Suspended Animation #298
People usually do not realize how bold it was for Walt to make theatrical cartoons themed to Christmas.
The tight theatrical window of opportunity in which such a cartoon might be exhibited and limited global market where the holiday was celebrated differently or not at all coupled with the company’s enormous reliance on revenue from animation to stay afloat in those pre-Disneyland years, made every Christmas cartoon a financial gamble.
The real fear was that distributors would severely limit the availability of a cartoon with a Christmas theme. At one point, Walt Disney considered a Christmas scene in the animated feature Pinocchio (1940) which would have taken advantage of a snowy Alpine village in a winter setting with Gepetto’s mechanical toys and emphasizing the importance of being rewarded for being “good” throughout the year by not lying.
From a January 6th, 1938 story meeting, Walt Disney said, “That’s the trouble – the exhibitors will class it as a Christmas picture and only run it at Christmas time. Well, Heidi had Christmas in it – they had quite a sequence there of Christmas… Still, we don’t need it. It doesn’t matter. We were just trying to get something pictorial in here.”
The Christmas oriented cartoons could not really be re-released during the rest of the year and some countries like Japan and China did not celebrate Christmas and other countries celebrated it much differently than in the United States. An example is the “Las Posadas” sequence featured in the film The Three Caballeros (1944) showing a Christmas tradition among Mexican children generally unknown to most Americans.
I love Christmas and I love Mickey Mouse so here is a listing of just some of the popular Disney theatrical Christmas cartoons produced while Walt Disney was alive:
Mickey’s Orphans (1931): A basket of orphan kittens are left on Mickey’s doorstep at Christmas. Mickey dresses up as Santa, with Pluto attired as a reindeer. The kittens proceed to use their toys to destroy the house and decimate the candy cane-filled Christmas tree.
This short was nominated for an Oscar but lost to another Disney nominee, Flowers and Trees, the first cartoon short in Technicolor. Mickey’s Orphans was inspired by Walt’s Oswald the Rabbit cartoon Empty Socks (1927), in which Oswald dresses as Santa and fills the empty Christmas stockings hung by the chimney at an orphanage.
Mickey’s Good Deed (1932): On Christmas Eve, Mickey and Pluto are street performers in dire straits. Mickey has to sell Pluto to a rich family to get money to help out a poor single mother’s large family (another group of poor cat children). The bratty kid who wanted Pluto tortures the poor pup and the father finally releases the dog when he sees what is going on. Mickey and Pluto are reunited happily but still poor at the end.
The short’s release during the Great Depression made its story matter particularly poignant. Pinto (Goofy) Colvig supplied the voice for the little brat’s rich father. The concept of down-on-their-luck street musicians who get their instruments crushed in the snow may have been inspired by a similar scene from the Laurel and Hardy comedy short Below Zero (1930).
Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952): Mickey chops down a tree for Christmas, not realizing it houses the chipmunks Chip’n’Dale, and hauls it back into his living room. The unwittingly relocated chipmunks get into mischief in the tree and the living room, thwarting Pluto’s every attempt to stop them.
Goofy, Donald and Minnie appear on the front lawn as carolers and join Mickey and Pluto to sing the carol Deck the Halls, making this one of just three Golden Age theatrical shorts in which the “Fab Five” appear together. The other two cartoons are On Ice (1935) and Hawaiian Holiday (1937). Disney sound-effects legend Jimmy Macdonald voiced both Mickey Mouse and in a sped-up version the chipmunk Chip in this short. Here is its rare original front and end titles:
There is one Donald Duck Christmas cartoon that usually does not immediately come to mind when many people think of Disney Christmas shorts.
Toy Tinkers (1949): Enticed by a house full of nuts, candies, and other Christmas goodies, the chipmunks Chip’n’Dale infiltrate Donald Duck’s home and engage in a war (using an arsenal of toys) with the feisty fowl.
It was nominated for an Oscar but lost to the Chuck Jones directed Pepe Le Pew the skunk animated short For Scent-imental Reasons. A ten page comic book adaptation of the short drawn by Paul Murry was published in Walt Disney’s Christmas Parade #2 (November 1950), printed by Dell Comics.
Of course some people consider the cartoon The Clock Watcher (1945) as a Christmas-themed cartoon. It has Donald Duck as an overworked and poorly trained gift wrapper at Royal Brothers department store with an especially funny sequence where he struggles to wrap a stubborn jack-in-the-box.
When Disney does a special Christmas cartoon compilation for its shows on television, also included are usually Santa’s Workshop (1932) and The Night Before Christmas (1933) which is sort of a sequel to the first cartoon.
In addition, because of the paucity of actual Christmas cartoons, Disney also often throws in some cartoons that have a wintery theme:
• Corn Chips (1951) has Chip’n’Dale tricked into shoveling the snow from Donald Duck’s sidewalk but they get their revenge and Donald ends up shoveling a ton of popcorn.
• Once Upon a Wintertime (1948) originally appeared in the compilation feature Melody Time. With outstanding design work by Mary Blair, two (speechless) young lovers enjoy a December outing in the snow until showing off on the ice triggers a near-tragedy.
• In Donald’s Snow Fight (1942) Donald battles his three nephews in the snow including attacking their snow fortress with his ice battleship.
• On Ice (1935) has Mickey teaching Minnie to ice skate, Goofy ice fishing and Donald teasing Pluto.
A compilation of Disney cartoons featuring some of these shorts was released to theaters in 1953 by RKO entitled Walt Disney’s Christmas Jollities.
It was one of several Disney cartoon compilation films RKO released in 1953 to meet contractual obligations so Disney could start its own film distribution department. Those other compilations included New Year’s Jamboree, 4th of July Firecrackers, Fall Varieties, Halloween Hilarities, Thanksgiving Day Mirthquakes, and Mickey’s Birthday Party.
Another interesting oddity is that the last package film released during Walt’s lifetime was Music Land (1955) that only played in theaters once and was never released on home video. This film should not be confused with the 1935 Disney animated short titled Music Land that has no connection with this feature at all.
The Disney Company had created its own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution, but still owed its former distribution company, RKO, one more release under its contract.
So, Disney took four segments from Make Mine Music and five from Melody Time. “The Big Parade of Mirth and Melody!” was released October 5, 1955, and never shown again except for a 1970 “Tribute to Walt Disney” retrospective at the National Film Theater.
The segments in this feature were “Trees,” “All the Cats Join In,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Once Upon a Wintertime,” “Pecos Bill,” “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” “Bumble Boogie,” “Casey at the Bat” and “Blame It on the Samba.”