“Melody Time was the last of Disney’s musical mélanges, and certainly the best. In its choice of material, presentation, and artistic style, it managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of its predecessors and emerge as a solidly enjoyable outing.” This quote from Leonard Maltin, in his iconic book, The Disney Films, perfectly sums up Walt Disney’s tenth animated feature, Melody Time.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the film was one of Disney’s “package films,” made during the 1940s. These productions kept animation going at the Studio during this challenging period that saw Disney assisting the War effort, as well as an artist’s strike. The package films were lower-budgeted, easy-to-execute films that didn’t have a traditional plot but were a series of short subjects strung together during a feature-length running time.
This compilation of different segments was usually connected by a common theme, which in the case of Melody Time was music.
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, and Jack Kinney, each of the segments in Melody Time, which open with the flourish of a paintbrush, are:
“Once Upon a Wintertime”
Singer Frances Langford performs the title song as a young couple in love embarks on a sleigh ride on a snowy December day.
The lovely look of “Once Upon a Wintertime” came from the legendary Mary Blair, a concept artist whose work had a unique style that was all her own. Blair influenced many Disney animated features, but “Once Upon a Wintertime” translates the artist’s look, merging it with the Disney studio style and a dash of Currier and Ives. The segment has a warm, inviting tone of a holiday greeting card.
“Once Upon a Wintertime” was later released on its own as a short subject in 1954 and, with its wintry backdrop, was also part of several Disney Christmas shows and compilations on home video.
Set to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a piece of music considered for the original Fantasia, this segment features a bumble bee in a nightmarish battle with flowers and musical instruments. With Freddy Martin and his Orchestra playing with Jack Fina, at the piano, “Bumble Boogie” is Disney animation at its surrealistic best, including a creative and creepy snake-like piano keyboard.
“The Legend of Johnny Appleseed”
Singer Dennis Day narrates, sings, and provides voices for this segment based on the American legend who planted apple trees and spread the word of Christianity during the pioneer days.
Day’s voice, innocence, and light, airy singing are perfect for this piece. Coupled with this, once again, is the work of Mary Blair, who created distinct conceptual art that translated well to the screen.
In his book, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation, author John Canemaker writes:
“…master animator Frank Thomas remembers Blair’s ‘Appleseed’ artwork as ‘some of the greatest things I’d ever seen for an animated feature. Just handsome, handsome drawings! The colors, the shapes, the way they all went together.’”
This segment ranks as one of Disney’s most endearing vignettes, based on a children’s book of the same name by author Hardie Gramatky.
It tells the story of the title character, a tiny tugboat who wants to be just like his dad but gets into trouble. However, one night, Little Toot gets a ship safely to port, becoming a hero of the shipyard.
Narrated through song by The Andrews Sisters, the legendary singing group who add to the charm of this section, which finds creative, anthropomorphic ways to bring personality to Little Toot and life to the other boats.
This section plays out like a very early version of the relaxation apps we enjoy on our smartphones today. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians perform a musical version of Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem, against which scenes of trees in different forms of light and weather play out, culminating in a moment of religious symbolism.
“Blame it on the Samba.”
Switching gears from the reflective moment of “Trees” comes the kinetic return of Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and the Arucan bird, from Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, for “Blame it on the Samba.”
A fever dream of color and images, where organist Ethel Smith and singers the Dinning Sisters bring color and life to the characters and the segment by performing the Samba. Among the more inventive parts of this section is one in which Donald and Jose run through a nightmarish forest, chased by giant musical instruments that move to the Samba beat.
The most iconic segment of Melody Time concludes the film in this re-telling of the famed folk hero cowboy.
Starting quietly with an evocative live-action/animated sequence, in which Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers sing “Blue Shadows” around a desert campfire, the section segues to famed movie cowboy Roy Rogers, and his horse, Trigger, along with Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, relaying the story of “Pecos Bill,” to child actors Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patton (who had both starred in Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Song of the South).
As the segment transitions into animation for a tall tale, we are treated to some beautiful character animation from such Disney Legends as Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and John Lounsberry, spinning the whole story of how Bill, as an infant, fell out of a covered wagon and was raised by coyotes.
As he grows up with his faithful horse, Widowmaker (who he saves from Vultures), Pecos Bill embarks on fantastical adventures, where he seemingly shapes Texas single-handedly. These include lassoing a rain cloud to end a drought, which then forms the Gulf of Mexico, knocking out cattle rustlers’ fillings, which is why “there’s gold in them thar hills,” and getting a stick and digging the Rio Grande.
Pecos Bill also meets his true love, a cowgirl named Slue Foot Sue, which makes Widowmaker jealous, creating a problematic wedding day for the couple, and a humorous and imaginary ending to the segment.
Pecos Bill is filled with wall-to-wall sight gags and lavish animation that all goes by so quickly it may require a second viewing to take it all in.
When Melody Time was released on home, video scenes of Pecos Bill smoking cigarettes were removed but have since been re-instated and can be found as part of the film, now available on Disney+.
Released on May 27th, 1948, Melody Time represents Walt and his artists creatively breaking new ground in many ways. Seventy-five years later, the film is worth revisiting as a peek into this unique period in Disney’s history.