Saturday, 9 July 2016

Walt's Era - Part 4: Post-War Recovery (1947-1950)

The Second World War ended in 1945, freeing Disney up from the pressures that bogged the company down. Animators returned home from the war, the US military vacated the studios, and global markets opened back up. Nevertheless, these were still trying financial times for Walt and his crew.

Through the remainder of the Forties, Disney opted against trying anything too ambitious. Animators geared back up to doing full feature films by a couple of "package films" consisting of two half-hour shorts, directors continued pushing further into the realm of live-action, and the first True-Life Adventure slipped in, culminating in the company's grand return to fairy tale feature films with Cinderella. Beyond feature films, Donald Duck's star was eclipsing Mickey Mouse: in 1947 alone, only one Mickey short was produced against the eight starring Donald and four starring Pluto. In 1949 and 1950, no Mickey shorts were made at all. Things were pretty even between the two before the war, until it came time for Donald to be enlisted in the army. People could relate to the exaggerated caricature of Donald in a way that they could not relate to the affable Mickey anymore.

Overall, the stage was being set for a new "Golden Age" to emerge in the Fifties. In this batch of films, we see Disney once more trying to find its footing, preparing for great things to come.

Fun and Fancy Free
September 27, 1947
73 minutes

Fun and Fancy Free began life as two separate films intended to be feature length. When the war hit, production on Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk was halted, along with a number of other little projects like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. When it resumed, the call was made to shorten both and package them together into two segments of just over a half-hour apiece.

In the case of Bongo this probably works. It's not the strongest piece of Disney animation ever put to screen. This story of a circus bear gone back to the wild is charming enough, but also adds little to the same old trope. Part of me would have liked to see what they had in store when this was slated to be in the same world and circus as Dumbo, with some familiar cameos, but nothing of value was really lost. The song and dance number about how bears express love (through slaps) was cute, but the whole thing is fairly forgettable. I suppose that's why Humphrey and not Bongo is the ursine mascot for Walt Disney World's Storybook Circus, even though few people really recall who either of them are anymore.

Mickey and the Beanstalk has good enough bones that it could have been filled out into a feature quite easily. Supposedly the shysters who sell Mickey the magic beans were going to be Honest John and Gideon the Cat from Pinocchio. That would have been a nice recall as well, in a film featuring cameos by Jiminy Cricket, Cleo the Fish, and Ferdinand the Bull. For what there is, it's entertaining enough. The set-up with Happy Valley and the singing harp is good, the antics of our heroes Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are fun, and the hypnotic growth of the beanstalk is very nicely animated.

Linking the two stories together is a bare fig-leaf of rationalization. Jiminy plays a record of Dinah Shore reciting the story of Bongo and afterwards we discover we've been in the home of the Song of the South's Luana Patten all along. Jiminy follows her across the way to Edgar Bergen's house, where he's holding a party for her, and him, and his two puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. The latent creepiness of this aside, Bergen is always at his worst when he's on screen. His ventriloquist act with Charlie McCarthy was incredibly popular on radio, and for good reason. Bergen is just awful at being a ventriloquist. I can't help but stare at his flapping lips. While the McCarthy act is fine for radio, with its quick and snide wit, it undermines a fairy tale. Even when that fairy tale stars Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, it still needs to be treated sincerely. An audience can't invest themselves in it if the narrative voice is constantly pointing out how dumb it is.

Fun and Fancy Free isn't great cinema, and its easy to see how it has been largely forgotten over time.

Melody Time
May 27, 1948
75 minutes

Melody Time revisits the revised FantasiaMake Mine Music format, further refining it to show more straightfoward cartoons. Make Mine Music still had a number of abstracted musical sequences between cartoons like Casey at the Bat and The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. Melody Time has Bumble Boogie and Trees coming closest to filling that niche. The former has been known to appear in performances of the licenced Fantasia - Live in Concert. It deserves to be there too, since Bumble Boogie is a very good riff on Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, After You've Gone from Make Mine Music, and Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo.

The main body of Melody Time is carried by Once Upon a Wintertime, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, Little Toot, Blame it on the Samba, and Pecos Bill. Each of these is centred on a song or two, but no more so than a typical Mickey Mouse or late Silly Symphony short of times gone by. Little Toot is a little cutesy and forgettable in the same way that the story of Pedro the airplane was in Saludos Amigos. But speaking of the Latin American films, Blame it on the Samba looks like a holdover from The Three Caballeros. It stars Donald Duck, José Carioca, the Aracuan Bird, and live-action organist Ethel Smith in a bit of insanity that could have easily slotted into the Brazilian section of that film. The integration of animation and live-action is more consistent with Three Caballeros than the advancements made with Song of the South. Like Three Caballeros, it is a fun number with a song that sticks in your head.

Once Upon a Wintertime and The Legend of Johnny Appleseed are good cartoons that most clearly show the influence of Mary Blair throughout. My favourite of the film is Pecos Bill. Part of that is sentimental: Pecos Bill was my introduction to the music (and later the films) of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, the celebrities narrating the story and performing the two songs, Pecos Bill and Blue Shadows on the Trail. That I should have even sought out the rest of their work is a testament to the beauty of Blue Shadows on the Trail and the wit of their "cowboy storytelling" style. The story itself is a fine tall tale in the grand tradition of American fakelore, with Pecos roping a twister, digging the Rio Grande, and meeting Slue Foot Sue who rides in on a bucking catfish. There are also some allusions to the tradition of Western films. For example, the Pecos Bill musical number starts with Pecos aiming his gun at the viewer and taking a shot, much like the climax of 1903's seminal Western film The Great Train Robbery. Unfortunately, a bizarre criteria of selective political correctness has excised parts of the cartoon from American home video. The scene of Pecos roping a cyclone has been taken out because it involves him *gasp* rolling a cigarette... But the scene of "Painted Indians" having a "wardance" was left in. Racism is okay, but not smoking.

Pecos Bill works well with The Legend of Johnny Appleseed and it might have been nice if Disney opted to build on that theme of American legends. The introduction of Johnny Appleseed alludes to John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Davy Crockett. Those would have made for nice inclusions, or that other cartoon that they were working on right around then, about an itinerant schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane.

Seal Island

December 21, 1948
27 minutes

And from out of nowhere comes Seal Island...

Walt Disney made a deal with adventure photographers Alfred and Elma Milotte for footage of life in the high Arctic, human and animal. The Aleut peoples would have to wait for several years for their spot on the silver screen. What interested Disney most at the moment was the dramatic footage of Northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. For a scant $100,000 (compared to over $2 million for Song of the South), he had Winston Hibler and James Algar cobble this footage together into a one-of-a-kind short film that inaugurated not only a new series for Disney, but the modern wildlife documentary.

68 years later, we're very accustomed to this genre: the dulcet narrator intoning the athropomorphised daily and yearly experiences of wild animals in Earth's far-flung locales. For audiences in 1948, more accustomed to short newsreels and travelogues of that sort, this would have been fairly new, and stunning in Technicolor. Putting myself in that frame of mind, I know that this is not what I would have been expecting from Disney, first of all. Seeing posters for it, I might have expected some cute cartoon of a seal à la Mickey and the Seal (released December 3, 1948). The words "True-Life Adventure" would have had no meaning.

After what I would come to know as the series' standard opening - a spinning golden globe, the brush-style font - a paintbrush sweeps across the screen, shaping a globe on which sits the Aleutian Islands of the Arctic. I've seen this before, in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Breaking that wall, being that meta (though I wouldn't have known that word), is becoming standard for Disney now. Then the scene changes to live-action. So is it kind of like Three Caballeros or Song of the South now? Maybe it'll be like Saludos Amigos where it'll show me the inspiration before we get to the cartoon. No... no... We're just talking about seals now. Weird.

So weird that RKO refused to distribute it until Disney proved that it worked by privately leasing it to theatres in New York and Los Angeles. Clearly this Seal Island movie is a bunch of separate clips strung together into some kind of narrative... I'm watching about three or four different baby seals crammed into one character, two different fights between bull seals edited into one story. A little strange, but it works. It's turning that footage into something coherent I can latch onto. It's a little silly sometimes, a little too... I don't know... "Mickey Mouse"... You know, how they always synchronize the music and sound effects to what Mickey Mouse does. I don't really need silly pratfall sounds every time an animal trips, though it was kinda' cute the first time.

I don't know why Disney picked seals in the middle of nowhere though. I wonder if he'll do any more of these, because they're kind of neat.

So Dear to My Heart
January 19, 1949
82 minutes

Main Street USA: The Movie.

I announced that before in jest, but So Dear to My Heart is about as close as it gets to the real thing. Nothing of real substance happens in the film; it's plot is a very simple story about a boy who raises a black lamb with the hopes of winning the award at the county fair. Yet that story and the film built around it are a nostalgic paean to turn-of-the-century rural Americana, much as Main Street USA is itself. Walt Disney said that So Dear to My Heart was one of his most personal films because it so accurately reflected the preoccupations of his boyhood in Marceline. In fact, conspicuous in its presence on the protagonist's homestead is an exact replica of Walt's barn from his home in Marceline, replicated again for his backyard railway, the Carolwood Pacific (and now found in Griffith Park, maintained by the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society).

Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs before it, So Dear to My Heart opens with a book... A weathered old scrapbook in an attic. It opens to a beautiful array of charming Victorian images, which in turn melt to stunning, multiplane animated shots of idyllic rural life. The narrator, an older and wiser Jeremiah Kincaid, informs us that the story we are about to hear is just a small snapshot in time, but one of those small snapshots that can direct the entire course of a person's life. We are then ushered to Pike County, Indiana, and much that quintessentially fits the Gay Nineties milieu. There's the Kincaid homestead with Granny working away on her plowing and her quilts. There's little Bobby Driscoll as young Jeremiah, looking like the image of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, barefoot in overalls and straw hat, trailed by Luana Patten in pigtails. There's Burl Ives, the town handyman singin' away his folktunes. There's the hamlet of Fulton's Corner and the general store, adorned with gingerbread decorations. The gilded steam train comin' a-highballin' through, and Dan Patch the champion racehorse, and county fairs and blue ribbons and squaredances and Edison phonographs and the whole nine yards. The whole film is a loving tribute to a bygone time.

Mixing live action and animation, and sharing its pair of child stars, So Dear to My Heart is a conceptual sequel to Song of the South. After the experiment that was Song of the South, this film was slated to be Disney's first completely live-action feature. The time wasn't quite right and animated sequences were inserted, though none blending the human actors with the cartoon ones. This time around, cel animation is integrated with stop-motion, featuring an old owl and a black lamb cavorting across the pages of the scrapbook. The quality of this animation is spectacular compared to what we've been seeing over the last decade, not the least of which involving their dusting off of the multiplane. If I seem like such a multiplane camera fanboy in these reviews, it's only because I've finally noticed how important a part it plays in the quality of the animation. Married to painterly backdrops, it creates animation of genuine beauty.

Some of the animation is very intense. In an inspirational vignette designed to help little Jeremiah buck himself up, Christopher Columbus sails across a stormy sea tormented by dragons (and some reused animation from Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony) and Robert the Bruce besieges flaming castles. Then there's also a spider in a kilt dancing a Highland jig on Robert's sword. Another vignette ushers us to the Pike County Fair by abstracted shadows of resplendent men and women aboard Ferris Wheels and in Tunnels of Love. A reference is even made one of the most important cultural events of the Gay Nineties, the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition. It's charming that such effort and expense would be poured into cartoons for a film never intended to have animation to begin with.

So Dear to My Heart is also, intriguingly, Disney's most overtly religious movie. The jury is out on the nature and extent of Walt's own faith, but the Christian traditions of the American mid-west are in full force on the Kincaid farm. Granny is a stern but soft old lady who is sure to train up Jeremiah in the ways of the Lord. She aims for him to be brung up right and decent, but isn't beyond fudging the rules just a bit in a spirit of mercy. David, Goliath, Joshua, and the walls of Jericho show up in animated form to help inspire Jeremiah to "make due with what you got." As a Christian myself, I appreciate that religion is present and real in this film, but delivered sensibly and with sensitivity, neither demonized nor evangelized. It's serious, but just there, as indeed it is in the lives of believers.

Finally, this is the fourth time now that we've seen Luana Patten in as many feature films, and the third time we've seen Bobby Driscoll (though this film was shot shortly after Song of the South, then shelved for a few years). We're being ushered into the era of not only live-action Disney films but Disney's platoon of contract actors. Seeing Driscoll looking very much the part of a Tom Sawyer, it occurs to me that they really ought to have adapted The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the late Forties, with Driscoll as Tom Sawyer and Patten as Becky Thatcher. With what Disney was doing at this time, I think that would have been about perfect. I can see it now... A gilt copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer sitting on a desk, a Mark Twain soundalike narrator setting the scene, panning to paddlewheelers on the Mississippi... What a missed opportunity!

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
October 5, 1949
68 minutes

Disney's wartime package films meet their end with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and do so perfectly. These two half-hour shorts were originally intended as feature-length films, but were reduced due to budget and story constraints. Nevertheless, they set-up the return to full feature animated films quite well. Both shorts are extremely well-done, with taut stories and memorable characters. Unlike previous package films, nothing is wasted, thrown away, or filler.

A feature-length Wind in the Willows had the potential of being quite good, by virtue of the book itself being a masterpiece. Unusually, however, Walt didn't recognize its potential. He reportedly thought that Kenneth Grahame's cast of anthropomorphic animals along the River Thames would have been "awful corny," which is absurd. The Wind in the Willows is a beautiful, sublime, charming, sensitive novel, and it would appear that it went flying right over Walt's head, if he ever even read it. Given what was teased out of it - Mr. Toad's madcap mania, riots and pratfalls and the like - it might be for the best. The longing felt by Mole at the scent of his home, or the theophany of Pan, would just not work with Disney's treatment of the material as funny animals doing funny things. It's a fine, fun short that delivered one of the best rides at Disneyland, but this is a rare case where I am almost prepared to look down my nose at Disney as cultural Philistines... Brash, loud, simplistic, and American, missing the subtlety of a quaintly British story.

That limitation puts The Legend of Sleepy Hollow right up their alley. If Disney was not prepared to find more than a half-hour of material in The Wind in the Willows, they successfully recognized that there isn't more than a half-hour of material in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. What works in Washington Irving's short story has never really worked in a feature film, because it is needlessly drawn out. In the 1922 Will Rogers version, we wait for over an hour for the payoff, and very little of it is really interesting. Tim Burton's just pads it all out with a bunch of nonsense. This version tells us everything we need in rapid succession, drawing us quickly towards the dramatic, genuinely frightening climax.

Uniquely, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a Disney film that not only lacks a "hero," but even lacks likable characters. In the love triangle between Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones, nobody is innocent. Ichabod is an arrogant schemer, Katrina is a flighty manipulator, and Brom Bones is just a bully. It's a fascinating wreck to rubberneck at. To Disney's credit, this is also the only version that leaves the identity of the Headless Horseman as a mystery. Other film versions are too tempted to lay down an answer one way or another, providing either a natural or a supernatural explanation. In this version, we just don't know. It could be a ghost or could be Brom Bones, Ichabod could be dead or he could be alive. Bing Crosby doesn't give us a definite conclusion, and that is excellent.

For decades, these two films were always seen in isolation, with good reason. Like Fun and Fancy Free, there is no real coherent reason why these two films should have been linked together. As I said before, Putting The Legend of Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill together with Legend of Sleepy Hollow would have made considerably more sense, as an anthology of American tales. Both Johnny Appleseed and Legend of Sleepy Hollow share the same general time period and the conspicuous background design of Mary Blair. Add Ben and Me to Johnny Appleseed and Sleepy Hollow, and you'd have a pretty good "Liberty Square" Blu-Ray.

Back to what is rather than what could be: all the parts are in place now. I can feel Disney's confidence rising with The Adventrues of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It's time for another full length fairy tale.

February 15, 1950
75 minutes

"Greatest since SNOW WHITE." That is what the posters advertising Cinderella said, and they weren't far off the mark. The films immediately following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were greater artistic triumphs than Cinderella by far... Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi are all more artistically and technically sophisticated films. Films like The Three Caballeros and Song of the South were much more experimental. Cinderella has "it" though. It's a classic fairy tale with heart and romance and grace, a true return to form.

It's taken me a while to warm up to Cinderella. When I first saw it again as an adult, I didn't much like it. For one, it's a very domestic film. It has a very small scale and small stakes. Almost all the action takes place in one household, with a short jaunt out to an admittedly very beautiful palace. The entire film is about one girl's mooning after said palace. Secondly, and more importantly, I couldn't get behind Cinderella as a character. She's just so... limp... More than once I wanted her to just slap the taste out of Lady Tremain's mouth. Stand up for yourself, damnit! It's your own damn house!

Some time ago I deliberately set out to understand Cinderella when I wanted to write an analysis of feminist criticisms. I haven't done such a concerted effort at closely "reading" a film, trying to grasp the characters' actions and motivations, minute-by-minute, since I was in university. Cinderella, the film and the character, is an enigma. And that's when something painfully self-evident clicked: she is a victim of abuse.

Here's what I wrote in my analysis...
While it is easy to become frustrated with the Cinderella character for refusing to stand up for herself, one must consider that she is a victim of an abusive family life that has carried on since her childhood. She has not been equipped to assert her own independent will, and so she retreats to a hidden interior world of her dreams and relationship with the domestic vermin. Every attempt to actualize herself is crushed by Lady Tremain and her daughters, including a shockingly rape-like scene in which Cinderella's step-sisters tear her ballgown to shreds.
At her emotionally lowest point in the film, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother appears as a symbol of positive female empowerment. What she bestows on the physically beaten and psychologically victimized girl is not so banal as a pretty dress and a nice coach so she can go play dress-up at the ball and meet a handsome man. What she bestows on Cinderella is the gift of becoming someone else... To become a new woman, an empowered woman, a free woman who is able to pursue her own ambitions. This new woman woos and wins over the prince, but it cannot last. The time limit imposed by the Fairy Godmother is also symbolic of the fact that empowerment is not a gift that can be given, but a quality that must be grasped for oneself, for it is in the grasping that it is formed. Cinderella's final victory is a result of her first and only self-empowered act in the whole film: when she emerges to seize her right to try on the glass slipper. It is at this point, in open defiance of her step-mother, that Cinderella liberates herself. Even if the shoe did not fit, Cinderella would finally be free to leave that house and never return.
Understanding this, I think, was key to understanding the appeal of this weirdly domestic little film about a limp girl. Cinderella was a return to form, but not a return to the content of a film like Snow White. In the latter, Snow White is a fully formed character. She is already the fairest in the land, brimming over with admirable virtues which in turn inspire the love and protection of huntsmen, dwarves, and princes. Yes she is oppressed and threatened by her step-mother, but she is still very much herself.

Cinderella, on the other hand, is not a fully formed character. She is a character in the process of becoming. Her process of overcoming her abuse is the process of her becoming a fully-fledged woman. She is learning who she is, learning to assert herself, and learning to become an adult. No wonder that her story should be so appealing for legions of little girls! She is the model of the journey that they themselves must take, even if it is not so dramatized through the imagery of domestic abuse and glimmering palaces.

There is a lot that is negative that could be said about Cinderella. The mice and birds are too cutesy, the prince is not a character to speak of, the designs are beautiful but the execution is still reminiscent of the cheap wartime films, and so on. It's not my favourite Disney animated film. It's not even in the top 10. It is, however, a watershed moment for Disney. The company came back out of the trying times of World War II with another feature length princess movie, and it works well enough, and resonates well enough, to put the company back on top. The coming decade would see Disney pushing ever forward, innovating and expanding as a company.


  1. The point about Cinderella not standing up for herself because she is being abused is well taken, but it still irks me that her happy ending really has nothing to do with her own actions. She befriends the animals, but the dress they make for her gets ripped up. Then the Fairy Godmother shows up out of nowhere and just fixes everything. She could have shown up at any time, so why now? No reason is given.

    Compounding the issue is the way Marketing tends to treat Cinderella as the central figure of the Princess line. This may have something to do with the castle at WDW, but I still find it intensely problematic that the "ultimate" Princess story is the one where the girl gets pushed around, puts up with it, and then a magic fairy comes out of the blue and hands her what she needs to escape.

    1. Those were some of my problems originally, but as I said, it eventually clicked that what really gives Cinderella her happy ending is her one defiant act at the end, when she asserts her right to try on the shoe. Everything that was handed to her by the mice and the Fairy Godmother was only temporary, because she didn't earn it. Her lasting happiness, her "happily ever after" came because she finally grew to assert her own will. Cinderella finally fixes herself.

      As for the marketing, I think that's putting the cart before the horse. Cinderella is front and centre because she's the most popular Princess (According to a 2014 article by Time, Cinderella earns the most after Elsa, who isn't technically a Princess yet). I'm sure that if Snow White or Belle moved as much product, they would be the head of the line. So the question would really be: what about Cinderella appeals so much to little girls?

      For the Princesses in general, Hasbro's market research found out something interesting: "girls—young girls, particularly—weren’t nearly as into clothes and boys and happily-ever-after as they thought. “What we found was that girls loved the idea of a brand that embraced friendship and kindness”..." (source). So there is Cinderella as a model of kindness and being friends with the vermin. But there is also the fact that little girls aren't really masters of their own domain either. They're still being controlled by their parents, told what to do and where to go and all of that. Then here is Cinderella, as a sympathetic figure who goes through a process of empowerment (as opposed to being super empowered and awesome to begin with, which seems to be mainly what adult women want, because they've already gone through the empowerment process). I suspect that's also part of why Elsa is so popular. She goes through a similar process of growing into herself. Then there's the intense female relationship between Anna and Elsa to add that element. The Princesses who are already fairly well-formed seem to be at the bottom of the list: Belle, Tiana, Jasmine, Merida... With the exception of Snow White, who doesn't change one bit, but there always has to be an exception.

    2. Might I suggest that one big part of the reason little girls latch onto Cinderella is the part of the narrative where she has to do household chores and it's NOT FAIR? Incidentally, it only occurred to me fairly recently that when it was written, the injustice of Cinderella's situation was less that she had to do all the work while the other women lazed around, but that she had to do the work when she was *middle class.* As the daughter of the man who had owned this nice big house, she should have been privileged to lead a life of leisure, while a woman from a poor family was hired as the maid.

      Anyway, I certainly don't begrudge little girls relatable characters to enjoy, but let's not pretend Disney's marketing department is only reactive, either. Especially when the Princess brand has so little to do with the characters as individuals, and so much to do with sparkly dresses.

      As for why Snow White isn't as popular, I'm going to guess it's because the light opera-style songs aren't as fun to sing as most of the others, and because she mostly hangs out with a bunch of weird old dudes with beards.

  2. Your assessment of the climax of Cinderella's pretty terrific. Her decision to say, "Let me try the shoe on" is remarkably active for her. I'm not sure the filmmakers even realized what a turning point that was for her character.

    The abuse is central to her appeal. To see somebody who's never been valued, feel valued and loved, that's pretty rewarding.

    And if outsiders show up and help her, if indeed, a Deus ex Machina occurs (albeit, at the halfway point), well...I think there's a fairly Protestant think going on there, yes? There are a whole lot of people out there who, exhausted from their own attempts, want to believe that someone out there is going to show up and save them from their wretched situation and the Fairy Godmother certainly appeals to that need.