularly youth. They did "Wiggle Test" on pics targeted to kids, and in the case of Mr. Toad, "attention twice dropped down to passive acceptance." Added problem was fact "that many of the children did not understand the narration," as evidenced by "questions to each other during the screening." Trades agreed that Ichabod was livelier serve, Variety noting its "hoked-up version of the Sleepy Hollow legend" would appeal to "common clay" patronage.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow had long before cemented into American folklore. Everyone past diapers knew the story, most had read it by choice if not in school. Washington Irving, it seems, wrote the perfect short movie back in 1820. There was a silent version with Will Rogers a hundred years later (1922), and probably others I've overlooked. The short story's Public Domain status made it a cinch to adapt. Cartoons got aboard in 1934 (or before? --- again, there may be earlier animations unseen by me). Ub Iwerks, earlier associate to Disney, had branched off to do his own reels for distributing Pat Powers, The Headless Horseman dressed in limited hues of Cinecolor (Disney's use of Technicolor for cartoons during the period being exclusive). Iwerks' short was crude by comparison with Disney's re-do, in fact with cartoons Walt released in 1934, but it spun the tale briskly, and had gags the 1949 version would borrow. By then, of course, Iwerks was back employed at Disney's, and I wonder if he participated in creative ways with Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The Headless Horseman is at You Tube and available on DVD as part of Thunderbean's Cartoons That Time Forgot series.

Variety said that Disney's Ichabod would "slay the Washington Irving purists," but I thought it hued close to the yarn, more so than most tries by Hollywood at classic literature. Bing Crosby's narration is generous with author wording, century-old turns-of-phrase used to great comic effect, and all of Irving plot maintained. Best of adhering to the original was all-out animating of the chiller chase that finishes the story, public and trades in '49 hailing it scariest ever in annals of cartooning ("matches anything Disney has ever done in the way of terrifying the younger set," observed Variety). Having Crosby for voice-over, plus three songs, was the click, and basis for merchandising of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Bing's deal called for publishing rights in the music in addition to his narrating fee, a bargain at whatever price thanks to his being at summit of popularity in 1949. Decca issued a record album featuring the tunes and some of story as told by Bing, smaller platters sent to theatres to play as exit music from Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

Disney wanted to explore TV as adjunct to selling, his conviction "that television has reached (a) stage where it's one of the most important sales mediums" (Variety: 8-18-49). Ichabod and Mr. Toad would mark the first occasion for Disney using video to promote a feature. The company prepared 20-30 second spots in addition to ones lasting a minute for broadcast in all markets, this a run-up to October 1949 release of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. RKO staffer and selling genius Terry Turner (of later King Kong reissue, Godzilla, Gorgo fame) was put in campaign charge. Trouble with bookings was Ichabod and Mr. Toad running short at 68 minutes, which meant doubling up with sometimes inappropriate co-features supplied by distributing RKO (Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini's Stromboli a partner in some situations). Chicago's first-run at the RKO Palace tried to bell the cat by adding Disney cartoons beyond the already all-animated feature, four such amounting to possible overkill, plus a Universal-International featurette called Silver Butte, wherein cowboy Tex Williams was matched with stock footage from a Johnny Mack Brown oldie. This couldn't have been Walt Disney's idea of good programming, though with lately-introduced True-Life Adventures, and "All Disney" bills to come, he'd lick the problem of mis-mates for his output. The package concept would end in any case with Ichabod and Mr. Toad, it doing the least business ($1.2 million in domestic rentals, $425K foreign) of any in the group. The fabulous characters would afterward be split up for reissues and Disney TV programs. Ichabod and Mr. Toad can presently be had on Blu-Ray in a pairing with The Reluctant Dragon, plus streaming at Vudu, Amazon, elsewhere.


Blogger DBenson said...

I've always been fond of Mr. Toad, especially for the climactic raid on Toad Hall. And of course he gave us Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland, which ends with your car meeting a train head-on (a startling illusion with a blinding headlight and thunderous sound effects) and you ending in a hell full of gleeful demons. There was going to be a Headless Horseman ride at the Florida park, but instead they cloned the Anaheim dark rides.

The Disney package films were essentially invisible by the mid-fifties, but we boomer kids were very familiar with nearly every individual segment. They were spliced into Sunday night TV episodes and sometimes re-released as freestanding shorts in addition to getting that 16mm exposure. The one AWOL segment seemed to be Bongo from "Fun and Fancy Free", very noticeable because Bongo & Co. were regulars in the Disney comic books. The story centered on a circus bear learning that wild bears expressed affection by slapping ... hard.

It was a pretty big deal when UCSC got one (maybe two) for a showing tied to an animation class in the 70s. Now all are on disc. "Melody Time" and "Make Mine Music" are still entertaining motleys, despite the occasional clunker ("Trees").

6:05 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Have always enjoyed all the Disney Package Features, think ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD not only the very best of that group, but would rank it above many of the later full length jobs. No weak filler here. I'm with Donald Benson and, alas, strongly disagree with you, John, on THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS which I would place as one of the studio's best since DUMBO. All the fat trimmed away, the story is nicely retrofitted into half an hour, jazzed up with just enough slapstick and fast paced 40's style craziness to get the necessary big laughs. Mr. Toad, wonderfully voiced by Eric Blore, is a gigantic personality... the staging and character animation in the trial scene and all the hilarious throw-away bits of business, make this sequence alone one of the shining classics of post-war Disney.

The big sock finish with the ICHABOD half makes total pacing sense, as does the decision to let Crosby's persona actually dominate the cartoon characters on screen (I seem to recall a review contrasting Basil Rathone's 'crisply anonymous narration' of the first half which seems, in retrospect, completely appropriate in its subservience to the more character driven story of Mr. Toad)

Like DUMBO, this feature's short running time is problematic only in scheduling terms, and is advantageous in every other way. Just a great little movie! Screened a Tech print at a packed college coffee house almost 45 years ago and it brought the house down! And, yeah, D. Benson is also right about that great crazy-ass Disneyland ride... the one that sends you straight to hell!

10:06 AM  
Blogger Mark H said...

Silver Butte features Tex Williams of "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette" fame AND Barbara Payton (apparently her first movie role)? Where can I see this?

10:38 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Tex Williams reels were a big deal at the time because they were the only westerns on the market in featurette length. Exhibitors could program them whenever they had a lengthy main attraction, much as Hal Roach's streamliners had functioned in the early '40s.

Makes me think a little wistfully about independent producer William Forest Crouch, who operated out of the old Biograph studio in New York and was the Henry Ford of B pictures, cranking out assembly-line product in a fraction of the usual time. (One of his Louis Jordan features was filmed in a day and a half!) The connection with Tex Williams is that the series had been originated by Crouch, with cowboy singer "Red River Dave" McEnery as the hero. This was the big time for Crouch, who had been making Soundies and humble independent films for years and finally broke into the major leagues with a big studio behind him. Poor Mr. Crouch... Universal only released a couple of his productions and then pulled the plug on him, taking over the series with house producer Will Cowan.

7:39 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Never knew any of this, Scott. Thanks for the info!

9:46 AM  

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