Classic Movies · Television

From the DVR: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

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The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ has recently entered into a partnership with the Walt Disney Studios to showcase rarities from “the Disney vault” several times a year in the coming months…and TCM premiered this new collaboration this past December 21 with airings of live-action Disney classics like Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Third Man on the Mountain (1959).  There was also plenty of Disney animation on hand; three classic cartoon shorts—Santa’s Workshop (1932), On Ice (1935) and Chip an’ Dale (1947)—were showcased beginning at the eight o’clock hour…though I stupidly forgot that in DVR-ing them, I needed to do it manually as opposed to conforming to the way they programmed with U-Verse.  I didn’t get the entirety of Workshop—which was no big deal, since I had seen the cartoon on a number of occasions.  Back when Los Parentes Yesteryear and I were residing in Savannah, part of our arrangement in being held hostage to Bombast Comcast was that I had access to a free Disney cartoon weekly as part of their internet service…and so one Christmas, I showed Workshop to a younger niece Rachel, who demanded to see it again and again…and again.

I also grabbed Tee Cee Em’s showing of the October 27, 1954 premiere telecast of Disneyland, which honestly has to be one of the most amazing commercial ventures in the history of broadcasting.  In a nutshell, Walt asked the American Broadcasting Company for funds to complete his famed theme park in Anaheim, CA…and in return, he provided them with a monster TV show hit.  (I’ve also chuckled at the irony that Disney now owns ABC—talk about your Faustian bargains.)  As you can guess from the title of the first installment—“The Disneyland Story”—it’s essentially an ad for the park that eventually opened its doors in July of 1955.  But it’s undeniably entertaining television: there are appearances from Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre (promoting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); Fess Parker singing The Ballad of Davy Crockett, the Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoon Lonesome Ghosts (1937) and a lot more.

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What I really wanted to catch (and eventually did so with the help of the DVR) was The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Disney’s first combination live-action/animation feature film (though you could also make a strong case that 1940’s Fantasia can lay claim to that throne).  I remember taping the film from the halcyon days of The Disney Channel but for some odd reason never got around to watching it (even though I had seen the actual Dragon featurette during my days of working at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video).  It’s been released on DVD and Blu-ray a few times in the past, but you know how Disney home video releases operate—it’s either offered as exclusives or for a limited time only (you snooze, you lose).  (I joined the Disney Movie Club about a year ago, ostensibly to pick up DVDs that I could show my nephew Davis…but since he’s moved on to the PNW, I only rarely get an opportunity to trot out the animated classics.  I offered to unspool Peter Pan for him the last time he was here, but Kat asked me not to go out of my way.  Since I personally love the Disney animated feature films, this is really no big loss.)

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Robert Benchley poses with serial heroines Louise Currie and Frances Gifford…here playing Disney employees in The Reluctant Dragon (1941).

The Reluctant Dragon (1941) was a project designed to showcase the Disney Studios’ state-of-the-art facilities in Burbank (built thanks to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), allowing humorist Robert Benchley to tour the jernt when Mrs. Benchley (Nana Bryant) decrees that he suggest to Walt adapting Kenneth Grahame’s book of the same name.  Bob visits many areas of the Mouse Factory: the camera room (here is where the film changes to breathtakingly lush Technicolor after being presented in monochrome for the first 20 minutes), the Foley (sound effects) department, the ink-and-paint department, etc. and meets many of Disney’s real and non-real employees.  For example, Frances “Jungle Girl” Gifford plays a studio artist (named Doris), Frank Faylen leads the studio orchestra, and in the sequence where Benchley tours the storyboard section, one of the men (Al) putting together the “Baby Weems” cartoon is Alan Ladd.  The real people who were toiling at the studio at the time (and who have parts in the film) include vocal talent Florence Gill (as Clara Cluck) and Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck), as well as Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Wolfgang Reitherman and Norm Ferguson.

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Though more than a few actors were hired to play Disney employees (since a good many of them were on strike), this actor here actually worked at the studio as an animator at one time (on Fantasia and Bambi). That’s Mister John Dehner in his feature film debut.

The animated part of the film includes the Reluctant Dragon featurette, as well as Baby Weems (which I first saw on a repeat of The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1970s) and the Goofy cartoon How to Ride a Horse (eventually released as a single short in 1950).  The viewer also gets glimpses of Bambi (then in production) and a “Casey, Jr.” sequence from Dumbo (1941), though it was eventually shortened in the final film.  Dragon was released in 1941 for a number of reasons, chiefly to recoup some of the losses Disney sustained as a result of World War II (the company surrendered a lot of their foreign market money due to the war) and also the financial failure of Fantasia (1940).  The war also meant that the materials the studio needed to produce their animated features would soon be in short supply (this is why sharp-eyed viewers will spot maquettes of characters from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, both of which were postponed until after WW2).  If that wasn’t bad enough, ol’ Walt was having to deal with the infamous animators’ strike at the time of Dragon’s release (which is kind of ironic, considering the movie portrays the company as a Utopian, harmonic place in which to work).  The movie, rushed into production to make Disney a bit more solvent, cost $600,000 to make…and only raked in $400,000 at the box office.

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A still from a never-released Robert Benchley MGM short, How to Be an Anti-Semite. (Yeah, I went there.)

I was predisposed to like Reluctant Dragon mostly because of my fondness for Robert Benchley, who really provides most of the incentive to sit down with the film.  Still, I came away from the movie slightly disappointed as some who saw it during its original release; the studio wouldn’t really master mixing live-action and animation until The Three Caballeros (1945), and as the pizza de resistance, the Dragon featurette itself is kind of bland and boring.  (I also wish there had been more of Disney himself in the film; his participation is pretty short and sweet, greeting Benchley as if he just finished eighteen holes on the course.)  But there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in Dragon: Leonard Maltin, who co-hosted the TCM presentation with Ben Mankiewicz, has challenged the Baby Weems segment as one of the studio’s best (its limited animation predates that of the later UPA output) and I have to admit I enjoyed it, too.

tcmdisneyTee Cee Em’s next “Treasures from the Disney Vault” is scheduled for March 15 in 2015: included on the schedule are airings of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959; 8pm)—one of Disney’s finest live-action features—and The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966; 3:15am)…but I’m most excited about The Three Caballeros, another Disneyland episode (“The Story of the Animated Drawing”) and the 2008 documentary Walt & El Grupo.  Stay tuned on the blog for more Disney classics in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s award-winning feature “Adventures in Blu-ray”!*

*Okay…technically this is a lie.  The Blu-ray reviews have not won any awards.

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