Robin Allan gives his reassessment of a rarely shown Disney feature length cartoon that is out on video.
It is forty years since the release in 1946 of Disney’s animated feature Make Mine Music. Most of it is forgotten, or confused with material from Melody Time (1948). But it deserves reassessment; as David Rider said of a rare screening of the entire film at the Tribute to Walt Disney Retrospective in 1970 at the National Film Theatre, “Of the ten sequences, seven are perfectly satisfactory… and in some cases they are quite excellent.” A few of the sections crop up out of context on Disney TV shows or as special items for theatrical release, but on the whole, since the film was not particularly successful at the time, the studio has left it on the shelf to gather dust. Even a wretched new so-called biography The Real Walt Disney, by Leonard Mosley (Grafton. 1986) pays scant attention to this period and comments on only two of the nine animated features released between 1943 and 1950.
The nine films were: Saludos Amigos (1943), Victory Through Air Power (1943), The Three Caballeros (1945), Make Mine Music (1946), Song of the South (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949). All the films except the last contained some live action, either integrated with or separate from the animation, and two of them had very short cartoon sections indeed.
It is time to blow the dust off much original and experimental work, more particularly because over exposure to the Disney classics through periodic theatrical release, has recently been augmented (in the United States) by the unprecedented release in 1985 of four animated features on video. These were Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. Admirable as this increasing accessibility of well-known titles may be, it pushes the forgotten films further into obscurity.
What a pity this is. I contend that these films not only pre-date the originality of the UPA cartoons but also echo some of the sharpness and economy of the work of Warner Brothers and MGM. Sadly, the new techniques and style that Disney was trying out, did not meet with much enthusiasm; the artists and animators were glad to return to more traditionally acceptable styles in the classic adoptions beginning with Cinderella in 1950. Experiment, satire, limited animation, abstraction were all largely dropped and as soon as Walt could afford it, he returned to the safety of the full-length story feature. And none of the senior animators whom I interviewed in 1985 recalled these years with any great enthusiasm. So some of the boldest and most innovative work in animation that should be credited to Disney is not accessible and all the books tell us to look elsewhere. That Disney was ready to change and adapt, I contend, can be proved by a close examination of the neglected Make Mine Music, and the restlessness at the studio can be traced back through the work of the middle forties.
The first three films on my list, Saludos Amigos, Victory Through Air Power and The Three Caballeros are ably and comprehensibly discussed by Richard Shale in his study of Disney during the war years, Donald Duck Joins Up (UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1982). We note here that for the first time, apart from Fantasia (1940) there begins the process of compilation, of putting together in package form pieces too short to stand on their own or too long to be released in the, then, tight structure of theatrical billing. “The cartoon field wasn’t flexible enough,” said Walt. “It forced me to make either a cartoon short seven or eight minutes long or a feature seventy or eighty minutes long. And I had a lot of ideas I thought would be good if I could fit them in between those two extremes.” Later he added, “the effective use of material otherwise denied to the motion picture is what appeals to me chiefly in making (this) kind of entertainment.”
But there were other reasons for the mood of change and need for experiment. The studio was becoming an increasingly uncertain place; many of the personnel had been drafted for war service, and others — including some of his best men — had left after the strike of May 1941. Disney, hurt by this, and by increasing loss of revenue caused by the failure at the box- office of Fantasia and to a lesser extent Pinocchio and Bambi, as well as loss of overseas markets cut off by war, undertook military training films for the government. This kept the studio afloat and his goodwill visit to Latin America gave him the opportunity to produce Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Much of the latter’s disorientation, chaos and orgasmic, exhaustive patterning reflects this uncertainty, but it also reflects the need for change, the need to break from the mould imposed by success, a determination to work something – anything -new with the medium.