09 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 10: Melody Time

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It was evident by the latter half of the 1940s that the package films the studio had been churning out were never going to be as profitable as a full length narrative feature. While Saludos Amigos made double its production budget at the box office (partially due to the fact that the film is a mere 42 minutes in length), The Three Caballeros was a bomb, and both Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free did mediocre business, generating just a bit more than their production expense in receipts. At the beginning of 1948 as the studio was over three million dollars in debt, Walt, ever the artistic dreamer and his brother Roy, the more prudent, level-headed business-minded man, had one of their biggest arguments. Walt wanted desperately to return to the lavish world of features which would require time and money that Roy argued the company did not have. The two butted heads but eventually as was often the case, Walt prevailed, getting the okay to begin work on another fairy tale adaptation. Unfortunately production time for such a feature would require at least two years of attention. Meanwhile the studio needed to remain somewhat solvent and so the final two package films were lined up to close out the decade. The first of these films, originally entitled All in Fun, saw release in 1948 under the new name Melody Time

While Melody Time most resembles the structure of 1946's Make Mine Music, which tied several disparate musical vignettes together, the film is a bit like a sampling of all of the package films Walt Disney had released up to this point. In addition to animation set to popular song, the film features a short tone poem, a couple of longer narratives, and even a return of some Caballeros. The film begins with a conceit borrowed from both the tail end of Saludos Amigos and the "All the Cats Join In" segment of Make Mine Music, as we see a dripping paintbrush animating the titles onscreen. The brush draws a curtain, stage and dramatic masks that sing the titular song before introducing the first short, "Once Upon a Wintertime". This paintbrush will be the only form of segue between Melody Time's seven sections.

"Once Upon a Wintertime" is a charming little short showing the courtship between two couples, one human, the other rabbit, during a picturesque winter afternoon. A boy and girl all bundled up and traveling in a sleigh, make their way out to a frozen lake for ice skating and pitching woo. Once there they are teamed up with their leporid counterparts. The male rabbit mimics the moves of his human surrogate, making heart shapes in the snow after the boy skates them in the ice. The scene is most notable for some elegantly fluid animation and some fantastic color choices. Frigid blues melt into flaming reds as the love and lust of the couples ebb and flow. The romantic tableau is shattered when the girls spurn the hapless gents and become trapped on thin ice that quickly breaks into fragments and rushes towards (of course) the edge of a hitherto unforeseen cliff. The boys try and save their loves but fail miserably. Luckily the other forest creatures and the sleigh-pulling steeds manage a last-minute rescue that the boy and rabbit ultimately take credit for, their girlfriend's none the wiser. The whole segment is a nice self-contained world, and the action, romance and drama are all well played. The characterizations of the forest creatures are a little more exaggerated than what we usually see from Disney, and at least here are a welcome contrast to the more naturalistic styles portrayed in films like Bambi.

Melody Time's second segment is its shortest, strangest and strongest. Set to a swinging variation on "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, "Bumble Boogie" showcases the whimsical, stunning and surreal effects of the Disney artisans. Over the course of a mere three minutes we watch as a bumblebee frantically winds its way through a world of plant-like musical instruments. Flowers turn into blaring trumpets and piano keys embody a gigantic caterpillar stalking a Dali-esque land. Much of the segment's success is thanks to the wonderful music. A lot of these package films feature rather forgettable pop hits of the 1940s, plenty of them so innocuous they leave nary a trace, but Mr. Martin's ensemble, highlighted by the virtuosic piano-playing of Jack Fina, certifiably rock. Like Make Mine Music's "All the Cats Join In", the music's energy really elevated the work of the animators who throw everything at the screen with the help of some vibrant colors in this action-packed and inventive cartoon.

"Bumble Boogie" is followed by the first of the film's two tales of American legend, the story of Johnny Appleseed. The section is a pretty straightforward account of a young man who longs to be a rough and tumble pioneer but lacks the courage and wherewithal to proceed, until he meets his guardian angel who tells him to set his own path, planting apple trees for the nation. So basically a psychotic man who is overcome with hallucinations is the reason we are stuck with the terrible Red Delicious. The section unfortunately is fairly rote with only glimmers of wit and ingenuity. The best moments by far star a dopey little skunk who braves a confrontation with the mysterious man, whom all the other forest critters are frightened of. The skunk's indignant expression as he prepares to spray Johnny is a highlight. What makes the segment interesting is the fact that it's the most overtly religious short Disney had released. With the constant refrain of "the Lord is Good to Me" and the Bible prominently displayed alongside Johnny's seed bag and cooking pot hat as tools of his success, Christianity is evident throughout. Interestingly Walt himself, while acknowledging a belief in God, had no time for religion. He never went to church and took his daughter Diane out of Catholic school after the girl announced that she wanted to become a nun. It was public school from there on out.

At the halfway point, Melody Time presents the story of a little tugboat called Little Toot who is rambunctious and gets into all sorts of trouble until he is banished from the harbor in shame. Adrift at sea, Little Toot comes upon a stranded ocean liner and through a horrendous storm singlehandedly brings the ship into harbor, subsequently restoring his honor. The short, like the preceding "Legend of Johnny Appleseed", adheres to the Disney formula without providing much more to single it out. There are a couple of really nice touches contained within, such as the angry buoys with creeping waves acting as arms, and the well-conceived action climax, but compared to something like the "Bumble Boogie", the short does not transcend its medium. It is another run-of-the-mill Disney short, with top notch style and production but nothing to differentiate it from any number of its Silly Symphony brethren.

The muted "Trees" that follows certainly gets points for attempting something different with its stylish evocation of nature set to a musical adaptation of the famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem. Unfortunately the segment is more akin to the failed highbrow attempt of Make Mine Music's ballet number "Two Silhouettes" than that earlier film's sumptuous "Blue Bayou" sequence, let alone anything from Fantasia. While not as clunky as "Two Silhouettes", there isn't enough grandeur or emotion in "Trees" to make it truly memorable. The four-minute sequence's two strengths are its wonderful use of color (which is turning out to be a strength throughout the entirety of Melody Time) and a series of incredibly inventive transitions, as towering trees turn out to be reflections in tiny beads of water connected to another tree that itself is a thin imprint on a falling leaf. 

The penultimate section in Disney's penultimate package film sees a return of two of the Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and José Carioca. Where their friend Panchito has run off to is anybody's guess. The two pals are forlorn (perhaps longing to reunite with their fun-loving, gun-toting Mexican friend?), as they walk through a monochrome setting before stumbling upon Caballeros resident troublemaker, the aracuan bird, who teaches them the joys of the samba. This is odd because the final segment of Saludos Amigos, which introduced José to Donald, involved the parrot teaching the duck the exact same dance. Whither continuity? Regardless, here the boys are joined by live-action pianist Ethel Smith who is donned up in attire similar to Aurora Miranda, which makes the whole sequence feel even more familiar than it already is. On top of that we get some Caballeros-patented frenetic, psychedelic transitions as the troupe find themselves dancing inside a giant cocktail stirred by the aracuan. While it is nice to see the anarchic aracuan again who here rides a quarter note like a bicycle and showers from a hole he popped in the film's frame, there is little to warrant a return to this world, especially when we've seen it all before.

Melody Time concludes with a bookend of sorts to the American tale of Johnny Appleseed by having Roy Rogers sing and narrate the life and times of Texas cowboy Pecos Bill. The sequence begins in live-action as Rogers, who sits around a campfire with the band, the Sons of the Pioneers, and recounts the legend to two kids, one of whom is portrayed by Luana Patten, Edgar Bergen's little lady friend and party invitee from Fun and Fancy Free. As Rogers tells it, Pecos Bill was an orphan raised by desert coyotes who grew up to be the epitome of the brash, cocky cowboy. Along with his trusty steed Widowmaker, Bill built the Rio Grande and shot out all of the stars in the sky save one for the Lone Star State. One day things came to abrupt change when Bill met the exquisite Slue-Foot Sue who swept him off of his feet and curbed some of his more rambunctious ways, much to the dismay of Widowmaker. On the day of their wedding, Sue requested to ride the jealous horse who bucks her into the air, where she eventually lands on the moon. From that day forth, as he pined away for his long-distant love, Bill howled a painful whine that was echoed by coyotes far and wide.

This closing segment most definitely has some worthwhile fun to recommend it. Disney's rendition of the dry desert plains is interesting to see since today we're much more familiar with the Chuck Jones style immortalized in the magnificent Roadrunner shorts. Disney's style is as to be expected less abstract but still a very evocative landscape, where one can feel the omnipresent heat and pervasive desperation. Salivating vultures circle overhead and dust clogs the air. The elastic animation in Bill and Widowmaker's movements is a treasure to behold. Their rough and tumble nature is as effortless as Slue-Foot Sue's elegance and grace. The way all of these elements come together makes for a fully realized environment and a thoroughly engaging story.

Having watched all of these package films from the same Gold Collection DVDs, it appears completely arbitrary what elements were censored and what was left in the films. For example, the Pecos Bill section has been edited to remove any instance of Bill smoking a cigarette and yet we get plenty of scenes of him firing his gun, not only at a tribe of painted Indians and the night sky, but directly at us, the audience. With all of this rampant gunplay why then was it deemed necessary to remove the entirety of the "Martins and the Coys" sequence from Make Mine Music? There is little difference between the two when it comes to their depictions of gun violence.

Melody Time on the whole upholds the Disney standard of quality animation and solid storytelling but it was evident that by this juncture the package films were running out of novelty and invention. Walt was biding his time, keeping the animators busy while cooking up the elements for what he hoped would be a triumphant return to feature animation. By the beginning of the 1950s, the package films would be nothing but a thing of the past. They would be looked upon as necessary productions at the time but they were much more means to an end than any sort of truly satisfying artistic statements. Certainly there were gems to be found and the freewheeling nature of their structure allowed for some chances to be taken, but they would never be regarded in the same league as Snow White or whatever princess was waiting on the horizon.

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