A wealthy but impulsive toad squanders his estate purchasing the latest in high-speed recreational vehicles. A cowardly school teacher is pursued through the night by a terrifying spectre. Two highly disparate stories, both based on classic works of literature, and both put together into one single animated feature film. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, originally released in 1949, is not one of the Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most famous works, nor is it one widely heralded or celebrated within the company. It is, however, a fascinating and hugely worthwhile film for any keen fan of American animation history.
For its first half it adapts Kenneth Grahame’s popular children’s novel The Wind in the Willows. For its second it adapts Washington Irving’s iconic horror story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is a particularly odd pairing, but one that strangely works rather well. It is also a film with a troubled but intriguing production history: cancelled twice before eventually seeing release as the sixth and final ‘package’ feature from the Walt Disney Animation Studios.
The origins of the film date back to 1938, after the enormous commercial success of Walt Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney had encouraged his animators to come forward with ideas they had for future animated features, and two of those artists – James Bodrero and Campbell Grant – approached their producer with a plan to adapt The Wind in the Willows. They felt that its combination of whimsical characters and anthropomorphic characters would make it a popular film with children. ‘I had read the book,’ said Bodrero. ‘I wanted to do it, a long time before Walt. Walt thought it was awful corny, but we finally got him around to it.’[i]
To sell Disney on the idea of a Wind in the Willows feature, Bodrero and Grant prepared a story reel, essentially a cheaply produced film mock-up combining storyboards and rough dialogue performed by members of their animation team. Bodrero said: ‘It was the beginning of [limited] animation, you might say, because instead of showing a storyboard, we flicked over storyboard stills, to the dialogue. That was so impressive that the studio audience applauded.’[ii] This story reel technique was widely used by the Walt Disney Animation Studies, until cost overruns saw them discontinued in the early 1950s.
Disney purchased the screen rights to Grahame’s novel in June 1938. After some delays in developing a satisfactory screenplay, produced commenced properly in early 1941. James Algar was appointed to direct the film, which received a production budget of $700,000. Production started in a hugely stressful environment of cost-cutting and cutbacks. As the animators began developing the character designs, Walt Disney had all internal training programs cut to save the studio money.
The cutbacks came as a result of the poor commercial performance of Disney’s Snow White follow-ups Pinocchio and Fantasia. Animator Ollie Johnson recalled: ‘There was an awful lot of apprehension about whether Walt was going to keep the place. We used to hear these rumours from stockbrokers that Walt was going to sell.’[iii]
At the same time Hollywood’s animation industry was rapidly becoming unionised for the first time, following strikes at the Fleischer Studios in late 1937. The following year a Screen Cartoonist’s Guild was formed, and its head Herbert Sorrell went about pressuring Hollywood’s various studios to become union shops. Walt actively resisted Sorrell’s demands, and in February 1941 called a special meeting of all 1,200 studio employees to warn them off joining Sorrell’s Guild. It had the opposite effect to the one Disney had intended. A growing number of Disney animators, led by key animator Art Babbitt, joined the Union and started campaigning for increased pay and better work rights. In response Disney had Babbitt fired. The next day more than 200 Disney employees went on strike.
‘We worked on Mr Toad during the strike,’ said animator Marc Davis. ‘It was kind of a miserable time to be working on something of that sort, because there were so many things on your mind.’[iv]
Also in production during the strike was the animated feature Dumbo. Anti-union employees caricatured the striking workers inside that film, representing them as clowns demanding a raise from the circus management. Five weeks after it began, and with morale at the studio badly damaged, a federal mediator found in the Guild’s favour and forced the unionisation of the Walt Disney Animation Studios.
With the strike concluded, work accelerated on The Wind in the Willows. ‘It was about 47 minutes, as I recall,’ said animator Frank Thomas, ‘and the thing just sparkled. Everyone was so high on it. It was funny, and it was warm, and great characters, and gee, it just went. We said, there’s our picture, and you put it into work, it’s naturally going to expand to the hour 10, 15 that you want – but it didn’t. As you expanded it, it got soggy, and it got heavy, and it slowed up, and it lost all of that brightness that it had. Nobody knew why. To this day, nobody knows why.’[v]
Progress on the film ground to a halt as the production team scrambled to identify what had caused the collapse in momentum and energy. At the same time RKO Pictures, which had been distributing all of Disney’s animated features, was reluctant to pick up the theatrical rights. Studio heads complained that the story was too British and cosy, and lacked the sort of mainstream appeal to make it a commercial hit in American theatres.
In October 1941 Walt Disney personally assessed more than 3,000 feet of completed footage – roughly 33 minutes of animation – and decided that The Wind in the Willows was of too poor a quality to be released. He had production immediately suspended and filed away what had been completed in the studio archive.
Two months later the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging a reluctant United States into the Second World War. With so many animators and artists either enlisting voluntarily or conscripted to join the US Army, and coupled with growing rations on ink and other animation materials, the Walt Disney Animation Studio found it too prohibitive to continue making full-length animated features. Bambi, which was well into production when the war broke out, was released in August 1942. It would be the last full-length feature from the studio for eight years.
In the place of the features Disney started producing packages of shorter segments. Such films were cheaper to produce, since the short sequences could be made with much smaller teams of animators. Several of these portmanteau films were propaganda pieces. In the case of Saludos Amigos (1942) funding came from the State Department, in the hope of attracting unaligned South American governments to the United States over Nazi Germany. Others, such as Victory Through Air Power (1943) were personally funded by Disney himself to aid the war effort.
Even after the conclusion of World War II, budgetary issues and long production schedules ensured that Walt Disney’s practice of releasing package films continued for another four years. In 1946 The Wind in the Willows was brought out of the archives and re-assessed as a potential segment for a future package. Frank Thomas was appointed to direct additional footage, in the hope of assembling a releasable version of the film.
Thomas said: ‘We started out not co-directing as much as salvaging. Walt said, “Let’s see what we got there. Put it together, find out what shape it’s in, re-shoot the scenes, whatever, and see what it looks like.” So we did that, and then he looked at it and said, “It still doesn’t hold up,” but he had some new ideas of scenes to put in it, and he also wanted it cut down to thirty minutes. We cut it down to thirty minutes and he said, “It’s still too long. Cut it down to twenty-five.”[vi]
With The Wind in the Willows clearly too short to be released on its own, plans were developed to pair it with two other in-production short features: Mickey and the Beanstalk and The Gremlins, an original story that had been developed by writer Roald Dahl. A working title of Three Fabulous Characters was assigned to the joint production. When The Gremlins fell through, the title predictably changed to Two Wonderful Characters.
Thomas moved on from The Wind in the Willows to the short film “Johnny Appleseed”, which was ultimately included in the 1948 package film Melody Time. He was replaced by Ward Kimball. A chaotic train chase was added, and the climactic fight through Toad Hall was completely replaced with a more energetic and frantic version. Despite these changes the film was once again shelved in the Disney archives. Mickey and the Beanstalk was subsequently released alongside the short feature Bongo, under the packaged title Fun and Fancy Free (1947).
In December 1946 production commenced on an all-new animated feature film, intended to be the studio’s first since Bambi. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow adapted the Washington Irving short story of the same name, and followed the adventures of the gangly, uncoordinated school teacher Ichabod Crane as he arrived in the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, attempted to woo the beautiful heiress Katrina van Tassel, and is ultimately chased through the woods one night by an undead ‘headless horseman’.
While the combination of comedy and supernatural horror was developing in a striking and imaginative direction, it very soon became clear that there simply was not enough story to generate an hour-long feature. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was adapted as a half-hour short instead, with an aim to pair it with a second half-hour animation and create one final package feature. With an eye to restricting the combined film’s budget, The Wind in the Willows was thrown into production for a third and final time. Enough animation was produced to craft an intelligible three-act narrative, and the completed short was then slotted in front of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Once combined, the finished film had a commercially viable running time of 68 minutes. It was given the title The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad.
Singer and actor Bing Crosby had been successfully hired to narrate The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and to sing one key musical number for the segment. To balance the film, English actor Basil Rathbone was hired to narrate and frame The Wind in the Willows. A bridging sequence set inside a library of old books was produced, introducing both Mr Toad and Ichabod Crane as classic characters of England and the United States respectively.
RKO Pictures released The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad to American cinemas on 5 October 1949. The film was generally well received by critics and the press. Life magazine noted that ‘Mr Toad’s half is good enough to convince Disney admirers that the old master can still display all the bounce and vitality he had before the war.’[vii] A review in the New York Times claimed that Disney had ‘fashioned a conclave of cartoon creatures which, by and large, have the winsome qualities and charm of such noted creations as Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, et al.’[viii]
The two segments of the film, while nicely bound by the framing sequence, are about as different as any two animations in the entire six-film run of Disney’s package films. One is rather comedic and jolly, the other surprisingly mean-spirited before descending into full-blown horror.
The Wind in the Willows immediately demonstrates that Walt Disney was incorrect about the film’s appeal. It features a gorgeous cast of animal characters, who are designed with a wonderful charm and appeal. They are each distinctive as well, whether it is Rat’s matter-of-fact seriousness, or Mole’s awkward hesitancy, or even Angus McBadger’s dour and brusque demeanour. It is perhaps fitting that Toad himself is the film’s most engaging character, all id and no ego, racing around the English countryside in whatever is the fastest vehicle he can find. All four characters are skilfully performed by the film’s voice cast: the audio was actually recorded all the way back in 1941. Eric Blore, a regular player in RKO’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, is particularly good as Toad.
A real surprise among the cast of characters is Cyril Proudbottom. He begins the film as the horse pulling Toad’s new cart. When Toad replaces the cart with an automobile, Cyril takes on a humanoid posture and joins him for a ride. When Toad is framed for theft he calls Cyril as a character witness. He is an odd and amusing character, and one of the stand-out elements of the film.
Sadly while Walt Disney was incorrect about the character appeal, he was essentially correct in regards to the animation quality. There is a cheap, almost scrappy look to many of the scenes in the film, without any of the careful detail or motion seen in other Disney productions of the time. The film’s difficult twice-suspended production process is visible, as there is an inconsistency in the visual imagery from one scene to the next. It all feels just a little too weak and jumbled together. It is an entertaining confection, but the manner in which the story speeds up and slows down reveals the extent to which entire scenes were cut or never even animated in the first place.
Subsequent attempts to adapt The Wind in the Willows have been met with more creative success, particularly one stunning stop-motion animated film directed by Chris Taylor and Mark Hall in 1983. That version, made for British television, captured the whole charm of Grahame’s novel with an excellent voice cast including David Jason as Toad, Ian Carmichael as Rat, Richard Pearson as Mole and Michael Hordern as Badger.
By contrast to The Wind in the Willows, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a slick and evenly paced animation. It boasts wonderful design, both in terms of the exaggerated caricature of Ichabod Crane himself as well the strong colour palette developed by Disney legend Mary Blair. There is a boldness to the way in which Ichabod is presented: he may be the protagonist, but he is not an appealing character. His physicality is grotesque in the manner of most Disney villains. He is presented as self-involved, greedy and vain. He attempts to woo the beautiful Katrina van Tassel not because he finds her attractive, but because she stands to inherit the wealth of her rich father Baltus.
Ichabod’s rival for Katrina’s affections is Brom Bones. While he may boast a more attractive and masculine appearance, he is also a bully and a prankster. He is about as difficult to like as Ichabod, albeit for different reasons. Their competitive behaviour attempting to woo Katrina forms the bulk of the film’s early scenes, and make for effective slapstick comedy. In all feels oddly mean-spirited, however: Ichabod is presented as a fool, and Brom as a boor, so that in the end neither feels particularly likeable.
It is the film’s climax that stands out the most, and is easily the most memorable and effective sequence of the entire package feature. Noticing that Ichabod is a superstitious man, Brom spins a tale to a whole party of a ghostly horseman that was decapitated during the American Revolution. Brom claims that the horseman rides the roads around Sleepy Hollow every Halloween night in search of a replacement for his own severed head. A terrified Ichabod imagines all manner of ghosts and ghouls on his ride home, until he suddenly comes across the headless horseman and rides for his life to the town bridge that Brom claimed would mark the limit of the horseman’s power.
The headless horseman is a fully horrific creation, standing up alongside the likes of the devil Chernabog in Fantasia or the Horned King in The Black Cauldron. Its horse is just as terrifying, with black hair and glowing red eyes.
There is a wonderful ambiguity to the chase’s conclusion. The last thing we see is the horseman throwing a flaming pumpkin – which it has been using as a de facto head – towards a terrified Ichabod. Ichabod’s hat is found on the road the next morning, but the man himself has vanished. It is made pretty clear that the horseman could easily have been Brom in disguise aiming to frighten Ichabod away – indeed asides from the eyes the horseman’s demonic horse could easily be Brom’s own steed. On the other hand, the possibility remains open that the horseman was real and that Ichabod has died. It’s on this unexpectedly ambiguous note that the entire film ends.
The Sleepy Hollow segment is definitely superior to The Wind in the Willows, thanks to a much more confident and unified animation style and a willingness to nudge at the boundaries of what makes for a typical Walt Disney animation. It also holds up wonderfully today, decades after its original release. The two segments were definitely scheduled in the right order: The Wind in the Willows amiably eases the viewer into the film, but it is the climax of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that remains the film’s peak in terms of quality and engagement.
Following The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’s theatrical release, the studio re-used the two segments as separate short features for several decades. In 1955 Wind in the Willows was broadcast as part of the Disneyland television series alongside an edited version of the film The Reluctant Dragon. Later in the same year The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was broadcast on its own. Rather than be paired with another segment like The Wind in the Willows it was actually extended with a 14-minute animated prologue recounting the life of author Washington Irving. This prologue has never been re-broadcast or released to home video.
In 1963 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was released theatrically as a 33-minute short feature. In 1978 Walt Disney Pictures released a slightly edited version of The Wind in the Willows to cinemas as a cartoon short attached the new live-action comedy Hot Lead and Cold Feet. Part of the film’s introduction was removed, as were scenes of McBadger confronting the angry townsfolk and some shots of newspaper headlines displaying Toad’s disgrace. This edited version of the film was also retitled to The Madcap Adventures of Mr Toad.
Several of the key Mr Toad characters appeared in the 1983 short feature Mickey’s Christmas Carol, repurposed as Charles Dickens characters. Toad appeared briefly as Fezziwig, Scrooge’s old employer, while Rat and Mole cameoed as charity collectors. Other characters including McBadger and two weasels can be briefly seen during Fezziwig’s Christmas party. The weasel design was re-purposed for the 1988 animated comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where they formed the basis for Judge Doom’s notorious Toon Patrol. As for the Ichabod segment, the character of Brom Bones was the key inspiration for the similarly boorish Gaston in Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast.
It was not until 1991 that the complete The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad was released to home video; that was via a British VHS release. An American laserdisc followed the following year. A fully remastered blu-ray edition was released in 2014 in the USA and the UK, paired on the same disc with Fun and Fancy Free. To date the complete film has never received a home video release in several key international markets, including Australia.
The uneven quality of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad makes it a difficult film to fully recommend without qualifications. Certain parts are excellent, while others fall rather flat. It is a curate’s egg of a film, but ultimately one well worth viewing for any fan of American animation – and particularly Walt Disney’s animated features. It marks the end of an era; Disney’s next animated feature would be Cinderella in 1950. It broke the financial doldrums through which the studio had struggled, and launched a whole new generation of popular films including Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Lady and the Tramp.
[i] Milton Gray, “Interviews: James Bodrero”, Michael Barrier.com. (http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Bodrero/Bodrero_interview.html)
[ii] Milton Gray, “Interviews: James Bodrero”, Michael Barrier.com. (http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Bodrero/Bodrero_interview.html)
[iii] Don Peri, Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers and Artists. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011.
[iv] Don Peri, Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers and Artists. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011.
[v] Michael Barrier, “Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (1987)”, Michael Barrier.com. (http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/ThomasJohnston1987/ThomasJohnston1987.html)
[vi] Michael Barrier, “Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (1987)”, Michael Barrier.com. (http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/ThomasJohnston1987/ThomasJohnston1987.html)
[vii] Quoted in “The remarkable Mr Toad”, Life, 21 November 1949.
[viii] Quoted in “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad”, New York Times, 10 October 1949.