A Study in Disney: ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946)

| November 28, 2021

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

Classic No. 8 Make Mine Music (1946) | The Disney Odyssey

What is best in life?  Art or commerce?  This is a question that plagues all who work in the mass arts and it is certainly something that seems to have plagued Mr. Walter Elias Disney.  It is admirable, if not a bit naïve, that in the beginning of his career his trajectory was to push the artistic boundaries in an arena that others had written off as innocuous.  The problem was that he came to eventually realize that art just wasn’t in the budget. 

Of Disney’s first five animated features, Snow WhitePinocchioFantasiaDumbo and Bambi, only two were box office hits.  Animated features in the 1930s and 40s were terribly expensive to produce and Walt’s studio paid dearly for his adventurous spirit.  During the war years, Disney was forced to scale back, taking subsidies from the government to make goodwill projects about Latin America to help stave off Nazi expansion.  After the war he would invest in compilation films – “package films” they were called – segmented anthology-style features that brought a persistent, if not explosively profitable, cash flow running into the studio.

In all of these package films you could feel Disney culling his instincts and his budget, yet there was a sense that he still wanted to make art.  The passion that he had in making Fantasia would stay with him for the rest of the decade despite its financial foundering.  It was a project that he wanted to be his legacy.  He was so enthusiastic about it that he wanted it to be an ongoing series.  When the film failed at the box office the series idea was scrapped but bits and pieces of that project were still lying around the studio.  Much of this made its way into the “package films” that would make up his output for the rest of the decade.

The idea for a Fantasia sequel took a different turn.  Instead of following-up Fantasia, Walt would instead make it more current.  The project was initially called “Swing Street” which would be similar to Fantasia but it would be much more ingratiating to the audience, drawing them in with big names like Nelson Eddy, The Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore and using more appealing modern music rather than classical.  In one case, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev actually came to Disney with his own composition for “Peter and the Wolf.”

The finished project was Make Mine Music, a sometimes odd sometimes fascinating collection of ten musical segments put together to resemble a concert complete with opening title cards.  Let’s look at the segments:

* The Martins and the Coys, which is directed by Jack Kirby and noted on the title card as “A Rustic Ballad” feels like Disney trying to match the style and comic energy of Tex Avery. Narrated by popular radio stars The King’s Men, it tells the story of an ancient feud between neighboring hillbilly families The Martins and The Coys who live on opposite hills from one another.  During an intense feud following a misstep involving The Martins’ drunken grandpa, both sides end up killing one another and are forced to watch from heaven as the two survivors, Grace Martin and Henry Coy fall madly in love and get married.  But all iswell when the two families realize that the newlywed’s version of domestic bliss involves a never-ending family feud taking place in their own living room.

* The Martins and the Coys is a controversial in that it has been removed from all existing prints because of the heavy use of comic gun violence.  While it isn’t bad (actually it’s quite good) its placement in this film is really odd.  It is the first segment in a film that otherwise offers much more sophisticated fare.  It feels out of place here.  Perhaps it might have worked better as a short on its own.

* Blue Bayou, which is directed by Bob Kormack and is noted on the title card as “A Tone Poem,” was originally intended for Fantasia but was apparently removed for time.  It was supposed to feature the music of Claude Debussy’s composition Clair de Lune from Suite bergamasque but was replaced by “Blue Bayou” sung by The Ken Darby Singers over beautiful animation featuring two egrets flying over the Everglades on a moonlit night.

* All The Cats Join In, directed by Jack Kinney and noted on the title card as “A Jazz Interlude,” is the first of two segments featuring Benny Goodman and his Quartet.  It begins by correcting the assumption that this will be about actual cats but instead about swingin’ cats.  The story is brought to life via a disembodied pencil that draws the actions as they happen – and often struggles to keep up.  We follow a group of bobbysoxers swept away by jazz music at a malt shop.  Often the kids are ahead of the undrawn world that is being created for them.  At one point, their jalopy is driving down a street and the pencil must quickly draw a stoplight lest they break the law.

This was a new style for Disney because it features actual human beings drawn with pencil instead of being rotoscoped.  The fun here is that as the teenagers move through their ritual, the omniscient pencil is continually drawing the backgrounds.  It makes for some great fast animation, and the music is catchy too.

* Without You, directed by Bob Cormack and noted on the title card as “A Ballad in Blue,” is a strange segment sung by 40s vocalist Andy Russell singing the title song over dreary images (dead trees, cloudy skies) that are apparently connected to a recent “Dear, John” letter.  The effect is all in the setting as no actual people appear on the screen.  It is a clever way to tell a story without characters. 

* Casey at the Bat, directed by Clyde Geronimi, written by Homer Brightman and Eric Gurney and noted on the title card as “A Musical Recitation,” is an odd selection since it is not really a musical.  Narrated by comedian Jerry Colona it tells the familiar story of the Mudville slugger whose overconfidence brings “no joy.”  The piece is duly noted for its slapstick animation, but Disney would produce a much better (and longer) follow-up eight years later called Casey Bats Again with the legendary slugger facing fatherhood to a nonet of daughters who eventually form a girl’s baseball team to bring some joy back to the old man.  For whatever reason, that short was added as a bonus feature on the DVD edition of Melody Time but not on Make Mine Music where it would have been more appropriate.

* Two Silhouettes, directed by Jack Kinney and noted on the title card as “Ballade Ballet,” was probably a much better idea than it is an actual musical segment.  It features Russian ballet legends David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinskaya dancing a number in silhouette while Dinah Shore sings the title tune.

In his book “The Disney Films,” Leonard Maltin comments: “The sequence seems to have no purpose, no direction.  The very format of cupids and doilies spelled disaster for most viewers before the sequence was even under way.” It is hard to disagree.  Problematic as well is the fact that it tries to place the silhouetted figures into an animated world but blacks them out so the artistry of their dance cannot be seen or appreciated.  While it is interesting to see Disney trying to move away from rotoscoping, Two Silhouettes is an art experiment that just doesn’t work.

* Peter and the Wolf, directed by Clyde Geronimi, written by Eric Gurney and Dick Huemer and noted on the title card as “A Fairy Tale With Music,” feels more like a music lesson.  Sergei Prokofiev approached Disney about using his 1938 composition in the Fantasia follow-up even though Disney was already planning to use it anyway.  However, it was so important to Disney to bring this piece to life through animation that he held it over for Make Mine Music.  However, since Fantasia had frustrated so many moviegoers he decided to play it safe with “Peter and the Wolf” and employ Sterling Holloway to add narration that would make the story easier for Americans to follow.  And, it turns out, he was right.  Holloway introduces us to the way in which each instrument accompanies each character and that provides a nice backdrop.

The problem is that the animation is trying to match a musical composition that was made to be seen but not heard.  Prokofiev’s music was supposed to place the action in our minds but when placed in front of us as animation it feels clumsy and awkward.  It isn’t a story that translates well to a visual medium.

TRIVIA NOTE: The music provided for The Wolf was later used as the theme for the bully in A Christmas Story.

* After You’ve Gone (which has no subtitle) is actually a lot of fun despite its grim title.  The segment features the second contribution from Benny Goodman and his Quartet in a wonderfully animated sequence featuring anthropomorphized musical instruments dancing through a colorful musical background.  There isn’t really much to comment on here.  The animation is beautiful, it is fast-paced, it is wonderfully abstract and the music is fun.

* Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, directed by Jack Kinney and noted on the title card as “A Love Story,” is probably the segment that is the most familiar outside of Casey at the Bat.  This is another sequence that often appeared as filler before one of the live action Disney pictures on television or on The Disney Channel.

It tells the heartbreaking story of two hats – a bonnet and a fedora – who meet and fall in love while on display in the window of a department store until Johnny’s world is broken when Alice is purchased one day by a customer for $23.94.  Lonely without his beloved Alice, Johnny is later purchased himself and makes it his mission to find her.  Where the story goes is a bit coincidental but what is surprising are the dark turns that Johnny’s journey takes.  And what is special about this segment is the way in which the Disney animators can give life and emotional weight to a mundane inanimate object.

You have to love the journey of this short as it defies the limitations of its premise by having an object without hands or feet travel through the world on its single-minded mission.

* The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, directed by Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi and is noted on the title card as an “Opera Pathétique” is the film’s best segment.  It tells the bittersweet story of a jolly sperm whale named Willie who has a miraculous talent for singing opera.  Yet, a short-sighted impresario named Tetti-Tatti doesn’t believe that the whale has talent, but instead believes that the mammal has simply swallowed an opera singer and chases him with a harpoon in an effort to rescue the imagined opera singer from the whale’s belly.  What is special about this short are the visuals, especially a fantasy sequence in which the enormous Willie sings Pagliacci on the stage and rains tears through his blow hole onto the orchestra who have readied themselves by wearing raincoats.  Popular crooner Nelson Eddy provides all of the voices for this segment and gives an amazing performance.


What is notable about the placement of all of these segments is the way in which the previous segment establishes the one that came before, at least in tone.  We’ll get something somber and melodramatic followed by something funny and light-hearted.

Make Mine Music is somewhat of an oddity in the Disney canon because it garnered the most controversy.  In the years that followed, the All the Cats Join In segment was cut down due to some suggestive nudity.  It would seem ridiculous that such a thing would be part of a Disney film, but in some ways perhaps it was suggestive of the times.  During the war years pin-ups and other sexualized images of women were commonplace, and for this segment and this was Disney’s inspiration.  So, does it belong here?  That’s up for debate, but it could be argued that back in the 1940s, animated movies were not expressly made for children.  Animated shorts with all manner of randy subject manner were coming out of the Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz studios because, at the time, cartoon shorts were shown in front of features that weren’t necessarily geared at children.  Therefore, it wouldn’t have been an issue to have brief nudity (and it is very brief).  It was only after the advent of television that cartoons became a child’s medium.

The “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” segments were cut by British censors due to their depictions of characters arriving in Heaven, and especially the closing moment which features the gates of Heaven with a “Sold Out” sign attached.  While the nudity in “All the Cats Join In” has been cleverly edited by computers the Heaven sequences have been restored.

“The Martins and the Coys” segment however has been eliminated from all prints, especially the 2000 DVD release due to an excessive amount of comedic gunplay (and there is a lot of it). This may have been a mistake.  If the studio was going to edit this scene out, perhaps it could have been added to the bonus materials with a warning and a brief explanation.  Hiding it always feels like censorship.

So, how does the movie work as a whole?  Well, it works a little better than the two previous “package films,” Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros because there seems to be a much more solid purpose.  The segments are divided by title cards so we know what we’re getting, and it gives us a moment to decompress.  Plus, the fact that the segments are a little shorter gives us time to breathe.  The major complaint with The Three Caballeros was that the segments went on and on and on without a break.  Here, we can shift much more easily from one to the other.

It is a little sad that Make Mine Music is essentially the forgotten Disney film.  It is fun, it is lively, it is got some great animation, but it gets lost among the other “package films” of this decade. On the whole, it is far more original and fun than the others.  It is a lost gem that is worth searching for.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.