Disney Animation’s package films from the ‘40s, as a corpus, are sometimes considered the bane of the company’s existence, mercenary workaday productions inspired by a need to salvage the tatters of the company by producing anything that would make a buck, theoretically leaving their artistic inhibitions at the door. The ghetto these films have been sequestered into isn’t without purpose; compared to the brazen murderer’s row of artistic masterpieces released between 1940 and ’42 – Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi – one can see why no one is eager to pull, say, Saludos Amigos from 1942 out of the dustbin of history.
Nonetheless, the humbling failure of the corporation’s artistic endeavors (at least commercially) managed to sand down Walt Disney’s sometimes offputting enormity, freeing up some space for a few free-wheeling slivers of silliness and laying bare the lie that Disney’s lack of money during this era actually hindered their ambulatory creativity. While none of these films measure up to, say, Pinocchio or Fantasia (but what does?), the lesser efforts from the ‘40s are often reservoirs of loosened-up, slackened vigor owing largely to the more rambunctious, less ossified nature of the short stories that make up these tales. Little bursts of candy-coated joy rather than euphoric self-conscious masterpieces, many of the segments are ultimately ephemeral. But in ephemera, they locate an expedient, in-and-out mirthfulness woefully absent in many nominally larger motion pictures.
Effortless might be the word for them, except the two mini-films that compromise The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are so well-honed that they mine the “less” out of the term. The order of the title is reversed, with the winsome, easy-going Mr. Toad segment, adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows, arriving first on a faddish racecar of glee. A madcap little farce, Mr. Toad massages away the top-soil of Grahame’s sardonic satire of British landowners, but that’s all the better to placate the animators’ not-so-secret collective desire to ingest a little lunacy from their Termite Terrace counterparts across town. What’s left of the tale is flippant but spirited: Mr. Toad, a wealthy landowner in rural Britain (or, a member of a wealthy landowning family), lives deep in the throes of insurmountable addiction to fads. His newest one, a spontaneous passion for cars, gets the better of him when he submerges his good name in a mire of selfishness and expedient expenditure.
Naturally, a family film from Disney doesn’t quite approximate the texture of Grahame’s excoriating critique of the British aristocracy, but the blithe, antic spirit of Disney’s version, implied in Basil Rathbone’s gentlemanly, ever-curious, arch narration that introduces it, is always commendable and frequently witty. Ollie Johnston and Wolfgang Reitherman (two of the nine old men, the core of the animation staff) contribute their hands to the two best sequences (a delightfully over-exaggerated trial and a slapstick trip through Toad Hall) rather than characters, for once. And the decision to focus on sequences rather than characters – presumably another “we’re tired, we need to play around with the format” switch-up – keeps the film pitched-up from beginning to end, allowing each animator to do their best to run amok with a bit, abscond, and allow a new animator to kick it up from there. It’s a scrappy, bashful little hooligan of a short-film, but with results like these, why have it any other way?
Well the why is that you’re Bing Crosby, and you want to pimp America’s glorious literature creations like Washington Irving’s tall tale about the ghosts of the Revolution, “Old Icky”, as Crosby’s sonorous tones refer to him. At once bedtime story and vaguely malevolent nightmare, Crosby’s restful but vaguely insidious baritone, cunningly dueling with Rathbone’s more whispery British lilt, is the obvious primer for the more famous sequence of the film, and there’ll be no argument from me on that status. Walter Disney’s heart obviously summoned its deepest reservoirs of intoxicated joy for American tall tales, and with the second half of this feature, Disney performed a feat of sheer cinematic conjuration with a positively ghoulish descent into Americana’s first such tale. The Ichabod segment of this twofer, an adaptation of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, revives a remembrance for the earliest myths of America. And it roots them, appropriately, in the fears and possibilities of the wide unknown expanse of the natural landscape, tickled here with the kind of macabre theatricality that informed the minds of American writers, painters, and daydreamers staring into untold, petrified forests and populating the trees with their own imaginative constructs.
The story, as most people know, involves New York State school teacher, and aloof pillar of the community, Ichabod Crane who wanders home from a party one night and crosses paths with the fell Headless Horseman. Why the town’s women fawn like kittens over Crane is a little befuddling, what with his scarecrow looks and apparently selfish personality (indeed, both of the film’s protagonists are definitively among Disney’s least sympathetic, and neither short misapprehends this by suggesting we ought to root for them). But the superlative here isn’t the domestic or romantic drama of Icky and his suitors but the faded, autumnal evocation of a quasi-mythic New York branded in forlorn Americana pillaging the style of Germanic folklore. When it purges the domesticity of Sleepy Hollow and replaces it with full-tilt hysteria, the conclusion of this short no longer tickles a mere mild twinge on the spine. Instead, the finale of this section yields to the incalculably unmooring madness of cackling gloom with animator Wolfgang Reitherman echoing his home country as he descends into askew German expressionism when the Horseman comes home to prey.
There are other successes; animator Mit Kahl’s Brom Bones, Ichabod’s human antagonist although hardly a figure deserving of less empathy than the protagonist, is a triumph of flexible animation overlaid on a brick wall of a man. But with all due respect, this story, as with the Mr. Toad segment, is positively manhandled by Reitherman’s sequence. A hair-raising hare of a scene, the midnight stroll where Ichabod stumbles into the earliest tall tale of the American imagination also finds him staggering up to the riverbank of Disney’s Silver Age, where the company would reassert itself as an artistically experimental, challenging edifice in their next few films. This being the final sequence in the final package film, Disney was finally hungry for a homecoming as one of the premier American film studios again. Having bested near destruction with these nominally trifling, often wonderfully inspired package films, the ’50s would mean resurgence and resurrection for Disney, but, if so, both segments of this 68-minute film suggest that the company never really went away.