Suspended Animation #350
In the 1930s, Walt Disney was interested in two French properties, Reynard the Fox and Chanticleer but both presented story challenges because of generally unsympathetic main characters.
Chanticleer was a 1910 play by Edmond Rostand who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac and Walt initially liked the idea of doing a big barnyard comedy with a cast of pretentious roosters and chickens in fancy feathers with lots of sight gags perhaps as a reminder of his Silly Symphonies series.
Reynard is a group of French, Dutch and German fables, novels and poems by multiple authors (the most well known version is by Goethe) collected around the eleventh century. They were used as moral tales for children and parodies of medieval literature as well as biting political satire for adults.
Reynard was put into development as a possible animated feature film as early as 1937. Another appealing aspect for Walt was that the Reynard stories were in public domain so he would not have to pay any royalties.
Walt assigned his story people Dorothy Blank (who had worked on Snow White) and Al Perkins to come up with a treatment that adhered closely to the original story.
After deceptions, disguises, and last minute escapes, Reynard is eventually captured and brought to the King who sentences him to be hanged for his many crimes.
At the end, on the gallows, Reynard confesses that his father once tried to overthrow the King….with the help of the Wolf. The Wolf is imprisoned and Reynard spins a tale of his father’s vast wealth hidden in a volcano.
When the King and his subjects go to the volcano, it explodes and many are killed but the King escapes. The King frees the Wolf who challenges Reynard to a duel that the fox wins through trickery and demands a royal ball be thrown in his honor. As everyone is celebrating, he steals the royal treasury.
When captured, he begs not to be banished to the volcano very much like B’rer Rabbit pleading not to be thrown in the briar patch. Once he is exiled to the volcano, Reynard looks down on the village with a sly smile and digs up all the treasure.
In a meeting at the Disney Studio on February 12, 1938 that included story people like Bill Cottrell, Ben Sharpsteen and Otto Englander, Walt raised some concerns.
“I see some swell possibilities in Reynard but is it smart to make it?” asked Walt. “Our main character is a crook, and there’s nothing about him having a ‘Robin Hood’ angle. We have such a terrific kid audience…parents and kids together. That’s the trouble. It’s too sophisticated. He’s not to be a murderer under any circumstances. He shouldn’t take advantage of anybody but a stupid individual.”
In one early treatment, Reynard steals all the King’s rings by kissing his hand, a gag that would be later done in Robin Hood (1973).
Walt said, “The Hays Office is down on glorifying crooks because of churches and so on. They have a terrific influence. Even Cock Robin (the 1935 Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin?) ran into things all over. We got letters from all over. A lot of people don’t think that’s the right kind of thing we should do….trying to be too smart.”
In May 1941, Walt purchased the rights to Rostand’s Chanticleer for $5,000 and assigned story people Ted Sears and Al Perkins to develop a treatment.
In 1945, writer Clifton Johnson tackled a treatment of Reynard where Reynard causes the Cat to lose an eye, eats the Hare and tricks the Ram into taking the Hare’s head back to the King in a bag under the assumption that it is the treasure. Through his trickery, Reynard ends up High Chancellor to the King.
In 1947, three different treatments were prepared. By then, the Disney Studio Library had amassed a large collection of different versions of the story. Walt himself checked out a copy of Rogue Reynard by Andre Norton.
The first treatment is dated January 28th, 1947. It was hoped to get French actor Charles Boyer as the narrator or someone similar in tone. The King is now a comedic figure, constantly combing his mane while admiring himself in a hand mirror.
Now the story revolves around the Wolf, Bear and Cat in some sort of conspiracy plot against the King, primarily an attempt to steal the King’s treasure. The Wolf tells the King of the many complaints against Reynard and the King sends the Bear who is depicted as slow-witted and a bit of a bumbler just like B’rer Bear.
Reynard is not depicted as a scoundrel but as a “free spirit” who enjoys having fun at other people’s expense. He easily tricks the Bear into getting stung searching for honey. Then the fox disguises himself as a woman and flirts with the bear only to sneak out of a bear hug and reappear as himself shouting the accusation, “My wife!” and pummels the Bear with a club in a scene that is actually more amusing than violent.
The Wolf tells the King that only the royal lion himself is smart enough to capture the fox. In actuality, the Wolf and his compatriots plan to kill the King and blame it on Reynard. Flattered, the King accepts the challenge and disguises himself. However, when he arrives at Reynard’s, he is indeed attacked by the three villains but is rescued by Reynard.
However, because of the confusion, Reynard is falsely accused of leading the attack. On the gallows, he is able to clear himself of all charges and prove the guilt of the three villains.
The next two 1947 versions are from animator Norm Ferguson, famous for his work on the character of Pluto among other accomplishments. It is apparent that Ferguson did not use any of the original source material or the books in the studio library but based his version on the first 1947 version where the Wolf, Bear and Cat are in league against the King.
In his first treatment, Ferguson focuses on a series of mysterious crimes that have taken place and an initialed handkerchief with an “R” on it always left at each scene. Of course, the assumption is that it is Reynard who fails to show up for his court appearance and is defended by his friend, a badger.
Paralleling this action is another court in session with small animals in a large cavern. This court is addressed by Reynard who tells his subjects that he is aware of the crimes and vows to uncover the real perpetrator. A song, It’s Reynard, is sung by his subjects.
The story is filled with accusations, disguises, Reynard always barely escaping capture and finally him using the promise of treasure to reveal the true conspirators.
Reynard applauds after the Wolf’s presentation and adjusting the noose around his neck like a tie, proceeds to tell the real truth behind all the accusations, including how the Wolf, Bear, Cat, Ram and Hare failed to bring back the treasure. He reveals the conspiracy between these animals.
Reynard is so convincing that the King and the crowd decide to free Reynard and hang the other animals. Ferguson depicts Reynard as an “English gentleman” and includes a song We’re Hanging Reynard Today.
In fact, animator Frank Thomas told writer and historian John Cawley that three films were under serious consideration for the next animated feature: Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Reynard. Cinderella was chosen with Alice a close second.
Next Week: The Ken Anderson and Marc Davis 1960 musical version and Reynard in Treasure Island (1950).