I think I’ll run out and wind the sundial.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Anne: Hey, so, remember how we thought we were going to watch 52 Disney movies by Thanksgiving, and we’re still stuck in the package films of the 1940s with a month to go? Yeah, that happened.

But we managed to find a night when neither of us had rehearsal or work or other plans (one must maintain one’s social life, don’t you know) to watch Fun and Fancy Free, which to my mind is really less of a package film than two shorts linked by arbitrary connecting material. The first is the story of Bongo the circus bear–apparently based on a story by Sinclair Lewis!–and the second is Mickey and the Beanstalk, also featuring Donald Duck and Goofy.

Nobody could hate Goofy, even though he always eats peas with a knife.

Nobody could hate Goofy, even though he always eats peas with a knife.

You know, I found the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment really refreshing. Watching this fantastically inventive and charming short film, it occurred to me that the animators could stretch themselves more with a familiar story than they could if they were worrying about whether things were clear enough for the audience to follow the plot. Everybody knows Jack and the Beanstalk–I myself was sitting there going “FEE FI FO FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN!” (though as James pointed out, they were neither English nor men). The story takes care of itself; all that’s left for the animators to do is give it a fresh treatment. Mickey is of course a perfect central character for this particular story–plucky, smart but maybe not too wise (“Only a fool would exchange a cow for beans!”). He’s the Everyman. The Everymouse, if you will. Donald Duck and Goofy complement him–Goofy is, well, goofier, sillier, and Donald is more impulsive and violent.

The original story doesn’t paint the eponymous Jack in a very good light–he steals from the giant for no particular reason and when he is caught, he chops down the beanstalk and the giant is killed. (“Doesn’t anyone care that a giant has fallen from the sky?!” Okay, I’ll desist with the Into the Woods jokes now.) Not much of a hero, is Jack. But Mickey Mouse is a positive role model for kids, so the writers found a way into the fairytale that gave his stealing altruistic motives. Instead of climbing the beanstalk, our three friends are lifted off the ground by the aforementioned plant in a thrillingly clever bit of animation, and, finding themselves in the realm of the giants, they go ahead and explore. Natural curiosity, nothing more. Finding food and being hungry to the point of starvation (as we saw in earlier scenes of Donald trying to butcher the poor cow), they help themselves. And the only thing they “steal,” or rather, recover, is the magical harp that was responsible for the entire wellbeing of Happy Valley. A little hackneyed? Maybe. Easier to swallow than Mickey Mouse wantonly stealing money and a hen that lays golden eggs from a giant and then murdering said giant by chopping down the beanstalk? Absolutely. The overall result is charming, anyway.

(P.S. “I don’t believe that egg came from that hen. Where did you get that egg?” “From the kingdom of the giant. UP THERE.”
P.P.S. “But Anne, I thought you were going to stop making Into the Woods references.” Not completely. Do we ever?)



James: Mickey and the Beanstalk is a curious one. It was originally intended as a full feature, but it becomes apparent while watching that it wouldn’t have sustained the full run time. The story is too brief and too well known; taking too much time with story beats that everyone in the audience is already expecting would have been foolish. Instead they manage to get just the right number of twists on the story material to make it fresh without overwhelming the classic elements, and it all fits into about 20 minutes, not counting the framing story.

I wasn’t overly enamoured by the short as a whole, partly because the story is so familiar and partly because the twists didn’t always make that much sense. I loved the giant’s entrance (an imposing shadow wielding a mace is revealed to be a singing giant bouncing a beach ball), but his personality and abilities were rather inconsistent. His magic abilities featured in maybe two scenes, and then were entirely absent from the rest of the film, not even showing up in the climactic chase scene. His ridiculous geniality at the start faded almost instantly so he could be the villain the film needed (but not the one it deserves… If you’re going to make Into The Woods references, I reserve the right to reference Batman). Mickey, Goofy and Donald are an enjoyable trio, but they’re at their best when they’re bouncing off each other with dialogue, and a lot of the scenes in the castle involve them sneaking around, cutting down on their banter. Mickey makes a very good protagonist for this sort of story, cheeky enough to get into danger, but likable enough to be a real audience surrogate. I’m sure it wouldn’t have distanced him from the audience too much if he’d been more like the original, less noble Jack, but I understand the updates.

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The short is surrounded by and integrated with a framing story of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen telling Mickey’s story to young actress Luana Patten, who we saw recently in Song of the South (and will apparently be in Melody Time as well… obviously the child star of the moment!), the man using his dummies to tell the tale for her birthday. In the 1940s this was perfectly innocent. Today… it’s a little creepy. No names are given to Bergen or Patten, so presumably they’re themselves, but one wonders where her friends and family are, and why she’s spending her birthday with a middle-aged man and two middle-aged puppets. Bergen is affable as always, but he’s no Uncle Remus, and Patten has no backstory to explain why she’s alone with him. These scenes were basically filler, with plenty of good one-liners from the puppets but with no real personalities or story to go with it. Bergen was familiar to me (along with his puppets) from a guest appearance on the Muppet Show, and so it was pleasant to see him crop up in another interest of mine.

Also, he was the father of Candice Bergen.

Candice is the one on the left.

Anne: I really didn’t care that the giant had pointless magical powers or that the plot twists made no sense, I thought Mickey and the Beanstalk was just a rollicking good time. (In fact, I’m not sure that the fact that the plot twists made no sense would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been watching with you, but let that pass.)

Though I absolutely agree about the slight creepiness of Luana Patten’s “birthday party.” I thought the one-liners were brilliant (though again, it’s a story that barely needs narration, so those were just icing on the cake), but whaaaaaat?

Okay, moving backwards now to the beginning.

Jiminy

OCEANS WILL GOBBLE EARTH. Shouldn’t we be more worried about that than a couple of stories about a bear and a giant? Maybe ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is actually post-apocalyptic, and Jiminy, Bergen and Patten are all that’s left?

Our host is the always welcome if in this case pretty much superfluous Jiminy Cricket. The framing devices–I say “devices” because there were several and they segued into one another–were kind of unnecessary, to be honest. But I think if you’re going to connect two completely unrelated short films, might as well bring back one of the most charming characters in the whole canon (up to that point, and arguably ever).

Jiminy sings the catchy title tune, wins over the audience, then puts on a record and disappears for the next half hour as we watch the story of Bongo the Circus Bear, sung and narrated by Dinah Shore. When the title card said “sung by Dinah Shore,” I was hoping for something along the lines of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” (sung by Nelson Eddy). Obviously Shore is not the same kind of singer, and there also was not as much music in this film, but she was a very appealing narrator. Unlike some of the previous narrators (particularly Sterling Holloway), I never felt that the narration was overkill for the story.

This film also has the advantage of a very sweet plucky title character, the poorly treated star of the circus. Check him out–his act ends with him free-falling from the trapeze and landing ON ONE FOOT on a sponge.

Bongo

(James: “Flap your ears, Bongo!”)

Anyway. Instantly likeable little guy who does not get nearly enough credit for his aerodynamically impossible circus act. One night, tired of his circus life, Bongo hears the call of the wild and escapes the circus train on his unicycle.

F-R-E-E, FREEEEE!

F-R-E-E, FREEEEE!

Bongo quickly realizes that life in the wild is harder than he thought it was going to be when he first got off the train. But romance is in the air, and we are introduced to Bongo’s MPDB (that’s Manic Pixie Dream Bear) who in turn introduces Bongo to the finer points of, erm, mating.

We know she's a girl because she's got eyelashes and a flower in her hair.

We know she’s a girl because she’s got eyelashes and a flower in her hair.

James: To be honest, I was fairly indifferent to Bongo for a long while. It covered much the same ground as Dumbo and Bambi before it in narrative terms, and had many sequences that merely seemed like echoes of previous Disney pieces: Fear of and friendliness of the forest and its creatures (Snow White), an extended dream sequence (Donald’s Surreal Reverie, Pink Elephants on Parade) and of course the love triangle between the protagonist, the girl and the brute, lifted straight out of Bambi. It all seemed a bit unoriginal… and then we found out how the bears court.

Bongo, having flirted with this female bear (Lulubelle, apparently), leans in for a kiss. Then, Lulubelle slaps him. He is confused, and she slaps him again. Heartbroken, he starts to leave, and she looks upset. She tries to slap him again, but misses and hits the brute, who sweeps her up into his arms, smitten. She and Bongo both look heartbroken. Confused? So were we… until…

I take back everything I said about it being unoriginal. I’m not sure there’s another song like this in the whole Disney canon. I was mesmerised. It’s a fun, lively, silly song about showing your love through physical abuse. The 1940s, amIright? (Carousel came out on the stage two years before, to put it into some context.)

Now, that’s an overly critical way of putting it. It’s a silly song emphasising a fun narrative twist, and little more. And it really is great fun, combining slapstick with the goofy grins of the smitten. I have no idea if any bears actually do slap each other to show affection, or if hitting the object of your affection is a typical courting ritual anywhere in the animal kingdom, but it’s a good twist and a fun opportunity for the animators to show bears dancing and beating each other up. Still, there’s pretty much no way a song like this would be made by Disney today.

Bongo ends, as all Disney films surely must, with a happy ending. Bongo takes on the brute (his name is Lumpjaw, apparently. That’s a good, brutish name. But I’ll still call him the brute.) and wins the paw of his love. They slap each other up a couple of trees, and nuzzle in the moonlight.

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A fine closing image. But I’ll always remember Bongo for the romance.

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Anne: Actually, the Bongo/Lulubelle/Lumpjaw triangle makes me think of The Pebble and the Penguin, a movie which also involves quaint mating rituals of the animal kingdom (penguins, apparently, give their chosen mates a pebble). For me it was the visual of the two small bears against the outsized bear–though in this case I think it’s weird for Bongo and Lulubelle to be so small compared to all of the other bears. The hilariously ripped villain in The Pebble and the Penguin (voiced by Tim Curry) is another story. He’s the Gaston of penguins.

Anyway, I think I’ve said all I had to say about Fun and Fancy Free. I’ll give it a 7/10, because I think I might be inclined to watch at least Mickey and the Beanstalk again sometime, and because I found both segments charming and entertaining, despite narrative flaws. Plus Jiminy Cricket.

Smitteny Cricket

Smitteny Cricket

James: You could have endless (alright, limited) fun trying to figure out Jiminy Cricket’s chronology. Was this after Pinocchio? If so, where was his badge? If it was before, why was he in smart clothes? Maybe it’s set years before Pinocchio, before his clothes got all tattered. Maybe that makes the cat and fish on display here the ancestors of those in Pinocchio? Who knows.

I’ll give it 6/10. It’s an interesting piece, with some fun moments, but it’s certainly less than coherent. Still,  I’ve already recommended ‘Say it With a Slap’ to several people, so it’s got to have some value to it. Perhaps the simplest review is the title: this film is Fun and Fancy Free, no more and certainly no less. 

Coming up next, Melody Time. We’re nearly out of the obscure ones, people! Just hold on a bit longer!

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Pretty good, sure as you’re born!

Song of the South (1946)

James: Well, here we are. Partly to visit a controversial part of Disney history and partly to break up the package films with a feature length story, we divert briefly from the Disney Canon to Song of the South. It’s… well, it’s interesting. (And it’s available to watch here.)

Based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus books, collections of genuine African American stories and fables as told by the fictional Uncle Remus first published in 1881, Song of the South is set in the state of Georgia in the later Reconstruction era and follows a boy, Johnny, who moves with his mother to his grandmother’s plantation. He becomes distraught when his father has to return to Atlanta, and finds comfort in the stories of Br’er Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus.

Because of the film’s perceived racially insensitive content, it has never received a home release in the US, and has never had a DVD release anywhere. It was, however, released on VHS in the UK (and in some other parts of the world), and so I actually watched it quite often as a child, and I loved it. Watching it again, it certainly doesn’t hold up as well, and the controversial parts are much more apparent, but much of it still affected me in the same way. If you can look past the racial issues (which, as a dumb kid with no knowledge of slavery or racism, was easy when I first saw it), it’s a well made and well intentioned movie. But… yeah.

Anne: Having been raised in the States and taught from a very early age about racism, slavery, the Civil War, and political correctness, I found this movie cringe-worthy on most levels. Right from the start it’s clear to me why people were and continue to be outraged by Song of the South.

First of all, yes, the stories were written in 1881, and are ostensibly set post-Civil War–and therefore post-emancipation–but I saw no proof of that. What it looks like is a movie featuring a white plantation family and their very happy slaves. I was struck at the beginning of the movie by the way that African-American stories were framed by a story about a white boy who moves to his grandmother’s plantation with his mother. The target audience for this film was undoubtedly mostly white people. James pointed out that this movie does something similar to Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos–creating an surrogate character to ease the audience into an unfamiliar culture. But especially when Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempy (played by Hattie McDaniel, who, by the way, had already won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind and would STILL not have been allowed to go to the premiere of this film) are the most engaging characters on screen, it bothers me that they felt the need to make it a movie essentially about white people.

The animated sections are charming and funny–but all I could think of was how offensive they would have been if they featured people instead of animals. There was an image of Brer Rabbit hanging from a rope that Brer Fox had tied to a tree that took my breath away–I’ll grant that he was hanging mostly by his feet, but I was still a little shocked. And at other points in the film poor Brer Rabbit gets tarred and held over a raging fire; Brer Fox also threatens to hang him for real in one of the animated segments. I know this part of it isn’t Disney’s fault, but I would probably have the same problem with the original stories. Though it’s possible that reading about it wouldn’t have the same impact as seeing the images.

Political correctness aside, I have to say I liked the message of the movie: that imagination and stories and folklore are important. James Baskett gives a wonderfully affecting performance as Uncle Remus, and the scene when he decides to pack up the only home he’s ever known and leave because all he’s good for is telling useless stories is just heartbreaking. And “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” remains one of the most fun songs and sequences in the Disney canon.

James: It’s my natural instinct to defend the film because I was so fond of it as a child, but it really is difficult. I certainly don’t read quite as much into it as you do; the cartoon sequences in particular are (while implicitly dark) still very silly stories about woodland creatures, and the only people they are explicitly connected to are Johnny and the bullies. Disney are still releasing them and incorporating them into their legacy (as per their inclusion in Splash Mountain at the theme parks), and so they presumably aren’t as embarrassed by them as by the rest of the film. In the context of the rest of the film, however, I can understand seeing racial themes in them.

But part of my not-really-a-defence defence is James Baskett’s performance and the role of Uncle Remus. Many of the characters in the film are well-rounded, fully three-dimensional characters, but Uncle Remus is the most vital, and Baskett plays him perfectly. Baskett won an Oscar for his performance, making him the first male black performer to win one (Hattie McDaniel had been the first female performer), and it’s easy to see why. I loved him as a child, the way Johnny loved him. He told me stories, and showed me the world didn’t have to be so hard.

It is frustrating that a film based on stories from African American culture should include a white family as its focal point, but as I pointed out to Anne, that might have been for the best given the circumstances. Writers are always taught to write what they know; white writers writing for white audiences were probably right to write white characters. That was a tricky sentence. Anyway, the result is that Johnny and his family are well formed; his mother is protective but understandably so, his grandmother is delightfully spunky. Bobby Driscoll gives a good performance as Johnny, and he has strong character development. He learns from Remus’ stories, both explicitly (when he tricks the bullies the way Brer Rabbit tricked his captors) and implicitly (when Ginny is sad and he decides to tell her a Brer Rabbit story to cheer her up). Ginny and Toby are fairly perfunctory characters as Johnny’s love interest and best friend respectively, but both get strong interactions with Johnny and make an impact in their scenes. Aunt Tempy isn’t given much of an opportunity to develop in the film, but McDaniel gives a brilliant performance, and her gentle scene with Uncle Remus in the second half of the film is a delight.

The thinnest characters are the white trash bullies, and their only role in the film is as live action versions of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Curiously, they’re actually less realistic than their cartoon counterparts.

Anne: A quick shout-out to our lovely friend Rachel who sent me a message that she was looking forward to our review of Song of the South, and in particular my interpretation of the line “Daddy didn’t come and Ginny’s all dirty!” (referring, of course, to Johnny’s disappointing birthday party when his father didn’t show up and Ginny’s brothers pushed her into the mud and ruined her new dress).

I’m not sure there’s much to it, really, but I think it’s telling that when he says the line, Johnny is thinking of those two events as they affect HIM. A few minutes later, he consoles Ginny by telling her a Brer Rabbit story. As James noted, this is a character who actually matures and learns something from his experiences. He realizes that as much as he needs Uncle Remus’ stories, Ginny might need them even more.

(Also that line just made me guffaw. So innocent!)

Oh, question, something I was thinking about during the movie. Why did Johnny’s father have to go to Atlanta and leave Johnny and his mother at the plantation? He’s a writer, apparently, and he wrote something objectionable in the newspaper…was Atlanta going to be dangerous for his wife and child because of something he wrote? This is one of the things that made me wonder if the movie was set during the Civil War, or at least before emancipation–I was thinking maybe the father was writing anti-slavery, anti-Confederacy pieces for the Atlanta newspaper and it was getting him into trouble. Any thoughts on that?

Also…I don’t know, I find it well nigh impossible to watch this movie without reading a lot of racial tension into it, whether or not it’s there (and while I will accept that the folks at Disney weren’t trying to hide any subliminal messaging in the animated segments, I still find the idea and visual of Brer Rabbit being hanged/tarred/burnt for trying to run away very problematic). Maybe it would have been easier if I had had the opportunity of seeing it as a child, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. I think I just know too much now; I’ve been trained too well.

James: Johnny’s father was called to Atlanta because of an urgent plot device. You’ve got to attend to those quickly, or they can collapse into plot holes. But it’s best not to look too closely at them. Anyway, now we’ve talked about the elephant in the room, it’s time to talk about the bull.

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I’ve got to say, for me this was absolutely the hardest thing to watch. When I was a child and even now, the scene where Johnny is hit by the bull (even off screen) really got under my skin. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s well set up so that when it happens it just makes sense. And then, Johnny’s unconscious, unmoving body being picked up by his mother is a painful sight. When I was a child I often turned off the film just before this bit, or at least looked away, and it was difficult not to close my eyes on this viewing, knowing it was coming. It’s not just the physical pain, it’s that Johnny has been separated from his father and now his surrogate father, and now may lose his life. Gosh, it affected me.

Of course, the happy ending comes shortly after, courtesy of one more Brer Rabbit story. In the best (and corniest) possible outcome, Remus’ story awakens Johnny and convinces his mother of the power of the stories, but still doesn’t overpower Johnny’s love for his father. Remus leaves, contented to have the family reunited. It’s contrived, but it works. Mighty satisfaction.

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And then one final scene, in which Brer Rabbit and his friends appear in the real world (much to Remus’ surprise), for a lovely close to the film. And really, it’s beautifully done. As you’ll see from the video higher up, the way the creatures interaction with the live action material is astonishing. As a kid, I was pretty certain they’d done this by training a real rabbit, frog and bluebird to do those actions, and then animated over them. That’s probably not how it was done, but I still like it as a theory. Another example of the perfect integration is just after Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah:

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Is that fence real or animated? Having watched the whole scene, I have absolutely no idea. Another fabulous bit of integration is at the end of part of a story, where Brer Bear and Brer Fox are dancing around Rabbit, and the camera pulls out as the animation fades into live action, but keeping Bear and Fox dancing around Johnny’s head. It’s a lovely transition, holding on a mix of cartoon and reality for just a few seconds before fading completely to live action. There’s true intelligence to the animation, something I’ve praised in Disney before, and something seldom seen in films today.

Anne: Maybe they filmed a real fence and then animated over it. 😉

Anyway. While I can comment on Song of the South as a piece of entertainment to a certain extent, I feel like I’m never going to be able to enjoy it that way–though as a piece of shameful Disney history it’s pretty fascinating!

I’m not going to score this one. I’ll let James take care of that.

James: The good news is, this isn’t an official part of the Disney canon, so any final tallies we do can ignore it completely!

Going with what’s good about the film minus what’s bad about the film, coupled with how likely I’d be to watch it again… I’ll give it a 5/10. Parts of it are uncomfortable, but parts of it are delightful, and for the most part it really is a well made film. Still, with more aware eyes I’m not likely to watch it again any time soon. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it, and Baskett’s Uncle Remus will always hold a place in my heart, but my VHS can go back into the cupboard for a while longer.

Next up, back to the main canon and the package films with Fun and Fancy Free!

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