Each week, THN takes a look back at one of the Walt Disney Animated Classics. The ones that the Walt Disney Company showed in cinemas, the ones they’re most proud of, the ones that still cost a bloody fortune no matter how old they are. The really good ones get through more re-editions than a Spielberg movie, and that’s saying something. This week it’s MELODY TIME.
1948/ 75 Minutes
Aaand we’re back to the grab bag again. This was the last “package film” Disney made – cheap and cheerful shorts made up of whatever scraps were left in the barrel. Disney made no restrictions on their artists, and it shows.
SYNOPSIS: After a schmaltzy title song and cards introducing the players, an animated paintbrush “paints” a quite disturbing pair of lips, before painting the rest of the host, a very disturbing two-face mask, who goes on to introduce Once Upon a Wintertime. In this a young couple almost meet with tragedy as they skate upon a frozen river. Sung by Francis Langford, it’s a very cute, very traditional short, but nothing to write home about.
Bumble Boogie is a more interesting affair, if only for Freddy Martin (and his orchestra)’s swing-jazz rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee. This poor little dude is terrorised by an audio-visual nightmare. This piece was actually considered for FANTASIA, but was cut from the final product, and features some very innovative piano-based surrealist imagery.
After that it gets a bit weird, for me anyway, with Dennis Day narrating The Legend of Johnny Appleseed. It’s unusual – for a Disney feature – in that it covers a real person from American history; John Chapman, an American pioneer who became a legend for travelling the Western States introducing apples to the US. It’s also somewhat odd in that it’s quite heavy on the Christianity. Which is fine, but feels a bit weird in the fantastical world of Walt Disney. It’s an interesting insight into American folklore, though.
After that we’re on much more familiar territory with Little Toot, narrated in song by The Andrews Sisters. A juvenile tug boat in New York Harbour tries his best to be a “big toot” like his dad, but his efforts result in chaos and destruction. With his father disgraced and repurposed as a garbage scow, Little Toot is exiled into open water, where he’s bullied by bouys and even the lighthouse light shuns him. Caught in a raging storm, Little Toot comes across a stricken liner. Blasting out an SOS he rushes in to help. Against all odds he’s able to tow the liner clear and brings her home. It’s a very sweet, traditional feel-good story with a happy ending.
Trees is rather more sedate; a reciting of the famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians with the lyrical setting seen through the seasons. Some very nice, chalky artwork reminiscent of FANTASIA here, and some more christian symbolism that these days might not fly.
Blame it on the Samba marks a surprise return for Donald Duck and José Carioca, who are feeling rather blue (they’ve probably just seen the rest of the picture) and mopey. Luckily, The Aracuan is on hand to perk them up, introducing them to the pleasures of the samba. The Dinning Sisters provide the vocals while organist Ethel Smith appears in person to play the organ. Much like their last picture together, this segment is rather trippy.
Our final segment is Pecos Bill. After a very nice animated segment, we segue into a live action scene of Roy Rogers and Company singing for a group of kids (including the little girl from FUN AND FANCY FREE). This segment is very much in the spirit of said movie’s Mickey and the Beanstalk segment, with Roy doing the lion’s share of the narration and the others providing backing vocals, telling the very tall tale of Pecos Bill. It has a surpirisingly melancholy ending as Pecos Bill loses his one true love, and howls at the moon in mourning. And that’s why coyotes do the same, apparently.
1. Don’t skate on a frozen river with a waterfall.
2. The US has some interesting folklore.
3. Disney animators can really go for it when let off the leash.
Like every other package picture, most shorts have their own protagonist, and it’s a pretty good group this time. Johnny is a sweet if dull character, and Bill has his moments, but for me, Little Toot is the closest we get to a hero, though that’s mainly because that whole short shines out more than the others.
There are only a few female characters, and most of them are quite forgettable, except for Slue-Foot Sue. Maybe it’s the way she’s drawn, her attitude, the fact that she’s a redhead, or maybe I need to get out more, but she really is quite something.
There aren’t any really. A few characters aren’t exactly heroic, but a lot of the time they’re just doing what they’re meant to. The closest we get is the vultures in the Pecos Bill segment.
Cute Woodland Animals helping the stricken lovers in Wintertime, Johnny’s guardian angel, Widowmaker (Bill’s horse) all get a mention but none of them really stand out.
The shorts that have plots are pretty decent; Little Toot is the best here as a self-contained story; it was released as such in later years. The rest are mostly ‘just sit back and enjoy the trip‘ style toons.
A couple, but none really spring out. For me it was mostly laughing (well, bemused smirking) at the ridiculousness of Pecos Bill’s alleged exploits.
Again, not many. The vultures are pretty darn sinister, and the storm sequence in Little Toot is quite reminiscent of Pedro as it makes sinsiter faces out of the storm-wracked rocks.
MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
I picked up a few things about American folklore and maybe a few things I’ll work into my novel at some point, but the artistic/surrealist nature of most of the film is pretty light on the intellectual stuff.
Some really nice music in here. The Bumblebee segment is brilliant, and the Andrews Sisters have the same charm they showed with Johnny Fedora.
A couple of the sequences were released independently – some with cuts to make them a little more PC – but truth be told, this is pretty forgettable.
Donald wouldn’t appear in a Disney feature film until WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT four decades later.
FINAL SCORE 36/53
Next week, our first scoreboard!
Anything to add? Be our guest!
“Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination”, Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York City