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Category Archives: The Persistence of Disney

The Persistence of Disney, Part 16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

16-sleeping-beauty

For a man known for reinventing the language of fairy tales, it’s odd to consider that Walt Disney only made three straight out fairy tales in his career.  Yet, it is important to note that those three films, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are not only some of the most accomplished work he ever created but also the most progressive in terms of his art.  Whatever problems you have with Snow White are pretty much cleared up in Cinderella and whatever problems you have with both are pretty much cleared up by Sleeping Beauty; that being in terms of the basic artistry. The characters themselves are another matter.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

Sleeping Beauty is an epic in almost every conceivable way.  It’s a big movie.  It’s got a big story, a big setting, a big concept which is not surprising if you follow the Disney films up to this point because his work was always a growing process.  Disney always sought to improve himself and his work.  You can see this in the films made in his lifetime and further proof can be seen in the decline of quality in the films made by the studio in the two decades immediately following his death.

In that, Sleeping Beauty reveals possibly the most accomplished work that Disney had done artistically since Pinocchio.  It’s artistry is in harmony with the subject matter in a way that few other films, Disney or not, were able to achieve.  The stylized animation borrows heavily from medieval art and (along with the lovely addition of music by Tchaikovsky) works beautifully within the fairy tale setting.

This setting is already familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film.  Everyone knows it by heart: A lovely new daughter is born to King Stefan and the queen and there is much rejoicing (yay!).  There is a grand christening ceremony held at the palace at which three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, each bestow a magical gift to the newborn Princess Aurora.  Then, of course, the party is crashed by the evil fairy Maleficent who takes offense at not having been invited to the proceedings and in turn bestows her own “gift” on the princess – a curse at which the princess will prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel on the occasion of her 16th birthday and instantly be struck dead.  Of course, realizing that logic is never the frontal intention here, one has to ask the obvious: Why a spinning wheel?  Why didn’t Maleficent just a simply cast a death curse?  Why the extra work?  Why the loophole?  And her motivation:  She wasn’t invited to the party.  That seems a bit extreme.

Anyway, Merryweather turns that curse around so that the princess will only fall into a deep sleep that will be cured by the kiss of her true love.  The fairies decide to stow the princess away in order to keep an eye on her and to keep her away from Maleficent.  Meanwhile King Stefan orders all spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed.

That’s a pretty beefy story especially when you consider that that only makes up the first half.  The rest, involving the kidnapping of the prince and Maleficent’s search for the princess and the ensuing battle in the third act, is another movie on its own.  As I said, this is a big movie, with a big story and an enormous cast of interesting characters.  In fact, this film might have the most interesting cast of supporting players.  The three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather almost take over the picture.  They’re individuals with individual personalities.  The same goes for King Stefan and King Hubert (father of the prince) who, in a nice running gag, want their children to wed but remain in a constant state of love and hate as they attempt to plan their children’s futures.  I also like Maleficent’s piggy goons who are obviously under a curse of their own.  I even like the presence of a menacing crow, who scours the countryside looking for our secluded heroine.

And, of course . . . Maleficent herself.  Oh my.  Walt Disney never created a character more deliciously evil, more tantalizingly insane or more flamboyantly designed.  She has the countenance of a snake but the form of a human bat.  Her look is deliciously devilish, beginning with her trademark horns.  They’re impressive. They rise at least a foot off of her head, twisting like a country road and then arriving at two fine tapered points that face east and west. You can’t stop staring at them, and the fact that they tower above an expressive face that, like the horns, twists this way and that from deadening frown to menacing smile without ever concealing the terror behind it.  Her smiles arrive with the thundering news that something wicked this way comes.

I’ll admit rather ashamedly that this was the first time that I had actually seen Sleeping Beauty.  I’m not sure why but it is one of those films that I never really got around to.  I am glad that my first viewing came in the process of watching the Disney animated features in succession because I could better appreciate all that the animators were trying to do.  You can feel the writers and the animators reaching out just a little further to make this more than just filmmaking by the numbers.  I was impressed by the amount of time given to the three fairies.  I was impressed by the lush forests in the backgrounds and the massive cavernous halls of the palace.  I was impressed by use of color and the sound, which gives the whole palette a three-dimensional feel.

And yet . . . and YET, as great as the film is artistically, there is one element that simply doesn’t work: Sleeping Beauty herself.

What a dull, lifeless character she is.  She a tired bore who is barely more than a whisper in her own story.   Of course, these early Disney princesses weren’t known for their blustering personalities but at least I can say that with Snow White and Cinderella gave me enough to grasp at an emotional investment.  Plus, they were at the center.  Princess Aurora functions as the center of the narrative, but she spends much of the movie off to the side.  It’s really a minor supporting role.  I realize I’m being tough on the character but it would be like watching Star Wars with Luke only given 15 minutes of screentime.  She’s dull and lifeless largely because she doesn’t have time to develop a character.  Like all classic fairy tale heroines, Princess Aurora is the prize to be won, the object to be sought, the rank of purity to be preserved until the arrival of the handsome prince.  There is no way around it, she’s a cipher, an object, a trophy to be collected.

So does that mean that we should dismiss Sleeping Beauty as a rank and file patriarchal vision of what a woman is good for?  Not exactly.  As I watched the film recently, it occurs to me that, in spite of Aurora’s postage stamp status in the film, this is a far more feminist statement than you might realize.  Really, think about it.  The most interesting characters in the film (i.e. the ones who actually drive the plot) are all women.  Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are not at the service of a man outside of their loyalty to the king.  They make the decisions that govern the princess’ fate.  They are the saviors of her care when Maleficent strikes her with a death curse.  They don’t seem to operate on orders, but with a sense of what’s right.  It is their decision that dictates the actions of the rest of the film.  Of course, yes, there’s a dithering quality to their squabbling, but the salvation of our title heroine in large part belongs to them.

And yet, with two steps forward come two steps back.  While I admire the independent spirit given to the three fairies, I am also obliged to consider Walt’s bizarre habit of feminine heavies.  As I push through this series, I have noticed a bit of a disturbing equation: Within his lifetime Walt saw the release of 18 animated features.  Eight of those features had a straight up villain and six of those villains – The Evil Queen, The Wicked Stepmother, The Queen of Hearts, Maleficent, Cruella De Ville and Mad Madame Mim – were all women, older and unsightly ones at that.  What is the message here?  Does it harken back to the days of Pandora’s Box wrapped up in the theory that women exist to mess up man?  These women, I think, represent a position of power whether stationary or magical but they are evil and use that evil to bend the will of others.  The machinations are always skin deep.  The Evil Queen wants Snow White dead because she’s younger and prettier.  The Wicked Stepmother enjoys holding power over Cinderella because of her age and beauty.  Maleficent is snubbed at the christening ceremony.  These women are burdened by youth and by the prospect of a happy life that seems to have eluded them.  They are also largely alone save for a few loyal sycophants.  What is this model trying to impart?  Get married young lest you become a bitter old maid?

So, what does that mean for Princess Aurora, and for that matter Snow White or Cinderella?  They are young and good-hearted and are rewarded with the hand of a man who is not only handsome but also rich and of noble blood (okay, it’s hard to argue with that).  Are little girls being sold a message that is cheap and superficial.  Well, yes, but at the time it wasn’t all that unusual.  The function of an American woman in the 1950s was thought to get married, raise kids and keep the home fires burning.  In that way Sleeping Beauty is a movie stuck in time, as an off-kilter model of the role of woman and what was expected of them.  What was not known at the time was that here, in 1959, the world was in a state of change.  Rock and Roll, Elvis, Playboy magazine, the sexual revolution and women’s lib were the tapestry of the second half of the 20th century, rendering the role model of the Disney princesses right out of existence.

That said, this was the last time this model was used.  In point, it was the end of an era.  What would follow in Disney’s cannon would be more male-centric stories, adventures more in the vain of Peter Pan than Snow White.  Disney last few remaining animated features before his untimely death in 1966 would deal with dogs, bears and Merlin the magician.  The renaissance and restoration of female heroines in Disney’s animated output would just have to wait.

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The Persistence of Disney, Part 15: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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“In the whole history of the
world there is but one thing
that money cannot buy . . .
to wit – the wag of a dog’s tail.”

– Josh Billings

Lady and the Tramp opens with this lovely statement and thankfully never backs away from it.  This is a movie in love with dogs.  It loves the way they move, the way they howl, the way they beg, the way they sleep, the way they love us and most curiously the way in which they observe us.  Here is a movie so in love with the canine world that you can imagine the animators crawling around on the floor for inspiration.

Apart from any other studio dealing in animation – which at the time included Warner Brothers and the Fleisher studios – the animators at Disney were not about going after the obvious jokes.  Yes, there are a thousand jokes to be made about the typical habits of the domesticated dog but there was something more intimate in Disney’s presentation.  We understand their body language, but here is a movie that wants us to get inside their heads.  The movie closely observes not only their movements but also their attitudes regarding the world around them, a world in which the master is the center of all things and the curiosities of the world don’t extend much further than treats, mischief, nap-time and the ever-present net of the dog catcher.

The movie opens with a scene that has every dog lover nodding with recognition.  It opens when Lady is just a puppy and the owners want to keep her in a basket in the basement.  She persistently sits at the door and howls and cries until she gets their attention.  Upset at her persistence, the master of the house pushes a chair against the basement door.  Undaunted, Lady pushes at the door until she has enough room to get out.  Then she climbs the stairs and begs to sleep on their bed.  Finally, the owners relent and let her sleep in their bed, but “Just for tonight.”  As Lady settles in we see the passage of time and realize that one night of sleeping on their bed has turned into a lifelong commitment.  Watching that scene I almost don’t even have the watch the rest of the movie.  It’s a wonderful short film in and of itself.  It tells a story that has a perfect punchline, and is probably one of the most perfect pieces of animation ever put together by Disney.

That scene is done almost without dialogue and that adds a nice natural touch to the moment.  However, the rest of the movie does give dialogue to the dogs and it’s nice that it doesn’t mar the effect (for an example of how it could go wrong I refer you to 2000’s Dinosaur).  In presenting the world of dogs, the writers walked a very fine line between observing canine behavior and giving them human sensibilities.  When in the presence of a human, Lady and Tramp bark and wag their tails like real dogs but away from the human world they speak English and even philosophize.  Careful observations of behavior are then given to human-like pleasantries.

Yet, when the dogs do speak, it’s not a lot of Sesame Street treacle.  It observes their world in the cute adorable way that we might expect.  It’s childlike but surprisingly mature – or mature enoughLady and the Tramp is far more “adult” then any of the other 14 features that preceded it, and that sounds like an odd observation given the fact that the movie sees the adult world through a dog’s eyes in much the same way that a child might see their parents.  They are loved and spoiled but become part of a rigid routine that they often find themselves rejecting.  The dilemma for Lady is that she feels that she is being pushed out of the way by her owners Jim Dear and Darling (that’s what they call each other so she assumes these are their names) in response to the onslaught of a life changing event that lessens her station in their lives with the coming of a new baby.  The full-on attention that she once received suddenly takes a backseat to the care and feeding of this tiny new creature who has stolen their undivided attention.  Lady heartbroken as she goes from sleeping on the bed to sleeping outside.  This is much the same way that a first born might feel upon the arrival of a brother or sister.  What’s interesting is that its all a mystery to her as she wonders what she could have done wrong.

In observing the world of a dog, the animators also did away with the fantasy settings that, up to this point, had become the Disney trademark.  The previous films of the decade, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, occupy the same time frame (the early 20th century) but only in so far at the framework was concerned –the central core of their stories were the fantasy worlds of Wonderland and Neverland respectively.  Here the landscape is, more or less, the real world.  It takes place in New England sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th at a time between the horse-drawn coach and the advent of the motorcar.

Walt Disney was born and raised in this time period, he was born in Chicago in 1901 but famously grew up in Missouri.  This is a time and place that he might have recognized, the sterile world of the early 20th century before World War I.  The motorcars, the broad class distinctions and the landscape dotted with newly arrived immigrants make this setting uniquely American.  Disney’s previous films were fuzzy on their locales whether it be Snow White that takes place somewhere in western Europe; Pinocchio that takes place somewhere in Italy; Bambi that takes place somewhere in . . . God knows where!  Canada?  Wyoming?  Washington state?   Lady and the Tramp takes place in New England.  We can see that.  It is most obvious in the settings, the world of privilege and even in the scene in which Jim Dear nails a Yale banner to wall in the baby’s room.  High on the hill of this lush setting, Lady lives in the posh New England landscape of wealth and privilege.  Cast out into the world, she ends up on the wrong side of the tracks were we see the lower end of the social spectrum, a world of back alley’s, store fronts, and laundry strung between the tenement buildings.

This early American working class setting is fitting for the early years of the century as we are introduced to a vast tableau of immigrants.  Yes, there are the Italian-a chefs who who serve-a da spaghetti.  But also the vast array of dogs who are bound by their country of origin – The Russian Wolfhound is Russian;  the Scottish Terrier is Scottish; the Dachshund is German, etc.

This world is presented most especially by the presence of Tramp, a free spirited mutt who isn’t bound by the master’s leash.  He’s something new to Lady who has only understood the comforts of treats and the morning walk.  Lady and the Tramp is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and not by way of any kind of cliche.  Its genuine.  When Lady and Tramp meet, it’s not love at first sight, in fact their first scene together has him laying out all of the horrors that await her domestic tranquility in the wake of the new baby.  His disservice to her suffering is only put forth by the fact that, as a homeless dog, he himself will never have to deal with such things as masters and their new babies.  Yet something connects between them as he shows her the ways of chasing chickens and back alley meals.

That meal, by the way, is movie folklore and one of the greatest romantic expressions ever put to film.  Fed spaghetti and meatballs behind the Italian restaurant, the immigrant cook and waiter Joey and Tony serenade the canine couple with the lovely “Bella Notte.”  We all know how it goes.  Tramp noses the meatball in her direction before they both take a bite of the spaghetti strand unaware that they are munching on the same noodle.  They come together and accidentally have their first kiss.  Then the focus falls on Lady who, just as the song reaches “Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes,” we see stars in Lady’s eyes as the camera pulls up to the full moon.  The moment is almost Chaplin-esque in it’s simplicity.  Where some films meander and philosophize about love and romance, here is a movie that draws it in broad strokes and the effect is simply beautiful.

That simplicity is the movie’s masterstroke.  Lady and the Tramp deals with, more or less, adult issues but in a way that a child could identify.  It sees their world in microcosm with adult human being the far distant mystery and romance being an even greater mystery.  Grown-ups are seen in fleeting glances and their conversations are only as half-understood as their intentions.  That the movie allows children to see the adult world through the eyes of a dog is another great element.  It allows us to understand why we feel so close to our childhood pets.  Why and how they are as baffled by the world as we are is one great mystery that the moment muses over.  Its why we connect with our pets.  The love is pure and uncomplicated.  All it takes is the wag of a tail.

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 14: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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One constant in the story of Walt Disney seems to have been an ever-persistent passion for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  That is reasonable because, for a visual storyteller, it might have seemed irresistible.  It is said that Disney read the book as a child and was so captivated by its bizarre and clever world that it stayed with him ever-after.  When he broke into motion pictures as a young man he made it his mission to bring the story to the screen.  His attempt to visualize Carroll’s world stretches all the way back to the 1920s when, through his short-lived Laugh-O-Gram Studios, Disney created a series called The Alice Comedies featuring a live-action actress having misadventures in a cartoon world.  Later he would loosely adapt Lewis Carroll’s story into a 1936 short called Thru the Mirror with Mickey Mouse in the Alice role.  A feature seemed inevitable.

In the late 1930s, after the enormous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt was eager to get down to the serious business of adapting Alice in Wonderland but his plans were put on hold by creative difficulties, budgetary problems and a halt on major projects due to the intrusion of a rather bitter sequel to World War I.  Once the war had ended and he could go back to making feature-length animated movies, Walt made the film a priority.  This was a daunting task.  Carroll’s book doesn’t exactly lend itself to a three-act structure and is therefore not an easy transference to a visual medium.  The book is not intended to be visual; it’s more a play on nonsense words, rhymes, riddles and songs.  Putting the book to the screen would take a lot of time and a lot of talent.

What Disney was able to put together is probably as good a version of Carroll’s book as has ever been rendered for the screen.  In fact, despite a great deal of criticism both casual and professional, I think it’s rather brilliant.  It is a vibrant, lively, colorful journey that doesn’t subsist on a trajectory but is more a collection of strange events and dysfunctional characters.  You remember the journey but you don’t really remember the ending because it doesn’t really matter.  It’s not the point.

A lot of the criticism comes from the fact that the movie is so episodic, that the events of Alice’s journey happen and are then unceremoniously abandoned.  Those looking for a firm narrative structure find themselves frustrated.  Some Disney purist decry the film for not having a heart.  I cannot agree.  The world inside this movie, while maddening, doesn’t need a heart.  I think the point of the journey is that Alice has found herself in a world in which time and space seem to have no meaning.  Here the landscape is dotted with silly and bizarre creatures made up of words and songs, of strange and bizarre creatures that appear and disappear at will.  It is almost as if Alice has landed in a world of literary run-off, as if she’s found herself in a dumping ground of rejected ideas ejected from much more structured material.  Therefore that’s no shape or structure; it’s just a maddening series of events.

The world that surrounds these kooky characters is the work of a conceptual artist named Mary Blair who worked with Walt Disney not only on Alice but also on Peter Pan, Cinderella and Song of the South.  Her style of bold colors may have come from her exposure to the landscapes in South America when she traveled with Walt on the good will tours of the early ‘40s wherein Disney made Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.  For Alice she came up with an interesting style of allowing the colors to pop by keeping the backgrounds very black.  The choice is interesting because it plays to the feeling of abandonment of the characters.  If Wonderland is a literary dumping ground then we might imagine that sunlight and colorful backgrounds would not be part of the tapestry.

Each of the characters has a quirk but not really a personality and that’s kind of the point.  Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum arrive in the film to sing songs and to tell Alice the story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”  The Mad Hatter and The March Hare are only present to have a tea party, a maddening pitch of nonsense in which a lot of tea is poured but none is ever consumed.  The Cheshire Cat only serves as a smart-allecky rendering of double-talk and physical manifestation and decombobulation that has no rhyme or reason.  The caterpillar is a hooka enthusiast with a penchant for obvious questions.  The Queen of Hearts has a decapitation fetish.  And, of course, The White Rabbit is very late indeed.  What he’s late for – and the reason he’s so panicked about getting to his destination – is probably the only thing in the film that makes any grounded sense.

What is interesting about these characters is that we never really understand their motives.  Are they leading Alice astray?  Are they dangerous?  Some seem cool while others seem loaded with hostility, though we can never figure out which is a threat and which is just passively insane.

The central element that, I think, makes the movie work is Alice herself.  She’s been criticized as being rather flat and dull and surprisingly unaffected by the bizarre events and characters that she comes across, yet I don’t find that to be the case at all.  Alice is an anchor to the story yet she’s not a lead weight.  She is a sensible yet imaginative girl whose presence in Wonderland is seen through her eyes.  She is not horrified by what she sees, in fact much of the time she’s kind of fascinated.  There is a rounded character here but she isn’t drawn with broad strokes.  You do have to look for the edges.  She nice and polite, but she can become frustrated.  There are moments when she is appalled by massive breaches in etiquette and characters that would rather frustrate her journey then helpfully assist.  Of this we understand the moments when she becomes angry and tries to fight back.  In a strange way, she and her adventure are very much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, both are flung to a far-off world of color and nonsense and whimsical characters, though I think dear Dorothy at least had the aid of friends to guide her.

This is odd to say but I think I felt more for Alice then I have for any of the previous Disney heroines that I’ve examined so far.  Though there are things to like about Snow White and Cinderella, there is nothing about them that I can really relate to.  There is a moment in the movie when Alice gives me a moment that I kind of understand.  Late in the film when she has become exhausted and frustrated by the world that she has come to inhabit, she walks through Wonderland’s impenetrable forest looking for some clarity.  Suddenly a strange bird made of eyeglasses lands on her face.  At a moment of weary emotional fatigue, she removes the bird from her face and places it on a nearby branch quietly pleading, “No, no please.”  I can relate to that.  I’ve had days when the world seems determined to be especially unyielding and you just want a moment of normalcy to get your head together.

In that way, I can relate to Alice.  She’s trying to be herself and trying to be ingratiating to the world that she now inhabits even though she is forced to be a tenant in a disturbing universe that resists any measure of assistance or friendliness.  Every character here is after their own ends and seems to have an agenda that makes little to no sense.  We’ve all felt like that.  We’ve all had those days when the world seems to make no sense and those around us seem patently determined to be the thorn in our foot.  Even though Alice resides in a world of nonsense, I see myself in her shoes more that I could understand the domestic abuse of Cinderella or the killer’s kiss that looms over Snow White.

As I have said, the film was criticized for being far too episodic and noisy for its own good.  Disney historian Leonard Maltin, in his book “The Disney Films, says “Alice in Wonderland is a very flashy and generally entertaining film but it lacks that essential thread that made Disney’s best features hang together, and moreover it lacks, warmth.”  Even Ward Kimball who animated Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum was dismissive of the final product: “It degenerated into a loud-mouthed Vaudeville show.  It lacks warmth and an overall story glue.’  He blamed too many directors and too many hands getting in the way of a solid story.  On both counts, I disagree.  This is not a story about warmth; it’s a story about a girl trying to make sense of a world made up of screwy nonsense.  If it had more emotional weight, then the coldness of the world would be less effective and there would be less motivation for Alice to press on.

As I watched the film again the other night I was captivated.  All the problems that the detractors had push on the film didn’t really bother me.  I found the film to be a journey, much like Dorothy’s Adventure in Oz.  She meets a lot of strange characters and tries to make sense of a world of nonsense and even runs afoul of a tyrant that wants to do her some harm.  The movie doesn’t need sentiment nor a straight-forward narrative.  Personally, I think the movie may have been ahead of its time.  While it was not a massive hit upon first release in 1951, it was reassessed during the cultural art movements of the 1960s where the film was seen as a psychedelic trip.  I stand with those who came to appreciate it.  I see what is special about it, I know what makes the film work.  It’s a journey, a good one, and I’ll gladly take it again.

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 12: Cinderella (1950)

cinderella

After nearly a decade of sidelining his artistic yearnings in favor of World War II and frustrating limits of his budget, Walt Disney celebrated the birth of the new decade with his first narrative feature in eight years.  It was not just a return to the form that he helped to create but it was a return to the simply-told fairy tale genre that he always had in his sights.  Cinderella was about as basic a story as one could tell, and seemingly the most universal.  As with Snow White, this movie appealed to a fantasy elements that were unquestionably popular at the time, but that were so “of the moment” (in spite of the common advertising claim of it being ‘timeless’) that its elemental message would become questionable in the wake of a massive culture shift in the decades to come.  The women’s movement and the rise of feminism would prove the antithesis for the rather limited message being given here.

Given the current cultural climate, one is compelled to ask: what is the value of Cinderella?  Where does its message really land when you get to the end of the story?  There has been a lot of talk about the film being anti-feminist, that this is the story of a young woman who is abused and works through her difficult situation until her prince shows up to make her life perfect.  Is that really true?  Is the movie selling young girls on a wish-fulfillment that relegates their destiny to the idea that getting married is and should be the ultimate goal?  Is it limiting their choices?  All of these arguments are valid and in some cases I outright agree with them.  This is always a difficult task, dealing with a film of another time, another set of values that are outdated and out of fashion.  Approaching Cinderella with a 21st century mindset is a little like approaching Gone With the Wind.  You can see it as entertainment but you have to traverse a minefield of ideas and attitudes that are particularly un-P.C.

The 1950s were not a great time for forward-thinking women.  During World War II a great number of American women had gone to work in factories to help with the war effort, it was a lumbering step backward to exit the war years and now be expected to get married, have children and stand in the shadow of The Man of The House.  In a fairy tale sense that fuels the story of Cinderella, which is based around the rather insane idea that a young girl will be pulled out of hard domestic servitude to marry a wealthy prince and effectively never have to work a day in her life.  The goal is to be married, that’s the trajectory of the young women in this film.  The King wants a grandchild and makes a call to every woman in the kingdom to come and meet the prince.  The prince, in a meat-market sort of set-up, gets to pick whichever woman he wants.  I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what is wrong with that scenario.  The prince meets various women at the ball and he picks Cinderella out of the crowd.  He’s been tasked with picking a wife like he might pick a puppy.

To stand back and look at this scenario is to be baffled by its insanity, but if there is any positive measure that can be gleaned from it, it may be the idea that at least Cinderella has, in a way, earned her way to a better life, unlike other Disney princesses who just sort of have it handed to them.   She’s worked for years under the yoke of a stepmother who worked her day and night and now she has earned the right fall in love and get married.  Is that any less insane?  Her fate may not be any less “marriage fueled” but when she gets married at the end there’s a feeling that it comes after having been tried and tested for so long by those who cared nothing about her.

Even with that you can’t ignore the emptiness with which the two leads come together.  Cinderella and Prince Charming get married at the end but it is difficult to overlook the fact that their marriage is based on function.  She’s pretty, he’s handsome, they dance, so . . . wedding bells.  There isn’t much meat on this relationship.  In fact, I don’t even remember if the prince has a line in this movie.  He’s just sort of there.  They talk (allegedly), and they get to know one another (allegedly).  Yet, even with all that, he apparently never caught her name.  Actually we don’t know because their time together is seen in a montage over music so we can’t hear what they are saying to one another.

Here it is important to remember the logic of cartoon romance.  In the mid-20th century, love and romance were not full blooded relationships in which two people connected in a real way.  They were just functions of the plot, often played as a gag or played for emotional overtones.  It was the union that represented the climax of the film but what they were to each other beyond their romantic orientation often remained in the viewer’s imagination.  Think of Snow White and Cinderella, the union was based on function, not logic.

I realize that I’m carping over a movie that is supposed to be a joyous fairy tale for young girls, but in assaying the form and function of the “Disney Princess “ dynamic as this series  moves along it is important to deconstruct the underlying purpose of each.  Why was this film so popular upon release but then so contentious as we’ve crossed over into the 21st century?  Are we supposed to examine this story logically?  Yes and no.  Disney films in the early years were not based on logic but played their characters for dramatic effect.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we follow a lonely young girl that seems alone in the world.  Friends are hard to come by and so the yearning for something different is always part of their forward thinking.  Neither Cinderella nor The Wizard of Oz or in fact any of the early Disney pictures were airtight as far as logic was concerned but they were always better at conveying a certain level of emotion.  How we feel about Cinderella’s plight is more possibly important than examining how she logically gets to the final scene.

Cinderella’s plight is that of a young girl who is stuck at home, mired in overbearing complacency of domestic servitude.  She was the daughter of a loving widower father; a wealthy Baron who felt that his daughter needed a mother’s love.  So, for whatever reason, he married the widowed aristocrat Lady Tremaine who had two plain-looking daughters of her own, Drizella and Anastasia.  When the father died, the stepmother put Cinderella to work – hard work – so much work in fact that she was effectively a slave.  What I always responded to in Cinderella’s plight was the fact that despite her difficult situation, there’s something unbreakable in her personality.  She works day and night doing difficult chores and is often ordered to do them over again just at the whim of her stepmother.  Yet, she never frets.  Something in her heart holds tight to the fact that this isn’t ever-lasting.

As I said before, Cinderella has a much more difficult life, while Snow White just seems to be . . . around.  Sure Snow is pursued by a jealous queen who twice tries to kill her, but the day in and day out struggle of Cinderella grabs at the heart.  We want her to succeed.  We want her to overcome the abusive harridan that controls her life.  We want to see her happy.  You can say that about Snow White but only to the degree that she’s in the lead.  Nothing that she really does ever earns her the hand of the prince outside of the fact that she’s a nice girl.  Here we feel Cinderella’s plight, especially in a heartbreaking moment when she is promised a trip to the ball and arrives in a newly made gown, but has it ripped apart by her stepsisters.  It’s actually a devastating moment.

Yet, while Cinderella is given some meat to her story, the prince himself is kind of given a sideline in this story.  He stands mostly as functionary.  Sure he falls in love with Cinderella but we never really get any time with him.  That’s too bad because I learn that originally he had a much bigger part.  There was a scene toward the end when he reunites with Cinderella and recognizes her and there was to be some reconciliation to the fact that he married a commoner who wears rags.  From what I could research apparently it would have cleared up a lot of gaping holes that exist at the end of the story.

As it stands, neither character is, truth be told, bold in personality.  Disney’s lead characters rarely ever were.  Looking back over his first five animated films I find that most of the heroic leads (Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi) were very light on personality.  Things happened to them rather than their actions motivating the plot.  The more interesting roles are often given to the villains who bend others to their will through magical manipulation.  What struck me in revisiting Cinderella is that the villain here has no magical powers.  It is interesting that Lady Tremaine exudes her will over our heroine just by force of will.  It’s interesting that the power comes not from magic wands but just from her station of having control over someone else’s life.  That’s an interesting dynamic.  This type of Disney character is rare and I’ve always found far more interesting.  There are only a handful of Disney villains who don’t have any magic – Captain Hook, Cruella de Ville, Madame Medusa, Gaston, Claude Frollo – so their manipulation comes from human flaws, even though it sometimes takes magical means to overcome them.

I haven’t even mentioned the magical elements of this film.  As I watched it the other night I was so focused on the human element that the magic stuff seemed to pass me by.  Is that a positive in a fairy tale?  Possibly in this case it may be because I noticed that the magical elements of Cinderella seem to drop in out of nowhere.  The fairy godmother drops into the story at the moment of Cinderella’s deepest despair to make her presentable for the ball but you have to wonder, where has she been all this time?  Why didn’t she show up before?  It left me wondering if this story might have functioned just as well without it.  Cinderella might have found a way to go to the ball and look presentable without magical manipulation.  That might have been an interesting angle, have Cinderella figure a way out of her situation using her ingenuity rather than the engine of a magic wand.

Plus, the magic in Cinderella drops in out of nowhere, almost as a dues ex machine and almost feels separate from the narrative.  Compare this to Snow White where the magical elements are far more organic.  As I say, Cinderella might have been much more interesting without it.  But, of course, losing the magical element might have robbed us of some of the brighter moments in the film, the fantasy elements, and the idea that at our moment of lowest despair, something magical will come along and help us out of a jam.  It’s fantasy, total fantasy and not an invalid one.  As much as I carp and analyze this film I must admit that there are moments when I felt much more for Cinderella than I did for most other Disney heroines.  She keeps a smile in place despite her difficult situation and she makes friends among the mice that surround her.  She shows them the kindness that is not shown to her by her stepmother or stepsisters.  And in the end, they help her out when she is locked away at the moment that the archduke drops by with the lost glass slipper.  Her kindness is rewarded.  Maybe that’s a message that can be gleaned from this very flawed and outdated film, that kindness is a much bigger and bolder weapon than manipulation.  Manipulation is easy but kindness takes time and patience and work, something that gets her the fairy tale ending she always wanted.

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 8: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Fun and Fancy Free

Of all the Disney animated features, Fun & Fancy Free might have the dullest title of them all.  It sounds like something drummed quickly up for a marquee.  It is not only dull, but it is also a little misleading.  The movie is not really about having fun or being fancy free except in the opening musical number which sung to raging irritation by Jiminy Cricket.  It’s not even really all that original; it feels like leftovers from bigger projects.  Lo and behold, come to find out in doing my research that’s exactly what it is.  Of all the package films of the 1940s, this is probably my least favorite because the passion doesn’t seem to be present here.  It feels quickly put together and for Disney that’s unusual.

While the previous film Make Mine Music was a concert arrangement that employed ten separate segments, this one only has two with the addition of a framework that loosely ties them together.  We are first introduced in the film to Jiminy Cricket who is sailing down a small river toward an old dark library while he sings some treacle about bearing a smile in the face of adversity.  The effect is tooth-grindingly obnoxious.  Watching it you get the same feeling that you might get if you were having a bad day and someone was behind you giving you a bunch of greeting card advice (“Let a smile be your umbrella!”)   I prefer the logic of Inside Out that sadness is crucial to being happy.  But Jiminy is there to make you smile, so whatever.

After breaking into the library and having some innocuous interactions with some melancholy dolls, Jiminy comes upon a record player that guides us into our first story:

* Bongo is based on a story by Sinclair Lewis and narrated by Dinah Shore about a celebrated circus bear whose very name draws thousands to see his wild antics like juggling during his high wire act while riding a unicycle, but backstage Bongo is treated like an old piece of furniture and thoughtlessly thrown in a cage every night.  With that, he yearns to get back to nature and feel the rhythms of being a real bear.  So, Bongo sneaks away one night to get back to his natural roots only to find that the life of a bear in the wild is a little more daunting than he might have imagined.  All the other bears either laugh at him or bully him around and he seems to think that returning to the wild may have been a mistake.  Then he meets Lulabelle, a pretty girl-bear and falls head over heels in love.  That nugget of joy is complicated when a mean bully bear named Lumpjaw comes to claim Lulabelle by beating the stuffing out of Bongo.

Where the story ends up is not all that surprising, what is surprising are the twists and turns that the story takes.  When Bongo tries to kiss Lulabelle for the first time, he realizes that bears in the woods show affection by slapping each other – there’s even a cute song that goes along with this happy-go-lucky call for affectionate domestic violence.  To this day I’m still not sure how to feel about this.  I realize that this film was made at a time when cartoons weren’t made exclusively for children but this message seems particularly destructive.  What is a kid to glean from that?

The segment as a whole is very cute.  I like the idea of Bongo trapped between the two worlds of the misery of the circus and the misery of living in the wild.  But that idea is kind of laid out and never really dealt with.  Once he meets Lulabelle, his struggle to survive in the wild narrows down to basically defeating the bully and then falling in love.  I wasn’t completely sure how to feel about this segment.  It’s very cute but I thought that it either needed to be a lot shorter or feature length with more characters and a bigger story.  As it is, it seems to run on a bit too long and again, the slapping bit makes me cringe.

*****

The Bongo short ends and we move back to Jiminy Cricket who finds an invitation to a birthday party and decides to crash it (the movie doesn’t say this but it is heavily implied).  He goes to a stranger’s house where puppeteer Edgar Bergen is entertaining an apparently parent-less little girl named Luana by doing a rather creepy bit of puppetry with his hand.  Actually this bit is a lot of fun due to the running commentary by Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd who, in an odd move, are able to move around the room independently without Bergen’s help.  All settle in while Bergen reads the story  of Jack and the Beanstalk.

* Mickey and the Beanstalk is a lot more fun than Bongo mostly because it features Mickey, Donald and Goofy together for the first time in a feature film.  Bergen tells a rather expanded version of the classic fairytale in which Happy Valley falls on rough times following the theft of a magical singing harp by a dopey giant who lives in the clouds.  It is Mickey who goes into town to sell the cow but comes back with magic beans (though we are never privy to how he came to acquire them) and the trio have to climb the beanstalk to retrieve the harp.

This is a pretty straight-forward retelling without much that is different save for the giant.  He’s your classic dopey Disney villain but he’s a lot of fun.  The only real addition to the story is that the giant now has magical powers; he’s a transmorph who can change into anything.  Unfortunately nothing is done with that development.  When the giant is chasing the trio at the end, he doesn’t use his magical power at all.  It is brought up and then forgotten.

The story ends with a cute bit in which the giant arrives at the birthday party looking for Mickey and Donald and Goofy before departing down Hollywood Boulevard and stopping briefly to put on The Brown Derby before wandering toward the hills.

Both Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk were ideas that Walt had in mind after completing Snow White.  The film had been so successful that he began to mine other fairytales to turn into features.  Bongo was a new idea, but Disney had his eye on “Jack and the Beanstalk” going all the way back to the silent era.  He had filmed the story before, first as a silent for his Laugh-O-Gram film company in 1920 and then again in a 1933 short called Giantland starring Mickey, then again in 1938 in a short called Brave Little Tailor.  The silent version is considered lost but the two later versions are still readily available (you can see them here and here).

Mickey and the Beanstalk began life as “The Legend of Happy Valley” and was prepped to be a feature, as was Bongo.  However, both projects were halted by the events of December 7, 1941.  The United States entered World War II and Walt went to work making propaganda films for the government.  This put a hold on all non-military projects.  When the war ended, the studio was under budget constraints so both projects were scrapped as features.  When Disney decided to pair the two together in the same movie, cuts were made.  Bongo had been propped up as a pseudo-sequel to Dumbo and much of Mickey was cut, most especially the scene in which he receives the magic beans from Honest John, the swindler from Pinocchio.  This idea that was changed to a scene in which he receives the beans from Queen Minnie, but both ideas were scrapped.

The film’s bizarre framework involving Jiminy Cricket visiting a library and later a birthday party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets was used to knit the two segments together because, in all honesty, they have nothing to do with each other.  The framework provides a flimsy excuse for the movie’s lame title, and frankly they’re just an excuse for Bergen to give the film a touch of star power.

So, how is the film as a whole?  Well, as I say, the two segments are fun but not essential.  They’re two lovable shorts knitted together haphazardly by a wobbly framework that doesn’t really connect them in any way.  That’s 180 degree difference between this and the previous film Make Mine Music which employed 10 musical segments put together as a concert experience.  There the form and function made for an enjoyable movie, but here it feels slapped together.  It feels like Walt had two good ideas that he wanted to put together but was desperate to find some way to get them in the same movie.  Later in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which also had just two segments) he would clear up this problem by slimming down the framework and just letting the shorts run the show.  That’s a better approach.  Fun & Fancy Free is just okay, I suppose.  Of all the package films from the 40s its probably my least favorite just because it doesn’t seem to be reaching for greater heights.  There is no sense that Disney and his crew really wanted to make this film.  It’s mildly fun, but that’s about it.

 

 

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

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

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 7: The Three Caballeros (1944)

Three Cabelleros

It can be supposed that somewhere, sometime, at some point we’ve all seen the entirety of The Three Caballeros even if we didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end.  This is the movie the Disney folks routinely chopped up into small bite-sized segments and slipped in between the shows on The Disney Channel or mixed in as shorts during The Mickey Mouse Club.  That is how I experienced it.  Truth be told, until the advent of home video, I didn’t even know it was a movie.  I had seen so many bits and pieces of it here and there that I assumed it was a TV show running on a channel that I didn’t get.  I remember as a kid scanning the TV Guide trying to find it.  It looked like so much fun that I thought I was missing out.

I have only recently come to watch The Three Caballeros in its entirety and while I found it fun, it also kind of wore me out.  It’s a party, a celebration of all things Latin America, at least within the parameters of a Hollywood musical.  It’s bright, colorful, the animation is second-to-none and there’s energy to spare.  My problem may be that there’s too much of it to enjoy, which is the exact opposite of the problem I had with its predecessor, Saludos Amigos.  Maybe I just can’t be satisfied?

The Three Caballeros is effectively a sequel to Saludos Amigos.  The earlier film was so successful that Disney decided to build on it and further the Goodwill project that he was given by The United States government.  During the Second World War, the studio was given subsidies by the government to go down to the ABC countries (Argentina, Buenos Aries and Chile) and make a picture that would promote the culture and educate American moviegoers about their neighbors to the south.  Politically, it was also a maneuver to end the so-called “Banana Wars” and to stave off the influence of expanding Nazi power.  For Disney it was a project of financial importance.  Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi had been disappointments at the box office so the studio needed money, plus the war had effectively cut off European distribution and a cash flow from Latin America would help.  On top of that, Walt was dealing with a lingering labor strike at his own studio.  Good will was hard to come by during the war so the task was given the Walt Disney to spread it.

The subsidies from the government would not cure what ailed Walt but it wouldn’t hurt him either.  Saludos Amigos had been a success so he decided to expand the idea to include not only South America but also a celebration of the culture of Mexico.  The earlier film had been only 42 minutes long (40 minutes is officially considered a feature) and there was a feeling of the work being a little restrained, so here he allowed his production team to go all out and, admittedly, they did.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, this film is a little more coherent and quite frankly, a lot better.  It has a framework for the segments so the purpose is a little more solid.  Donald Duck receives a package on his birthday (Friday the 13th, no less) from his friends in Latin America and the package contains three presents, each one is a presentation about some place or story dealing with Latin America.  Let’s look at them individually:

The first present contains a movie projector and when Donald sets up the film he discovers that it is a presentation of three shorts called Aves Raras or “Strange Birds.”  The first bird is “The Cold Hearted Penguin”, a cute story narrated by the invaluable Sterling Holloway who takes us waaaaay south, down to the South Pole in fact, and reminds us that it is land of two things: ice and penguins.  Our story concerns Pablo, a penguin living with a large population along the frozen coastline of Patagonia.  The other penguins seem happy with their surroundings but Pablo has a yearning to be elsewhere, specifically the warmer climates of places like Acapulco, Carrasco, and Viña del Mar.  So he decides to leave the frozen tundra and head out for Cape Horn accompanied by his best friend, a stove named Smokey Joe.  The second bird is “The Aracuan Bird” all about a crazy bird with a funny song who is never-the-less able to step off the movie screen and greet Donald and then off of our movie screen and greet us.  The last bird is “The Flying Gauchito,” the story of a Uruguayan boy whose best friend is a burro named Burrito whom he discovers can fly.  He enters the burro in a race only to be found out when the audience discovers that he’s been cheating.

Donald’s second birthday present is a giant pop-up book by his Argentinean friend Jose Carioca (who was introduced in Saludos Amigos) who takes him on a tour of Baia, capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  Here Donald and Jose spend time dancing with the locals (played by real people) while Donald falls in love with a beautiful Samba dancer played by Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen).  The surprise here is the mixture of live action and animation.  Surprisingly this was the third time that the Disney studios had mixed live action and animation after Song of the South and The Reluctant Dragon.  Of course, it’s not seamless but it is quite good.

Donald’s last present is simply called “Mexico” and here Donald and Jose meet up with their third “Caballero”, Panchito Pistoles, a trigger-happy Mexican whose full name is Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero Gonzalez III (no political correctness here) as he takes them on a trip via a flying serape to places like Acapulco, Veracruz and Pátzcuaro.

The sites are breathtaking, but there is time for a break when Jose and Donald and Panchito settle in for a religious parable.  Living at a time now where religion in films is sectioned off to “religious films” for fear of offending anyone it was surprising to see it in a mainstream picture.  The story is “Las Posadas” and it features a group of Mexican schoolchildren who celebrate Christmas with a reenactment of the journey of Joseph and Mary as they search for an inn so the baby Jesus can be born.  The story ends with a celebration by Donald, Jose and the kids as take to the tradition of breaking a piñata.

The finale takes over the last half hour of the movie.  It is an overextended segment of music, dancing and animation in which Donald receives a kiss which sets him off into a surrealistic fantasy to the tune of “Love is a Drug.”  The animation here is wonderful, especially in the fact that it is mixed with live action.  It’s as strange and trippy as the Pink Elephants number in Dumbo especially when Jose and Donald try to break Panchito’s singing solo by (playfully) pelting him with firecrackers, but the whole segment goes on and on and on and on.   The animators are obviously trying to capture the spirit of being at a fiesta but it seems to go on forever and after a while it gets tiresome.

A major chunk of the movie’s third act, seriously, is Donald chasing beautiful women.  When he isn’t in raucous pursuit of the opposite sex, he settles in for a romantic interlude, leading to a bizarre bit called  “You Belong to My Heart” a trippy romantic interlude over the skies of Mexico as the duck pines for the affection of a woman who seems to be part of the celestial furniture.  That over, it’s back to girls, girls, girls.

What I focused on in the last segment is a trope that has always kind of fascinated me, the ravenous male pursuit of beautiful women.  It is an element that was common in cartoons of the time; a male encounters a beautiful woman and spins off into a libidinous whirlwind of exaggerated poses – his eyes pop out and he beats himself over the head with a mallet.  This was common in Disney cartoons, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, the shorts of Walter Lantz and especially Tex Avery.  Food and sex seem to be the two major appetites for male characters in cartoons of the 40s and 50s.  The pursuit of food was obvious but the pursuit of sex was always a bit tricky.  While the male character was always defined, the female was always somewhat vague, a stock character with curves and a pretty face yet no name, no personality, no appetites and no obvious pursuits of her own except to either be pursued or to repeatedly tell the antagonist to take a hike.  Very rarely was it the other way around.  If the woman pursued the male she was generally unattractive.

In The Three Caballeros, the function of women is simply to dance and look pretty and be pursued by a horny duck.  This is a curious positioning of women at the time.  The movie was released in 1944 while the United States was still at war.  The reality for women was much more intense than Hollywood might have allowed.  During the war, most American women were busy working in factories putting together ships, planes and tanks to help with the war effort, then pulling double duty by keeping the kids in line and the home fires burning.  On that, it is important to note that women working in Disney’s studio were given menial tasks in the Ink and Paint department and made far less than male employees.  Latino women at this time broke down their cultural barriers, moving away from the home to help with the war effort and venturing out on their own for the first time.  Bilingual skills were sought after and they found work as interpreters.  They serves in the WAACS and Marine reserves.

On the screen women of any culture were not likely to be seen as employed or even employable but rather as an image fitting for the Madonna/Whore complex.  They can be seen as sex objects or maternal figures.  Women were objects of beauty though not always of power.  There were exceptions, you could see the positives creeping around the corners but the story was more likely to end with the woman falling into the arms of the leading man.  This was the norm in the age of The Hays Code, that awful nanny state of the early 20s century that was set in place to keep movies clean and wholesome and to basically separate the viewer from reality.  They were tasked with changing words, characters, plots and anything even remotely objectionable.

In cartoons however, the rules weren’t quite as harsh although the ideas were often curtailed to keep the pursuer from attaining his goal.  The penance was often loneliness or some other gruesome fate.
There were dozens of cartoons that fit this trope, but the one that springs immediately to mind is Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” a reconditioning of the Little Red Riding Hood story updated to the New York jazz scene of the 1940s with the wolf pursuing a busty showgirl.  At the end, he gets so roughed up trying to evade her sex-starved grandmother that he declares that he’d rather kill himself than lust after another woman.  Then Red Riding Hood appears again and he kills himself only to come back as a ghost and continue his lust-crazed ways.

Cartoons represent an exaggerated form of the world which is appropriate because they can leave the space we live in and stretch and squash the world into any form they want to take.  That’s what makes them work.  Yet, they are also representative of our hidden appetites.  Donald Duck can chase a group of beautiful women up and down a beach in Peru but if a human male did that he’d likely land himself in jail or a hospital.  Yet, what does this say about the film.  Donald spends the last third of the movie chasing women and in one case falling in love.  The women are seen as part of the scenery, and more of a smorgasbord than anything else.  At one point, the three title characters swoop down on a beach populated by bathing beauties and the women scatter like gazelles.  The lust-crazed trope is still in effect here.  However, given the context it is an element that I’m not sure I get.  The movie was employed as a good-will tactic so that Americans could get a better understanding of Latin American culture, but what does this trope suggest?  Go to Peru and chase women up and down a beach?  Is it comedy?  Is it suggestive?  I’m not sure that I get it, but I suppose that tourism of Latin American countries in this film could be exaggerated as well.  It is seen as a singing, dancing, non-stop party in which everyone is having a great time.

Disney pictures have always had a complicated relationship with women, even to this day.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the image of woman in their animated films has always been a bit of a sticky subject.  It fluctuates back and forth between the helpless damsel and the evil wench.  It is a subject that gets more interesting and more complicated as time goes on.  We’ll get more into that as we approach the Fairy Tale era of the 1950s.

The Three Caballeros in the meantime is complicated as well.  It’s a fun movie for the most part and you can feel that it was put together with loving care.  The production team went a lot of effort to make the visual look of the film into something special, which is why I regret complaining about the length.  While it’s beautiful to look at, I eventually got tired of looking at the volley abstract images.  The movie wants to be a non-stop party but there are moments when I needed a break.

I said earlier that as a kid I didn’t know this was a movie because I had always seen the animated bits chopped up and attached to the beginning or ending of the features.  Having seen the entire movie, I’m not so sure that breaking it up into pieces wasn’t such a bad idea.  It is twice as long as Saludos Amigos and it is very similar.  The segments are fun as segments but when pulled all together it can be a struggle to sit through.  Is that fair and balance criticism?  I’m not really sure.