06 August 2008

Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies (1929-1939)

d. Ub Iwerks, Burton Gillett, Wilfred Jackson, David Hand / USA / Ten selected shorts, 84 mins.

Walt Disney could have gone the easy way. Mickey Mouse was a wildly successful character, and he could stuck with the profit-yielding formula. But he was a visionary who rarely satisfied (as clich├ęd as it sounds, it's still true). As his studio made Mickey Mouse cartoons, Disney also turned his attention to a new series – dubbed "Silly Symphonies." They were glorious experiments, short animated trial balloons if you will, each building upon the foundation laid by the previous. The ten-year run of Silly Symphonies pushed the skill of his animators, the imagination of his writers, the possibilities of the technology, and the judgment of the audience to new realms, all toward Disney's ultimate goal: a full-length animated movie (realized in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

All together, there were 75 short films made under the banner Silly Symphonies – not all of them great. Seven won Academy Awards for Short Animated Film, including the first award ever given in the category. The studio dominated the category for six consecutive years. The best of the series are the groundbreaking ones and the surprising ones, whose influence continues to be felt all the way through to today's television cartoons – shorts like Ub Iwerks's The Skeleton Dance, the brilliant antics of The Tortoise and the Hare, the technological wonder of Flowers and Trees, and beautifully crafted art of The Old Mill.

Considering its grim sense of humor and delightfully dark subject matter, The Skeleton Dance (1929) might seem today a genuinely odd choice for the first of these Disney's shorts. After all, we have come to associate the Disney brand with wholesome and bubbly entertainment, yet lest we forget the disturbing elements of Disney's first films – the forest in Snow White, the underworld of Fantasia, the imprisonment of Dumbo's mother. The subject matter was a perfect fit for Iwerks's distinctive style of animation in the early Disney shorts. His thick and smooth lines, generous use of black ink, and comically bulbous character bodies are today as instantaneously recognizable as Monet's water lilies, Van Gogh's post-impressionist swirls, or Hopper's isolated people. Iwerks was a tremendously efficient animator, rumored to have drawn Disney's Steamboat Willie by himself in only two weeks (or 600 to 700 drawings per day).

The Three Little Pigs (1933) proved to be the most popular of the shorts, with theaters running it alone several times per day. Adapted from the tale of the same name, the short hit the screen at the right time in American culture: the Great Depression was under way, World War II was coming to a boil in Europe, and audiences were looking for relief. "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" was the song two of the pigs sing as they build their shaky homes, and it became an accidental anthem in the days following Franklin Roosevelt's proclamation that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The short is notable, too, for bringing to life the ignorant stereotypes pervasive in Hollywood at the time: in the initial version of the short, the Big Bad Wolf appears the brick house dressed as a Jewish peddler. (Today the image has been excised from available copies, dressing the wolf instead as a Fuller Brush salesman.) The same cultural ignorance can be found in many other Silly Symphonies, including the stereotypical depiction of a black woman in Three Orphan Kittens (1935). Kittens seems to be the most superficial upon first glance, but it is one of the best in terms of developing the techniques of great animation: a powerful blizzard allowed the animators to practice drawing the weather; crystal clear reflections of the kittens on a shiny kitchen floor; and attempts at creating movable depictions of three-dimensional objects (instead of remaining static, a couch "twists" as real object would when a kitten runs past).

As the series continued, the animators grew in talent and skill. Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first film ever produced in three-strip Technicolor, an enormous visual leap in terms of developing color films. Disney gambled shrewdly on Technicolor and its inventor, and succeeded wildly. He signed an agreement with the inventor that allowed he and he alone to produce exclusively the only Technicolor shorts for the first three years. Today the film looks commonplace (we're so used to color), but its tender story – of two trees in love, fighting back an evil tree wishing to set the forest on fire – is still charming and entertaining. The Goddess of Spring (1934) was Disney's first attempt at actual human characters. Adapted from the Greek myth of Persephone, the beautiful girl travels with Hades on a disturbing and imaginative journey into the underworld.

Like The Three Little Pigs and The Goddess of Spring, some of the more successful shorts incorporated old fables and set the standard for animated adaptations. Aesop would be paid homage to in The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934), where a carefree grasshopper fiddles his way through happiness while proclaiming the "world owes me a livin'." (The grasshopper's voice is by the same man who would forever be remembered as the voice of Goofy.) The Tortoise and the Hare (1935) and its sequel, Toby Tortoise Returns (1936), reproduce Aesop's tale more effectively, with the famed race in the former and a witty boxing match in the latter.

In addition to their stories, both films were significant technological advancements, too. In supplemental features to the DVD release of the Silly Symphonies, Leonard Maltin notes The Grasshopper and the Ants used color as an actual component to tell a story, and The Tortoise and the Hare marked Disney's first attempts at depicting animated speed and giving its characters postures and actions that define their personalities. (Tex Avery admitted Max Hare from the latter film greatly influenced the development of Bugs Bunny.) Opposite the long line of adaptations, Music Land (1935) is one of the best original stories told. Riffing on Romeo and Juliet and the disapproval of jazz by stodgy old people in the 1930s, the short depicts a battle raging between two kingdoms – classical music and jazz music – when a violin and a saxophone fall in love.

From a technical standpoint, The Old Mill (1937) might be the most impressive of the Silly Symphonies. Its story is nearly nonexistent, taking a backseat to its atmosphere. Animals inhabit an abandoned mill standing serenely in the middle of a field and next to a pond, but when a harsh storm blows in, we watch how the animals take cover and protect themselves. The real star of the short is the multiplane camera, utilized and perfected here for the first time by Disney. (The multiplane camera gives a flat piece of animation unmistakable depth by moving several layers of art simultaneously.)

Disney's studio made a few more Silly Symphonies after The Old Mill, but the series was capped in 1939, ten years and seven Oscars after its debut. By that point Disney and his animators had learned the tools necessary to begin producing full-length animated features. They're prized for their experimentation, yes, but let's not forget how joyfully entertaining they also are.


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