Whether you call it fate or coincidence, at the age of 45 I wound up relocating from Washington State - where I've lived for most of my adult life - to living less than a mile from the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. It's wonderously strange to be so close to the Disney Animation unit, knowing that everything I'm commenting on was created and produced just down the street.
And so I would like to dedicate this meandering commentary to the Disney animators of sixty years past who created these eight 'weird years' films, espeically to the memory of Mary Blair and Ward Kimball.
One of the advantages of the DVD-era is that the Disney corporation has finally brought many olde feature films out of cold storage. With the exception of THREE CABALLEROS, none the these mothballed films have seen re-release in any commercial format that I'm aware of since their original theatrical releases. To be sure, they have been chopped up and reformatted for TV (primarily the Disneyland TV series - later renamed The Wonderful World Of Disney). Some found themselves as part of Disney's endless video compilations throughout the decades, but this is the first time we can see them in the original cinematic form. Well, almost original. Some fuss has been made about the censorship (as well as outright removal) of some scattered segments of these films, but in general, they're pretty close to the original article - I suppose it is better to have something rather than nothing.
The Disney studio had kicked off the genre of feature animation in 1938 with SNOW WHITE and kept pushing the art-form with PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, DUMBO & BAMBI. All four of those films gained popularity and status with re-releases over the decades and are regarded as the finest of Walt's output. However, SNOW WHITE was the only real smash of the bunch at that time, PINOCCHIO and especially FANTASIA were comparative flops. The Disney studio was facing the harsh realities of the second world war in addition to the box-office failure of his masterwork FANTASIA. The loss of overseas markets due to World War Two just made the studios' outlook on DUMBO and BAMBI even worse. To top it all, in 1941 Disney faced his first labor strike of the animators, who complained of the draconian working conditions at the studio (note the Reluctant Dragon banner behind the masked strikers):
It's natural to reflect on the greatness of those four films, but how many people remember that THE RELUCTANT DRAGON was sandwiched between them? And the first three films that followed 1942's BAMBI (SALUDOS AMIGOS, VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER & THREE CABALLEROS) were pre-war, propaganda films (two of them subtly so, the other overtly so). Once the United States became embroiled in the war, Disney could not afford the preparation time and costs to make full length animated films, so they packaged shorts together with vague themes of fun and melody and travel. None of them met with boffo success at the box office, but they did OK considering.
After the war ended, and the US military relinquished its 'partnership' with the Disney studios, things were very uncertain for the future of the animated feature film. The forties came to a close and the lukewarm performance of these films, which gave Walt pause to keep the animation unit running in the future. The studio was gearing up with its creation of live-action films, which were much cheaper to produce, and hence more profitable. Though Walt was very close to shuttering the doors on the animated features, CINDERELLA did quite well at the box office, the unit was saved. Throughout the fifties, Walt expanded his empire with live-action movies, television, his Disneyland park and an occasional animated feature, and that empire has been growing (and stagnating) ever since his death in mid-sixties.
So why do I call these Disney's "weird years"? Simply because their like has never been seen before or since this curious period of the 1940s. If there is a thread that unites these seven films together, it's that they are all in some way or another "package features", which is Disney-speak for films which contain multiple segments, held together with a simple concept. However, none of them has a traditional storyline that flows through the entire film, only vague themes or situations that unite the movie's content. Viewed with the jaundiced eye of history, these movies are kind of the lost lambs of Disney's output, kept hidden in the vaults until for over a half-century. I can only suppose that studio execs figured they were not worth the expense of preparation and release on video, and feared the Disney buying public would greet them with the same indifference that they did at the box office in the forties. I also consider of some of the experimentation being done in these titles, and I lament the passing of that spirit with the animated films of the fifties and beyond. When the studio packaged short subjects, they were not afraid to dabble in pure animation here and there, which was rarely seen in thier features (save FANTASIA). With visual heights come troughs, and some of the material discussed below is among their most underwhelming output. What makes those eight films so unique, and a tad weird, is the package-feature format permitted more experimentation, abstraction and droll visuals that have never been seen in a Disney film since that time.
Essentially these eight weird years movies can be clumped in four related-pairs:
Two 'infotainment' features
Two Latin American travelogues
Two music-themed features
Lastly, I want to acknowledge my friend Del, who provided me with a copy of Leonard Maltin's excellent book "The Disney Films" (the 1974 edition), which proved a valuable resource for my inferior commentary.
It's worth noting that Disneycorp is now chopping up elements of the features below and repackaging them. In some cases, they've simply combined them (Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros as "Classic Caballeros Collection"). Others have been excised as short subjects (Mickey & The Beanstalk with different narration, Mr. Toad becomes Wind In The Willows). In all cases a smattering of shorts have been added into the bargain, but it's really just a case of the old business maxim "If it moves, sell it"
However, it was not just repackaging. Out of curiosity I purchased the Wind In The Willows edition and since I've watched the original so many times I noticed a few short scenes were missing. The strange part is they are not at all controversial, so I can only assume the cuts were made for the sake of time or making them a 'lesser' product to justify the lower cost?
NOTE - Clicking the movie poster image open a page with a few images of the film
THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941)
A reply to public demand for a behind-the-scenes look at Disney animation, or a deceptive cash-grab to keep the coffers filled as DUMBO and BAMBI were in preparation? Advertised as "The Big Feature Show With A Thousand Surprises". I'm sure the biggest surprise for movie-goers was the derth of animation in the film. THE RELUCTANT DRAGON is a first for Disney in many ways. It was the first primarily live-action film the studio did, shot in black & white (changing ala WIZARD OF OZ in the middle of the film to Technicolor) and is the first in a long series of package-features that are the focus of this humble broadsheet. It's understandable that the public was less that enchanted with this film, as the studio's misleading promotion lead them to think it was another full-length cartoon movie. So neither audiences nor critics were kind to it, and as such, it didn't fulfill Disney's hope to get a needed infusion of lucre.
In a nutshell we have a wafer-thin plot of humorist Robert Benchley meandering around the Disney studios, trying to find Walt to convince him to make a movie out of Kenneth Grahame's short tale "The Reluctant Dragon", only to attend a screening where the film has already been completed. What makes the film still enjoyable today is the scenes of various steps in making animated cartoons (music, sound effects, storyboard, paint-shop, etc). Despite the hokum of these staged segments, they are entertaining and informative. The film mixes real Disney animators (like Fred Moore & Ward Kimball) and actors (like Alan Ladd and Frances Gifford) playing animators. Ironically, most of the live-action segments are more entertaining than the animated bits.
Sprinkled between the bumbling adventures of Mr. Benchley, there are four animated segments. "How To Ride A Horse" is a horseplay ala Goofy, and many of the gags are repeated in the SALUDOS AMIGOS during the Gaucho Goofy part. The "Casey Junior" sound-effects segment is something of a preview of DUMBO, and is one of the most engaging parts of the movie. But the next animated segment is the film's highlight, "Baby Weems". Using simplified animation, and a pencil-sketch style, this charming story of a super-smart baby is designed to look like cartoon storyboards. But it's a told with panache and style, and predates the minimalist style of animation in the 1950s. The film's anti-climax is the based on Kenneth Grahame’s story, and clocks around 20 minutes. I've never read the original story, but the screen version is lacks tension, and leaves you feeling disappointed. The foppish dragon is is rather funny to start with, but Sir Giles is colorless and the young boy is equally bland (and just like PINOCCHIO, the little boy speaks in an American accent, despite being in a non-American country). So there's not much going on and one wishes they'd go back to Benchley and see some more backstage stuff.
Taken as a whole package the film is enjoyable and documents a time when animation was a purely mechanical process, before automation and computerization. All of the live action parts were obviously glamorized versions of life and work in the Disney studios, well-scripted and designed to be as entertaining as informative. But this betrays the intention of the film. Disney wanted to make a film that was relatively inexpensive to generate income, and what better way than to use your own studio as the focus of the film, as well as your own staff to act in it (Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Les Clark, Norm Fergeson are all great Disney animators given a few moments of on-screen fame in the movie.) So THE RELUCTANT DRAGON was quickly forgotten, given the films that proceeded and immediately follow it. But it was the template for the films of the mid and late forties, a tidy package of short segments strung together with a meager plot. It was clear by the poor box office performance of THE RELUCTANT DRAGON and all the Disney package-films that followed in its footsteps, that the public would only accept Disney as a maker full-length animated stories. Despite the pragmatism that was behind these films, Walt had to concede that he had to abondon this or close the animation unit for good.
SALUDOS AMIGOS (1942)
This film and THE THREE CABALLEROS are the result a tour by Walt and some key animators of Latin America. Though the motivation for this sojourn was an attempt to promote good relations with Central & South America during World War II. You'd never know it while watching SALUDOS AMIGOS, which is an uneven travelogue of various countries, alternating between location footage and animation. But the film was 'recommended' by the U.S. Office of Inter-American Affairs, and one can only wonder if it achieved it's purpose to the extent it was designed to. Certainly South America was not a big player in WWII, so I suppose it might have helped.
One of the most curious aspects about the film is its length - a whopping 42 minutes! That puts it in the featurette frame, not the "full-length feature" that the DVD box boasts. However, it comes with a 33 minute documentary (almost as long as the film, covering many of the same topics), so I suppose a total of 76 minutes of footage floats.
Throughout the film we see live segments of the touring animators, such as Walt himself, Mary & Lee Blair and Norman Fergeson sketching out local scenes. There is a certain charm to the period clothing and the picture-postcard views of Latin American life. We see the gang watching lots of dancing, eating and herding livestock. The high spot of the live action parts is the scenes from the Brazilian carnival, which segues to the "Aquarela Do Brasil" piece that finishes the film. On the spot artist sketches are interspersed with the live footage and provides a classic demonstration of how Disney's artists can quickly whip out sketches that instantly stylize their surroundings into patented Disney images. Of course the rather quaint look of all of these South American scenes of 60+ years ago offer a glimpse of a world long gone - not to mention unseen. Prior to the 'Pedro' segment in Santiago, the narrator glibly intones "Since cameras are not allowed here, the boys had to cover this from memory and sketches", leaving one to wonder why the Chilean government even forbade Disney's whitewashed treatment of their country.
Donald Duck is the central character to most of the animated segments, with Goofy & Joe Carioca putting in appearances here and there. The most visually interesting segment is the finalé "Aquarela Do Brasil", based on Ary Barosso's popular tune (known to us gringos as just "Brazil"). Disney's standard paint-as-it-goes motif creates some wonderful visual elements, mostly floral settings with a smattering of abstract movement. The segment kind of breaks down into run-of-the-mill comedy as Donald meets Joe Carioca, until they "Tico Tico" to a cafe, leading him on to some underwhelming jitterbugging in the night-spots of Rio. The sudden pull-out over the city makes for a weak ending and has the flavor of 'just finish the damn thing!'
Light comedy is the leitmotiv for the rest of animated scenes. Donald Duck's adventures amongst the llamas on Lake Titicaca along with Goofy's Pampas gaucho are pretty prosaic bits of physical comedy, with the emphasis on horse-play (and llama-play). Only the exotic locations and blend of regional musical motifs give them any distinction. Somewhat better is the story of the infant mail-plane "Pedro", a cute character which has to cross the Andes mountains to deliver the post, running into a violent storm and facing the dread mountain, Aconcagua, anthropomorphized for dramatic effect. Pedro's tale is bolstered by dramtic layout and one is left to wonder if the other segments had been as developed as this, that the live action portions would have been not been necessary
What gives the film even more historical perspective is the 30-minute, in-house newsreel called "South Of the Border With Disney". Narrated by an unknown member of the Disney entourage(?), has lots of behind-the-scenes parts detailing the making of the film. In some ways I could imagine that they could re-cut the film to include more of that documentary material, but it might alter the mood of the movie, er, featurette. Certainly you can hear several references to the military might of the South American powers (which does more to betray the true intent of the film than the actual featurette does), but mostly it's just novel to see the period clothing, architecture and transportation.
Simply taken as a film, SALUDOS AMIGOS is a bit underdeveloped and underlong (which is not the case with its sibling film THREE CABALLEROS), which can't conceal the fact that it's essentially a quickie produced to satisfy US Government policy, and will probably just remain a historical curiosity from the studio. The DVD as a whole is a more satisfying package thanks the inclusion of the "South Of the Border With Disney" short, but might lack appeal to general Disney fans, and might be more suited to the more ardent fans (like me) of the Walt's muse.
VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER (1943)
Without a doubt, VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER was the most topical animated feature the studio ever produced. When you set aside the historical context of the film, it is a direct, no-frills statement, with a small dose of entertainment thrown into the bargain. As much as one might expect this film to be embraced by the American public, it was a flop for the studio, not even seen by President Rooseveldt. Winston Churchill changed Rooseveldt's mind and this signaled a shift in US policy by increasing the air forces for World War II. I suppose there are not too Disney movies that affected national policy, but as it was funded by the US Government, what other end could it have had in mind? But that's the context of history, and how does it fit into this series of Disney films, taken purely as movie, and not overt military propaganda? Well, it's a known fact that the the film that preceded it (SALUDOS AMIGOS) and the one that followed it (THE THREE CABALLEROS) were motivated by national policy, not purely for entertainment.
The film opens with a montage of newspaper headlines about the importance of aircraft in warfare, and then jags a bit with a lighthearted look at the history of flight (which is the only part of the film to be shown after the film's release, on television). This segment begins with a comical look at the early flying machines and then soon focuses on the military potential of airplanes, with lots of animated dogfights. Human characters have a narrow, angular look that I've never seen in any other Disney animated film. That opening montage lasts about twenty minutes. Then we meet Major Seversky, author of the book from which this film takes it title. After a brief introduction by the Major, we see a segment of minimal animation about the airwar in the early phases of World War Two in Europe and in the Pacific. This is followed by a extended series of animated scenarios presented by Seversky about how the war on both fronts can be won by new aircraft with extended range and power. But during Major Seversky's monologues, one gets the feeling that you are watching a film that was intended only for government officials. So that makes it difficult to judge this film on any level but as as propaganda film. I do not have the knowledge to say how much of the ideas presented in the film were actually used in the war, but it certainly seems that some of them did get implemented. Finally there is the patriotic climax, with an eagle combating the tentacles of the axis powers, fading to a waving American flag. All that was missing was an entreaty to buy war bonds.
But I keep getting away from the emphasis of this monograph, what's the entertainment value of this film, ignoring the historical perspective that hangs over it. Animation-wise, there's not much that's groundbreaking or unique. It has a distinct style, mostly a commitment to realism and melodrama, with lots of stark contrasts via usage of character silhouettes. Certainly the animation is effective in communicating its message, but there the visual style is sometimes too close to reality. Metaphors are certainly thick, as in all good propaganda, none more-so than the climax of the movie featuring a bald eagle attacking the 'octopus of fascism'. Save a few moments in the opening part about the history of flight, there are few lighthearted moments, and despite the promise of victory via aircraft, there is a grim realism of the time that this was made. All in all, this is much more a historical reflection of a dark time America's history, and can't be faulted for not bristling with groundbreaking animation. And some sixty years later the film still does pack a dramatic punch, and might cynically be called a relic of wartime, but it succeeds at its purpose and can arguably be called the most unique animated feature the studio ever produced. And in a way, Victory Though Air Power served as the template for some of the Disneyland TV show's Tomorrowland segments, mixing animated comedy with coldly realistic portrayals of technological concepts (in Disneyland TV's case, man's future in space) . Personally I'm glad that the next feature was more upbeat and innovative visually.
THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944)
Close on the heels of SALUDOS AMIGOS came a more developed and satisfying movie, THE THREE CABALLEROS. Whereas SALUDOS AMIGOS used the device of touring animators visiting Latin America, THREE CABALLEROS uses Donald Duck as the token American, who takes a tour of Brazil and Mexico via his pals Joe/Jose Carioca (also in SALUDOS) and a new character, Ponchito.
This is the only Disney film of this group to have been released on videotape before that late 1990s, having been available since the early 1980s. Before that it enjoyed cult-film status on college campuses in the 1960s, due to it's 'psychedelic' segments. It is certainly dated, a bit too episodic, and even guilty of ethnic stereotyping in places. However, it was the first time Disney combined live action and animation in a feature film, via a technique called rotoscoping. Sixty years after it's initial release, the reason behind this films existence is happily obscure. Along with SALUDOS AMIGOS, it was commissioned by the wartime government to promote good relations with Latin America. I say "happily obscure" because you wouldn't know this was a subtle propaganda film while watching it. Whereas SALUDOS AMIGOS had a more newsreel-eque feel to it, THE THREE CABALLEROS simply presents animated episodes and some pre-staged live-action performances, with little actual Latin locations or commentary. The film was directed by Norman Fergeson, who is best known for his Pluto animations.
Despite all the visual wonders of the film, it's episodic quality makes the film weaker. For example, the first story about Pablo the Penguin could easily have been a Disney short (perhaps it was originally intended as one?). It is only tenuously connected to the films theme - if I recall my high-school geography, Antarctica is not really a part of Latin America. Anyway it's a pleasant little story about a penguin who is never warm enough and sets sail for the tropical isle of his dreams (only to be marooned there). The rest of the film is divided up into the Brazil segment, the Mexico segment and a quick climax in the form of a mock bullfight.
Donald Duck begins his Latin American adventures by watching some home movies, then gets reunited with Jose Caricoa. After the lovely musical bit "Baia", Jose drags Donald around some visually charming scenes of Brazil, complete with live action dancers and musicians in the "Ya Ya" sequence, which features Aurora Miranda (Carmen's sister). As trite as these segments might seem, they are bright and colorful pastiches which are more memorable that one might expect.
Despite their simplicity, the films two best sequences are the ballad numbers, "Baia" & "Mexico". The "Baia" sequence is filled with lovely impressionistic views of Brazil; views of architecture, sailboats on the bay and cooing doves flying over the city. What makes the segment so captivating is Ary Baroso's mesmerizing standard "Baia" (with gringo-ized lyrics by Ray Gilbert). "Mexico" has a similar feel, actually interspersing live action footage along with animated scenes washing into each other via liquid dissolves. It's the only part of the film to feature location footage of Latin America.
After Donald continues to Mexico in the company of Ponchito the film degenerates into foolish sex-comedy with Donald chasing after Latin lovelies on a beach (that looks a lot more like the Burbank backlot than Acapulco). Thankfully the film takes a curious turn with the "You Belong To My Heart", which begins as a simple ballad sung buy Carmen Molina's face floating with the stars in space, then turns into a mixture of purely abstract animation and dancing vegetation. This is one of the reasons I find this film so endearing, it's willingness to make visual segments for their own sake, something that happens all too infrequently in Disney films. These qualities were later regarded as 'psychedelic' and contributed to the film's cult status. Certainly the first time I watched this film I was quite enchanted, and to this day, it is the Disney film I watch most often. It has many the qualities I desire in a Disney film, from the novel visuals to the enchanting tunes.
As with it's predecessor, the films weakest moment is the climax, but at least THE THREE CABALLEROS gives a hearty try at a memorable ending. The bullfight (with Donald as the bull) has the feeling of being tacked on to provide an upbeat ending, but it's not drawn out and is an tidy, if uninspired, ending to one of the studios most unique movies. It's worth noting that the studio planned a third Latin American-themed film, featuring Cuba, called Cuban Carnival. Both Donald and Jose Carioca would both reprise their roles. Mary Blair was sent on a reccy of Cuba in 1943, but the plan for the film was scrapped. Please visit Mouse Planet's The Lost Caballero for some excellent details on the project.
Taken as part of these 'weird years', THREE CABALLEROS and it's predecessor are an odd pair of flicks, and one can only guess what effect they had upon American policy during the 40s, but no matter, they have a style and charm that has not ever been seen in a Disney feature film since. The DVD release adds a couple of shorts, non worth bothering over.
The throws of World War II would halt the studio's commercial output for a few years. Of course the Disney studio created a great deal of training and support films for the military during the war. After WWII ended, the studio's foundations had been shaken, so for the sake of economy and expediency, Disney chose to continue the package-feature format for the next four years and films. The studio also released "Song Of The South in 1946, a primarily live-action film with animated segments, and then "So Dear To My Heart" a totally live action film.
MAKE MINE MUSIC (1946)
MAKE MINE MUSIC is a film that reflects the distracted and offbeat time in the studio's history. The studio had produced an enormous volume of films for the war effort, and so therefore took time to gear up the feature unit. Given the high cost and time required to get a feature film completed, Walt made a shrewd move to simply bundle a series of shorts together into a single package feature. Unlike the package features that proceeded it, these were necessitated by economics, not government pressure or to gain some time. But this lower-than-expected standard was reflected at the box-office, and these string of films marginal success almost grounded the animated features unit for good.
One thing worth mentioning is the marginal quality of the film-transfer to DVD. During several segments you can see lots of dust and scratches on the screen, and it looks like Disneycorp didn't bother to "Fully Restore" this film, as they have with other titles. Or perhaps the original didn't have a high level of quality control. To top it off, the entire segment "The Martins & The Coys" has been snipped away by Disney's politically correct shears, supposedly because of all of the gunplay or the its unflattering portayal of hillbillies (!?). Personally I don't think it's anyone's loss. The 8-minute segment is just a boring bit of hillbillies shooting off guns and guzzling moonshine with a cornball romance thrown in. But you can now decide for yourself, thanks to You Tube, it's posted here.
Hillbillies aside, there are two kinds of segments in the film, animated music and short stories with a musical theme. Of this former type, we have the beautiful tone poem, "Blue Bayou", which was originally slated for FANTASIA, in a segment called "Clare De Lune". Debussey's music was dropped in favor of the lilting pop tune sung by Diana Shore. The sumptuous backdrops are perfectly suited to the music, portraying a lovely night in an idyllic bayou. This part opens the film (well, only because "The Martins And The Coys" is cut out). Then is the utterly soporific "Without You", a mournful torch song, that features some undewhelming backgrounds. I skip over it every time - snore.
The two remaining bits of animated music are are pair of jazz tunes. "All The Cats Join In" is a minimalist bit of jazzy jive, which is directly or indirectly, an inspiration for the "Rhapsody In Blue" segment of FANTASIA 2000. The characters in this celebration of 40's youth are pure Fred Moore, an animator was known for his appealing personalities. A plotless clip, that just features a hubbub of jitterbuggin' youth in various settings, utilizing a Disney trademark of drawing the background as the scene progresses. The Disney-censor's knife made the ladies 'less buxom' for the video issue, it's said. For my eyes, the most fun part of the film is "After You've Gone", which is an enjoyable bit of sonic abstraction. If you could image the pop music equivalent of FANTASIA's "Tocatta & Fugue", then you have "After You've Gone". The settings are novel and the still look fresh today. The theme wa repeated in MELODY TIME with "Bumblebee Boogie".
That's leaves the longer bits, and the most enjoyable to me, as well as being the only truely comical segment, is "Casey At Bat", narrated by Jerry Colonna, who later provided the voice of the March Hare in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. The over-the-top baseball characters are fun to watch, and give a frantic pace to Theyer's classic poem. The segment was so popular that it spawned a sequel, 1954's "Casey Bats Again". Probably the goofiest part of the movie is "Johnnie Fedora And Alice Bluebonnet", which as you might guess, is a love story between two hats. It's almost too weird to watch this tale of a chapeau that falls on hard times, longing for his long lost love, only to find her on a horse. The animation is pretty predictable, with little to recommend it, save the strange concept of the story. The Andrews Sisters deliver the song with panache.
What remains are the two most ambitious parts of the movie, "Peter & The Wolf" and "The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met". "Peter And The Wolf", an adaptation of Prokofiev's famous piece, is narrated by Sterling Holloway and is probably the most well-known part of the film. This segment was often shown as a short on TV. There's a nice character about the segment, as the layout and backgrounds have a pleasant storybook feel, instead of the naturalistic look of similar tales. Holloway's narration seems a bit excessive sometimes, but generally is entertaining. After setting the scene it becomes an exaggerated chase tale, and has kind of a flat ending. The last bit is a climax/anti-climax called "The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met". Nelson Eddy delivers the story of Willie The singing whale. It's truly novel to see a whale belting out "Shortnin' Bread" to a bunch of seals. Not being an aficionado of opera, I found the segment too long, and it was pretty much a one-joke bit with little interesting animation or character development. But some of the melodrama keeps the segment moving. But the main character get harpooned in the end of the tale, which is a pretty non-Disney ending, and leaves a queer aftertaste in ones mouth, but as Bugs Bunny quipped in "What's Opera Doc" - 'What do you expect from an opera, a HAPPY ending?'
FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947)
This second post-war release differs from it's bookend titles, MAKE MINE MUSIC and MELODY TIME, and their pop-FANTASIA format by combining just two featurettes, "Bongo" and "Mickey And The Beanstalk". This format is repeated with ICHABOD & MR. TOAD in 1949. Jiminny Cricket is the glue that holds the two unrelated stories together, and the bouncy title theme song (originally slated to be in PINOCCHIO) is one of the films better attributes. Jiminny toddles from one house to another, which bridges the stories to each other. As one watches the two mini-features, you are left to ponder if they would have made good full-length films. From my skewed view, the answer is not really. Sometimes each segment seems too long in their current form.
"Bongo" is a throwaway tale (based on Sinclair Lewis' story) about a circus bear called, uh, Bongo, that escapes his unhappy existence in the big top and finds life, love and conflict in the great wide open forest. Originally planned as a semi-sequel to DUMBO, it was trimmed down for FUN AND FANCY FREE. Narrated by Dinah Shore, who's drawling style borders on soporific at times. Sometimes the narration seems to intrude on the story, but that's not really a bad thing, since the segment feels about 15 minutes too long. The falling in love sequence with Lulabelle gets dragged out to absurd lengths and seems to flaunt its blandness. The dull story would be acceptable if there were a few memorable scenes or any style in the film, but it looks a lot like many of Disney's shorts, undistinguished and unmemorable. The made-to-order baddie, Lunkjaw, is about the only thing fun to watch (and I found myself rooting for him to smite the too-cute Bongo). Even the DVD packaging features one tiny image from the "Bongo" segment, which was no doubt for marketing reasons, but also that there's not much to shout about visually in the film. After 'Bongo' concludes, we are treated to a reprise of the theme as Jiminny invites himself across the way to Edgar Bergan's house, who's hosting a party for Luana Patten. We get some pretty funny bits with Mortemer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy, and then segue to the second half of the film.
"Mickey and the Beanstalk" is a fair shade better than "Bongo", but that's not too much of an accomplishment. This marks the only Disney feature in which Mickey, Donald and Goofy appear together. Told with some panache by the 20th Century's most famous ventriloquist, Edgar Bergan. Not that Bergan isn't funny, but all those years on radio must have allowed his method to slacken, as his mouth moves more than his dummies do. Anyway, he tells the tale of Mickey and the Beanstalk with goofy asides from his dummies Charlie and Mortemer . Personally it's the cynical jibes from Charlie McCarthy that keep the segment going for me, as his wisecracks are still funny today. The story runs over some familiar ground for Disney, as there's some similarity to the old Mickey short, "The Brave Little Tailor", but their are some memorable scenes and good characterization. This segment also feels more thought out, as Bergan and Patton intermingle with the story (and especially at the humorus climax when the giant rips the roof from Bergan's house). It also marks the last time the Walt supplied the voice of Mickey.
The opening montage of Happy Valley turned to a dust-bowl, because the giant steals a singing harp, is dramatic and doubles its impact with the starving main characters slicing beans for their dinner. This is a probably the most memorable scene in the whole movie, perhaps save the wonderful part when the beanstalk grows and grows, taking Goofy, Donald and Mickey with it. Once we get to the land of the giant, the featurette slows somewhat, as much of it is devoted to getting the singing harp back. But on the up side we have Billy Gilbert who's quite good as the giant (he was also the voice of Sneezy in SNOW WHITE). With a lot of predictable hi-jinx as they attempt to escape the giant's wrath, this film comes to a predictable happy ending, which a nice twist at the end with the giant walking thru nighttime Hollywood wearing the Brown Derby for a hat.
Taken together they make passable fare, but I find myself skipping the "Bongo" segment and think this would have been better served as a simple short of "Mickey and the Beanstalk". And like the other films of this period, mark a time of indecision and compromise for the studio. Thankfully for the next double-featurette, they chose more fruitful material and hence made a better film.
MELODY TIME (1948)
MELODY TIME is the last of the two "Pop-Fantasias" and was not much of a success with movie goers. It pretty much repeats the formula of MAKE MINE MUSIC, simply a collection of animated musical numbers. As with the other crop of post-war titles, some bits are good, others forgettable, but it makes for a nice way to pass the time. The lackluster interest in the studios recent output gave Mr. Disney second thoughts about continuing the features unit, given their high cost over live action films. Yet Walt could not blame the public so much as his choice of subject matter for sub-par showings at the box office. As you had in MAKE MINE MUSIC, there are two basic kinds of bits, animated songs and stories with music.
The musical songs bit starts with "Once Upon A Wintertime" is the first and worst of the bunch. Its a simply drawn piece of romantic puffery concerning a pair of humans and bunny rabbits' adventures upon a frozen pond. The animation is appealing by its very simplicity, but the segment is hampered by the fact that it has little time to tell a story, so it comes off as a series of cute cliches. Quite a bit better is the "Bumble Boogie" part, which is a slice of abstractia via a jazzed up version of "Flight Of The Bumblebee". Stylistically following closely on the heels of the "After You've Gone" segment of MAKE MINE MUSIC, the segments frenetic pace, and musical visuals, are quick fun, but not anything that lingers in the mind too long. Looking like an out-take from THREE CABALLEROS or SALUDOS AMIGOS, "Blame It On The Samba" features Donald Duck and Jose Carioca in non-speaking rolls as they dance through latin-style landscapes to a (I presume) samba beat. Still, the painted-as-they-go backgrounds are fun to watch. But the highlight is the quirky portion featuring Ethel Smith, dressed up ala Miranda, wailing away on her Hammond Organ appearing in the swirl of a brandy snifter. I must admit I find i hard not to snicker at the cheesy sounds of Ms. Tico-Tico's organ grinding, but she sure can play. This is followed by the charming "Little Toot", about a mischievous tugboat, has some interesting animation and a peppy Andrews Sisters soundtrack. Because it has some good characterization, and even some interesting animation, its probably the best of the animated songs in the film.
The remainder of the movie concerns two polar-opposite American folk heros. The first, "Johnny Appleseed", is a light morality tale about the famous historical figure John Chapman, who planted apple trees throughout the midwest. Of course most of the characterizations of Chapman (tin-pot hat, bare feet, etc) are romantic nonsense, but are pretty harmless. There's a nice storybook-look to the tale, and Dennis Day does a good job of providing the voices of Johnny, Johnny's angel and the narrator. To counterbalance Johnny's rectitude, we finish off with a rootin' tootin' cowpoke. The last, and most famous segment, is "Pacos Bill". The gentle ballad "Blue Shadows On The Trail" opens the finale, sung by Roy Rogers and his Sons Of The Pioneers gang. The lovely animation of the desert at dusk marries perfectly with the song. After Roy introduces the story, we're treated to traditional Disney novel storytelling and entertainment. The larger-than-life Pacos Bill is fun to watch as he his horse Widowmaker do the stuff that tall-tales are made of. Disney chose to edit out some scenes of Bill smoking, and perhaps some other things for fear of politically correct reprisals.
On balance MELODY TIME is quite a bit better than it's partner-piece, MAKE MINE MUSIC, since the segments are better developed and more entertaining visually. But one can image a superior version by taking the best bits from each film and making a film that has a better claim to Disney greatness. Not surprisingly, given the lukewarm box office for these films, the studio never returned to the 'package-feature' format. However, I would not be surprised if the reanimated the format given the studios current desire to cannibalize it's past for maximum financial gain.
THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949)
The final in a long series of weird-era package features repeats the formula for FUN AND FANCY FREE by sticking two featurettes together. Unlike FUN AND FANCY FREE, they chose more interesting subject matter - two old tales from Washington Irving & Kenneth Grahame. Also the linking segments between the featurettes are minimal, comprising only a theme song and narration by Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby, contrasting with the more elaborate sketches in FUN AND FANCY FREE.
Based on Grahame's novel "Wind In The Willows", "Toad of Toad Hall" begins with Basil Rathbone's appropriate narration and excellent voice casting for the characters. Certainly the books' dreamy quality is missing from the segment, and Disney-fied characters are less complex then the orignial story, but at the very worst, one is inspired to read the book by it. The settings are generally picture postcards of Edwardian England. The manor of Toad Hall is one of the films more interesting settings, stately and cavernous, which makes perfect fodder for its undoing by the weasel gang. The pacing of the tale is quite brisk, which it has to be to tell its' story in a short time. It is still charming to watch a tiny toad recklessly running about the countryside with his cockney companion, Cyril the horse (who was not in the original story, by the way). The two footloose characters are perfect foils for the stodgy Rat, Mole and Badger. One of the most enjoyable aspects is the bouncy tune "Nowhere In Particular", which J. Thaddeus and Cyril sing as they wreak havoc on a gypsy cart. Other highlights include the courtroom scene where an accused toad is charged with stealing a motorcar. Toad's escape from prison relies on movie cliches of the era, like showing newspaper headlines to punctuate the escape, but gives a nice dark edge to it. Still, it's quite lighthearted (certainly more so than the following segment) and remains charming to this day. I should mention Rathbone's excellent narration, which is perfect for the story. I only wish they'd picked somebody as good to narrate the second half of the film...
Like 'Toad Hall', the adaptation of Washington Irving's short story "Legend Of Sleepy Hollow" is relatively faithful to the original tale. What's mostly missing is Irving's vivid descriptions of the setting of the story, which weaves a more sombre, queer atmosphere than this animated version. But this is not surprising for Disney, who made a career of subtle whitewashing of original stories for film treatment. However, the film does credit to the tale, and follows the stories climax almost exactly. If one irksome fault can be found with it, I would nominate Bing Crosby's soporific (par for the course with Mr. Bing) narration, peppered with his trademark "Boo, boo-boo, boo" nonsense. The segments dialogue is loosely drawn from the original story, but occasionally strays into 40's jive-talk. With all the voices left to Bing (who lacks the ability to do vocal characterization like Dennis Day or Nelson Eddy did in previous 'one-man-shows'), with an occasional female in there somewhere, and perhaps should have followed the method of the 'Toad Hall' segment, with a series of excellent character voices. But despite Bing, the characters are very distinctive and, again, faithful to the story. But some much of SLEEPY HOLLOW fades away too quickly when compared to the famous climax chase through the forest. The excellent pacing keeps one on the edge of their seat as Ichabod tries to outrun the headless-horseman. Of course Disney tries to lighten things a little with Ichabod and his horse, but they can't fail to dim the impact of the Headless-Horseman's sublime menace. The ending of SLEEPY HOLLOW is marred by the sub-par, and inappropriate refrain sung by Bing and the gang "You can't argue with a headless man!". Kinda dopey.
I find the "Toad Of Toad Hall" more enjoyable, though "Legend Of Sleepy Hollow" is more memorable, thanks its dramatic climax. Taken as a pair of featurettes, this is one of the best of the six titles during these weird years, and it's good to have them put back as they were originally presented. Both titles have been shown on TV as independent shorts, or as part of holiday compilations. And this was the last of it's kind for the studio, as the 1950s came along, Disney's era of the package feature came to an end with the 1940s.
As I mentioned in the intro, these films of the mid/late 40s marked a period of crisis and indecision in the studio, and brought the animation unit close to elimination for the first time. One can't fault the studio, faced with economic uncertainty, to 'hedge its bets' and produce these seven movies of disunited portions. But it became all to clear that the format wasn't going to be sustainable. And so the subsequent feature, CINDERELLA, (1950) was the do-or-die film for the animation unit, much like THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was 36 years later. And if you look at the twenty-eight films that the studio released in the 1950s, only five were animated features, which proved that Disney was keen on diversifying his output to include films that had a greater profit potential than animated features. So the studios shift toward live action only films (which took less time and money to make) also helped keep income into the studio. And from CINDERELLA on, the studio was on a pretty good roll throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, despite the increasingly high costs and time required for animated features. Fortunately, Walt created a humble little project called Disneyland, which gave the studio a steady stream of income that has yet to cease. But as I look back as this group of seven almost-forgotten features, I'm rather glad to see the studios more humble and curious output. Certainly none of these films are seminal Disney features like FANTASIA or PINCCHIO, but they have their moments, and it's a minor miracle that the Disney cooperation has let these weird films see the light of day again. So give them a peek before they disappear once again.