THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Melody Time’

The one that served up more of the same.

By the mid-1940s, Walt Disney was growing desperate to return to feature-length animated films. While World War II was over and life was beginning to return to some state of normalcy, Walt Disney Productions was still floundering. In debt of almost $3 million, Walt was already planning a dazzling, magical fairy tale to rescue the company and recapture Disney’s standing as the home of family-friendly entertainment. Alas, it would still have to wait a few more years.

While the company held on for dear life, Walt continued with his plans to produce inexpensive package films as a means to survive. Despite the relative failure of musically-minded Make Mine Music, he commissioned another series of cartoon shorts combining pieces of varying styles of music with equally fluctuating styles of animation. With American patriotism riding high after the Allied Victory in World War II, Walt planned to include several segments to highlight a few well-known icons of American folklore.

Standing as the final anthology film of this era, Melody Time would contain seven musical segments featuring both popular and folk music of the 1940s. Unlike Disney’s previous package film, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time would not contain an overarching theme or framing device to link each segment together. Instead, it was another random collection of both narrative shorts and abstract art in a clumsy attempt to recreate the magic of Fantasia.

The shorts are loosely connected through narration by popular crooner Buddy Clark and constructed using an animated brush which literally paints the stage and scene for each sequence. Beginning with an introduction from an anthropomorphic stage mask, Melody Time invites the audience to “hitch your wagon to a song, cuz’ a song’s the one and only thing that will take you over the rainbow to the land where music is king” and promises “something here for everyone” including “rhythm and romance, reason and rhyme, something ridiculous, something sublime.”

Our first segment Once Upon a Wintertime tells the tale of two young lovers on a winter day, as they blissfully ice skate around a lake with a pair of rabbits who mirror their movements and relationship. And that’s about as deep as this short gets. There’s a near-tragedy involving some thin ice and a daring rescue by a pair of squirrels and that’s truly it. The title track is performed by Frances Langford, whose slow, mournful tones do not match the playful, slapstick humour of this short in any conceivable way.

Next up is Bumble Boogie, a piece set to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s lively Flight of the Bumblebee originally considered for use in Fantasia. It’s a rather dazzling surrealist piece that places a solitary bumblebee in a battle against a series of musical instruments hellbent on squishing him. Just go with it. As Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece becomes more frenetic, the action on-screen equally ramps up, with the poor bee frantically attempting to escape a psychopathic keyboard. Much like Disney’s earlier abstract sequences, it’s bright and colourful and all sorts of utter insanity. But, hey, at least it’s memorable.

The third segment is the first tribute to an American folk hero with a retelling of The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, the famous American pioneer who spent most of his life introducing apple trees to large sections of Mid-Western America. Based on the life of preacher and missionary John Chapman and narrated and sung by Dennis Day, the sequence is overtly religious and uncomfortably preachy with Johnny singing “The Lord is Good to Me” at one point and proclaiming of the benefits of a life spent following the Bible.

The sequence runs for over 17 minutes and tells a definitive narrative, which is more than you can say for most of the shorts in Melody Time. The animation is beautiful and it’s a fascinating true story most outside of America would be unfamiliar with. But it stands out like a sore thumb in this film with its blatant Christian theology and awkward angels and afterlife ending. While Disney has flirted with religious ideologies in the past, namely the “Ave Maria” section of Fantasia, this is a rather bizarre choice from a company known to be relatively secular.

Moving swiftly away from religion, the fourth short Little Toot tells the tale of a mischievous little tugboat with a knack for causing all sorts of chaos. While he initially spends his days splashing other boats and blowing smoke at ocean liners, he soon realises he must grow up and be just like his father, Big Toot. It’s a playful little segment with a rather morose ending, but it does feature The Andrews Sisters on vocals, and that’s always a bonus.

The fifth segment moves back into abstract territory with a recital of Joyce Kilmer’s 1913 poem Trees with music performed by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. The accompanying pastel animation portrays the changing of the seasons in rural America. The animation of Ken O’Connor is exquisite and, according to my research, pastel imagery had never been used in feature film animation prior to Melody Time, making this sequence rather groundbreaking. But the poem is tough to endure, made all the more difficult by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians warbled singing.

Our sixth short takes us back to Brazil where once again we join Donald Duck and José Carioca (their The Three Caballeros pal Panchito Pistoles is strangely absent) who are quite literally feeling blue. Upon arriving at a local bar, the duo meet the Aracuan Bird (still as mind-numbingly annoying as ever) who launches Donald and José inside a large cocktail glass where organist Ethel Smith is playing the 1914 polka Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho by Ernesto Nazareth. Yep, it’s another weird segment.

From here, Donald and José dance the samba, as animated bubbles and a cavalcade of wild special effects burst to life around the screen. There’s no depth or narrative to this sequence, but it stands as the most visually impressive short of the entire film. In a further evolution of Disney’s spectacular combination of live-action actors and animation, Smith interacts with all three bird characters and the visual splendours surrounding them, creating the most impressive use of this technology within a Disney film outside of Mary Poppins.

The final segment of Melody Time is a 22-minute long retelling of the life of famous Texan hero Pecos Bill, a fictional cowboy raised by coyotes who became the best cowboy that ever lived. The sequence is introduced by King of the Cowboys himself, Roy Rogers, his treasured palomino horse, Tigger, and the two young stars of Song of the South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. With Rogers’ narration and singing, Pecos Bill recounts how the famous Texan shaped the Rio Grande river (which he apparently dug himself with a stick) and his ill-fated romance with a beautiful cowgirl named Slue Foot Sue.

Fun fact – during several sections of the short, Pecos Bill is drawn with a cigarette in his mouth and features a sequence where he lights his rolled cigarette with a lightning bolt. For the film’s “Gold Collection” DVD and VHS release in 2000, the lighting bolt sequence was completely removed and scenes depicting Bill with a cigarette in his mouth were digitally altered. Thankfully, the short has been restored to its original format for streaming on Disney+ with a disclaimer stating it “may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

Pecos Bill is a spirited and entertaining climax to an otherwise disappointing film, particularly for those fond of the western genre. Several segments of Melody Time ultimately represent a tribute to America and its cultural heritage. For a country still recovering from the devastation of World War II, it hearkened back to happier, simpler times and served up the sweet dose of nostalgia audiences were crying out for.

Ultimately, this is the most disappointing aspect of Melody Time. Despite its occasional celebration of America, it’s a potentially connecting theme the film bizarrely doesn’t follow. This entire production could have focused on America as its central idealogy and it likely would have been a greater and more cohesive film. Instead, Melody Time feels like yet another patchwork of cartoons with nothing in common but the use of music and the experience of viewing the film again feels like a frenzied journey through a strange songbook that simply doesn’t make sense.

If Make Mine Music was the poor man’s Fantasia, Melody Time is its distant cousin twice removed. There’s a great film hiding here somewhere, but it’s muddled by several forgettable shorts that exist as nothing more than filler to push Melody Time to feature-length status. The end of the package film era is finally coming to a close and not a moment too soon.

Is Melody Time a Disney Classic? As with every single package film of the 1940s era, Melody Time lacks the finesse and sophistication in both animation and storytelling to be considered a Disney Classic. There are moments of gold, but they are few and far between.

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