Cast & Crew
Alfred L. Werker
At the urging of his wife, humorist Robert Benchley visits the Walt Disney Studio to meet Disney and show him a children's book he believes might make a good cartoon story, Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon . At the studio, Benchley is met by Humphrey, an eager young tour guide, but is so annoyed by Humphrey's overbearing manner that he sneaks away. Hoping for a glimpse of a pretty model, Benchley slips into a drawing class where artists are sketching a live model, but soon discovers the subject is an elephant. Leaving the class, Benchley wanders onto a sound stage where music is being recorded. He settles back to hear an operatic duet sung by Florence Gill and Clarence Nash, without realizing at first that they provide the voices for cartoon characters Clara Cluck and Donald Duck. After congratulating the performers, Benchley learns how to imitate Donald Duck's voice, but his lesson is interrupted by the unwelcome appearance of Humphrey. Benchley soon escapes into the sound effects department, where he sees some of the devices used to create various sounds and watches as music and sound effects are recorded to accompany an animated scene of "Casey Jr.," the train in Dumbo . Next Benchley stumbles into the camera department, where he views a forest scene through a multiplane camera and then investigates the workings of a regular camera table. Here he is shown how cels are laid in succession over a painted background, and drawings of Donald Duck "come to life" on the camera table to explain how the photographic process works. Still trying to avoid Humphrey, Benchley learns the functions of the paint and model departments. He then finds himself in the story department, where artists show him their drawings and story boards for a new cartoon entitled "Baby Weems," in which a newborn baby speaks fluent English and becomes a celebrity when he reveals himself to be a genius. Benchley then strays into the animation department and observes artists creating the illusion of movement in their drawings. The artists then treat him to an impromptu Moviola viewing of a recently completed cartoon, "How to Ride a Horse," in which Goofy attempts to demonstrate correct equestrian form. Apprehended once again by Humphrey, Benchley concludes his "tour" of the studio by meeting Disney in a screening room where the staff has gathered to watch the studio's latest short film, "The Reluctant Dragon." The cartoon tells the story of a dragon who would rather recite poetry and sip tea then ravage the countryside, the young boy who befriends him, and Sir Giles, an agreeable knight sent to slay him. After viewing the film, Benchley is driven home by his wife, who upbraids him for being so slow in taking the story to Disney. Benchley demonstrates that his studio visit has not been wasted, however, when he turns on his wife and furiously squawks at her in the voice of Donald Duck.
Alfred L. Werker
John Fraser Mcleish
Jack W. Bruner
Lyle De Grummond
J. S. Escalante
Friedrich Von Flotow
Joshua L. Meador
John P. Miller
S. C. Onaitis
Frank Oreb Jr.
Friedrich Wilhelm Riese
Vernon G. Witt
The Reluctant Dragon (1941) -
The year was 1941, and as World War II continued to rage, the man responsible for some of the most beautiful, popular, and groundbreaking animated films was facing money troubles. The war had cut off 40% of his overseas markets. His last two features, Pinnochio and Fantasia, had been box office disappointments (largely attributable to the loss of the European markets). He had other films in development, but Dumbo wouldn't be ready for close to another year, and Bambi not until the year after that. His short cartoons continued to be among the most popular in Hollywood history, but even the most popular short subject's revenues were trivial rounding errors compared to the money a feature could generate.
When other movie studios faced similar challenges like, they could churn out quickie, low-budget features for fast cash. Take some standing sets, throw some B-list actors into them and get a journeyman director to gin up something generic and familiar--it wasn't rocket science. But this was essentially outside Disney's reach. The only live action footage his studio had ever shot was the orchestra in Fantasia. He had no standing sets, and no movie stars B-list or otherwise.
Except... this wasn't entirely true.
Disney had just invested in a massive upgrade to his production facilities and opened a brand new studio in Burbank. That could be used as a set, for a behind-the-scenes tour of how Disney cartoons are made. It would be something of a feature-length commercial, of course, but Walt had been toying with that sort of idea even since the publicity for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and in 1954 would unveil a weekly televised commercial in the form of the Disneyland TV series. Not only would this film serve as a general advertisement for the Disney brand, but would also feature snippets of Dumbo and Bambi by way of whetting appetites for those upcoming releases.
Comedian Robert Benchley played himself, more or less, as the central character in the behind-the-scenes tour. Benchley was an absurdist comedian, New Yorker cartoonist, essayist, and Algonquin Round Table regular who had won an Academy Award for his own work in short comedies. If anyone could stand toe-to-toe with Donald Duck (or the voice of Donald Duck, Clarence Nash), it was Benchley.
To film the live-action sequences, Disney borrowed Alfred Werker and a production team from Fox. Werker was a prototypical journeyman director, fresh off directing Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and on his way to directing Laurel & Hardy in A-Haunting We Will Go. At the Disney studio, Werker was impressed by how the animators laid out blueprints of their planned films in the form of something called "storyboards." Inspired, he took the idea back with him to the world of live-action filmmaking.
Along with Werker's live-action sequences starring Benchley, the film features three central animated sequences. The final one, which gives The Reluctant Dragon its title, is an adaptation of a nineteenth century children's book by Kenneth Grahame, with a dragon character modeled on character actor Franklin Pangborn.
Also featured is a Goofy short called How to Ride a Horse which reintroduced the Goofy character following his lackluster debut as a solo cartoon star in Goofy and Wilbur earlier in 1941. Director Jack Kinney rethought how best to use the gangly, enthusiastic bumbler and decided to cast him in a series of "educational" films in which his incompetent actions would be contrasted with the sober narration of voice artist John McLeish. As the story goes, McLeish was misled into thinking he was actually narrating a genuine educational film, and was (pleasantly) surprised to see Goofy flailing his way through the finished film. Kinney's "How to..." series of Goofy shorts continued for over a decade.
The third cartoon segment was the most revolutionary, but its effects were not entirely felt at Disney. In the Baby Weems sequence, Benchley sits with a group of Disney story artists--or, at least, some actors playing Disney story artists (one of them is Alan Ladd, a year away from his breakout role in This Gun for Hire). Ladd and the lads present their storyboards for a proposed film to Benchley--and for the next several minutes the film gives over to these sketches, minimally animated. In point of fact, this was not Disney's first experiment with what would come to be called "limited animation," with the studio having used similar techniques earlier that year in a training film for Lockheed called Four Methods of Flush Riveting. The cost-savings inherent in using highly stylized and visually arresting static images , with actual moving parts used sparingly, would soon proliferate through rival studios and ultimately to TV, where it would make such things as The Flintstones viable as a weekly series.
As an exercise in penny-pinching, The Reluctant Dragon was a masterstroke: a 72-minute advertisement for the Disney Studio as a whole, publicity for Dumbo and Bambi, a way to sell a Goofy short as a feature film, and an experiment in making animation on the cheap. Unfortunately, audiences did not agree, and generally rejected the thing as a cheat. And it was here that Disney's penny-pinching backfired catastrophically.
At the premiere of The Reluctant Dragon at the Pantages Theater, picketers marched in front of the theater entrance with extraordinarily well-drawn caricatures of Walt Disney as a fire-breathing dragon, above the slogan "The Reluctant Disney." The placards were well-drawn because they were drawn by the very artists who'd made the movie, now on strike against Uncle Walt.
There are many different ways of telling the story of Disney's labor strike, but it is not unfair to say that the artists who worked at Disney felt underpaid and unappreciated. Ever since the grueling slog of making Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, they had been working unpaid overtime to help secure popularity, profits, and awards for their boss. Although The Reluctant Dragon depicted the new Burbank Studio as a bright, whimsical campus full of shiny, happy artists, many of the actual staff thought of it as a grim sweatshop.
The new facility segregated the working units and hired supervisors to prevent the artists from mingling across departments. There was talk of installing time clocks, as if they were factory workers instead of artists. Few workers had any direct contact with Walt, and no special feeling for him personally. They were there to do their job. For years they had been giving him their weekends and nights to create his masterpieces, and now instead of the promised bonus checks they were facing waves of layoffs.
For his part, Walt felt the labor unrest was nothing short of disloyalty. He already paid better wages than most other animation outfits, and times were tough. Keeping the lights on was an increasing challenge, and the union organizers were known troublemakers who were being encouraged by some of his rivals.
On May 28, 1941, some 500 Disney staffers walked out to picket outside the studio. The strike went on for five weeks, and was only resolved in the end by federal mediators (who backed the union against Disney on every issue).
The cost to Disney was massive. When all was said and done, the Disney staff was cleaved almost in half. The artists he lost in the dispute were among his best and brightest. Some landed at MGM, others at Leon Schlesinger's shop (where Looney Tunes were born), and a few founded a new animation studio called UPA. In sum, Disney had sent his most talented people out to become his competitors. The staff that stayed was no longer a family, but a workforce he treated warily. Something ineffable had been destroyed.
The Reluctant Dragon memorializes and celebrates a moment of magic that never quite existed. It is not so much a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Walt Disney, but more of a fairy tale of that place, set in "Once Upon a Time..."
By David Kalat
Jerry Beck, The Animated Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic
Richard Schickel, The Disney Version
Charles Solomon, The Disney That Never Was
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life
The Reluctant Dragon (1941) -
The opening credits of this film feature caricatures of the animators and present their names as signatures. According to a modern source, the caricatures were drawn by writer T. Hee. After the credits, a written prologue reads: "This picture is made in answer to the many requests to show the backstage life of animated cartoons. P.S. Any resemblance to a regular motion picture is purely coincidental."
Although Kenneth Grahame's story "The Reluctant Dragon" had originally been published in 1898 as part of a collection of stories, a new edition of that story was published by itself in 1939. Shortly after the release of the film, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer's original story "Baby Weems" was published as a book that included "A Foreword and a Protest" by Robert Benchley.
Most of the screen story development, both of the live-action portion of the film and the animated "Reluctant Dragon" segment, took place during May 1940. Story materials preserved in the Walt Disney Archives indicate that various approaches to the live-action story were considered. One of them was reflected in a July 1940 New York Times news item, which announced that Benchley was to appear as a befuddled Disney employee wandering through the studio. Although shooting of the live-action portion of the film did not begin until October 1940, an August 1940 New York Times item reported that work had already started on the animated sequences. Alfred Werker, the director of the live-action sequences, and Jasper Blystone, his assistant, were borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production.
Although the Disney Studio had previously used live action in the "Alice Comedy" shorts, and briefly in the feature Fantasia, The Reluctant Dragon marked the first time that the studio used a significant amount of live action in combination with segments of animation. The live action sequences and animated segments are mostly separate, however, and it was not until the 1945 Disney production The Three Caballeros that the studio perfected the technique of integrating animation and live action in the same sequence.
Transcripts of story conferences, preserved in the studio archives, suggest that writers Hal Sloane, David Hall and Ray Jacobs worked on "The Reluctant Dragon" cartoon sequence, but the extent of their contribution to the finished film has not been determined. Conference transcripts also indicate that Disney considered including in the picture the "Clair de Lune" sequence, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, that had been dropped from Fantasia; Benny Goodman, providing the music for a special cartoon sequence about jungle animals dancing to swing music; and Sterling Holloway as the voice of "The Reluctant Dragon." None of these performers appeared in or contributed to the finished film, however. The animated jungle sequence was not produced, but animation for the "Clair de Lune" number was later adapted for a sequence in Make Mine Music. During story development of "The Reluctant Dragon," the knight was tentatively called "Sir George," and that name appears in the pressbook credits, although the character is called "Sir Giles" in the film.
One objective of the film was to publicize Disney's new studio in Burbank, which was built after the financial success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and is still in use. In the finished film, actual studio employees appear side by side with actors cast as employees.
Several subsequent Disney films are referred to in the course of The Reluctant Dragon. The scene projected on the sound-effects stage features "Casey Jr.," the circus train from Dumbo, although the sequence depicted on the screen does not appear in Dumbo. The Donald Duck scene on the camera table is taken from the 1941 short Old MacDonald Duck. Originally, the sequence was to include extensive footage from that short, but only a few shots were actually used. While visiting the paint department, Benchley is shown a cel from Bambi, on which the character Bambi responds to Benchley's comments by "coming to life" and running away. The action is accompanied by one of Frank Churchill's musical themes from Bambi. Other scenes are underscored by Churchill's music from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the film's title song was given its "world premiere" when Frank Morgan performed it on the Maxwell House radio program on 3 April 1941.
Studio documents indicate that Ub Iwerks directed several miscellaneous animated segments for the film in November 1940, most of which were not used. These included "ghost images" of Donald Duck and Clara Cluck, which were to be double-printed over the live-action scenes of Clarence Nash and Florence Gill. The same documents show that Iwerks also directed the sequence featuring Casey Jr., and that the Donald Duck drawings used as props in the camera sequence were made by the Disney comic strip department.
According to the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the short "How to Ride a Horse" was produced independently of The Reluctant Dragon and was given a separate certificate number. In late April 1941, however, Disney decided to incorporate "How to Ride a Horse" into The Reluctant Dragon. The short became the initial entry in a popular series of Disney cartoons in which Goofy demonstrated the intricacies of various sporting endeavors.
The picture marked Walt Disney's first onscreen appearance in a feature-length film. The May 1941 Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest review of The Reluctant Dragon describes an ending that differs from that in the viewed print: "As the picture ends and lights go up, Disney turns to Benchley for advice. There is no Benchley-only a note and the book on his chair, saying 'Dear Walt: This was it.'"
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, a press tour of the Disney studio and preview of the film were held on May 28, 1941. The opening of the film was announced for June 6, 1941, then, according to Film Daily, was moved back to June 27, 1941. The release was delayed by labor problems that had been brewing at the Disney Studio since early in the year, and culminated in a strike in late May. Approximately 700 members of the Screen Cartoonists' Guild walked out on the Disney Studio on May 28, 1941, and the strike was not resoved until early September 1941. An June 11, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that strikers had "stymied" a scheduled Hollywood critics' preview of The Reluctant Dragon in early Jun. Finally, after four pre-release engagements in other cities, the film opened in Los Angeles on 4 July and in New York on July 24, 1941. According to Hollywood Reporter and Film Daily, both openings were picketed by strikers or strike sympathizers. A number of reviewers commented on the strike, with the Variety reviewer noting: "A curious coincidence is the release of The Reluctant Dragon-planned two or three years ago-at this particular time, when Disney's studio employees are on strike. Dr. Goebbels couldn't do a better propaganda job to show the workers in Disney's pen-and-ink factory a happy and contented lot doing their daily chores midst idyllic surroundings."
Modern sources credit Earl Rettig, who is listed as the production manager in the onscreen credits, as a film editor, and include Jeff Corey and The Rhythmaires in the cast. Some modern sources credit Pinto Colvig with supplying the voice of Goofy, but another source notes that Colvig's work was taken from older Goofy shorts and was not done specifically for the feature. The picture marked the film-acting debut of John Dehner, a Disney artist who became an actor in the mid-1940s.
The Reluctant Dragon has never been theatrically reissued as a feature, although according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the picture was distributed in Paris in 1947 under the title Les secrets de Walt Disney. On February 8, 1953, Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town television program included a visit to the Disney Studio, and incorporated two sequences from The Reluctant Dragon: the sound-effects recording session and the scene of Donald Duck on the camera table. Both segments were intercut with new footage to exclude Benchley from the scene and substitute Disney and Sullivan. In later years, a shortened version of the film, entitled Behind the Scenes of Walt Disney Studio, was circulated on 16mm. The full-length feature has sometimes been shown with the main title card from the shortened version, and different writing credits than the original version, for which Benchley and Harry Clork received additional dialogue credits. In the modern credits, Benchley is not given a writing credit, and Clork is listed as a co-writer of the screenplay instead of co-writer of additional dialogue. In 1950, the cartoon "How to Ride a Horse" was reissued theatrically.