Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The/Fun and Fancy Free (Blu-ray Review)11 Aug, 2014 By: Mike Clark
My buddy Leonard Maltin knows more about the erogenous zones of Dumbo’s mother than I can tell you about the historical intricacies of Disney animation, yet I know enough to realize that this one’s a welcomely ticklish twofer that I wasn’t even aware of being in the works. This is true despite the unevenness of Fun and Fancy Free, which is one of those live-action/animated hybrids the studio released while recharging postwar batteries between Song of the South and Cinderella (though this period also produced 1948’s So Dear to My Heart, which is one of the best movies in Disney history, any era.
Ichabod/Toad, however, is mighty solid — reversing the title’s order in the telling and getting into the Toad part first with Basil Rathbone’s tone-perfect narration. Adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, it chronicles the mess that Mr. Toad (voice of Astaire-Rogers regular Eric Blore) gets into when he spots the first motorcar he has ever seen and simply must have it. A trial ensues over whether he bought it or stole it, as friends already exasperated by Toad’s messy Bob McDonnell finances try to spring him from the pokey after a key witness changes his tune. This was among the most entertaining British trials to be found on screen until Charles Laughton had a ball chewing a scenery sandwich with gusto in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (itself just out on Blu-ray via the Kino Classics line).
In an almost singular non-Paramount outing for Bing Crosby in the 1941-55 period, the era’s loosest screen performer until Dean Martin got really going offers a narration as spot-on as Rathbone’s, though obviously from a different school. From the time he refers to Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane as “Old Icky” (which is almost at once), you know that the voiceover is going to sound as if Bing is trying to line up a birdie putt on the side. For some, the Headless Horseman stuff will be the highlight of a short subject that, a la Toad, runs about half-an-hour. But I like the courtship ritual and New England townie material involving an eligible young woman (dad’s rich) and a lunk-ish co-suitor who has more meat on his pinkie than Icky has on his entire body.
Despite the appearance of Jiminy Cricket (early) and Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy later, my favorite parts of Fancy Free are the live-action sequences that supposedly take place at a party for child actress of the day Luana Patten (a long way from Minnelli’s Home from the Hill, which was after significant time had marched on). I kept wondering what it must have been like being a little girl and having to undergo a studio-sanctioned perm and a blonde dye job for a role, though one could just as easily ask what it would be like having Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy sitting around in your den (I bet Candice knows). It’s not every movie where you can see Mortimer Snerd in three-strip Technicolor (someone was heavy on the rouge), but the best parts are Charlie’s putdowns of his benefactor. I remember one time when I was a kid, and my father noted that with Bergen, you could always see the lips moving. I conceded the point but added, “But you know, he’s funny when other ventriloquists aren’t” — at which point my father replied, “You know, you’re right.” It’s always nice to please dad.
An off-camera Dinah Shore introduces the first of Fancy Free’s two shorts (Bongo), which is a borderline drag — though it does have an intriguing bear-culture musical number that claims a female slaps a male to signify her love (there were times in my life history when, presumably, I should have been a bear). But things improve in the second half, which begins with a Mickey-Donald-Goofy take on impoverished hunger that’s not all that far from a three-strip Grapes of Wrath — and somehow evolves into Mickey and the Beanstalk, whose heavy, per the standard Jack version, is heavy. Uncle Walt recycled the shorts in this collection throughout his network TV years and presumably much later on the Disney Channel for those weeks when Annette was at the beach and he needed to “fill.” This isn’t a knock but just a curtsy to capable programming, though it’s good to see the original sources of the material. Plus, you get 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon as a throw-in bonus.