Monday, June 11, 2007

Walt Disney's Surprise Package: Happy Valley

In 1944, the Walt Disney Studios did something that would be quite unheard of in our current day and age. They assisted in producing a storybook collection that featured stories from animated projects that were at that time still in some state of concept development or production. In fact, two of the stories in Walt Disney’s Surprise Package, “Lady” and “Peter Pan and the Pirates” were derived from films that were not released until the mid-1950s. Can you imagine Pixar or Walt Disney Feature Animation giving consumers that kind of sneak preview in the current tight-lipped, secrecy enveloped culture of 21st century film production?

Published by Simon & Schuster and adapted by H. Marion Palmer (who was the first wife of Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss), Walt Disney’s Surprise Package is an interesting, albeit unintentional glimpse at early ideas and concepts for some of the studio’s notable post-war endeavors.

One of the stories I found most interesting was “Happy Valley,” which would ultimately become the Mickey and the Beanstalk sequence in the 1947 feature Fun and Fancy Free. In this early rendition, the story was slightly expanded from its final filmed incarnation, likely due to the fact that it was originally conceived as a full length feature. The setting of Happy Valley is expounded on more fully. It is ruled by the kind and generous Queen Minnie, who has not only a magic harp in her service, but a hen who lays golden eggs as well. Early in the story, the “magic” of Happy Valley is explained:

The reason for this truly remarkable state of affairs was simply this:

In the courtyard of the Queen's palace on top of the hill stood a harp. Like all other harps, it was a beautiful thing, glistening, glossy, and gilded. Yet this harp was different from every other harp in the world. This harp could play its own strings. This harp could sing. And the voice that it sang in was sweeter than any voice that had ever been heard before. All day it sang to the people as they went about their work. All night it sang to the corn and the wheat, and the fruit as it ripened on the trees.

Naturally, with such music in the air, every day was a won­derful day, and everyone had a very fine time. The bakers al­ways whistled as they rolled out their dough. The butchers hummed gay little ditties as they wrapped up the bacon. The farmers didn't trudge wearily along behind their ploughs; they waltzed. And when the royal horses drove the smiling Queen to town, they pranced before her carriage in a jaunty, horsy swing.

But the singing harp was not the only thing that made everyone so happy. There was some­thing else too. In the barnyard of the palace lived a hen who laid golden eggs. Whenever anyone wanted to buy something, but had no money in his purse, he just went to the Queen and asked for some gold.

"Go to the hen coop and help yourself," the Queen would always say. "Take an egg . . . any one . . . there are plenty in the nest."

For Mickey and the Beanstalk, Queen Minnie and her slightly bizarre golden egg-based economy were ultimately discarded. In the film, Mickey returns from town having traded the cow for the notorious magic beans. In “Happy Valley” the details of the trade are provided:

In another instant, Mickey was off on his errand. Leading Evangeline by a rope, he climbed up the steps to the palace. Sighs and sobs burst out from the windows of the throne room. It was the Queen crying over her empty bowl.

Mickey knocked at the big front door.

"Enter!" sniffled the Queen.

Mickey turned the door handle and walked in. Down the long royal carpet he marched, with Evangeline shuffling along right behind him. He stepped up before the Queen and bowed.

"Well?" She dabbed her eyes with a bit of thin, worn-out lace. "What can I do for my poor unhappy subject?"

Mickey looked up into her pale, tear-stained face. "I can't ask her to buy anything," he thought to himself. "She's as poor as we are." He stammered. "Your Majesty ... I want . . . I want ... I want to give you my cow."

"Your cow!" gasped the Queen. "Don't you need her?"

"Need her?" gulped Mickey. "Oh, no!" He forced a laugh. "My friends and I have lots and lots of cows!" He forced another laugh and tied Evangeline to a statue beside the throne. "Good-bye. ... I guess I'll have to be going now." He backed away toward the door.

"Wait a minute!" commanded the Queen. She went to a shelf, took down a little green box, and handed it to Mickey. "In return for your kindness to me, here's a present for you."

Mickey took the box and lifted up the lid. His heart sank. "Beans!" He bit his lip, and tried to smile politely.

"Yes . . . beans! But not ordinary beans . . . magic beans!" said the Queen. "They were given to me by my father the King. 'If you plant them,' he said, 'in the light of the first full moon, something will come to pass.' "

Mickey stared forlornly at the scrawny, thin little beans. "What will come to pass?"

"I don't know," answered the Queen. "That all depends on the moon."

Mickey thanked her. He backed away and hurried home. He felt worried. How would he explain what he'd done with the cow? Donald and Goofy were expecting him to bring back a big supper.

The emergence of the beanstalk and Mickey, Donald and Goofy’s subsequent confrontation with Willie the Giant remain fairly consistent from book to film. But the penultimate climax between the trio and Willie is substantially different in the concept story. In the movie, as in most variations of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk tale, the hero chops down the beanstalk and sends the villain plummeting to his doom. This Surprise Package version has a decidedly much odder sequence of events:

"Now, watch out!" yelled the bunny. "Willie can change himself into anything! He knows the magic wordies. Fedy fidy fody fumdum!" Another explosion rocked the room.

"Look!" gasped Mickey, "he's a giant again! Look . . . look ... a super giant . . . growing bigger every second!"

Mickey, Donald, Goofy, the harp, and the hen, too, shuddered and gaped. Willie was now so colossal his hair was brushing down plaster from the ceiling. "Fedy fidy fody fumdum!" Another explosion! Now Willie was growing smaller . . . shriveling down as fast as a punc­tured balloon! "Fedy fidy fody—oh ... oh!" He moaned. "That last word . . . what is it? . . . Oh, oh, oh!" He wailed.

"He's forgotten the magic word! Now's our chance to get out!" whispered Mickey. "Donald, you give me a hand with the harp. Goofy, you carry the hen."

Willie's moans now burst into yowls. "Oh . . . oh! I've forgotten the magic wordie! Now I can't change myself into anything!"

The three dumbfounded friends peered over the edge of the table. There was Willie down underneath, among the crumbs! ... a puny little man, not half as tall as Mickey!

The gang bunks out in their still beanstalk-perched house and overnight, the beanstalk magically diminishes, returning all concerned back to Happy Valley. And Willie’s fate? Here are the final two paragraphs from the story:

Great was the rejoicing in Happy Valley when the people saw the harp and hen once more. The harp sang such a merry song as they carried her back to the Queen that all the crops for that year and the next year, too, burst up through the ground and began to sprout. The hen made a personal visit to every single home and laid a bright golden egg upon the doormat.

Willie asked the Queen's pardon for the un­pleasant giant that he had been. The Queen granted the pardon because of the pleasant midget he had become. She hired him to serve her as a footman. And every day from that day on, a midget-giant in a scarlet suit with big brass buttons pranced beside the royal horses when the Queen drove down to town.

That’s quite a difference from the events that transpire in Fun and Fancy Free. Upon seemingly falling to his doom in the cartoon sequence, Willie returns to pry the roof off narrator Edger Bergen’s house and inquire as to whereabouts of a certain mouse. He then wanders off through Hollywood, where at one point he lifts up the California crazy architecture of the famous Brown Derby restaurant and fits it to his head.

Three years separated the publication of “Happy Valley” from the release of Fun and Fancy Free. It appears that Minnie and the hen were they only major casualties of the development process. And clearly the film benefited from the ejection of the weird anti-climactic Willie metamorphosis in favor of the more traditional Jack and the Beanstalk ending.

Sixty-plus years ago, Walt Disney’s Surprise Package served only as storybook collection targeted expressly for young readers. Today, it provides a window for Disney historians and enthusiasts into the Burbank studio of the 1940s and the ability to pay some small witness to their now famed creative process.

Stay tuned for future posts that will feature additional content from Walt Disney’s Surprise Package.


Anonymous said...

Great article Jeff. Thank you. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

Unknown said...

What a great find! Where did you stumble across it?

Now I am going to be singing the giant's song ALL day!

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

I had that book as a kid! Since I was born in the 1960s, it was probably a hand-me-down from my parents. I remember being frightened of a rather sinister looking floating Cheshire cat grin in the Alice in Wonderland part.
The weirdest story I remember was one called "The Square World" where everyone came in different (balls, blobs, etc) until a cube called "Highty Mighty Tighty" (or something similar) became dictator and demanded that everyone else become cubic too. Non cubes were thrown into a machine that pressed them into shape!

Anonymous said...

I had that book too, back in the 1950's. I finally identified it via ABA Books

Anonymous said...

I remember that book from when I was very little. It had originally been my aunt's, and it went back to her when she had her own children. Years later, I found it on a shelf in my little cousin's room, and re-read it.

This time, I was old enough, and knew enough of world history, to instantly recognize that "The Square World" was a biting satire on the forced conformity of the Nazi regime. And I was amazed that it should be in a children's book. Even the square head of the Square World's tyrannical leader was a reference to the derogatory "squareheads" name for Germans at that time---a reference to the flat, squared-off appearance that the popular brush-cuts gave to their heads.

It's amazing how much you miss when you're a little kid!

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of that book, but as a kid I remember reading an expanded version of The Square World in a tall narrow book. That is the one I am looking for, if anyone remembers it or knows the title of the book.

Fondly, I said...

I just found a copy at a local antique shop. It was in pretty used shape, but the story's and illustrations were too great to pass up.
Thanks for the History. I'll treasure it even more now. ^-^