Disney Review: Melody Time (1948)

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Year of release: 1948
Running time: 75 minutes
Based on: the Fantasia concept, “Little Toot” by Hardie Gramatky, the life of the John Chapman, “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, folk tales of Pecos Bill
Availability: available on DVD in some regions
Sequels/spin-offs: Make Mine Music (1946) follows an almost identical formula

Melody Time is the fifth “package film” released by Disney in the 1940s and follows closely in the footsteps of Make Mine Music, presenting numerous shorts based around songs and pieces of music. However, unlike the earlier film, Melody Time has a central “host” to introduce each new segment (albeit briefly and in narration only) and focuses more on music-heavy stories rather than actual musical performances.

In the opening moments of the film, a blank canvas is painted on-screen by a paintbrush and our host is also created before our eyes (though this is the only time he appears on camera). After a brief song, we enter the first animated short.

Once Upon a Wintertime
The opening cartoon is a song called “Once Upon a Wintertime”, sung by Frances Langford. We see a young couple riding in a sleigh through a picture-perfect winter wonderland while woodland creatures (also in boy-girl pairs) travel alongside. The couple go skating on a frozen lake (and two rabbits do the same, mirroring the romantic gestures of the humans) as the song comes to a climax as the couple kiss. However, the boy begins to show off and his childish antics irritate the girl, who ends up walking away into thin ice. After a failed attempt by the boy to rescue her from a nearby waterfall, the animals band together to rescue the girl and female rabbit from the dangerous currents. Reunited, both the rabbit and human couples make amends and snuggle back into the sleigh for the journey home.

This short is split into two, quite different halves: the song itself and the action-packed scenes that follow as the girl is swept out towards the waterfall. The song itself is a slow, gentle number with more of that 40s vocal-music charm that I constantly talk about in these reviews (I really do love it). There are a number of references to Christmas-themed ideas (Jingle Bells and sleigh bells), and this short has gone on to appear in a few Disney holiday specials. The more action-heavy second half is a very different affair, with loud music and a fast pace, but it still feels like a natural progression of the story and certainly not as jarring as one would expect.

Bumble Boogie
The second segment is the film’s most technically impressive: both musically and visually. The soundtrack for this part of the film is a jazz version of the classical piece “Flight of the Bumblebee” (a piece originally optioned for Fantasia) and the visuals depict a bee trapped in a surreal nightmare world of living piano keys and flowers shaped like instruments. The music is amazingly fast and the visuals become more and more bizarre as the piece comes to a climax and the bee finally escapes his pursuers.

Johnny Appleseed
While the first two shorts were very music-focused, this cartoon contains less music and tells a much more detailed story. This story is based around the life of the American pioneer John Chapman, who was famous for introducing apples to large parts of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, as well as for his kind and generous attitudes to all he met. The most striking thing about this particular segment is how heavy its religious overtones are, opening with a song where Johnny thanks the Lord for providing for him and keeping him safe.

In the story, Johnny is inspired to set out for adventure by a travelling group of pioneers, but feels that he is too scrawny and weak to ever make it anywhere. But then his guardian angel appears and tells him that he has courage, faith and a level-head – everything he needs. Advising him to take a Bible, a sack of apple seeds and a metal pan for a helmet, the angel sets him on his way through the wilderness. After much travelling, Johnny settles down in a forest clearing where he makes friends with all the woodland creatures. Even the mountain lions and bears are tamed by his kind and generous mannerisms.

As time passes, other settlers follow Johnny’s example of planting orchards and showing kindness to all – including the native Americans, who are shown to enjoy apple-based festivities with them. Johnny is shown to watch these festivities from afar as he continues to travel further and further, spreading his orchards and message across miles and miles of land. However, old age eventually catches up with him, and one day his soul awakes leaving his body still sleeping at the foot of an apple tree. His guardian angel returns to explain that it is time for Johnny to leave Earth and begin planting apple trees in heaven as they’re “kinda short” of them up there. Johnny agrees, as the narrator muses that every time he sees an “apple blossom sky”, he thinks of Johnny.

While not especially music-heavy, the songs in this cartoon are enjoyable. The animation is quite dazzling in places, with the design of Johnny being especially impressive, particularly when compared to other human characters in this film. As mentioned before, the religious overtones of the story first took me by surprise and certainly would be frowned upon in a modern Disney release. However, given the significance of the Christian faith in Chapman’s life, it wouldn’t really be the same story had these religious tones been omitted.

Little Toot
This segment is sung by The Andrews Sisters, who previously performed in the short featuring two hats in love from Make Mine Music. It tells the story of a little tugboat who is banished from the harbour after his childish antics cause havoc and disgrace to his father’s name. However, after finding and rescuing an ocean liner that has run aground in a storm, Little Toot is welcomed back and praised by all.

This is definitely the weakest segment in the film, mostly thanks to its whimsical and unoriginal story. It reminds me of a similar short that appeared in Saludos Amigos about a flying plane named Pablo, only this story manages to be even more basic and tedious than that one. There are some interesting moments – shortly after being exiled from the city harbour, Toot is tormented by visions of demon buoys with waves for hands – but otherwise this segment feels rather pointless.

In the films most artistic segment, a musical adaptation of the famous poem “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer is performed while some stunning-but-subtle visuals are shown. The lighting and detail of the tree shown on screen is quite breathtaking, especially as night descends and a storm begins to shake and soak its leaves. The choir performance of the poem is also quite subtle and complex, with the storm’s powerful wind echoed in their deep harmonies. There are again some religious overtones as the poem comes to its final line “Only God can make a tree”, the camera zooming back to make the tree and the sunrise look like a hallowed cross.

Blame It On The Samba
This samba-infused segment is heavily inspired by the earlier package films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, going as far as to star Donald Duck, José Carioca and the Aracuan Bird who all appear in said films. In this short, the Aracuan Bird is shown to run a “Samba Café”, to which a gloomy Donald and José are unwillingly brought to. The Aracuan Bird cheers them up with samba music and soon they are dancing merrily along as a live-action organ player engages in some slapstick jokes with them. This segment is just as surreal, frantic and confusing as the earlier package films from which it has been spawned and while I wouldn’t call it a resounding success, it isn’t awful either.

Pecos Bill
The final part of Melody Time is also the longest, telling the stories of Pecos Bill, the famous cowboy. The short opens with a slow ballad over an animated desert landscape, but soon cuts to a live-action campfire where the musical artists are singing. Here, some appalling child actors (honestly, the horse is a better actor) ask their father to tell them why coyotes howl at the moon, so he begins to tell them the story of Pecos Bill, a man raised by coyotes in the wild deserts of Texas. Soon, Bill comes across a young horse fighting for his life against a flock of vultures. Bill helps the horse, named Widowmaker, and the two become partners. As he grows older, Bill become a cowboy, and stories of his adventures spread all across Texas.

We see many of these tall tales interpreted visually: Bill tames a tornado, lassos rain from California to save Texas from a terrible drought and creates the Rio Grander river with nothing but his own hands. But one day, Bill comes across the beautiful cowgirl Slue-Foot Sue and instantly falls in love with her. This doesn’t impress Widowmaker, who feels lonely and abandoned. On their wedding day, Sue wears a bustle and demands that she ride Widowmaker into town; Widowmaker attempts to buck her off, leading her to bounce higher and higher on her bustle until she lands on the moon. Heartbroken, Pecos Bill returns to the wild and howls in mourning at the moon every night, inspiring the other coyotes to do the same.

Overall, this segment of the film is thoroughly entertaining and very funny, especially during the more bizarre tall tales of Pecos Bill’s great achievements. The music, performed by Sons of the Pioneers, is impressive throughout and the surreal visual jokes provide plenty of laughs. This segment has been edited in the US home video release to remove all references to smoking – however, the considerable amount of gunplay has remained.

Although they appear similar on paper, the feel of Melody Time is quite different to that of Make Mine Music. While I believe Make Mine Music to be the superior film, Melody Time is still an entertaining movie with plenty of laughs and some interesting splashes of Fantasia-grade art shining through. The religious overtones in a couple of the segments may put some viewers off, but overall this film is a fun collection of shorts that should appeal to a wide audience.

I award this film 7 out of 10 stars.

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

So, what do you think ?