Make Mine Music
Another package film, the Disney Studio marking time until they could afford to produce another feature-length story. The two previous ones, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros had a theme: South America. Two films to come—Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad—were just two stories slapped together to make feature length. This one and Melody Time were pretty much tossed together at random, using every idea that had been lying around for some time and was not worthy of a full feature. This is not necessarily a bad thing—though both films are often referred to as “poor man’s Fantasias”—but it does mean these films are very uneven. And I have no doubt that children, the target audience of these videotapes, would fast forward through several of the segments. Luckily, those segments are all short.
The film is presented as a concert, though it’s hard to imagine a venue where all these numbers would be performed on the same evening. There were originally 10 segments, but “The Martins and the Coys” fell victim to political correctness and was snipped from the home video release, because of “comic gunplay.” Damn, I can’t tell you how much I hate that. Warner Bros. suppressed their racist films (though they’re easy to find at YouTube) but never even considered pulling all their Yosemite Sam ‘toons just because he’s always shootin’ up the place. So here’s what’s left:
A Rustic Ballad: The Martins and the Coys (CENSORED)
Tone Poem: Blue Bayou. The Ken Darby Chorus. Talk about poor man’s Fantasia … this one was lifted from the floor of the room where they were cutting Fantasia, dusted off, and inserted here. Well, not exactly, it was animated a few years later, but was originally meant to be shown to Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune. There is no story, just a heron moving through a swamp accompanied by a rather insipid song. I wish they’d stuck with the Debussy.
Jazz Interlude: All the Cats Join In. This is my personal favorite, and strangely enough my second choice is also by Benny Goodman. But this one really shines. It uses the frequent Disney trope of the paintbrush, but this time it is a pencil, which sketches in the characters, then the props, then very sparse sets. There are no backgrounds. It’s about teenage hepcats rendezvousing at the local malt shoppe to jitterbug to the latest grooves, Jackson! They boogie so hard and so fast that the pencil sometimes can’t keep up. When their jalopy takes off with no rear wheels, the pencil has to race ahead and draw a stoplight. This segment is full of nice little touches like that, and the music is all reet, too.
Ballad in Blue: Without You. About the best you can say for this is that it’s pretty. It’s also boring. Andy Russell sings the song, and we see what looks like water moving over glass, and shifting colors. Much visual artistry is pretty much wasted here.
Musical Recitation: Casey at the Bat. Jerry Colonna narrates the famous poem, with antics more at home in a Goofy cartoon than a musical collection. It doesn’t really fit in, but I’m not complaining too much, because it’s funny.
Ballad: Two Silhouettes. Another one that’s a snooze, yet quite pretty. Two rotoscoped ballet dancers move against an abstract background as Dinah Shore croons the title melody. Nice voice, dull song.
Fairy Tale in Music: Peter and the Wolf. One of the Disney classics, which has been shown by itself in many contexts. It’s narrated nicely by Sterling Holloway. This being Disney, they couldn’t allow the duck to be eaten, and they give the animals names, which Prokofiev didn’t, but who cares? My only objection was that when they were introducing the characters and the instruments that represented them—oboe: duck; bassoon: Grandpa; flute: bird, etc.—they failed to mention that the Wolf (the real star of the show and one of the scariest images Disney ever produced), was represented by French horns. As an old French horn player, I was miffed.
This little orchestral trifle has to be one of the most performed and most parodied works in the classical canon. Thanks to Wikipedia, which excels in things like this, for this amusing list of people who have narrated it over the years:
Sergei Prokofiev’s first wife Lina Prokofiev, son Oleg Prokofiev, and grandson Gabriel Prokofiev, José Ferrer (bilingual in English and Spanish), Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Leonard Bernstein, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Sean Connery, Peter Ustinov, Paul Hogan (relocated to the Australian Outback), Will Geer, Dudley Moore, Hermione Gingold, Captain Kangaroo, Mia Farrow, Itzhak Perlman, Lorne Greene, Sir Alec Guinness, Jonathan Winters, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, Dame Edna Everage, Tom Seaver, Carol Channing, George Raft, Sting, David Attenborough, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Arthur Godfrey.
Those were merely the classical readings. There have been endless variations, including:
Art Carney and the Bil Baird Marionettes; Hans Conried with a Dixieland band; the Clyde Valley Stompers, jazz version; Robin Lumley and Jack Lancaster, rock version, Arnie Zane, punk ballet version (!!); Weird Al Yankovic and Wendy Carlos, comedic version with synthesizers; P. D. Q. Bach, comedic western version entitled “Sneaky Pete and the Wolf.” Chuck Jones drew the characters for a TV version, and National Public Radio produced “Peter and the Wolf: A Special Report,” which treats it as if it were a developing news story.
Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman directed a modernized, stop-motion animated adaptation that won an Oscar in 2008.
And perhaps the most bizarre version of all: Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Sophia Loren won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for narrating the album Peter and the Wolf/Wolf Tracks. Loren narrated “Peter and the Wolf” and Clinton narrated “The Wolf and Peter” by Jean-Pascal Beintus, which is the story told from the wolf’s point of view. I can’t figure out what Gorby did; maybe provide a Russian translation.
Goodman Quartet: After You’ve Gone. The second jazz piece. This one takes four musical instruments and morphs them through an insane number of changes, through a surreal landscape of piano keys and musical staffs and whatever the animators happened to see, inspired by whatever they were smoking that day. Whatever it was, I’d like a few tokes.
Love Story: Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet. The Andrews Sisters sing of a romance between two hats. Disney made cartoons where two cars were lovers, and also two houses. (I kid you not.) This is even more farfetched, and didn’t really work for me, though the animation was quite clever.
Opera Pathetique: The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. A great story, and a real tour de force for Nelson Eddy, who sings all the parts. And there are dozens of parts, over a vocal range that is astonishing. (I suspect he may have had a little technical help in the upper registers.) It was a real eye-opener for me, who had previously seen Eddy only in some of those truly awful and dreadfully dated musicals from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Who could forget him dressed as a Canadian mountie in Rose-Marie, warbling one of the worst songs ever written, “Indian Love Call,” to Jeanette MacDonald? Or “Stout-hearted Men” from New Moon? I wish I could forget. But he really shines here, singing many of the most famous operatic arias for tenor, baritone, and bass. The story is good, too, so improbable that I found myself caught up in its appealing lunacy. I mean, wait until you see a sperm whale standing on stage in an opera house! I remember seeing this as a child, and being shocked and hurt that the whale was harpooned. Seeing him entering the Pearly Gates didn’t make up for it. I was pissed, I wanted to find that idiot impresario Tetti-Tatti and break his arms so he could never conduct again.
The videotape comes with two classic cartoons:
“The Band Concert” (1935), always on the Top Ten list of best cartoons ever. The level of detail when the bandstand is picked up by a tornado is amazing. To think that it was all hand-drawn, with literally hundreds of elements to consider in each cel … today a computer could handle it all easily, but back then it was hard. And well worth the effort. It stars Mickey, acting rather more angry than we’re used to seeing, and an early version of Donald Duck (only his third appearance in a cartoon), who discovers that “Turkey in the Straw” can be played right along with the William Tell Overture. And does so, to the confusion of the band.
“Farmyard Symphony” (1938) Walt always liked rural life, farm animals, etc. Just look at how many animals are in “Steamboat Willie.” Here, the animals are much more realistically drawn, and the schtick is that their braying and oinking and clucking make a sort of symphony.