Melody Time (1948) Review
What do I know about the film?
The aim with ‘Melody Time’ was to create a more contemporary version of ‘Fantasia’ So…Pretty much just ‘Make Mine Music 2: Electric Boogaloo’ but with a bit more folk music thrown in there for good measure. You know the drill by now: No money, no staff, no genius. The Disney studio were spent. One critic watching ‘Melody Time’ expressed genuine astonishment that the people who created this were the same folk behind ‘Pinocchio.’ But here is the kicker: Nobody remembers these films. Disney got away with their fall from grace cause the best was yet to come.
But until then…
Did I see it as a child?
No. Some shorts from this era were released on VHS in the 80’s and 90’s and I think my Gran and Granddad had a couple of them, but I did not recognise any of the sequences from ‘Melody Time.’ The only one I had vaguely heard of was ‘Johnny Appleseed,’ and even then I am not sure why.
Oh, it is section time! It’s section time! Won’t you all…be patient. 2 Reviews and then ‘Cinderella.’ Please hang in there.
1) Once Upon a Wintertime: A couple are in love and it is winter. Romance etc. Sung by Frances Langford.
2) Bumble Boogie: A contemporary version of that classical piece ‘the flight of the bumblebee’ in which a bee gets pursued by some musical notes. It is swing-jazz performed by Freddy Martin and his orchestra and was going to be in ‘Fantasia’ until it wasn’t.
3) The Legend of Johnny Appleseed: Pretty much what it says on the tin. The story of a pioneer who was well into apples and God. Dennis Day narrates.
4) Little Toot: The Andrews Sisters are back (remember them? From the hat love story?) to sing about the adventures of a little tugboat.
5) Trees: Yep. It has come to this. A poem about trees by Alfred Kilmer, set to music performed by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians with some animation of some trees. Nobody was even TRYING to pretend the magic of Disney was still alive huh?
6) Blame it on the Samba: Oh God…Donald Duck, Jose and Aracuan Bird are back. Let’s go back to the trees. Trees, amirightguys?
7) Pecos Bill: Wow. Roy Rogers and Trigger? I have actually heard of them! They tell a story to the two awful kids from ‘Song of the South’ (the little girl was also in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ Hadn’t she suffered enough Walt?) about a cowboy, his horse and the girl he fell in love with.
I am not going to lie. The line up didn’t look promising. However…
None of it is terrible. Except the first bit. But I will get to that. For the most part all of the sections are creative, succinct, and enjoyable. Even the one about trees. Nobody was more surprised than me.
First of all: A shout out to the music explainer, listed in the credits as the Master of Ceremonies. His name was Buddy Clarke, which is a fine name. He was much more tolerable than Deems Taylor and not as charming as Sterling Holloway so therefore was the narrator this film deserved: Well done Buddy. You did an average job. And I appreciate that.
Flight of the Bumblebee feels like it got lost on its way to ‘Fantasia’ (Edit note: It did!) but I empathised with the poor little bee trying to escape the hell of the war films. Right there with you…Look at that. We’re war buddies. There are some cool bits of animation like flowers as musical instruments, a caterpillar as a piano and musical notes falling likes axes. It was nice to see some honest to God effort put in to both the art and the music.
Here was a pleasant surprise: Both Trees and Blame it on the Samba were not as hateful as I was expecting. When the both started I had my nails in my face ready to draw blood.
When Trees was introduced with ‘There’s poetry in trees they say…’ I could only assume it had been sent to try me. My notepad literally just read: ‘AHHHHHHHHHH’ at the thought of having to sit through a cartoon about the poetry of trees. So with my expectations that low it is a good thing Trees turned out to be very pretty to look at even if the singers, with their warbling and crooning, were distracting and terrible. The animation was all lush like ‘Bambi’ and the storm section looked nice, especially the rain. It isn’t special but it is nice. Nice biscuits. Remember those? I might go buy some later. So while the singers can fuck right off, I have to admit…I would watch the animation sequence again.
In fact I just watched it again only I turned off the Warbling Idiots and played ‘Mountain Sound’ by Of Monsters and Men over it and if I do say so myself it worked very nicely and, even though the song was an arbitrary choice, the timing was nearly perfect. Well done me. Am I a film editor now?
New career options aside, my heart sank to see Donald (I should have been tipped off by his appearance on the front of the DVD,) Jose and that annoying laughing bird again. How bad had things gotten at Disney that they were now using edited scenes from their own films made up of edited scenes? But Donald and Jose don’t get any lines at all and the beat of the song is dam good.
Donald Duck is pretty sad at the beginning. I guess he has come down hard from his drug frenzy in ‘Caballeros’ But all he needs is another high. Because of course Disney can’t show South American music without pairing it with some trippy scenes. In this case we get rainbow colours in a brandy glass with a woman named Ethel playing an organ. And there are bubbles. And for some reason the annoying laughing cock-faced bird is determined to kill her but we don’t know why.
There is one moment where the bird puts his hands over her eyes in a ‘guess who?’ gesture and then he runs off but…his hands are left over her eyes. It is pretty freaky and if I ever make a horror film with a monster in it I will have a scene where that happens. So just as I was starting to get really irritated by the laughing bird the cartoon ended. Surprisingly painless and groovy? Maybe this film isn’t…the worst thing that has ever happened! Let’s Samba!
So in their ongoing quest to try and make everything cute, Disney made a little story about a tugboat who wants to be like his Papa but who makes a mess of everything he does. Much like Pedro the Plane from ‘Saludos Amigos’ this is from the ‘machines somehow procreate but don’t think too hard about it’ school of cartoons. The Andrews Sisters sing well and it is quite charming although not as good as the Hat Love Story from ‘Make Mine Music’ as it is all a little predictable. He does something he shouldn’t despite being told to behave and slow down, in song no less, and he gets punished for it and his Father is demoted. But then he saves a ship from harm and therefore is let back into the bosom of his boat family and declared a hero.
I hate these kinds of lessons because they are flawed. The song ends with the Sisters singing about how Little Toot has finally grown up. No he hasn’t. He got one thing right and the only reason he was there to save that boat was because he had monumentally fucked up in the first place. In the scene that leads to him being banished he enthusiastically tries to steer a ship and it ends up somehow colliding with some buildings. So Little Toot is a murderer. Fact. He is an adorable little terrorist. So how exactly does that work? If I shoot someone but then straight after save his cat from a high ledge, am I a hero? No. Little Toot didn’t grow up! He didn’t!!!! HE LEARNED NOTHING!!!
Putting aside my outrage about the fickleness of cartoon morality and the inevitable three act plot of every coming of age story ever, Little Toot stands out as being one of the best shorts in ‘Melody Time’ as it is easily the most enjoyable. Join in now…’Chug-a-chug-chug-chug-chug-Whoo! Whoo!’
The final cartoon is all about a famous cowboy and has some funny/awful moments that walk the line between amusingly old school and just plain nasty. Plus it has Roy Rogers, his horse Trigger and his buddies the Sons of the Pioneers in it. If you have not heard of Roy Rogers…Well…His Wiki entry actually lists him as a ‘cowboy actor’ that is how famous he was for his persona. He was a marketing brand that has endured in American entertainment even though he has been dead since I was born. And I was surprised to see him show up in Disney. While his cameo is transparently designed to get people to the cinema and is fairly cringey for that reason, (why are the kids from ‘Song of the South’ calling him ‘Uncle?’ Why is it that famous actors showing up in things always have to be distantly related to the child performers in case we get the impression he has fathered illegitimate kidlings? Wait, I just answered my own question) here is the thing: The song that introduces this section is really nice. Complete with pleasant harmonies, Coyote howling/whistling sound effects and authentically old timey folk lyrics. ‘Blue Shadows’ successfully pulled me into the story. It works even better as a coda, as the ending of the cartoon is, like with ‘Make Mine Music,’ pretty bittersweet and melancholy. The emotional pitch is just right.
The cartoon itself, about Pecos Bill the badass cowboy, is pretty hit and miss…Like Johnny Appleseed and the stupid Winter one…So onwards to…
What Doesn’t Work:
Pecos Bill falls off the back of a wagon as a baby and subsequently ends up ‘homeless as a poker chip’ according to the story. What does this mean? If anyone can explain, I would appreciate it. So he is alone in the wild and ends up being raised by animals not unlike Mowgli in ‘ The Jungle Book,’ and the scene where he is brought in as a Coyote is an obvious precursor to that particular Disney champion (We have a long way to go before we reach that film I’m afraid) There is a slightly off putting moment where we see Pecos Bill go for the Coyote teat along with her cubs. While we don’t actually see him feed we see Mama Coyote react to it…She likes it. It’s creepy.
But the discomfort doesn’t end there…Think about it people. Cowboys. In a Disney story. What do we need to have? You can do this. Think about it…I will wait.
Time’s up: The answer is ‘Injuns.’ Or Indians. I’ll bet you just clenched up a bit didn’t you? Yep. Of course it wouldn’t be a story about a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy without a healthy dollop of intolerance. And talk of ‘red skins.’ Keep it classy, Disney. Although, thankfully, they don’t linger on this long. Unlike…
The sexism in this film is distractingly awful, even by Disney standards. When Roy Rogers suggests he tells the children about ‘Pecos Bill’ and the woman he fell in love with the boy responds with ‘Awww shucks! A woman in the story?’ Lovely. Because women are not as fun/interesting/worthy of having stories written about them as white men am I right???
Ok, ok, you might say: He is a very young boy. Very young boys often don’t like girls. And while that is not a behaviour I would encourage in a son of mine, I suppose it is hardly fair to condemn a child for moaning about his cowboy story having a girl in it. Especially seeing as it is in the script.
No, it is the reply that annoyed me. The young lad is assured that the girl in the story is exceptionally pretty. So…Women are allowed to be in stories if they are attractive? Not just attractive actually, but traffic stopping. Awesome. Thanks Disney and indeed ALL films. Thanks for that.
STILL think I am overreacting??? Ok…When we are introduced to Bill’s lady love, Sue, she is riding a fish. We get several shots of her struggling to control the fish and she is wearing a very short skirt and we can see her pants. The narrative voice then informs us that the cowboy falls in love because the girl appears ‘with all her charms revealed to view’ Eww. Kids film guys. Kids film. Impressionable young minds. So far what have we learned about girls?
1. They shouldn’t be in stories unless…
2. They are pretty and you can see their pants.
The horse is not impressed as he does not want Bill to be in love with a red head who flashes her knicks. So the wedding day roles around…Up until this point the plot has been annoying me by turns skeezy and overly whimsical. I wasn’t expecting what happens next. I will spare you the details but the horse basically murders Sue by shooting her to the moon. And while I wish these package films would all be shot to the fucking moon I have to say it is a cool answer to the question: Why do coyotes howl at the moon? Turns out they do it over solidarity grief for a red headed girl who fucked with the wrong horse. Sleep well children!
So the uneven, over long, sexist, racist cartoon ‘Pecos Bill’ was heavily edited when it was re-released. This does not surprise me. What does surprised me is the length, racism, and sexism remained in tact. Only the moments where Bill is smoking a cigarette are edited out. Leaving him moving his hands to his face for no reason in a lot of scenes. Because if we have learned anything from the last few films it is that nothing is worse than smoking. Smoking: The reason Hitler nearly won.
I am not going to say much about Johnny Appleseed. It is ok. There is a bit of Bible bashing going on throughout, although it is more like Bible poking. It is not too in your face but still pretty obnoxious. A shot of the good book here and there, Johnny always singing about how the ‘Lard’ is good to him. I think he means Lord but who am I to tell him what to worship? Then when Johnny is done doing the Lard’s work we see him ACTUALLY depart his ‘mortal husk’ and leave his dead body behind so he can go on planting apple trees in heaven. Yeesh.
This is the second film in this era along with ‘Make Mine Music’ where there is talk of heaven and angels and death is shown to be a thing that happens but not a disaster. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Disney kept sliding in these little messages about how we mustn’t panic about The End and that it is just another unknown. There was a war going on. I don’t have anything more profound to say. Maybe people needed to hear more than ever that there was more to life than life.
The only moments of ‘Melody Time’ I truly hated were the intro and the first short. The title song was performed by some warbling crooner inviting me to swing along with them to a ‘happy land of song’ I am not going to lie, it sounded like he was making the lyrics up as he went along. Seriously look it up. He is just winging it. It is terrible and it made me afraid for what I was about to see. When I was watching it the screen froze 2 minutes and 55 seconds in just as the introduction was ending and the film was beginning and I breathed an audible sigh of relief, believing the film was over already.
Then we have ‘Once Upon a Wintertime’ which features the grown up version of Peter from ‘Peter and the Wolf’ (same clothes and everything) and a woman wearing an impractically large skirt. They are on a sleigh ride and are being offensively in love. At first it seems like the whole oddly drawn cartoon is just going to be this and I wrote down: ‘there better be conflict or so help me…’ Be careful what you wish for.
They go to play on the ice. Grown up Peter makes pretty ice patterns by being skilled at ice skating. Betty Big Skirt does the same but not because she is talented but because she can’t control her feet. There is a matching bunny couple which is sweet at first…but then Grown Up Peter laughs at Betty Big Skirt when she fails to ice skate competently and she storms off in a huff as does Girl Bunny. Women ruin all the fun. And of course they can’t read and stroll past the ‘Danger Ice’ sign and need rescuing.
Betty Big Skirt is so overwhelmed she swoons back on the fast moving ice and accepts her death while many critters take to the water to save her. I hated it. I hated every patronising, sexist, silly, oddly drawn (the ice looks nice, but ice always looks nice when animated the people look crap) smug moment of it. It is a good thing the film got better because after ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ I wasn’t sure I could sit through another film that bad.
Having said that, at least I felt passion for ‘Fun and Fancy Free.’ This film had me thinking about Nice biscuits and how I would direct a monster movie. Not a great sign. Even their controversy, the smoking thing, had already been addressed with Goofy in ‘Saludos Amigos.’ Think about that. Everything that people talk about in regards to ‘Melody Time’ is a hand me down. Even IMDB lists this as the film that used to include ‘The Martins and the Coys’ which isn’t true. That was ‘Make Mine Music.’ ‘Melody Time’ is so indistinct people mix it up with the other ‘Fantasia’ lite film. ‘Melody Time’ is not remotely notorious and there is a reason for that: There is nothing to get excited about here. Even the sexism, while irritating, is only worth noting because there is so little else to discuss. None of the shorts really, truly captured my heart. I enjoyed them more than I was expecting but is that really praise worth noting?
It is difficult to get passionate about a film this average. I assure you that even if you find a human person who watched ‘Melody Time’ as a kid and therefore has retained warmth for it, it will not be their favourite Disney film. It is not possible to like this film the most, or hate it the worst. The legacy of ‘Melody Time’ will forever be that it was simply made. Now let us never speak of it again.
OK we can speak of it one more time: Despite a rough start I enjoyed most of the cartoons well enough although I did not love a single one. As package films go it wasn’t a rough ride but as entertainment goes? This is about as middle of the road as it gets.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 7
Scary masks come to life in the intro, the trumpets have eyes, a bear has glowing red eyes, watching a man depart his body without realising, a chained and crying tugboat being dragged away from his home, buoys with evil faces telling the tugboat he is a ‘bad boy,’ and playing guess who with removable hands.
‘Blue Shadows’ appealed to me as an enthusiastic folk song fan. Sure it is American folk rather than Celtic and it ain’t no ‘House of the Rising Sun’ but it did a great job setting up the atmosphere of the story and making me pine for my non-existent cowboy past.
Next Time: The last package/war film! Huzzah! And what is it…Wait. Stop. What? Disney adapted both ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Wind in the Willows’ and I have not heard of either of them??? That can’t be good…The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949)