The Great Disney Blogathon: Make Mine Music (1946)
|August 6, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
The anthology films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros had done very well for Disney, but it was still World War II, and things were still tough. Many of Walt’s artists had been drafted, and much of the studio’s remaining focus was on propaganda films.1 With decreased manpower and the European market still cut off, Walt fell back on the thing they knew was profitable: anthology films. And so Make Mine Music was born. 2
Wikipedia claims the animators just gathered up a bunch of half-finished ideas, while John Grant and Leonard Maltin both say Make Mine Music was a deliberate attempt at a popular music version of Fantasia. Either way, “music” is a pretty loose theme for a film, even more so than “Latin America,” and the shorts don’t have a lot in common with each other besides the prevalence of cute Freddy Moore girls, so I’m not really going to talk about it as a whole. I will note, however, that the pop culture of the time (filtered through mostly-white adult men, of course) comes through on this film more than any other Disney film I can think of off the top of my head. Of course all Disney movies reflect the era in which they were made, but this one is crammed full of popular singers and musicians, jazz and swing, jitterbugging, hillbillies (1930s and 40s Americans loved hillbilly humor), and two separate 1890s-set shorts (ditto). It’s very much a product of its time, and not just because of the limitations the war placed on the studio.
So, the shorts:
The Martins and the Coys: The King’s Men, a popular radio group, use cartoonishly thick accents to sing a narrative song about two warring rural clans, obviously based on the Hatfields and McCoys. The families slaughter each other early on in a literal cloud of gunfire, leaving behind a solo descendent on each side: Grace Martin and Henry Coy. The two promptly fall in love, much to the dismay of their deceased relatives, watching from the clouds above, but after a raucously joyful wedding the Martin-Coy marriage devolves into half-seen domestic violence, allowing the feud to continue. The short has been removed from some home video versions and my DVD doesn’t actually have it (though you can watch it here). The reason cited in all my sources is all the gun violence at the beginning, but to be honest, it’s mostly obscured and way less graphic than, say, Daffy Duck getting his beak shot off. I don’t think we should teach children that guns and death by guns are funny, but to my mind the shots of Henry Coy rolling up his sleeve and running into his house to beat his wife while she flings hard, heavy objects at him is far more disturbing, especially since it’s essentially the “happy ending” to the short. I like having the short available for animation buffs on YouTube, but I can’t say I’m bothered by the removal of it from the DVD.
Blue Bayou: This stunning piece features the Ken Darby Singers and a quiet, meditative twilight in the bayou. Everything is done in shimmering shades of blue, from the smoky clouds in the sky to the dew-beaded leaves that fade in and out as the camera pans through the scene. The only action is an egret picking its way through the water and taking a couple of short flights; its movements set off interlocking rings of ripples that shatter the moon’s reflection into a dozen dazzling lights. Everything about it is lovely, though the animation and anatomy on the egret is sometimes a little iffy. This piece, more than any other, feels like something out of Fantasia…which is unsurprising, since it was created for Fantasia and paired with Debussy’s Claire de Lune, but was cut for time. It’s been accused of pretension – the title card even refers to it as a “tone poem,” whatever that is – but I think it’s lovely.
All the Cats Join In: The two Benny Goodman pieces in the film are where the movie comes closest to fulfilling the promise of “a popular music Fantasia”; they’re both wildly creative and wonderfully scored. In this one, a pencil wielded by an unseen animator starts us off by drawing a jukebox playing a pulsing, jumping swing; it sketches in a teenage boy, who calls his girlfriend and invites her to the soda pop shop to dance. She dolls herself up, with “help” from a pesky little sister, and then she and a dozen other teens pile into the boy’s jalopy. They return to the pop shop to jitterbug furiously until the short ends. Along the way, the pencil draws in props only as needed and sometimes not fast enough – in a cute gag, the jalopy takes off before the pencil can draw the back wheels, and the pencil has to draw a stoplight to get a chance to finish the car. The movie’s essential cheapness is clear; by design, there are no backgrounds to speak of, and though the Freddy Moore girls who populate the short are all adorable, their designs and anatomy are inconsistent. Still, the short is bright and lively and above all, fun, and the creativity of the pencil gimmick shows that it’s possible to make a movie without spending billions of dollars on multiplane shots (ahem, Walt) while still making something that’s a joy to watch.
Without You: Andy Russell sings the title song as the camera pans from a letter on a table in a front hallway to the rain falling against the window, which becomes abstract shapes that reflect the lyrics. Unfortunately, Russell’s voice has not dated well – it’s very saccharine – and the animation effects, while occasionally interesting, are not terribly compelling. This is a short trying for grandeur and “high art” and falling into shlock. The worst is when Russell sings the word “pray” and the images turn into a semi-abstract church. Ugh. Talk about Mickey Mousing the music!3
Casey at the Bat: Jerry Colonna, best known to those who aren’t into old time-y radio stars as the voice of Disney’s March Hare, narrates (a modified version of) the classic poem, which is paired with an avalanche of sight gags. It’s not particularly innovative, animation-wise, and the musical connection is slight – a short opening song, “Casey, the Pride of Them All,” is sung over a series of Currier and Ives-esque stills – but it’s funny, which is exactly what it sets out to be. No complaints here.
Two Silhouettes: Okay, time for some complaints. The concept here is ambitious: ballet dancers David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinskaya (who was also one of the references for the dancers in Fantasia) perform a pas de deux, which the animators have transformed into silhouettes by essentially coloring them in; they are placed in an animated backdrop that lets them dance in the clouds and scatter stars in the air. Two cherubs fly around them and interact slightly with the dance. (Dinah Shore sings the title song.) The problem is in the execution: the incredibly slow dancing looks stiff and awkward against the facility of animation, especially when every en pointe wobble is captured, and the pink and purple Valentine’s-y animation that surrounds them is saccharine to the point of being embarrassing. The cupids push it way past tolerable into some seriously vapid Hallmark pablum. Even the choreography is lackluster, and the fact that it’s ballet and thus was clearly intended to be “high” art makes it even more obnoxious. Give me lowbrow jitterbugging teenagers any day.
Peter and the Wolf: This is a seemingly straightforward rendition of Prokofiev’s music, narrated by Disney regular Sterling Holloway. In fact, purists don’t tend to like this short, since the point of the original piece is to allow children to visualize the events, which doesn’t really work when you provide your own visuals, and also Sterling Holloway’s narration is completely different from the traditional one. However, since I’ve never heard Peter and the Wolf in the wild, as it were, I can’t really compare. That issue aside, the short is standard-issue Disney: cute, often funny, a little cheesy, with a Disney Death and everything. But hey, it’s got a duck. Ducks are great.
After You’ve Gone: This is the other Benny Goodman piece, and it’s as delightful as the first. It possibly embodies the pop culture Fanatasia idea even more, since it’s basically anthropomorphic instruments dancing in a kaleidoscope of shifting piano keys and jazz music. It defies description but should be watched immediately.
Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet: The Andrews Sisters sing the title song to this one, which is set in the 1890s and features two anthropomorphic hats in love. Yes, hats. It takes a few viewings to get past the silliness, but Johnnie is actually very engagingly animated (Alice, depressingly, has no facial expressions, just sultry eyes that occasionally shed a single tear). They fall in love while on display in the window of a store, are separated when Alice is purchased, and seek each other through a series of near misses and tragedies until they end up on the heads of two horses pulling an ice wagon. Awww. It’s a fairly ridiculous short, but charmingly animated, and I love the Andrews Sisters.
The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met: The short than ends the film is more than twice as long as any of the others and stars the crap out of Nelson Eddy, who plays every single role, from the narrator to the villain to the extras to opera parts ranging from bass to soprano to a 400-voice choir on Ave Maria (done by multitracking a quartet of Eddy’s voice, but still). It tells the tale of a singing whale named Willie, who comes to the attention of humans when he’s spotted – and, more importantly, heard – by sailors. Opera impresario Tetti Tatti comes to the conclusion that the singing is actually from an opera singer that Willie has swallowed, and sets out to kill Willie and “rescue” the singer, who he will make into a star. Willie, under the impression that this is an audition, sings so masterfully that Tetti Tatti’s sailors refuse to shoot him, but finally Tetti Tatti gets the fatal harpoon off, and Willie dies (his death throes are pretty upsetting to watch). But don’t worry, the narrator tells us, miracles like Willie never really die, and he’s singing up in Heaven right now – and sure enough, there he is. It’s a tour de force performance by Eddy and there are some funny bits, but man, what a downer ending to the movie. And, I’m afraid, this post.
- I swear, someday I will figure out a methodical way to talk about the shorts, because Donald Duck, Unhappy Nazi Soldier is some intense weirdness. ↩
- And would be followed by more anthologies. Hang in there, kids, Cinderella’s just four years away! ↩
- “Mickey Mousing the music” is matching the action on screen exactly to the music in such a way that it becomes cheesy and predictable. Despite the name, Mickey – and Disney – rarely Mickey Mouse the music, so this short is especially disappointing. ↩