Suspended Animation #291
The earliest surviving film version of the story is a 1922 American silent movie called The Headless Horseman starring Will Rogers that supposedly offered some inspiration for the Disney version.
The first animated adaptation of the tale was a theatrical cartoon short created by Ub Iwerks and released to theaters in 1934 as part of his ComiColor series.
The Headless Horseman was a roughly eight minute cartoon released October 1st, 1934 and was directed by Iwerks with animation by Al Eugster, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick, Rudy Zamora and others. The musical score was by Carl Stalling who would later go on to be the musical director for Warner Brothers cartoons.
Except for the music and some sound effects, the cartoon is virtually a silent cartoon since there is no narration or dialog. The animation of the black silhouette of the Headless Horseman riding furiously on his steed is reused countless times during the story as is some other animation.
Work on an adaptation of the Washington Irving tale as a possible animated feature started at the Disney Studio in the early 1940s but was put on hold along with other features in development because of World War II.
After the war in late 1947, the studio was still financially struggling so Walt decided to pair the story with another adaptation being developed, The Wind in the Willows, as his final package feature. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released October 5th, 1949.
Other money and time saving efforts included recyling some animation from The Old Mill (1937) like the cattails thumping and the reeds swaying. The character of Katrina Van Tassel used the same model sheet for the character Grace Martin from The Martins and the Coys segment from Make Mine Music (1946). Even Ichabod’s horse, Gunpowder, seemed to resemble Cyril Proudbottom who was Mr. Toad’s horse companion.
To further increase the possibilities of financial success, Walt decided to have the stories told by celebrity narrators. Actor Basil Rathbone’s distinctive British voice would tell the tale of writer Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad and his misadventures while singer Bing Crosby would lighten up some of the frightening aspects of Ichabod’s story especially with some of his well-known, unscripted ad-libs like nicknaming the lead character “old Icky”.
Oliver Wallace was the musical director for the film. When he wrote the score, he recorded himself whistling to show Ichabod trying to keep his composure even as he became more and more scared as he rode through the woods at night.
For the dance sequence, Wallace composed a song that was never used entitled Whoop-Ta-Doodle-Dey (“Roll up the carpet, shine the floor and dance like you never danced before. Whoop Ta Doodle Dey!”).
At one point, voice artist Thurl Ravenscroft with his deep, frightening voice was going to sing The Headless Horseman song instead of Crosby. It was decided that it would make it more consistent to have Crosby do everything except the women’s voices. Ravenscroft did record the song which was much creepier than Crosby’s interpretation and Disney decades later released it on CD.
Bea Benaderet, who voiced Katrina Van Tassel and Tilda, is best known as the voice of Betty Rubble on Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones. She also played in several 1960s television series including The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction.
“The Headless Horseman” as well as the two other songs in the featurette was from composers Don Raye and Gene de Paul who also contributed songs to So Dear to My Heart and wrote the song “Beware the Jabberwock” for Alice in Wonderland that was not used.
To capture the authentic feeling of the Hudson Valley country, Walt Disney personally visited the region around Tarrytown. The film depicts accurate details of clothing, buildings and landscape. The church shown during the opening narration was drawn to look like the actual Old Dutch Church built in the late 1660s in the Sleepy Hollow area.
Ironically, the Disney animated featurette is considered one of the most faithful adaptations of the Irving story especially depicting Ichabod as a glutton and unsympathetic opportunist. However, that doesn’t mean that Disney didn’t add its own little embellishments to the story but essentially still stayed true to the “spirit” of the original.
For instance, Halloween is never mentioned in the original story but Disney set the Van Tassel party in October and made it a Halloween party with the various guests chiming in about the various ghastly things that happen on that special night before getting to the Headless Horseman.
While it is clear that Irving intended Ichabod’s encounter with the horseman to be another prank by Brom Bones, the Disney film implies that he became entangled with an actual phantom.
Ichabod looks down into the neck of the horseman and finds nothing there but blackness. The horseman is less robust than Bones and the horse looks a little different from the one Bones rode earlier in the film and does not have a saddle.
However, as animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote, “The dangers in the woods of Sleepy Hollow are actually all in Ichabod’s imagination, but the audience was nervous because they saw what he saw rather than what was really there.”
Animator Andreas Deja said that his work on the character of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, was influenced by Brom Bones Animator Frank Thomas used his own experience from horse riding where he felt either ignored or stymied by the horse for animating Ichabod riding the plowhorse.
Thomas told writer Jim Fanning, “When I was animating Ichabod, he had the same sort of trouble that I had had. I felt he didn’t know anything about horses. The horse didn’t care about him. He didn’t care that he was in Sleepy Hollow, or whether there were ghosts. But Ichabod had this terrible apprehension about going through Sleepy Hollow and he had to use this horse. He would have been better off without a horse.”
The Headless Horseman was primarily animated by Woolie Reitherman along with John Sibley. It was the evocative concept artwork of Mary Blair and John Hench that inspired the overall “look” of the film.
Many of the animal sounds were done by Clarence Nash, who was the original voice of Donald Duck, and Ichabod’s screams were done by Pinto Colvig, the original voice of Goofy. Billy Bletcher provided the laugh of the Headless Horseman. Bletcher had provided the voices for Pegleg Pete and the Big Bad Wolf.
When The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was first run on the weekly television show on October 26th, 1955, to fill out the hour, a new fourteen minute animated segment about the life of Washington Irving was included.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was released on its own to theaters as a 33-minute featurette in September 1963. This was the same edit presented on the Disneyland television series, minus the 14-minute prologue and the Walt Disney live-action host segments. This version was first released on VHS in 1982.
Time magazine wrote, “This lighthearted, fast-moving romp has inspired some of Disney’s most inventive draftsmanship and satire. The midnight chase through a clutching, echoing forest with the gangling, lily-livered schoolmaster in full flight before the Headless Horseman is a skillful blend of the hilarious and the horrible. It is Disney at his facile best.”