Podcast No. 0039: Into the woods with the Headless Horseman




This month on Dispodopolis, we discuss the 1949 Disney classic animated feature "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." In honor of Halloween, we are just covering the Washington Irving portion of the feature tonight. We tip our hat to one of the first American writers of one of the early American classics, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Tonight, we discuss the story of Washington Irving and a few reasons people believe he wrote this classic legend. We also talk about the production of the movie that stays relatively very close to the original story.


First, we start with a short bioptic about Washington Irving. Irving was born in 1783 and was named after George Washington. Naming your child after a founder or someone who lent a hand in developing our nation was very common during this era. When you come from a family of eleven kids, you tend to lean on the time's contemporaries for help. At the age of six, Irving did attend the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 in New York. In 1798, his family moved him to Tarrytown to escape the effects of the yellow fever outbreak. He fondly remembers his times in this region and returns to writing about this area along the Hudson River repeatedly. You can find many nods to the region within the town's literary descriptions, from the old Dutch church to Major Ander's Tree. He also references the Dutch family names of the area.


Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis

He went on to study law and passed the bar in 1806. Law wasn't his true calling, and he indulged himself in the arts by starting to publish his written works instead. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote the satirical work "History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrick Knickerbocker." This work went on to be a failure but changed the vernacular of the times and created a new terminology, knickerbocker. This term was used going forward to describe someone from New York. Knickerbockers are the pants that button right below the knee and were frequently worn by the Danish living in New York. You can still see baseball players wearing these pants today. It is the reason the basketball team is called the New York "Knicks."



Around this same time, Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, the daughter of a prominent local family. She died of consumption on April 26, 1809, at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged or married anyone after the tragedy. He lived a life as a bachelor, traveling the world.


A few years later, in 1815, he moved to England to help his brothers and their failing business. Unfortunately, his brother's company failed, but he had become immersed in the region's folklore and turned the fantastical stories into a new American Gothic style that influenced our culture. In 1820, Irving wrote a collection of 34 short stories titled "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." One of those short stories was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."


Irving's book is not the first time a headless horseman has been represented in print. There are traces of this story back to the Middle Ages, and you can see how it has filtered down to the Brothers Grimm. The closest connection it has to literature before it becomes famous in American literature is Sir Walter Scott's 1796 The Chase, a translation of the German poem The Wild Huntsman by Gottfried Bürger and likely based on Norse mythology. Irving took these imaginative stories embracing the unknown. He made it his own "an actual Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, around Halloween 1776."


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a contemporary of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" and Polidiri's "The Vampyre." Along with Irving's, these works would create supernatural beings that still fill our imagination with terror and influence movie producers for generations, including Walt Disney. These books are considered part of the gothic genre.


During the 1700s, The gothic genre was thought to have been influenced by the governments' upheavals in England and Germany. It is about the heightened application of wonder and terror and creating the suspension of disbelief. There is also a need to create an aesthetic environment that is an emotional one: a graveyard or a decrepit cemetery and a dark forest. You create the sublime, and terror perpetrates that. As depicted in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman is a supernatural entity, representing a past that never dies but always haunts the living. One is being chased by their fears or retribution for a crime they have committed.


Gothic is a phrase that references the German medieval era, where a lot of these stories initially took place. The gothic theme transcends Germany and is brought to upstate New York. It embodies the dark and romantic feelings of the early 1800s. Gothic was another term that Irving embraced and brought across the ocean to America that influenced the next generation of writers. Twenty years later, after "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" there would be a revival called the Victorian gothic. Leading this revival was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe embodied the soul of this movement. The death of love and the guilt of living. The gothic genre would see one more rebirth in Bram Stroker with his 1897 novel Dracula.


Washington Irving went on to write other traveling histories from 1822-1824. In 1826, Irving accepted an invitation from the US Minister to become the ambassador to Spain. He began to dive into Spain's national history by writing a book on Christopher Columbus, the Conquest of Granada, and the tales of Alhambra. His lively satirical take on narrative and storytelling make his works noteworthy.


Returning to England, Irving took up the position of secretary of the US legation and remained there until 1832. After this stint, he once again returned home and immediately headed to the Western front. He wanted to learn about the territories and the lives that people were digging out for themselves. Irving captured these stories in the written word focusing on the prairie life, John Jacob Astor's fur company, and Captain Bonneville.


Hudson River Valley
Sunnyside Estate of Washington Irving

Settling in the Hudson Valley, he purchased a two-room Dutch stone house. He significantly expanded the small homestead with Tudor-style chimneys, Dutch stepped gables, Gothic windows, and Spanish towers. All his international travels inspired and were drawn together in his forever home. But before he could rest, he was called back to Spain for his second term as ambassador in 1842.


Returning to New York in 1846, he officially retires to his estate, Sunnyside, and spends the rest of his life entertaining writers, artists, and politicians. He continues his writing up to his passing with historical and biographical works, including a five-volume of books that focuses on the life of George Washington. He passes on November 28, 1959, on his estate. He is known to this day as the original author of American literature and is informally considered the "Founding Father of Literature." He lives on in the story of Ichabod Crane.

The story of Ichabod is the second part of this feature film, following the Mr. Toad story or "The Wind in the Willows" short story by Kenneth Graham. Like many Disney productions, this production was distributed by RKO Radio Pictures and was the eleventh animated feature film released. It was following close to the direction that the studios were taking at the time by creating short story animated pieces and slicing them together in a cohesive manner. Coming out of the war, Disney Studio's top priority was saving money.


Bing Crosby

The tale is presented with a single narrator telling and singing through the story, and what better crooning voice to whisk you through this adventure than Bing Crosby. Bing Crosby was at the height of his career when he participated in this feature. He had been seen in the Hollywood classics "Holiday Inn" and "The Bells of St. Marys." He would go on to create unforgettable characters and music in "White Christmas" and "High Society." His presence is always sincerely represented in a scene, and there is a calming fatherly authoritative quality when he speaks. His chuckle eases the room and gives an air of understanding to the moment. Disney Legend Pinto Colvig, the voice of Pluto and Goofy, joins Bing Crosby by recording the unforgettable scream of Ichabod Crane, and Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, is heard as the voice of Ichabod's horse.


The beginning of the film is a visual representation of a storybook. We see this as the light surrounds the animation and illuminates the cinematic rich colors; they pop on the houses and the countryside. This effect gives the beginning of the film light; the airy feeling of frivolity and joy as a new school master or pedagogue comes to the town sharing his knowledge, civility, and artistic ability. We learn so much about Ichabod's personality with a few short phrases lifted from the original story and strung so beautifully together by the song crafting of Don Raye and Gene de Paul. Both of these men had worked for Disney in the past year on Walts' personal project, "So Dear to My Heart." They would return to pen the song "Twas Brillig" for "Alice in Wonderland."


Don Raye and Gene de Paul are probably best known for their collaboration with the Andrew Sisters during the second world war. Their music encompasses the hope and heart of the time with songs like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "In The Navy." Today, you can hear their music throughout the "Captain America" movie produced by the Walt Disney Corporation.


The film includes the best of the best at Walt Disney Studios. Ub Iwerks and his team created special effects and processes. Iwerks was a long time collaborator and friend of Walt Disney. The story was adapted to the screen by Edward Penner, who also worked on Pinocchio, The Reluctant Dragon and Make Mine Music, and Winston Hibler, who went on to write with Penner, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp. Their work encompassed the rebirth of the full-length animated feature at Disney in the 1950s.


Claude Coats, Mary Blair, Don da Gradi and John Hench created the styling of the film. You can see the coloring and style of Mary Blair being splashed across the town and buildings. The influence of her trip to South America radiates through this feature and follows her through the rest of her career. The animation was created by many members of Walt Disney's Nine Old Men. The list of Disney celebrities runs deep in this film, starting with the animation directors: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and the character animators: Marc Davis, Fred Moore, John Sibley, Hal Ambro, Harvey Toombs, Hal King, Hugh Fraser, and Don Lusk. With this fantastic talent, the movie garnished a Golden Glove Award for Best Cinematography Color.



The story opens in a library of a home, and we are introduced to our narrator Bing Crosby. He lavishes compliments upon Washington Irving and flows us into the story and illustrations with an introduction of Ichabod Crane. Crane is coming to a small Dutch village nestled in the hills of New York above the established town of Tarrytown. He is the new schoolmaster who will take charge of the town's young minds and is always looking for a handout. There is a realization that he is superstitious and cautious of those wise tales.


We are also introduced to Baum Bones, the local hero, and he reminds one of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is a charitable man supplying the locals and animals with beer. For those that don't know, Baum is short for Abraham. It was a common name used in the Dutch tradition. Soon a competition arises between the Ichabod Crane and Baum Bones.



Ichabod Crane isn't an altruistic character and is often looking out for himself, and this continues when we are introduced to the love interest, Katrina Van Tassel. She is a wealthy eligible bachelorette in town. Ichabod instantly is interested in obtaining her as well as her money and land. His competition, Baum Bones, is also in the running to capture her hand. There isn't any way to tell if Katrina is sincerely interested in either Ichabod or Baum or if Katrina is using Ichabod to frustrate and enrage Baum. She is a little coquet and pulls men along with her wiles.


As the situation progresses, the slap-stick artistic quality comes through. The harder Baum works at pulling Ichabod out of the race, the more injury falls upon Baum. It is a nice twist to see the mighty fall over and over again by their own hand. Baum has one more trick up his sleeve. Baum feeds on Ichabod's fear and belief in the spirits and ghosts. Right before the night of the Halloween feast is over, he tells a frightening tale of the Headless Horseman. Baum finalizes it by pressing how one must cross the covered bridge to escape the fate of falling victim to the Headless Horseman. The story has turned visually dark, and night has crept in to highlight the small light that remains.



As Ichabod heads home that night, his imagination gets the best of him. Shadows and lights remind one of the scenes of Snow White running through the forest. He hears his name being called by the crickets and hears the Headless Horseman name in the frogs croaking. Comforting himself, Ichabod tries to whistle his fears away. He scares himself and tumbles into the cemetery. While Ichabod thinks he is rushing through the glen, his horse has fallen asleep underneath him. The pussy willows have tricked him into thinking the Headless Horseman is chasing him. Just as he comes to his senses and his fears subside, who should appear but the Headless Horseman.



A chase follows, and Ichabod is outwitted and outmaneuvered by the Headless Horseman. The struggle is real, and it lends itself to much buffoonery. Round and round they go, up, down, and over the trails to the bridge. One minute Ichabod is headed towards the cover bridge, and the next, he is directed straight towards the Headless Horseman. Finally crossing the bridge, Ichabod makes his final mistake by stopping and looking back to see a flying flaming pumpkin-headed toward him. How will it end?



As the hazy, blurred morning appears, it is dropped in milky fall colors, and we see the remnants of a smashed pumpkin and the fallen hat of Ichabod. Ichabod is never to be seen again, or is he? We see Katrina wedding Baum in the church, and we are left with the hope that Ichabod found comfort in the home of a widow surrounded by his many kids.


The short feature stays true to the original story with only a few minor changes. The book focuses on the apparitions that haunt the town, and it seems to be a haven for lost souls. They also divulge the Headless Horseman's back story and how he is a Hessen that lost his head to a flying cannonball in the Revolutionary War. A Hessen was a German warrior for hire, and many people feared their terror and barbarous behavior. They were hired by the British to help squash the rebels in the colonies.


They also mention a rooster that compares to Chanticleer. Chanticleer is a rooster that appears in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and is known for his unequaled crowing. Chanticleer was once on the storyboards at the Walt Disney Studios. The ideas for Chanticleer were translated into the narrating rooster in Robin Hood. The rooster was played by folk singer Roger Miller, which fits well with being a minstrel rooster.


The short story also mentions Katrina's mother, who is not represented in the movie. They note her to be hardworking and always taking care of what needs to be done to run the household. It is presumed when reading the book that the family owns slaves. Having slaves was common in Dutch households and farms in New York during this time. The Dutch East Indies Company was one of the companies known for capturing, transportation, and selling slaves to America.


As mentioned in the podcast, I wanted to direct you to the short video produced by D23 that interviews Eric Goldberg. Eric is a long time animator at Disney Studios and has some fond memories of the movies and few insights to the animators involved in this production. He highlights the humor and the creativity of the individuals that worked on the film. Check it out at https://d23.com/d23-video/d23-creepy-classic-week-3/


Before we discuss the classic short film about Ichabod Crane, we discuss which head of a walk-around character at the Disney Parks we would like to have for the night. It can be a face character or a full mask worn by one of the cast members. We all pick from some of our favorite movies and ones we don't see much in the parks regularly or are only out for special occasions or parties.


We would love to hear from you and your family. If you have any comments, questions, or fun and fancy-free thoughts, email us at comments@dispodopolis.com. Please enjoy our latest podcast, Dispodopolis.



Images from hudsonvalley.org, d23.com, waltdisneystudios.com


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