Today’s project: Working on this essay about Disney features.
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A Empire is A Wish Your Ideals Make: Looking At The First 20 Years of Disney Cinema.
Before the Disney company even considered feature films, there were two further periods of their history that we will only have time to offer some vague lip-service to. At the very beginning, Disney made shorts for some off-brand characters that were not as popular down the road. Then, later, Disney hit upon their star characters, and began to become an incredibly popular animation studio as sound and color was deftly featured in their work.
All through both of these periods, people were seeing Disney cartoons at the theater, as part of the early experience that theater going used to be in the early days. Along with a feature film, theater goers were seeing a newsreel, a few short films, a cartoon, trailers for other stuff, and any number of things, all for the small admission price. In this way, most of America began to fall in love with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, as they were usually sandwiched in-between other short fare before the main event was on.
Prior to 1937, if you knew Disney films at all, it was from going to the theater, and seeing these shorts. It was how the company made their bones, and a couple of these shorts were even award winning.
The format of the short was perfect for a company like theirs: set your characters in any environment, give them some gags to contend with, and the film writes itself. They could re-tell any story, put the film in any era, and re-contextualize their characters in any number of ways. This was a successful formula, and these short cartoons are still a major part of the way people interact with Disney properties.
But, as any aspiring artist will tell you, they longed to make something bigger, something… more. An animated feature was something that hadn’t really been done, and not in a successful, widely distributed manner.
* (There were at least nine earlier efforts at making feature-length animated films, but various distribution problems kept those features regional, and were often lost to time not long after originally screening, too. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” the oldest surviving feature, was largely only seen in Germany, in the 20s, and then shelved. A hub of animation in the teens and 20’s, a couple features from the Soviet Union were made, but not seen outside the country for many years. Other features were made in France, Italy and Argentina, but again, were not widely seen, and certainly not known outside their home countries.)
The vision that Disney had was to score an international hit with a feature, in the same way he had with his shorts. Mickey and Donald were starting to get international recognition, and the characters were enabling the Disney short films to get shown before features all over the world. While most animation studios hadn’t been able to parlay their success into that kind of fame, Disney was pretty sure they could expand their notoriety by producing a couple of features as well.
The oral history of all Disney features are easy enough to track down, and what becomes clear is that the seeds of nearly all the feature-length stories that were made among the first 19 features grew out of ideas that were pitched during the conversations about what their first film should be. Which makes sense; at a studio like that, you would never throw away any good ideas. Clearly, anything that seemed like a story they could break went into the “Disney machine.” What came out on the other side was often very surprising.
In an effort to save on costs, the idea to present their best short features as a film was easy enough to hit on, and they had quite a few that were popular. Since their first “feature-length story” film was still several months away, and since they could slap this one together quickly, they took 41 minutes of material (five short cartoons), and issued them as, “The Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons.” (This feature has been re-worked two further times: in 1943, it was re-issued and expanded to nine shorts, and again reworked and re-issued in 1966, to bring the final film length to a total of 74 minutes. By most feature-length standards, even the final form is a little, ahem, “short.”)
Nevertheless, the gamble worked, and paid off for Disney in a big way. Since they were already known for their shorts, a collection of the best ones distilled the product into one location, which, until then, fans had to take a chance that a Disney short might be included with a feature they went to see. (Which was not a guarantee.) The chance to see pure, unvarnished Disney product, which was essentially preparing audiences for the upcoming Christmas treat (Snow White) that was on the way, was a masterstroke of marketing on their part. A captive audience of fans is the perfect place to tell them about what’s coming, and with this feature announcing Snow White, the Disney means of media manipulation was also beginning to take shape.
The shorts that are contained in, “Academy Award Review,” are a mix of fairy tales retold (“Three Little Pigs,” “Tortoise and the Hare,” and “The Country Cousin,” a version of The Country Mouse and The City Mouse) blended with Disney originals, which set the template for most of their future work, and was a good representation of the kinds of films they made in the past. And it is probably a more accurate representation of what the company did best at the time, that is to say, features are not their specialty, shorts were.
While this did not prevent the Disney company from making and releasing full-length, feature films, as was the desire in the first place, it is incredibly telling that 12 of the first 19 animated features are compilations of short films, in some form or another. Often, there was a sort of pattern to the releases: a full-length story would get released, then a shorts compilation would. Compilations were favored during the war, as they were easy to produce and didn’t require the same budget as a full-length feature. And you could mix live action into the feature compilations, saving more money.
While the very first feature of this kind was specifically made of older short films sequenced for feature presentation, the others compilation features were made specifically for use as a feature. “Fantasia,” “Make Mine Music,” “Fun and Fancy Free,” “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” and “Melody Time,” are all strictly features that are made up of shorts, with a wrap-around bit that “frame” the “presentation.”
These films were easier to make because you could have several animation teams working on each “short” simultaneously. This way, if you have five teams making five shorts, the film is completed in 1/5th the time. This allows you to produce more animation, and can keep you competitive. Much like most Disney fare, these compilation films are a mix of fairy tales and original stories, and very pointedly, music is the backbone of these films. (Which has been the case for Disney animation ever since it was possible to synchronize sound.)
In reviewing these musical compilation films, most of this stuff is the kind of fare that you would expect: romantic stories superimposed on cute, short-animation settings, or re-tellings of fairy tales, with some well-known Disney characters in supporting (or main) roles. (Taken to the furthest extreme in, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” which is two non-Disney stories framed by Basil Rathbone narration.), As is typical with a lot of Disney work, sexist and racist elements pop up from time to time, in sometimes more or less obvious ways. There is a sort of prevailing notion that “domestic violence” is all a part of the world of relationships, and that you can casually use certain racist terms and words without any repercussions, especially if it’s in a song.
The sexism and racism is probably at it’s thickest in, “Saludos Amigos” and, “The Three Caballeros,” films featuring Donald Duck and other characters on a trip to Brazil, where the exploitation of Brazilian life was probably seen as, “an opportunity to show Americans other cultures,” at the time, and comes off as ham-fisted and difficult to rationalize in the year 2020.
While I am certainly fond of different specific moments in all of these films, of all of them, the most memorable is, “Fantasia.” Certainly, the music in these other compilation films is good, and the songs are often remakes of popular tunes, or original tunes that became popular. But the work you hear and see in “Fantasia” was then, and is now, unlike anything you have probably seen and heard before. As whimsical as it is serious, it takes the idea of marrying animation and music to the furthest extremes, where the are moments of pure color and sound.
It is probably most telling that, of all the films in this batch of compilation films, “Fantasia” is the most well known. And rightfully so; it displays the animators at their most imaginative, with connective material that is whimsical and informative, and fun to watch, overall. This use of live-action to help frame the animations was done as a cost-saving measure then. But it also set up something that would have an impact on the other compilation-type films that they would release: they could experiment with format and still make an “animated” film.
There are four other films that fit in this category that are worth discussing before we move on, and all of them are somewhat harder to find in the modern era. In many ways, these films are so odd, and so unlike the rest of the Disney cannon, that they are worth highlighting for their oddness.
“The Reluctant Dragon,” was a feature that I had never seen as a child, and even the animated segments were not that familiar to me. And why should it be? I’m sure when I was a kid, no one of my peers knew who Robert Benchley was, and the idea that he would lead us on a tour of the Disney studio from the early 40s would not only confuse children of the 1980s, but is even hard to contextualize, a further 40 years later. While the animated bits are very engaging, it’s no wonder this experiment was buried for decades, only now available through Disney+. As a historical document it is fascinating, but it is probably a confusing entry in their film catalog.
Unless, of course, you remember the average filmgoing experience of the era. After a pile of shorts, newsreels, and other stuff, you are seeing this feature. You might have wandered in late, thinking your would duck out when you need to. Or maybe you are there just to see whatever the theater is playing. Maybe this is a person’s first time in a theater? “The Reluctant Dragon,” in some ways, is adopting the form of the experience of waiting to see a feature film, almost better than the other compilation films do. It combines color, black and white, animation, live action, and brings you stuff that all looks and sounds like the experience of seeing the things shown before your movie starts. (And, near the end of this film, you sit down with Walt Disney himself, to watch an animated film with Peter Benchley.) If you want to see something that looked very much like what movies were like in the 40’s, this is the perfect film to give you that flavor.
This filmgoing experience (newsreels and shorts, then a feature) would persist throughout WWII, which makes, “Victory Through Air Power,” much like that same experience, save with a focus on the war. Mixing live action and animation, the film presents the entire history of Aviation (in a fairly comical, animated fashion), before drilling into you the one and only way that America can win WWII: through the use of air power, something fairly new to our military. Certainly, propaganda appears in a lot of Disney work, and they addressed the war in a number of films. (In, “Mickey And The Beanstalk,” part of, “Fun and Fancy Free,” Donald and a Dragonfly re-enact planes bombing boats in a way that would be all too real for soldiers in the Pacific theater.)
But this feature took the newsreel / short cartoon form of what you saw before the film, and put it in the feature presentation, too. It’s no wonder this is a very little seen film, not only because of the racism, but the datedness of the message. (We’re not exactly focused on winning WWII these days.) Watching it now only underlines the propaganda angle, the advertisement angle, and only makes sense if seen as a historic document.
But, again, it shows Disney’s skill at using a film to act as an advertisement for something else.
“So Dear To My Heart,” is a very strange Disney film, and is currently not available on Disney+. VHS versions were available (for a limited time) at various times in the ’80s and ’90’s, and a DVD was made ad a Disney Movie Club Exclusive in 2008. And while it is not at all as offensive as the film most like it in form and structure (“Song of The South,”) it is probably the least known (and least well loved) Disney film. Staring Burl Ives and Bobby Driscol, and featuring a number of songs sung by both, this loose adaptation of a contemporary novel leans on a few animated segments to cut away to, as is the style of films like this. The animated bits offer a wise owl teaching Danny how to be a sheep, while the live action sequences follow the novel more conventionally. It’s essentially a hybrid of the live action films they would make later, and the short cartoons that had popularized. The episodic animated bits act like shorts, broken up by a live-action film. (Or vice versa.)
This same format was used in, “Song of The South,” where the live action story is broken up by the animated story, and both films are book adaptations. And, the Uncle Remus stories are perfect for episodic animated stories, as the original tales are episodic. But we all know why “Song of The South” was buried, and it is unlikely to ever make an appearance on Disney+. While this doesn’t prevent you from finding it online, even seeing small bits immediately highlights the racism. There’s almost no other way to read this film.
And yet, at the time, it was perfectly in character to make a compilation style film like this, as they had done so many times before, and including some racism was just business as usual for them. It is shocking, when you look at their other work, how much is as racist, if not more so, than “Song of The South.” And yet, I can easily see those works, while this one is still locked in the Disney vault.
While there are certainly reasons why these kinds of films are not being made by Disney anymore, it is telling that they went this route, at first. They weren’t quite ready to entirely branch out into making only full-length features. But using this period to transition to a company that makes feature films, you have to make many short stops along the way.