It’s been a tradition in Disney animated films—as well as in cartoons of other studios—to reflect popular music styles of the day. Snow White’s score was very much in the operetta idiom, with a little bit of pop and swing (the score for Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels was even more so).
Make Mine Music is a collection of songs set to animation, not unlike how Fantasia applied classical music pieces to the form. The difference is that, as Leonard Maltin stated so well in The Disney Films, “Fantasia seemed to be cut from the same cloth, so to speak” while Make Mine Music was all over the place.
This may not have been avoidable for any number of reasons. Before target marketing and demographics, consumers of records, sheet music, films and radio broadcasts heard country, swing, and light opera in a random mix. When adapting these forms to animation, the differences become all the more obvious and the results disjointed.
The other factor in 1946 was production costs. The Disney studio was still smarting from limited film distribution caused by the war. There was no way a feature could be made. The 1941 strike had affected both the chemistry within the animation department and, perhaps, the general outlook of Walt himself. Make Mine Music a more familiar, comfortable film than Fantasia, by a long shot.
Yet it was one of the few Disney features with a sad ending. “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is a masterful work, not only onscreen but on the soundtrack, but SPOILER ALERT, wonderful Willie the whale is murdered by a musical moron who thinks the creature had swallowed opera singers. The whale dies; he goes to heaven, the curtains close and buh-bye.
Downer ending aside, Make Mine Music is a treasure trove of bright spots visually and musically. For the purposes of this Spin, the recorded versions of the film’s songs will be explored.
Two of them, “The Martins and the Coys” and “After You’ve Gone,” existed before the movie was released. “After You’ve Gone” was penned by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton in 1918. It provided the music for one of the most acclaimed sequences in the film, as well as a “go-to” clip whenever there was a need to show instruments (along with the Silly Symphony classic, Music Land). This is Benny Goodman’s recorded version:
Alan Cameron and famed bandleader Ted Weems wrote “The Martins and the Coys” in 1936. Lots of artists recorded it, including the Chicago Rhythm Kings:
Disney’s version of the 1936 Prokofieff classic “Peter and the Wolf” was so accessible on TV, in schools and on video, that it’s easy to forget that it was first seen in this film—and was intended originally to appear in subsequent revised reissues of Fantasia, had the 1940 film enjoyed greater box office success.
Except for the title song by Eliot Daniel (who co-wrote “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” and the “I Love Lucy” theme) and Ken Darby, all the original tunes in Make Mine Music were co-written by the talented Ray Gilbert (lest we forget, he also co-wrote all but the title song in Hanna-Barbera’s Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear. The same is true of the animation that accompanies “Blue Bayou” by Ray Gilbert, Bobby Worth and Paul Weirick. The restored “Clair de Lune” has been widely available recently and the Legacy Collection soundtrack album of Fantasia includes it.
“Blue Bayou” itself has proven to be a challenge, not only because I’ve been unable to find any recordings of the 1946 song, but also because the Roy Orbison version is so (deservedly) ubiquitous. It is important to note, however, that record sales were not the sole measurement for a song’s success in the early 20th century. Sheet music and radio performances were also major factors. Ken Darby, who was a musical fixture on radio programs of the period—especially the long running Fibber McGee and Molly sitcom—surely led his singers in a radio performance of “Blue Bayou” as he had in the movie.
Before Grandma changes the channel from the elegant waltz show to the fights, we hear “Two Silhouettes” (by Ray Gilbert and Charles Wolcott) in the Carousel of Progress Disney park attraction. The sequence in the film is one of the least regarded, as it’s kind of sappy. The cool thing is that the dancing duo also modeled for the animals in the “Dance of the Hours” sequence in Fantasia. It’s a nice song, too, very much like “You Belong to My Heart” from The Three Caballeros. (This Dinah Shore/Columbia Records version was included on a Sony Legacy CD of vintage Disney songs called “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”)
“Without You” is the other sequence in Make Mine Music that hasn’t received too many raves. Written by Ray Gilbert and Osvaldo Farres and sung by Andy Russell, the tune is quite enjoyable as a record:
The unmistakable animation and character design of the “All the Cats Join In” sequence make Disney Legend Fred Moore the real star. The song was written by Eddie Sauter, Ray Gilbert and Alec Wilder (who became a preeminent composer and historian). This Benny Goodman segment was combined with “After You’ve Gone” for a 1954 short called “Two for the Record.” Capitol Records released a 45 RPM EP of both songs plus “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” with Disney art on the cover.
Three extended sequences in Make Mine Music tell stories of romance, comedy and fantasy. “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” (by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert, who wrote “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) foreshadows such later Disney shorts as Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House in its treatment of anthropomorphized objects involved in a struggle that ends in a somewhat changed but happy existence.
The Andrews Sisters’ silky smooth harmonies brought at least half of the musical story to Decca Records. The odd thing is that the song seems to end halfway through the story. Side two of the 78 RPM is another song called “Money is the Root of All Evil.” Maybe there was a side two released elsewhere, but I can’t locate it at this writing. Trivia note: the first few seconds of this Decca version was heard in the 1972 film version of Slaughterhouse Five.
Jerry Colonna took center stage for the reading of the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat” (as opposed to being half of the comedy team of Hatter and Hare). For this segment, Ray Gilbert contributed “Casey, The Pride of Them All” with the aforementioned Ken Darby and Eliot Daniel.
Which brings us to the end of the line—literally—for “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” (a.k.a. “Willie, The Operatic Whale”). Nelson Eddy was a superstar of movies and stage, perhaps best remembered from those MGM movies in which he and Jeannette MacDonald sang directly into each other’s faces with their volume turned up to eleven.
Columbia gave this story a royal treatment on records. It was sold as an elegant multi-disc 12” 78 RPM album, with soundtrack elements and additional narration by Eddy. The music in “The Whale” consists of excerpts from famous operas.
“The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is the only segment in Make Mine Music without an original song (Tutti Camarata remedied that 25 years later on Disneyland Records’ strange Silly Symphonies LP).