On the Trail of the Loathsome Lupine

Since we’re all so full of affection for Mother Russia right now —

No, what happened is, I sourced some Disney movies in a charity shop — the original FREAKY FRIDAY, and forties compendia THE THREE CABALLEROS, MELODY TIME and MAKE MINE MUSIC, and remembered that as a kid I had always wanted to see certain cartoons I saw pics of in various Disney-affliliated books and comics — the adventures of José Carioca, that tropical troubador who seemed to flourish, bright-feathered for a time, then vanish mysteriously like the Judge Crater of cel animation; and PETER AND THE WOLF, which looked like fun.

I have since then been able to feast my eyes upon the perky parrot’s perigrinations, but had never actually experienced PETER AND THE WOLF, an episode of MAKE MINE MUSIC, in its entirety. This was my opportunity.

MMM is like a (more) middlebrow FANTASIA, with acts such as Nelson Eddy, Dinah Shore and the Benny Goodman Quartet accompanying modestly amusing skits or stories or abstract imagery. Prokofiev’s Peter suite, having a narrator and a narrative, was a natural fit for the programme, except that watching it I could help sense that some liberties had been taken with the text.

Perusing a plot synopsis, I see that they’re not very efficient liberties. But all curiously redolent of the times (1946 release date).

It would I suppose be possible to de-Russianise this story, and Disney have gone some way in this direction by hiring Sterling Holloway to narrate (which he does wittily), crediting one “Serge Prokofiev”, and omitting any reference to Peter being a soviet pioneer. But the names and smocks remain recognizably Russian and a few of the loose-limbed extras in the final celebration have surely been hitting what can only have been vodka. The film appearing in ’46 means they were working on it in wartime and apparently Disney’s government contacts didn’t tell him cold war was scheduled to start as soon as the hot one was extinguished. So, the Russians, like cigar-smoking Brazilian parrots, are our friends.

Prokofiev’s Peter is in lockdown, enforced by his grandfather the bassoon, when he sees animal friends the cat and bird besieged in a tree by the wolf. Disney’s Peter is more proactive, like Poochy, and sneaks from the house to HUNT the wolf — but with a pop gun. This may be proactive but it is also stupid. The drawing style makes Peter a very American-looking kid, whose name ought to be Butch, with maybe Bobby Driscoll or Tommy Rettig playing him.

I have mixed emotions about the rewrite. Wherever I saw images or clips of P&TW (Disney Time or The Wonderful World of Disney must have shown excerpts at some point), it was the hunt that was shown, the characters in lock-step creepalong in the atmospheric wintry wood (I have only once walked in a snowy wood — I can highly recommend the experience). So this part of the film I loved, it lived up to childhood expectations, but the adult brain was undermining it, asking WTF is Peter going to do when he finds the walluff or it finds him? Cork it?

The duck is my favourite, although the cat is also tops. The animators had to create a duck character distinct from Donald, and they do it inventively, concentrating on the WALK rather than the bodily proportions. Sonya (odd name for a duck, somehow) uses his webbed feet practically as wheels, rotating them 360 with every step. He’s also a lurid chlorophyll green unknown to ornithology. The dark, metallic green of a mallard being too tricky for the paint & trace dept, or for most illustrators.

In both Sergei and Walt’s versions of the story, the duck is an apparent fatality, but with differences. Dinsey pull a mercy shot, revealing Sonya alive and uneaten at story’s end, but this is mistimed I think, undercutting Peter’s triumph and also making him seem a bit callous. But the original ending is way weirder: the duck, swallowed whole, can still be heard, a quacking oboe, in the wolf’s innards. That would have freaked me out.

The wolf in Prokofiev survives the tale: Peter’s intention all along was to catch him for the zoo. Despite his anthropomorphism, Disney seems unmoved by ecological concerns here and the wolf is hoisted into town, tongue lolling, alive or dead? Well, the Blitz Wolf had been an animators’ emblem for the spectre of Nazism all through the war, and what’s being portrayed here COULD be a tribute to the heroic Soviet war effort… (in reality, the brave Russian soldier was meat for the grinder, victory achieved by throwing an overwhelming number of bodies in the path of bullets, but they DID win the war…)

The inside-a-mouth shot: see also CITY OF PIRATES, JAWS III and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

What a weird piece. Both versions. As time marches one, Disney’s classics, once staples of western entertainment, feel more and more antique and peculiar in their attitudes, and therefore more and more appealing to me for their dark corners of unease and confusion…

14 Responses to “On the Trail of the Loathsome Lupine”

  1. It’s impossibeto imagie today b WorldWar II Russia and the U.S. were allies. All sorts of pro-Russian films came out of Hollywood like Jacques Tourneur’s “Days of Glory” which introduced us all to Gregory Peck, and “Armoured Attack” wich was scripted by illian Hellman. This was forgotten postwar whe “Communism” became our designated enemy and we were told by Roy Cohn that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg “gave the Russians the bomb” They didn’t The “Cold War” was quite soething.But now we’ve got a hot one in the Ukrain with Fifth Columnist Tucker Carlson leading the charge against us. Ah yes were living in what Gore Vidal called “The United States of Amnesia” Cue The Beatles

  2. As for werewolves —

  3. bensondonald Says:

    In post-Walt years, the animators on “Peter and the Wolf” cited it as a personal favorite but complained it shouldn’t have had any narration at all, implying it was added late in the game.

    Desperate for cash in the war and postwar years, Disney knocked out several “package films” — features comprised of musical shorts and, in a few cases, short versions of stories that were originally intended as full-length features but never quite jelled. All of them were cut up for scrap and re-released as theatrical shorts and/or laced into Disney’s weekly show, the feature versions not to reappear until the home video era. As a boomer kid, I was thoroughly familiar with nearly all the individual segments before I knew the features existed. In a way they are the essence of Disneyness.

    Jose Carioca was introduced in “Saludos Amigos”, the more modest predecessor to “Three Caballeros”. He had a long run in English-language comics, and a much longer run in Latin American editions (Disney licensed foreign publishers to produce new comic stories to supplement the American product). There’s a nice documentary, “Walt & El Grupo”, that explores Disney’s 1941 government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America, where he was welcomed as a superstar. He took a bunch of staff artists and brought back material that became the two movies, homefront good neighbor propaganda.

    Other package films out there on disc:
    — “Saludos Amigos”: Under an hour, centered on Donald Duck and new pal Jose Carioca with a segment of Goofy as a gaucho. Panchito the rooster doesn’t appear until “Caballeros”.
    — “The Reluctant Dragon”: Robert Benchley explores the Disney studio on a dramatized comic quest for Walt, ending with the titular animated tale. The happy happy vision of studio life came out during an ugly animators strike.
    — “Fun and Fancy Free”: Jiminy Cricket sings the title song and introduces the story of Bongo the circus bear and Mickey and the Beanstalk. Some very odd tones in both parts, perhaps residue of original feature-length treatments. For TV showings, Ludwig Von Drake replaced Edgar Bergen as narrator for “Beanstalk”.
    — “Icabod and Mr. Toad”: Bing Crosby narrates “The Headless Horseman” and Basil Rathbone narrates “Wind in the Willows” (Eric Blore voices Toad). Both achieved lasting fame as freestanding featurettes.

    On the American releases anyway, “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time” both had some nice bonus shorts. Check yours.

  4. Judy Dean Says:

    This story I was told. In 1945 my Dad, a Captain in the Royal Artillery, was newly arrived in India and awaiting a transfer (to Burma was his best guess), when the Japanese surrendered, an event that probably saved his life. By the time he got home in 1947 I was three years old and wondering who this stranger was who had suddenly entered our lives. My Mum suggested a trip to the cinema. So off he and I went together to see MAKE MINE MUSIC. A relationship was forged and a cineaste was born.

  5. Aw!

    I’m vague about which Disneys I saw on the big screen as a kid. I later went to rereleases of Lady and the Tramp, Pinocchio, The Jungle Book, in my more consciously cinephile teens, but had surely seen them all before. Snow White, too. But the clips were so inescapable it was possible to believe one had seen whole films and not just fragments…

  6. Judy Dean Says:

    Not long ago I bought the DVD of MAKE MINE MUSIC to see if it stirred any memories, but of course it didn’t. My recollections of early cinematic experiences revolve around Saturday morning pictures when I was about 8 or 9.

  7. As for Prokofiev —

  8. bensondonald Says:

    The Disney machine parlayed movies and shorts into television, comic books, newspaper strips, books, records, merchandise, and park attractions, back before it became standard operating procedure for every big property. There are several classics I did not see intact until my teens or even later, but at an early age I knew the stories, songs, and characters from their presence in other media.

    These days such marketing multiverses are plentiful, but for a tail-end boomer Disney stood alone as the all-purpose entertainment and distraction brand. It was the one you clung to as a kid, rebelled against as an adolescent, got intellectual about as a college student, and clung to again as an overwhelmed adult.

  9. My parents had to staple two pages of the Disney comic together because I was so scared of Cruella De Vil that I could even stand the chance of the pages falling accidentally open…

  10. bensondonald Says:

    Last visit to Disneyland — pre-“Cruella” — they had a performer costumed as old school Cruella De Vill, laughing raucously and cracking wise. Adults and kids lined up to be insulted by and photographed with her. True, she wasn’t as scary as the animated original (you probably remember that one close-up during the car chase), but still.

  11. Probably quite a good job to have, if you know how to keep things at the right level.

  12. “MMM is like a (more) middlebrow FANTASIA ”
    Stefan and Franciszka Themerson made a highbrow FANTASIA in their last film, THE EYE AND THE EAR – the music was songs by Karol Szymanowski, no less! I don’t know if they were working at the same time as Disney or were directly or indirectly inspired by FANTASIA.
    “Sonya (odd name for a duck, somehow) uses his webbed feet practically as wheels”
    Is Sonya specified as a male? Odd name for a duck, perhaps; even odder name for a drake.

  13. Yeah, it’s weird, my memory is that the duck is specified as male.

    I have The Eye and the Ear, must watch it!

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