March 4, 2018 posted by James Parten

Not So Reluctant

At first, Fantasia was merely a succes d’estime. The critics loved it. The public didn’t get the chance to see it in all its glory unless they lived in or near one of the Big Cities.

Once Fantasia had come and gone, the Music Department of the Walt Disney studios could get back to business–promoting songs which themselves promoted Disney films.

The next assignment for the Music Department was The Reluctant Dragon, based on Kenneth Grahame’s short story of some two generations before. Turns out that they were not as fortunate as they had been in the past.

The Reluctant Dragon was the centerpiece of the Disney feature of the same name–the first in a series of lower budgeted “package” features that the studio would produce during the 1940s. Unlike Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Fun and Fancy Free, Make Mine Music or Melody Time, this one had a considerable amount of black-and-white live-action footage, particularly a tour of the studio featuring well-known humorist/character actor Robert Benchley.

Audiences did not respond especially well–some appear to have thought that they were being gypped.

While nobody thought to build a song around “Baby Weems” or the Goofy short, “How To Ride A Horse”, there was a song built around “The Reluctant Dragon”.

Disney’s promotion people presumably prepared to present this package to all the record companies, hoping for “covers” of the song.

In the end, only Victor showed any interest–and gave it to a band that was not known for doing novelty songs.

Swing and Sway With Sammy Kaye usually played stylized “sweet” music. They featured a saxophone section with a vaguely Guy Lombardo sound, singing song titles, and announcements of the vocalist by the leader himself. “The Reluctant Dragon” does not lend itself to any of the above-named gimmicks, except for the saxophone section sound–so it doesn’t use them.

It also uses two vocalists who were not often heard on Sammy Kaye’s records. George Ginnell, a baritone who could do a “stage-British” accent, takes the expository verses, while Maurice “Maury” Cross steps out of the sax section to voice the Dragon himself.

The record is almost entirely vocal, so as to work three verses and three choruses in.

The song did get broadcast now and then. And it appeared twice on broadcasts of “Fibber McGee and Molly”, as sung by the King’s Men. Their arrangement is both busy and elaborate, even if they only sing two verses and two choruses. And they don’t go as far as Mrurice Cross does in their “reads” of the choruses.

And, yes–one has to bring this up. The hyper-sensitive are always looking for new windmills at which to tilt. And it’s a marvel they haven’t discovered this cartoon–and the song–for their umbrage. In the cartoon–and especially in Sammy Kaye’s Victor record–the Dragon is “read” in a flagrant “sissy” voice that suggests a fragrant “gay” stereotype.

Such stereotypes were accepted in 1941. Would they be accepted today? Or would the hyper-sensitive shake their bruised egos and demand that The Reluctant Dragon be put in the vault right next to Song of the South, never to be seen again?

Luckily that hasn’t happened. Both the cartoon, and the feature into which it was shoe-horned in 1941, have had modest lives on home video–first on VHS, then on DVD. The complete feature is currently available on blu-ray, a a bonus feature on the Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Fun and Fancy Free set. I highly recommend you seek it out!


  • I have THE RELUCTANT DRAGON on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set “Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios.”

    • It’s also available in high definition as a bonus on the Adventures of Ichabod & Mr Toad / Fun & Fancy Free Blu-Ray. The Technicolor is gorgeous.

  • Sadly the DVNR on the “Reluctant Dragon” portion of that blu-ray is far from gorgeous. Outlines disappearing everywhere. It’s one of the sloppier mastering jobs Disney has done on their blu-rays, and that’s really saying something.

  • The King’s Men recorded “The Reluctant Dragon,” too. It’s on Decca 3935.

    Richard Himber and His Orchestra recorded “Reluctant Dragon” on Decca 3895, with vocal by Harry Stanton and the Joseph Lilly Ensemble.

    The Tommy Tucker Time orchestra had “Reluctant Dragon” on Okeh 6290, with vocal by Don Brown and the Voices Four.

    • I knew this post was wrong and that Sammy Kaye’s wasn’t the only record of “The Reluctant Dragon,” because I have the Tommy Tucker Time 78 in my collection. Didn’t know about the Richard Himber and King’s Men records of it, though.

      Agree about the DVNR on the blu-ray of “Dragon.” It’s overdone and ruins the picture. I wish people would just keep DVNR as far away from anything animated as possible. It’s just not worth the risk.

    • And a quarter anniversary, the album that Greg Ehrbahr did an article here on , in 2016, came out with Thurl Ravenscroft dominating, including his own multiple character.voice of the song, lasting almost five minutes..very, haunting, uh, like a ghost and surreal to hear Thurl lapse into his trademark deep Tony the Tiger voice for the dragon on the chorus (Sammy Kaye’s version is divided in the very dsame way between vocalists only without the deep voice, but with the very same verses-only fully sung-Mr.Ravenscroft speaks the verses and sings, only making the chorus even more uniquely surreal.:))

  • The dragon may be a flaming stereotype, but the entire point of the story is that a non-traditional, non-normative {man, woman, knight, dragon} is still an honorable person worth trusting and befriending, even if—especially if—they are the victim of the majority’s prejudice.

    I’ve seen quite a few gay activists online referencing this movie fondly, not taking it down. It’s the textbook definition of “fair for its day.”

  • And Sammy’s Swing and Sway orchg. used the same FOUR, not THREE> Kay Kyser, who would do nicely, used the singing song titles/id’s of singers himself before Kaye did.:)

  • A cry of “Whoops!” (or sometimes “Whooo!”) seemed to be a frequent response to a “fruity” character in cartoons or films.

    Here, it’s a punchline for “Percy’s” dance beginning around 4:00:
    A few Iwerks shorts had strange dancing characters. Not rotoscoped, but weirdly different from the rest of the cartoons.

  • I actually have a cel of the dragon from this cartoon. It was badly cropped and shoved into a tiny frame and the paint is flaking a bit, but I placed it between two sheets of glass and painted a watercolor background resembling one from the film behind it. This was over 30 years ago, and I at least stopped further deterioration of this (what I assume is) extremely rare piece of Disney art from the period.

  • I rather prefer the song sung by Silky, the reluctant-type dragon director Jack Kinney put into one or two of his limited animation Popeye cartoons. Surely you remember it:
    As we’re gamboling o’er the lea
    So lithe and fancy-free
    Away we go, we go, we go
    Laughing and happy are we

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