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Monday, July 26, 2021

A Peek Inside Before The Siege


Where Magic Was Made in 1941

One of the short subjects later culled from The Reluctant Dragon

Resolved: The best thing about Greenbriar are the people who comment at Greenbriar. Evidence: My looking back this week to an entry dated December 26, 2006, topic The Reluctant Dragon and varied Disney cartoons from the 40’s. There were fourteen reader contributions, each a help toward better understanding Disney in context of the time, varied animators who worked for the studio, and why shorts/features rose and fell. All this to say Greenbriar is fortunate to have such generous readership, and speaking from fifteen years later, I hope it continues. The Reluctant Dragon returns for my having got out the Blu-Ray to enjoy Disney’s operation from the inside, scrubbed as it was and using actors for most part to play artists and technicians. What a novelty this must have been in 1941, and yet The Reluctant Dragon lost money. Conrad Lane tells me that his Ritz Theatre in Alexandria, Indiana, normally a Disney haven, passed the feature altogether (they also skipped Saludos Amigos). I wonder if The Reluctant Dragon got bad raps for serving spoon bread to a public expecting each Disney feature to surpass a last. Even Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed, though conceded to be ones-of-a-kind. Dragon anticipated cheaters to come, being paste-together of live action and cartoons far from a Disney best. I read that Walt, fairly desperate to get out an inexpensive feature, figured Mickey and the Beanstalk toward that end, which would have been first try at a cartoon star headlining at full-length, and we wonder what might have come of that, even as Fun and Fancy Free sort of answered the question six years later.

Disney’s studio was a fairyland, him still a Merlin to reckon with, the Burbank address a Disneyland before there was a Disneyland. I doubt anyone ever turned down an invite to visit there. Did celebrities ask to be let in with their kids? Disney toured V.I.P.’s much as Chaplin had. He was Hollywood’s reigning genius, in fact maybe the only one still working full tilt by 1941. Here was no mere factory like others of an industry that pretended to glamour in all aspects (not the case, as insiders well knew). Every inch of Disney’s was a place like in our dreams. I look at small-part players in The Reluctant Dragon (Frances Gifford, Alan Ladd, Frank Faylen, others) and wonder what their reaction was to being there, let alone impersonating those who created Disney magic. How could any job here be classified as work? The halo would slip, the aura askew, once strike talk and hitherto unknown conflicts became news. Walt’s financial struggle was also stuff of fairy-tale-turned-grim interest. Some surely wished a government (ours … anybody’s) could support Disney and enable his enchantments. That very thing did happen by December ’41 when the armed service marched in and took over, this accomplished within hours of a first jeep entering, lights kept lit thanks to taxpayers, not for bunnies and elves to run loose, but for creative hands to fulfill necessity of shorts to instruct a nation’s fighting force. Was it ever recorded how Walt Disney felt privately about all this? And yet we could speculate what might have become of the studio otherwise. The Reluctant Dragon was in many ways a last glance at sunshine all-the-time in Burbank paradise, just before change brought serene curtains down.

Lucky Visitor Jane Withers Joins Robert Benchley to Publicize The Reluctant Dragon

Though not emphasized in ads, Robert Benchley was live action star of The Reluctant Dragon, playing “himself” as in ever-confused Everyman, or “Joe Doakes,” as some identified his screen character. Benchley had by 1941 given up the writing he initially found fame for, this more rarified than worldwide recognition he would come to enjoy as a film notable, “enjoy” the rub for Bob having tired long ago of Hollywood fame he saw as selling out for cash no print medium could have afforded to pay him. Benchley was a soft touch and careless spender, income never enough no matter how much flowed. There was a family to support, his boys mostly grown, Benchley’s overhead high, what with residence kept on both coasts. The humorist’s persona would have been ideal for Disney had latter gone to live action policy years before he did. Imagine Absent-Minded Benchley inventing Flubber. As it is, Bob was an ideally bemused guest to Burbank, in/out of workshops where Disney artists routinely defy nature and do things film never tried, let alone achieved. I wish Benchley had written up his Reluctant Dragon experience, but there’s no evidence he did. The full-time funnyman of movies wished to create things of greater substance, as if he hadn’t already, and in quantity, quality, few if any (I say none) of his contemporaries matched. Read wits of his era and show me one better than Benchley. His humor columns are a gold vein, and then there were Broadway reviews penned in the 20/30’s full of amused acumen. Benchley’s was not a cruel comedy, his empathy a strongest shield against those who might be put off, as some were by friend and colleague Dorothy Parker for instance, whose blade had a sharper edge and thus a narrower following (but hold, her legacy likely leads in our jaundiced age).

Trouble humorists had was not being properly appreciated in their time, and maybe not since come to think of it. E. B. White, a froth dispenser himself, spelled out inequity in a preface he wrote in 1941 for A Subtreasury of American Humor, 800 pages into which Benchley, among many others, figured. “It would be … accurate, I think, to say that there is a deep vein of melancholy running through everyone’s life … that a humorist, perhaps more sensible of it than some others, compensates for it actively and positively.” White sensed a “fine line between laughing and crying,” each of us “a manic depressive of sorts,” a humorous piece of writing “like an active child, close to the big hot fire which is Truth. And sometimes, the reader feels the heat.” He saw us as liking humor, even as we treated it “patronizingly.” Society “decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussel sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny, it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious.” This was why, in White’s opinion, ambitious writers tended to hold themselves above anything that might be considered “light,” this to protect their reputation as artists in earnest. White claimed there was not a humorist alive who did not on occasion, “have someone he loved and respected (who) took him anxiously into a corner and asked him when is he going to write something serious.” This was cruel reality of many a creative life. Much as we enjoy comedians, do we extend them respect and a proper due? Robert Benchley died (in 1945) thinking he had done nothing of permanence. I’m sure many had tried to assure him otherwise, but a dye once cast … anyway, when life gets fair, do let us know.

Had Rembrandt still run his workshop in 1941, it might have impressed as The Reluctant Dragon did, I say might, because Disney’s address was sights and sounds to beat, whatever your century. There is futuristic Sonovox as demonstrated by Benchley and Frances Gifford, an effects element of Dumbo, plus the room sized Multiplane camera, through which Disney simulated 3-D minus glasses (a sci-fi monolith made more so by sudden shift to Technicolor when Benchley enters its chamber). We are to assume that anything here was not/could not, be duplicated elsewhere. Much is surreal, sometimes to point of discomfit, Donald Duck’s speech the more alarming when issued by human agency as opposed to drawings on a screen. Same for Clara Cluck, only more so. Frankly, I was less stunned by the girl in The Exorcist. For such remarkable devices at hand, we could wonder why animation on view doesn’t please better, each of samplings weak by what was then prevailing Disney standard. A problem for studio output was less its being bad than having become commonplace. Product being so through much of the 40’s made lots assume that Disney had spent his bolt in a first remarkable decade, after which nothing comparable would be forthcoming. Benchley blunders into a screening where Walt and crew will view titular portion of The Reluctant Dragon, this what we have presumably waited for, dragon art having lured us through turnstiles, but what tepid tea this is, and one must conclude Disney knew it. But what to do? Money was short, banks less willing to extend credit. Still, it’s poignant for laid-back Walt, at least appearing so, us knowing the strike, War Department takeover, then depart for Latin America, lay shortly ahead. Had he sensed these looming, would Walt have tossed in towels and gone home, or maybe sold out to RKO as he and Roy came close to doing later in the decade?

You Choose: Rembrandt's Workshop in 1630 or Disney's in 1941?

The Reluctant Dragon
has a curious mix of hired actors playing Disney staff and real Disney staff playing themselves. I don’t know if Walt initially called for volunteers or if certain artists showed aptitude for on-camera work and so were encouraged to appear. Ward Kimball was a free thinker and, others suggested, a born careerist who positioned himself to impress Walt and get plum assignments as result. He also best understood enigma that was his boss and came closest of anyone to having a friendship with Disney. They shared hobbies, most notably model railroads, Ward’s in the yard at home inspiring Walt to construct a more elaborate train on his premises, to which, of course, Kimball was invited. Latter also formed a Dixieland band with other employees that became a mainstream success, “The Firehouse Five Plus Two” performing often at Disneyland and for studio parties. Kimball was a sort of in-house wild man like Bob Clampett was at Warners, doing stuff the other animators did not dare, like in The Three Caballeros, with its anarchic highlights none but Kimball could dream up. He’s in The Reluctant Dragon and has a longish exchange with Robert Benchley, two who could not help drawing attention when they walked in rooms. Interviewers on the topic of Disney got their best psychological profiles on Disney from Kimball. He was the fair-headed boy until suddenly one day he wasn’t, Ward forgetting that to buddy up with the boss spelled beware writ large, especially when that boss was as moody and mercurial as Walt Disney.

What went wrong came by increments, as Kimball told in a talk with Michael Barrier that was published in Walt’s People: Volume Two, part of that splendid book series edited by Didier Ghez. Disney folk were like any other barrel of corporate snakes, maybe more so, alert always to the other fellow getting a leg up and maybe pushing theirs down. A typical workplace, may each bedevil always. A lot of cartoonist interviews ended up being, like those from Warner, late-in-life opportunity to settle scores. Disney might give what looked like project autonomy to Ward Kimball, then withdraw it sudden when he sensed the underling got “too big for his britches.” Also he played head games with staff by sticking two guys together who did not particularly like each other. Good for energy, Walt said. “Riding high in April, shot down in May,” as Frank used to sing. Crisis came when Disney was out of the country as work went forward on Babes in Toyland (1961), which Kimball hoped to direct, a spot Walt naturally had to OK. Somehow a trade ad got published before the boss got back, congratulating Ward for being chosen to helm Babes in Toyland. I gather rivals had hatchets out for Kimball and aimed low blows to wreck his relationship with Disney. The scheme worked, because things were never the same between the two again. Remarkable how blithely Walt could bench a talent like Kimball’s, all to satisfy pique and demonstrate who was in charge, though Ward did admit in hindsight that perhaps he should have handled the situation different. No Disney employee was less than servile to the throne, but how he could punish when one of them took too independent a course. Was this a fundamental problem with Disney from a start, personnel not permitted to deal even a low pair without Walt always playing his flush?

There were conflicting accounts from others who worked for Disney. Live-action director Byron Haskin barely saw Walt during Brit-based production of Treasure Island, latter to inaugurate feature policy sans animation, a field less familiar to Disney, but duck soup for Haskin, who was hired for “chintzy” $25K. Frozen funds in England were thawed to produce Treasure Island, “the whole deal was a steal,” said the director. Some credit Cinderella for turning the tide for Disney, but I think what saved them for a long run was Treasure Island and a fresh-instituted policy of mixing a mild feature (more of them UK-made) with True-Life featurettes, these well-regarded critically, and tolerated at least by small fry if enjoyed more by their parents. Such elements plus a fresh cartoon short made for an all-Disney program minus taint of second features off RKO refuse piles. With a Beaver Valley and newest Goofy playing behind Treasure Island, no one need worry that Armored Car Robbery or something like it would pollute young minds. To review Disney’s progress through the 50’s is to observe a lot of bad luck from a previous decade turning good. The television venture put high-test synergy to work on studio behalf. There suddenly were limitless ways to capture a public’s attention, and disposable dollars. Disneyland was a gamble that could have gone disastrously wrong but didn’t. Walt’s timing with this turned out to be ideal, a fantasy park that was real and could be got to. Millions who went would shop Disney from there on. What with Code-challenging films out of Hollywood, it was understood that Disneys were most fit entertainment for your children to see. That attitude went years before fading. By then, Disney was a different sort of place entirely and had found new means by which to dominate the amusement industry.


Blogger Filmfanman said...

A fine article about Disney.
I was once at a dinner party and one of the guests shared that, as a child in the 1960s, his family would watch Sunday evening TV together, and that 'The Wonderful World Of Disney' was always part of that; this indeed was the same in our household, as I remember it being in the early 1970s.
Anyway, this fellow went on to say that as a five or six year old, way back in 1966, he had heard that Walt Disney had died, and he had asked his parents what that meant - and so his parents explained to him what death was, that Walt Disney was no more, and that Walt Disney had died of cancer. Our dinner guest went on to say that Disney's demise was his very first knowledge of the existence of death, as far as he could remember.
In fact, the conversation at the dinner table was about the first time that people had become aware of the existence of death - for myself, it was the death of a grand-parent when I was ten or so.
This fellow also went on to say that being the child of European immigrants, they yet spoke the "old language" at home, and that in their language, the word for cancer is the very same word they use to denote crab - and thus in his childish ignorance, he had thought ( and for a long time too, he said ) that Walt Disney had been killed by a giant crab, and furthermore, that his childish mind had had great difficulty understanding how Walt Disney could have been so foolish or unaware as to let a giant crab catch and kill him.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

When I was a child and the voice on the TV said "The following is brought to you in living color on NBC" I was annoyed and puzzled that nothing I did seemed to turn the b/w image to "living color"!

11:31 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A lot of Disney shorts are less gut busters than comfort food. Thoroughly professional, with a safe, familiar vibe and little or no aftertaste. As you approach the 60s they're less dire than much of the concurrent output from nearly everybody else. I give you the post-Jones Roadrunners, the weird European Tom and Jerrys, and the TV-grade stuff from Paramount, Lantz, and Terrytoons. Good cartoons with a studio label were increasingly rare.

Disney anticipated the boom of chains and franchises in food, retail, and hotels, which sold middling but reassuringly consistent products to an increasingly mobile postwar America. This was when TV gave Bill Boyd, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry a second round of stardom precisely because their old Bs were so predictable in content and quality.

One of the ironies is that Disney thrived by doubling down on an identifiable house style just as the rest of Hollywood was moving away from such uniformity of product. By 1950 was anybody going to see "the new Paramount picture" or "the latest Warner"? No, because the name of the studio assured nothing more than a baseline of slickness, if that. Their slates were highly -- sometimes desperately -- diversified, chasing every demographic. Disney, a small business compared to the majors, could thrive by targeting kids and families.

Likewise, the All Disney Program evolved after the rest of Hollywood had abandoned that model, thanks to trustbusters and the industry-wide decline of short subjects. And of course, keeping ownership of the vault and judiciously re-releasing oldies turned into a gold mine. Walt was a futurist and innovator, but he (and brother Roy) also saw healthy cash cows where everybody else saw spoiled hamburger.

For a tail-end boomer kid, Disney the brand was a force out of proportion with Disney's actual size. I knew Universal cranked out a lot more of the shows and movies I saw, and Disney comics and newspaper strips competed with abundant titles from Warner and Hanna-Barbara. But Disney MEANT something. There was a time when movies were Charlie Chaplin and then everybody else. Disney never reached that level, but who else got anywhere as close?

4:28 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Robert Newton as Long John Silver has not been and cannot be topped. He made the movie. He also made a TV series, LONG JOHN SILVER, that was wonderful.

For myself two of the very best (Grim Natwick and Shamus Culhane) left Disney early.

I learned a lot from them.

Now to get the RELUCTANT DRAGON Blu-ray.

Grim Natwick Toronto 1980:

Grim Natwick Toronto 1982:

Shamus Culhane Toronto: , , ,

One of the things people do to generate publicity is visit sick kids. I organized such a visit for Shamus but then realized how scummy such a thing actually is. We visited the kids. It was wonderful. I did not notify the media. Sick Kids Hospital Toronto made a wonderful video of the visit. .

5:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Disney's animated shorts from 1927 to roughly 1935 are quite good. It seems like by the early '40s, only Donald Duck and Goofy possessed any kind of life. I've got the early Mickey Mouses on DVD -- hard to believe there was a time that Disney could release a cartoon where a howling Pluto was tortured by a mad scientist. That's entertainment!

Kind of a shame Disney didn't team up with Hal Roach in the '40s. They were in a similar situation, being reduced to making what amounted to B-movies in quality if not necessarily in fact, and could have used each other's inspiration.

I, too, still remember Disney's death, and wondering how Sunday evenings would ever be the same again. He was 65, my age now, which gives me the shudders, and reminds me how much he accomplished.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Disney's short subject output for me is the equivalent of Chaplin: I can appreciate the artistry, skill, and importance that goes into both, yet each leaves me absolutely cold when it comes to humor. In Chaplin's case, it's his desperation to impress us; in Disney's, those films are inevitably sunk by grade B scoring and grade D sound effects.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

D. Benson 's point about Disney not reaching the level of distinction that Chaplin achieved in movies needs qualification.
For when I was a kid, as far as animation was concerned, it really was Disney and then everybody else: true, Disney's stuff was rarer to see, but even to us children the difference in quality between a Disney cartoon and the rest was apparent - and it was a difference in the quality of the animation, not of the plots or the jokes or the music we were noticing. The colors seemed brighter, and the motion smoother. Disney's cartoons simply looked better, though we kids didn't know the technical reasons for why that was so.
Disney animation continued to look better than that of its competition for a long time too, even into this century; looking back at what was produced and presented in the 1970s and 1980s, it almost seems as if the children's animation business (other than Disney) back then was contemptuous of their childish audience.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Thank the baby Jesus that Disney couldn't take his WWII war earnings from England but had to spend the money there. Thus, did we get a lot of wonderful Robin Hood and Rob Roy-type of pictures starring young Brit actors.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Beowulf. Amen.

Dave: Chaplin may leave you cold, not me. I programmed Chaplin for decades not to film buffs but to the much harsher audience of ordinary folks. Chaplin can reduce an audience to exhaustion with laughter. the BBC ran live over the radio from Albert Hall the twenty minutes of solid laughter that is the climax of THE GOLD RUSH.

One reason for the failure of THE RELUCTANT DRAGON may be the dragon. Most of us want our dragons unreluctant and fierce. The ads lack edge.

5:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

There is a video from Argentina in which Pinocchio and other characters from the movie "arrive" to the country in order to promote a reissue of the film in the sixties. It is on YouTube and, while it is a document on how movies were promoted, it feels very stupid.

There was this aura in which the Disney films were a brand of the old fashion kind in which you more or less know what to expect once a movie or TV show started. As a spectator since my childhood, I always felt disappointed with what I end up seeing never having an edge to make it memorable, having seen cheaper live TV shows at the time that I actually remember better with fondness instead.

I don't get the appeal of the Disney stuff, except for a handful of things. I even disliked Disneyworld as an expensive amusement park that felt quite boring and unremarkable... it was sold when I was a kid as the ultimate place for children, yet I was not impressed at all except for the fact that it feels way overpriced.

6:44 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

At some point Disney became a standard, a yardstick applicable to almost anything. From the 30s on, anybody discussing animation inevitably uses Disney as a basis for comparison, favorably or not. As time marched on some commentators held Disney up as a bulwark of decency in a coarsening age, while others made Disney shorthand for all that was fake, commercial and regressive. Bless or curse Uncle Walt; there's a goodly audience to applaud either stance.

These days Disney is one of a handful of monster conglomerates dominating pop culture and delivering a vast spectrum of stuff, and is usually discussed in those terms. Although there are still those who sniff that Uncle Walt, if alive today, would somehow suspend the laws of supply and demand and make his parks cheap and uncrowded, and out-perform Hollywood by producing nothing but G-rated Love Bug sequels.

I will confess to loving Disney World on my last visit, admittedly over a decade ago when it was only semi-obscenely expensive. What I loved was what many people hate: the proud artificiality of it all, Hollywood set design reaching beyond the theme parks into several pricy Disney-owned resorts. No, you don't believe you're in long-ago Atlantic City, or New England, or Hawaii, or Africa. But you sure as heck know you're not in an airport Marriott with generic restaurants overlooking vast parking lots. Best of all for a California-raised boy, you can largely avoid dealing with cars at all. Returning to your hotel by a boat is worth something.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

For myself for a long time animation was Disney. When I began exploring the medium in the mid 1970s with my animation marathons I found much more exciting and interesting work being done outside Disney. The only thing I do not care for is that gag cartoons became the norm. People expect cartoons to be funny. Some of the best aren't.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Crisis came when Disney was out of the country..." Perhaps after seeing his crew leave him high and dry with the loss of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit and later when Ub Iwerks left Disney soured on employer/employee relations. Friz Freleng told me, "We knew Walt had no money. We thought he would go broke. He went broke in reverse." It's a hard pill to swallow when we find out people we trust and are putting before our self think working with us not worthwhile because we don't have what they think we should have. They are wrong of course.

4:42 PM  

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