The Great Disney Blogathon: Melody Time (1948)
|September 17, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Music, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Okay, to be fair, Melody Time probably suffers from watching all the Disney movies marathon-style. I would most likely be more charitable if I hadn’t relatively recently watched four other anthologies, five if you count Fantasia. But I want story and character, and those are thin on the ground in anthologies; there’s just not enough time in most of the segments to build either one (which is why the ones featuring Mickey, Donald, and/or Goofy tend to be more watchable – we already know and like them!).
Also, Melody Time is just kind of…average. There are no stinkers quite as bad as, say, “Two Silhouettes,” but there’s no real brilliance, either. Three of the shorts are thoroughly watchable, but even that’s damning with faint praise when you consider the heights Disney is capable of achieving, and the rest are just forgettable. Come on, Disney, you can do so much better than this!
So, those shorts:
Once Upon a Wintertime: Sung by Frances Langford, this dialogue-free short, which looks to be set in about the 1860s, features a young couple out for a sleigh ride. They go skating and wind up quarreling, but when the girl storms out onto thin ice, she’s rescued by the timely intervention of their horses and a pair of helpful squirrels. A rabbit couple mimics the human couple’s narrative, which is pretty unnecessary since the human couple is slapsticky enough. Though the designs are in the best Mary Blair style, the short itself is typical of the movie as a whole in that it’s a hackneyed plot with hackneyed jokes, stock characters, and soporific music. There’s just no there there.
Bumble Boogie: Freddy Martin and His Orchestra do a jazz take on “Flight of the Bumblebee” as a very non-bumblebee-looking bumblebee (he’s not even yellow!) tries to avoid a kaleidoscope of aggressive and semi-abstract musical instruments. It’s a lot like Make Mine Music’s “After You’ve Gone,” but, uh, not nearly as good.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed: Exactly what it sounds like.1 The thing that struck me about this one was how explicitly Christian it was; with a few notable exceptions like Hunchback, Disney usually sticks to non-religiously specific but implicitly Christian stories/characters/iconography. Johnny, however, is given his “mission” by an actual angel (albeit, charmingly, an old frontiersman of an angel in a coonskin cap), carries a huge bible with him everywhere, and repeatedly sings a him (albeit a jaunty folksong-y one). This short is one of the better ones in the movie, being an actual story with actual characters, but I’m not totally sanguine about the Christian imagery spreading its radiant beams of light across the land as the forest is chopped down in favor of settlements where white settlers do-si-do with some really stock Native American stereotypes. I mean, hooray for cider and all, but I don’t see “Christian civilization” as an unqualified good the way the audience of the time was expected to.
Little Toot: The Andrews Sisters narrate this story about a mischievous baby tugboat who learns responsibility when he’s the only one who can help a distressed ocean liner. It’s…well, it’s very Disney.2 I kind of want Little Toot to hang out with Pedro from Saludos Amigos. Or, well, I would if they were more interesting. Sorry, I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.
Trees: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, whoever they are, sing a choral version of Joyce Kilmer’s poem (you know, the “I think that I shall never see a poem so lovely as a tree” one) to scenes of nature that heavily feature, you guessed it, trees. It just feels like we’ve seen this before, “this” being people singing sleepily over non-narrative scenes of nature – not just in Make Mine Music, but in all of the anthologies, including Fantasia – and it was done better then. Plus, a lot of the staging of the “animals running from rain” sequence looks like it came out of the storyboards for Bambi.3 It’s also fairly Jesus-y, with the tree turning to a cross as the short ends. Meh.
Blame It On the Samba: This is one of the better ones, mostly because it feels like a lost track from The Three Caballeros. To the vocals of the Dinning Sisters, a literally blue Donald and Jose trudge into a cafe made of sheet music, where their waiter, the Aracuan Bird, plays them a samba which succeeds in cheering them up. It takes a turn for the trippy when he scoops them up in a cocktail shaker and pours them into a giant glass, where a live action Ethel Smith, who was apparently a famous organist (??? the 40s were weird), plays the samba on the organ. Donald and Jose, who are comparatively tiny, dance on the organ while the Aracuan Bird causes mischief. After a brief jaunt through a psychedelic jungle of musical instruments, the birds return to Ethel’s organ. The Aracuan Bird blows it up with a stick of dynamite, but no one is hurt and they all go on playing and dancing as the short ends. There’s honestly not much to the short and occasionally Donald and Jose look a little off-model, but the music is catchy and, well, there are so few characters with any personality in this film that it’s nice to see some we already like.
Pecos Bill: Like Johnny Appleseed, this is pretty much just the legend served up Disney-style.4 In an animated desert, we find Roy Rogers (along with his horse, Trigger), his singing group the Sons of the Pioneers, Luana Patten (who we already know from Fun and Fancy Free), and Bobby Driscoll, who had starred in Song of the South with Luana and is today best known as the voice of Disney’s Peter Pan.5 Half-singing, half-speaking in rhyme, Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers tell the kids about Pecos Bill: how he fell out of his parents’ wagon as they were heading west and was raised by coyotes, how he befriended his horse Widowmaker, how he gave Texas most of its landmarks with his mighty feats,6 and his eventual doomed romance with the catfish-riding cowgirl Sluefoot Sue. It’s highly entertaining, and the gangly, somewhat simian Bill is very likable, though Sue is unfortunately kind of a nonentity. (My childhood version of the story was this one, and I seem to recall that Sue having a lot more sass in her frass.) Still, the ending – her giant wedding bustle bounces her so high she ends up stranded on the moon and a grieving Bill goes back to his semi-feral life as an adoptive coyote, howling up after her – is somehow both funny and genuinely sad. Thus the movie ends on a high point, which, let’s face it, is a serious case of beating the odds.7
ONE MORE ANTHOLOGY LEFT.
- I’m not sure if Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and the like are still characters/figures people learn about? And I’m pretty sure they’re not outside of the States. Anyway, in case you’re unfamiliar with him, Johnny Appleseed was a real-life dude named John Chapman who lived in the late 18th/early 19th century and traveled what was then the frontier planting apple trees. He eventually became part of the American folklore canon. Hilariously, though he was a missionary and is now associated with heartwarming, wholesome stories for children, Wikipedia tells me that his apples were mostly used for booze. He does seem to have been a really good, gentle guy, though. ↩
- “Anthropomorphized underdogs! Anthropomorphized underdogs for everyone!” ↩
- As did some of the rabbits ice skating in “Once Upon a Wintertime.” Though of course that’s nothing compared to the 70s, when Disney infamously started straight-up reusing animation. But the 70s were a troubled time for the company. ↩
- For those unfamiliar with Pecos Bill, he’s part of the American folklore canon along with Johnny Appleseed, although he’s not based on a real person, or honestly even real folklore. He’s supposed to have been the greatest cowboy who ever lived and responsible for many of the geographical oddities of the American Southwest. ↩
- Tragically, Driscoll is like the poster boy for “childhood stardom gone wrong”; once he got older and his career dried up, he turned to drugs, did a stint in jail, and died penniless at 31. It’s kind of hard to watch him, knowing that, although it does make his most iconic role even more heartbreaking. ↩
- Including an incredibly racist bit with “painted Indians” and the Painted Desert. ↩
- The version of Melody Time currently available on DVD has a censored version of this short, though you can watch the original on YouTube. As with Saludos Amigos and “El Gaucho Goofy,” they’ve removed the cigarette that dangles from Bill’s mouth for pretty much the whole short, as well as a rather cute gag in which he rolls a cigarette while riding a cyclone, then lights it with a bolt of lightning. I don’t exactly know how I feel about this. Though I pretty much hate cigarettes and don’t think we should be presenting them to kids as something cool and fun, I have to wonder how many kids are actually watching this weird old movie (though admittedly the DVD is clearly aimed at kids and not animation buffs, unlike, say, the prestige Chronological collections). On the other hand, if we’re cutting all examples of heroes behaving in a way we would not like modern children to emulate, well, there’s an awful lot of gunplay and cruelty to animals in this cartoon. Mainly, though, I feel like if they were going to cut anything in this short, it should’ve been that bullshit with the Native Americans, which includes among other things our hero attacking them for literally no reason. But then, while Disney has been pretty careful to drop smoking from their films, they’re maintaining a proud tradition of dehumanizing Native Americans with ridiculous stereotypes well into this year, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. ↩