Saturday, December 29, 2007

Disney's New Spectatorship: The Post-Fantasias

Walt Disney originally wanted to revive Fantasia on a continual roadshow basis, revising the film by adding and subtracting animated segments so that the film could perhaps be an evergreen film attraction, the equivalent of a touring variety show or a music hall all trussed up as High Culture because it was classical music. Amateur Disney psychologists would quickly point out that this was the first appearance of the impulse to revise which led to Disneyland, but for now let's simply consider these films seriously in a historical context.

Historically, Disney commentators have essentially had two reactions to the period from 1943 to 1949: that either these films weren't really worthy of appriasal because obviously Disney was "coasting" by failing to make a feature film story, or that the films were simply "better than expected" (which still implies that they aren't that great). But for a moment let's dismiss these from the context of the lean, wartime years of the studio and do something commentators usually only do for Disney when he makes something they actually like: take him seriously as a creative force. Fantasia was one of Disney's babies and he was crushed when the general public, the only real audience he took seriously, reacted to it with obvious apathy. And although he swore to not repeat the experiment again, everybody has seemingly ignored that he did, in fact, repeat the experiment, but not until after retreating to the environmentalist fable Bambi and the unexpected success of Dumbo. That Dumbo was the only film he didn't oversee personally and that it had been his only true success since Snow White must have been exceedingly damaging to Disney personally, and in some ways, he did retreat.

He retreated to his best idea, the Fantasia omnibus concept, but this time, instead of high culture imported from Europe and Russia, he would give them high entertainment from the home front. In concept and execution Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros, Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free and Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad are Fantasia films done in that mode. But there would be changes. Now instead of Stokowski, Bach, and Beethoven, Disney would have The Andrews Sisters, Dennis Day, Bing Crosby and Freddy Martin. Instead of the deadening duration of Fantasia - over two hours - the films would clock in at just over an hour. And the atmosphere and strength of the presentation of Fantasia would be supplanted by a frantic pace and bawdy humor.

These Post-Fantasias are divided up into three pairs of six, with two "Latin America" films which take the form of travelogues, two split-feature films of longer duration shorts, and two true "Post-Fantasias". These two - Melody Time and Make Mine Music - are nearest in concept and execution to Fantasia, with meatier narrative shorts interspersed with shorter abstract pieces, some done in limited animation. There is no effort towards a larger cohesion, and no disguising of the fact that the audience is really just supposed to enjoy the music. The narratives are brief and simple, and rarely reach for a complex set of reactions from the audience. Those that do have become minor classics, while something like Make Mine Music's "Blue Bayou" is best forgotten aside from the fact that it lent it's name to a famous eatery.

The best segments of these were often broken off from the whole and televised or released to video separately: only recently have consumers been allowed to see the whole of The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, for example, despite the familiarity of that film's two segments to anyone who grew up with a video player or cable. The bittersweet climax of Make Mine Music, "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing At the Met", is recognizable enough to have appeared in the preshow area of the attraction 'Mickey's Philharmagic' to general recognition, and the separate Melody Time segment "Once Upon a Wintertime", with its' Griffith-esque climax on the ice floes, was a staple of the holiday season on the Disney Channel for years.

Both of the films are fairly inadequate; they never build a very good sense of pace or incident, and without the concert framework which anchors Fantasia the pieces play as an hour block of short subject programming, not a satisfactory film. They lack the true sense of setup and payoff, even rudimentary, provided by the other compilation films, and they fail to maintain a consistent and appealing meter. The most frantic segments follow the most sedate, and instead of feeling like appealing variety, all the sense of fun is deflated. This is not to imply that they do not have their moments of true grace; Make Mine Music has the famous "Peter and the Wolf" and the aforementioned Willie the Whale segments. Melody Time goes all this one better by including two real humdingers among all the fluff, two real classics considerably better than the bulk of the material being animated in Glendale at the time.

Blue Shadows on the Trail / Pecos Bill

The main structural technique of Melody Time is that each segment is introduced by the animator's paint brush entering the frame and painting the short into existence (three years before Duck Amuck). Each short, unlike Fantasia, is preceded by a title card with the piece and the performer of the music, and some even have a bookending technique around the narrative. Like Fantasia, there is a narrator who introduces each short. All of this ensures that the audience is aware they are being told a tale, cued by the text introduction of a recognizable "name", subsequentally hearing the (then recognizable) voice of the name, and this is introduced by an omniscient narrator who only exists between shorts but not within them.

"Pecos Bill" is positioned at the very end of the feature and as such its' use of the "famous narrator" gag reaches its' climax in this section, where through Ub Iwerks' effects processes a live action Roy Rogers, his band, an audience and even his horse Trigger are inserted into an animated moonlit prairie. On one hand this may be an effort to accommodate the audiences' desire to see Rogers - the only film star of the bunch - on screen and with his horse, but the placement of his appearance in an animated segment and at the end of the film is a phenomenal climax which is very effective when placed in the whole of the film. The audience is furthermore placed at a remove through the use of at least three bookending techniques; Roy Rogers, displaced famous film star, tells a tale to another audience, which we become, placed as a segment in a larger film, which is introduced to us as such.

Pecos Bill, as told by Rogers, is one of the best paced 23 minutes in Disney's animated output, but its' presentation outside of Melody Time compromises the mastery of the short. The narrator announces at the start of the short that we best "sashay on in" slowly, and what follows is a brilliantly sedate section with all the poetry missing from the bulk of the rest of the film. "Blue Shadows on the Trail", a lengthy segment of an extended pastorale of a western landscape at dusk, is structured essentially like a Silly Symphony, complete with extended use of the Multiplane, animal humor, and the gentle touch of a lullaby soundtrack. We then find Roy Rogers and company out in the west, convincingly throwing "blue shadows" across the watercolor landscape, and a dialouge scene ensues. When Pecos Bill is brought up the dialouge subtly shifts to rhyming verse, which begins an extended buildup to the start of the Pecos Bill number proper.

As the flat verse enters, so to does the element of song, as Rogers' band, the Sons of the Pioneers, increasingly frequently begin to interject with the three primary songs that comprise the Pecos Bill short: Pecos Bill's ballad, Slue Foot Sue's theme, and the love theme. When the animation begins, it is because Rogers draws a map of the United States in the sand, literally the first drawing in the sequence which creates the animation illusion. The authorial hand, established at the start of the short with the animator's brush, is now transferred to Rogers, who will tell the tale and thus grants the film's segue back to animation. As Rogers' animated film continues, so does the meter of the Sons of the Pioneers' verse increase, until, when Pecos is at full maturity, a real song begins. Pecos Bill himself begins the song by riding into his own closeup and, in an annotation of Edwin S. Porter, fires point blank at the audience.

Transferring the Authorial Hand

Pecos Bill was quite a cowboy down in Texas
And the western superman, to say the least
He was the roughest, toughest, critter
Never known to be a quitter
'Cause he never had no fear of man nor beast
So yippie yi-yay, yi-yay, yippie yi-yow
For the toughest critter West of the Alamo

What makes this segment so remarkable is it's relentless pace, aggressive color and constant visual invention. Not content to merley visualize the ballad, Disney animators present a succession of gag which go well beyond the typical Disney"case of the cutes" best exemplified by the Silly Symphonies, ie, the mode of the "Blue Shadows" segment. Now, the humor comes so quickly that Pecos actually establishes his mastery of his Western locale by doing something which never happens in a Disney short - he violates the space of the motion picture film frame, reacting to events in shots which have not yet been projected. In one instance, he reels bandits in from the next shot using a cartoon winch, which forces the screen to wipe as they enter. In another, he shoots the background around him away until he obliterates the shot he's in, signaling the change to the next. The audience is further blocked from embracing the narrative through the animator's constant shifting of the performers of the music in and out of diagetic elements of the frame: a voice heard on the soundtrack may emanate from Bill, his horse, a cow, a bystander, an object, or anything else. It's a simple and simply funny joke, but it frames the entire enterprise as the tallest of tall tales and continues the authorial power given to Rogers. And while Rogers and Company speak for everyone else, Slue Foot Sue and Pecos Bill never speak, and are granted the power Ford assigned to John Wayne in his westerns. After all, they are too legendary to actually be heard.

Pecos Bill: Breaking cinematic space

As the segment reaches its' effective end, so does the film, but not without a reprise of "Blue Shadows". While before, the camera tracked left to right and right to left to find Rogers, now it pulls out into a balanced composition. Rogers' song ends, his tale ends, and the musical progression of the piece folds backwards on itself as "Blue Shadows" carries the audience out of the segment the same way they entered: slowly, somberly. The bookending structures are repeated entering and leaving the piece, creating closure which otherwise doesn't exist in television versions which cut the Roy Rogers segment. Just like the music that inspired it, the short follows the inherent unities of the musical suite, the pleasures it provides, rather than those unities which are primarily dramatic. Pecos enters this world and leaves it as a savage among the coyotes and if we feel bad for him at all it is because of the metrical progression of music and image. Bill remains silent.

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed

The best shorts of the Post-Fantasias are those not encumbered with a complex narrative or a variety of tones; they tell stories simply and quickly, reach their emotional climaxes effectively, and get out the door at the right moment, not required by the traditional three act narrative structure to hang around when they're not wanted.

"Johnny Appleseed' is probably the best thing either Melody Time or Make Mine Music has going for it, because it's disarmingly unpretentious. The best cultural artifacts in the Americana mold have to walk a careful line between becoming self consciously important and remaining innocent, but the Disney animators make it seem like second nature. Americana, in its' oldest and purest form, relies heavily on a larger context whereby the creation of the law, the nobility of the commonwealth and especially the westward expansion are sanctified by God, or a similarly pure cultural figure such as Abraham Lincoln. In general style many of these folk tales are similar to those told in Medieval Europe, where the Devil is constantly being outwitted by the clever blacksmith or tradesperson.

The shorts' innocent atmosphere is furthermore conveyed through the animation backgrounds painted in the style of Mary Blair. Blair intentionally skews the perspective in all the wrong directions and reduces the depth of the paintings to almost nothing; everything is stacked right up on top of one another like a Medieval fresco. The style of the backgrounds, simple and geometric in design but richly textured, recall American folk art. And Dennis Day's boyish, clean cut voice as the voice of all the characters in the short including the narrator lends the appropriate air of a simple American fable. The show hits all the right notes.

Disney's Johnny Appleseed has the unenviable task of juggling this overt, traditional metaphor with the structure of an animated short which must be as direct and light handed as possible, and it unsurprisingly does it with a little song. Although it's a well known trope of Disney's to use a song to introduce a character's motivations (I'm Wishing, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, Once Upon A Dream, etc). Johnny's theme is a whistled, catchy little ditty which is one of Disney's simplest and one of their least labored.

The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need

The sun and rain and the apple seed

He's been good to me;

I owe the Lord so much

For everything I see,

I'm certain if it weren't for Him

There'd be no apples on this limb

He's been good to me;

I wake up every day

As happy as can be

Because I know that with His care
My apple trees - they will still be there!

Oh the Lord is good to me!

We hear this memorable little tune only three times in the short, and each time the whistled bridges between the verses catch the ear of the listener in a way the rest of the songs in the short are not designed to do. The other songs in "Johnny Appleseed" are by and large more traditional "folk" music: the march of "Get On The Wagon", the squaredance of the pioneers at the fall festival, and the rapid meter of "There's A Lot of Work To Do" - the song Johnny's angel uses to motivate him to enter the frontier - are more forgettable. They contain the aggressive meter of marches, forward driving, manifest destiny. "The Lord Is Good to Me" is less a hymn and more a song in the mold of "Whistle While You Work" - a small personal expression by a small man with a big story.

The second time we hear "The Lord Is Good To Me", it is just after Johnny has established his harmony with nature (by extension, God). He heads off into the wilderness whistling his little ditty, but before we can fully enjoy it again he's vanished from sight and the whistling becomes haunting and distant. In auditory terms, we are losing Johnny as he passes into history, and each time we see Johnny henceforth he will have aged significantly, although it is the young man from the opening scenes we still think of. The third reprise of "The Lord Is Good To Me" is by a heavenly chorus after his death, when he leaves to plant the apple blossoms in the beyond we see as clouds from earth:

And someday there'll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share;
The Lord is good to me!

It's the last moment in the short and, backed by beautiful images where the orchard of his place of death becomes billowing clouds and sunbeams, it's very moving. But the effect has been achieved through establishing a likeable song and character, delaying the return of the song, and finally bringing it back as an ethereal echo. The Lord is good to me, indeed. Yet we never once are required to subscribe to Johnny's beliefs: the short is the only one in Melody Time to begin with a book opening and as such has, when combined with Dennis Day's bright youthful vocals, the character of a national fable. As in Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster, the religious theme is fairly submerged in the patriotic theme, and they keep each other in check, allowing a degree of universality to enter.

What Disney has actually accomplished here is one of the hardest things a tale about a national character has to succeed in: the passing into history. We get to know Johnny directly and his faith and hope is so carefully judged and presented with such beautiful rural simplicity it's impossible to doubt. His little song does all the legwork of the short and the rest of the piece bides its' time cashing in on what the musical piece accomplishes as Johnny's good deeds pay off. Consider the other viable route open to storytellers: Johnny is immediately established as an major character who will accomplish great things. Far more engaging is the minor character who does accomplish great things. It's the myth of America.

"The Legend of Johnny Appleseed", then, is one of Disney's most potent original-source mythologies: the studio head, the most quintessentially American man of his century along with Will Rogers, who so often would earmark Europe's cultural tales for his own expressions, created remarkably few masterpieces about America. Lady and the Tramp for sure, perhaps Summer Magic. Definitely The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And definitely The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, the light half to that dark tale of American ambition penned by Washington Irving.


Next week: Saludos Amigos


Unknown said...

Wonderful, yet again!

I can appreciate the changes in the Disney animated films over the years. The artistry, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, does seem to grow and keep an artistic cannon, so to speak.

But how often has Disney broken the fourth wall to bring us out of the experience? It does seem to go against the artistry (and seems very Shrek-like) of story-telling. I can see why it fits Pecos Bill. The tall-tale as a method of story-telling while telling a story.


Johnny Appleseed is my favorite Disney animated segment. Mainly for the song. I had Johnny Appleseed and Mickey and the Beanstalk on LP as a child. I listened to them repeatedly. The Lord is Good to Me is an amazing song that is full of optimism and hope--as intended. I always felt it was a little heavy handed, but it didn't keep me from singing it.

After seeing it again a few weeks ago, as an adult and a Nerdy Boy, I was astounded by the animation. Mary Blair was a true master of her field: color, lines and feeling.

We need to have you and Mr. Pepper do more animation schooling!

Thanks, again!

Cory Gross said...

Excellent article! I picked up a copy of Melody Time partially out of a desire just to have a fresh variety of Disney animation in my collection and partially out of an interest in the very shorts you discuss here.

A strange interest in Americana (strange because I'm Canadian) was something that I picked up courtesy of Disney. It was the Villians, Haunted Mansion and Nautilus that brought me to Disneyland, but while walking around, I couldn't help but notice the long shadow being cast by Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed and the like. The creation of national myths seems to be intrinsic and necessary to imperial cultures and it's fascinating to see how it unfolds and what is being said by them each time around. (I even managed to get a few term papers out of it for my undergrad!)

Your analysis of Johnny Appleseed is interesting in pinning down the dynamic between the religious and the national ideology. I wonder, though, if it's not so much that the nationalism neuters the religious message of one of Disney's most overtly Judeo-Christian cartoons and makes it accessible. One of the ways that dynamic comes across to me is that it turns American Manifest Destiny into a religious compulsion... A God-ordained call to go out and "tame" the frontier. Johnny is "baptizing", so to speak, an imperial compulsion.

Pecos is more good clean fun than that... A rousing tall tale told in folksy cowboy style. The way I really got introduced to that was by downloading the cast recording of the story. Without the visuals, you get a much fuller sense of that mid-century style of cowboy poetry and "Cowboy n' Indian" song that directs it. Well, at least the Disney version thereof, in the same vein as the stories and ditties from Fess Parker's films.

The animated short is wonderful though. "Blue Shadows on the Trail" has to be one of my favorite pieces of Disney mood music, up with "Baia", the Fantasia version of "Claire de Lune" and "Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria".

Anyways, thank you again for the piece in particular and such a thought-provoking series in general!

FoxxFur said...


You'd be surprised how often Disney breaks the fourth wall; it's not Shrekian at all when they do it because Shrek says "isn't it stupid that you're watching something animated, you smart person you?", whereas Disney does it most often to comment on the situation. Think of how often Goofy reacts to the narrator in his "How To" shorts, or Donald shouting "Shut Up!" at the narrator of Saludos Amigos. Three Caballeros is just full of that stuff.

On the other hand what Pecos does is he starts to react to things in other shots of the film as if they're present, which is a whole different kind of non-diagetic lunacy. He's actually violating the form of the film frame! Only animation can do that well, although Frank Tashlin's live action films are possible other examples, where characters exit films by slipping through an optical iris and addressing the audience, playing the Fox Fanfare in the corner of the screen while the logo is up, etc.


Yeah, I was pretty much trying to convey what you just said but I was writing at 3 in the morning and I just found myself at a loss for words. Tried to pick it up the next day and it was useless. But yeah, we're pretty much in accord there.

The problem with Johnny Appleseed is that I can't provide the Christian reading it invites because I'm neither religious or a theologian; I know that falls into your realm of experience but I simply have to say "well, you know, the Christian component is best regarded as submerged in the national myth" because that's my relationship to it. =) My reading will inevitably be more American than Christian.

I've often wondered what other nationals get out of the most American parts of Disneyland or especially The Magic Kingdom, with Liberty Square. Whereas Frontierland is, by now, an international mythic space (when Italians started making the best westerns, it was inevitable), colonial America is not. I hosted a British friend of mine in her first trip outside the US over the summer, and her reaction to Liberty Square was... not existent. Of course she never reacts strongly to anything.

If you want some great Americana go check out the '41 film of Devil and Daniel Webster with Walter Huston (it's sometimes called All That Money Can Buy) or Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. Actually most Ford films, especially his Will Rogers films - I highly recommend the very funny and charming Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, a film which makes me want to ride the Liberty Belle all day!

Cory Gross said...

I don't think you're wrong in reading Johnny Appleseed as more American than Christian. I noted that it's the most overtly Judeo-Christian because it directly addresses God, Heaven, etc. However, the theology in it is pretty much attrocious... It's almost pure national myth, the religion of Manifest Destiny and the God-ordained mission to colonize the frontier.

The idea is reflective of a larger trend in American folk-religion, which is ridiculously heretical to the exact extent to which it is nationalistic. Listening to the rhetoric of Evangelicalism, it becomes quickly apparent that this strain conceives of serving God in terms of being an American, as though the nation of America has supplanted the Church. That's where you get that whole fallacy of America as a Christian Nation from. Some more extreme strands will even say overtly that America inherited Judaism's designation as the Chosen People. Others will reorder the question and ask not how they can serve God as an American, but how they can serve America as a Christian.

Johnny Appleseed is probably the prime example of this in Disney. The only other example coming to mind right now is the invocation of Divine Providence while Fess Parker was protecting the Alamo. As a non-American Christian, I tend to find that kind of thing grating, but can kind of smirk it off in Disney movies.

I suppose that's my main initial reaction to a lot of the uber-Americana in Disneyland, real and conceptual. I find the political speeches in Davy Crockett rather hysterical, but mostly because I have to... If I didn't laugh, I'd cry for the fact that whenever American politicians talk of freedom and liberty, it's a prelude to murder. The way those terms have been misused makes me want to cringe every time I hear them.

I don't know how I'd react to Liberty Square, since it has the Haunted Mansion and I like Legend of Sleepy Hollow, above and beyond a decided disinterest in the Hall of Presidents. I don't know that I would have seen Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln had I opportunity, for those cringing reasons given above. I did, however, lol in rl when I saw the "Free Enterprise: America's Fifth Freedom" plaque in the Opera House, and I did snap a picture of it.

It's a whole strange nexus of emotions when being confronted with this stuff (and right now you're getting my stream of consciousness about it)... Amusement mixed with dread mixed with fascination mixed with tolerance... Alien and frightening while at the same time highly entertaining and picturesque.

In the mean time, there are aspects of it that I freely enjoy for their own sakes, such as the mystique of the Wild West, (which I'm not far removed from in my heritage anyways), Mark Twain's literature, the aura of the Mississippi steamboat and New Orleans jazz, National Parks rustic and the whole California "golden age", Route 66, the Grand Canyon... There's plenty to take an interest in with any country without buying into or being offended by the larger national mythology.