A Study in Disney: ‘Melody Time’ (1948)

| December 1, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Melody Time : Pecos Bill | weatherfish | Pecos bill, Walt disney animation  studios, Walt disney animation

The package films in Walt Disney’s animated canon made between 1942 and 1949 are an odd bunch at best.  They’re a grab bag of artistic quality, commercial safety nets, animated experiments of limited appeal and in a few cases leftovers that were intended for FantasiaMelody Time might contain more of the Disney shorts that you remember when The Disney Channel would play them between shows or that HBO would play between movies.  The good news is that unlike The Three Caballeros, the segments here work just as well in the feature as they did on their own.  Let’s look at them individually:

* Once Upon a Wintertime (directed by Hamilton Luske) could be considered simply a romance on ice.  Accompanied by Francis Langford singing the title tune, we meet two young lovers Joe and Jenny on a frozen December day as they go ice skating – running parallel are a pair of rabbits doing the same thing.  Joe shows off and, at first, it irritates Jenny and then when she stomps away in a huff, the male rabbit tries to warn Jenny that she has overlooked the “Thin Ice” sign and is headed for trouble.

Until the action climax, this short is kind of an enjoyable greeting card-style narrative.  There’s a lot of sweet gentility in this short, especially Joe’s awkward bravado as he attempts to show off for his girl.  Yet, the second half is kind of a letdown with the action climax when he has to rescue her from potentially falling over a waterfall when the ice breaks up.  To be honest, it kind of broke the spell.

* Bumble Boogie (directed by Jack Kinney) was originally intended for Fantasia and is a swing version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” as a bumble bee takes a horrifying journey through an abstract world of musical notes and piano keys trying to stay alive as the music literally threatens to overtake him.  This one was just plain fun.  Though you feel for the bee, you kind of get caught up in the music and in his journey.

* The Legend of Johnny Appleseed (directed by Wilfred Jackson) is one of the most breathtaking pieces of animation that the Disney animators ever conceived.  This segment represents the very best of what Disney’s artists were capable of with a simple story, great music and gorgeous animation.  It retells the 19thcentury story of John Chapman, a pioneer who is given a mission by his guardian angel to roam the mid-west planting apple trees.  John spends his whole life in pursuit of planting trees all across Illinois and Ohio from the time he is a naïve youngster until he’s an old man with a long grey beard.

It can never be over-stated just how sweet and gentle this story is, especially when John stops to observe the population literally enjoying the fruits of his labor.  This short may have the most beautiful closing of any movie that you can remember.  John goes off to Heaven to plant trees and we see the apple blossoms stretch from the ground to the Heaven’s above.  It is something to behold.

* Little Toot (animated by Ollie Johnston) is not the segment that anyone would have chosen to follow The Legend of Johnny Appleseed.  It is corny, it is lame and it tells a story so obvious that you probably already know its message.  Based on a story by Hardie Gramatky and sung in narration by The Andrews Sisters, we meet Little Toot, a tugboat who wants to be a big boat like his old man but can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble.  When he gets himself banned by all the other boats, he suddenly finds that he’ll have to step up and save the day.

Yeah, it is as lame as it sounds, and it seems to go on forever and you know how it will end even before it gets underway.  Little Toot is annoying, the story is inane, and The Andrews Sisters’ chorus of “Won’t you ever grow up, Little Toot?” is repeated over and over and over and over until you just want to shoot the screen.  Again, this is not the segment that should have followed The Legend of Johnny Appleseed It is preschool stuff and really doesn’t fit here.

* Trees (directed by Hamilton Luske) is exactly the segment that should have followed The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, because its tone plays so well against that segment and it actually captures more of the spirit of Fantasia than Bumble Boogie.  Sung with angelic beauty by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and accompanied by beautiful scenes of trees under rays of sunshine through the changing of the seasons.

* Blame it on the Samba (directed by Clyde Geronimi and written by Art Scott and Bob Moore) encompasses the best parts of The Three Caballeros with Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and the Aracuan Bird getting caught up in the magic of the samba thanks to music provided by The Denning Sisters with an organ solo provided by real life organist Ethel Smith.  As stated in the chapter about The Three Caballeros, the segments were best when you saw them broken up and not as a feature and this segment accentuates that.  It is a bit of music mixed with great animation and live action (of Smith playing the organ) and it is just long enough that you get caught up in the music but you don’t grow tired of it.

* Pecos Bill is the segment that most people have probably already seen.  Wonderfully narrated by Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers it tells the story of a wild and woolly cowboy who fell off a wagon as a yung’un and was raised by coyotes and then grew up with his horse Widowmaker to be “The roughest toughest critter west of the Alamo” performing mythical feats like lighting his cigarette with lightening and lassoing the rain in California and pulling over to Texas to cure a terrible drought.  His only downfall was a woman, Sloofoot Sue who stole his heart and a jealous streak from Widowmaker that sent her out of his life for good.

This one, again, is just plain fun although its editing is puzzling.  The edits were done to take away Bill’s cigarette, and that leaves some of his hand and facial expressions a bit jarring.  Plus, curiously, while the cigarette was edited, the gunplay was left in, up to and including the sight of Bill shooting his pistol right at the camera.  Why was this okay but the hillbilly segment “The Martins and the Coys” was removed from Make Mine Music?  That’s a puzzle.


Again, Melody Time is probably the best of these package films after Make Mine Music because there is a distinction between the segments.  Where Make Mine Music had title cards to introduce us to the coming segment, Melody Time goes one step further by having narration as well as the title card.  That makes the introduction feel a little more like a show. 

At their worst, these package films seem disjointed and have an odd structure.  But here it is easier to get comfortable with the animated bits because the segments feel more like they came from previous package films.  “Bumble Boogie” and “Trees” feel like something from Fantasia.  “Blame it on the Samba” of course came from The Three Caballeros.  “Once Upon a Winterland” feels more in the style of Make Mine Music.  And “Johnny Appleseed” and “Pecos Bill” feel reminiscent of Fun and Fancy Free.  “Little Toot” doesn’t add to anything.

Melody Time is fine as far as the segments go.  The segments are, for the most part, great.  There is no conflicting social message.  There are no dated issues save for the Pecos Bill gunplay.  So, what does that say about the film itself?  It is completely devoid of all social commentary – as are most all of the package films.  You watch it just as you would a musical anthology that turns up on Turner Classic Movies.  It is an interesting time capsule.  Not deep, but a good film with some great animation.

About the Author:

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