Silly Symphonies, 1929–1935like
Essay by Richard Hildreth
When Mickey Mouse whistled his way to fame in 1928, Walt Disney achieved the recognition he’d sought since making advertising films in Kansas City seven years earlier. Although Steamboat Willie wasn’t the first cartoon to use a synchronized soundtrack, it represented a new level of technical sophistication.
While the success of Mickey Mouse was convincing other animation studios to buy sound equipment, Disney’s fellow Missourian Carl W. Stalling suggested an idea for a cartoon combining music with action: animation as choreography. Although inventive, the mouse cartoons, apart from the novelty of sound, were virtually indistinguishable from the host of gag-centered shorts featuring circle-and-squiggle characters derived from Felix the Cat, still the world’s reigning cartoon star. Blending music with the visual illusion of animation was the next step on Disney’s path to success. This new alloy would be called Silly Symphonies.
Stalling had been a theater organist at Kansas City’s Isis Theater. Like most movie accompanists, Stalling borrowed snatches of popular tunes, classical melodies, and folk songs to match the emotional cues of the films he scored daily. When Disney started his first Hollywood operation—the Alice live-action/animation series—in 1924, Stalling loaned the aspiring director $275. In 1928, when Disney was struggling to finish Steamboat Willie as a talkie, he tapped Stalling to score the film. Disney was excited when Stalling suggested the idea for Skeleton Dance (1929), writing to his brother and business partner Roy: “Carl’s idea of the ‘Skeleton Dance’ for a Musical Novelty has been growing on me.”
The grim imagery of Skeleton Dance is rooted in La danse macabre, a medieval European allegory about the inevitability of death. Dancers and puppeteers borrowed the imagery for performance material. The American Mutoscope Company produced an early film version with a costumed dancer in 1897. Thomas Edison’s company filmed a marionette show version the following year. As a child, Stalling was intrigued by an advertisement promising a dancing skeleton puppet for 25 cents. Ub Iwerks, who animated the entire cartoon almost single-handedly, drains the images of any gruesome qualities by making the skeletons more comical than creepy.
The most important innovation in The Skeleton Dance is that the musical score and the animated action were planned, designed, and executed in unison. Stalling composed the score first, then Iwerks animated the film to match the meter and melody. Stalling, an accomplished film accompanist, was accustomed to playing his organ in time with motion pictures; now he was able to make the movies match his music.
For Steamboat Willie, harmonica-playing animator Wilfred Jackson had developed a mathematical system of animating to a timed rhythm. Disney made marks—a bouncing ball—on a work print of the film to provide a visual representation of the rhythm.
Stalling made the next development assuring precise pacing of animation and music: a metronomic rhythm supplied via headphones to musicians, matching the visual rhythm used by the animators. Called a “click track,” this device is used today in most recording sessions.
The music in Skeleton Dance is built around refrains from March of the Dwarfs, composed in 1891 by Norwegian Edvard Grieg. Hell’s Bells uses bars from Mendelssohn’s Spring Song (1843) and Fingal’s Cave (1832), plus Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (1876). Stalling continued to use this technique after he left Disney. His pastiche scoring style became the way many Americans were introduced to classical music. He scored most of the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons from 1936 to 1958.
Screenings of Skeleton Dance with first-run features in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York led to a nationwide distribution deal for Disney with Columbia Pictures. The first Silly Symphony went into general release with a return engagement at New York’s Roxy on September 7, 1929.
Disney had already learned some difficult business lessons. Laugh-O-gram Films, his first animation company, had gone bankrupt in 1923 after one year in Kansas City, prompting his move to Hollywood. The success of the Alice comedies, featuring a live-action girl inserted into a cartoon world, led to the creation of his first trademark character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1927. To his regret, Disney learned in 1928 that Oswald’s trademark belonged not to him, but to the films’ distributor, when that same distributor hired away nearly all of Disney’s staff animators, with the exception of Iwerks. Intent on remaining independent, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, then struggled to find a distributor, finally signing with the third-rate Celebrity Productions company. This time, Disney made sure he controlled the rights to the character.
Loyal though Iwerks was, working with Disney was never easy. Disney began dividing the functions of cartoon production and occasionally chastised Iwerks for not delegating tasks to junior staff. In a repeat of Disney’s previous business trauma, Celebrity Productions hired Iwerks away when its agreement with Disney was due for renewal in late 1929. Iwerks traded his one-fifth share of the Disney company for $2,920. (That share would be worth nearly $418 million today). Stalling, uncertain of the studio’s future and fed up with Disney’s increasingly martinet-like leadership style, left at the same time as Iwerks.
The difference this time was that Disney controlled the rights to Mickey Mouse, who had replaced Felix the Cat as the most popular cartoon character in the world. He also had a distribution deal with an increasingly important studio, and the most technically innovative and artistically advanced cartoon series to date: Silly Symphonies.
Disney’s practice of dividing the labor of animating films into factory-like assembly lines enabled him to survive the defections of Iwerks and Stalling. He promoted animators who seemed to be competent organizers and leaders to the position of directors then established constant rotation of creative teams, ensuring a free flow of ideas and preventing the development of close personal alliances among his employees. New composer Frank Churchill generated entirely original music, freeing Disney from the expense of buying rights to popular songs. Creativity flowed from this system, leading to the development of true character animation with The Ugly Duckling (1931).
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable, The Ugly Duckling is the first time a cartoon actually explores character development. Although the drawing style is still simple, the main character suffers the kinds of emotions that will become the core of Disney's later feature films. Rejected by his “family” of chickens, the duckling loathes the reflection he sees in a pond. Narratively, this is a great leap beyond simplistic schtick such as Minnie Mouse breaking her fall from an airplane by making a parachute of her bloomers, or Felix the Cat using his breakaway tail as a magic wand.
The Silly Symphonies continually broke new ground in animation. Flowers and Trees (1932) challenged not only Disney’s fellow animators but filmmakers in general, by making the first successful use of the controversial and expensive three-strip Technicolor process.
The public did not like the muddy hues of films made with two-strip Technicolor. The December 17, 1930, issue of Variety used Warner Brothers’ Gold Diggers of Broadway (1930) as an example of the high costs of two-strip Technicolor: black-and-white release prints of the feature would have cost $63,000; the Technicolor prints totaled $451,000. The public dissatisfaction, combined with the astronomical costs, led studios to abandon Technicolor. In 1930, 14 feature films were made in Technicolor from start to finish; another 20 contained Technicolor sequences. During 1931, only six features were released in Technicolor.
Technicolor’s 1932 answer to this decline was even more expensive. The new three-strip process provided much more accurate color representation but also demanded more exacting mechanics and processing. It was a desperate move. Technicolor’s annual revenue had fallen to $500,000, from a high of $5 million in 1929. Only the Disney studio was willing to experiment with the new process.
Disney, who was the first cartoon producer to compel his staff to take art lessons, added color theory to the curriculum. The Disney-developed color palette became the model that Technicolor used in designing films for the next four decades. Flowers and Trees was met with amazement at its July, 15, 1932, opening at Grauman's Theater in Los Angeles. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave a special Oscar to Technicolor for its “color cartoon process,” another to Disney himself for the creation of Mickey Mouse, and the first Oscar for a cartoon short to the studio for Flowers and Trees. A Disney film won that category for the next seven years.
The founder of Technicolor, Herbert Kalmus, addressing the Society of Motion Picture Engineers in 1938, said of Disney’s use of Technicolor, “Now I will ask you how much more did it cost Mr. Disney to produce that entertainment in color than it would have in black and white? The answer is, of course, that it could not be done at any cost in black and white.”
By the time the final Silly Symphony, a color remake of The Ugly Duckling, was released in April 1939, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had proven that animation could be used to tell dramatic stories in feature-length films. During the decade of Silly Symphonies, Disney and his various collaborators had transformed animated films from novelties to true cinema. Disney himself would say of the entertainment empire that bears his name, “It all started with a mouse.” But without the dancing skeletons, demons, spiders, saxophones, cellos, ducklings, and other denizens of the Silly Symphonies, Disney, and cartoons in general, might have remained gag-oriented diversions, instead of a genuine art form.