There’s a moment in Howard, Don Hahn’s incredible documentary about the life of Oscar-winning lyricist Howard Ashman, who contributed unforgettably to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, that is so quick you will probably miss it. It’s in a section of the movie that details Disney’s attempt to woo the lyricist and writer in the late 1980s, after his frustrating experience on the film version of Little Shop of Horrors and after his would-be Broadway hit Smile had a spectacular flameout. Hahn shows a letter from then-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, offering him a role at the studio and a list of potential projects he could work on (ultimately, he chose a Tina Turner biopic before moving over to Animation). But there was a project on that list, sandwiched between The Little Mermaid and a potential Mary Poppins sequel (this was Mary Poppins Comes Back, written by Brian Sibley and PL Travers, that could have starred Michael Jackson as a whimsical ice-cream seller) called Dufus. It was an animated project and one that I had never heard of.
So when we chatting with Hahn about the documentary (full interview coming soon), I had to ask what Dufus was.
“Catcher in the Rye with German shepherds,” Hahn said, laughing. “I’m not making that up.”
After I pulled my jaw up off the floor, he continued: “Michael [Eisner] loved Catcher in the Rye and he said, ‘We ought to do Catcher in the Rye.’ And we told him the truth, which is [JD] Salinger‘s never going to do Catcher in the Rye for anybody. And he said, ‘Well, let’s just do that kind of story, that kind of growing up, coming of age story.’ So it was that.”
This totally makes sense. Eisner, the boyish CEO and chairman of the Walt Disney Company who was installed a few years earlier after a period of seismic upheaval in the company (and who hired Katzenberg, who he had worked with at Paramount, to head feature film development), was an English major in college and considered himself something of an outcast, despite being incredibly well-liked. How far along this project got is anybody’s guess, as I had never heard of it before, never seen artwork or read a synopsis. But it must have gotten pretty far to be one of the projects Ashman was offered (meaning the German shepherds would also sing?)
Ah, Holden Caulfield in a collar … or is it Holden Paw-field? See, it really just writes itself.
We’ll have more from our chat with Don Hahn soon and please read our review of Howard here.