In the early years of the Walt Disney animation studios, while part of the company was focusing on building up the iconic characters that would earn Disney his reputation, another part of the studio was cranking out the Silly Symphonies series. These are short cartoons (generally about six minutes, but sometimes nearing ten) that are exactly what they sound like: humorous narratives set to music. Though these cartoons did not focus on recurring characters, some of the more famous Disney institutions sprang from them. Donald Duck got his start here, and the Silly Symphonies version of the Three Little Pigs still endures in the public consciousness as one of the more dominant renditions of the story.
There were seventy-five Silly Symphonies in all. This is the second two-disc volume collecting them for the Walt Disney Treasures series. The first volume was part of the first wave of this DVD imprint back in 2001. More Silly Symphonies - Volume Two: 1929-1938 is part of wave 6, and while volume one gathered up quite a few of the more famous installments, volume two is largely lesser-known material, thirty-eight short subjects total. This makes it more like a cinematic archaeological dig, the excavation of a sparkling cache of vintage cartoons.
As with the first five waves of Disney Treasures, a big appeal of this set is the presentation. All of the Treasures comes in a fancy tin. Crack it open, and it actually does feel like you're opening a treasure. The cartoons are spread over two DVDs, each clocking in at over two hours and containing two programs: the main collection of Silly Symphonies and the "From the Vault" program, a handful of shorts that were taken out of circulation for various reasons. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin is the host for the collection, introducing both discs as well as explaining the point of "From the Vault." For the main program, you can choose "Play All" and watch the cartoons in chronological order. You can also pick and choose from an alphabetically arranged menu. The chronological feature is best, letting you see the evolution of the series style from one cartoon to the next.
***DISC 1: Black-and-White Cartoons, 1929-1932***
The first DVD compiles black-and-white cartoons from the late '20s and early '30s. At this point in the series, the shorts are almost entirely musical. There are sound effects, but no real dialogue. The closest any of the cartoons gets to actual talking is the wailing tomcat in "The Cat's Out." The animation is also a little primitive. Most of the shots are done straight on, with very little as far as camera movement or odd angles. The camera doesn't zoom in, the characters usually move toward the viewer instead. This doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the cartoons. The initial animation crew included Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling, who first conceived of the Silly Symphonies. (He would later gain fame as the man behind the music in the Warner Bros. cartoons.) The staff was endlessly inventive, and the combination of image and music they achieved is a little bit hypnotic. You might sit down to watch one or two Silly Symphonies, but before you know it, you've watched the whole disc.
Most of the Silly Symphonies of this period are built around a single idea. For instance, there is one cartoon each for all four seasons. Sometimes the central idea can start with a setting, like "Arctic Antics" or the undersea activities of "Frolicking Fish." Then, of course, no comedy series would be complete without monkeys, leading to the jungle gags of "Monkey Melodies." As we learn in the commentaries, "Monkey Melodies" in particular practically requires an education in musical history. Its soundtrack is stitched together with popular songs featuring our primate relatives.
Actually, that's another important feature of the first several years of Silly Symphonies production: the scores are made up mostly of pre-existing material. "Hell's Bells" features both "Funeral March of a Marionette" (famous as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and the ubiquitous "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (known to film buffs as the song Peter Lorre whistles in Fritz Lang's M). "Night" uses pieces of the "Blue Danube" and "Rock-a-Bye Baby." Much of the other music is far more obscure these days, but likely more familiar at the time. The characters in the cartoons move in sync with the score, their dances and movements set to the rhythm of the orchestration. Often, too, parts of the songs are performed by the characters onscreen, using found objects rather than musical instruments.
As the series progressed, the cartoons moved from being a string of jokes to more complex narratives. "The Fox Hunt" starts to cross the line, still being gag-centric but focusing on a specific event, whereas "The Cat's Out" is a feline's extended dream sequence. "The Spider and the Fly" marks a noticeable transition in style and technique. It opens with the image of a fly on a flat surface, but as the camera pulls back, the picture rotates, and we realize we were viewing a bug on a ceiling, not on the floor. The camera is now a moving object, careening around the room. From there, we see more detailed backgrounds and movement, as well as a complete story, cliché as it may be. In it, two lovers are threatened to be separated by an evil, hungry spider, and eventually, the entire fly community teams up to rescue the lady insect from her captor's web.
The full list of cartoons on DVD 1:
FROM THE VAULT:
As Leonard Maltin explains in his introduction to the second run-through of "Cannibal Capers," the very end of the cartoon was cut off for when it was aired on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. I don't really think it was necessary to put the cartoon on here twice, as the restored ending (which is in really shoddy shape) is very brief, and is only the cannibals laughing at a lion's pain. I'm glad to see the original ending, but why not just show us the full version? It was such a small alteration, there is nothing to be gleaned from seeing the clipped version, and the self-censorship could have been covered in the commentary.
Naturally, the rest of the content of "Cannibal Capers" makes it pretty obvious why the 'toon was pulled from regular circulation. The African caricatures are pretty much the worst old school prejudice had to offer. Though, to be honest, from this evidence, Disney was far from the worst of the cartoon studios indulging in racial stereotypes. Their jokes rarely seem mean-spirited, just misguided. The other two shorts in the Vault on DVD 1 aren't actually that offensive at all. The drinking and semi-innuendo of "El Terrible Toreador" comes off as more scandalous than the Mexican town the cartoon portrays (it's a take-off of the opera Carmen), and am I missing something about "The Merry Dwarfs"? These are fairy-tale style little people, more like the elves that help the shoemaker than even the ones in Snow White. I somehow missed who the powers that be were worried they'd offend.
***DISC 2: Color Cartoons, 1932-1938***
When the Silly Symphonies series transitioned into Technicolor, they also increased the focus on story and the soundtracks became almost exclusively original music. They also got longer. "Queen of Spring" clocks in at nine minutes and thirty seconds.
Rather than just being music and sound effects, the shorts began to incorporate lyrics and dialogue. As an early example, "The Night Before Christmas" uses the traditional poem as the intro and the outro of the cartoon, and "Old King Cole" is like a mini-opera, with all the dialogue being sung. The narration of "Little Hiawatha," alternately, is completely spoken, not sung at all. (It also has no relation to the famous Longfellow poem.)
There are several notable cartoons on DVD 2. "Cock O' the Walk" is a classic loser vs. bruiser tale, once again reverting to just music for the battle between a couple of chickens and showcasing some excellent design work in executing elaborate Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers. "Moth and the Flame" tells a story similar to the old "Bugs in Love," but now with glorious color and an impressive lick of anthropomorphic fire. "Merbabies" is a little too cute for its own good, but it's distinctive for being a sequel to "Waterbabies" as well as, apparently, a rare feature animated by a studio outside the Disney system.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the elaborate retelling of the Persephone/Hades myth, "The Goddess of Spring." Released three years before Disney's first full-length animated film, Snow White, "Goddess of Spring" shows off the realistic style that would make that movie so revolutionary. Using different musical styles for the different planes of existence, the studio created a luscious vision of both Earth and Hell (the latter being the far more elaborate vision of the underworld than the first cartoon of the set, 1929's "Hell's Bells"). The character design and color palette is gorgeous, and the story suitably operatic.
The full list of cartoons on DVD 2:
FROM THE VAULT:
Once again, the Vault selections range from obvious to inexplicable. "Santa's Workshop" and "Broken Toys" both feature dolls that indulge in racial stereotypes, and the two kittens movies have an African American maid who speaks in the broken Southern dialect common of the black servants that regularly showed up on movie screens in the 1930s. Again, none of the four seem malicious, just outdated. Similarly, "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood," except for one scene (a gag with Katherine Hepburn in blackface), doesn't really play into stereotypes, it merely shows caricatures of African American performers from 1938, including Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. It's Stepin Fetchit that likely offends the most. This character may be accurately portrayed by the Disney animators, but he was little more than a stereotype to begin with, and he's so far out of fashion, most people no longer know the difference between the real figure and the negative image he's come to embody.
The most inexplicable here is probably "The China Shop." My guess is that the owner of the store is intended to be an old Jewish gentleman, and after an enchanting ballet of porcelain objects come to life, he figures out a way to sell them despite their battered appearance. If the folks at Disney see this as playing into negative Jewish stereotypes, I think they are being a tad too sensitive.
Far more obvious, and at times shocking, is "King Neptune." There are a variety of reasons that this cartoon, as entertaining as it is, isn't really suitable for showing on television regularly: the mermaids who are naked from the waist up, the bawdy pirates who get drunk and kidnap one of the mermaids for a lascivious purpose, and the overly effeminate gay pirate. Not your standard Disney fare, by any means.
Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies - Volume Two: 1929-1938 is an entertaining collection that shows the incredible progress the Disney studio made in ten short years. Begun as a simple coupling of image and sound, the line progressed into short, miniature operas that contained all the drama and humor of their longer counterparts. While some of the material is obviously dated, animation fans will enjoy seeing the evolution of the art form, and the overall entertainment value is as good as the pretty package it comes in.
And there are commentaries galore. There are nine in total on the main program of DVD 1, including two for "Bugs In Love," and commentaries for three of the five selections in "From the Vaults." On DVD 2, there are six from the main disc, five in "From the Vaults.
The full list of commentators are as follows, and all the people listed are authors and historians, unless otherwise noted:
Though individual commentators have a specific speaking style (Gerstein is pretty goofy) or a particular strength (Care speaks more about specific instruments and orchestral writing than the rest), the general information covered boils down to these categories:
The talks are all really interesting and create a larger framework to understand why the series existed and what made it successful.
Disc 2 has even more bonus material. "Silly Symphonies Rediscovered" is a documentary that chronicles the history of the series in just under fifteen minutes, and "Animators at Play" is two-minutes of "backstage" footage of Walt Disney and his animators playing baseball on their lunch break. Leonard Maltin narrates the black-and-white footage, pointing out who some of the participants are.
Finally, there are three galleries, one with backgrounds, character designs, and other formative drawings, and two with printed material related to Silly Symphonies: storybook pages and newspaper comic strips/comic books. The latter two are a little disappointing, as the actual images don't blow up large enough for them to be read.
In addition to the cool tin that all the Walt Disney Treasures come in, there are several other packaging extras. The DVDs themselves are in a double tray plastic case that slides into the tin. You also get a booklet with a rundown of disc contents and an essay by Leonard Maltin, a numbered certificate of authenticity (I got 6,648 out of 65,000; for what it's worth, the first Silly Symphonies collection had 150,000 units), and a collectible postcard reproducing one of the vintage posters advertising a cartoon in the set, "Summer."