A reappraisal of Disney’s Melody Time

Time for Melody by Robin Allan

Pecos Bill and Widdershins his horse. All illustrations in this article are from Melody Time. © The Walt Disney Company.

The fortieth anniversary of Melody Time (1948) serves as an opportunity – and much more than an excuse – to reassess one of Walt Disney’s neglected animated feature films; it was not a success either critically or commercially, and like its predecessor Make Mine Music (1946) with which it is often confused, it has never been reissued as a whole, nor has it been given the critical attention it deserves. The film, made up of seven sections, was dismissed by the Daily Telegraph reviewer in one sentence as “just five or six indifferent shorts strung together to make a feature,” while C A Lejeune in The Observer lamented, “to me it is saddening to find an artist who once filled the screen so richly, piling it up with bits of bric-a-brac”. Only The Sunday Dispatch gave it unqualified praise, calling it “charming… and vastly pleasing”.

In an earlier article Make Mine Disney (Animator Issue No. 19 April/June 1987, pp. 28-31) I outlined some of the reasons for the critical and public neglect of Make Mine Music and briefly relate them again here because they apply equally well to Melody Time. The war and the disastrous effects of the Studio strike, both economic and psychological, contributed to Disney’s uncertainty about the future of the full length animated feature film. Of the four films released between 1940 and 1942, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, only Dumbo made money for the Studio. There were, besides, cartoon ideas that could be used but were too short to be fitted onto the framework of a full length feature; it was a time for experimentation and for hard economic necessity. Walt Disney said:

I want to emphasize that the effective use of material otherwise denied to the motion picture is what appeals to me chiefly in making… Melody Time… it pleases and encourages me to learn that the “Disney” style is not so fixed and limited to the public mind as to preclude further exploration in the field of entertainment.

The Studio had begun the release of package films as early as Fantasia, which Disney intended to modify and alter in later releases, with new sections added or alterations made, similar to a concert performance. However, both Disney and Stokowski brought such cohesion to the film that we do not think of it as a compilation work, and it was never altered – although one extra piece strayed into Make Mine Music. The real eclecticism begins with The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and continues with the Latin American films Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945). The jewel in the package crown is, for me, Make Mine Music (1946), a masterpiece that contains two brilliant sections (After You’ve Gone and The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at The Met) and three or four remarkable pieces by any standards. I have long felt that this film has been unduly neglected and was delighted to learn only recently that Eisenstein was an admirer of Disney, and outlined in his diaries a surprising connection between Willie the Whale and his own film Ivan the Terrible.

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