The last animated feature released during Walt’s lifetime resulted in two unusual LP albums, one very elaborate and the other running only 14 minutes!
WALT DISNEY’S SWORD IN THE STONE
Narrated by Karl Swenson and Junius Matthews
Disneyland Records – Disneyrama Series ST-4001 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP with Pop-Up Book / Mono)
Released in 1963. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Tutti Camarata. Musical Direction: George Bruns. Running Time: 41 minutes.
WALT DISNEY PRESENTS
ALL THE SONGS FROM THE SWORD IN THE STONE
Narrated by Karl Swenson and Junius Matthews
Disneyland Records DQ-1236 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Released July 12. 1963; reissued in 1972. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Tutti Camarata. Musical Direction: George Bruns. Running Time: 14 minutes.
Voices: Karl Swenson (Merlin); Rickie Sorenson (Wart); Junius Matthews (Archimedes—story album only); Fred Darian (Minstrel); Ginny Tyler (Squirrel); Dal McKennon (Sir Ector–story album only); Sebastian Cabot (soundtrack clip in “The Legend of the Sword in the Stone”).
Songs: “The Legend of the Sword in the Stone,” “Higitus Figitus,” “That’s What Makes the World Go ‘Round,” “A Most Befuddling Thing,” “Blue Oak Tree” by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
The Sword in the Stone tends to get lost in the shuffle of the higher-profile Walt Disney animated features. At the time, some felt that it took a little too jaunty approach toward T.H. White’s novel, though there are wry, humorous touches in the book, like Sir Pellinore’s proud sharing of his collection of the “nice fewmets” from the questing beast.
The 1963 film is simple, direct and completely free of pretention. The characterizations are strong and the animation is done by many of the “great masters.” For those who never quite got used to the “scritchy lines” of the Xerox process, perhaps it doesn’t fit the medieval setting as well as the modern London one in Dalmatians, but then, Mary Poppins’ animation was also done in “scritchy” and (most of) the world was thrilled.
At least a decade or so of recent animated features owes a lot to The Sword in the Stone. The unsteady but determined underdog, training for a seemingly impossible but inevitable triumph has long passed the al dente stage in animated storytelling (to use a pasta cooking term). Few if any can claim the bright-eyed, crystal-skied tone of The Sword in the Stone.
Family audiences in the early sixties may have a lighter touch. Even then, letters poured into The Walt Disney Studios from parents who were concerned about frightening sequences in some of the Disney films (this is nothing new). Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, while they had moments of danger, were largely upbeat and very successful in their first runs. The studio was experiencing a bonanza with more recent live-action comedies.
This must have influenced the decision to take a more cheery approach. As the real life sixties became progressively more grim, it proved prudent.
The messages in The Sword in the Stone are self-confidence, education and accomplishment through effort. Wart gets to be king by a legendary means, but once he gets it, it doesn’t solve his problems. It only begins new challenges. The prize isn’t as important as the road to what he learned and what is ahead to discover.
The Sword in the Stone did respectably in ticket sales but did not produce the box office return of 101 Dalmatians—but then, how could this possible top a screen filled with cute puppies and Marc Davis and Betty Lou Gerson’s immortal Cruella? It wasn’t a merchandise cornucopia, either, which is an honest factor in any mainstream animated feature. Many remember the items fondly, such as the placemats available from Gulf gas stations, and the very impressive View-Master 3-D slide packet with stunning images created by Florence Thomas.
Disneyland Records made The Sword in the Stone the premiere property to kick off a spectacular new line of “Disneyrama” story LP packages. Each album contained a record with the story and songs with a four-scene, fold-out card-stock diorama with the story printed on each scene. Also in the series were Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes and Dumbo.
As of this writing, there has never been a soundtrack album of The Sword in the Stone. However, the studio re-creations are among the finest produced by Disneyland Records, featuring original cast members Karl Swenson, Ricky Sorenson (whose voice had begun to change), Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler and even a soundtrack snippet of Sebastian Cabot. A smaller but still full-sounding orchestra was assembled to provide some background music for the album, in addition to the songs.
Special mention goes to Disney Legend (and friend of Mouse Tracks) Ginny Tyler for the performance she created for the album. One of the first rules of great voice acting is to be an actor, rather than create a funny voice. When the voice is a vocal effect or an animal interpretation, it takes remarkable skill. The love-struck, chitter-chattering squirrel in the film version of The Sword in the Stone is still mentioned as a standout character today.
For the LP record version, Ginny was given an exclusive opportunity to showcase the little squirrel purely through voice alone. This occurs during the instrumental bridge midway between Merlin’s verses in the song, “A Most Befuddling Thing.” In those few seconds, Ginny imbues the delightful little personality with a variety of emotions, from vivacious and playful to and affectionate and vulnerable. It’s completely possible to listen to this but forget there is no picture.
The only quibble with the album is how abruptly “The Legend of the Sword in the Stone” closes the album. On the “songs-only” album version (DQ-1236), the ballad concludes at its proper end, on a magnificent high note. This should have been the way the story LP ended as well. Instead, the story version ends with the lower note from the first verse—the middle of the song. It would have been complete perfection to top the album off with the soaring chorus and that golden note. This is just a quibble, and maybe it was not possible for some production reason.
The singer of “The Ballad of the Sword in the Stone” on the record (and in the movie) is not The Hobbit’s Glenn Yarbrough, as your writer thought years ago. It is nightclub and recording vocalist Fred Darian, co-author of the hit novelty song, “Mr. Custer.” He also crooned romantic tunes as well as folk and country, sometimes under the names of Cal Rodgers and Rome Singleton. One of his records, “Magic Voodoo Moon,” is conducted by Bill Loose, a busy composer of library cue music composer used in early TV shows and early Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Our colleague Don Yowp has more about Loose here.
This is the first and only animated feature from Walt’s day in which every song was written by the Sherman Brothers. All six were also released on a Disneyland LP without a book. It’s one of the shortest albums in the Disneyland Records catalog, at just fourteen minutes. The 45 rpm EP with four songs is not much shorter.
When The Sword in the Stone was reissued to theaters for the first time in 1972, for some reason the story album was overlooked and only the song album was reissued. Perhaps the sales were better for the song album because the Disneyrama was more expensive, but quite often story albums were reissued as single discs.
Delightful as the songs are, they rarely popped up on compilations in the ensuing years. One exception is the Wizard’s duel excerpt, including the “Mad Madam Mim” song, that was lifted in its entirety for the 1966 Disneyland album All About Dragons, narrated by Thurl Ravenscroft. The album was explored in this Animation Spin.