This is part of an ongoing series exploring history and film throughout the ages by watching one movie per release year from 1941 to 2016. To see the other movies and times discussed so far, click here.
And now for something completely different. In order to shake things up, we decided to watch an animated movie and see how those looked back then. And this double feature was certainly a product of its times. Thanks to World War II, Disney was short on funds and men, so they made shorter films and stuck them together, this being the final anthology before returning to full-length films.
But what ELSE does it say about the 1940s?
The Wind in the Willows is about the manic Mr. Frog, a childish amphibian whose wild obsessions always lead to recklessness and destruction. His latest craze? A motorcar. But when Mr. Toad is accused of stealing one, he and his friends will have to find a way to prove his innocence.
In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the odd new schoolmaster Ichabod comes to town and wins the heart of everybody, but he just wants the heart of the lovely Katrina. The problem is that the burly Brom Bones wants her, too. But when Bones can’t outwit or outcharm Ichabod, Bones decides to frighten the schoolteacher away with the legend of the Headless Horseman. Ichabod’s ride home becomes a terrifying flight for his life when the Horseman really does show up, looking for a head to replace his own.
IS IT ANY GOOD?
Mr. Toad’s story is fine with some great moments, but mostly just okay and the ending kind of invalidated the experience. Ichabod’s tale is far more impressive with great wordplay, decent songs, and a cunning grasp of horror.
Is it just me or was children’s media more…gutsy back then? I’ve already done a post about changing censorship, but this movie proves my point perfectly. You would not find half of this movie in a children’s movie nowadays.
True, there’s plenty of fun stuff for the kids. Animal characters, songs, and some top-notch cartoon comedy. But there’s also plenty of material that made my wife and me jump with shock.
The Wind in the Willows is a bit more innocent, but there are some truly dramatic shots of looming figures, jerky camerawork, and hard shadows. While it’s harmless in my opinion, I’d be hard-pressed to find dramatic, intense shots in today’s animation.
However, when Mr. Toad sees a scout during a sneaking mission, what’s his answer? Pick up a shotgun and “pop him off.” Modern children’s media doesn’t even allow the notion of killing. You can defeat, destroy, eliminate, dispose of, and take over, but you cannot kill. Just ask the animated Deadpool (“We’re gonna k-word them!”)
Even more daring is a two-second shot during the final action sequence where the good guys swing by just in time to save their pal Mole from getting his head chopped off.
Let me say that again. HEAD CHOPPED OFF. I don’t mean a bad guy was swinging an ax willy-nilly; I mean the weasels are holding him down while the main villain swings at him executioner style. It’s only a two-second moment and of course Mole is rescued, but hot dang! Would you see a near-execution of a cute children’s character today?
And The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is even less child-friendly by today’s standards. Brom Bones serves his buddies alcohol, the main love interest is a shameless flirt who’s enormous chest is spilling out of her corset, and, of course, there’s the Headless Horseman.
According to IMDB.com, the Headless Horseman is STILL scaring kids today, and with good reason! He’s a horrifying concept with a bone-chilling laugh.
The creepiest part? He may have won. Ichabod’s fate is debated, so the last part of the movie is a reprise of the Horseman’s bouncy-yet-terrifying song, telling us that he may in fact still be out there, looking for a head.
And that song was originally recorded by Thurl Ravenscroft. Click here to hear that nightmare.
But is that a bad thing?
Perhaps a better description of older cartoons that they treated children more like adults. Take out the scary stuff and you have large words like “pedagogue,” double-crossing courtroom drama, and characters who can’t really be considered “good guys” (Mr. Toad is dangerously impulsive and Ichabod wants the girl for her cash).
There’s no pandering to children in these old movies. Are your kids scared? They’re supposed to be, it’s a scary scene! Are your kids confused? That’s part of growing up.
We can debate whether specific scenes are good or bad for our children, but I honestly think that we’ve become a little too scared of harming a hair on our little ones’ heads, and rather than growing them up, we keep them as children with mindless silliness.
Do you know why Ichabod’s ride home is so captivating? Because the filmmakers had a good grasp of horror. They knew the art.
See, Ichabod’s haunted ride home isn’t just scary, it’s clever. The use of imagery and misdirection, the way animal noises sound like danger cries, and Ichabod’s frightened state open the scene for interpretation. Is there really a Headless Horseman? Is Brom playing a trick? Has Ichabod just gone mad with fear? We don’t know. It’s up to the viewer.
That’s right. Children have to use their minds on this one.
Thankfully, even in the pandering age, Disney has been great at churning out movies that please adults as well as children.
And thus, we come to the end of the 1940s. Next week, we’ll start our venture into the space-obsessed, red-fearing, Bible-thumping, women-in-the-kitchen-being, drive-in-movie age of the 1950s.
Thank you for sticking with me thus far.
MAJOR EVENTS IN 1949 (source):
Jan 7–First photo of genes taken.
Jan 17–First US sitcom, The Goldbergs, airs.
May 11–Siam renames itself Thailand (or June 8. Mixed dates).
Jul 2–Transjordan renamed Jordan.
Jun 14–State of Vietnam forms.
Aug 29–USSR performs first nuclear test.
Oct 1–Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China.
Oct 15–Christian evangelist Billy Graham begins his ministry.
Oct 20–Eugenie Anderson is first woman diplomat for US.
Nov 25–“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” appears on music charts.
Dec 7–Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek flees to Taiwan.
OTHER FILMS RELEASED IN 1949 (source):
Samson and Delilah
Sands of Iwo Jima
The Blue Lagoon
All the King’s Men
On the Town
PREVIOUS: 1948–Oliver Twist
NEXT: 1950–All About Eve