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!