The Reluctant Dragon – Part 2

Let’s discuss other ways the dragon is coded in “The Reluctant Dragon.” From concept art to film reviews, there’s even more one can examine concerning this character.

Regarding the dragon’s design, surviving concept art from “The Reluctant Dragon” may confirm that artists were already developing ways of coding him. It should be noted that while I am highlighting the effeminate development of the dragon, not all the concept art before the final model sheets depicts him in this way. There can be a variety of reasons for why this occurred, but given that Ward Kimball confirmed the dragon was supposed to be considered gay (see Part 1), let’s trace the dragon’s design evolution. Starting with the book, The Art of Disney’s Dragons (2016) which contains an assortment of concept art of Disney’s various dragons. This includes a few pages focused on “The Reluctant Dragon” segment.

While the footnotes in the book do not date these two pieces, I was able to find some concept art that depicts a similar style. Going by the “Dragon & Knight Suggestions” sheet from May 16, 1940, I am assuming the previous art was completed around the same period.

This is a much more detailed design for the dragon, with attention given towards the scales, head, and underbelly. A few other touches in these sketches stand out to me. There’s also more variance in how the dragon moves.

These sketches depict him moving as a quadruped rather than predominantly as a biped one sees in the finished film. It also appears they were experimenting with more effeminate poses for the character, especially when he is standing upright. This seems especially evident in the upper left image. The dragon appears to have his hand on his hip and sporting a limp wrist, the action lines accentuating his wrist movement. Finally, a detail that carried into the final design are the dragon’s defined eyelashes. This detail occurs in other concept art. A little less than a month later, a model sheet from June 4 by a different artist depicts a more simplistic dragon design. The noticeable lashes -which in these sketches seem more emphasized- still remain.

Jump to November 7th of 1940, and the release of a clean-up model sheet for the dragon.

Note the arguably effeminate pose in the upper and bottom left of this model sheet. While not as noticeably exaggerated compared to his earlier concept art, the accentuated eyelashes demonstrate that this is an important feature to include for the character. Eagle eyed readers will also notice this final design includes a navel. This detail, discussed in a 2001 interview “Kimball & Swift: The Disney Years” where Kimball and David Swift reminisced about their time at Disney. Swift recalls how, near the end of production for the film, “The Reluctant Dragon” needed to be sent back to ink and paint for alterations because the Hays Office did not approve of the dragon sporting a navel. Revealing that when it came to the dragon, the Hays Office apparently had a greater issue with the implication of gestation than anything implying the dragon’s identity.

Locating a book or article that covers an extensive history of The Reluctant Dragon has been challenging. Sites like the American Film Institute’s catalog note the existence of story conference transcripts held at the Disney archives. In particular, the transcripts mention that Sterling Holloway was considered to voice the dragon. I did find some story conference transcripts online. Unfortunately, these did not contain anything relevant to my research or mention Holloway. However, I doubt that those selections represent the entirety of the story conference transcripts held in the Disney archives. Holloway’s potential involvement may indirectly provide insight into the characterization of the dragon. Although the dragon predates any of Holloway’s more famous Disney roles, such as Winnie-the-Pooh, he was known for portraying soft-spoken, though occasionally eccentric characters, often with arguably varying levels of queerness. While this does not necessarily mean the writers were considering the dragon as gay at that time, given what we know about Holloway’s roles, it indicates that a less traditionally “masculine” voice for the character was already being considered prior to Parker’s casting.

The massive Walt dragon in action. The sign around his neck reads, “The Reluctant Disney.”

I cannot speak on every text about Disney ever released, but if any reader knows a book that delves into the production of The Reluctant Dragon, specifically this short in greater detail, please comment or contact me. I’ve noticed that when authors examine the studio during the 1940s, they are more likely to focus on the studio’s involvement in World War II, major films released during this decade, and the animator’s 1941 strike. When The Reluctant Dragon is mentioned, it is often -understandably- in relation to the aforementioned strike. In fact, some of the striker’s signs even depicted the dragon. Fellow animation historian Stephanie Delazeri first brought to my attention footage of the strike filmed by Ray Patin, which his daughter, Renée Farrington, uploaded online. The dragon is featured in several unique signs, including one where its mouth and tail moved and another massive, multi-piece sign where Walt’s head replaced the dragon’s. For those interested in additional context about this footage, I recommend Farrington’s notes on her website. Many of these notes are extracts from her book In the Shadow of the Sign – My Life in Pictures (2021).

“Into Your Dance” (1935)

One of the aspects I feel is under examined is the queerness associated with poets during this period. Although poetry is not inherently a queer interest, during the 1920s and 1930s, poetry and queerness were more connected than one might think. George Chauncey touches upon the “queer poet” living in Greenwich Village in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (1994). This included instances of queer artists trying to create their own inclusive spaces (240-241) and insights made by the observational outsider. One poet, Malcolm Cowley, wrote in his memoir, Exile’s Return (1934), that he and his colleagues were not part of the queer community but experienced homophobic treatment due to their interests. He described this as “an offensive based on the theory that all modern writers, painters and musicians were homosexual.” This opinion on queer individuals caused him to have violent fantasies so extreme that he imagined a cleanse in the Village, where the “pansy poet” would be hanged on a lamp post alongside figures like the policeman and the Methodist preacher (230). The “pansy poet” stereotype was not limited to New York but extended into Hollywood, as demonstrated by the animated Warner Bros. short Into Your Dance (1935) which made a jab at the “queer poet” stereotype. On amateur night, a burly boxer walks onto the stage. The moment he begins reciting his poem, however, his demeanor quickly shifts as he lisps his verses and makes effeminate gestures. This behavior quickly disappears the moment he hears a bell ring, and he resumes his tough persona, shadow boxing the air. It’s a bit unclear if the gag is he’s a queer man who is passing, or if the mere act of reciting poetry will cause even the burliest of men to behave effeminately and present as queer. Personally, I suspect the gag more closely reflects the latter possibility.

I currently can’t confirm if the dragon enjoying poetry is supposed to be a coded indicator about his sexuality. Especially since this film was made a few years later, when the “queer poet” stereotype was likely in decline. However, the way it is utilized does appear to reflect this belief. One scene that stands out is when the dragon recites his poem, “To an Upside Down Cake.” A new addition to the story, the poem focuses on an unfortunate cake whose bottom is now its top. First, a clarification: today, “top” and “bottom” can have a more mature meaning. While it is simple to assume that this was an intended double entendre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), these meanings did not emerge until likely around the 1960s, and did not become more commonly used until the 70s and 80s. Regardless, the emphasis on top and bottom adds to the absurdity, and the poem’s focus on the posterior is difficult to ignore. Especially since the dragon is quite melodramatic throughout the recitation. He laments the cake’s situation, kisses its side, and even sheds a tear over it. Later, the dragon becomes so distraught, he needs to pause to blow his nose into his blue, frilly hanky. After this recitation, the boy and Sir Giles have different reactions to the poem. The boy is impatient with these dramatics because he wants to discuss the mock battle. Meanwhile, Sir Giles becomes engaged in the performance. He gives a round of applause after the dragon finishes, then proceeds to tell his own poem rather than focus on the plan. As an aside, if being a poet is reflective of one’s sexuality in this short, it does make one wonder what the boy meant when he asked Sir Giles earlier, “You a poet too?” Demonstrating a possible insinuation that Sir Giles and the dragon may share more than simply a common interest in the literary arts.

The association with queerness and poetry arguably occurs again during the mock fight. Just as the battle is supposed to begin, it is revealed that the dragon and boy are sitting glumly in the cave. The dragon feels the battle should be called off because he cannot breathe fire. He tells the boy, “You’ve got to be mad to breathe fire. But I’m not mad at anybody.” The boy is supportive and offers advice, but this does not work, and the dragon still cannot produce even a single flame. Frustrated, the boy bitterly comments, “Too bad you’re not a real dragon instead of a punk poet.” This comment angers the dragon so much that, as he exhales fire, his most effeminate feature -his accentuated eyelashes- vanishes. The removal of the eyelashes is not unique to this scene; occurring earlier when the dragon first learned Sir Giles was a dragon killer. This reaction subtly connects the dragon’s masculinity with his emotions, specifically anger. It is only after he calms down that the eyelashes return. The dragon, excited that he can breathe fire, tells the boy to call him a “punk poet” again. The boy repeatedly utters the phrase, and soon, smoke billows outside, thus marking the beginning of the battle.

The writers’ choice of the word ‘punk’ is particularly interesting. Chauncey delves into the complexity and range of the term in his book, demonstrating that there isn’t a simple queer definition to ascribe to the word (88). For simplicity, I will follow the interpretation pertaining to a subordinate homosexual, as this fits best with the film’s context. However, this interpretation is not fully representative of the other variations and meanings -both queer and not queer- of punk. Given how many different options there are to choose from, it’s difficult to know which ones the writers of “The Reluctant Dragon” were or weren’t aware existed. Other researchers, including Sean Griffin in his book, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out (2000) and Tison Pugh’s in his chapter, “Here Be Gay Dragons” for It’s the Disney Version!: Popular Cinema and Literary Classics (2016) have also discussed “punk” in their work. Both focus on its queer meaning, and Pugh explores the various interpretations of “punk,” repeatedly referencing the OED. According to the OED, the earliest known queer meaning dates to 1698, with multiple examples throughout the centuries indicating its steady usage.

One important semantic aspect in “The Reluctant Dragon” is the difference between the noun and adjective definitions. In the OED, “punk” in a queer context is a noun, not an adjective, the latter of which is used in the film. However, among the adjective definitions, there is one that arguably fits the scene’s context: “Of poor quality; devoid of worth or sense; poor, second-rate, inferior; ‘lousy.’” Considering the dragon thinks highly of his poetry, calling his work any of these things would certainly enrage him. Considering how many meanings there are for “punk,” it is possible that the writers wrote the term as a double entendre. The Code impacted what language could be included in a film during this period, which makes it difficult to confidently determine which possibility is correct. The idea of an intentionally coded meaning seems more likely since another coded word associated with queer men is uttered later during the fight. When Sir Giles and the dragon are in the cave, Sir Giles shouts out to the crowd, “Hey! You bugger!” In his chapter, Pugh again points out the multiple meanings associated with “bugger,” one of which -listed as the first one in OED- has an offensive, sexual, and often queer association. This again raises the question of how intentional these word choices were in this dialogue.

During this period and earlier, Disney had a rocky relationship with queer representation. The majority of these queer coded male characters only made brief, minor appearances. Often reduced to gag roles, these characters are rarely given names, let alone time to develop unique identities outside of pre-established stereotypes. They are presented to the audience as figures to laugh at rather than laugh with. In “The Reluctant Dragon” the dragon’s increased screen time and dialogue makes him an outlier. Despite his increased role, it is important to remember that the audience is supposed to find the dragon’s effeminacy funny. As discussed in Part 1, in John Canemaker’s book Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation (2001) Kimball commented that when they showed the film, the dragon still, “got big laughs. The first night we ran it at the studio, it killed everybody!” (104). This audience reaction demonstrates that an increased role of an effeminate character worked successfully on a larger scale. Though Kimball’s comment is somewhat ambiguous about whether the audience was laughing with or at the character, given that the dragon views his actions and behavior as sincere, I suspect the audience is supposed to laugh at him. Adding a layer of complexity to how we perceive and interpret the character as a contemporary viewer.

Though I cannot speak for everyone who enjoys the character -or, alternately, does not- I personally enjoy the dragon’s bold and effeminate behavior. He never feels he should change and does not cater to others, instead making them work around his views. At one point when the boy mentions that Sir Giles and the dragon will have to fight, the dragon responds, “I never fight, I never did. Doesn’t agree with me.” Indicating that the dragon has always been this way and will not change under any circumstances. There is something to be said concerning the short’s ending since both the dragon and the villagers do not change their views. Instead, through deceit, the boy, the dragon, and Sir Giles successfully trick the town into believing the dragon has been “reformed” from a ferocious creature. To the villagers, the “reformed,” dragon is an exception to their preconceived notions, with his effeminacy benefiting rather than hindering him. Instead of becoming ostracized, it allows him to become accepted by the entire community and he later joins the villagers in a post battle celebration with a seat at the head of the table.

From the review in “Variety”

When I examined various film reviews from around the time of the film’s release, they indicated that researchers were not the first to state their suspicions about the dragon’s sexuality. Obviously, writers during this period could not outright state, “I consider the dragon to be quite the flaming homosexual,” but instead use coded language to make their point. I am highlighting a few reviews that stood out to me, though it is important to acknowledge that not every review for the film alluded to the dragon’s sexuality. The dragon’s interest in poetry is repeatedly mentioned, but it’s debatable whether this was intended as coded language or simply as a descriptor of his interests in the short. While not necessarily related to his sexuality but instead his gender, a few reviews go another route and misgender the dragon. This occurs in the May-Oct issue of Screenland (53), T.S.’ July 25 review for The New York Times (12) and Variety’s June 11 publication (14). I’m not sure if this was a purposeful, pointed, decision when discussing a queer, effeminate male character, or an accidental mistake due to how feminized the dragon is in the film.

A stronger example of critics utilizing coded words is swish. In the June 30 Poughkeepsie Eagle-News publication (6), Robert Coons describes the dragon “with more swish than fire.” Philip T. Hartung, in his August 8 film review in Commonweal (376-377), used the term “swishy” (377) to describe the dragon. While Newsweek’s June 30 review (55-56) describes him as a “pacifist of the lisp-and-swish variety.” Swish or swishy was a word that described queer men and -to call back to my other current review series- was uttered in cartoons like Tom and Jerry’s Doughnuts (1933). In that short, one of the floats includes two gay men who utter “swish” to the audience. Interestingly, I’ve yet to find a source accurately cataloging when swish became associated with effeminate, queer men. Pugh, in his chapter footnotes for the Commonweal review, cites the OED’s definition for the effeminate definition of swish. This isn’t fully reliable, as on their website, the OED’s earliest citation dates the meaning to 1941, yet shorts like Doughnuts indicate its usage spans much earlier. Another coded word, “whoops” appeared in the Screenland film review, noting that the dragon “sings the Whoops song.” Oddly, it’s only the accompanying song, “The Reluctant Dragon,” released by Disney that includes whoops in the lyrics. In the film, the audience only hears an excerpt before the boy interrupts the dragon, causing him to stop before he can finish the rest of the song.

Finally, the most interesting aspect I found in these reviews was the comparison made between the dragon and another Disney character, Ferdinand from Ferdinand the Bull (1938). So far, I have come across three different reviews that compare these two works: the aforementioned Variety, Commonweal, and Poughkeepsie Eagle-News. These reviews vary in how closely they allude to sexuality. Variety only does a quick comparison of the two, while Poughkeepsie Eagle-News describes the dragon as a “spirit-brother to framed Ferdinand.” Commonweal is the most overt, and Hartung wrote that the dragon “is another Ferdinand—only much more so; except that he likes picnics and poetry instead of posies.” I have watched Ferdinand the Bull, but his queerness is significantly more subtle compared to the dragon’s characterization. The comparisons made by critics are fair, as both shorts contain similar themes, particularly an effeminately coded male character taking a pacifist stand when pressured to fight, thus contrasting him from the other men around him. Perhaps in another year or so, a deeper examination of Ferdinand would be an excellent companion to this series, though I admittedly have much less to say about the short compared to my analysis of The Reluctant Dragon.

This concludes part two of my examination of The Reluctant Dragon. Part three in this series will focus on The Reluctant Dragon song and its subsequent covers.