Monday, May 09, 2011

Forgotten Dreams: The Woodcutter's House

The Woodcutter's House, written by Robert Nathan and first published in 1927, represents a rather enigmatic chapter in the history of unrealized films at the Walt Disney Studios.  References to the project span a period of close to fifteen years, yet it remains almost completely undocumented in Disney history texts.

Robert Nathan was a generally well regarded writer of his era.  His career encompassed five decades, beginning in the 1920s.  He produced material that included novels, poetry, screenplays, non-fiction and children's literature.  His most famous works are likely two novels that were adapted into successful films, The Bishop's Wife and Portrait of Jennie.

The Woodcutter's House is a sequel of sorts to The Fiddler in Barley, both of which are among Nathan's earliest of books.  The Woodcutter's House is not the easiest of novels to categorize and define.  It stands as a bittersweet, yet low key romance, overlaid with an ecological morality tale.  Included in the mix are whimsical, fantasy elements and some not-so-subtle sexual allegory.  Nathan tells the story of Metabel, a plain young girl who, after the death of her father, leaves her home in the small village of Barley and is drawn to a distant mountain known a Hemlock.  There she comes upon a small cottage that is the residence of a simple woodcutter named Joseph and his Uncle Henry, a lettuce farmer.  Needing to fill the void caused by her father's death, Metabel moves in with the two men and assumes the roles of their cook and housekeeper.

Robert Nathan
Joseph, a quiet, sensitive naturalist, is pressured to be more ambitious by his uncle, and also by St. John Deakan and his daughter Prissy, the owners of a sawmill who live in the nearby town of Wayne.  Prissy has designs on Joseph, much to the dismay of Metabel who has fallen in love with the young woodcutter.  Prissy wants Joseph to put a road over Hemlock and exploit the mountain's abundance of ash wood, which Joseph stubbornly refuses to harvest, instead pursuing a less ambitious but more forest-friendly plan of moderation and sustainability.  The whimsy that Nathan weaves into the story involves a number of animals playing out their own melodramas, and the little green man, self-identified as "the god of good humor," an apparent guardian of the forest.

Such whimsy on the part of Nathan is often accompanied by a sharp metaphorical edge.  Early in the book, when Metabel and her dog Musket are walking toward Hemlock, a complaining Musket is engaged by a happier May-bug:
Musket walked along without enthusiasm; his mind was prey to forebodings, and he gazed at the ground with a gloomy expression.  He did not expect any good to come of this excursion; at the very least it was a long walk back. "A hill is never anything when you get to it," he said; "all you see is other hills, which look grander than the one you are on.  What I say is, if you wish to look up at a hill, then stay down in the valley where you can see it."

He addressed these remarks to a young May-bug.  But the May-bug did not agree with him.

"You are old," she said; "that is the trouble.  You sound very wise, but the truth of the matter is you do not feel anything.  Any one can be a philosopher, in that case.  It is quite another matter with me.  An emotion I cannot control fills me with the liveliest joy.  Hope lifts my wings.  Perhaps to-morrow I shall be a mother.  What an exciting life."

And she flew away into a spider's web.  "Even if I am not to be a mother," she murmured, as the spider began to eat her; "I am entirely too young to be a philosopher."
Such themes carried a burden of sophistication uncommon to Disney films of that era.  The animals may have been talking, but the matters they were discussing were distinctly adult and often somewhat risque.  An aging Musket is frequently frustrated by a lack of virility and the suspected unfaithfulness of Susan, a female dog that he is pursuing.  A small mouse asks for advice in regard to his more sexually experienced fiance.  

Later in the novel, the little green man attempts to explain the politics of Heaven to Metabel:
"The gods are always fighting.  I alone have no such desire; and that is what makes me unique.  I do not even urge my rabbits to attack Uncle Henry's lettuces.  What is the good of quarreling?  But the gods do not feel amiably inclined toward those who will not fight with them.  Accustomed to augments and battles to prove that the other gods do not exist, they cannot bear a mind in which there is neither envy nor disapproval.  Like you, I have almost no friends in Heaven, because I do not wish to fight about anything."

"While their mortal admirers slaughter each other upon the earth, Heaven resounds with divine slaps and blows.  The god of the Jews has had his nose pulled many times.  But he is tough; almost as tough as I am.  I respect him for his obstinacy.  I would like to be friends with him, but he will not have it.  'There is no good humor,' he assures me proudly, 'among the Jews.'  And he covers his beard with his hands, to keep an enraged Baptist saint from pulling it out."
Clearly, this was not exactly the type of philosophical content that Disney was willing to present in his films at that time.  

It is difficult at best to determine what attracted Walt Disney to The Woodcutter's House, though certainly the fantasy elements were likely a major component of his interest.  As early as 1946, newspaper accounts mention Disney developing the novel for a feature film.  In his autobiography, screenwriter Maurice Raph said that Walt had purchased The Woodcutter's House specifically for him to adapt.  Raph worked for Disney for two-and-a-half years following World War II, which would align closely with the aforementioned 1946 newspaper report.  Raph claimed that Disney's interest in the Nathan novel reflected a then progressive pro-environment attitude.  "He believed in supporting the balance of nature," Raph observed.

It seems that Walt always envisioned the material as a combination of live-action and animation similar to Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart.  In July of 1950, long after Raph broke ties with the studio, another newspaper article reported that Disney, "has taken Robert Nathan's novel, The Woodcutter's House and will make it even more of a fantasy for the movies."  The article noted that, "There will be but one cartoon character, the god of god humor, who presides over the real animals in the forest."  Later that same year, the New York Times indicated that Disney was in discussions with actor Danny Kaye for The Woodcutter's House.  Reporter A. J. Weiler observed that a screenplay had been completed by Larry Watkin and added that, "It has been on and off the Disney shelf for several years and its sole definite aspect is that Disney sees it as a combined live-action and animated feature."  Watkin had at that time just completed the screenplay for Treasure Island and would go on to script numerous Disney live-action films throughout the 1950s, including The Story of Robin Hood, The Light in the Forest and Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Danny Kaye and Joe Besser

It was shortly thereafter that The Woodcutter's House faded from Disney Studio history.  The only remaining footnote to the story is found interestingly enough, in a number of resources relating to the Three Stooges.  These sources report that in July of 1959, Stooge Joe Besser filmed fifteen minutes of test footage as the little green man for The Woodcutter's House.  Call sheets are the only evidence of the Besser screen test.  While the footage may still possibly exist, no storage records for it have be found within the Disney archives.

Though we are without the details of the project's ultimate demise, it is clear that The Woodcutter's House proved an insurmountable challenge for Walt Disney and his studio.  Though wrapped in whimsical underpinnings, Nathan's novel is in fact a mature and rather adult story that would have required substantial changes to become a more family-friendly presentation.


Brian Sibley said...

Fascinating story! Thank you.