A reappraisal of Disney’s Melody Time – Page 5

Trees (Director Hamilton Luske)

Three story sketches by Dick Kelsey for Trees.

This is a visualisation of Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem, with Oscar Rasbach’s music, sung by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. The music is too lush and we are subjected to one of those lapses in taste to which Disney is prone, but otherwise, this little section is a gem.

It is the direct presentation (with some animation of animals and birds) of one story sketch artist’s work. The story sketches are the film, all by one unsung Disney artist Dick Kelsey. (Some of his sketches appear m Johnson & Thomas’s Disney Animation:

The Illusion of Life, Abbeville, N Y, 1981 and in Canemaker’s Disney Treasures of Animation Art, Abbville, NY, 1982). Richard Hoffis (in The Disney Studio Story with Brian Sibley, Octopus, 1988) pays tribute, also, to the special effects by Ub Iwerks.

Joyce Khmer’s poem has, of course, been debased through popularisation, but Disney, a popular artist par excellence, sees only the truth and feeling in Kilmer’s work and, once or twice, intense joy. A storm is visualised with great economy and then the seasons are briefly shown; a gleaming landscape is revealed by tracking shot — this was before the zoom lens — and is seen to be only a reflection in a water drop on a bough; an autumnal sky is, by symbiosis, a leaf blowing away from a giant close shot to a long shot of leaves in a landscape. Never, in the whole canon of Disney art, has there been anything as directly impressionistic as this piece. The touch is sure, the images breathtaking and it is a tragedy that the religious ending, purple sunburst and all should plummet us so brutally from the sublime to the bathetic. There is a similar lapse in taste with “Ave Maria” after the Moussorgsky section of Fantasia.

Blame It on the Samba (Director Clyde Geronimi)

Blame it on the Samba.

The last of the Latin American films this is a final Disney fling south of the border. It is a blend of live action and animation and works well, Ethel Smith in live action pounding away at her real organ or at the drums and forever being blown up or attacked by the anarchic Aracuan Bird, whom we had previously encountered in The Three Caballeros and in a Donald Duck short cartoon Clown of the Jungle (1947). A zany abandon dominates this piece, Donald Duck and the urbane parrot Jose Carioca transported via a giant cocktail into a land of music and colour. It has the frenetic exuberance that characterizes the earlier Latin American films, and is great fun to watch as well as to listen to, for the music is lively and orchestrated with sparkle, and for once matches the imagery.

Pecos Bill (Director Clyde Geronimi)

This story of a Mowgli-like baby raised by coyotes to become a hero of the West has some witty moments, the most impressive being the animated maps and spectacular feats undertaken by Bill when he creates, for instance, the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a charming song, “Blue Shadows on the Trail”, gracefully animated. But it has all been done before, and there is not sufficient time, either to establish character, or to sympathise with Bill when his newly wedded wife Sluefoot Sue is bounced by her bustle to the moon. The joke is, literally, monstrous and the impact suspiciously nuclear. No, this is a thin little tale, made thinner by its inclusion within a daft section of live action, where real live cowboys sit round a desert fire and sing with Roy Rogers. We can accept Ethel Smith within the madcap cocktail of the Aracuan Bird’s mixing, for we are prepared there for anything. This final section “is wrecked”, as the Spectator’s critic pointed out, “by these players who wrench one away from the enchanting never-never land bringing expatriated cartoons along with them”. The reason for this bizarre prairie jamboree must be, as John Grant points out in his recent Encyclopaedia of Walt Disney Characters, Hamlyn, 1987, “… a somewhat artificial attempt to ensure that the film could boast big-drawing names on its posters” I should add that it has become one of the most popular sections of the film.

Sluefoot Sue, the girl who captured Pecos Bill’s heart. Animated by Milt Kahl.

Melody Time concludes abruptly, “The End” painted on to the artist’s easel by the magic paintbrush, and we are left disjointed; it is a pity that such a weak piece should have ended the film, for its parts are, I hope I have shown, much greater than its sum; the restless uncertainty, the experimentation with colour, line and form that would never be attempted again, with the exception of Alice in Wonderland (1951), the lyrical economy (“Trees”), abstraction and surrealism (“Bumble Boogie” and “Blame It on the Samba”) and primitive stylisation (“Johnny Appleseed”) make the film a fascinating subject for animators and the general public alike. Less memorable musically than Make Mine Music, it yet deserves an airing, and it is to be hoped that it may one day be dusted off the Disney shelf and at least issued on video if not ever again on the big screen.

Note: Though it was advertised as part of the 1989 National Film Theatre Disney Retrospective, the print failed to materialise. The Disney Company also, sadly, delivered a defective copy of Make Mine Music.

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Printed in Animator Issue 27 (Summer 1990)