When you’re a Disney story teller you know there will be good days and those days that are not so good. Creating an effective storyline for a Disney feature length animated cartoon can be a daunting task. Especially if your story director happens to be the Old Maestro himself. Walt was a natural story editor with excellent instincts when it came to crafting a compelling film sequence. He seemed to know when the story was working and would resonate with audiences. However, should you fail to deliver the goods, or worse, lapse into poor taste, you were probably in trouble.
This was another of our many meeting with Walt Disney on “The Jungle Book” back in 1966. The Old Maestro shifted uncomfortably in his chair and tapped his finger impatiently. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with Walt Disney you clearly knew this wasn’t a good sign. The story boards looked good and the new character offered all kinds of possibilities for humor. Plus, the storymen were giving the pitch their best. The trouble was - it simply wasn’t working.
This was nothing all that unusual. Sometimes, Walt Disney required convincing when something failed to please him. Director, Woolie Reitherman had one last card to play. He told Walt that Directing Animator, Milt Kahl was eager to begin animating the comical character. Once the master animator brought the cartoon to life it was sure to be hilarious. Disney reluctantly gave in, and he allowed the storyboards to move to the next phase. This meant the rough story sketches would be assembled into what was then called a “Leica” or story reel. Once that was done, the Old Maestro would take another look.
A few weeks passed and the Old Maestro was available for another meeting. However, this meeting would take place in 3-11, the large screening room on the third floor of the Animation Building. A loud cough announced Walt’s arrival as he entered the room. The boss took a seat up front with director, Woolie Reitherman, Larry Clemmons and a few other big shots. I made it a point to sit in the rear of the screening room and a good distance from Walt. On this day in particular, I preferred not to be seen.
You probably don’t know “The Jungle Book” sequence I’m speaking of because you’ve never seen it. Actually, few people have seen the “Rocky” sequence unless you were part of “The Jungle Book’s” story team. Rocky the Rhino was voiced by comedian, Frankie Fontaine who was well known for his television appearances as, “Crazy Guggenheim, a rather dim-witted bartender on the Jackie Gleason Show. However, what worked on national television was not ringing any bells with the boss and Walt hated every minute of it.
By the time the projectionist in the booth switched off the machine and raised the room lights Walt was fuming. He had already expressed his displeasure at the storyboards. Now, he had been subjected to the same awful sequence a second time. Hardly a laugh riot, the rhino sequence had been painfully agonizing to watch. Needless to say, most of us didn’t stick around for the choice words Walt Disney reserved for our superiors. We simply shuffled out of the screening room and headed back to our office grateful that we had no part in this unfortunate situation.
A few months later, we finally completed story work on “The Jungle Book,” and some people tell me it’s a pretty good little film. However, they probably never knew the story of the famous rhinoceros. The cartoon critter who ended up on Walt Disney’s cutting room floor.