The four shorts that make up Saludos Amigos (1943) do not reflect much of this new mood, though the freedom of styling in the Brazilian sequence Aquarela do Brasil hints at the imaginative use of animation in The Three Caballeros (1945).
Victoiy Through Air Power (also 1943) is a piece of hard-sell propaganda whose message was already dated by the time of its release, in spite of an intense flurry of activity to get it pushed through the studio as quickly as possible. The limited animation technique that such speed demanded gives the film some of its compelling imagery, though one has to divorce this from the propagandist message. Visual metaphors are achieved with breathtaking simplicity; Disney was using a visual technique over forty years ago, in brilliant colours, and doing it with the sort of economy and flair that we take for granted in the modern TV commercial.
The film draws inspiration from the political cartoon, particularly work by Louis Raemakers, David Low and George Grosz. James Algar, who directed half the film, described it to me in a recent interview as “a continuous running editorial cartoon to start with. By the time it got out the argument was almost over, the events of the war had caught up.”
With The Three Caballeros (1945) we come to the end of the war. We can see in the film an increasingly frenetic disorientation reflecting the uncertainty at the studio. The film exhausts by its bombardment of colour and sound — the limited animation in the Mexican sequence, sexual obsession in the combined live-action and animated sections, iconoclastic and surrealist imagery, the unblushing pastiche of Busby Berkeley musicals, the anxiety to inform and to educate, all show how emphatically the studio was searching for change.
“If the time is one of crisis and… values will no longer serve but are in conflict and in question,” wrote Barbara Deming in her notice of the film for the Partisan Review of Spring 1946, “if the prevailing state of mind is a deep bewilderment, he (Disney) will improvise with equal lack of inhibition this makes his dreams sometimes monstrous. But it gives them a wide reference.”
Dreams and fantasy form part of the ten short subjects that constitute the package film Make Mine Music (1946). It opens outside an art deco cinema whose storeys light up in turn from top to bottom announcing the credits, and listing the talents of the popular artists whose voices Disney used to give the film marquee value. As we progress into the cinema, lobby cards in the foyer continue the credits until we find ourselves m the auditorium itself looking at a programme which announces Make Mine Music as A Musical Fantasy in Ten Parts. When the curtain parts we see the individual titles for the first item.
So we are already encountering a film within a film, distanced by not only the wealth of opening credits but also by the individual poster captions that introduce each section. These are witty pastels with a visual clue to the following item and unless the film is seen in its entirety, the charm of these visual and verbal links, typical of popular magazine art of the Nineteen Forties, is missing, for when the individual sections are shown again as fillers for a TV programme, the opening captions are omitted. Besides, they serve as a common stylistic binding device for the film — apart from the cinema locale which is quickly forgotten by the viewer — along with the musical links, they are the film’s only apparent cohesive elements. The animation, by contrast, is very different in style and veers from traditionally rich full animation to stylised limited animation and special effects bordering on the abstract. But I hope to show later that there are other factors uniting the film.
The music ranges from popular classical through popular song to jazz. It is this potpourri of design, style, animation, music and talent which can be seen today as a record of a studio struggling to find new ways of expression in the post-war period. While the other major Hollywood studios were flourishing, output and audience attendance reaching all-time peaks, Disney was struggling and Make Mine Music is a reflection of that struggle.
The first item, The Martins and the Coys, subtitled “A Rustic Ballad” and sung by the King’s Men to words and music by Al Cameron and Ted Weems, has an indigenous theme; here was a look, satiric in form, of a popular American hillbilly legend about two feuding families.
The styling is traditional with browns, reds and greens to match the folksy theme and sentimentality, to which the later features would alas return with a vengeance, is kept firmly at bay.
The second item Blue Bayou, subtitled a tone poem, is an atmospheric piece, its visual strength enhanced when the original music for which it was designed, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, is played. It was intended as an extension to Fantasia which Walt had seen as a continuously changing feature, with new works added from time to time, or as a musical piece for a second Concert Feature, but because of the difficulties outlined above these ideas were abandoned.
So when Walt decided to go ahead with Make Mine Music, the piece was ready, but more popular music (by Bobby Worth and Ray Gilbert) was written at the last minute, a very late decision because pre-release publicity still states that “the classic Claire (sic) de Lune is heard in the Blue Bayou sequence.”
The delicacy and grace of the animation, depicting herons in stillness and in flight, contrasting dark and light with colour gradations from deep black through a range of blended blues to silver white, is remarkable. The design calls for an equal delicacy and taste in the music, and when it was reissued as part of a musical package on television, it did contain the Debussy music and was a revelation.
All the Cats Join In, the third item, is a witty example of the use of limited animation before the term had general currency. A pencil outlines this “Jazz interlude” by Alec Wilder, Ray Gilbert and Eddie Sauter and played by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Only the essentials are sketched in, showing a bobbysoxer preparing for and enjoying a jive session at her local drug store. Styling is strictly art deco, swift changes of scene suggested by a wipe effect like an artist tearing off a page of a sketch-book. Pace and colours are as jazzy as the music, the finale an exploding juke box showering musical notes and gramophone records.