I feel as though no other package film has been so totally separated as this one. The segments even got separate release on home video, though we do own the DVD that’s got the whole thing as one movie. Possibly it’s because the segments are both long (the movie is a shade over an hour and only has two segments) and fairly distinct in a lot of ways. They don’t seem completely connected; they’re both supposed to be fascinating characters from their respective countries’ histories, but there’s not a lot there. But it seems interesting to me that the one with the richer past is the one that has left the less legacy on Disney’s future.
We start with the mellow tones of Basil Rathbone talking about celebrated figures from British literature and folklore, including one he was famous for playing (Sherlock Holmes) and two Disney would go on to make movies about (King Arthur and Robin Hood). But the most interesting of all, he says, is Mr. Toad (Eric Blore). He is a minor member of the British aristocracy and a spendthrift; his wild habits make his business manager, Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), despair. Badger enlists Mole (Colin Campbell) and Rat (Claud Allister) to help restrain Toad, who is gallivanting around the countryside in a Gypsy cart with the company of a horse named Cyril (J. Pat O’Malley). However, just as they start to get Toad to come home, he sees his first motorcar, and things are rather downhill from there.
After that, the mellifluous voice of Bing Crosby tells us the tale of America’s own Ichabod Crane (few of the characters speak with voices not Bing’s, but Pinto Colvig screams for him), the schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow, New York, who dreams of marrying the wealthy Katrina Van Tassel, only child of essentially the local squire. However, she’s also being courted by Brom Bones, handsome and bullying, and at the squire’s Halloween ball, Brom Bones tells the superstitious Ichabod the town’s local ghost story, that of the Headless Horseman.
It’s interesting to me that the story with the deeper history is the one that basically doesn’t come up for Disney. There is, at Walt Disney World, a Sleepy Hollow restaurant, the exterior of which is modeled on Washington Irving’s own New York estate, Sunnyside, which overlooks the Hudson River not far from New York City. However, there are no such reminders at Disneyland. The characters do not tend to put in appearances beyond clip shows.
Mr. Toad, conversely, is everywhere. I was as a child terrified by the segment of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride where you went to Hell, as I suspect most children are. Toad and the others also put in the odd cameo, when characters gather—Toad was Fezziwig, for one. Their homes are part of the Storybook Land Canal Ride—they were briefly removed but have since been replaced. You do not, on that right, go past Sleepy Hollow.
Yet The Wind in the Willows is the last published novel of author Kenneth Grahame before he stopped writing. It was 1908, the same year he retired from his full-time profession at the Bank of England. He never followed up on it, though other authors have expanded the world the book is set in, and I’m not sure how much impact the book had on English literature, though I did read it for school in I want to say seventh grade.
Conversely, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the work of Washington Irving in general is part of what cemented American literature as being considered worthy by the English; in his earliest publication, Irving was actually speculated not to be American at all but to be English. However, the work is heavily based in the landscape and folklore of rural New York. It’s set where Irving himself lived and died; he’s actually buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It’s not the area of literature I know best, but I think it likely that New Amsterdam has never had a better literary chronicler.
It’s worth noting, for example, that all of the locals have Dutch names, and only Crane—the outsider—has an English one. Apparently (I haven’t actually read it), that’s made even more explicit in the original short story, where the conflict between Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane has more to do with the fact that Ichabod is a newcomer than is really referenced in the cartoon. This is, after all, the part of New York that would give us the Roosevelts, who have been major landowners in New York since one of the first Roosevelts in America bought 50 acres that included what is now the site of the Empire State Building.
As for the Horseman, he can apparently be tied to the Battle of White Plains, which took place ten miles or so from what is now Sleepy Hollow. General William Heath, who was with the American forces there, wrote in his memoirs that he’d witnessed a Hessian soldier beheaded by a cannonball during the battle, and supposedly, the locals buried him in an unmarked grave. In fact, in the cemetery that would in time be renamed the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and also be Irving’s own final resting place, as well as that of such disparate people as Andrew Carnegie, Elizabeth Arden, and Leona Helmsley.
There is interesting speculation that Brom Bones is the hero of the piece, since he seems to truly love Katrina while Ichabod is more interested in her money. It’s certainly more believable than the fan theory that Gaston of Beauty and the Beast, who was designed to physically resemble him, is the hero—so he’s not imprisoning Belle, but that doesn’t make him a positive figure! Honestly, though, I feel as though Batman honours the character more by making the Scarecrow, a villain whose real name is Jonathan Crane.
I suppose the strangest thing to me about the “Sleepy Hollow”-shaped gap in Disney’s current mythos is that it’s the better made of the two shorts. It’s got one of the scariest songs in Disney history—one of those that was almost cut before release because of its scariness. Its visuals are chilling—the hands of cloud covering the Moon are one of the most lingering images in Disney animation. I’m not an enormous Bing Crosby fan, but the choice to have him do most of the voices works here. Yet those freakin’ weasels are everywhere and Katrina Van Tassel is not.