This movie is 71 years old and still holds up.
The film is two different stories with two different narrators. The first, “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, is narrated by Basil Rathbone, the British actor most famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. The second, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, is narrated by Bing Crosby.
“The Wind in the Willows” follows, loosely, the same plot as the book. J. Thaddeus Toad (Eric Blore) is a wealthy landowner who tends to get caught up in fads and act recklessly to the point that he is constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. His friends are Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), who looks over his finances, Ratty (Claude Allister), a river rat, and Moley (Colin Campbell), a meek mole. It turns out that Toad has been obsessed with traveling carts and has been destroying much of the countryside with his horse, Cyril (J. Pat O’Malley). The pair eventually get wrecked by a motor car, leading toad to become obsessed with automobiles. To stop Toad from spending more money or being more reckless, Ratty and Moley lock him inside Toad Hall, his mansion, but Toad escapes and supposedly steals a car. At the trial, Cyril testifies that Toad had traded Toad Hall to a gang of weasels for the car and that Mr. Winky (Ollie Wallace), a barman, had witnessed it. However, Winky testifies against Toad, convicting him. Toad escapes from jail and, together with his three friends, steals the deed to Toad Hall back from Winky, who is revealed to have lied in order to keep the house.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” similarly, follows the story pretty well, but with some adaptational changes. Ichabod Crane (Bing Crosby) is the new school master of Sleepy Hollow, New York. He mostly gets along well with the townspeople, despite him secretly being a manipulative and opportunistic glutton. However, he falls in love with Katrina van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy Baltus van Tassel, and draws the ire of Katrina’s sweetheart Brom Bones. While Brom is strong and aggressive, Ichabod is smart and quick, often avoiding the bigger man’s attempts to deter him. The two attend a Halloween party and Ichabod attempts to woo Katrina with his dancing and sophistication, but Brom concocts a plan. He tells a vivid story of the Headless Horseman, a ghost who rides through the Hollow to take heads, terrifying Ichabod. On the way home, Ichabod is chased by the Headless Horseman and never seen again. Brom and Katrina marry soon after.
When I think about my favorite Disney movies, I somehow always overlook this film, but it really is an underrated work of the studio. Disney originally was going to just do an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, but due to WWII and some financial trouble, Walt Disney himself ended up shelving it, thinking it wasn’t good enough to make money. Eventually, a new team took on the project and it was scaled back to half of a movie and paired with the Legend of Sleepy Hollow to make a feature-length film. Despite the fact that the two films have completely different genres, styles, and themes, or perhaps because of that disparity, each of them stands out brighter than they would have alone.
Wind in the Willows is animated in the traditional Disney style like Bambi, Dumbo, or The Jungle Book. It’s pretty light in tone, although the scenes of Toad being imprisoned and escaping are darker than I remember. Still, Toad’s enthusiasm during the chase and his unwillingness to be too scared of the police while fleeing from them does keep it fairly upbeat. The scene of them attacking the weasels and Winky at Toad Hall might be one of the Disney sequences that put the characters in the most immediate mortal peril, but it’s done in such a slapstick fashion that you hardly think about it. The short is entertaining and contains both one of my favorite songs from any Disney film (below) and also my favorite lawyer joke perhaps ever. During Cyril’s testimony, the prosecutor is cross-examining him and the following exchange happens:
Prosecutor: … Then how did he get the motorcar?
Cyril: The only way a gentleman gets anything: The honest way.
Prosecutor: And what is the honest way?
Cyril: Ha-ha, I thought you wouldn’t know that one, guvnor.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, is done mostly in watercolors and resembles a painting of rural New England from the time period. While the characters are still animated in the Disney style with cartoonish exaggerations of the features, particularly on Ichabod. While it’s dark in tone, it still starts off pretty light. The only voice, aside from the chorus, is Bing Crosby, which showcases his charming voice and naturally amiable narration. However, that really only sets you up for his total absence from the last act, when all you have is the haunting sounds, scary music, and the headless horseman delivering a chilling laugh. The second story does also include more subtle elements than the first. Like the fact that Katrina is using Ichabod just to make Brom jealous, or that Brom Bones’s horse is almost certainly the horse that the Headless Horseman is riding. It implies that, perhaps, the entire ending was just a man trying to get rid of a rival.
Overall, just a great film. Give it a try.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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