*All reviews contain spoilers*
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The Andrews Sisters – Themselves
Mel Blanc – Apparently did sound effects in Little Toot (if that’s true, why on earth didn’t they give him more to do?)
Buddy Clark – Master of Ceremonies
Pinto Colvig – Aracuan
Dennis Day – Johnny Appleseed, His Angel and the Old Settler
The Dinning Sisters – Themselves
Bobby Driscoll – Himself
Frances Langford – Herself
Freddy Martin – Himself
Bob Nolan – Himself
Luana Patten – Herself
Sons of the Pioneers – Themselves
Thurl Ravenscroft – Apparently did sound effects in Little Toot
Roy Rogers – Himself
Ethel Smith – Herself
Trigger – Himself
Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians – Themselves
Sources of Inspiration – The real life of American pioneer John Chapman (1774-1845), Little Toot, an American short story by Hardie Gramatky, 1939, Trees, an American poem by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, 1913 and Saga of Pecos Bill, a collection of American short stories by Edward S. O’Reilly, 1923
Release Dates –
May 27th, 1948 in the USA (premiere and general release)
Run-time – 75 minutes
Directors – Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney and Hamilton Luske
Composers – Eliot Daniel and Paul J. Smith
Worldwide Gross – $1.850 million (US rentals)
Accolades – 1 win
1948 in History
Railways of Britain nationalised, forming British Railways
Burma (now known as Myanmar) and Sri Lanka gain independence from the UK
Shortly after completing his last period of fasting, Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated by Nathuram Godse
On that same day, aviation pioneer Orville Wright dies in Ohio
NASCAR is founded by Bill France, Sr. in the USA
The 1948 Accra Riots occur in what was then the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana)
The Costa Rican Civil War occurs, leaving around 2000 people dead
Hells Angels motorcycle gang is founded in California
The United Nations establish the World Health Organisation
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War occurs, part of the wider Palestine War
A rhesus monkey named Albert becomes the first primate in space
The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine becomes the first stored-program computer to successfully execute a program
The MV Empire Windrush brings some of the first Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the UK
One of the first major crises of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, begins
The first Summer Olympics since 1936 are held in London
North and South Korea declare themselves separate countries
Births of Bernadette Peters, Billy Crystal, Olivia Newton-John, Terry Pratchett, Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, George R.R. Martin, Samuel L. Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles
It’s time for yet another package film, but thankfully there’s only one more left after this! Melody Time was something of a milestone for Disney, as it was their tenth classic, but it doesn’t feel particularly special. With Cinderella now only two years away, the company were simply trying to make money any way they could, continuing with the cheap anthology film format sprinkled with live-action segments (although there’re only two live-action segments in this). It’s packed with big names in an attempt to get people into the theatres, but this is undeniably one of the weakest of the package films (which is saying something). I enjoy it more than Fun and Fancy Free, at least, although that film’s Mickey and the Beanstalk trumps most of the pieces included here.
The introductions are narrated by Buddy Clark, who also sings the opening Melody Time song. For the folkloric sections (particularly Pecos Bill), the popular 1940s author Carl Carmer was the consultant. The opening credits aren’t as nicely designed as the Make Mine Music ones, with some rather creepy painted theatre masks scattered about, but it’s nice to see that the featured artists are now being credited to specific shorts. If Make Mine Music is the poor man’s Fantasia, then this film is truly the poor man’s Make Mine Music, but there are still a few gems to be dug out of the melee if you know where to look.
Once Upon a Wintertime
Right off the bat, I would suggest that Melody Time’s main problem is that it peaks too early and then nose-dives in quality about halfway through. With the exception of Trees (see below), the best work is mainly confined to the first few shorts. This first one, Once Upon a Wintertime, follows an adventurous day in the lives of young couple Jenny and Joe, as they attempt to enjoy an ice-skating session but soon find themselves in a struggle with the elements. With singing by Frances Langford and animation by Eric Larson, this is one of the more charming pieces in the film, with a nostalgic, Christmas-card style to it. Judging from the horse-drawn sleigh, the outfits and the décor in the couple’s home, it seems to be set in the 19th century – a time period which was, of course, still within living memory for many older viewers in 1948.
Joe looks like an older version of Make Mine Music’s Peter, doesn’t he? As he and Jenny set out on their excursion, they’re joined by a pair of small bunnies who serve as a sort of microcosm of their story, helping to highlight the emotional tone throughout the short. At first, the skating goes fairly well (despite Jenny’s incredibly impractical hoop skirt), but soon, Joe’s inner peacock emerges and he begins showing off, resulting in Jenny and the female rabbit being covered in a wave of freezing snow. The girls stalk off in a huff, oblivious to the male rabbit’s attempts to warn them of the dangerously thin ice ahead, so he angrily sticks the sign he’s waving at them back into the ice – which promptly begins to break apart. From this point, the stakes go up unexpectedly as the short becomes a race against time to save the fainting girls from going over a waterfall (who knew they were even on a river in the first place?). Interestingly, the boys don’t actually managed to rescue their girlfriends; instead, it’s up to the usual band of plucky Disney animals, and they just barely manage to get the pair back safely. In an excellent piece of comic staging, the unconscious girls somehow end up being catapulted into their boyfriend’s laps, where they awaken believing that they’re in the arms of their rescuers. The boys are only too happy to go with it, and the short ends with the human couple bidding the animals adieu and heading back home, hopefully for a nice hot cup of cocoa (and maybe something more, judging from their expressions!).
This is a cute and whimsical short with some great gags (especially from the bunnies) and was popular enough to be rereleased on its own in September, 1954. My only criticism is the placement of it; I think I would have put this one nearer to the end, as it has a certain feeling of closure and would have been far more appropriate as a finale than Pecos Bill.
This is one of the film’s most popular segments, both at the time and today. It features Freddy Martin and his Orchestra (along with Jack Fina on piano) doing a swing-jazz rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic, Flight of the Bumblebee. This is yet another of those Fantasia rejects, like Blue Bayou and Peter and the Wolf, and much like those it is of a noticeably higher quality than some of the film’s other pieces. There’s not a whole lot to be said about it; it’s very short and abstract, featuring some inventive imagery as the little bee tries to escape the madness, with a serpentine keyboard chasing after him at one point and a set of eyeball-trumpet hybrids blasting at him. The return to classical music is the main reason this one stands out so much – it reminded me of a scene from The Aristocats, where one of the Scat Cats plays a little of this tune on the piano.
The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
Next up, we get one of the richer shorts, with one of the rare Disney stories to be based on actual history (a bit like Pocahontas, decades later). Johnny Appleseed is a well-known figure of American folklore, but the legend is based on a real bloke – John Chapman, a pioneer from the early days of America who really did go around the country spreading plant life (and religion). Actually, there are some overt religious themes in this one, unusual for Disney, with references to angels, the Holy Book (I guess they couldn’t say Bible) and the Lord, but they don’t go as far as to mention Chapman’s role as a missionary of The New Church (known then as Swedenborgianism). This is probably for the best, as such real-world themes would bog the story down and detract from the fantasy of the story. The piece is narrated marvellously by Dennis Day, who also performs all the voices, and features some good music, too… although apparently there was a major disagreement between Walt and the original composer of the short, Ken Darby, resulting in him being fired (I’m not sure if it is his work we hear in the finished piece or not).
We first see plucky young Johnny on his farm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1806 (a very specific setting), watching the wagon trains of the early pioneers rolling out to settle new lands over the horizon. I love it when Disney includes dashes of actual history in their work – the setting of this story puts it just after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Land Act of 1804 and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (ended in 1806), which were all influences on this first push out west. The scenery of the piece looks like the work of Mary Blair and is some of the finest in the film, offering some beautiful backgrounds of American forests and mountains. Watching the wagons rolling by, Johnny fantasises about joining them and helping to settle the distant shores of the Pacific, but then jolts himself back to reality as he believes that he couldn’t hack it out there. As a small guy myself, I can relate to Johnny’s size-related woes as he sighs about not being brawny enough to join the pioneers! At this point, Johnny’s “Angel” arrives:
I love this character; he gets some great frustrated expressions as he listens to Johnny’s excuses about not heading out to the frontier, as well as some amusingly off-key singing (Dennis Day actually can sing, so presumably this was intentional!). With the Angel’s encouragement, Johnny decides to pack up a handful of belongings and set off to try and spread the joy of apple-trees (his prize crop) around the countryside. Not far into his travels, he comes across a scenic little glade and begins preparing an orchard – but unbeknown to Johnny, he is watched from the shadows by the denizens of the forest (which include a surprisingly vicious-looking bear, complete with scare chord). They are, naturally, mistrustful of the man, whom they suspect has come to hunt them. It takes the bold curiosity of a skunk to show them Johnny’s true nature, for when they see him tickling and playing with the revolting “cat” that none of the others will go near (poor little thing), they realise he must have pure intentions. I have to say, I love the skunk: he’s far more interesting than Flower was in Bambi and manages to get across more character in this one scene than Flower did in that whole film.
So, Johnny’s life in the wilderness begins to unfold, as we watch him gradually planting more and more apple trees until the whole area is filled with pink blossom. Aside from the rather dated perspective on his activities – “pushing back” the forest for agriculture isn’t something we generally celebrate anymore – the short remains highly enjoyable and is probably one of the strongest in the whole film. At one point, a middle-aged Johnny wanders by an apple-based festival and we see some hilariously goofy-looking locals dancing at yet another hoedown (seriously, there’s at least one in every package film), before sitting down to some tasty apple-based treats – this short will make you crave apple pie like never before, I’m telling you.
Eventually, the elderly Johnny is visited in a sheltered spot one day by his Angel, who invites him to join him – Johnny’s soul gets to his feet, but leaves his body behind! (The Angel describes it as his “husk”… brrr). The scene is played gently, even comically, with Johnny’s indignant reaction to his death never failing to make me laugh, but for a modern reviewer it’s still kind of surprising to see another main character being killed off! First Willie the Whale, now Johnny… Disney just doesn’t do this anymore; only the villains or side characters can be killed off for real nowadays. I suppose it’s due to the nature of these films – it’s easier to kill off the main character in a short than in a full length feature, where they need to be alive till the end. All in all, this is my favourite short of the film, and it’s many other people’s too, proving successful enough to be rereleased by itself in December, 1955 (with “The Legend of” dropped from the title).
After the charm of Johnny Appleseed, Little Toot is very underwhelming. It’s not bad, exactly; it’s just so… bland. Standard, run-of-the-mill, unremarkable. The story it’s based on proved more enduring, and the little tugboat would go on to find greater success in the many book sequels, but this short does not stand out as one of Disney’s best. The story is narrated in song by The Andrews Sisters (in their second appearance in a package film, following the much better Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet in Make Mine Music), with some whistles and sound effects being provided by Ollie Wallace. The singing is predictably nice, but even the talents of the Andrews Sisters can’t keep this plodding piece lively. Speaking of the making of this in a biography of the girls, Maxene Andrews said: “It was quite an experience. On the wall at the studio they had the whole story in picture form. Two songwriters played the score and Walt Disney explained it to us. It was a new thing for Disney. We sang the narrative. It was very exciting to work with Disney – he was such a gentleman.” It’s good to hear they enjoyed the experience, at least – so many artists later went on to criticise him for his perfectionist tendencies.
The story concerns a young tugboat in New York City’s harbour called Little Toot (sounds more like an insulting nickname to me), who dreams of leading the big ocean liners into port like his father, Big Toot. The problem is, he’s so darn mischievous and can’t seem to keep himself from getting into bother. After a particularly disastrous day leaves a gigantic cruise ship actually stuck amongst the skyscrapers of the city, Little Toot is exiled from the harbour, leaving his father’s name disgraced (his dad’s fate of tugging a barge full of waste seems a bit harsh, but then they do say it’s the parent’s fault when a kid is out of line.) However, during a storm, Little Toot is perfectly positioned to spot a stranded ship in need of help, and after sending out an SOS message to the harbour, he bravely dashes in to rescue it himself. The rescue is well staged and dramatic, but it still doesn’t save the short from mediocrity – the trouble is that it feels like a repeat of Pedro from Saludos Amigos, except that Little Toot is far less endearing than the plucky mail plane, and unfortunately the Andrews Sisters can’t match the spirited narration of Fred Shields. His reputation restored, Little Toot is welcomed back to the harbour and presumably lives happily ever after.
Although the short was never considered one of the film’s highlights, it did well enough to garner a rerelease in 1954.
I love these poetic interludes so much, although I know they’re not to everyone’s taste. This gentle piece features Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians singing a musical rendition of the popular 1913 Kilmer poem, Trees, scored by Oscar Rasbach and with some limited animation by Dick Kelsey. The short is a simple ode to the beauty of trees, featuring some beautiful imagery of them in different seasons – as is usual with this style of short, there’s not a lot to discuss, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be swept away by the visuals. Apparently, layout artist Ken O’Connor went to great lengths to try and replicate the look of the original story sketches for the piece, by using frosted cels for the animation and rendering the pastel images right onto them. Before the cels were photographed, each one was laminated in a clear lacquer to protect the delicate pastels. The result is stunning, with some of the shots whisking you back to the glory days of Fantasia – it certainly lives up to that film’s standards and is a great pick-me-up after the staleness of Little Toot.
Blame It on the Samba
The penultimate sequence brings back Donald Duck (in his fourth package film appearance) and his Brazilian pal, José Carioca, for what seems to be one last wild and crazy night in Latin America. This would be the last theatrical film appearance for either of the dynamic duo for forty years; not until 1988 would they appear on the big screen again, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Unfortunately, Blame It on the Samba also brings back the godawful Aracuan bird (luckily this is his last appearance). Featuring Ethel Smith and the Dinning Sisters performing the 1914 polka Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho by Ernesto Nazareth with English lyrics, the short is perhaps most notable for its clever special effects which blend animation with live-action, courtesy once again of Ub Iwerks, who did the effects in the earlier Latin American package films.
Although the effects are admittedly fantastic and make for some decent gags, the short as a whole feels really random and out of place this late in the era – you get the feeling the animators were feeling nostalgic about their 1941 trip and were desperate to include this piece in the final music anthology film. Whatever it did for them, it does nothing for me, mainly because it feels like the worst of The Three Caballeros, only cheaper. Unlike the earlier films, there’s no real anchor for this piece in Melody Time; Donald and Joe simply wander into the Aracuan’s café and are quickly sucked into a loud, colourful vortex of craziness as he attempts to liven them up with some samba and alcohol. Ethel Smith, appearing in live-action in this short, was apparently fond of colourful outfits and was undoubtedly talented (coincidentally, she found success with the song Tico-Tico no Fubá in 1944, just a few years after Disney used it in Saludos Amigos), but I don’t think anything about her role in this piece works. She’s dressed up to look like Aurora Miranda, but it just doesn’t have the same effect – who plays samba music on an organ, after all? Donald and Joe, meanwhile, don’t even get to speak, simply being carried along by the Aracuan into a whirl of drunken antics and hallucinations. It’s messy and colourful and will probably be a favourite with any younger viewers, but for me, Blame it on the Samba just doesn’t have the rhythm.
In a strange choice, we get Pecos Bill as our finale, introduced with another one of those cost-cutting live-action sequences. The character of Pecos Bill is often cited as an example of “fakelore,” or in other words, a modern character (Bill was created around 1917) who is presented as an older folkloric one. The nickname seems to have been taken from a real guy called William Rufus Shafter, who was a highly decorated Union Army officer known as “Pecos Bill” to friends, but the Pecos River of Texas could also have been an inspiration. There’s some really cheesy “Southern-style” narration at the beginning, followed by some surprisingly nice animation of desert scenery featuring some delicate, wispy tumbleweeds, which are probably my favourite thing in the whole short. Then, before the short can really get going, we’re treated to our final live-action introductory section of the package films, presenting the story as a campfire tale being told by Roy Rogers to Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten (damn, she gets to all the parties), Bob Nolan and the Sons of Pioneers (and Rogers’s famous horse, Trigger).
We listen to a performance of Blue Shadows on the Trail, and then Rogers begins to tell the kids (both of whom were in Song of the South) about Pecos Bill, in a deliciously bad piece of acting. I really can’t think of any other reason for including this in the segment besides saving money – why do we need to be told the whole story before it plays, like we’re morons? Show, don’t tell! Once the animation finally kicks in, we’re introduced to our hero as a pioneer family reject; as one of sixteen kids, it’s no surprise that he’s not missed when he tumbles out of the wagon and gets left behind. Pecos Bill is one of the first of Disney’s “raised-in-the-wild” characters, later to be joined by the likes of Mowgli and Tarzan. Taken in by coyotes, he grows up to prove himself the roughest, toughest, most stereotypical hombre this side of the Rio Grande, outmatching every animal in its special skill with no subtlety at all. There are some good gags in this first part of the story, such as Texas bulging in the middle of the American map and a carefully overstated sign saying that there’s no water this way, that way or any other way, but otherwise it’s mostly very dull and unappealing stuff.
Bill himself was animated by Ward Kimball and looks like the standard Disney lunk-head, reminding me of the Willie triplets from Home on the Range (not a film you ever want to be reminded of while watching another film). I can’t stand characters like this: the Chuck Norris-style “manliest man alive” shtick is so over-the-top and hammy, it’s ridiculous. After endless gags, we’re introduced to his future best friend, a horse named… Widowmaker? What? In his first scene, a dried out and starving Widowmaker is dragging himself across the desert, pursued by the vultures from Snow White. It was great to see them again (and so many of them), as I found their presence very effective in the original film. Here, they’re much more active and vicious than real vultures, heckling and bullying the little foal and making for the short’s best scene. It doesn’t last long, sadly – before long, Widowmaker’s all grown up and joining Bill in all his masculine glory, single-handedly doing everything that’s ever been done in the history of forever. During this part, there’s a brief, patronizing reference to “painted Indians” and “redskins,” but don’t worry, there’s much worse to come on that front in later films (think Peter Pan). There’s also some infamous imagery of Bill rolling cigarettes with his tongue and smoking them, while wrastlin’ with a tornado – this part has been edited out of US releases of the film, but was present on my UK DVD. I get that it’s a bit distasteful by modern standards, but I hardly think any kids will take up smoking just because they want to be like Pecos Bill, do you?
Before long, they’re interrupted by the arrival of the token sexy love interest, to the disgust of Bobby Driscoll in the live campfire bit.
Slue-Foot Sue is the latest racy model of Cinderella prototype, in red this time, and she comes flying into the picture on the back of a giant catfish, as you do. Bill’s interest is captured immediately (to the consternation of Widowmaker) and he quickly proceeds to woo her, leading to one of Disney’s raunchiest kisses as they hook up, complete with a gun-firing “climax” metaphor. The tone keeps veering about wildly from happy to sad, and in the next scene we see a miserable Widowmaker at the couple’s wedding, about to lose his best friend to a girl (makes you think of Timon and Pumba, right?). Just before this, though, we see Sue putting on a bustle, despite knowing she’s about to ride a half-crazy bucking bronco. What is it with the girls in Melody Time and their insistence on wearing impractical outfits for physical activities? First Jenny with a crinoline for ice-skating, now Sue in a bustle for horse-riding… Ultimately, Sue’s vanity proves to be her downfall, as well as her only significant character trait (she even pauses to fix her makeup while atop Widowmaker). The enraged horse finally succeeds in bucking her off, but thanks to her springy bustle, she’s sent bouncing higher and higher into the air, until eventually she ends up on the moon… I couldn’t make this up if I tried. It’s implied that she dies up there, as Bill and everyone else (except Widowmaker, obviously) are shown mourning for her, which is presented as an explanation for why coyotes howl at the moon. Her fate is far too stupid to take seriously, though, so if the creators were aiming for a Make Mine Music-style dramatic ending, it really didn’t work.
This is probably my least favourite part of the film, besides Little Toot. It’s just so hammy and poorly paced, with too many tired gags and another of those irritating live-action segments. I’ll admit, it does have some nice scenery at times, though, and some of the gags do work well – it’s worth noting that Slue Foot Sue is included in the gaggery, which is rare for female characters. The short’s good points aren’t enough to save it, though; given this and Home on the Range, I get the feeling Disney just can’t make a decent western.
Still, the character of Bill has proved quite an enduring one, so maybe it’s just me! There are many references to him in the Frontierland part of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and there’s a sign featuring him outside the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café, as well as various images of him and the other characters inside. There’s even a pair of gloves with the inscription “To Billy, all my love, Slue Foot Sue” located in a glass display case there. I guess if the likes of Pecos Bill can survive for posterity, there’s hope for even the least popular of Disney characters.
Final Verdict –
Reports differ as to how successful this one was; some say it didn’t do well at all, while others say it was a box office success. Modern reviews tend to be mixed, mainly because the quality of the shorts varies so much. By 1948 the package film format was becoming very tired – eight years on from Pinocchio and just two years away from Cinderella, the artists were clearly itching to do something better. Walt himself apparently had little input with this one, probably past caring at that point, too anxious to get to his next masterpiece to worry about a package film which was only made to make money.
The ordering of the shorts feels wrong again in Melody Time. Pecos Bill wasn’t strong enough to act as the finale; I think Johnny Appleseed or Once Upon a Wintertime would have worked better, and Bumble Boogie could have been put later too. Pecos Bill and Blame It on the Samba should have been put much earlier, and Little Toot, if it had to be included at all, could have been the opener, to get it out of the way.
Intriguingly, some segments from this film and a few others from Make Mine Music were apparently edited into another package film called Music Land, released in the summer of 1955, but it seems to have been lost – at any rate, it’s not featured in the Disney canon and is never seen or talked about these days, but I was surprised to find that there was a whole other Disney film out there that I’d never heard of! The film consisted of Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, Casey at the Bat, Once Upon a Wintertime, Blame It on the Samba and Pecos Bill, as well as two other shorts called Two for the Record and Contrast in Rhythm.
Melody Time wasn’t released on VHS until 1998, fifty years after its original run, which tells you all you need to know about the Disney Company’s opinion of the film – critic John Grant, writing shortly before that date, had to find and watch the shorts individually due to the lack of a home media release (he considered the film bland and inoffensive, which seems to be the general opinion).
We’re almost over the hill now, people – just one, last, package film!
My Rating – 2/5
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant
The Andrews Sisters: A Biography and Career Record (2004) by H. Arlo Nimmo (I don’t own the book; the quote from Maxene is from Wikipedia, which credits this book as the source)
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3891714 – credit for poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melody_Time – wiki article
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040580/ – IMDB page