The Persistence of Disney, Part 10: Melody Time (1948)

| September 11, 2016

The package films in Walt Disney’s animated cannon 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 Fantasia.  The results are sometimes satisfying and sometimes just plain baffling.  I haven’t found one yet that I thought was completely perfect though my favorite thus far has been Make Mine Music because it had a structure that I liked and the quality of the segments was top notch.  Following closely behind it on that scale is Melody Time, a movie just as well structured as the previous film and just as much fun.

Of all the package films, Melody Time contains more segments that I had seen previously as a child when Disney would show them individually either on The Mickey Mouse Club, The Disney Channel or after one of the live action features on HBO.  Even better, I remember how much I enjoyed them then and I’m happy to report that in revisiting the movie I’m glad they’re still just as entertaining today.  Let’s look at them individually:

* Once Upon a Wintertime could be considered simply a romance on ice.  Accompanied by Francis Langford singing the title tune, we meet two young lovers Joe and Jenny in 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, 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 I was kind of enjoying the greeting card-style beauty of this short, especially Joe’s awkward bravado as he attempt to show off for his girl.  Yet, I was kind of let down 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 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 word 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 is something that I can only describe as breathtaking.  This segment represents the very best of what Disney is capable of with a simple story, great music and gorgeous animation.  It retells the 19th century 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 his is a naïve young fellow until he’s an old man with a long grey beard.

I cannot emphasize enough 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 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 is not the segment I would have chosen to follow “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed.”  It’s corny, it’s 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’s 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.  As I say, this is not the segment I would have chosen to follow “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” in fact I think I would have eliminated it all together.  It’s preschool stuff and really doesn’t fit here.

* Trees is exactly the segment I would have chosen to follow “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 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.  In my review of The Three Caballeros I noted that the segments were best when you saw them broken up and not as a feature and this segment accentuates that.  It’s a bit of music mixed with great animation and live action (of Smith playing the organ) and it’s 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 I remember the most from when I was a kid.  I remember it airing on HBO right after The Love Bug and I sat through the movie just so I could see this.  Wonderfully narrated by Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers it tells the story of a wild and whoolly 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” performing mythical feats like lighting his cigarette with lightening and lassoing the rain in California and pulling over to Texas to cure a terrible draught.  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 it’s editing has me a little puzzled.  The edits were done to take away Bill’s cigarette, and that leaves some of his hand and facial expressions a bit jarring.  Plus, while the cigarette was editing, 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?  I don’t think I get that.


As I said, Melody Time is probably my second favorite 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.

Reviewing any film made decades before my own birth is something that I have always struggled with because I have to put the film in the context of a time that I did not experience.  That’s been the chore of doing this series, I have no point of reference and the only way that I can really compare and contrast much of the work is to do so across the gulf of decades.

With Melody Time as with any film before the 1970s, I try and place myself in the audience that might have seen this in 1948.  I noticed that the narrator opens the film with an introduction that sounds very much like a radio broadcast of the time: “Yes, it’s Melody Time, time to hitch your wagon to a song to take you over the rainbow to a land where music is king.”  The relief is that you don’t have to do a lot of hard work to enjoy the movie.  The shorts sell themselves and don’t feel dated.

With previous “package films” I have complained that they seemed disjointed and had an odd placement.  Here I have gotten comfortable with the animated bits because has more segments that feel 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” I wouldn’t add to anything.

There is not a whole lot more that I can add to this.  The segments are, for the most part, great.  There is no conflicting social message.  There are no dated issues that I can bring up 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 great musical that turns up on TCM.  Personally, I think it could stand with any one of those.  It has a great feeling for the time.  The animation works.  I like the songs, and I had a wonderful time.

About the Author:

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