Elephant, fly: “Dumbo” (1941)

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By Scott Ross

The Disney Pinocchio (1940) — which to my astonishment I just realized will be 80 years old this year — is my favorite, not merely of the Disney features but of all animated movies. It is the fulfillment of Snow White‘s promise, but without Fantasia‘s pretension or Bambi‘s anthropomorphic cutseying-up of what is, basically, the grim realism of its source. (Felix Salten’s novel is red in tooth and claw, not to mention hoof.)* Pinocchio‘s contours, its scope, its design and effects, were and are what they were intended to be: An overwhelming visual and emotional experience. Its darknesss, which some see as cold, appeals to me, and seems entirely appropriate: The corrupt world is arrayed against Pinocchio, and his journey is proving his mettle in the face of temptation, and even death. He stands up to the obstacles and comes out the other side, fulfilling the basic requirements of a fairy tale. Pinocchio is a work of high art, both entrancing and profoundly disturbing. Dumbo, by contrast, is a cartoon, caricatured and brightly colored, like a child’s dream of the circus before he attends one and his illusions are forever shattered by the seedy underbelly of sawdust reality.

Dumbo does not aspire to the messy, unpredictable mantle of great art and, maybe as a consequence, achieves instead a kind of minor-scale perfection. This absolute charmer about the elephant child whose freakishly large ears prove an irresistible asset was made, largely (and tellingly) while Uncle Walt was off Good-Neighboring in South America; perhaps as a consequence it’s tighter (it runs only slightly over an hour) and less kitsch-prone and bathetic than some of the Disney features that would follow, yet it is arguably the most emotionally-charged of any Disney release. Its directness and simplicity are a tonic, its humor is gentle, and its impulse to the deliberately artistic limited to an ingratiating Surrealist dream sequence in which vaguely threatening pink elephants mix and mutate in an increasing frenzy until they explode, resolving gracefully into the beautiful, benign little pink clouds of a Florida morning.

Dumbo flying elephant (Roll-a-book)

The story began with a little-seen book for children called Dumbo, the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, published by Roll-a-book Publishers, Inc. (See Michael Barrier’s informative essay The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-a-Book) whose black-and-white drawings very obviously served as models for the Disney animators. Wisely, and cleverly, the story men (who included Disney veterans Bill Peet and Joe Rinaldi) replaced the robin who inspires Dumbo with the circus-savvy Timothy Mouse, voiced with urban bravado by Edward Brophy, although most of the incidents of the original remained. Dumbo‘s is a streamlined story, uncluttered and sincere, and is helped enormously by the fact that its protagonist, essentially an infant, is mute. The picture is not, but its first quarter is chary of dialogue, apart from the smiling officiousness of a talkative stork (voiced by the lanky Sterling Holloway and drawn by Art Babbitt to resemble him) and the insensitive remarks of a harem of alternately pompous and gossiping elephant cows led by Verna Felton’s Matriarch. Before Dumbo’s arrival, and very often thereafter, the picture is primarily visual — and musical, what with its affecting underscore by Oliver Wallace and atmospheric songs by him, Frank Churchill and the lyricist Ned Washington.

Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, has exactly one line in the movie, and even more than the elephants, the blustery German Ringmaster (Herman Bing) and the now infamous crows of the final quarter, the most voluble character is Timothy Mouse, the elephant child’s adviser and protector. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Timothy is the movie’s conscience, and a typical sort of Hollywood character of the time: The street-wise, somewhat blustery, wisecracking, slang-spouting urbanite. One of the busiest character actors of the 1930s and ’40s, Edward Brophy was usually either a cop of a gangster, and (as with Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who gave vocal life to Jiminy) a contemporary audience would have instantly recognized the sound of his voice. It’s almost impossible not to love Timothy, because for all his toughness, he alone stands up for little Dumbo after Mrs. Jumbo, enraged by the cruelty of some vicious human brats, is penned up as “mad.” More, he makes smoothing the way for Dumbo his entire focus; he’s the loyal big brother we who got picked on wished we’d had, and the unspoken irony is that the relative sizes of protector and protected are reversed.

Dumbo‘s look is unique in the Disney canon, especially of those features following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It lacks that shaded, deep, expensive appearance that was the hallmark of Disney feature animation, and it’s far more stylized than its predecessors. Many of the figures in the crowd scenes are literally faceless, an effect that is especially notable in the sequence near the beginning where the Roustabouts (and their elephant helpers) raise the Big Top. Yet most of the characters are more overtly “cartoony” than those in the features that preceded it. The circus animals don’t look like real tigers, kangaroos, gorillas, hyenas or hippos (although the elephants are rather accurate) and the people are caricatures. Their designs are simpler than in Snow White, Fantasia or Pinocchio yet we don’t feel in any way cheated, especially with Dumbo and his mother. Affectionate love between parent and child has seldom been as exquisitely represented as it is with these two; there’s a brief sequence in which Dumbo engages in hide-and-seek with Mrs. Jumbo, running between her huge legs and smiling ecstatically, his little trunk raised and his eyes closed in sheer pleasure when she tags him, that is not only the last word in charm but perfectly encapsulates the way parents (especially mothers) and small children (including baby animals) play together. Along with the great animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla’s beautiful realization of little Dumbo and Wallace’s charming, oboe-based theme for him, this sweet, unselfconsious play cements the emotional bond between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.

Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo

That connection is so naturally strong that, when she is chained up in her cell, Dumbo’s mother sways back and forth in numb, hopeless despair, we see her son, in the elephant tent, moving back and forth almost identically. This may be a bit studied, but the ultimate proof of the filmmakers’ mastery over the problem of imbuing drawings with life and giving them power over the viewer’s senses is the astonishingly fulsome emotional response evoked by Dumbo’s late-night visit to Mrs. Jumbo. You may not, as I do when I see this sequence, shed tears like a child, but I think you’d have to be made of something close to stone not to at least be moved by it. Its direct appeal to the emotions, and its simplicity of action, and of feeling, skirts bathos and becomes something approaching the profound, and which would have been spoiled by dialogue, or uncontrolled keening. Disney isn’t often accused of restraint, but the subtlety of this scene, which every adult who saw it as a child can instantly recall, speaks to his, and his staff’s, seemingly innate understanding of psychology.

Although the sequence is accompanied by a song (“Baby Mine,” with music by Churchill) there is no sense that Mrs. Jumbo is singing it; it’s a reflection of her inner being, and Washington’s lyrics are comprised of words and phrases with which any loving mother — or child — can identify. For a movie as music-heavy as Dumbo, few of its many songs are sung by a character in it. Only the “Song of the Roustabouts” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” (and a brief number by the circus clowns as they go off to ask the Ringmaster for a raise) can be considered musical numbers in the traditional sense. Everything else, from “Look Out for Mr. Stork” and “Casey, Jr.” in the opening minutes to the comically nightmarish “Pink Elephants on Parade” is performed off-screen by The Sportsman Quartet, the singer Betty Noyes (she performed “Baby Mine” here and, later, dubbed Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain) or, in the case of the Roustabouts’ song, the King’s Men. The only song sung by the characters on screen is, not coincidentally, the best number in what I consider one of the finest song scores ever written for any movie, of any kind.

Dumbo - Crows

Which brings us to Dumbo’s great controversy. It can, I suppose, be argued that the quintet of black crows who show up in the movie’s “third act” is a racist daydream, but it should be remembered that, aside from the lead bird, who was voiced by Cliff Edwards, the voices of the others in the quintet were members of the Hall Johnson Choir, including the actors James Baskett (later Uncle Remus in Song of the South, for which he was given a special Academy Award™) and Nick Stewart and Johnson himself, who voices the Deacon; that their joshing jive-talk was taken directly from the “backchat” on records by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong (and, one assumes, Fats Waller; one of the crows is called “Fats”); and that the live models for their steps, animated with marvelously loose-limbed joi de vivre by Ward Kimball, were the black dance duo the Jackson Brothers. I realize I am courting opprobrium by saying so but it should also be remembered that then, as now, sensitivity to slang and idiom are a preoccupation of middle-class black intellectuals who apparently have never talked with a person who didn’t go to college, or listened to a jazz or rap recording. I am the furthest thing from a disbeliever in the necessity of intellectual uplift, but a belief in the importance of education and pretending that many (perhaps most?) people in America speak or write grammatically are necessarily mutually exclusive. While I understand that representations of black reality are matters usually best left to black creators, if we accept that a cracker can only be written by a white writer, a Jew by a Jewish writer, a gay man by a gay writer, a woman by a woman — if we buy into the sort of literary and popular segregation that is unhealthy both for art and for the culture at large — we not only junk almost everything that’s come before, but place unreasonable and, I think, frankly racialist as well as reactionary, restrictions on the creative impulse.†

Although some black critics, writers and cultural commentators of the time were offended by the birds, and while the Disney artists might have been more sensitive to the prevailing popular culture stereotypes of the previous eras, particularly in movies, the crows in Dumbo are not only the liveliest characters in the picture, they’re among the most appealing supporting characters the studio ever created. They bring an exuberance, and a relaxed, happy infusion of jive, into the picture, and they got a great song — the best in the score — in “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The punning word-play of Washington’s charming lyrics, coupled with the swing of Wallace’s infectious melody, lift the sequence into the realm of the sublime. Some have called the crows bullies, but surely this is an over-simplification. They’re not picking on Dumbo, although Timothy understandably thinks they are. They’ve just seen an elephant in a tree; it seems to me that to react with humor is the sanest thing they could do under the circumstance. And it’s their smart psychological move in providing the “Magic Feather” that gives Dumbo the confidence he needs to do deliberately what in his champagne-stupor he did without thinking.

The supervising director on Dumbo was Ben Sharpsteen, who with Hamilton Luske also supervised Pinocchio, and the sequence directors were figures such as Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, and Jack Kinney. I don’t know what Kinney contributed, but he became the director of the great Goofy shorts when the analytic Babbitt, who created and developed the character, was fired during the Disney animator’s strike that began just after Dumbo was completed, so we can assume he worked on some of the more overtly comic moments in the picture. Many of Disney’s veterans were busy with Bambi during the production of Dumbo, giving some younger, less seasoned artists the chance to show what they could do. Among the animators who worked on it, aside from Kimball, were fellow future “Nine Old Men” Les Clark, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang (“Woolie”) Reitherman, Eric Larson and (although uncredited) Frank Thomas, and the junior animators included Walt Kelly (also a casualty of the strike), “Mickey” master Fred Moore, Preston Blair, Basil Davidovich, Michael Lah, the future Peanuts guru Bill Melendez, Paul Murry  (later, with Floyd  Gottfrfiedsen, one of two great Mickey Mouse and Goofy comic book artists) and (also uncredited) John Sibley and Irv Spector. Maurice Noble, Chuck Jones’ brilliant designer and sometimes co-director, worked on character design and the great Al Dempster worked on the backgrounds. That’s pretty much an all-star aggregation; Marc Davis, Ollie Johnson and Milt Kahl are just about the only Disney masters who didn’t put in time on Dumbo.

Dumbo - Timothy as Subconscious

While the entire picture is wonderfully designed and animated, I think we may assume the infusion of young talent into it is likely responsible for its most unusual elements. There are marvelous little curlicues that pop up throughout Dumbo, little comic and atmospheric touches which, despite the simpler designs, make an impact. During the circus parade, for example, the “ferocious” tigers (who are almost certainly the work of Jack Kinney) lie in a sleepy pile and a gorilla who, after howling in savage fury and shaking the bars of his caravan car realizes he’s pulled out one of them and quickly slips it back in place; he’s a performer, and he’s sheepishly embarrassed by having gone over the top. The circus locomotive, Casey Jones, Jr., is anthropomorphized, with a human face and a sentient whistle; when the car behind the engine bangs into it, the whistle hoots as if Casey has just been goosed. When the Ringmaster strips for bed he’s seen through the film of his tent, in silhouette, a gag which is repeated to even better comic effect later, when we see the clowns disrobing, their performance bodies at variance with their actual ones. They animators also enjoy a touch of the macabre; when Timothy sneaks into the Ringmaster’s tent to plant an idea in his mind favorable to Dumbo, his shadow is seen on the tent wall, grotesquely enlarged and looking like that of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. And when he takes on the persona of the Ringmaster’s Subconscious, he wraps himself in the bed-sheet like a spectre, even though he can’t be seen by the man into whose ear he’s dropping suggestions. (Timothy is a bit of a method actor.)

Music Men. (Above, left) Frank Churchill; (right) Ned Washington; (bottom) Walt Disney with Oliver Wallace.

I don’t think Oliver Wallace’s music can be over-praised. His theme for Dumbo is both softly plaintive and expressively playful, and I suspect it was that, and his music for the songs “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” that won him and Frank Churchill the 1942 Scoring Oscar™.‡ Churchill’s songs with the lyricist Larry Morey for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were a large part of that movie’s appeal (he also composed “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”) but his work in Dumbo is a bit conventional compared to Wallace’s. And while almost any music could have played under Dumbo’s visit to his mother and the scene would still have packed an emotional wallop, “Baby Mine” is a nearly perfect lullaby, so I don’t mean to pillory him. Washington, who later became a fixture in the production of “movie theme songs” following the phenomenal success of High Noon in 1952, had a remarkable range as a lyricist, not merely from film to film or score to score but song to song. “Pink Elephants on Parade” is almost Gilbertian in its fantastic rhyme-schemes, and “When I See an Elephant Fly” contains a set of lyrics so drunk on word-play I don’t imagine Yip Harburg would have been ashamed to have written them.

Dumbo - Pink Elephants on Parade

The Pink Elephants sequence illustrates better than anything else in the picture the merging of great songwriting, imaginative design and brilliant realization. And it’s beautifully situated in the narrative. I wonder if children of today, raised less on the cartoon tropes of the 1930s and ’40s (and even the ’20s) than we of the late baby-boom television generation, quite understand the concept of seeing hallucinatory pink elephants after a drunken tear (they’re actually an indicator of delirium tremens.) That’s the context here: Dumbo and Timothy, having drunk deeply from champagne-polluted water, enter a kind of inebriated fugue state wherein their shared vision is completely subsumed by fuchsia pachyderms. Beyond the wild squash-and-stretch permutations the animators achieve, the sequence is funny as an idea: A drunken elephant calf hallucinating the human conception of pink elephants. It’s also a strangely beautiful sequence, particularly toward the end when the images are rendered as pink and blue pastel outlines, and the whole thing is a staggeringly successful exercise in Surrealism. (It was so good the Disney animators unfortunately imitated it 27 years later, to diminished effect, in the  derivative “Heffalumps and Woozels” sequence for the 1968 featurette Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Even the Sherman Brothers couldn’t work up much of a song for that one.)

I called Dumbo a tonic earlier, and it had a positive effect on its makers as well as its audience. Stretched increasingly thin financially due to Walt’s many money-losing war contracts and reeling from the financial failures of both Fantasia and Pinocchio, the Disney studio desperately needed a hit. Aside from Bambi (which also lost money) Dumbo would be the last bright animated light at Disney in many a long year, until another unpretentious feature called Cinderella returned the company to artistic and fiscal profitability. Naturally, the current Disney “creative” team, which has never had an original idea in its collective life, authorized a live-action, plot-heavy, Tim Burton-directed “remake” in 2019, which ran nearly an hour longer than the original, was focused (sacrilege!) on human beings, cut the songs(!) and which, alas (but also predictably) made, proportionally, a lot more money than Dumbo did in 1941. But I don’t have to believe any of that if I don’t want to.

Dumbo_1941_final


*Although some argue that the movie does soften the Collodi novel, not least in the cricket the book’s wooden boy smashes against a wall when he chides him mutating into Pinnoochio’s Official Conscience, Jiminy Cricket.

†This sort of reflexive sniping not only stifles good work, it obliterates it: It’s what ultimately has kept Disney’s 1946 Song of the South out of circulation, not only in theatres but on home video, largely I think due to a lack of understanding that the picture’s setting is post-war, not antebellum. Floyd Norman, the Disney studio’s first black animator, has little patience with the Dumbo controversy; see his blog essay “Black Crows and Other Nonsense.”

‡It would have been nice had one of those two songs also won, as “When You Wish Upon a Star” did the year before — “Baby Mine” was nominated — but with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s wistful “The Last Time I Saw Paris” copping the award, I doubt there were many grumbles about the eventual winner… except, interestingly, by Kern himself; he was upset that he won for something not written for a movie, and petitioned to change the rules concerning nomination.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Between terror and delight: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

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By Scott Ross

The first time I saw David Hand’s Snow White

(Wait a minute! What? Exactly. The above is a deliberate representation of the lunatic extremes to which the perpetual abuse of the auteur theory in America is so often, and so hilariously, misapplied. I would be willing to bet that, in the pages of the whatever publication Andrew Sarris was writing for, Walt Disney’s early masterpiece, whose every frame and incident bears the mark of his overseeing hand, would have been listed, absolutely without irony and because he was credited as the picture’s Supervising Director, as “David Hand’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)

As I was saying… The first time I saw Snow White, on its 1967 reissue, I was six years old and it was 30. (It’s over 80 now, and I am far from six.) It’s one of those events for which I recall, not just the movie, or even the live-action featurette, The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle, that accompanied it, but the circumstances: My mother took me to a matinee screening, uncharacteristically without my sister (she may have been at summer camp) and, being a cartoon-mad child and this my first animated feature, it was a red-letter day for me. I see from my research that my long-held memory of the date has played me false: I was convinced that it was a school-day, and a cold one, suggesting winter, and 1965, before I entered kindergarten. But it seems the movie was re-released in June, making me wonder if my additional memory — of my having to take a hot bath before we left, and of Mom’s taking me to a drug store lunch counter for a hot cocoa with whipped cream (another first) afterward and buying me a tiny soft rubber “Admiral Pelican” toy — are images from another occasion, although I’m still convinced I got the pelican that day.* Well, memory as we all know is far from entirely reliable, but whatever the circumstances surrounding my seeing Snow White, the vividness of my first exposure to that movie has never faded.

Snow White - bedroom

A simple, funny gag by Ward Kimball — the Dwarfs revealing their faces as their noses pop into view — has been interpreted by Freudians as a series of erection caricatures. Who do they think made the thing? Tex Avery? Some adults should never be allowed to see a movie without a child along to explain it to them.

Unsurprisingly, the images that hit hardest, and have stuck longest, were the more horrific ones: Of Snow White’s race through the forest, and how, in her panicked, fevered imagination the trees reach out for her and logs turn into crocodiles; of the wicked Queen’s terrifying transformation into the poison apple-vending hag; of her dispatching of Snow White, the heroine’s arm falling into the frame, a bitten apple rolling away from her open hand; and of the Queen’s subsequent, poetically justified, demise, the vultures circling down into the mist to feast on her freshly dead flesh. Those are nightmare sequences, of which Disney was a true master: They’re in all of his studio’s genuinely great animated features (aside perhaps from Cinderella, although the stepsisters’ tearing the heroine’s gown to shreds and the cat Lucifer’s falling from the high window at the climax may qualify) and they remain fixed in the memories of millions — even billions — of former children.

Snow White - Crocodile logs resized

Extremes of terror…

Snow White - Silly Song resized

… and delight

But I can also recall, as I imagine was and is true of others, my delight in the wonderfully delineated Dwarfs (particularly Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy and Doc; I had never heard Spoonerisms before, and Doc became my favorite as a result of his), their comic actions, and the infectious joy with which they sing and dance their “Silly Song” with Snow White. These too are areas in which Walt would prove masterly, although I take issue with the people on the Disney Blu-ray documentary who claim Oklahoma! as the “first fully integrated musical,” and that Disney beat it by eight years. Not only was the 1927 Show Boat the real precursor of all of this, but Walt seems not to have known that Sigmund Romberg’s day had passed: The first 25 minutes or so of Snow White, until the Dwarfs reach home and discover something amiss at their cottage, is virtually a turn-of-the-century operetta, employing almost no dialogue — except the Queen’s — and arriving complete with twittering coloratura and sexless tenor, in love from the moment they see each other; they’d doubtless have been considered real humdingers at the Hippodrome in 1907. (Until she meets the Dwarfs, all of Snow White’s dialogue rhymes as well, something almost no one, including Walt Disney, could ever carry off.)† Snow White herself, as voiced by Adriana Caselotti, dates the movie more than anything else in it; she obviously fit Walt’s conception of the fairy tale adolescent heroine, and while small children may not mind her, and may even find her comforting, she has a way of making adults’ back teeth ache. Which is a shame, because your grown-up irritation can cause you to miss all sorts of wonders, such as how remarkably done Snow White’s reflection in her wishing-well is in the opening sequence, an effect people now take for granted but which in 1937 was revelatory, the product of the new Multiplane camera without which much of the visual impact of Snow White on its contemporary audience would have been infinitely less.

As a child of the ’60s, and while I instinctively gravitated to “funny animal” comic books (mostly Gold Key reprints) I had until that afternoon very little exposure to full animation. Where would I have seen it? By the time I was cognizant of such things, roughly the age of 4 or 5, most animation on television, unless it was comprised of old theatrical shorts, had succumbed to the cost-saving, and art-shaving, Hanna-Barbera “limited animation” model which ultimately poisoned the animation well for decades. The only exceptions, at least in the Canton, Ohio area where I was born, were the old Terrytoons and Paramount (alas, not Fleischer) Popeye shorts on local morning and afternoon kiddie-shows, Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings and the all-too occasional vintage short on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights. Not even the Peanuts specials, charming though they were, exhibited much in the way of visual artistry, and although my parents had a Zenith television/radio/turntable console, they elected for the black-and-white model, presumably at the time the less expensive choice; as a result, I never saw color television on a regular basis until I moved away from home at 19. (I still remember the wonder with which, at age 7, I first beheld a color television broadcast, on the set of a family friend. It was a Kukla, Fran and Ollie special, Burr Tillstrom’s 1968 television adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon, and I can still picture in my mind the sight of Ollie’s glittering, bejeweled chest: sparkling imitation jewels on a field of deep, vivid blue.) So something like Snow White, especially projected on a big movie theater screen — something I also hadn’t experienced often — was absolutely entrancing. And I was exactly the right age for the picture: Young enough to enjoy it on a purely childish level yet old enough not to be traumatized by its darker sequences. (You want emotional trauma? Try Bambi. Thank God I was in my 20s before I saw that one.)

Snow White - Dopey with diamond eyes

Dopey in the “Heigh-Ho” sequence, living up to his name.

And what a aggregation of animators worked on the thing! Along with such relative veterans of the Disney studio as Hand, Art Babbitt, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick (who, while at Fleischer, had worked on a jazzy, satirical Snow White short for the character he created, Betty Boop), Fred Moore, Dick Lundy, Wilfred Jackson, Ben Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, Hamilton Luske and Vladmir “Bill” Tytla, every single member of the group that would come to be called “Walt’s Nine Old Men” (Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsberry) was involved, along with Larry Morey (who also wrote the song lyrics), Pete Alvardo, Michael Lah (who, after Tex Avery left MGM, later directed Droopy shorts there) and David Swift, who would, like Frank Tashlin, later become a live-action director. Not to mention (why do we say that, and then mention?) Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren — who, like Hovarth helped design the Dwarfs, provided magnificent conceptual art of the backgrounds and buildings, and painted the gorgeous release poster seen above — and Albert Hurter, whose splendid character designs were also integral to the visual luster of the movie. A stable of creative artists like that is impossible to imagine today, and they, as much as Walt himself, turned what in Hollywood was snickered at as a disaster-in-the-making into a work of genuine popular art, an international financial juggernaut that, more than any other project in the studio’s history, made possible everything that flowed from it. Walt liked to say that his fortune was built on a mouse but if Mickey was the foundation his studio really stood on the shoulders of a beribboned teenager in a peasant blouse.

My previous observations about the songs in Snow White are not meant as a criticism of the numbers themselves, merely the structure built to house them. While not as rich, or as intriguingly dark, as their counterparts in the later, and more ambitious, Pinocchio (1940) the musical numbers here perform their duties efficiently, and with a great deal of charm. Moreover, whatever my complaints about the dated operetta style, each number flows into the next, and there is a particularly nice juxtaposition of “Whistle While You Work” and the Dwarfs’ “Heigh-Ho” (just as Disney achieves real suspense with his cutting between Snow White being menaced by the Witch and the little men and forest animals racing to save her.) Larry Morey’s lyrics are seldom of a kind that would have lost Cole Porter any sleep, but they weren’t intended to be clever or sophisticated. They were expected to convey generalized emotions, and they do. The music by Frank Churchill, however, is exceptional, and not only did nearly all of his and Morey’s songs (“Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work,” “With a Smile and a Song”) enter the American Popular Songbook, some of them, like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” became jazz standards as well. Carl Stalling, an old Kansas City hand, worked at Disney on the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonys, but after he decamped in 1930 the Disney shorts were accompanied by instantly forgettable music. These continued to be uninspired musically, but after Snow White, the features at least had superb scores: Paul Smith worked on Snow White and while when I see the movie I can’t really distinguish his compositions I can immediately determine which cues were composed by Leigh Harline; his quirky little motif for Dopey, for example, is instantly recognizable as Harline’s, a brief precursor to his theme for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio three years later.

Snow White - Heigh Ho

The “Heigh-Ho” sequence: A perfect synthesis of song, story and breathtaking visuals.

Music was, of course, integral to Disney’s success; he saw the potential of sound immediately, developed Steamboat Willie (1928) to exploit it, and continued to experiment with it throughout the 1930s. The Three Little Pigs (1933) in particular depends on music, and song, and the Depression-era public embraced Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” as an emblem. Walt’s embrace of a bigger sound for his Silly Symphony shorts — the name, if not the concept, was immediately imitated by Leon Schlesinger; Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies could not have existed without Disney’s model — must have thoroughly confused the money-men at other studios. Symphonic accompaniment for cartoons? What next? An animated feature? (Yes.) Whatever criticisms may be lobbed at Disney himself, or at the ravening corporation he spawned, his (and its) musical instincts have been more than effectual. Snow White set the prototype.

Snow White - Queen Grimhilde resized

Snow White - Wicked witch resized

If Caselotti is a sticky embodiment of virtue, the redoubtable stage actress Lucille La Verne is a marvelously fulsome personification of vice. Her Wicked Queen is silkily vicious, a walking, preening avatar of vanity (the Queen’s throne is in the form of a peacock) who seems to live only to be desirable. And La Verne’s Witch is thrillingly loathsome, the sort of figure to send delicious chills up a child’s spine. She’s not merely a perfect disguise; she is the Queen’s very essence. If her movements, like those of the Queen, are a series of melodramatic, silent-movie posturings, she is no less effective for them. The Disney artists were not yet ready for subtlety in characterizing evil; it would take years of experiment, and a much richer vocal artist (Eleanor Audley) to arrive at the more shaded, and more correspondingly frightening, Stepmother for Cinderella and wicked fairy Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Snow White - Grumpy at organ

Grumpy’s independently-working buttocks keep time in the “Silly Song” sequence.

Disney’s distillation of the Dwarfs’ personalities is even more successful, their endearing idiosyncrasies suggested by their names and brought to fruition by the way they are animated as much as by the men who gave them voice.  Disney, no less than his rivals at the Schlesinger or Fleischer studios, was, as so many were at the time, tuned in to vaudeville and radio (if perhaps less directly imitative) and most of the Dwarfs reflect that interest: Roy Atwell’s trademark stammering and malapropisms informed Doc’s pomposity, while Billy Gilbert, a master of explosive sternutation, was a natural for Sneezy and Otis Harlin (Happy) had a voice that radiated joviality. Eddie Collins, the model for Dopey (and purveyor of his occasional hiccups and excited twitterings) was studied for his distinctive movement while Scotty Mattraw, known for his bucolic characters, was a natural for Bashful. Pinto Colvig was likely a no-brainer as well for Grumpy and Sleepy; a Disney gag writer and sound effects man, Colvig was also for many years the great voice of Goofy, my favorite of Disney’s characters.

Up to to this point in animation history, the standard practice for dealing with a collection of like figures in cartoons, at Disney and elsewhere, was to make them more or less interchangeable: They look indistinguishable and move together uniformly (The Skeleton Dance, 1929) or in identical patterns (the imps and flowers in The Goddess of Spring, 1934). With The Three Little Pigs Walt grasped the power, and the appeal, of character delineation. For his first feature, his Dwarfs couldn’t just be a mass, a septet of identical-looking (and acting) stick figures. They had to have individual personalities, and inter-familial conflicts. We sense within minutes that Doc is the most self-important of the seven and believes himself their natural leader while Grumpy is his polar opposite, adversarial in every situation, the voice of the pessimist where Doc radiates optimism, and that Dopey is the Dwarfs’ communal backwards child, petted and tolerated as much because of his eagerness to oblige despite obvious mental limitations as for his essential sweetness of personality. This sort of thing, de rigueur now in animation, had its basis in the Three Pigs but had never before been seen on the scale of Snow White. The Dwarfs’ personae are easily graspable by the children in the audience for their eponymous characteristics yet beloved of adults for their humor and their recognizability. And when, at the climax, they were seen weeping at Snow white’s coffin, members of the audience joined them, moved as much, I suspect, by Disney’s sheer audacity in depicting such a thing as by the Dwarfs’ collective sorrow. Hey! These little guys are real!

Snow White - coffin

As an adolescent Disney had seen the 1916 Snow White starring Marguerite Clark at a special showing for newsboys, which had made a marked impression on him, so it is unsurprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first feature. Development had begun as early as 1934Walt’s memorable first story conference, in which, characteristically, he acted out his ideas for the staff, including the youngest dwarf using a single feather for a pillow, later a charming moment for Dopey in the completed picture, occurred that autumn. As he demanded sequences be redone, and scrapped two in the pencil-test stage, before they could be completed and painted, the budget kept climbing (it eventually reached a then-unheard-of $1.49 million) but the proof was in the pudding. The movie grossed $3.5 million in North America, $6.5 million by 1939 and, by the end of its original release run, had earned a whopping $7.85 million internationally. Including its various re-issues over the decades (every seven years from 1937, grabbing roughly a new generation of impressionable young viewers each time, your humble scribe included) its box-office reached $418 million, with Christ only knows how much money generated in the sales of related books, records and toys and, later, home videos and DVDs/Blu-rays of the picture itself. (That crucial process of accretion cited by Walt and, later, as “synergy,” so beloved of his successor, Michael Eisner.) So much for what those in the know had once smugly called “Disney’s Folly.”

And the movie holds up, in a way few 80-year old pictures do. It helps, of course, that it’s set in an indeterminate period, and kingdom, and with no anachronisms and none of the cringe-inducing democratizion (really, Americanization) Disney later went in for, the nadir of which is probably Bing Crosby referring to Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) as “Ol’ Icky.” And given a pleasing restoration on its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White looks spectacular on Blu-ray, its palette a beautifully balanced mixture of muted tones for its natural and architectural backgrounds and bold Technicolor splashes for the characters’ costumes and such important elements as that terrifyingly enticing, bright red apple. The Prince is almost entirely characterlessness — all he does is sing a little, and deliver that revivifying kiss at the end, and next to the vividly-defined Dwarfs he barely exists but the design and execution of the normal-sized human characters is such a vast improvement on figures like the stilted Persephone of The Goddess of Spring as to constitute a quantum leap in animation possibility, and there are almost no missteps in the picture. Pretty much the only error I picked up on as I watched it again the other night was one of continuity: A quick depiction of Dopey’s drumming hands emerging from his distinctive yellow sweater during the “Silly Song” at the same time he and Sneezy are dancing with Snow White. I’m surprised Walt didn’t have that re-painted, but, as with the Prince shimmying slightly at the climax it may have been too late, and too expensive, to fix.

Snow White - Magic Mirror LP resizedI’ll end on the return to a personal note: After seeing the movie with me our mother bought us the Snow White “Magic Mirror” LP, which I played and re-played obsessively, and the reprint of the comic book (re-purposed from the original 1937-1938 newspaper strip adaptation drawn by Hank Porter and Bob Grant) accompanied me on our car-trip to the 1967 Expo in Montreal that summer. I re-read that one until it was pretty much in tatters. (I also had the coloring book, which puzzled me because it depicted the cut sequence of the Dwarfs making a bed for Snow White, and a plush doll of Doc I wish now I’d held onto.)

Snow White - comic 1967

As I was already hooked on cartoons, and on Disney, before seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it can’t be said that Walt claimed another child-victim with his ’67 reissue. But I won’t deny that seeing it deepened the addiction as I also realize there’s something insidious about Disney’s hand-rubbing calculation; he liked to crow about the figures showing that every child in America had seen a Disney movie, read a Disney comic, played a Disney record or owned a Disney toy. And it’s worse, of course, now his company has become a corporate octopus, busily grabbing up any-and-everything that might attract a child’s attention, from Muppets to Marvel to Star Wars. (And let’s not forget the company’s current, gorge-rising, emphasis on enticing vulnerable little girls with its “Disney Princesses,” from Snow to, one presumes, Leia.) But when a movie is a genuine astonishment, as Snow White was and continues to be eight decades after its original release, even a Grumpy might be forced to admit there are worse things out there vying for a child’s attention than this bright, tuneful, funny and ultimately cathartic fantasy.


Admiral Pelican*Admiral Pelican, re-discovered on EBay a few years back. My original was orange, but you can’t have everything.

†The Dwarfs rhyme with her as well, before she sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and all of the Magic Mirror’s dialogue is in verse.  (Sample: “Over the seven jeweled hills / Beyond the seventh wall / In the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs / Dwells Snow White, fairest one of all.”)

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Some kind of crazy genius: Ludwig von Drake and his creators

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By Scott Ross

Making his first appearance in the world the same year as your humble scribe was one of my very favorite cartoon characters. Professor Ludwig von Drake, acknowledged expert on everything (and if you don’t believe that, just ask him) debuted on Walt Disney’s Sunday evening showcase The Wonderful World of Color, as it then was, in September 1961. He is unique among what I think of as the great Disney characters in that he is the only one who was created, not for the movies, but for television.

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Ludwig von Drake, annoying both Walt Disney and the NBC Peacock.

Designed by the magnificent Milt Kahl, Von Drake benefited from the use of the then-new Xerox technology so beloved of the Disney animators because, unlike more traditional ink-and-paint coloring and finishing, it preserved their original drawings in a rougher (and, they believed) truer form, preserving the spirit of their renderings. The Professor, with his fringe of hair and feathery hands, was a natural for the Xerox treatment.

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Ward Kimball

For many years, I mistakenly attributed Von Drake to Ward Kimball’s dry, comic brain. Kimball did animate the Professor, although Von Drake’s initial appearance, in which he sang “The Spectrum Song” by the Sherman Brothers, was directed by Hamilton Luske and animated by Woolie Reitherman and Les Clark.

If you look at Von Drake’s physiognomy, though, there is an uncanny resemblance to Kimball in his later years. However, since Ludwig’s emergence took place during the animator’s middle age, this is surely, however attractive a thought, merely retroactive suggestion.

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Key animation by Milt Kahl.

The Disney organization seemed to be pushing Von Drake for stardom pretty hard at the time of his debut. He showed up on magazine covers…

TV Week

… in Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip…

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… in children’s books…

… in his own comic book (short-lived as it was with only four issues)…†

… on jigsaw puzzles (I had this one, four or five years later)…

Jigsaw puzzle

Ludwig screaming

Yes, Professor, I agree. Vait just a second!

Still, there was something about Von Drake, beyond the Disney hard-sell. First, Kahl’s brilliant character design. Second, his vocalization by the great Paul Frees. Of all Frees’ myriad comic voices (Boris Badenov, Inspector Fenwick, Super Chicken’s sidekick Fred, the Burgomeister Meisterberger) Ludwig is his masterpiece: The only slightly exaggerated accent* (all those marvelous, rolling r’s), the explosive temper (which, in spite of the lack of official genealogy, does rather link him both with Donald and with Scrooge McDuck), the muttered asides, the outrageous braggadocio.Frees and von Drake resized

Although Von Drake appeared in some very fine short subjects both for television (An Adventure in Color, Kids is Kids, The Truth About Mother Goose) and theatrical release (A Symposium on Popular Songs) nowhere is his (and Frees’) absolute brilliance demonstrated more completely than in the superb Disneyland LP Professor Ludwig von Drake.LP

I discovered this record in a music shop in downtown Mt. Vernon, Ohio in 1970; the proprietor, who stocked sheet music and instruments as well as a few LPs, had a wire-rack display of Disneyland and Buena Vista albums. I must have taxed his patience pulling out these treasures over several months, weighing which one I wanted most (the That Darn Cat soundtrack? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?) but always coming back to Ludwig. Since I only received a half-dollar weekly allowance, of which half went into my savings account, that other half had to go for my comic books (15 cents then, and I’d never forgiven the publishers for raising the cover price from 12) and whatever else I wanted. I must have gotten a few extra dollars for Christmas or my 10th birthday, because one day that winter I nervously approached the music shop with the whole six dollars necessary in my hand, earnestly praying Ludwig was still there.

He was.

I damn near wore that record to the constituency of a hockey-puck.

The album’s delicious songs are by Disney’s house composers, the then pre-Mary Poppins Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And while there is no writer credited on the LP jacket, I now assume (and await correction for this presumption) that they wrote the material on it, in collaboration with Frees.

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Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman, at work on the songs for The Jungle Book in 1967.

Aside from the songs, and a few gags, however, nothing on the album feels written. Frees’ exuberant, egocentric chat — hilarious muttered asides and all — sounds wholly ex tempore, as if it was all pouring out of his (or Von Drake’s) brain and off his tongue at the moment the reels of tape began rolling. Early on, Von Drake begins nattering about The Wonderful World of Color as though he was solely responsible for it, his muttering becoming more and more indistinct as he prattles on about some imaginary creative genius called Disney (“…some kind of a duck or something…”) Walt must have loved that.‡

I don’t know exactly what to call what the Messrs. Sherman, Sherman and Frees wrought on this album, but each time I hear it I find it perilously close to some kind of crazy genius.

Wonder Bread sticker

A Wonder Bread premium sticker from the 1970s. I remember this one with a great deal more pleasure than the memory of chewing that sawdust-and-mucilage solid gruel they called a loaf of bread.


*The conception of Ludwig — an educated blowhard who’s nearly always wrong — owes much to Sid Caesar’s recurrent “Professor” character from Your Show of Shows, although Caesar’s accent is much broader than the one Frees opted for.

†The fine, underrated duck cartoonist Tony Strobl provided the artwork for the Von Drake comics.

‡The LP was re-released on CD, slightly and rather curiously truncated (a snippet of introductory music and dialogue at the beginning of “I’m Professor Ludwig von Drake,” a word or two here and there later) at one of the Disneyland shops in a sale-on-demand format. I’m grateful and relieved I managed to snag a copy online, as it seems no longer to be made.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process.

Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone! […]
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extra ordinary! What of it?

In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.”

The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their revivals differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not only called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original on-set recording as much as he did to replicating the actual timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean seems, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of the infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know the name of, and have never been able to track down, the specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the superb system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on to, at least, the late 1960s. (Warners originally used Vitaphone for their talkies, but that recording system had long since passed by the time of The Maltese Falcon.) But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction.* Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technically complicated reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of analog? Why is Mono sometimes fuller, sharper and clearer than Stereo?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. (Although, in his Hollywood pictures anyway, Orson Welles was especially good at matching.) Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work provided by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.†

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Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one: The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles of the era. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s inviolable rule that pictures which accompany its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, and duly sheared 30 minutes, not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release as well, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

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The 1971 soundtrack LP. Is it me, or does this look like Amsel art? Note the distinctive, Mucha-like stars.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, exceedingly loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme.

My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, but both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.

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Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… the restored Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the new dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted), in which she began, or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine on the big screen, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, eminently treasurable.

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Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O’Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots alas tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome.; the restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering why he was there at all. If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles — some indeed mere glimpses — beloved character actors such as the inimitably high-voiced Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyril Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a delightfully — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and onlie begettor of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the animated lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor. What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

Bedknobs - Tomlinson and King

bedknobs portobello

Far better, and nearly worth the entire restoration, is the preceding, and greatly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which Pauline Kael, while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

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The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children.

It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously.

You try that trick.

I’ll time you.


*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.

†I wonder if the people involved in this miserable venture were aware that nearly the entire dialogue soundtrack of the 1960 Swiss Family Robinson was re-dubbed after principal photography, due to terrible aural conditions on Tobago during the filming — and you’d never guess unless you knew. Even granted all the actors in that one were still very much alive, if it could be done so well then, why is it so damn difficult now?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin 1967 - Califórnia terra do outro - leg.avi_snapshot_00.06.55_[2013.09.20_10.22.58]

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

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The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I first encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (and which also more than holds up) on the weekly Disney television showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar. A year or two later, I greatly enjoyed reading Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingly sketched illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than, as in the movie, his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

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The movie edition paperback of By the Great Horn Spoon!, re-titled to reflect the movie.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849; the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion; the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score; the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman, whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”; and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character — and a performer — we only wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

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The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years, I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)

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McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I generally have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

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Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

And while she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her standard delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused at as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

Adventures of Bullwhip - McDowall, Pleshette, Russell 04

The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects along with a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of a hilariously underpowered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

MBDADOF EC123

Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutesy-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin - 1967 Ellenshaw

One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross