Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet must surely be one of the few Disney films with a violent urban background behind its story of two hats in love. It is a fascinating example of magazine art, opening on a moonlit city night with a track down to a shop window. We follow the misfortunes of Johnny as he searches across the city for Alice:
He looked for her uptown and downtown and crosstown
From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Jersey Shore, And it all seemed in vain till he heard the rain
That Alice had sung of yore.
Johnny encounters road works, a pack of city dogs, a drunken tramp who takes him to a variety hail of doubtful repute. His owner becomes involved in a brawl and is taken off in a police van. Johnny is abandoned in the gutter to be blown through the streets and almost lost down a drain in company with broken bottles and cans. Is this really Disney? Yes, and of course it ends happily though the overriding mood of the piece is one of frustration and despair. The expressionistic atmosphere is matched by the limited animation and economic design of background and colour, underlining the tension, restlessness, uncertainty and isolation in the city; and this, in spite of the comfortable warbling by the Andrews Sisters of the words and music by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert. All this is done in just over seven minutes.
The last item is as long as Peter and the Wolf (fourteen and a half minutes) and it is the most tragic of all Disney’s films. Willie the hero of The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, dies at the end, and although we see him with harp, wings and a halo “in whatever heaven is reserved for creatures of the deep… still singing in a hundred voices, each more golden than before…” the overwhelming emotion is one of grief that he and his voice is lost to us for ever on earth. So powerfully animated is the character of Willie, so skilful is the reality of his personality, so convincing his imagined debut at the Metropolitan Opera House and his success there that it comes as a shock when we return to the real situation where “the stubborn deluded” impresario harpoons Willie at sea, believing him to have swallowed three opera singers.
This item has a balance of exuberance and satire, mocking opera with the same weapons of incongruity and caricature that we saw in the Dance of the Hours section of Fantasia. Nelson Eddy does all the voices including a diminutive soprano singing a Wagnerian duet with Willie, balanced on his fin and holding her own against the blast of his voice. Eddy narrates with commendable reserve; the colours are bright but not brash, the comedy charming and the drama intense.
Make Mine Music has never been reissued, its soundtrack has never been issued; pictures or stills are rarely seen in books; only one or two items have been seen again, coyly slipped into TV programmes or as fillers for theatrical release. But I hope I have shown that the film needs to be seen as a whole and judged as a whole, because as such its diverse qualities outlined above become apparent, and also because there are extraordinarily similar themes that recur and which went quite unnoticed on its first release. The obsession with sexual frustration in The Three Caballeros has become replaced by an obsession with loss, loss of love and the loved one. This theme occurs in eight sections, and death is dominant in three of these. Satire and wit, too, a quality we don’t associate with later Disney (except for 101 Dalmatians and Jungle Book) is a cohesive and refreshing element in seven items. Make Mine Music in short appeals to the heart and to the head; its intellectual interest is, I guess, partly due to the production supervisor Joe Grant, a satirical artist whose talents Walt had early recognised and used. (Joe was responsible for the satire on Mae West in Who Killed Cock Robin). The intellectual sharpness and edgy satire is due partly to him and also to Jack Kinney (director of many famous Goofy How to shorts) who directed four sections; but as always with Disney material, it is invidious to suggest individuals. The work is collective evidence of what the studio was doing in 1946 and should be judged as a collective whole.
There is room now only to outline the remainder of the forgotten years of Disney, which I hope to discuss in more detail in a later article. These years contained five more feature films, the most interesting and most neglected being Melody Time (1948). It contains seven segments of varying quality linked by a tenuous thread, and it shows remarkable affinities to Make Mine Music and continues to reveal the restless search for new ways of expression through animation that is characteristic of the period.
Meanwhile to summarise: the forties, following the war, the Studio strike, uncertainty at the box office and threatened financial collapse, caused Walt to consider new forms of expression through animation; the combination of live-action and animation was explored in The Three Caballeros, with its overt sexual fantasies, as Richard Mallett in Punch noted, of “Donald’s ravenous pursuit of flesh-and-blood feminine beauty.” Make Mine Music showed something new again, a sharp satiric look with an increasingly melancholy sub-text, and an ability to look intellectually outside the Studio for inspiration. Writing in The Spectator Alexander Shaw found in the film “a robust approach” and “a great change… (Disney) shows he is not afraid of being influenced by other people’s work.” The eclectism, the nervous tension, the uncertainty, the experimentation, the satire and wit, the lack of sentimentality – and of taste — the sadness, melancholy and sense of loss, are all here in Make Mine Music. Much of this was discarded and the later films largely repeat and reflect a more conservative, less abrasive and unsettling climate.
Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)