There’s a caricature of Walt Disney that a Studio artist did during the 1940s. In it, Walt is sitting at a table looking exhausted, with his head supported in his hand, cigarette hanging from his mouth, eyebrow arched, he is staring off in the distance, trying to process, and he looks completely exhausted.
The caricature has become famous (or infamous) for encapsulating Walt’s mood and the mood at the Studio during the 1940s. Between an animators’ strike in May of 1941 and America’s involvement in World War II, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, production at the Studio had been crippled.
Walt kept animation production going at the Studio during this challenging time by producing lower-budgeted, easy-to-execute films. Most of these were known as “package films.” These features didn’t have a traditional plot but instead were a series of short subjects strung together during a feature-length running time.
One of these “package films” was Make Mine Music. The common theme among the segments was that each was set to a particular piece of music. As each is so vastly different from the other, the result (like all package films) is a “mixed bag” of entertainment.
Most of Make Mine Music has become a faded footnote in animation history, but it’s the perfect time to look back on the film as it celebrates the anniversary of its general release on August 15th, 1946 (It had its world premiere in New York City a few months earlier, on April 20th).
The film plays almost like “Fantasia-lite” and, after the opening credits, starts like a concert complete with a program that reads: “Make Mine Music: A Musical Fantasy
We are then taken into the segments of the film:
The first is “The Martins and the Coys” (on the program as “A Rustic Ballad”), which features some inventive animated slapstick and sight gags, as it tells the musical tale of two feuding mountain families. Narrated by the singing group The King’s Men, this segment was edited from home video offerings due to violence and gunplay concerns. While this is “cartoon violence,” it does comprise most of the piece (including cartoon ghosts of the mountain men floating angelically up to the clouds above).
After this comes a sequence that re-used animation intended for a sequel to 1940’s Fantasia. Beautiful, naturalistic animation accompanies a group called The Ken Darby Chorus performing the title song “Blue Bayou’ (the animation was originally intended to accompany the musical composition “Clair de lune”). The slow-moving music and animation of the nighttime bayou as a crane takes flight is one of Disney’s most calming and relaxing film moments.
Next is Benny Goodman and his Orchestra with “All the Cats Join in.” Two “hepcat bobbysoxer” teens of the decade heading out on a date and dancing to the upbeat music (coming from a jukebox, no less). The animation is introduced with a pencil that creates the images that come to life. Many would say that this is one of those segments that hasn’t aged well, but the “time-capsule” feel, and creativity of the animation are all of this segment’s charms.
Andy Russell, a famous singer at the time, performs the next segment, “Without You.” A slow ballad, over which we see images that seem to melt like rain running down a window and transitioning into views of lonely woods and nighttime stars. One of the sadder moments in Disney animation.
Thankfully, this is offset by the next segment, “Casey at the Bat,” one of the film’s better-remembered segments and narrated as a “Musical Recital” by bug-eyed comedian Jerry Colonna, in his over-the-top, loudmouth style.
The segment is a re-telling of the “baseball poem” by author Ernest Thayer about the Mudville team and their star player, Casey. The scene features some great, overly-caricatured design of the characters (Casey’s jut-jaw, the diminutive manager arguing with the umpire) and some great sight gags (a player touches base with his giant handlebar mustache).
With superb animation from Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, and Eric Larson, among others, “Casey” seems more at home in the realm of Warner Bros. than Disney, which may be why it was released later in 1946 as a stand-alone short subject and even spawned a sequel short subject, Casey Bats Again in 1954.
Singer Dinah Shore sings “Two Silhouettes,” the next segment, which is a “Ballade Ballet,” which features two ballet dancers (brought to life through rotoscoped silhouette animation performing in front of the stylized backdrop and assisted by two cherubic figures).
It’s another slower moment in the film that allows us to catch our breath before what is arguably the most popular segment, “Peter and the Wolf.” Narrated by the familiar, comforting voice of Disney stalwart Sterling Holloway, from a famous musical composition from conductor Sergei Prokofiev.
Set in Russia, the segment tells the tale of young Peter and his friends Sascha, a bird, Sonia the duck, and Ivan the cat, who venture off into the woods to hunt a wolf. A different musical instrument represents each character as their theme. This gives “Peter and the Wolf” a very Fantasia-like tone and includes great pantomime animation, as other than Holloway’s narration, there is no dialogue in the segment.
“Peter and the Wolf” was such a substantial segment that it has been shown on its own several times and even had its own release as a record album (paired with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on the flip side).
“Peter and the Wolf” is followed by Benny Goodman returning for the upbeat “After You’re Gone,” which provides the backdrop for a march of anthropomorphized music instruments.
The Andrews Sisters then perform the musical narration for the story of “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” one of the Studio’s sweetest and most underrated moments in animation, telling the story of two hats who fall in love after meeting in a department store window.
The concluding segment is baritone singer Nelson Eddy and the story of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” A whale named Willie with incredible operatic talents and dreams is hunted by a music conductor who believes that the whale has swallowed an opera singer.
As tragic as this segment seems, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” developed a following among animation and Disney devotees through the years. There is some beautiful, lush animation (the sequence where the whale sings as Pagliacci the clown is gorgeous), and full opportunity is taken for sight gags involving the size and scale of Willie.
Seventy-seven years later, Make Mine Music has become remembered more for its parts than the whole. While it was shown on The Disney Channel and released on home video in 2000, it hasn’t surfaced much since (as of this writing, it’s still not available on Disney+).
Hopefully, that will change soon, because to see the film in its full-length form is a fascinating glimpse into a moment in the Disney Studio’s historical timeline.