Monday, February 11, 2008

Silly Symphonies Series: Part II

In 1928, the movie world was electrified by the sudden advent of sound. The first to realize its potential for animation was Walt Disney, whose Mickey Mouse, in his third outing (Steamboat Willie, 1928), became the first cartoon character to speak. That same year, Carl Stalling joined the Disney staff, becoming animation's first musical director. It was Stalling who suggested a cartoon where sound was the entire point — one built around a music score.

The cartoon, titled The Skeleton Dance, was made, and released on May 10, 1929. Although it contained no continuing characters, it launched a series that lasted a decade and sparked a half-dozen imitators. Donald Duck got his start in a Silly Symphonies cartoon (The Wise Little Hen, 1934), and Pluto's first appearance without Mickey Mouse was also in a Silly Symphonies cartoon (Mother Pluto, 1936).

About the series

The original black-and-white entries in the Silly Symphonies series, produced from 1929 to 1932 and released by Celebrity Productions (1929 - 1930) and Columbia Pictures (1930 - 1932), were only mildly successful, with the exception of the pilot film, The Skeleton Dance. Most theatres were unwilling to run cartoons without star characters, and the Silly Symphonies were relegated to a distinctly secondary status in most regards. In fact, when Disney began distributing his product through United Artists in 1932, United Artists refused to distribute the Silly Symphonies unless Disney associated Mickey Mouse with them somehow, resulting in the "Mickey Mouse presents a Silly Symphony" title cards and posters that introduced and promoted the series during its five-year run for United Artists.

Shortly after the switch to United Artists, however, the series' fortunes quickly turned around. Walt Disney had seen some of Dr. Herbert Kalmus' tests for a new three-strip, full-color Technicolor process, which would replace the previous, two-tone Technicolor process. Disney signed a contract with Technicolor which gave the Disney studio exclusive rights to the new three-strip process through the end of 1935, and had a 60% complete Symphony, Flowers and Trees, scrapped and redone in full color. Flowers and Trees was a phenomenal success, and within a year, the now-in-Technicolor Silly Symphonies series had popularity and success that matched (and later surpassed) that of the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Several Silly Symphonies entries, including Three Little Pigs (1932), The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934), The Tortoise and the Hare (1934), The Country Cousin (1936), The Old Mill (1937), Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1938), and The Ugly Duckling (1939, originally made in black and white in 1931), are among the most notable films produced by Walt Disney.

Within the animation industry, the Silly Symphonies series is most noted for its use by Walt Disney as a platform for experimenting with processes, techniques, characters, and stories in order to further the art of animation. Among the innovations developed and/or improved upon in the series are Technicolor filmmaking, true and believable character animation, special effects animation, and dramatic storytelling in animation. Disney's experiments were widely praised within the film industry, and the Silly Symphonies won seven Academy Awards for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), maintaining a six-year-hold on the category after it was first introduced. This record was matched only by MGM's Tom and Jerry series during the 1940s and 1950s.

The names of the Warner Bros. cartoon series, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, were derived from the "Silly Symphonies" name. The television series Mickey Mouse Works used the Silly Symphonies title for some of its new cartoons, but unlike the original cartoons, these did feature continuing characters. Disney also produced comic strips and comic books with this title.

I came across the following clip (courtesy of of Walt Disney discussing the Silly Symphonies that originally appeared on the Limited Gold Edition VHs called The Disney Dream Factory. Enjoy!

Silly Symphonies is ©Disney


Matthew said...

Thanks for another great installment, Don.

I love this series of shorts, and the additional background information has been fascinating!

Duckman said...

You're welcome Matthew!

As you know, both a big fan of the animated shorts and the WDCC series. Really enjoyed hearing Walt talk about the Silly Symphonies. Found very insightful and gave me a better appreciation for them.