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Walt Disneys Silly Symphonies Analysis Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2540 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Walt Disney, arguably one of the twentieth century’s greatest story tellers, found his voice in the 1930’s. Following from the success of the Mickey Mouse shorts, the Disney Studio began the production of the Silly Symphonies, a series that reworked fairy tales and nursery wisdom; reviving the classics in the hope of producing an animated feature. Mickey Mouse was Disney’s superstar and occasional alter-ego. Steamboat Willie (1928) had made the studio a cut above his rivals but Disney’s new project would take the spectator far beyond Mickey and into a new universe more daring and original that would make the studio not only influential but border line serious art. Taking from various sources such as paintings, magazine illustrations, films and posters, the Silly Symphonies ‘fed the swelling stream of sentimental modernism at the Disney Studio, blending the fantastic and the real, the irrational and sentimental, magic and empiricism, highbrow and lowbrow culture’ (Watts, 2002: 111).

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The Silly Symphonies allowed the spectator to enter a fantastic world of nature, fairy-tales and metamorphoses, providing escapism full of colour and movement, free from history and repression. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a great admirer of Disney’s early Silly Symphonies and the features up until Bambi (david hand, 1941). In his unfinished papers he discussed the work of the Walt Disney Studio between 1928 and 1941. Eisenstein’s fascination with Disney animation is based on the “fantastical, alogical order in which it is possible to:

‘achieve a mastery and supremacy in the realm of freedom from the shackles of logic, from the shackles in general… (Disney) gives us prescriptions from folkloric, mythological, prelogical thought – but always rejecting, pushing aside logic, brushing aside logistic, formal logic, the ‘logical case” (cited in O.Moore, 2002:125).

The Silly Symphonies allowed the animators to try out new techniques and ideas with the two most important being the ability to squash and stretch giving the animators freedom to exaggerate their characters actions and expressions but also to create believability in such a way that the audiences accepted the distortions in a characters shape. Eisenstein was attracted to the elasticity of the animated cartoon and fascinated by the ever changing contours defining it as “plasmaticness,” ‘a rejection of once and forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form’ (Leyda, 1988:21) Disney was not the first to experiment with form. French animator and auteur, Emile Cohl had produced Fantasmagorie in 1908. Lasting two minutes, the hand of an artist draws a clown which shape shifts into a myriad of images, for fantastic or comic effect, invoking an optical amusement for both young and old. The hand of the artist illustrates the advantage of working in animation, with the characters obeying to the transformation at the nudge of the animator. Eisenstein writes that it is the sight of omnipotence that makes the image so appealing as it holds the ability to become ”whatever you wish’… turning stable forms into forms of mobility. (Leyda, 1988: 21)

Eisenstein frequently focused on the Silly Symphony, Merbabies (1938) in which the metamorphoses and juxtapositions of the characters are central to the short. He exclaims:

‘A striped fish in a cage is transformed into a tiger and roars with the voice of a lion or panther. Octopuses turn into elephants. A fish – into a donkey. A departure from one’s self from once and forever prescribed norms of nomenclature, form and behaviour. Here, it’s overt. In the open. And of course, in comic form.’ (Griffin 56)

Eisenstein delighted in watching inanimate objects and animals metamorphose in shape and substance and then used for purposes other than intended. Whereas Emile Cohl transformed one object into another, Disney demonstrated the humanisation of inanimate objects. Whilst still maintaining their properties, the animals were able to think and behave like humans. What was once a tall building is now a building swooping down to avoid an oncoming plane, a tree’s branch becoming a long bony arm.

Not only had Eisenstein recognised the greatness of the Silly Symphonies but so had America. From 1930, Silly Symphonies won an Academy Award every year for their cartoon shorts laying the stepping stones for his feature length films. The shorts looked toward experimenting with sound, music and image, focusing less on gags but evoking mood and emotion. An analysis in Stage magazine described the Silly Symphonies as,

‘”a rare kind of art” wherein musical and pictorial elements came together as a seamless whole. With the music in a “Bach chorale or a Mozart symphony…from the smoothness and precision of the lucid thing you hear, you are not aware of the formidable equipment of harmonics, counterpoint, and pure mathematics that its composer had to possess. So with les oeuvres Disney’ (Watts, 2002:123). With another critic observing, ‘not until a couple of years ago were you ever permitted to see and hear a six-legged spider pounding out Schubert’s “Liebestraum” or a baby grand piano or a pelican rattling off the Anvil chorus from “Il Travatore” on the bony skeleton of a giraffe…or Mickey playing a xylophone solo on a set of false teeth…’ (Watts, 2002:74)

The Silly Symphonies expressed music without specific or recurring characters, with the action of inanimate objects or anthropormorphic animals moving in synchronisation with the music. Many of the shorts were built around a community of non-human creatures, joyful and celebratory, glorifying rural life in opposition to the oppressions of the big city. Russell Merritt notes that ‘Disney himself was simply adapting the formulas of American marionette theatre, which in turn had been influenced by turn-of-the-century fairyland operettas and stage musicals….Nor can the drawing, based on the style of American illustrators like Harrison Cady, W.W. Denslow…be considered original art. But in the world of commercial American cartoons, no one had seen anything like it’ (Kaufman, 2006:6). Working on board with Disney was the extremely talented animator, Ubbe Iwerks and composer and music director, Carl Stalling. It was Stalling who came up with the original idea for their first ‘Silly’ titled, The Skeleton Dance (1929). Entirely animated by Iwerks in black and white, and inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and gothic illustrators, The Skeleton Dance invites the spectator to an abandoned graveyard. The haunting visuals alert the spectator; the widening eyes of a terrified owl, a full moon, wind blowing whilst the owl shivers and hoots, expanding and shrinking. A branch from a tree swoops down, looking like a long, thin witch’s arm. Bats fly from the belfry into the camera, a spider appears and crawls away, a dog howls, two cats bicker; spitting and sparring until out of the grave comes a skeleton.

Atmospherics and mood is created with the visuals being accented by the music. Symbolic of a Halloween night (and later used as the inspiration for Disney World’s Haunted Mansion) the images fright as well as amuse and approach horror and death in a comical way. Styled like a comic vaudeville routine, the skeleton bubbles with charisma. Metamorphosing in a comedic manner and dancing the Charleston, the skeletons dance in perfect synchronisation with Stalling’s score. ‘What distinguished Stallings scores were their playful, often brilliant comic non-sequiturs: a radically disjunctive mingling of serious music with cakewalks, ragtime, and soft shoes….the symphonies revelled in a musical openness ahead of its time, a non-hierarchical approach, in which all genres of music were considered equal- all joyfully embraced, nothing sacred.’ (Kaufman, 2006:8)

As early as 1930, Paul Rotha wrote, “To many writers at the moment, the Disney cartoons are the most witty and satisfying productions of modern cinema. Their chief merit lies in their immediate appeal to any type of audience, simply because they are based on rhythm. They have been compared with the early one reelers of Chaplin, and the way in which they appeared unheralded, gradually to achieve an international acceptance is not unlike that of the great comedian’s early work.” (Kaufman, 2006:8)

In contrast to The Skeleton Dance and with the new frontier of Technicolor (the new three-colour process for film), Flowers and Trees (1932) presented a moralistic story about good triumphing over evil (a common theme within the Disney films). As morning breaks, nature awakes from its slumber. The trees stretch their branches and yawn, the flowers awake; some brush their teeth, others perform their daily exercises. The mushrooms pop out from beneath the ground. The female tree has leaves like feather bowers and uses white flowers to powder her nose. The old tree stump is dark and grey with crows nesting in his broken branches. As he yawns, bats fly from his mouth. The male tree pulls at some reeds to play the harp, another tree conducts as the birds sing along.

Flowers and Trees pays homage to traditional culture. The magical story is accompanied by the music of Schubert, Rossini and Mendelssohn. These films work to the classical narrative of a heterosexual romance with a celebration of the community or courtship. There is a conflict, a kidnapping of some sort with the climax of the male protagonist duelling and saving the day with harmony being restored. Rather than the bleakness of the crowded city street, animation allows an attractiveness, a transformed world, free from restrictions, restrain and control, inviting a new freedom. Eisenstein comments that ‘Disney’s works themselves strike me as the same kind of drop of comfort, an instant of relief, a fleeting touch of lips in the hell of social burdens, injustices and torments, in which the circle of his American viewers is forever trapped. (Leyda, 1988:7) This was not only for children but for anyone of any age proving that cartoons can appeal to both intellect and imagination.

The Silly Symphonies were more original and more progressive and caused a revolution in the animated cartoon industry. Out of the 210 (find ref) Silly Symphonies, only some are remembered if at all, with only a few remaining famous. Shorts such as The Three Little Pigs, The Old Mill, Flowers and Trees and The Skeleton Dance are the most recognised with only the Big Bad Wolf and Donald Duck remaining well-known Symphony characters. ‘Disney’s films were then a lyrical, limitlessly imaginative revolt against the disciplinary regimes of the capital, against the big grey wolf who “in America is behind every corner, behind every counter, on the heels of every person” especially those of the working class.’ (James, 2005:271)

As time passed by and the Disney Company expanded, Disney finally betrayed Eisenstein’s notions of ‘utopian promise in the medium’ (James, 2005:271). The Silly Symphonies enabled the studio to extend their aesthetic experimentation, taking it in new directions and laying the foundation for the narrative formulas that made Disney so popular. He had mobilised the highest quality skills and developed new technical innovations such as introducing synchronised sound, colour, special effects and the multi-plane camera. Eisenstein criticised the use of colour in the Disney films describing it as ‘an amorphous, extraneous element that plays no part in [Disney’s] amazing synchronous dance of lines and shapes, melody and rhythm.’ (find ref) Disney had finally abandoned the plasmatic that was apparent in the early Silly Symphonies and began leaning more toward the verisimilitude of graphic representation. Animals now possessed human characteristics both emotional and psychological and his style abandoned its utopian potential, establishing realism as the norm in animation.

85:Animal bestiary; ss were effectively experimental films progressing the form itself.

86: Disney was moving closer to the revelation of the animal and progressing the form toward a hyperrealoism, which though diminishing some aspects of the freedoms of the animation language, began to ironically facilitate a way in which truly cinematic effects might be achieved

Need to add in:

The Silly Symphonies were intended for the mass market and thus colour was used not only to present the real and express narrative development but also to provide transformations were it is as expressive and fluid as music.

ever, Kristean Moen argues that colour can be seen as a site of instability and fluidity.

introducing high art to animation. The name itself suggests a blend of both high and low culture and demonstrates the studios attitudes to high art.

Exhibition book


89-The Disney animators also applied the principles of follow-through and overlapping action. Never done, most things were like a cut out, moving in one piece. No one thought of the character’s clothing following through, sweeping out and dropping a few frames later, which it does naturally. That’s why d anuimation looked so different.

The animators applied principles used in the theatre- secondary action, anticipation, staging and timing – to create believable perfomanc. 3 little pigs was a rbeakthough: for the first time, characters who look alike demonstrated differing personalities through their movements. It now wasn’t just how it looked by gow he moved and determined his personality.

90-As the work of the animators became more polished, the performances grew more subtle AND NUANCED Until they rivalled the acting of live performers. … the characters cease to exist as drawings but become live individuals.

Although not directing many of the Silly Symphonies, they benefited from Disney’s intervention and he was making animation a sophisticated art form. Paul Wells argues however that by taking into account the contribution of Iwerks, it is possible to challenge the view that Disney can be wholly understood as ‘a figure around whom the key enunciative techniques and meanings of a film accrue and find implied cohesion.’ (Wells: )

Watts; 108

The Skeleton Dance dramatically enlarged the boundaries of enchantment and the uncanny for mainstream cartoon industry. From its earliest days metamorphosis had always been the mainspring of cartoon magic. Cartoon characters were made of parts that could change, bend out of shape, detach, grow or diminish. Landscapes were forever changing themselves. But the ss moved awar from such surreal (not abandoning them altogether) and expanded upon atmospherics

Merit pg, 8 (rephrase)


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