A reappraisal of Disney’s Melody Time – Page 2

There were more package films to follow: Song of the South (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949). All these films are interesting, but for experiment and adventure in animation Melody Time is the most rewarding. It lacks The musical quality of Make Mine Music; there are no good songs and the score is unmemorable except in descriptive passages, but like its predecessor, the animation is widely varying in style and quality, and fascinating for the animator and layman alike; there is a range of effects and devices from full-scale character animation – only to be expected from the Studio which had created so many famous cartoon personalities – to the most extreme form of surreal and expressionist animation, as I hope to describe in the detailed analysis that follows.

The comments that I made about the style of Make Mine Music apply equally to Melody Time: “These films not only pre-date the originality of the UPA cartoons but also echo some of the sharpness and economy of the Warner Brothers and MGM”. It was not a period that the senior animators look back on with much affection. Those whom I interviewed remember it as a time of uncertainty and restlessness and indeed some of the senior animators were directly opposed to Walt for his adventurousness. So, while we give belated credit to the individual Disney artists for their contributions to the Golden Age, those same artists were instrumental in rejecting, with Walt, the avenues of experiment and genuine creative originality that the Forties films reveal. The men who had excitedly pushed back the frontiers of animation in the Thirties had moved on; those who remained were older, entrenched and afraid of change. They were only too glad to return to full-scale character animation in a full-length story. Both Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson confirmed this to me in interviews in 1985 and 1986. The late Milt Kahl, a brilliant artist who was renowned for his ability to stand up to Walt, shouted “What the bloody hell are you making this rubbish for?” when he saw the rushes for the “Bumble Boogie” section of Melody Time, perhaps the most inventive piece in the film.

Melody Time is thus a reflection of the tension and uncertainty of the Studio; lacking the cohesion of Make Mine Music and only touching that film at one or two moments of creativity, it is really only a string of shorts joined together. It also lacks Make Mine Music’s sub-text of dreams and fantasy focusing on a sense of loss, yearning and tragic separation. Melody Time has no such thematic cohesion, either conscious or subconscious, though it is ostensibly about American heroes. Does one detect a note of desperation in the Studio publicity blurb?

Story sketch of Master of Ceremonies voiced by Buddy Ebsen.

The grouping of several irresistible, jovial, fast-moving tales into a harmonious feature.., spun around a core of American legend – the mighty men of our native mythology…

At any rate Walt had, for the time being, turned his back on Europe and was looking at his own country for inspiration; five of the seven sections have roots in American folklore and popular culture, and an American folklore consultant, Carl Carmer, is given credit. Romantic love and the yearning for lost love forms a thematic link for two of the sections, but dislocation is paramount.

The film also lacks the earlier film’s charming opening credits and linking art-deco titles; instead there is an animated paintbrush (a device dating back to very early days in the business) which outlines the title for each of the seven sections. A series of wipes on a music stand reveal the opening credits, followed by an artist’s easel and the paintbrush which provides a proscenium arch and an animated mask, voiced by Buddy Clark as “Master of Ceremonies”. He and his three lady masks use their necktie ribbons to open the curtain through which we pass into blackness. Only then does the paintbrush dab in the first sectional title “Once upon a Wintertime”. What a bewildering variety of styles and conventions are, in a matter of seconds, displayed! We appear to be about to listen to a concert (music stand), then to watch a painter at work (easel and brush), then to attend a theatre (proscenium arch) and then to be entertained to a variety show (masks and a Master of Ceremonies). The styles, like the film, do not marry together, and the credits reflect the uncertainty.

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