Wednesday, August 05, 2020

A Brilliant Cocktail of Ice Skates, Tugboats, Apples, and a Cowgirl

Disney must have learned from their mistakes in the previous two anthology films because 1948's Melody Time is a masterpiece. A series of flawless shorts present impeccable style, seemingly effortless comedy, and some powerful drama. It's a breathtaking feat in short form storytelling; a breakthrough in Disney's late 1940s, simpler visual style; and an astonishing example of keen storytelling instincts.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies.

Roy Rogers with his horse, Trigger, appears in live action to narrate the final tale to Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. With a singing group called the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers proves a perfect fit for the story of Pecos Bill, the "fakelore" figure created by writer Edward S. O'Reilly. With the genius for comedic timing of Disney's animators, Bill's improbable youth and tale tale feats are presented with appropriate rapidity and exaggeration, from his creation of the Rio Grande to the trademark Lone Star of Texas itself.

And I really need to commend Disney+ here. According to Wikipedia, "For the first time in 80 years, the uncut version with Pecos Bill's cigarette can now be seen on Disney+." Although it was available elsewhere in the world, for years the only available version of this short featured Bill's cigarette edited out of every shot, resulting in strange hand gestures and a drastically shortened runtime. But now it's all back, even Bill rolling a cigarette with his tongue and lighting it with a lightning bolt.

In addition to the pleasure of having these bits back in themselves, they also complete the patchwork of editing and animation, allowing the story to flow in its natural form. Bill, with his carefree embrace of solitude, danger, and unshakeable good nature, is a delightful, celebratory caricature of distinctively western American culture. The short also features one of the sexiest women of the Disney animated canon, as big in her way as all the natural phenomena Bill encountered before.

"When down the stream comes Slue Foot Sue, with all her charms revealed to view." Meaning her anachronistic panties, I suppose. Her fate is sadly determined by the bustle she decides to wear when attempting to tame Bill's horse, the second time Melody Time mines comedy gold from women's undergarments.

The first short, Once Upon a Wintertime, is a gentle romantic story with a song performed by Frances Langford.

A boy and girl ice skating are mirrored by a pair of rabbits in the same relationship. The unambiguous correlation drawn between human relationships and the natural order is very cute. The poor young woman keeps tipping over, though, due to an overabundance of petticoats, leading to a petty argument and the lass storming off unwisely to thin ice.

I love how all the backgrounds change to dark and twisted trees as she and the female rabbit find themselves in peril. Once again, the whole natural world harmonises with the drama between the boy and girl.

Two pure style animated music videos are included in the film, Bumble Boogie and Trees. Bumble Boogie, with Freddy Martin providing a jazz interpretation of Flight of the Bumblebees, is by far the stronger as we watch a poor panicked bee tumble his way through a nightmare of erratic shapes and instruments.

Trees is gorgeous but, being based on the not terribly brilliant poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, here set to music, it doesn't quite hold up.

Little Toot, the story of an anthropomorphised tugboat, would be captivating just for the bizarre mingling of human traits with tugboats. But it's also a story with real tension and drama as the young tugboat causes a real, impressive disaster at the beginning, putting a lot of dramatic weight on his adventure to redeem himself. The Andrews Sisters provide perfect musical accompaniment.

The biggest surprise of the film may be the very simple Legend of Johnny Appleseed. Dennis Day provides narration and voices for an animated interpretation of the legend around John Chapman, the American pioneer. It's hard to explain why this short is so touching but there's something really charming about how unswerving Johnny is in his gentle affection for life and his weird enthusiasm for planting apple trees. He has the pathos of a beloved windup toy and its genuinely a bit heartbreaking when he resists death entirely so he can keep on planting trees.

There's all this and there's a callback short to Donald Duck's South American films. Blame It on the Samba finds Donald reunited with Jose Carioca and the Aracuan Bird as they dance to the music of, and vie for the affections of, organist Ethel Smith.

Any one of these shorts is a treasure. As a whole, Melody Time is a delightful way to spend an evening.

Melody Time is available on Disney+.

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The welcome spiders ran and slept at home.
Remembered hats were placed on drying skulls.
A careful felt was sculpted like the dome.
The dress's cloud was painted 'cross the bowls.
The spinning wheel would sample diff'rent mud.
The sloping hill would puzzle walking up.
The watching spirit swam through burning blood.
The tap supplied a waiting wooden cup.
Upholstered chairs convened to judge a couch.
When time decides the cake was cut in fives.
The mountains cop a big collective slouch.
With soda hands we touched across the hives.
The handle broke and rainy clouds descend.
The books of air with gusted leaves append.

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