A reappraisal of Disney’s Melody Time – Page 4

Johnny Appleseed (Director Wilfred Jackson)

Story sketch of Johnny Appleseed as a young man.

This is the story of “a real life pioneer” called John Chapman (1776 – 1847) who, “with a tin pot hat, a bag of apple seed and a holy book.., all alone set out to meet the great unknown… without no knife, without no gun”. The film chronicles his courage as he plants apple trees across the states of Ohio and Indiana, his shadow stretching ahead of him. He braves forests, storms and wild animals, dying peacefully under an apple tree, his guardian angel urging him to plant some more trees up in heaven.

Story sketch of Johnny Appleseed as an old man.

In synopsis this sounds mawkish, and there certainly is sentiment; Dennis Day however narrates and sings with commendable restraint, and the story of the real- life Chapman was indeed a remarkable one. According to W D Haley (writing of him in Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1871):

Generally, even in the coldest weather, he went barefooted.., his principal garment was made of a coffee sack, in which he cut holes for his head and arms to pass through, and pronounced it ‘a very serviceable cloak, and as good clothing as any man need wear”. In the matter of head-gear his taste was equally unique; his first experiment was with a tin vessel that served to cook his mush… Thus strangely clad, he was perpetually wandering through forests and morasses, and suddenly appearing in white settlements and Indian villages… The Indians treated Johnny with the greatest kindness and… in the work of protecting animals from abuse and suffering he preceded, while, in his smaller sphere, he equalled the zeal of the good Mr Bergh.

Johnny Appleseed.

I have permitted myself the liberty of a large extract from this fascinating account of John Chapman because it lends weight to the truthful story that the Disney artists have given us. Walt Disney also met Patricia Rudd Speed who was a great-great-great-grandniece of John Chapman, and from her learnt the legend of her ancestor.

The story is set against, once again, Mary Blair’s enchanting backgrounds, economically rendered by Claude Coats and his colleagues; and the backgrounds compliment and support the story instead of overwhelming it, as they do to cruel effect in Sleeping Beauty some eleven years later. The bright colours, flat rendering of mass and tone, remind one of Grandma Moses, but Le Douanier Rousseau is certainly present and also Gauguin. Here, the landscape is part of the whole story which perhaps is why the animators had difficulty, so Frank Thomas told me, in getting to grips with this section. The conflict between character and landscape can be observed in this extract from a story conference of 1947 where Walt clearly wishes to emphasize Mary’s designs:

Inspirational sketch for Johnny Appleseed by Mary Blair.

Walt: A series of pictorial things. Some of those designs of Mary where you can take a whole scene and leave it, hold it, the beauty of the thing.

Marc Davis, one of Disney’s “nine old men” told me that Mary “could put things together that no colourist including Matisse could equal. She had very poor eyesight. She had seven pairs of glasses and contact lenses. Her colour was inside her – it just came naturally… our people didn’t know how to interpret her flat images… Walt was embarrassed by his lack of education but her work read to him”.

A final note needs to be said about this section which, at seventeen minutes, is the longest in the film; the respect for the environment which John Chapman advocated is focused on in the story, and elicits a sympathy in our more ecologically conscious age. Racial harmony is also shown in the apple harvest celebration where Red Indians and settlers dance and sing together. It is a nice touch, delicately stated.

Little Toot (Director Clyde Geronimi)

Little Toot.

Based on a comic story by Hardie Gramatky, about a naughty little tugboat in New York Harbour, this is sung by the Andrews Sisters, who relate how Little Toot redeems himself after disgrace and exile. The character animation is excellent, economical and confident, from the eponymous hero to his hard working father tug, the police boats and even the animated buoys and lighthouse light. It is all witty and pleasant enough but an element is missing and perhaps it lies in the music, which, despite the Andrews Sisters’ professionalism, is mediocre. There is nothing new here. It seems derivative.

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