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A Silly Symphonies Marathon

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A few weeks ago, I decided I ought to swot up on my animation education and watch all the early Disney animated features, including a few I’ve never seen. Then, I thought that if I was going to start with “Snow White”, I should really try to view it in the context of its time; to see it as contemporary audiences would have seen it, and to appreciate the milestone it represents. Viewing it simply as the first of Disney’s features, in a way, scarcely does it full justice, because then it has to compare with everything that followed, not everything that came before. To get to the point where “Snow White” could be made, the Disney studio had to climb a mountain, so I felt I ought to go back and climb that mountain with them, and the best way to do that was to watch the Silly Symphonies – the cartoons that were a training ground for animators and a testing ground for new techniques. After all, the DVDs had been gathering dust on my shelf for years. They deserved to be watched.

Several of the cartoons are still well known today and crop up in every Disney documentary, but for every “Skeleton Dance” or “The Old Mill”, there’s a dozen “Frolicking Fish”, “Birds in the Spring” or “Funny Little Bunnies”, and although the novelty value of many of them has long gone, most are still noteworthy in one way or another.

Starting at the beginning, it’s easy to see the early cartoons with their stark black and white colouring, repetitive cycles such as three identical flowers dancing alongside each other, and plinky-plunk “Mickey-Moused” soundtracks as primitive, but reading the critical response of the time reminds you that this was still very novel. Hollywood in general wouldn’t really master the sound form for a few years yet, and what Disney were really doing here wasn’t simply adding sound to cartoons but merging the two into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts – complementing the rhythm and mood of the music with those of the images…not just having cartoon characters dance to a tune, but knitting the sound and image together to form an integrated whole. This was way ahead of what live action films were doing at this point, and it’s easy to believe that they paved the way for the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s.

However, though the difference in quality in the Silly Symphonies from one year to the next is very marked, most of the individual cartoons progress in small increments. There’ll be a few in a row where one feels it’s the same-old-same-old, then suddenly there’ll be something new and startling. 1931’s “Egyptian Melodies” shows us a spider crawling through the stone tunnels of a pyramid, and the camera follows him. For it to do this, each frame of the background – not just the character – has to be individually drawn as we pass through it. The effect is like CGI – we’re moving through a three-dimensional environment. Nothing like this is ever attempted in the feature films and it’s easy to understand why. It’s one thing drawing a new black-and-white line drawing every frame – a fully rendered painting is something else. But imagine if they had!

In the very next cartoon, “The Clock Store”, the bar is suddenly raised on character animation as two porcelain figures on a clock share a courtly dance – a far more nuanced and sensitive representation, and much closer to realistic figure animation, than anything preceding it – but still a world away from “Snow White”.

Just a few months later the cartoons go into colour, and although each one pushes the boundaries a little further, there’s generally an excess of sugar for the next few years. Two or three cartoons like “Lullaby Land” and “Water Babies” is enough to give you diabetes, but fortunately they’re broken up with more witty and engaging entries like “Three Little Pigs” and its sequels – and there are a few surprises here. “The Big Bad Wolf” (1934) and “Three Little Wolves”(1936), in particular, with their fast action and brutal physical humour, are clear prototypes for the Looney Tunes cartoons, but at a standard Warner Brothers would not reach for some years yet. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is very obviously the inspiration for Bugs Bunny – 1943’s “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” is a blatant, if more dynamic, remake. Similarly, “Three Orphan Kittens” is undeniably the basis for every “Tom and Jerry” cartoon, right down to the skirting-board level view of implausibly long rooms, and the legs and feet of the black housemaid, complete with Lillian Randolph’s voice. A sequence with a grand piano even features gags very similar to those used in “The Cat Concerto”, which won an Oscar for Tom and Jerry 11 years later. It only lacks the specific cat and mouse, but they too appear in “The Country Cousin” the following year. (Also in “The Orphan Kittens” is a stunning tracking camera sequence in which a wooden floor, table, chairs and piano are redrawn every frame, as in “Egyptian Melodies”, so as to appear in moving perspective as the kittens run between their legs).

The last few cartoons are a triumphant conclusion to the series. From the clunky black and white dancing flowers of just a few years before, every standard technique of 2D animation is now in place. The most expensive, “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood”, perfects the art of the animated caricature, with – among others less recognisable today – perfect parodies of Laurel and Hardy, Charles Laughton and Katherine Hepburn as Bo Peep (“Ah’ve lost mah sheep. Really ah have.”). The well known “The Old Mill” is a tour de force of new techniques that would find their way into the feature films, not least the multiplane camera, which gave a sense of depth and space previously impossible, and the final cartoon, “The Ugly Duckling”, could plausibly have been made at any point in the following thirty or forty years.

The progress from the first to the last is awe-inspiring and humbling – it’s almost impossible to believe that only eight years separate “The Skeleton Dance” from “The Old Mill”. I’m not aware of any other field of creative endeavour, except perhaps the Apollo program, that has made such progress in such a short space of time.
Well – Snow White, here I come. I feel I’ve earned it now.

The complete list, for anyone wanting to also complete the marathon:

No. Title Release date Director Notes
1 The Skeleton Dance August 22, 1929 Walt Disney Clips of this short have been featured in both Disney and non-Disney productions.
2 El Terrible Toreador September 26, 1929 Walt Disney Based on Bizet’s opera Carmen.
3 Springtime October 24, 1929 Ub Iwerks Seen in One Hundred and One Dalmatians
4 Hell’s Bells October 30, 1929 Ub Iwerks Featuring Satan, the Grim Reaper, Cerberus, and various unnamed demons of Hell.
5 The Merry Dwarfs December 16, 1929 Walt Disney
6 Summer January 6, 1930 Ub Iwerks
7 Autumn February 13, 1930 Ub Iwerks
8 Cannibal Capers March 13, 1930 Burt Gillett
9 Frolicking Fish May 8, 1930 Burt Gillett Introduced continuous movements or ’overlapping action’ in animation, instead of the old stop-and-go movements. Originally released with green tinting[8]
10 Arctic Antics June 5, 1930 Ub Iwerks
11 Midnight in a Toy Shop July 3, 1930 Wilfred Jackson
12 Night July 31, 1930 Walt Disney Originally released with blue tinting[8]
13 Monkey Melodies August 10, 1930 Burt Gillett
14 Winter November 5, 1930 Burt Gillett
15 Playful Pan December 28, 1930 Burt Gillett Featuring Pan
16 Birds of a Feather February 10, 1931 Burt Gillett
17 Mother Goose Melodies April 17, 1931 Burt Gillett Featuring among others Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Little Jack Horner, Mother Goose, Old King Cole, and Simple Simon.
18 The China Plate May 25, 1931 Wilfred Jackson Retelling of the Willow pattern legend.
19 The Busy Beavers June 22, 1931 Burt Gillett
20 The Cat’s Out July 28, 1931 Wilfred Jackson
21 Egyptian Melodies August 21, 1931 Wilfred Jackson
22 The Clock Store September 30, 1931 Wilfred Jackson
23 The Spider and the Fly October 16, 1931 Wilfred Jackson
24 The Fox Hunt November 18, 1931 Wilfred Jackson Remade in 1938 as the Donald & Goofy film The Fox Hunt
25 The Ugly Duckling December 16, 1931 Wilfred Jackson Based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen; remade in 1939
26 The Bird Store January 16, 1932 Wilfred Jackson
27 The Bears and the Bees March 12, 1932 Wilfred Jackson
28 Just Dogs April 16, 1932 Burt Gillett Featuring the first starring role of Pluto (Mickey Mouse does not appear)
29 Flowers and Trees July 30, 1932 Burt Gillett First cartoon produced in three-strip Technicolor;[1] won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
30 King Neptune September 17, 1932 Burton Gillett Featuring Neptune as the “King of the Sea”
31 Bugs in Love October 1, 1932 Burt Gillett Last black-and-white Silly Symphony
32 Babes in the Woods November 19, 1932 Burt Gillett Featuring Hansel and Gretel
33 Santa’s Workshop December 10, 1932 Wilfred Jackson Featuring Santa Claus. First Silly Symphony to be released with the RCA Photophone optical sound-on-film system, even though the title card implies that this cartoon was recorded with the Powers Cinephone process. This sound system will be used for all remaining shorts to the end of the series.
34 Birds in the Spring March 11, 1933 David Hand
35 Father Noah’s Ark April 8, 1933 Wilfred Jackson Featuring Noah, Ham, Japheth, Shem and their respective wives, as well as a cavalcade of animals. The “building the ark” music is an adaptation of Beethoven‘s Contradanse in C Major, WoO 14 No. 1. The short itself would be referenced several times in the Pomp and Circumstance segment of Fantasia 2000
36 Three Little Pigs May 27, 1933 Burt Gillett Featuring the namesake characters and the Big Bad Wolf; won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
37 Old King Cole July 29, 1933 David Hand Featuring the namesake character along with various nursery rhyme characters
38 Lullaby Land August 19, 1933 Wilfred Jackson Featuring the Sandman
39 The Pied Piper September 16, 1933 Wilfred Jackson Adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin
40 The Night Before Christmas December 9, 1933 Wilfred Jackson Featuring Santa Claus, Sequel to Santa’s Workshop
41 The China Shop January 13, 1934 Wilfred Jackson
42 The Grasshopper and the Ants February 10, 1934 Wilfred Jackson Based on a fable by Aesop
43 Funny Little Bunnies March 10, 1934 Wilfred Jackson
44 The Big Bad Wolf April 14, 1934 Burt Gillett Featuring the title character along with the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, Sequel to Three Little Pigs
45 The Wise Little Hen June 9, 1934 Wilfred Jackson Debut of Donald Duck
46 The Flying Mouse July 14, 1934 David Hand
47 Peculiar Penguins October 20, 1934 Wilfred Jackson
48 The Goddess of Spring December 8, 1934 Wilfred Jackson Featuring Persephone and a version of her uncle-husband Hades/Pluto, identified here with Satan. The Disney animators’ first attempt to create visually realistic human characters.
49 The Tortoise and the Hare January 19, 1935 Wilfred Jackson Featuring Max Hare and Toby Tortoise; won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
50 The Golden Touch March 22, 1935 Walt Disney Featuring Midas and Goldie the elf
51 The Robber Kitten April 13, 1935 David Hand
52 Water Babies May 11, 1935 Wilfred Jackson
53 The Cookie Carnival June 15, 1935 Ben Sharpsteen A homage to the Atlantic City boardwalk parade and bathing beauty contest of the 1920s and 30s (which became the Miss America Pageant). In the Public Domain.
54 Who Killed Cock Robin? July 6, 1935 David Hand Includes caricatures of Mae West (Jenny Wren), Bing Crosby (Cock Robin), Harpo Marx (the cuckoo), Edward G. Robinson (the sparrow), and Steppin Fetchit (the blackbird); incorporated into Alfred Hitchcock‘s Sabotage.
55 Music Land September 14, 1935 Wilfred Jackson
56 Three Orphan Kittens October 26, 1935 David Hand Won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
57 Cock o’ the Walk November 9, 1935 Ben Sharpsteen
58 Broken Toys December 14, 1935 Ben Sharpsteen Some toys are caricatures of Hollywood stars.
59 Elmer Elephant January 18, 1936 Wilfred Jackson
60 Three Little Wolves March 14, 1936 David Hand Featuring the title characters along with their father the Big Bad Wolf and his rivals the Three Little Pigs
61 Toby Tortoise Returns August 22, 1936 Wilfred Jackson Sequel to The Tortoise and the Hare; featuring cameos by various other Silly Symphony characters and a parody of Harpo Marx
62 Three Blind Mouseketeers June 20, 1936 David Hand
63 The Country Cousin August 15, 1936 David Hand Won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
64 Mother Pluto October 10, 1936 David Hand Featuring Pluto mothering a number of newly hatched chicks
65 More Kittens November 7, 1936 David Hand
Wilfred Jackson
66 Woodland Café January 17, 1937 Wilfred Jackson Contains animator Ward Kimball‘s first animating assignment
67 Little Hiawatha February 21, 1937 David Hand The last Silly Symphony distributed by United Artists
68 The Old Mill November 5, 1937 Wilfred Jackson Disney’s first use of the multiplane camera and the first Silly Symphony distributed by RKO Radio Pictures; won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film
69 Moth and the Flame April 1, 1938 Burt Gillett
70 Wynken, Blynken and Nod May 27, 1938 Graham Heid
71 Farmyard Symphony October 14, 1938 Jack Cutting
72 Merbabies December 9, 1938 Rudolf Ising
Vernon Stallings
Outsourced to Harman and Ising after the studio donated inkers and painters to the Disney studio to complete Snow White
73 Mother Goose Goes Hollywood December 23, 1938 Wilfred Jackson Last film showing a Silly Symphony title card; features multiple caricatures of Hollywood film stars and a cameo by Donald Duck
74 The Practical Pig February 24, 1939 Dick Rickard Featuring the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Wolves; released as a Three Little Pigs standalone short
75 The Ugly Duckling April 7, 1939 Jack Cutting Remake of the 1931 film and the only Silly Symphony story to be remade; won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Released as a special one-shot cartoon.

Items mentioned in this article:

Walt Disney Treasures - Silly Symphonies [DVD]

Walt Disney Treasures - Silly Symphonies [DVD]

£25.00 +

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