The Great Disney Blogathon: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
|August 27, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Fun and Fancy Free is a bit less than the sum of its parts. It consists of two unrelated “shorts,” each nearly half an hour long, stitched together with some half-animated, half-live action shenanigans featuring Jiminy Cricket, the special effects wizardry of Ub Iwerks,1 and some topical humor with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies (more on that in a bit). One of the shorts (“Bongo”) is a bit too long; the other (“Mickey and the Beanstalk”) could easily be longer, although perhaps it only works as well as it does because it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Anyway, let’s get to it.
The film opens with Jiminy singing “I’m a Happy-Go-Lucky-Fellow,” a song that was cut from Pinocchio, while paddling a leaf around in a pond that turns out to be part of a planter inside a house. Everything about this sequence is a fairly seamless blend of animation and live action; the pond is animated, the house is live action, the next room he goes into is mostly animated, but Jiminy is lively enough that you focus on him, allowing the two different worlds he inhabits to merge, unnoticed, behind him. He’s the same Jiminy we’re used to, which is in and of itself noteworthy; aside from the occasional sight gag or Hidden Mickey, Jiminy’s the only Disney character to debut in one feature film and reappear in a completely unrelated one. (Incidentally, there’s no explanation of how he got from 19th century Italy to 1940s Los Angeles, but he’s also a talking cricket, so I suppose that’s the least of his worries.)
After mishaps with a goldfish that’s strongly reminiscent of Cleo and a cat that is not strongly reminiscent of Figaro, Jiminy makes his way to the nursery, where he finds a sad-faced doll and teddy bear. After flirting with the very much inanimate doll, as is his wont (seriously, Jiminy, it’s weird), he decides to cheer them up by putting on some music, and selects “Bongo,” sung and narrated by Dinah Shore, who you’ll remember from Make Mine Music.2
Bongo is the story of an adorably wee and talented circus bear who longs for life in the great outdoors. One day he escapes and has a series of misadventures adjusting to life in the woods before meeting and falling for a cute girl bear named Lulubelle. He mistakes her slap for animosity and loses her to a hulking rival named Lumpjaw, but when he realizes that, as one of the short’s three songs informs us, when in love “A Bear Likes to Say It with a Slap,” he races back and fights Lumpjaw for Lulubelle’s hand, eventually emerging triumphant. The whole thing would be very cute as a six-to-eight minute short; at nearly half an hour, it’s soporific. There’s just not that much to it, especially since none of the characters speak. Dinah Shore has a lovely voice but it’s so languid that the two non-slapping songs threaten to put the viewer to sleep, especially since one’s about how nice it is to relax in the countryside and the other’s a dreamy love ballad. The latter is so cheesy I hope to God it was intended as a parody; among other things, it features tiny bear cherubs and a heart-shaped hot air balloon. And though I suppose I don’t expect much from the gender politics of lesser 1940s Disney cartoons, I hate that once Lulubelle accidentally slaps Lumpjaw, she’s basically stuck with him until Bongo defeats Lumpjaw in battle. Women are not property, Disney, even bear women.
Two things to note: one, Bongo’s misadventures in the woods are oddly similar to Tod’s from the decades-later The Fox and the Hound, right down to meeting his first member of the opposite sex while failing to catch a fish. And two, two of the animals who mock Bongo are chipmunks who bear a striking resemblance to Chip and Dale, which is probably no accident, as they debuted in 1943 and were probably in development right around the same time as “Bongo.”
The record done, Jiminy discovers a party invitation addressed to the room’s inhabitant, Luana Patten, who had recently starred in Disney’s Song of the South, and would go on to feature in other late 40s Disney films So Dear to My Heart and Melody Time. She’s been invited to Edgar Bergen’s house (because a little girl hanging out alone with a grown man and his ventriloquist dummies at an elaborate “party” isn’t creepy at all), so Jiminy decides to hop on over and partake of the fun. Edgar Bergen was an at-the-time famous ventriloquist comedian who inexplicably had his biggest success on the radio. The party is also being “attended” by Bergen’s most famous dummy, the acerbic Charlie McCarthy, and the less-famous, sweet-but-dopey Mortimer Snerd; Bergen moves back and forth between them through the course of their scenes while the dummy he’s not working is, presumably, worked by an unseen additional puppeteer. Jiminy observes all of this unseen while helping himself to the refreshments, which leads to a few cute effects.
It’s…well, it’s a tableau that’s very much of its time, shall we say? Luana is charming enough, even if she’s not required to do much more than giggle or gasp at appropriate moments, and Bergen is actually quite a skilled ventriloquist; though his mouth is obviously moving when Charlie or Mortimer is talking, they’ve got enough personality that you watch them instead of him. And some of Charlie’s one-liners did actually startle a laugh out of me, especially when they sneak into Bergen’s narration of “Mickey and the Beanstalk.” But it’s a really strange element to the movie that goes on just a bit too long, and it’s not hard to see why “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” which is by far the most famous and successful part of this movie, is more frequently collected and/or aired on its own than the movie as a whole. (There are versions with Ludwig Von Drake or Sterling Holloway as the narrator, which makes it easier to lift the short out of the overall film.)
Anyway, Bergen offers to tell Luana a story, and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” begins. It’s a fairly straightforward retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, but with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sharing the Jack role, and a lot more slapstick. And it’s a delight. I sometimes don’t care for Mickey or Goofy on their own (I always love Donald. Always.), but the three of them work splendidly as a trio. Mickey is at his very best in this story, managing to straddle both “sweet and somewhat naive” when he buys the magic beans and “clever and resourceful” when he’s facing Willie the Giant.3 Donald is mostly there to rage at Mickey and get hit with stuff, but he’s so good at that. Goofy actually has very little to do, aside from general tomfoolery with the other two, but again, Goofy on his own does not thrill me, so this is fine. Willie somehow manages to be both threatening and lovable,4 and I even like the magic harp, who may not have feet to run away with but is pretty determined to do all she can to help Mickey get her out of captivity. I could have easily watched a full-length movie of this instead of the anthology we got (although a full-length “Mickey and the Beanstalk” might’ve turned into something like the profoundly mediocre direct-to-video trio vehicle The Three Musketeers, so maybe not).
I should note that Mickey and the others are rather bloodthirsty in this story: when Mickey finds out Willie can shapeshift, he tries to trick him into turning into a fly so that he can attack him with a flyswatter, and upon rescuing the harp, the trio races to the ground to saw through the beanstalk with the clear intention of causing Willie to fall to his death. It’s a little unsettling, and I say that as someone who finds Mickey pulling a gun on Donald in “Symphony Hour” to be hilarious.5
But, lest we fret over Willie’s fate, we return to Bergen’s house, where Mortimer is sobbing because he liked the silly old giant. Just as Bergen is assuring him that Willie is just a figment of his imagination, Willie lifts the roof off the house and peers in to ask if they’ve seen a mouse. Bergen faints and Willie shrugs philosophically, replaces the roof, and saunters off through Hollywood, snagging the famous Brown Derby as a new chapeau. I really enjoy this ending, mostly because the anthologies tend to just fizzle out, even if they have connecting themes, as with Saludos Amigos. Tying everything together with one last bit of effects magic makes the film as a whole feel more satisfying.
Just two more anthologies left to go, but they’re the worst of the lot. Hang in there, kids!
- Have I talked about ol’ Ub here before? Ub co-created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse with Walt and pretty much single-handedly drew the early Mickey and Silly Symphonies shorts. He and Walt had a falling out around 1930 and he left to found his own studio, but it never really hit the big time, and Ub returned to Disney in 1940, where he focused on special effects. His trademark was seamlessly integrating animation and live action, though he had his finger in many pies; in the 60s he worked as a proto-Imagineer, developing attractions at Disneyland. He’s kind of a Big Disney Deal. Also, his name is hilarious. ↩
- And, if you’re me, from one of the worst puns in the world, courtesy of On the Town. It goes something like “Calling all cars: a dinosaur has just been destroyed at the Museum of Natural History.” “Oh no, she’s my favorite singer!” Wah wah waaaah. ↩
- This would be Walt’s last performance as the Mouse until The Mickey Mouse Club in the 60s. John Grant claims Jimmy McDonald helped out on this film as well, while my other sources attribute it all to Walt. I’m fairly neutral on the whole thing; blasphemous though it may be, the Mickey of my heart is and always will be Wayne Allwine, who voiced the Mouse from 1977 until his untimely death in 2009. And sorry I’m about to break your heart, but he was also married to Russi Taylor, who has voiced Minnie since 1986. There are interviews where they talk about how voicing those characters made them better people. I’m legit misting up here, guys, and his death was four years ago. ↩
- Willie would reappear decades later in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” which I swear I will someday get around to talking about here, because I love it. ↩
- It’s here, about 7 minutes in, though I recommend watching the whole thing, which is one of my all-time favorites. ↩