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The Persistence of Disney, Part 8: Make Mine Music (1946)

28 Aug

Make Mine Music

What is best in life?  Art or commerce?  This is a question that plagues all who work in the mass arts and it is certainly something that seems to have plagued Mr. Walter Elias Disney.  It is admirable, if not a bit naïve, that in the beginning of his career his trajectory was his intent to push the artistic boundaries in an arena that others had written off as rather innocuous.  The problem was that he came to eventually realize that art just wasn’t in the budget.  Of his first five animated features, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, only two were box office hits.  Animated features in the 1930s and 40s were terribly expensive to make and Walt’s studio paid dearly for his adventurous spirit.  During the war years, Disney was forced to scale back, taking subsidies from the government to make good-will projects about Latin America to help stave off Nazi expansion.  After the war he would invest in compilation films – “package films” they were called – segmented anthology-style features that brought a persistent, if not explosively profitable, cash flow running into the studio.

In all of these package films you could feel Disney culling his instincts and his budget, yet there was a sense that he still wanted to make art.  The passion that he had in making Fantasia would stay with him for the rest of the decade despite its financial foundering.  It was a project that he wanted to be his legacy.  He was so enthusiastic about it that he wanted it to be an ongoing series.  When the film failed at the box office the series idea was scrapped but bits and pieces of that project were still lying around the studio.  Much of this made its way into the “package films” that would make up his output for the rest of the decade.

The idea of for a Fantasia sequel took a different turn.  Instead of following-up Fantasia, Walt would instead make it more current.  The project was initially called “Swing Street” which would be similar to Fantasia but it would be much more ingratiating to the audience, drawing them in with big names like Nelson Eddy, The Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore and using more appealing modern music rather than classical.  In at least one case, the composer Sergei Prokofiev actually came to Disney with his own composition for “Peter and the Wolf.”

The finished project was Make Mine Music, a sometimes odd sometimes fascinating collection of ten musical segments put together to resemble a concert complete with an opening title cards.  Lets look at the segments:

* The Martins and the Coys, which is noted on the title card as “A Rustic Ballad” is an odd way to start the program because it doesn’t feel like a Disney short so much as Disney trying to match the style of Tex Avery. Narrated by popular radio stars The King’s Men, it tells of an ancient feud by neighboring hillbilly families The Martins and The Coys who live on opposite hills from one another.  It is also the most controversial segment in that it has been removed from all existing prints because of the heavy use of comic gunplay.  While The Martins and the Coys isn’t bad (actually its quite good) it’s placement in this film is really odd.  It’s the first segment in a film that otherwise offers much more sophisticated fare.  It feels out of place here.  I’ve seen the segment separate from the film and I can tell you that it works just fine, actually better.

Make Mine Music has only been released on DVD only once in 2000 and on that disc (which I rented from Netflix) The Martins and the Coys segment has been removed.  The version of the short that I saw was on the video sharing site Dailymotion.  Having seen it I can kind of understand the controversy.  It is violent, even more-so probably than your average Looney Tunes short.  It is also very funny, but I was forced to deal with the fact that, again, it seems wildly out of place.

* Blue Bayou, which is noted on the title card as “A Tone Poem,” was originally intended for Fantasia but was apparently removed for time.  It was suppose to feature the music of Claude Debussy’s composition Clair de Lune from Suite bergamasque but was replaced by “Blue Bayou” sung by The Ken Darby Singers over beautiful animation featuring two egrets flying over the Everglades on a moonlit night.

Blue Bayou was the first segment on the DVD version that I saw (The Martins and the Coys bit had been edited out).  Though putting my imagination to work, I tried to see it placed in the film as it was originally seen.  With that it seems oddly placed as this is a very somber and eloquent musical number dropped between two raucous pieces of animation, The Martins and the Coys and All the Cat’s Join In.  It might have made for a nice break between those two chaotic sequences but I found it a bit jarring.

* All The Cats Join In is just plain fun.  Noted on the title card as “A Jazz Interlude”, it is the first of two segments featuring Benny Goodman and his Quartet.  It beings by correcting the assumption that this will be about actual cats but instead about swingin’ cats.  The story is brought to life via a disembodied pencil that draws the actions as they happen – and often struggles to keep up.  We follow a group of bobbysoxers swept away by jazz music at a malt shop.  Often the kids are ahead of the undrawn world that is being created for them, their jalopy is driving down a street and the pencil must quickly draw a stoplight lest they break the law.

This was a new style for Disney because it features actual human beings drawn with pencil instead of being rotoscoped.  The fun here is that as the teenagers move through their ritual, the omniscient pencil is continually drawing the backgrounds.  It makes for some great fast animation and would signal a lot of animated techniques that were to come.  I think if I have a problem here it’s that the segment is only five minutes long.

* Without You, which is noted on the title card as “A Ballad in Blue” is a strange segment sung by 40s vocalist Andy Russell singing the title song over dreary images (dead trees, cloudy skies) that apparently deal with a recent “Dear, John” letter.  The effect is supposed to come from the fact that the mood is set by the setting because no characters appear on the screen.  It is oddly short at only 3 and a half minutes and although I admire the fact that it sets its tone without characters, I found it dreary and forgettable.

* Casey at the Bat, noted on the title card as “A Musical Recitation” is oddly placed since it’s not really a musical.  Narrated by comedian Jerry Colona it tells the familiar story of the Mudville slugger whose overconfidence brings “no joy.”  I love the slapstick animation here, but Disney would produce a much better (and longer) follow-up eight years later called “Casey Bats Again,” featuring the slugger facing fatherhood to a nonet of daughters who eventually form a girl’s baseball team to bring some joy back to the old man.  For whatever reason, that short was added as a bonus feature on the DVD edition of Melody Time but no on Make Mine Music where it would have been more appropriate yeah, that makes sense.

* Two Silhouettes, noted on the title card as “Ballade Ballet,” was probably a much better idea than it is an actual musical segment.  It features Russian ballet legends David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinskaya dancing a number in sillouette while Dinah Shore sings the title tune.

In his book “The Disney Films,” Leonard Maltin comments: “The sequence seems to have no purpose, no direction.  The very format of cupids and doilies spelled disaster for most viewers before the sequence was even under way.”  I would agree.  It seems pointless but I would also add that it tries to place the silhouetted figures into an animated world but blacks them out so the artistry of their dance cannot be seen or appreciated.  While it is interesting to see Disney trying to move away from rotoscoping, I found this one to be an art experiment that just didn’t work.

* Peter and the Wolf, noted on the title card as “A Fairy Tale With Music,” feels like a music lesson.  Sergei Prokofiev approached Disney about using his 1938 composition in the Fantasia follow-up even though Disney was already planning to use it anyway.  However, it was so important to Disney to bring this piece to life through animation that he held it over for Make Mine Music.  However, since Fantasia had frustrated so many moviegoers he decided to play it safe with “Peter and the Wolf” and employ Sterling Holloway to add narration that would make the story easier for Americans to follow.  And, it turns out, he was right.  Holloway introduces us to the way in which each instrument accompanies each character and that provides a nice backdrop.

The problem is that the animation is trying to match a musical composition that was made to be seen but not heard.  Prokofiev’s music was supposed to place the action in our minds but when placed in front of us as animation it feels clumsy and awkward.  It isn’t a story that translates well to a visual medium.

TRIVIA NOTE: The music provided for The Wolf was later used as the theme for the bully in A Christmas Story,

* After You’ve Gone (which has no subtitle) is actually a lot of fun despite its grim title.  This and the singing whale are actually my favorites.  The segment features the second contribution from Benny Goodman and his Quartet in a wonderfully animated sequence featuring anthropomorphized musical instruments dancing through a colorful musical background.  There isn’t really much to comment on here.  The animation is beautiful, it’s fast-paced, it’s wonderfully abstract and the music is fun.

* Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, noted on the title card as “A Love Story,” is probably the segment I remember most from when I was a kid.  Of course, I never saw this movie so it would have appeared as filler before one of the live action Disney pictures on television.  It tells the heartbreaking story of two hats who meet and fall in love while on display in the window of a department store until Johnny’s world is broken when Alice is purchased one day by a customer for $23.94.  Lonely without his beloved Alice, Johnny is later purchased himself and makes it his mission to find her.  Where the story goes is a bit coincidental but what is surprising are the dark turns that Johnny’s journey takes.  And what is special about this segment is the way in which the Disney animators can give live and emotional weight to such a mundane inanimate object.  I love the journey of this short as it defies the limitations of it’s premise by having an object without hands or feet travel through the world on its single-minded mission.

* The What Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, which is noted on the title card as an “Opera Pathétique” is my favorite segment by a country mile.  It tells the bittersweet story of a jolly sperm whale named Willie who has a miraculous talent for singing opera.  Yet, a short-sighted impresario named Tetti-Tatti doesn’t believe that the whale has talent, but believes that the mammal has simply swallowed an opera singer and chases him with a harpoon.  What is special about this short are the visuals, especially a fantasy sequence in which the enormous Willie sings Paliacchi on the stage and rains tears on the orchestra through his blow hole (they’ve readied themselves by wearing raincoats).  Famous crooner Nelson Eddy provides all of the voices for this segment and gives an amazing performance.

*****

What I noticed about the placement of all of these segments are in an order in which the previous segment establishes the one that came before, at least in tone.  We’ll get something somber and melodramatic followed by something funny and light-hearted.  As I said, the only one that’s a bit jarring is “Blue Bayou” coming right after “The Martins and the Coys” and right before “All the Cats Join In.”  This was the only place where the effect feels a little off.

Make Mine Music is somewhat of an oddity in the Disney cannon because it garnered the most controversy.  In the years that followed, the All the Cats Join In segment was cut down due to some suggestive nudity when the girl is seen in silhouette as she takes a shower.  It would seem ridiculous that such a thing would be part of a Disney film, but in some ways I think it was suggestive of the times.  During the war years pin-ups and other sexualized images of women were commonplace, and for this segment Disney was inspired by that.  So does it belong here?  That’s up for debate, but it could be argued that back in the 1940s, animated movies were not expressly made for children.  Animated shorts with all manner of randy subject manner were coming out of the Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz studios because, at the time, cartoon shorts were shown in front of features that weren’t necessarily geared at children so it wouldn’t have been an issue to have brief nudity (and it is very brief).  It was only after the advent of television that cartoons became a child’s medium.  Altering the scene doesn’t change anything (I’ve seen both versions) but I’m generally opposed to editing content in most any form.  I don’t think this is a scene that parents really need to worry about.

The “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” segments were cut by British censors due to their depictions of characters arriving in Heaven, and especially the closing moment which features the gates of Heaven with a “Sold Out” sign attached.  While the nudity in “All the Cats Join In” has been cleverly edited by computers the Heaven sequences have been restored.

“The Martins and the Coys” segment however has been eliminated from all prints, especially the 2000 DVD release due to an excessive amount of comedic gunplay (and there is a lot of it).  I think this may have been a mistake.  If the studio was going to edit this scene out, perhaps it could have been added to the bonus materials with a warning and a brief explanation.  Hiding it always feels like censorship to me.

So, how does the movie work as a whole?  Well, for me, it works a little better than the two previous “package films,” Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros because there seems to be a much more solid purpose.  The segments are divided by title cards so we know what we’re getting, and it gives us a moment to decompress.  Plus, I think the fact that the segments are a little shorter gives me time to breathe.  My major complaint with The Three Caballeros was that the segments went on and on and on without a break.  Here, I can shift easily from one to the other.

It makes me a little sad that Make Mine Music is essentially the forgotten Disney film.  It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s got some great animation, but it gets lost among the other “package films” of this decade.  I think it’s far more original and fun than the others.  It’s a lost gem that is worth searching for.  And yet, it also takes me back to my original question: What is best in life, art or commerce?  I think in Make Mine Music you can feel both, you can feel Walt’s creative and artistic instincts fighting for space with his attempts to be current so as not to alienate the audience in the way that Fantasia did.  It is an odd mix but I think it works.4

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