Monday, July 22, 2019

Walt Disney, part XIII: Trees, underwear, and America


Great: another half-good, half-crap Disney package film.  Oh, Melody Time.  Whatever shall we do with you?

Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson, and William Morgan

Spoiler alert: moderate

In 1946, Disney desperately released its third canonical package film, Make Mine Music.  It was the first of its Popular Music Anthologies, patterned on Disney's 1940 unpopular music anthology, Fantasia, though there were a few small differences: it was more efficient, in the sense that it cost half as much and looks like it cost even less; it had almost no real ambitions, and didn't even seem to mind if its segments were there just to take up space; it took no steps whatsoever to provide an actual reason for why its arbitrary collection of nine music videos (plus one poem recitation video) should have been shown together at all; and (this being probably the most important difference) it wasn't released in only thirteen theaters.  Well, whatever else it was, Make Mine Music was successful, which is the most objective distinction between it and Fantasia.  Not world-historically so, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but more than just a little, more than any Disney film had been in a while.  And so Walt, in rare form, approached the situation before him as a responsible businessperson would, following up Music two years later with a spiritual sequel that he hoped would do just as well.  This was 1948's Melody Time, another semi-random assortment of cartoon shorts sold as a breezy good time for post-war America.

In some ways, it's true, it feels more consistent than Music.  But Music was pretty consistent already, which was its problem, in that it was consistently unexceptional: it had several pretty good segments, several pretty bad segments, one outlying near-masterpiece segment, and one outlying dud.  Melody Time, by contrast, has several good segments and just two bad segments.  In fact, based on a crude average, it's not just "a better movie than Make Mine Music" (what an accomplishment), it's simply a good movie outright; five out of seven should not be bad.  But its worst segment is awful, the second-worst isn't much better, and that second-worst's sins are compounded by it being not only the longest segment, but the last.  In addition, it's just terrifically racist.  Thus, by the virtue (or vice) of its privileged position in the structure, it weighs the entire movie down; your final impression of Melody Time is a movie that you no longer remember hitting any truly ecstatic highs, but definitely had some really lousy lows.  Anyway, this is exactly why I put scores at the end of each segment in any anthology film review: the experience as a whole is not the same as a crude average of each individual part, and the individual parts deserve their individual credit, or, alternatively, their individual blame.  On the plus side, there are only seven this time (Music had ten), which means that this review will potentially not run so terribly, exhaustingly long.  Potentially.

So: Melody Time has the same basic complexion as Music, in that its segments are tied together only by the fact they're all pantomime cartoons set to music (and, again, not even all of them manage it); and it's unclear whether this was because the specification for the two Popular Music Anthologies was "give me a cartoon, any cartoon, as long as it's seven minutes or so and doesn't have dialogue," or if this is because Walt (or Roy, or Walt and Roy's creditors) were thinking flexibly, and wanted to be able to sell the shorts piecemeal if the studio needed to.  Either way, Melody Time makes slightly stronger efforts to set its stage than its forerunner, which it does by, literally, painting out a stage.  Here we are welcomed to the picture by Justice Society supervillain Johnny Sorrow—or at least the creepy floating mask that inspired him—who's voiced by Buddy Clark and gives us a quick primer before getting on with the show.

That brings us to the first segment, "Once Upon a Wintertime," a piece of dubiously-romantic fluff that exists chiefly to showcase concept artist Mary Blair's modernist mode, and while it's technically the only segment where that's obviously the primary reason it was created, it won't be the last where it's arguably the best.  Well, "Wintertime" concerns a pair of couples, one human, one rabbit—by the end, it's reasonably clear that they're actual friends, and if not genuinely out on a double-date, then they met and decided to make it one, which is quite charming in its own weird way—and they are indulging in some winter sport, first a sleigh ride and then some ice skating.  Their respective courtships appear to be on rather insecure footing, however, since an accidental transgression involving the girls being struck with some errant snow sends each of them off in a huff out onto the thin ice; the male rabbit's efforts to get either girl to notice the warning sign come to no avail; and, in a fit of stupid pique, he slams the sign down, instigating the very peril it was put there to prevent.  It's very ironic.  The girls are swept off on ice floes across the freezing water, though the freezing water isn't even the real peril: that's the fact that iceskating was permitted on a barely-frozen river that empties out into a waterfall no more than three hundred yards away.  Well, the boys do their best to effect a rescue, but alas, are useless; it falls to some doughty squirrels and blue jays to save this day.

"Wintertime" gets flak for its story—it relies on some abrasively sexist stereotypes, it's narratively destitute otherwise anyway, and so on—and while it's clearly not as-such "good," I don't mind it too much, and I forward that the occasional antipathy toward it is based at least slightly on misreading the action, which, in fact, has the girls be unaware that their rescue was the wildlife's doing.  They assumed it was the boys, thereby offering their love and fealty to their very surprised "saviors."  In other words, what the short is really concerned with is people getting credit for things they didn't do, which is, of course, what this Walt Disney Retrospective is all about.  (And I do honestly wonder if it was intentional, because by this point in the studio's history, Walt had stopped being everybody's friend—to the extent he ever was—years before.)

Regardless, it's a sweet bit of nothing, with an acceptable song by Frances Langford (that's probably too nice, frankly, in that it continues Make Mine Music's "sleepy ballad" tradition; a later re-edited version with the peppier "Sleigh Ride" appears to have shown up in a 1981 Disney Christmas special, and I imagine that's better).  But above all, it's very pleasant to look at, with character designs made out of simple, rounded shapes with bold clashing colors.  Blair has special fun with the hoop skirt that turns the girl's lower body into a lime green half-circle set against a yellow-clad torso; the animators, of course, have their fun with crass jokes about how hoop skirts were goofy, and that's fair enough.  (There are, in truth, several throughlines to the film overall: one is the thesis that women's undergarments of olden times were dysfunctional.  And in contrast to the treatment of bustles in the last segment, "Wintertime's" mockery comes off downright cute.)  Meanwhile, the storybook wintertime backdrops are such gorgeously stylized things in their own right that I might like looking at them even more than the characters.  And then it ends with a surprisingly forceful emotional beat of pure fantasy, of the kind that makes me wonder if I like it more than I already think I do.  (7/10)

Now comes "Bumble Boogie," which is also very good: it fills the role played by "Without You" in Music, which is to say it's this movie's homage to Fantasia's "Toccata and Fugue."  It's also to say it's one of the highlights.  (And like "Wintertime," it too was color designed by Blair, albeit in far more aggressive ways.)  Compared to "Without You," however, it's somehow even more energetic.  Set to a jazzy composition by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, Clark's narrator points out this was inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumbleebee"—in case you possibly wouldn't notice—and "Bumble" involves a persecuted bee who's wandered into a world where the flora and fauna have taken on the forms of musical instruments, so that, for example, there's a part where a piano keyboard becomes a snake or centipede out to eat the poor thing.

It's kind of stupid, honestly, and the conceit is pretty much the only thing holding it back from being the best Melody Time has to offer, because everything else in it is pretty great: the blaring, shifting neon colors, the hyperactive tune, the kineticism unto abstraction, the metamorphosizing threats.  It's just the teensiest bit hollow, ultimately; an exercise in style that has too much narrative to break completely free, and is too short to have needed to bother.  But I like it a lot.  (Since I noted him as the overseer of the best shorts for both Music and Fun and Fancy Free, it's worth mentioning that "Bumble" was directed by Jack Kinney; the clean graphic style bears that out.  He couldn't make it a hat trick, though: "Bumble" is only Melody Time's second-best.)  (8/10)

Which means we now arrive at the first-best.  Remarkably for a package film (especially for a package film I already said isn't good), Melody Time manages to go three in a row with "The Legend of Johnny Appleseed," which takes what I've been saying about various shorts in these package films being "the most utterly square," and dares me to make the claim again after being proven wrong twice.  But no: "Appleseed's" so egregiously square it actually isn't.  Making a fable out of the story of the historical John Chapman, the narrator notes that while America was built by "mighty men," it wouldn't do to overlook the less obvious kinds of might that carved our nation from out of the frontier.  And thus does it settle on young Chapman, who is tending his apple orchard in Pennsylvania one day, and watching wistfully as a wagon train heads off toward the western horizon, wishing that he had the skills and strength to go with them.  Lo, does an an angel appear, cosplaying as Davy Crockett, who gives John a peptalk and sends him on his path: to walk America alone planting apple seeds wheresoever he finds a patch of open ground.  Believe it or not, John is stoked.

Again, this is mostly the Blair show—or the Blair-and-background-artists show, to be fair to everyone—with many of the same concepts from "Wintertime" applied with respect to other seasons (and to soothing images of blossoming apple trees).  The backgrounds are even more beautifully done, and you feel their progression, from threatening and wild to tamed and cozy, as the narrative tracks the reconciliation John makes with the natural world on our behalf.  The characters are more standardized Disney types, though in truth this might be me thinking more about what was yet to come; after all, the list of lightly-caricatured and mostly-realistic male figures in Disney cartoons (as opposed to weird squash-and-stretch trolls, as in Music's "Casey At the Bat" or the giant from Fancy Free's "Mickey and the Beanstalk") was, to date, a relatively short one.  In any event, John—presented at several ages over the course of his tale—is an extremely likeable little guy.  "Appleseed" isn't a full musical like most of the shorts, but it's rigorous enough in its application of rhyming, lyrical verse that it feels close enough.

But it's mostly the way the visuals bring out the heart of the piece.  Reflecting Chapman's own faith, "Appleseed" is enormously Christian—at least the equal to Fantasia's "Ave Maria" in that respect.  It's outright shockingly Christian for a motion picture that refuses to ever say the words "Christ" or "Bible," referring to the latter only coyly, as "good reading material."  But it does, repeatedly, invoke God.  And appealingly, at that: "Appleseed's" nostalgic zeal is extravagantly nice.  It's impossible not to notice that amongst the other American heroes it lists, John Henry rates a mention.  When John returns to an orchard he planted years ago—refusing to take credit or even make his presence known, in the best imitation of Christ, I suppose—he notes with a smile that his work has provided a venue for settlers and Native Americans to have a fun (if overly-apple-themed) party.  And they are unmistakably "natives of America," not "Indians," as another short would have it.  In "Appleseed's" estimation, the American project has always been the reclamation of Eden, and this is counterfactual and dangerous, but the sincerity and gentleness of it, embodied in the gentleness of the Johnny Appleseed who died peaceably under an apple tree, is touching all the same; and, anyway, Walt himself died 53 years ago, and he didn't listen to my kind of commie crap even when he was alive.  (8/10)

So far, so... great?  Yes, and now the bottom drops out: "Little Toot" is absolutely the worst thing in any of the package films, and, conceivably, the nadir of Disney animation in the 1940s.  It has some above-average qualities, and I'll get them out of the way first: it has fantastic water and effects animation that come into play during an ocean storm.  Okay, that's pretty much it.  "Toot," based on Hardie Gramatky's children's poem, turns our gaze to its titular tugboat, who has spent his young life being a bother to everyone in the harbor and generally keeping underfoot (underprow? kill me) of his father, Big Toot, while Toot pere is just trying to do his job.  L.T. eventually tries to mend his ways, but makes things worse, which leads to his exile, for the world of anthropomorphized harbor boats is a brutal and barbaric one.  But on the ocean—past the snarling markers that drone out "shame! shame!" in the one piece of successful design in the whole short—L.T. finds a ship in distress, and saves it, restoring his good name.

It is, of course, nothing but a slightly more narratively-dense and better-animated version of "Pedro" from Saludos Amigos, trading in a juvenile mail plane for a juvenile tugboat.  (It even tips its hat in "Pedro's" direction, with a seaside cliff that mimics the scowling face of "Pedro's" "villain," the mountain Aconcagua.)  Unfortunately, it counters its more-acceptable narrative and superior animation with much worse character design, and "much worse," when the reference is the combination of dinky insipidity and unintentional creepiness that is "Pedro," can only mean disgustingly bad.  The tugboat design fuses biology and machinery into abominations with pink cylinder heads sticking out of their hulls, with repulsive little red plugs for noses, and it's just upsetting to look at for every single second of the short.  (The marker buoys are, at least, supposed to look evil.)  The song is provided by the Andrews Sisters, the poor dears who had to make something out of dumb anthropomorphized hats back when they did Music's "Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet."  The music is, I guess, better than the visuals—it's spritely.  But it too is undermined, and more than a bit, by the endless repetition of "Little Toot, Little Toot, Little Toot," into eternity, and it's impossible to resist the impression that what you're listening to is an ode to farts.  (2/10)

Things tick back up, but they'd have to, even if "Trees" weren't particularly good, though thankfully it is.  I said there were throughlines to Melody Time, and here's another: this movie is really into trees.  I don't know if that meant Walt was into trees.  But somebody was, maybe director Hamilton Luske, for "Trees" bears the hallmarks of a very personal project in a way nothing else here does. (Unfortunately for my thesis, "Appleseed" was directed by Wilfred Jackson.)  It purports to be a visual accompaniment to the Joyce Kilmer poem that has become lame through overquotation ("I think I shall never see/a poem as lovely as a tree"), which has been set to music by Oscar Rarbach and performed by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians in a heavenly-choir style that occasionally assists in giving the short the feeling of a prayer, but is mostly not interesting, nor even intelligible.

But the look of it doesn't rely on the song, and it's beautiful: it sort of recalls and remakes 1937's masterpiece "The Old Mill," substituting a tree for the mill, but it has a markedly different aesthetic, that of a moving painting, sometimes the "moving" part accomplished more through the suggestion of movement than actual movement.  It works, just as much of what works in Melody Time works, as a showcase for Disney's background artists (now joined by the effects animators, still under Josh Meador), and, in its closing moments, it recalls "Appleseed" directly through the equation of this old tree with a holy cross.  But I don't think it's Christian in substance, only in form: it uses a Christian symbol to point to the God that is, also, Nature.  It's quite good, if also Melody Time's most challenging (that is, most potentially boring) piece.  By its construction, it can never reflect the dynamism of nature the way "The Old Mill" did.  But then, nature as the unchanging face of the divine is the entire point of the endeavor, so one can't say it isn't a success.  (8/10)

Next comes "Blame It On the Samba," a continuation in miniature of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, reteaming Donald Duck and José Carioca for one more Latin party.  But we find our friends unaccountably blue—literally blue—perhaps because Caballeros was a mild box office disappointment and this was the only canonical sequel it would ever get.  Luckily for them, or so it seems, the Aracuan bird has just the thing: samba, naturally.  And so he puts on the music, does his Woody Woodpecker thing in time with it, and mixes our guys into a cocktail, wherein they find another prisoner of the Aracuan, Ethel Smith in live action, at her piano.  "Samba" would've fit naturally enough into the nonsense of Caballeros, though it's more typical of its average moment than its best, zany and wild and a little fatiguing, still stuck trying to make horny birds and live-action women work.  It is, to its credit, more technically sophisticated than any of the (sometimes not-very-good) hybridization work in Caballeros, doubtless thanks to one of Walt's oldest collaborators, Ub Iwerks, figuring out the process over the course of that film.  There's an astonishing 360° pan around Smith's piano that demanded the utmost of Ward Kimball's skillset.  It's enjoyable and colorful enough, and ends with the suggestion that Donald and José have sold their souls for a night's passing enjoyment, which is awesome.  (6/10)

That means that it's time for lucky number seven, whereupon Melody Time just straight-up shits itself.  A third theme becomes apparent, now, though I'm reasonably sure it's just the atmosphere of the time and not a deliberate choice: a post-war film in the most optimistic and blithe sense of that term, it takes on the kitsch of Americana—everything Walt loved so unreservedly—and looks at the past in preparation for the future.  "Wintertime" can trace its inspiration to the then-popular Currier & Ives prints of turn-of-the-century New England; "Appleseed" is self-explanatory; "Bumble" accepts jazz as a new part of the American fabric; "Trees," well, "Trees" really likes trees in America; "Samba" represents the tourist in us, maybe; and as for "Toot," tugboats are Americans, too, I suppose?  But now here's "Pecos Bill," and it's everything ugly about America without even noticing it.  It has the benefit, or not, of a long and reasonably agreeable prologue, sung-through by Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers, and while I know it's just down to the differences between 1948 and 2019 that that name sounds like a white supremacist militia to me, sadly this cartoon will make that connection clear soon enough.  For the time being, it is agreeable, a gentle cowboy ballad paired with "moving painting" images that recall "Trees" at a lower level of implementation and applied to a fantasy of the Western desert.  (A fantasy that, for some reason, includes the quail family from Bambi.)  We arrive upon Roy Rogers' camp, where he's entertaining his niece Luana (Luana Patten, as I guess she had a lot of famous uncles) and nephew Bobby (Bobby Driscoll, best known as Peter in Peter Pan).

Roy and the Sons are incensed to learn that the kids don't know the story of Pecos Bill, perhaps because they weren't around in New York to read the 1916 magazine stories from whence Bill originated.  Anyway, they resolve to tell them, in song, and so begins the tale of Pecos Bill, lost by his family on the Western trail, who lived feral and was raised instead by coyotes (or "kai-oats"—inevitably), until one day there was an edit, and he became a man.  Bill did many fantastic things, and then he met Slue-Foot Sue and fell in love.  Unfortunately, his horse Widowmaker was jealous of the attention he gave her, and so on their wedding day, using her bouncy bustle as a means, Widowmaker threw her off most violently, and she kept bouncing until she launched out into the void, lost forever.  Bill, in his grief, returned to the desert, and howled at the moon; his coyote family joined him; and that is why coyotes howl at the moon.

A lot of "Pecos Bill" is concerned with these just-so stories that purport to explain various features of the West; which means that, yep, a European settler who arrived in the late 1800s is the reason why there's a Rio Grande and a Gulf of Mexico.  He's kind of like Moana's Maui if Maui were quietly racist.  He's also like Maui if Maui were absurdly, loudly racist, because if the whimsy of inventing a bunch of creation myths for North America with a white settler isn't troublesome, get a load of how he made the Painted Desert.  (He started shooting at Indians—definitely not "Native Americans," and you'd be lucky if the film didn't call them "redskins," and you're not lucky—causing them to startle so forcefully they jumped out of their warpaint.)

"Bill" is what they call "problematic," then, though it's also just plain bad.  It's overly long.  Bill himself is as uncharismatic a humanoid as Disney could create without going for the grotesque, just a blond yokel with dumb facial expressions.  Rogers' singing/narration is so forgettable I've already forgotten it.  The gags are usually boring, and most of the ones that are good are the ones involving mythic feats that erase Native American existence.  There are a few others: a reasonably amusing premature ejaculation bit with Bill's guns, or Slue-Foot Sue's entrance, which sees her riding on the back of a mutant catfish down the Rio Grande, which is so absurd it can't not be funny.  The business with the bustle, on the other hand, that's so nonsensical and violative of even cartoon physics that your brain wants to shut down at the sight of it.  And yet there are only so many ways for the storymen to have put a woman into space in the 19th century, and, given the arbitrary endpoint of "why coyotes howl at the moon," one has to offer them some credit for coming up with anything at all.  Even if it's idiotic.  (3/10)

And that closes out Melody Time, which really ought to be better than it is: two segments, nasty in their diverse ways, drag it down like an anchor.  It may also be that I'm annoyed by the proportions of the good, the bad, and the mediocre in this and Make Mine Music.  Between the two of them, there's material enough for a splendid anthology, nothing that might challenge Fantasia, but might at least supplement it in their distinctly contemporary idiom.  "All the Cats Join In," "Johnny Appleseed," the other really good ones, maybe even some of the kind-of good ones if we have the time: they'd make a fine package film.  But a fine package film is something we never got out of Disney's Popular Music Anthologies, and that's a terrible shame, considering the concept ought to be inherently good, and considering, too, the goodness that's already in them.

Score: 5.01/10

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