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Disney Sundays: Melody Time (1948)

                Make no mistake, Melody Time is pretty much just a sequel to Make Mine Music. It also consists of a bunch of popular singers contributing songs to animated shorts. That being said Melody Time is what Make Mine Music should have been. It seems to focus more on telling stories through the music and the amount of shorts that do work make it more of a film worth seeing whole. It still has a couple that are just as bad as the worst of the previous film and that keeps it from being great, but as is, it’s a definite improvement.
                Melody Time is much less crowded than Make Mine Music, with only seven segments to it. This allows for three of them to be longer more developed stories. And these stories are told as stories split with musical numbers. Indeed there’s a range of song, poetry, and prose storytelling at work in this film across many of the segments. Buddy Clark is the host and transitional narrator, Francis Langford, Dennis Day, and Roy Rogers narrate these stories while the less significant segments are performed by Freddy Martin, the Andrews Sisters, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, and the Dinning Sisters.
I think part of what made this film work better was the addition of folk stories and music (which would carry on into the next Disney film). It gives a couple of the segments a bit more of an identity and the fact that it recurs gives the film an overall more consistent tone. I also like how a number of the segments feature the cartoons being drawn in front of us like in Saludos Amigos; though it doesn’t take as much advantage of the device as in that film, I don’t mind because hey, we’ve got some good segments to get to.
We’re off to a good start with “Once Upon a Wintertime”. It’s the only original story in this film and depicts a young couple as well as a parallel rabbit couple on a romantic afternoon in December. They go on a sleigh ride and go skating until disaster strikes. Despite that last part, it’s a nice light-hearted romp that’s pleasant to watch, especially around the holidays. It’s cute and pretty and romantic, the story’s simple but it works and Langford’s song is nice and sweet. A little later we have “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” which certainly has a few problems as it goes on a bit too long and the Johnny Appleseed song is annoying. I went to church as a kid and that song was always the go-to prayer for a youth group grace and had a way of irritatingly sticking in your head for hours. But objectively putting my distaste for that song aside, I realized this short wasn’t bad. It’s a romanticized version of the story of John Chapman the title figure of the song who followed the pioneers across the American Midwest planting apple trees. We see him encouraged to lay his apple seed, befriend the woodland animals (making him sort of the male equivalent of Snow White), we see the fruits of his labour as both colonials and natives come together over his apple trees, and his final days. And you really feel a sense of the pioneer atmosphere in this story by the animation of the geography and characters, the storytelling, and the music (with some additional song pieces). Johnny is actually a nice character and it’s worth following his story. It feels like a very good animated interpretation of a folk tale and takes you into that world reasonably well. I also liked Johnny’s guardian angel and how on his first appearance, speaking before appearing, it looked like the short was portraying God as a hill-billy. “Blame It on the Samba” reunites Donald Duck and Jose Carioca with the Aracuan Bird from The Three Caballeros, and though it sadly doesn’t deliver on a lot of the comedic possibilities that character implied in the earlier film, it’s a fun little piece. The Aracuan Bird introduces a depressed Donald and Jose to the samba in a drawn café. And so it’s mostly them dancing with some creative art. We do get a live action performer in Ethel Smith on the organ, but it’s very brief and not nearly as weird as in The Three Caballeros. She’s not the last live action performer we see in this film though.
                There are a few segments that are just okay. “Bumble Boogie” though creative and visually interesting doesn’t really go anywhere though it’s a nice experiment. It’s mostly following a bee trying to escape musical carnivorous plants. It’s a jazzy version of an opera piece which is an interesting idea, but a far cry from Fantasia. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” which is very short and visually nice. There’s just not enough of it to leave an impression. “Little Toot” on the other hand feels like it’s trying to be “Pedro” from Saludos Amigos but doesn’t have as interesting a story or animation. The concept of an anthropomorphic tugboat is a dumb one, with a child tugboat being sort of a reckless Dennis the Menace type who causes havoc and ruins his father’s job, having to redeem himself by the end. And it doesn’t do much to rise above its concept. It’s not really funny or interesting, but it’s not a waste. There are a few clever bits like the policemen boats, but overall it’s a segment in the film you can fast-forward. Also its’ name brings out the immature part of my brain.
                “Little Toot” though is just meh; the only bad segment of the film is the final one. But I think it’s bad enough to hold the whole film back a bit. “Pecos Bill” is the apocryphal Texan tale of the hero of the same name. Unfortunately this is the segment that feels it has to borrow from Fun and Fancy Free. Roy Rogers, Canadian Bob Nolan, and the Sons of the Pioneers are there in all their live-action glory enjoying a camp fire on a film set. They’re singing to two kids. Interestingly, the kids are played by child actors Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten who also played the main children in Song of the South, and Driscoll would go on to be the voice of Peter Pan. When it’s revealed the kids don’t know about Pecos Bill, Rogers enlightens them with the story of Bill’s rise and run-in with love (and I love Driscoll’s response, “Aw shucks, a woman!”). Basically it’s the story of The Jungle Book transplanted in the American west. An infant is lost and raised by coyotes (suckling at the wolf’s teat in true Reman and Romulan fashion). Rather than become a wild man, he becomes an unnaturally gifted cowboy. He rescues and befriends a horse called Widowmaker whom he eventually makes jealous when he falls in love with a cowgirl called Slue-Foot Sue. This story though imaginative and well animated is very dated. The controversial scene which is actually tame today that was cut in later releases, was Bill’s penchant for smoking. It’s not that bad though, especially on the heels of Jose Carioca and his cigar (no one seemed to care that he shot his pistols just as excessively, including as a metaphor for ejaculation –America!). The racist and sexist tones are what bother me. There’s a scene where Bill shoots up a camp of Native Americans for no reason and it’s presented as a cowboy ideal. But I think what’s worse is how Sue is treated. There’s a rivalry between her and Widowmaker but she really does nothing wrong. Because Widowmaker doesn’t like her though, she’s punished. Without giving away what happens to her in the climax, it is funny and the whole story is played as light-hearted and comical, but it feels just a little mean-spirited especially considering she never fought against the horse for Bill’s affection. Hell, Bill himself is depressed by the end, as you would be.
                But besides this poor conclusion, Melody Time is generally a good time. It works a lot better than Make Mine Music, with fewer shorts that can be more entertaining and have more character. The addition of a folk tale theme is nice, and it’s a film that’s worth watching even if you have to get through a couple mediocre shorts and one bad one. In fact being the last, you can just end it a short early. Check it out for yourself sometime and see if it’s worth it. As for the folk tale theme, I’m just eager for its continuation in Disney’s final package film!

Next Week: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

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