Monday, February 20, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

Earlier today I enjoyed Dorian's post on the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film THE GLASS KEY (1942) at Tales of the Easily Distracted. She drew some interesting cast connections with, of all things, Disney's THE RELUCTANT DRAGON! (Be sure to check out her post.) And thus I found myself inspired to pull out my Disney Treasures DVD set, Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio, so I could watch THE RELUCTANT DRAGON.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON is a fascinating Disney film in which Disney mixes live action and animation, Technicolor and black and white, fact and fantasy. He chose the format, with relatively brief animated sequences, so that he could quickly release a film and improve the studio finances when the lucrative European markets for his expensive, time-consuming animated films were suddenly cut off by the advent of World War II.

The film begins in black and white, with Robert Benchley swimming as his "wife" (played by Nana Bryant) reads aloud the storybook THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. What she was doing reading him a child's storybook is never clear, but given that he's shooting plastic ducks as she reads it, it fits!

I'd love to know where the "Benchley pool" was located as I had a feeling I'd probably seen it in a film before. In any event, Mrs. Benchley decides her husband must take THE RELUCTANT DRAGON to Walt Disney right away because it would make a marvelous animated movie.

Once on the lot, Benchley escapes his guide and begins wandering through the different studio departments. And midway through the film, he walks through a door and the film switches to Technicolor! Benchley even acknowledges the change when he comments to an actress that she looks great in Technicolor. A sequence in the color mixing department at this point is absolutely dazzling visually. These color sequences were filmed by the great Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C. Hoch.

The blending of fact and fantasy occurs, in part, as actors play some of the studio employees, while other Disney staffers appear as themselves. Frances Gifford plays an artist who also works on sound effects, and Frank Faylen is the conductor during a rehearsal for a recording session. The cute young Technicolor Alan Ladd -- yes, Alan Ladd! -- is a Disney animator who narrates the story of Baby Weems as he shows Benchley the storyboard. It's kind of hard to wrap one's mind around the idea of film noir icon Alan Ladd as a smiling Disney animator, but there he is. This was the year before Ladd hit it big with Veronica Lake in THE GLASS KEY and THIS GUN FOR HIRE.

What's perhaps even more curious is that actor John Dehner appears alongside Ladd as a Disney animator -- but guess what, unlike Ladd, Dehner wasn't just acting. Dehner really was a Disney animator before the war! He switched to acting as his profession -- and amassed 278 more credits -- in 1944.

Alongside the actors, we see real Disney staff members at work, including Clarence Nash voicing Donald Duck and Ward Kimball animating a Goofy cartoon. There's a tour of Disney's fabled multiplane camera and shots of small statues of Disney cartoon characters -- including Captain Hook, a dozen years before the release of PETER PAN (1953). And at the end of the film, Benchley finally talks to Walt Disney himself.

Aside from the Baby Weems sequence, which isn't a regular cartoon, but illustrations presented with narration and sound effects, there's a delightful Goofy cartoon and then the RELUCTANT DRAGON cartoon itself closes out the film.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON was released in June 1941, coincidentally the very same month as the film I watched earlier today, POWER DIVE. Child actor Billy Lee, who appeared in a number of scenes in POWER DIVE, voices the the little boy in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON cartoon.

The live action sequences were directed by Alfred L. Werker. The movie runs 74 minutes.

The Disney Treasures DVD which contains THE RELUCTANT DRAGON also has other terrific material such as a "behind the scenes at the studio" film shot to enthuse distributors of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937). There's an excellent short documentary created for the set a decade ago, in which Leonard Maltin conducts a tour of the studio, intercut with footage from old Disney programs filmed on the lot; it runs about 25 minutes.

I've been privileged to visit the lot a few times over the past couple of years and see many of the places featured in Maltin's tour, such as Pluto's Corner, seen here in a photo I took a year ago. Robert Benchley walks past this same intersection in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON is available to rent on DVD from Netflix. It can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video. It's also had a release on VHS.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON is a unique film which is "must" viewing for Disney fans -- not to mention fans of Alan Ladd!

August 2014 Update: THE RELUCTANT DRAGON is included as an "extra" in the new Blu-ray/DVD combination set with THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949) and FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947).

August 2016 Update: I attended a wonderful 75th Anniversary celebration of THE RELUCTANT DRAGON on the Disney lot.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Not many people can boast of a Billy Lee double bill!

There is a great amount of charm, as well as information, in "The Reluctant Dragon". Perhaps that was Disney's greatest ability in that he could teach and entertain at the same time.

4:07 AM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, I loved your detailed, thoroughly entertaining post about THE RELUCTANT DRAGON! You're right, it isn't every day that you get to see film noir icons like Alan Ladd playing smiling Disney animators! :-) I learned a lot from your post, too, including the circumstances surrounding ...DRAGON's blend of techniques, as well as discovering that John Dehner was a Disney animator before he became a durable character actor. I'm so glad our discussions about my GLASS KEY post led to your terrific RELUCTANT DRAGON post! Thanks for your generous links, too!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That was a funny coincidence when I realized I'd seen a Billy Lee double bill! :) I so agree, Caftain Woman, about Disney's ability to teach and entertain.

Dorian, so glad you enjoyed this post and that I was able to share some interesting new info. Thanks again for providing the inspiration for last night's movie! :) In fact, I have both you and Caftan Woman to thank for ideas for recent viewing!

Best wishes,

8:49 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

This film is one of the earliest glimpses of a movie/animation studio I remember seeing. After seeing this film as a kid and seeing how much fun everyone seemed to be having, I just knew that when I was older I was going to go work for a film studio. My favorite scene is when Clarence Ducky Nash appears and they show him doing his voice-over as Donald. He was my favorite character. Coincidentally, on my first visit to the Disney lot in 2003, like Mr. Benchley, I too just happened to run into Donald - well, Tony Anselmo, the current voice of Donald Duck!

9:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Robby, what a great point -- we should all be so lucky to have as much fun at work as the people at Disney seemed to have!

How wonderful you met Tony Anselmo!!

Best wishes,

11:53 PM  

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