Thursday, December 20, 2018

Disney's Hidden Gems

Everyone's familiar with Disney's best-known films, from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) to CINDERELLA (1950) to the studio's newer classics such as THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991).

Beyond the most famous titles, there's a rich library of somewhat lesser-known but very worthwhile Disney films to explore. Some of these titles will be fondly remembered by film fans, while others may be completely unfamiliar. All are available on DVD.

There are so many wonderful "second tier" Disney films that I had to reluctantly pare some favorite titles off this list. Perhaps there will be a "Volume 2" post down the road! Click any of the hyperlinked titles for a more detailed review.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941) - This is a film of contrasts, with some scenes in black and white and others in dazzling Technicolor, and it also mixes live action and animation. The impetus for the movie was a quick release to refill the studio's financial coffers after lucrative European markets for Disney's more expensive full-length animated films were cut off by WWII. The loose plot finds Robert Benchley visiting the Disney Studios to convince Walt Disney to film a storybook called THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. Benchley takes a tour all over the studio, which makes it a wonderful time capsule, especially when the movie suddenly switches to Technicolor, filmed by the great Winton C. Hoch. Another highlight is handsome young Alan Ladd playing a Disney animator. Film fans can also spot the great character actor John Dehner as an animator, with the fun twist being that Dehner actually was a Disney animator when the movie was made!

BAMBI (1942) - This is admittedly the most famous film on my list, but I couldn't resist including it because it made such a huge impression on me at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, and I was completely overwhelmed by its artistry. Although I'm a huge Disney fan, I had shied away from it for years, knowing it contains some disturbing tragedy. I shouldn't have let that stop me. My eyes were misting almost from the start of the movie, I was so awed by the beauty of the backgrounds, the charming characters, and the lovely musical score. Anyone who's previously skipped over it as I did should make haste to watch it immediately. You'll be glad you did.

MAKE MINE MUSIC (1946) - MAKE MINE MUSIC is one of Disney's "package" films of the '40s, combining cartoons into a feature-length film. I especially like this film, which utilizes various animation styles scored by classical, jazz, and pop music of the era. Favorite sequences including the opening "Blue Bayou," a "tone poem" with Debussy music which had originally been slated for Fantasia (1940). That's followed by the totally different but similarly wonderful "All the Cats Join In," to the music of Benny Goodman; I also loved another Goodman section, "After You've Gone." The best-known sequence in the film is "Peter and the Wolf," which was shown by itself on Disney's TV series.

FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947) - This is another "package film," but it's a little different in that it features just two cartoons, bridged with animated scenes featuring Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) and live action scenes with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and young Disney star Luana Patten. The first half of the film tells the story of a bear named Bongo, backed by the singing of Dinah Shore. The second and best half of the film is "Mickey and the Beanstalk," which like "Peter and the Wolf" has sometimes been shown on its own by Disney in various settings.

SO DEAR TO MY HEART (1948) - Luana Patten reunited with her SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946) costar Bobby Driscoll in this charming piece of Americana set in the rural Midwest in 1903. Little Jerry (Driscoll) lives a poor but secure life with his Granny (Beulah Bondi), where he cares for a rascally black lamb which he eventually enters in the county fair. Burl Ives plays Uncle Hiram, who sings the Oscar-nominated "Lavender Blue." This may be the best Disney film you've never seen!

THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949) - The final package film on this list, THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD is another two-cartoon feature film. The first section, "Mr. Toad," is based on Kenneth Grahame's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, with Eric Blore voicing the title role and narration by Basil Rathbone. While I found that part of the film only so-so, I love the second half of the film, in which Bing Crosby narrates Washington Irving's THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. It's great fun, and Crosby's singing and amusing narration helps to pleasantly defuse the spooky factor. It's a delight.

THE SWORD AND THE ROSE (1953) - Disney made a few films in Great Britain in the early '50s due to postwar fiscal policies which prevented Disney from taking its profits out of the UK. This led to Bobby Driscoll starring in TREASURE ISLAND (1950) and a trio of terrific films starring Walt Disney's friend Richard Todd. THE SWORD AND THE ROSE was the second Todd film, following THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD (1952), and it's perhaps the best. It's a fine adventure-romance set in the court of King Henry VIII (James Robertson Justice), with Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins) a spirited Mary Tudor. Mary is ordered by her brother to marry the elderly King of France (Jean Mercure), but she loves a commoner (Todd). The crafty Mary has diplomatic skills surpassing the most experienced statesmen, and she carefully negotiates her way to a happy ending. The film has plenty of humor and an exciting climatic sword battle.  Highly recommended.

ROB ROY - THE HIGHLAND ROGUE (1953) - Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, and James Robertson Justice reunited for ROB ROY, in which Todd stars as Rob Roy MacGregor, who leads his clan in rebellion against George I. While The Sword and the Rose might be said to be Johns' film, Rob Roy belongs to Todd, who's a charismatic leader. Johns plays his spunky wife, Helen Mary. The two actors have such excellent chemistry that one wishes they had made several more films together. Justice, who plays the Duke of Argyll, had a chance to shine with plum roles in these Disney films. Like all of these films, he's tremendously enjoyable and should be better remembered today.

This post is adapted from an article originally published by ClassicFlix in 2016.


Blogger Brittaney said...

So Dear to My Heart is a cherished film of my childhood. I recently watched it again and found I still love it. Every now and then I break out singing, "can you bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy."

12:12 PM  
Blogger Lee R said...

I'm really not a fan of Disney, even as a kid I'd much rather watch Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. But there are a couple Disney things I like a lot. Being a big Bing fan I really like and watch every Halloween Bing's Ichabod/Sleepy Hollow story (I skip the first one ...Willows). Second, I also like Pinocchio and the other Disney toon I like a whole lot is the hodgepodge "Melody Time" for several reasons. One the great classic toon I remember our elementary school showing in the auditorium every fall season, Johnny Appleseed with Dennis Day doing all the voices including an excellent Andy Clyde voice. The other toon on that Melody Time I like is the one with Roy Rogers, in fantastic color in this one (I only wish Roy's own color films looked 1/2 as good). I believe they sing Blue Shadows on the Trail and a great version of Cool Water all a mix of live Roy's gang and animated owls and wolves and whatnots. Good stuff.

That's it, as far as my interest in Disney, even as a kid I found sll the rest of his toons too square and too sweet to be enjoyed. Today's Disney is 100 times worse.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

These wonderful movies have given me a way to communicate with my special needs son. For many people, they were left behind in childhood. For me, they enriched my adulthood.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

A motah cah? A motah cah? I did like some of these--- and I liked anything with Glynis Johns--- an adorable lady.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

I'm 50/50 for having seen the titles here.

I enjoyed SO DEAR... more than I expected when I saw it a few years ago (and it's said to have been one of Walt's own favorites). It was also Harry Carey's final film. DVD copies seems to be rather scarce lately.

THE RELUCTANT DRAGON was a great surprise as a bonus on one of the WALT DISNEY TREASURES discs. The transition from black and white to Technicolor was impressive. It's also on the ICHABOD & MR. TOAD/FUN & FANCY FREE Blu-ray, which makes an economical way to see three films on your list.

I hope that a Volume 2 appears soon; I have a few other "second tier" titles on which I'd like to see if we agree. And it looks like you need to review SNOW WHITE....

11:34 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Brittaney, I never saw SO DEAR TO MY HEART as a child so I'm very glad I finally caught up with it as an adult! I've enjoyed it a couple times so far and love it. A beautiful film.

Lee, I prefer the Ichabod Crane section of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD myself. Great fun.

Caftan Woman, I love how movies can hold special meaning for us beyond simply the enjoyment we get watching them. That's beautiful.

Bill, Glynis Johns is great in these!! Lovely and spunky.

Set, I'm glad you enjoyed SO DEAR TO MY HEART! It's wonderful seeing Harry Carey Sr. in it, there's something so reassuring about his presence and his voice.

I love the switch to Technicolor in RELUCTANT DRAGON!

I need to pull out my list from when I originally wrote this for ClassicFlix a couple years ago and see about doing a part 2!

It's been a long time since my last viewing of SNOW WHITE -- I keep putting off watching my DVD, thinking I'll get a chance to see it on a big screen somewhere in L.A. -- but it hasn't happened yet!

Best wishes,

11:11 PM  

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