Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky sets everything he does to music. Mostly the slide whistle.
"People thought nothing of often crude cartoon violence or an exposed rear end as a joke."—Leonard Maltin explaining Depression-era humor
From the bizarre black and white experiments of 1929 to the playful and elegant light comedies of 1938, More Silly Symphonies offers up 38 nearly forgotten treats from the Disney vault. You might even discover a few new delights.
What viciousness early Disney cartoons had. Starting with the animal torture in "Steamboat Willie," Walt showed a sadistic streak in his cartoons, celebrating cruelty with comic abandon. Don't forget that the debut entry in the Silly Symphonies series was 1929's "The Skeleton Dance," original in its choreographed animation and about, naturally, dancing skeletons. Dead people. "Hell's Bells" (1929) features Satan and his demonic imps cavorting in Hell. (Animator Ub Iwerks and composer Carl Stalling get onscreen credit for this and a handful of other cartoons, which, given the lack of credit for other artists in future cartoons, suggests their power at the studio in those days.)
The early shorts were fairly plotless affairs, setting a series of gags in a particular location. "Arctic Antics" features dancing polar bears, a walrus, and some martial penguins; "Frolicking Fish" and "Monkey Melodies" should be pretty obvious.
There is a vaudeville quality to these cartoons: animals step forward and do a routine, then retire from the stage. Sometimes the bit has to do with chasing and eating some other animal; sometimes there is just a dance. After three or four routines, the cartoon abruptly ends. But the magic of the Silly Symphonies—and it certainly would have been surprising to audiences in those early years—is how wonderfully animate everything the entire natural world becomes when the music begins to play. Animals, of course. But watch how "Playful Pan" brings flowers and trees and even fire to life. In 1931's "The Clock Store," clocks and watches come to life at night to perform for the audience, climaxing with a waltz between two figurines—the first realistically-drawn humanoid characters in a Disney cartoon, albeit extremely stiff figures. Other human figures in these cartoons are as round and squashy as the animals. Only Max Fleischer would push the anthropomorphism further, giving life even to household objects (which honestly, I always found a little creepy).
Four cartoons ("Springtime," "Autumn," "Summer," and "Winter") cover the seasons. Animals spend a lot of time in these shorts eating each other, but always set to toe-tapping little dances. Only bugs are featured in "Summer." The Disney team must have liked animating insects: "The Spider and the Fly," "The Bears and the Bees," "Bugs in Love."
But these vaudeville-style cartoons got tiresome quickly. Without a strong central character like Mickey Mouse, the cartoons lacked personality. When there is a "plot," it usually involves a group of animals (who were dancing it up in the first half of the cartoon) fighting off a predator, like a hungry crow in "Bugs in Love." As early as 1931's "The Cat's Out" (a wayward feline has a bizarre adventure one night), you can see the Disney animators struggling to focus the Silly Symphonies around discernable characters. "Bugs in Love" picks up its central characters, Bucky Bug and the denizens of Junkville, from the Silly Symphonies comic strip. They would continue to thrive in comics for years.
The simplified design of the early Silly Symphonies rapidly evolved as well. By 1932's "The Bears and the Bees," the animals and background drawings are noticeably more realistic and detailed, at least compared to the year before. You can see the transformation take hold by Disc Two, which picks up the series in 1933 after the change to color with the previous year's "Flowers and Trees" (including on the first Silly Symphonies set).
With the color era came an obsession with realism on the part of Disney animators. Rubbery, round animals gave way to "Birds in the Spring," in which nature is conspicuously less anthropomorphic. Well, the birds are at least—the cartoon still features a snake that curls through the air bonelessly. Walt even insisted that his team go back and study 1934's "The Goddess of Spring" (an operatic riff on the Persephone myth) to see how they could improve their work on both animals and people. The key problem apparent in these Silly Symphony cartoons is, for lack of a better term, bone structure. The black and white Disney shorts were like those of every other animation studio: characters appeared rubbery, often fluid. Only rotoscoping (as Fleischer would do with, say, Betty Boop) tended to give figures physical weight and presence. But rotoscoping was out of the question with most Disney cartoons, since they tended to feature animals—or humans performing acts (dancing, for instance) that would be too difficult or expensive to film in advance. So the process of developing realistic figure drawing would have to come slowly and painfully. You can see this taking place over years through the course of both this Silly Symphonies set and the earlier collection. In this sense, one can view the Silly Symphonies shorts as a training ground for Disney animators to work their way up to Snow White.
Still, there was room for cartoony action as well. This is mostly seen in the shorts based on classic poetry: "The Night Before Christmas" (with a Santa that moves as if made from balloons) and "Old King Cole" (fanciful storybook characters all gather for a vaudeville review), for example. "Cock O' The Walk" features chickens doing kick lines. The Disney touch is apparent in the rich color and detailed backgrounds. The rats of 1933's "The Pied Piper" are surprisingly feral, probably to distinguish them from Disney's main rodent star. (Although the title character from that cartoon bends as if he has no leg bones.)
The secret weapon of the later Silly Symphonies was the music department, especially Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline, the composers who took over from series creator Carl Stalling. Because the Silly Symphonies were so dependant on musical choreography (the intricate timing of musical flourishes and animated action even became know as "mickey-mousing"), it is important to note how smooth the orchestrations became by the sound era. Miniature operettas like "The Pied Piper" or "The Goddess of Spring" (both scored by Harline) required elaborate scoring, full-on operatic singing, and orchestrations to match the flamboyant artwork. The extravagant musical number in Hell in "The Goddess of Spring" is not only far beyond "Hell's Bells" from only five years before, but it is on a level with Scar's devilish song, "Be Prepared," from The Lion King sixty years later.
By 1936, the Silly Symphonies series got a second wind, as "Three Blind Mouseketeers" demonstrates. A comic operetta with fluid animation and fine use of color and shadow, this cartoon shows that the Disney animators were clearly ready to move on to something more ambitious. (Plus, watching the vision-impaired heroes stumble their way to victory is funnier than the entire run of Mr. Magoo cartoons combined.) 1937 would see the breakthrough "The Old Mill" (included in the previous Silly Symphonies collection) and Mickey Mouse classics like "Lonesome Ghosts" and "Clock Cleaners." It would also see "Little Hiawatha," based on the awful Longfellow poem that used to be such a staple in American schools (along with corporal punishment and sentence diagramming). Although I don't recall the poem featuring repeated scenes of Hiawatha's pants falling down. But then, I have noted elsewhere that Walt never saw a butt joke he didn't like—and the Silly Symphonies are full of them. There is even a strange ass-slapping dance in "Springtime," performed by featherless chicks. Painful rear-end assaults make up much of the forest fire scene in "Playful Pan." I leave it to all you Freudians to chew on this.
1938's "Merbabies" features butt shots by the…um, buttload. I really wish I hadn't typed that, but at least now you can understand why the similar "Water Babies" from 1935 had been hidden as an Easter egg in the previous Silly Symphonies set. Anyway, the main collection here wraps up with "Moth and the Flame," a corny insect courtship tale that feels a lot like "Bugs in Love." But in its personification of a seductive and vindictive fire, the cartoon also harkens back to that cruel streak I mentioned at the top of that review. Thinking ahead to the creepy moments of the forthcoming features (Snow White terrorized in the woods; Pinocchio's horrifying experiences on Pleasure Island), I wonder if Walt perhaps thought a little trauma was good for the soul. I mean, look at what he did to Bambi—and Bambi's mother…
The first Silly Symphonies collection a few years back grouped its entries thematically, with varied success. Here you can go alphabetically or chronologically, as is the case with most of the other Walt Disney Treasures cartoon sets. Leonard Maltin provides the introductions as usual. This time he focuses on the "rediscovery" of these films, even noting how some restoration was required to restore the films to how they might have looked back in the day. Some of the early cartoons do show their age, especially the black and white ones on Disc One. The edges of the frames are frayed, and you can see marks on the photographic plates. But the company's obsessive archiving has clearly saved them from worse damage. On Disc One, there is also some discrepancy between the chronology in the liner notes (and my research books) and the DVD itself.
The controversial cartoons are exiled to the Vault section, as always. (I am a bit surprised "Hell's Bells" makes it into the main program though.) J.B. Kaufman provides a commentary track for "El Terrible Toreador," a randy parody of Bizet's Carmen. Jerry Beck chimes in on "Midnight in a Toy Shop," noting the "dark quality" of some of these early Silly Symphonies (he doesn't mention the Stepin Fetchit joke, though). Maltin and David Gerstein try and place the notorious "Cannibal Capers" (so over the top that it was edited in later years when it showed up on The Mickey Mouse Club) in its historic context. Maltin is the most apologetic for the content of these early shorts, but he is right in that they are very much products of their time. Only "The Merry Dwarfs" doesn't receive commentary in Disc One's Vault section, although I will guess it is here because of some serious frat-level beer drinking by the title characters. There are additional commentary tracks for eight other cartoons by various animation experts, historians, and even a composer. "Bugs in Love" gets two commentaries (one lively track by David Gerstein and a more laconic track by composer Ross Care).
The "Vault" section on Disc Two offers up seven shorts that Leonard Maltin feels might disturb the sensibilities of young people. The mermaids in "King Neptune" might be topless, but they've got nothing on Ariel. "Santa's Workshop" and "The China Shop" (a remake of "Midnight in a Toy Shop") have some racial caricatures. "Broken Toys" and "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" have racial stereotypes and caricatures of Hollywood stars that will be completely lost on your kids. "Three Orphan Kittens" (who return in "More Kittens") may be beautifully animated and cloyingly cute, but they live with a black mammy of the most clichéd sort.
Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, and even Richard Sherman turn up on commentary tracks on several of these controversial cartoons to give them a little love. Half a dozen commentary tracks accompany the main program, offering insights about Leigh Harline's musical contributions, historical trivia about the Disney Studio, influences of these shorts on later Disney features, and so on.
Disc Two also features two documentary pieces on the Silly Symphonies. The first, "Silly Symphonies Rediscovered," is a wide-ranging appreciation of the series, noting the technical advances (Technicolor, multi-plane camera, high fidelity sound), the contributions to popular music (who can forget "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"), and the evolution of the series into Disney's feature films. It is rather short (only 15 minutes) given how much ground it tries to cover. The second featurette is a piece of home movie footage, narrated by Leonard Maltin, of Walt and his studio crew playing an afternoon baseball game. These were the good old days, before the dreaded strike of 1941, the studio bureaucracy, and Walt's diffuse expansion plans (theme parks, television shows, and even an entire city). Overall, the Silly Symphonies series gives a taste of the artistic ambition of men for whom there were no limits and any experiment was both a challenge and wild fun. It was more about the joy of creation than business. In later years the studio was never quite like those early days, even if Walt put on a happy face for the camera.
The first Silly Symphonies collection (now out of print) had some indispensable cartoons for the Disney collector, including breakthrough works like "The Skeleton Dance," "The Old Mill," and "The Three Little Pigs." There is nothing quite of that caliber here. But there is still some surprising and inventive material in this set, particularly on Disc Two. "The Goddess of Spring" is certainly worthy of rediscovery. It is in the bonus features where this set shines: 23 commentary tracks cover history, production techniques, and critical reception for the Silly Symphony series. Disney buffs should find this material, as well as the featurettes, quite informative. These bonus features make the set entirely worthwhile.
It is odd to think that this pretty much clears out the Disney vault for one-shot short cartoons, apart from a handful of oddities like "Scrooge McDuck and Money." I'm curious to see what Disney scrapes together for next year's Walt Disney Treasures cartoon compilation.
Case dismissed, but only if Disney promises to make all its humanoid cartoon characters keep their pants on in the future.
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