Happy leap day, classic movie fans! February 29th is always a delightful rarity, though in past years it has come and gone without much fanfare from me. As intrigued as I am at the idea of a date that only occurs once every four years, I’ve just never found a way to celebrate. Until this year, that is! Rebecca of Taking Up Room always comes up with the most brilliant blogathon concepts, and her idea of hosting a Leap Year Blogathon is no exception. I learned so much about Old Hollywood birthdays and special dates while doing research about Leap Day, and I can’t believe that I never thought of incorporating the holiday with classic movies before! Notable vintage film names like director William A. Wellman and band leader Jimmy Dorsey were born on February 29th, and on this date in 1940, the 12th Academy Awards celebrated the greatest achievements of 1939, considered by most to be film’s greatest year. While all of these moments are worthy of celebration, I decided to pay tribute to another star born on Leap Day: none other than Dinah Shore, who would have turned 104 today.
I’ve been familiar with Dinah Shore since before I was even familiar with classic movies, if you can believe it. As some of you may know from my other blog posts, I was raised in Palm Springs, CA, the playground of the stars during Hollywood’s golden age. While many stars lived there, a certain few really called the Coachella Valley their home and celebrated the town, and there are still remnants of the town’s appreciation for them today. Most notably, this list includes Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Dinah Shore. The nearby city of Rancho Mirage still holds the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament each year, and Palm Springs has honored Dinah with her own street and a star on their walk of fame. Despite being surrounded by Dinah’s legacy for much of my life and hearing wonderful stories from those who knew her in the city, I only began really learning about her recently. It wasn’t until I started my deep dive into Dinah’s life and career for this article that I realized that despite her star status in Hollywood during the 1940s, she really didn’t appear in many films. In fact, she only has 21 acting credits to her name!
I chose Fun and Fancy Free (1947) in particular because I’ve never reviewed a Disney film for this blog before. Now that I subscribe to Disney+, streaming Dinah’s Disney collaborations is even easier, though I have previously watched and enjoyed this film as part of TCM’s Treasures from the Disney Vault. Fun and Fancy Free (1947) was the fourth of Disney’s “package” films, movies that combined several short subject ideas into one feature-length production in order to save money during World War II. These features were quite popular and helped fund some of Disney’s greatest works over the next decade like Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953). Fun and Fancy Free (1947) is a marvel because it incorporates two of Hollywood’s greatest names of the 1940s, particularly in radio at the time: Dinah Shore and Edgar Bergen. The film opens with a gorgeously sung title song, “Fun and Fancy Free”, and we meet the narrator, Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Old Hollywood staple Cliff Edwards, reprising his role from 1940’s Pinocchio). Jiminy is overwhelmed by the current headlines which spell out depression and disaster, and wants to live a fun and fancy free life. He soon meets a forlorn doll and a droopy teddy bear, and to lift their spirits he plays a record which transitions us into the first of two short stories, “Bongo”.
Narrated beautifully by Dinah Shore, “Bongo” tells the tale of a talented circus bear who has become fed up with his life. He has no friends or loved ones and he’s handled roughly by his keepers, who push him around from town to town and force him to do tricks. His natural instincts keep driving him more and more towards the wilderness, until he finally makes himself so crazy that he escapes the circus train and ventures into the great outdoors. Bongo celebrates his newfound freedom as Dinah sings her first of three songs during the short, titled “Lazy Countryside”. Her dulcet tones pair perfectly with the serene beauty of nature, but Bongo’s bliss doesn’t last. Despite his talents like juggling and unicycle riding, we soon find that he has a lot of trouble adjusting to the harsh wilderness, as the other forest animals make fun of him for being unable to climb a tree. Without food or shelter from the stormy weather, Bongo sleeps on the soggy ground all by himself, and it seems that his new existence will be a lonely one until he sets eyes on a female bear, Lulubelle.
It’s love at first sight for the two lovestruck bears, and Dinah sings her second sweet tune, “Too Good To Be True”. To seal the deal, Lulubelle gives Bongo a hard slap to the face. Of course, this shocks Bongo and breaks his heart, but it isn’t until Lulubelle accidentally slaps Bongo’s romantic rival, the gigantic neanderthal bear Lumpjaw, that he learns that a slap across the face is a bear’s way of showing affection. Dinah launches into the funniest of her songs to teach Bongo (and the audience), that when bears are in love, they “Say it with a Slap“. It’s pure hilarity that can only be seen for yourself, and I can only imagine how many kids went around slapping their loved ones in 1947 after watching this! From there, Bongo attempts to win Lulubelle back by battling Lumpjaw, and his circus tricks come in handy as he expertly evades the burly bear’s lunges. As they fight, the two of them find themselves in the river heading towards the steep drop of a waterfall. It looks to be the end of them both, but while Lumpjaw plunges hundreds of feet down and is washed away by the current, Bongo is saved as his hat is caught on a tree branch. He and Lulubelle reunite, and as they give each other one last hearty slap, it’s happily ever after.
The other short shown in Fun and Fancy Free (1947) is “Mickey and the Beanstalk”, as told by Edgar Bergen with the help of his ventriloquist dummy friends, popular characters of the time Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. It’s a Disney-fied retelling of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, which includes a really delightful “cameo” of Old Hollywood as the giant wanders around an animated Los Angeles, which contains vintage caricatures of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Brown Derby (which the giant uses for a hat). However, for the sake of celebrating Dinah and her particular contributions to this film, I’d like to focus on “Bongo”. As a whole, I really loved this short. It’s silly, adorable, and oh so lovey-dovey. As much as I adore all of the classic movie stars who made appearances in Disney films during this era, I think Dinah is absolutely perfect as the narrator of this one, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else singing these songs or telling this story.
Dinah elevates the tale and makes it something really heartfelt and memorable, while still letting loose for those ridiculous comedic moments. Her soothing voice makes these songs really stand out, and I can honestly say that Fun and Fancy Free (1947) made me fall in love with Dinah Shore as a vocalist. If I had any complaints, I would say that I really prefer the original concept design of Bongo. I think this look would have been way cuter in the film, but the one that Disney ended up using doesn’t dissuade me from liking it. My other gripe is that I really wish there were more films of hers around to watch and appreciate. She’s so fantastic here that I’m sorely disappointed that I can’t have a Dinah Shore marathon. The least Disney could do is add Make Mine Music (1946), Dinah’s other Disney film, to Disney+. What gives? Seriously though, if you haven’t seen Fun and Fancy Free (1947) or hear Dinah’s incredible voice for yourself, spend the hour and thirteen minutes this Leap Day and give it a try!